David Lefer appeared on the Lou Dobbs show a few days ago to talk about his new book, The Founding Conservatives: How a Group of Unsung Heroes Saved the American Revolution. Here’s part of the jacket copy:
According to most narratives of the American Revolution, the founders were united in their quest for independence and steadfast in their efforts to create a stable, effective government. But the birth of our republic was far more complicated than many realize. The Revolution was nearly derailed by extremists who wanted to do too much, too quickly and who refused to rest until they had remade American society. If not for a small circle of conservatives who kept radicalism in check and promoted capitalism, a strong military, and the preservation of tradition, our country would be vastly different today.
In the first book to chronicle the critical role these men played in securing our freedom, David Lefer provides an insightful and gripping account of the birth of modern American conservatism and its impact on the earliest days of our nation.
To say that extremists nearly derailed the Revolution seems rather ahistorical to me; it assumes that there was a “right” outcome to the struggle all along. There were many constituencies involved in the Revolution, and each one had its own hopes and aims for the outcome. It’s good that Lefer recognizes this, and maybe his book will help readers understand that the American Revolution was not just about Americans/Whigs vs. British/Tories and that there was a contest to determine what the Revolution meant and how radical its implications should be.
But who are we to say which constituency was conducting the “real” Revolution, or that the eventual outcome was the “right” one? From a conservative standpoint, perhaps it does appear “right,” but if your inclinations are more liberal, maybe the “settlements” which resolved these struggles among the revolutionaries look more like lost opportunities than happy endings. Indeed, from the perspective of the Anti-Federalists, or of the radical or populist groups, the “heroes” were actually the ones who hijacked the Revolution. We understand the past by looking backward, but we have to keep in mind that at the time, people were living it forward and without benefit of hindsight.
I’m also unsure what to make of Lefer’s claim that modern American conservatism can trace its ancestry back to the American Revolution. If you define conservatism as opposition to radical change, then the label fits somebody like John Dickinson. But if we’re going to associate conservatism with decentralized government, it seems odd to refer to a guy like Robert Morris as a conservative. Modern political concepts just don’t transfer smoothly from one century to another.