What Is Conservatism

Seeing a fair amount of discussion as to what “conservatism” is or is not cropping up on various threads — and not having time to write a massive treatise on the topic — I’d like to put forward a few basic thoughts on the topic and then turn it loose for conversation with our readership, which clearly has a number of opinions as to the matter.

I would argue that conservatism is, to a great extent, a relative term. Conservatives seek to preserve the ways and institutions of the past. In the ancient Greek and Roman world, there was a worldview present among conservatives that there had been, in the past, a literal golden age — in the age of the great heroes. Among modern conservatives, resistance to change is rooted more in a suspicion of programs of change based upon ideologies that seek to remake the human person or society into new forms. In this sense, conservatives do not necessarily hold that the way things have been in the past are necessarily good, but they lean towards the fear that drastic change will make things worse.

This opposition is not necessarily long term. Once a change is effected with apparently good results, conservatives do not necessarily seek to roll it back, and sometimes wholly embrace it. For instance, William F. Buckley originally voiced skepticism as to whether the civil rights movement sought to use the force of the law to change social practices quickly by brute force and would thus cause more chaos than good. However, by 1969 he editorialized that it was time for America to have a black president.

Because conservatism is a suspicion of change, we see conservatives embrace very different causes in different places and times. In ancient Athens, conservatives often admired oligarchic Sparta over the tumultuously imperial democracy of Athens. In Rome, conservatives were attached to the Republic, and were suspicious of the empire. In the Europe in the 1600s, absolute monarchy was a new idea, while conservatives longed for the regional authority of landed gentry. in the 1700s and 1800s, “liberals” sought new egalitarian freedoms and at times constitutionalism while conservatives defended the absolutist monarchies or the privileges of aristocrats. In the 1800s nationalism was the impulse of the future, while older supra-national empires and regional nobles were forces of conservatism. Similarly, conservatives held to the landed gentry/peasantry system while the capitalists were forces of liberalism. Yet as the international communism and socialism of the early 1900s achieved prominence on the world stage, nationalism was often seen as conservative and likewise capitalism.

In the American context, conservatives hold to the ideals of the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers — conservatives in 1776 were generally Tories. As such, American conservatives generally hold to limited government, constitutionalism, division of powers and local/regional rights. Because free markets were rejected by adherents of socialism and communism, American conservatives tend to be pro-business. Because in the past there were few restrictions on gun ownership and few environmental regulations, American conservatives tend to be against gun control and environmentalism. Indeed, American conservatism is probably best described as consisting of religious and social traditionalism wedded to the a British classic liberalism of the late 1700s and early 1800s. And indeed, this marriage is rather more congenial within US history than it would be in Europe, since in continental Europe 19th century liberalism was almost invariably combined with a fierce secularism and anti-clericalism, resulting from the identification of the Church with the old aristocracies and monarchies. Since that connection never existed in the US, classic liberalism in America never had the strong anti-religious elements which characterized its European cousin.

30 Responses to What Is Conservatism

  • There has to be something more to conservatism than a simple defense of the status quo, whenever, wherever.

    I believe the Church’s social doctrine is essentially conservative. I also think Aristotle was essentially conservative. I think the conservative view of society, at least up until this thing called American conservatism, is that of a hierarchical social organism.

    It is a travesty that in this day and age only leftists are regarded as opposing great social inequality, while those on the right – often, not always, but often – justify it or at least accept it as a necessary outcome of economic freedom.

    For in Aristotelian and Catholic political thought, which I think anyone would be hard-pressed to dismiss as ‘leftist’ (seeing as how both pre-date the concept), wealth and property can and must be regulated with an eye to preserving a social balance. It isn’t about leveling or envy; it is about preserving the peace and ensuring that each member of society is rightfully recognized for the contribution they make.

    A conservative, then, has the goal of preserving or conserving society as a social organism. Whether it is ancient Greece or America in the Great Depression, you have those who insist that economic freedom is good only within limits, that the role of government may extend beyond mere prevention of force and fraud.

  • American conservatism is, in large part, the political ideals of the Founding Fathers. These ideals of course did not spring newborn to Earth in 1776. The largest ingredient was the experience of the American colonists from the time of settlement up to the Revolution. The colonies were largely left to their own devices by England throughout most of the colonial period. They grew used to running their own affairs. The American colonists were lightly taxed by the governments they set up, probably the most lightly taxed people in the history of the world. Self-reliance was a must in a new country with virtually zero in government services, and not much in the way of government at all, especially outside of the few towns. This was a great laboratory for a grand experiment in a new way of looking at government, and this experiment is still underway.

  • There has to be something more to conservatism than a simple defense of the status quo, whenever, wherever.

    Well, I would say that at any given time and place, conservatives have an ideology which is rather more than this, but that the conservative tendency is one towards preservation of whatever is seen as the good of the past.

    It is a travesty that in this day and age only leftists are regarded as opposing great social inequality, while those on the right – often, not always, but often – justify it or at least accept it as a necessary outcome of economic freedom.

    In a sense, though, wasn’t this the case in many earlier cases as well? Around 1800, conservatives (and the Church very much among them) were defending, at least in essentials, a system in which the vast majority of the population were effectively bound to the land and living at a level barely above subsistence, while a small minority owned the land and enjoyed a level of wealth and comfort unimaginable to peasants. The liberalism of the French Revolution and the other political and cultural revolutions which swept Europe were imagined to be a leveling force, though in many ways they opened the door to a devolution of social structures which allowed even greater social inequality.

    Not only were conservatives (and the Church) defending a system of inequality, but of ingrained and inflexible inequality. Modern inequality is, at least, porous and meritocratic in nature by comparison.

  • Darwin,

    You have hit on my favorite topic!!! A few points:

    Conservatism begins with Burke.

    A plausible case, depending upon definition, can be made for “pre-Burke conservative figures” (limiting to the the West and obviously depending upon defintion). I believe a good case can be made for Cicero and Hume.

    The Enlightenment changed everything. And I mean everything. We cannot escape this umbrella. Rights-infused liberalism is in the very air we breathe. Thus conservatism in any definition will contain some aspect of liberalism.

    Here is my definition of conservatism. In one phrase, the negation of ideology. In longer form over several considerations here:

    http://vox-nova.com/2009/02/06/what-is-conservatism-part-v/

    Now, in sum, I would say it is this – in effect, a sentiment…. :

    the negation of ideology, the political secularization of the doctrine of original sin, the cautious sentiment tempered by prudence, the product of organic, local human organization observing and reforming its customs, the distaste for a priori principle disassociated from historical experience, the partaking of the mysteries of free will, divine guidance, and human agency by existing in but not of the confusions of modern society, no framework of action, no tenet, no theory, and no article of faith.

  • Jonathan,

    Shoot me an email at tito[.]benedictus[at]gmail[dot]com.

    Thanks!

  • Such definitions, of course, beg the question of how political and social practice could follow. Essentially, a “conservative” reaction to a policy problem would be : 1) against systematic and large-scale application (the coercive) 2) against both the individual and the synthetic collective as the foundational unit of society.

    So – applied to “gay marrige”, for example, Patrick Deenan spells this out here:
    http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/?p=3636

    Here, culture and community are more important than politics, and group morality is more important than individual right and justice. (And in my conjecture, culture and community, the foundations of conservative sentiment, require homogeneity and.or assimilation.)

    The problem for U.S. conservatives is not only that their political goals are often infused with liberalism and rights, but that there was not much terribly conservative about its founding. One may still wish to preserve and value founding principles, however, seeking cautious change following Burke and so on, and thus lay claim to the title (although the case might well fall apart philosophically).

  • Burke of course was quite sympathetic to the American Revolution, so sympathetic that during the Revolutionary War his political opponents denounced him as an “American” and a near traitor to the Crown. I have always thought that Burke’s sympathy for the American Revolution, and his condemnation of the French Revolution, is one of the keys to understanding American conservatism.

  • Donald, that is certainly true, but remember that Burke was very much in the liberal tradition and remained a loyal Whig his entire political life, which was rather long.

    The reason that conservative sentiment (not ideology, and conservatism can certainly have an ideology…in fact, several intellectuals like W. Kendall and Kuehnelt-Leddihin wanted to make it an ideology) begins with Burke is that he wrote in reaction against an earth-shattering event, a culmination of liberalism. By this I mean that conservatism is a reaction to liberalism, its partial parent.

    And thus a style, a sentiment, a bias against efforts of utopianism, ideology, and against the promise of a bright new future casting aside considerations of human nature. This is all over the Reflections – natural rights must be in accord with prior practice and convention (my reason of association with Hume and Cicero). This is a received, accumulated, generational wisdom worthy of commitment against movements that would seek to alter them so as to pursue ideological aims.

    The Rockingham Whigs hated arbitrary monarchical power, most of England’s overseas colonial adventures, and wanted very badly internal governmental reform. When Burke spoke of the Glorious Revolution as a “revolution not made, but prevented,” he meant that James II, the last Stuart king overthrown in 1688, was trying to increase royal prerogatives and was thus the true revolutionary. This was against Britain in its development of natural right. The American revolution was positive by his lights in the same manner, due to prudence and prescription in its pursuit of natural right (from God, not usually the right of liberalism). The colonists sought to preserve and continue the English institutions of representative government and private rights founded in the transcendent first and foremost.

    This takes us to the case that “conservative” requires the transcendent, which strikes me as plausible yet is at the very least another fault-line of argument, similar to Russell Kirk v. Frank Meyer and W. Kendall.

  • I don’t have a whole lot to contribute here, perhaps because of my own ignorance on shifting definitions over time.

    The Catholic Church is “conservative” by nature because its mission is to preserve the teachings of Jesus Christ. Politically however, she might find herself aligned with either political liberals or political conservatives in any given time or place.

    In the United States “conservative” ought to be defined by adherence to the Constitution of the United States, even when inconvenient. Events and culture have manipulated and warped that definition beyond recognition, to the point where genuine fidelity to the founding documents is shattered across the political spectrum. One party might be better on civil liberties, while the other better on economic matters.

    I suppose anything else would qualify as additional, no matter how valuable.

  • (I apologize in advance for my comments; I do not mean to be disrespectful. I follow your inspired blog with real affection.)

    “I would argue that conservatism is, to a great extent, a relative term. Conservatives seek to preserve the ways and institutions of the past.
    Because conservatism is a suspicion of change, we see conservatives embrace very different causes in different places and times.”

    While the historical context is interesting for understanding Conservatism it may be the wrong premise for a “positive” definition (when President Reagan said “tear down this wall” he wasn’t looking back !). If Conservatism is being “suspicious of change” then you have to twist the definition and make the definition “relative” because there is no fixed point in the past to which Conservatives are clinging (wink). The same argument can be advanced regarding our beloved Catholic Church –would you say that we are trying to preserve the ways of the Borgia Popes or the Avignon Popes? -. There are some unchangeable Catholic Values, rather than institutions or ways, we seek to preserve. So I would argue that to define Conservatism we need to define Conservative Values, rather than look at some mythical past.

    If you define modern liberalism as an attempt to establish in our society a set of different values; and you define Conservatism as an attempt to stop the spread of those “foreign”-in the sense of different- values you get to your definition of “Conservative seek to preserve”. The problem with that definition is that we become defined by them, Conservatism is opposition to change, and then they define change as good and opposition to change as bad; so we end up as “bitter clingers”.

    “In the American context, conservatives hold to the ideals of the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers . . . limited government, constitutionalism, division of powers and local/regional rights. Because free markets were rejected by adherents of socialism and communism, American conservatives tend to be pro-business.”

    Here you attempt to define Conservative Values, good ! Maybe this is a useful discussion, and we can make some progress. Conservatism is not just pro business/free markets (again you are letting them define us: business is bad; conservatives are pro business; conservatives are bad). Conservatism is about Capitalism and Capitalism only works with a market system and strong property rights The reason Conservative Economist like free –competitive- markets is that with increased competition prices are lowered, to the benefit of consumers. Note that increased competition reduces profits to companies. That is why companies spend so much money lobbying the government seeking to limit competition. Companies do not like free markets. So again, we cannot define Conservatism as pro business; we are pro competitive markets and therefore pro consumers.

    I feel that we need to rescue Capitalism as a bedrock value. At the end of the day we are in an ideological struggle with the Marxist/Communist/Socialist/Liberals/Leftist –notice how they mask themselves to make inroads into a gullible population, does this attitude remind you of the forces of darkness- Wow ! now I’m really sounding like a paranoid kook LOL

  • The website ‘First Principles’ (from the ever-resourceful Intercollegiate Studies Institute) has a helpful overview of American conservatism and its contributors.

  • I wish someone could coin a new word to describe what we call “conservatism” because at its root it means attempting to conserve already-existing or well-established ideas. In the area of social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, that is exactly what conservatives are attempting to do. However, some economic and other policies favored by conservatives, such as school choice/vouchers and privatization of Social Security, would actually represent radical change from the status quo.

    Right now I am in the middle of reading Dorothy Day’s autobiography “The Long Loneliness.” Day was an active socialist/communist prior to her conversion to the Catholic faith, and continues to be thought of to this day as very left-leaning because of her pacifism and labor activism. Yet, some of her ideas would be considered extremely “conservative” today. For one thing, she and many of her followers like Peter Maurin did NOT approve of Social Security or most of the New Deal social programs. They believed that making the needy dependent upon government for help was another way of enslaving them. To this day many Catholic Worker houses do not apply for tax exempt status because Day believed works of charity should be done for their own sake and the government should neither encourage nor discourage them.

    Some ideas are, IMO, kind of hard to classify as either liberal or conservative. Take Chesterton and Belloc’s ideal of distributism. My understanding of it, based on what I’ve read about it so far (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong) is that it means every individual or family owning enough property or other means of supporting themselves to make a decent living without having to be dependent upon an employer or the government.

    So, is distributism a conservative or liberal idea? Chesterton himself said that the problem with capitalism was not that there were too many capitalists, but too few. However, he was very opposed to the notion of “big business” and distributist ideas are said to have heavily influenced the creation of American anti-trust laws. I don’t think that would go down well with some of the hard-core economic conservatives who think ANY government regulation of business is evil.

  • As a student, I am really learning a lot about conservatism and other agendas from your article. Thanks!

  • “So, is distributism a conservative or liberal idea?”

    It is neither, really, though if I had to choose one, I would say conservative.

    The Church’s view on private property is that it is a right attendant with social obligations and duties. You may not do whatever you please with your property. Your right to own it is conditioned on your duty to use it morally.

  • There are 2 dimensions to this debate. The first is definitional. The dominant strand of American “conservatism” is in no way conservative — it is pure, undiluted, liberalism. Darwin defines conservatism as an evolution vs. revolution concept, and there is some validity to this hermeneutic. But it falls short. For the economic order of the New Deal is firmly embedded in the economic and constitutional order, and yet the so-called “conservatives” oppose it. I think Sam Tanenhaus puts it best — this group defines itself by what they oppose (often using cartoonish generalization) and thus employs tactics that border on Marxist (and I mean Marx’s followers, not what he said himself).

    I think a more pertinent approach would be to say that conservatism values the stability of the social order, and the community over the rights of the individual. Obviously, opposition to abortion and gay marriage would count, but the rest of American “conservatism” is a hymn to individual rights (guns being the most egregious example). And on guns, I think Darwin is being a little deceptive — the American right does not oppose gun control because no such controls existed historically, but because they have totally ingested a liberal ideology of protection of the individual from outside coercion.

    The second question is the relationship to Catholic social teaching. In a sense, these debates over the definition of conservatism are academically interesting, but not that relevant. For Christianity does not call us to be “conservative” in all senses. Yes, we are called upon to protect the common good, but we are also called upon to change the social order if it is faulty. We share conservatisms suspicion of utopia, and yet we are called to build God’s kingdom on earth. There is a tension here, for sure, a tension which probably underlies all the divisions within the Church.

    Final point: the American definition of conservatism is nothing more that old liberal enemy condemned by the modern Church — from Pius XI’s twin rocks of shipweck (capitalism and socialism) to John Paul’s idolatry of the free market. Call it what you like, but we should oppose this ideolgy just as much as we should oppose socialism.

  • Elaine,

    The Church in its social teaching also insists that government programs not make people dependent on such programs in that they will be enslaved.

  • For the economic order of the New Deal is firmly embedded in the economic and constitutional order, and yet the so-called “conservatives” oppose it.

    Yeah, not so much. Do conservatives want to abolish the FDIC, Social Security, or the SEC? They do not. There are exceptions, but generally speaking conservatives are fine with the post-New Deal economic and constitutional order. At most they seek to restrain its growth a bit.

    this group defines itself by what they oppose (often using cartoonish generalization)

    I think this is true of most every political group. Recall Henry Adams statement that politics was the organization of our hatreds. There’s a lot of truth in that.

  • For the economic order of the New Deal is firmly embedded in the economic and constitutional order, and yet the so-called “conservatives” oppose it.

    I think this assertion would require a lot more teasing out to see if it’s true and to what extent. Clearly, a lot of the New Deal was not well embedded in the economic and constitutional order, since much of it was rejected as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court and overturned. Kosher butchers are no longer being jailed for the sin of allowing their customers to select which chicken they want to buy. But what I assume you mean at this point is that those elements of the New Deal which have survived are now embedded in the economic and constitutional order, and yet you perceive American conservatives to be against them. The obvious question in regard to this is which elements of the New Deal you have in mind, and who among conservatives are actually calling for the repeal of those elements.

    I think a more pertinent approach would be to say that conservatism values the stability of the social order, and the community over the rights of the individual. Obviously, opposition to abortion and gay marriage would count, but the rest of American “conservatism” is a hymn to individual rights (guns being the most egregious example).

    Why do you think this would necessarily be “conservative”? Certainly, there are certain cases where progressives might assert a new individual “right” which is detrimental to the social order and conservatives oppose it, but there might be a fair amount of disagreement as to whether a “right” is individual, and whether it is in fact detrimental to the social order. It seems to me that the definition you’ve chosen here may be more suited as a framework for expressing approval and disapproval of specific political positions than for articulating a philosophy. Though perhaps you just need to expand on it a bit further. What would you see as the things that should be major “conservative” concerns at this time and place in history?

    Keep in mind, especially, that thing which some see as aiding the social order will be seen as others as destructive to it. It’s widely held that social safety net programs aid the social order, while radical individualists oppose these programs. But in a sense, programs which make it more economically feasible for individuals to remain economically provided for without the aid of a community enable individualism. It’s perhaps instructive that medicare and social security (which I assume are programs you are very much in favor of) are both rejected by the Amish and (if the several mentions I’ve run into are correct) by many members of the Catholic Worker movement, because they replace the works of a local community with a direct relationship between state and individual.

    And on guns, I think Darwin is being a little deceptive — the American right does not oppose gun control because no such controls existed historically, but because they have totally ingested a liberal ideology of protection of the individual from outside coercion.

    I’m not sure how exactly you discern the motivation of conservatives in this regard, but I’ll admit that there is a liberal egalitarianism involved. As you’ve pointed out on occasion, gun violence is a phenomenon which afflicts primarily the urban poor, and support for gun ownership comes primarily from the rural and suburban middle class. If we truly had not attachment to liberal egalitarian ideals, everyone would support the idea of banning gun ownership by people who live in cities but are not property owners. (Or perhaps even more reprehensible from a modern liberal point of view, simply ban ownership by poor minorities.) However, although that kind of class and property-based distinction would have been perfectly acceptable in most times and places in Christian history, we all have too many enlightenment liberal ideals at this point to accept such a resolution, and so conservatives end up supporting the same rights for everyone else as they support for themselves. Personally, I think that’s rather a good thing, but I’ll freely admit to being formed by the Enlightenment on that point.

  • So “conservatism” is bad because it’s really just “liberalism”? And “liberalism” is bad because . . . ?

    I think Sam Tanenhaus puts it best — this group defines itself by what they oppose (often using cartoonish generalization)

    Well, anyone’s beliefs can be recharacterized in that way. You, for example, could be described as defining yourself in cartoonish opposition to SUVs, guns, for-profit health care, Calvinists, Israel, Republicans, Karl Rove, and pro-lifers who do anything besides make excuses for their beliefs.

  • I find it interesting that with any discussion of “Conservatism,” more often than not, the conclusion is that conservatives are afraid of change. Conservatives can be agents of change, as in our revolution. The signers of our Declaration of Independence, justified the need for change, in other words conservatives do not like change for the sake of change. Given the right justification, change is not only desirable, but necessary. The human rights enumerated in our Declaration included the right to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of “Happiness.” These words are the contribution of John Locke, who as an enlighten philosopher provided us with the notion that individuals precede governments, he also stated that ownership of property is created by the application of the individual’s labor. Locke also stated a preference for limited government, “Property precedes government and government cannot dispose of the estates of the subjects arbitrarily.” Locke’s contributions are central to the Federalist papers, our founding fathers, and they remain true to today’s conservatives (Treatment of Chrysler bond holders). As a conservative I can tell you that I am for:

    – Limited Government: Check and balances is critical to limit government abuse. We are in favor for a Federal Republic; as opposed to a Unitarian Republic were the capital city dictates to the rest of the nation, i.e., national entrance exams administered by the Ministry of Education in Paris, France. We believe in limited and government as our founding fathers. We oppose Federal encroachment on State rights i.e., Department of Education.
    – Home rule: Most conservatives support parochial schools because of the participation of students, parents and the community at large. Today home rule is eroding before our eyes with the temptations of federal moneys and mandates with strings attached. – Individual rights: We tend to support life and opposed abortion in many levels, but the first and foremost is the concept of the individual life. Today, the political correct response is that “privacy,” trumps the life of the child. However, where is the privacy when you consider that most abortions are performed as a method of contraception and at tax-payers expense? Where is my privacy when the School district decides to take the role of parenting a six grader about contraceptives? Lastly, most abortions are performed on minorities. In the not so distant future someone is going to accuse the proponents of abortion of genocide. This is a Civil Rights issue waiting to happen.
    – Limited Taxes: Essential to the well being of the nation/state/local.

    Conservatives are environmentalist too. However, our support for the environment or any other effort is proportional. Ask yourself at what expense are we to support any government effort (Mussolini kept the trains on time)? We oppose most changes that are open ended. Conservatives are not willing to sacrifice our individual freedoms for an imposed fuzzy greater good. Conservatives are tolerant, and are unlikely to impose behavior on others. An example of this behavioral enforcement is the manner in which we regulate smoking. I do not smoke, but why the persecution, or societal ostracizing of smokers? Are you really exposed to cigarette smoke (what is the frequency of smoke inhalation)? Who do we go after next; fat people? Or perhaps we go to Plato’s Republic to find a formula for discussing the individuals that will make-up our City-State. Do we want beautiful people, young, old, academics, and pious people? I can guarantee you that Conservatives are not social engineers; we are suspicious of initiatives that prescribe individual behavioral changes.

    Conservatives want change but only when well justified. We embrace most issues/arguments facing this great nation of ours. But what we hold dear is our God given “free will,” and the freedoms to exercise it. We also, accept the many choices/responsibilities that come with having made any of life’s choices. We the people empower our government, and that is a great one way street.

  • As you’ve pointed out on occasion, gun violence is a phenomenon which afflicts primarily the urban poor, and support for gun ownership comes primarily from the rural and suburban middle class.

    Perhaps we could locate some social research on the question. If what is true in my social circle is true generally, sport hunting is characteristic of small towns and rural areas and, while found in all social strata, is most likely practiced by wage-earners, not the bourgeoisie. Shooting clay pigeons is more upscale, but, again, has a diverse clientele.

  • In rural Illinois, almost every one has a firearm of some sort: rich, poor and middle class. I am an odd man out since the last time I shot a firearm was the last time I did target practice with an M-16 in the Army.

  • in a sense, though, wasn’t this the case in many earlier cases as well? Around 1800, conservatives (and the Church very much among them) were defending, at least in essentials, a system in which the vast majority of the population were effectively bound to the land and living at a level barely above subsistence, while a small minority owned the land and enjoyed a level of wealth and comfort unimaginable to peasants.

    Hereditary subjection was, by 1789, characteristic of Eastern Europe, not Western Europe. There were some residual feudal dues in France; serfdom was gone in England and in uplands generally.

    The historian Jerome Blum did some back of the envelope calculations some years back and concluded that the exactions on Eastern European peasantry were generally severe. However, one needs be careful not to confound the manifestation of a generally low standard of living with the manifestation of a maldistribution of wealth or income. IIRC, the income from about 30% of the land area of France repaired to the clergy and nobility, who together constituted about 4% of the population. Asset ownership in occidental countries in our own time is likely at least as skewed.

    In Eastern Europe at that time, the crown was commonly an advocate of extensive reforms in the agrarian system, including the abolition of hereditary subjection (for reasons of economic efficiency). A faction of the nobility favored a like course of action.

  • If what is true in my social circle is true generally, sport hunting is characteristic of small towns and rural areas and, while found in all social strata, is most likely practiced by wage-earners, not the bourgeoisie. Shooting clay pigeons is more upscale, but, again, has a diverse clientele.

    Well, given that (due to personal and regional background) I can’t help seeing “middle class” as starting at or below 30k/yr in most parts of the country — we’re not necessarily picturing different things here. :-)

    It’s one of the peculiarities of America that we all like to think of ourselves as middle class.

  • Hereditary subjection was, by 1789, characteristic of Eastern Europe, not Western Europe. There were some residual feudal dues in France; serfdom was gone in England and in uplands generally.

    I’m probably heavily handicapped here in that 18th and 19th century political history is very late for me (classicist and medievalist by training) which means that I mostly know what I’ve exerted myself to study: Britain, Ireland and Russia, but only general outlines in between for that period.

    That said, I was leaning more heavily on “effectively bound to the land” in that the degree of industrialization in much of Europe in 1750 to 1850 was not necessarily enough to allow most peasantry (in the broad sense, not legally surfs in the West) many options when coming in to the cities — and the options when they did so were often rather poor.

    Given that as late as the cold snap following the eruption of Krakatoa in the 1880s there were serious regional food shortages in parts of Europe as a result of poor crops due to bad weather, I think its accurate to see the inequalities between hereditary nobility (and “gentle” classes in the wider sense) and those on the land as being much wider than today’s inequalities, in that it was a gap between near subsistence agriculture and a level of plenty which would look fairly upper class even today.

    That said, I may well be letting my impressions run away with me here and am subject to correction.

  • While I think discussions of political terminology are sterile, I think one might repair to Thomas Sowell’s dialectic between the ‘vision of the anointed’ and the extant practices of ‘the benighted’, who are distinguished by the respect they accord the contrivances of the chatterati over and above the intelligence encoded in institutions as they have evolved over time. The folk in our own time who wish to replace the magisterium of the Church with the pronouncements of he board of the American Psychological Association and replace family relations with user-defined entities whose continuance is dependent upon consumer taste have their analogue in the folk who contrived the Cult of the Supreme Being and the French Revolutionary calendar.

    Since Mr. McClarey has brought up the American Revolution, one ought to note some contrasts between that and the French Revolution. The political order delineated in the Constitution of 1789 here was an elaboration upon the extant colonial forms; in France, each of the constitutions adopted between 1790 and 1813 took no cognizance of the political forms existing prior to 1789. The abolition here of legally-delineated orders of clergy, nobility, and burgesses can be seen as a consequence of the limited presence of the British nobility in the colonies to begin with as well as the confessional variegation between the colonies and sometimes within them; there it incorporated a violent rebellion upending existing social arrangements. Here the disestablishment of one or another protestant sect over the course of the last quarter of the 18th century a consequence of the demographic loss of position by the pre-eminent confession (in the South) and the loss of institutional verve (in New England); there it incorporated first a legislated attempt to render the Church a department of the French government and later an attempt to replace the Catholic faith with a deistic cult.

  • The French Revolution and the American Revolution share little in common except for the term Revolution. It is instructive to read the varying reactions of the Founding Fathers to the French Revolution, from the puerile enthusiasm for it by Mr. Jefferson, to the adamant repugnance towards it shown by Mr. Adams. A good book is waiting to be written on the subject. Conor Cruise O’Brien wrote a first rate book on Jefferson’s infatuation with the French Revolution, but little has been done as to the other Founding Fathers, except for Adams.

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