Did conservatives save the American Revolution, and were they “conservatives” in the modern sense?

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.


Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory

12 responses to “Did conservatives save the American Revolution, and were they “conservatives” in the modern sense?

  1. Jimmy Dick

    Is Lefer a historian? I did not see what his degrees were in. Was American conservatism born in the Revolution? Would it be more prudent to consider the Federalists the men who originated American conservatism? After all, the Constitution was a deliberate attempt at checking the excesses of democracy. This is a well known concept in current historical thought. On the surface, this is looking a lot like an attempt to link modern politics to the Revolution in order to establish legitimacy for one side.
    If anything, the deeper we get into the Revolution, the more we are seeing that class played a major role in it. Class has played a huge role in all aspects of American history despite many attempts to deny the US as a class based society.

    • Michael Lynch

      He directs the Innovation and Technology Forum at NYU’s Polytechnic Institute, and he’s a professor there, but I’m not sure what his field is. His background seems to be in journalism.

  2. Tom Verenna

    Maybe you’ll appreciate this; not sure where you fall in the political spectrum but even if you disagree with my stance, you will probably appreciate the overall conclusion:


    • Jimmy Dick

      I thought your blog post was quite good. We’re talking about this same situation in my grad school’s history club. Someone brought up Thomas DiLorenzo as a “qualified historian” and the brawl began. It doesn’t matter if it is DiLorenzo, Glenn Beck, or David Barton just to name some of the more illustrious of the lying weasels. It is what they pedal in the name of history that just pisses me off. They are deliberately conflating a few historical facts out of context which they then add in their own spin on the past cased in their modern political ideology. I’m sure there is a more appropriate term for what they do, but I’ll just settle for calling them what they are: Liars.

      In Lefer’s case, I would have to read the book, but on the surface I’m not inclined to. There was a strain of conservatism in that era but I don’t think his claim that conservatives saved the Revolution will hold up. If he is going to go down that route, then the Federalists were conservatives and were politically annihilated by Jefferson’s allies in 1800 who were obviously liberals by definition. Since Jefferson’s allies basically held power for a few decades before kind of petering out or fading away in the era of Good Feelings what does that say for how conservatism was welcomed by Americans?

      Let us also not forget that Gordon Wood considers the period of 1789 to 1815 the greatest period of change in American history. Conservatives by definition do not like change. Yet, change was the order of the day. I think it is very difficult if not outright impossible to use modern ideology to pin down the people of that era. They just don’t fit very well.

      I will say though that Richard Beeman did just that during an interview on BookTV last month. Granted, Beeman used the term general as he too recognized there would be no exact fits. I loved how he and the audience envisioned Bill Clinton as the closest modern fit to Benjamin Franklin. I wonder what Lefer would think of that comparison?

  3. David Lefer

    Might be worth reading my book, or at least the introduction. I’d be happy to discuss my basic ideas then.

    • Michael Lynch

      Thanks for your response. The book sounds very interesting, and I’m certainly not trying to refute the whole premise or discourage anyone from reading it.

    • Jimmy Dick

      Are you trying to make a connection between the events of the Revolution and modern conservatism? The dust jackets of many books don’t do justice to the contents nor do reviews. I see the line about wanting a strong military and I know that while some did, many did not. Capitalism was unknown at the time and the Founders seemed to prefer corporations that benefited the public. Modern economics really doesn’t apply well to the Revolution. Of course I also see many of today’s conservatives that don’t like Alexander Hamilton’s fiscal policies, but then they don’t understand how his policies were critical to getting the United States and its economy moving forward.
      I also really hope that you portrayed the leaders of the United States as being reactionary to events in Europe which for a large part dictated much of American politics for many years until the end of the War of 1812 and the Napoleonic Wars.

  4. David Lefer

    Thanks for all the thoughtful comments. I’d love to respond to as many as I can. Most histories of conservatism trace its provenance to the end of the 18th century, when Edmund Burke penned his famous essay against the French Revolution. Obviously, this poses some linguistic problems, because the word “conservative” did yet exist in its modern sense. The OED traces the word back to 1830 in England, but this is one of those rare occasions the OED gets something wrong. In his magisterial book “The Revolution of American Conservatism,” about the decline of the Federalist Party, the historian David Hackett Fischer notes the word was actually coined in 1808 by a Massachusetts Federalist. That hasn’t stopped historians–like Fischer–from discussing the birth of modern conservatism before this date. The ideas that comprised it already existed avant la lettre.

    One of my main arguments is that Burke did not in fact invent modern conservatism. (The word itself is an American invention.) Many of his ideas, I discovered, were actually already well know in American by the revolutionaries I call the founding conservatives. Both Burke and the Americans, however, did not spontaneously invent these ideas–which include a reverence for traditionalism, a respect for established institutions, and the championing of prudence. Rather, they were heavily influenced by Court Whig thought from the early 18th century during the ministries of Walpole and Pelham brothers. The historian Reed Browning has written a brilliant article demonstrating this in the journal 18th-Century Studies: “The Origins of Burke’s Ideas Revisited.” (1984) And he elaborates on the influence of Court Whig thought in his book Political and Constitutional Ideas of the Court Whigs.

    Interestingly, most of these early American conservatives had been born or had studied abroad, where they were exposed to these ideas. What they also gained from their time abroad was a respect for British free-market capitalism, including an admiration for a national bank and a funded debt, as well as for Britain’s use of a professionalized standing army–all of which outraged British Country Whigs like Bolingbroke and American ones like Sam Adams. I’ll add that while Dickinson (who studied law at the Middle Temple), was not exactly the same sort of conservative as Morris (who was born in England), the Farmer was very comfortable with free-market capitalism. He was one of the first investors in Morris’s Bank of North America. The two were also old friends. Together they decided together to abstain from voting on Independence on July 2, 1776.

    The view that the American Revolution was wracked by class conflict is also clearly not a new one. Progressive historians and their followers such as Merrill Jensen routinely divided the Founders in radicals and conservatives (though, after being attacked by Consensus historians, Jensen wrote he preferred the word “populists”–see his second preface to “The New Nation”). As I bet most of you know, this view fell out of favor for much of the second half of the 20th century with the rise of the Consensus school. But Bailyn’s, Wood’s, and Pocock’s discovery of the ideological components of the Revolution and their deep understanding of the impact of Country Whig thought on American colonists transformed the field again. It allowed historians like Alfred Young, Edward Countryman, and Gary Nash to revive the notion of radicals and conservatives in the American Revolution, albeit with far more sophistication than the early Progressives. Even Wood got into the act with his “The Radicalism of the American Revolution,” which was not uncontroversial when it came out.

    To me the fascinating thing about all this historiographical tumult is that while many historians are now re-exploring the role radicals played in the Revolution, they only mention early conservatives in passing. Yet, they all do. (See Nash’s wonderful “The Unknown American Revolution.”) You are correct that I was a journalist for many years before leaving to teach history at NYU (I co-wrote a book about the history of American innovation years ago–hence the connection to the engineering school). And the former journalist in me sensed a scoop. With the exception of a short speech Samuel Eliot Morrison published in the last 70s titled “The Conservative American Revolution,” no one has published anything that examines the conservative side of things during the battle for Independence. It also filled a scholarly gap. Between Leonard Labaree’s “Conservatism in Early American History,” which focuses on conservatism in colonial times but ends right before the Revolution, and Fischer’s book, which discusses conservatism from 1800 onward, nothing addresses the period between Independence and the Constitution–which is right around the time most historians agree modern conservatism was founded.

    In the course of researching this book I was also astonished by the fact that popular histories of the Revolution pay so little attention to these forgotten founders. Men like Dickinson, Robert and Gouverneur Morris, James Wilson, Robert Livingtson, John and Edward Rutledge, and Philip Schuyler (Hamilton’s father-in-law) played a tremendous role in the war against England and in shaping the basic political structure of the new republic, including, as one person mentioned, the drafting of the Constitution. They saw themselves as political allies more or less, as did their enemies. John Adams called them “John Dickinson and his party.” Later they were called Gallacins. (See Henderson’s “Party Politics in the Continental Congress.”) I call them conservatives.

    These men were not Court Whigs per se; they were far too revolutionary for that (which helps explain the oxymoronic title of Milton Flower’s biography “John Dickinson: Conservative Revolution”) but they certainly embraced many Court Whig ideas. In Lance Banning’s “The Jeffersonian Persuasion” and Drew McCoy’s “The Elusive Republic,” the connection between Court Whiggery and Federalism is made clear. My book shows that this replay of the struggle between English Court and Country Whigs took place in American even earlier than the 1790s, during the late 1770s and through 1780s as well.

    These are some of the theoretical underpinnings of the book. The book itself is meant for a popular audience, so I dwell as much on gun battles as I do on big ideas. But I hope this note addresses some of your questions. It’s also all I have time for for now. Thanks for the interest.

    • Jimmy Dick

      Thanks for the quite informative response. I will add your book to my reading. I was very concerned that this would be an attempt to link the conservatism of the Revolution (oh yes, it was definitely there. Class was a major part of the whole thing) to modern conservatism today. They just don’t connect.
      Conservatism existed in that era in multiple ways both before and after the Revolution. If one is to use the term as a generic term it fits aptly. I just think that the dust jacket copy should be rewritten. Capitalism as a term did not exist. Since Adam Smith released Wealth of Nations in 1776 I’m not sure how much impact the book had on Americans by 1787 and I do not think he used the term either although he did promote what are principles of capitalism for certain.
      Again, thanks for the reply. I am looking forward to reading your book.

  5. I just started reading this book.

    I’ve read the introduction and have sampled sections of the rest of the book. I think I grasp his argument as I’m already familiar with much of the history and those involved. I plan on reading it in more detail to be fair in my final judgment of it, but my initial response is to feel somewhat disappointed.

    I wanted a book that would challenge my expectations and alter my interpretations. So far, the author has failed to do this. But maybe I’m too well read to be part of his target audience as it does appear to be more of a popular history, although of high quality for that genre.

    There are two limitationss I’ve noticed so far.

    First, I suspect the ideological framework is just too narrow and simplistic for what is needed. The author acknowledges the diversity, but his interpretation in my reading so far doesn’t seem to do this diversity justice. Not all conservatives were moderate and not all liberals were radical. I was also wondering about the conservative-minded traditionalist criticisms of capitalism that developed out of early Southern thought. All of this relates to the problem of terminology which he does partly discuss, just not to my satisfaction.

    This leads to the second limitation. The early Quakers were a complex group. He focuses on the Penssylvania Quaker elite while ignoring all other Quakers. Also, he barely deals with their history, along with the history of the Puritans and Cavaliers, not to mention the Scots-Irish Presbyterians. The American Revolution never would have happened, at least not as it happened, without the English Civil War. That is the earliest starting point of the American conflicts between liberal and conservative, radical and moderate, progressive and reactionary.

    I’m not arguing the book is without merit. Far from it. The author does offer an interesting slant. But it needs a lot of additional reading for context. In perusing this book, two other books kept coming to my mind:

    Radical Enlightenment
    by Jonathan Israel

    The Reactionary Mind
    by Corey Robin

  6. David Lefer

    Dear Benjamin David Steele,
    Just curious if you had actually read more than my introduction, which at six pages would have trouble containing all of the information you suggest I include about the Scots Irish, Pennsylvania Quakers, and Southern anti-capitalists. You make a good point about the importance of the English Civil War, which is what much of the first chapter covers, including how it shaped the subsequent battle between Court and Country Whigs. I certainly agree that extra reading in the field helps put my book in context.
    Kind regards,
    David Lefer

    • I did later on finish your book. I’ve read many books since on the same historical era and so my recall of the details of your book are a bit vague at this point. It would require me to reread your book or give it a good thorough skimming in order to provide you a worthy response here. At this point, I don’t recall what part of your book I was reading when I made my last comment. That comment was only a first impression and so was unfair. You are in the right to defend your book.

      From what I do remember of your book, my main complaint was the anachronistic use of liberalism and conservatism. I realize you understand that these are post-revolutionary labels. I don’t have anything against using these labels in this way. What I disagreed with is that Dickinson didn’t seem very much like many of the other conservatives with whom you categorized him. As far as I know, he was never involved in morally questionable actions such as war profiteering and land speculation. Other of his positions such as abolitionism were as radical as they came back then. All in all, he was more of a moderate progressive reformer.

      A commonality that Dickinson had with Paine was a Quaker background. I’d love to see a detailed comparison and contrast of Dickinson and Paine. I’ve wondered if their influential careers as pamphlateers can be at least partly be adduced to the Quakerism that impacted them.

      I discussed Dickinson and Quakerism in a comment to a review of your book:


      By the way, the best book I’ve come across on Dickinson, specifically in terms of Quakerism, is “Quaker Constitutionalism and the Political Thought of John Dickinson” by Jane E. Calvert

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