Our Conservative Roots

Editors’ note: Last fall, the Buckley Program sponsored an essay contest open to student Fellows and others within the Yale community. The topic question, tied to our annual conference, was “What is a 21st Century Conservative?” Judged by three Yale professors, the following essay was written by Christian Vazquez, member of the Class of 2013 and a former Buckley Fellow. He won the third-place prize of $250.

“Liberty must be limited in order to be possessed.” —Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke’s words ring just as true in 2013 as they did in 1774. At its core, conservatism will remain the same—its intent and impetus being the same today as when Burke was writing over two centuries before. Conservatism is an optimistic belief in the capacity of mankind and the individual. Nevertheless, it is not foolhardy enough to entrust extreme liberty in the outright. It is true compassion, not a detached product of a system produced en masse to render standard results to all. It is the cautionary and wary eye of progress, not a limiting or counter-progressive instrument—rather, the strategic force by which society moves forward in the most logical and functional manner. Conservatism is not conformity; it is far from it. To be conservative one must counter the tide of popular notions. Populism and unlimited liberty have given us the worst tides of bloodshed in the form of the French and Bolshevik Revolutions and have produced ideologies that stifled liberty to a degree even greater than the very shackles they attempted to throw off.

President Abraham Lincoln once wrote that conservatism is “the adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried.” I believe that such a definition is the most accurate and encompasses the ideas posed by Burke best. This commitment to what has already been known to function has constrained the tides of revolution and chaos in our own American society. The New World societies of Latin America all attempted radical governments much closer to those of Robespierre than Washington but generated societies much less “free” than our very own. The American Revolution that our founding fathers started over two and a half centuries ago was itself a limited one. It did not attempt to foster a wide range of liberties unbeknownst to eighteenth-century society, partly out of a need for consistency, for the states would not have held together without this conservative approach. They would have prematurely devolved into microstates, different issues would have torn apart the Union, and it would have been stillborn.

From a historical perspective, liberty would never have been attained in America had it not been for the cautious and limiting status of our founding documents. One cannot help but note how absolutely different Philadelphia in 1787 was from Paris in 1789. The Constitutional Convention resulted in the creation of a document that still exists and guides our national life to this day because of its utter conservatism. While drafted by a small circle of elite, it granted enough liberty to allow for it to become increasingly inclusive as to whom it empowered. It did not outright give every citizen the right to vote; in fact, it was quite limiting in those respects.

But the case could not have been anymore different in France. The Tennis Court Oath brought into existence a National Assembly that was an absolutely radical reimagining of the French social order. This same body would later overthrow the French monarchy and persecute its citizens in a manner of the most violent. A simple restructuring of the social order by integrating the three estates devolved into mob rule within three years. It was the angry French mobs that would call for the guillotine to be sated by the blood of thousands—not the structure that supposedly controlled it. The unbridled liberty unleashed after the storming of the Tuileries was without control. Marat, one of the most vocal supporters of the masses was a victim of the lack of order that was the product of liberty without limits. The revolution had not only severed the French from an authoritarian monarchy, it had also unhinged them from reality. The newly fashioned religion and calendar created by the Directory were symptomatic of an Orwellian society centuries before Orwell’s existence.

It is no surprise that by taking the course of radical reform, the French were then subjected to empire under Napoleon and numerous restorations of Bourbon leaders. As a result, the French are on their fifth republic and their fifteenth constitution. Our conservative revolution produced a singular constitution, one that has been amended but remains, in its essence, the same. Likewise, our society continues to be more fluid, with a greater chance for progress and betterment. This is a society in which a family can migrate a generation before and send their child to a top tier university. We’ve arrived here because of the conservative nature of our nation’s inception. America is a land of opportunity because of these limits, which themselves created the conditions that allowed for a stable and functioning system to eventually expand those very limits. But first, the center must hold. It is this inherent conservative principle that made us great. America has never allowed wanton populism to rule the day but rather a guided tradition. Conservatism in the twenty-first century will look very much the same in this sense. It is up to conservatives in our century, just as much as in 1955, to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”