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Americans — both Republicans and Democrats — often miss a key aspect of American conservatism: that it stems from classical liberalism, not European conservatism. Therefore, when we debate policies today, we should acknowledge that America’s classically liberal tradition is the basis of our founding and that America’s conservatives want to preserve that tradition.
American conservatism is a unique political philosophy. It is a strange synthesis of philosophies respecting God, human dignity, liberty, the rule of law, order, individual freedom and equality. It is, in short, a radically liberal philosophy.
No other country in the world has combined the political beliefs of men as diverse in political thought as Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington. Only in America have we had the ingredients to combine these all up to create American conservatism.
As radical liberals, the Founders believed that because men and women were created in the image of God, everyone of them had God-given human dignity. From this human dignity, all men had the right to self-government through the creation of a republic.
Many people want to link American conservatism with its European counterpart, but these people don’t truly understand American conservatism. Unlike European conservatism, American conservatism is fundamentally transformed by America’s embrace of republicanism.
This small “r” republicanism is defined by the belief that men have the right and ability to govern themselves. Our Founding Fathers liberated the western world from the notion that only aristocratic monarchs and the members of their court can rule mankind. Americans became citizens as opposed to subjects, and this transformation created a completely new flavor of conservatism: American conservatism.
While European conservatism is associated with aristocracy, American conservatism is democratic. While European conservatism emphasizes order over individual rights, American conservatism values order, but individual liberty and freedom usually trump the desire for it. While European conservatism creates classes of men, American conservatism cherishes equality, which has created an almost classless society in America.
Our conservative tradition is great, and many European conservative thinkers, like Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville, have influenced it, but republicanism forever sets American conservatism apart. This steadfastness to republicanism has created our radical American Conservatism.
The political battles in America today are fundamentally battles against moving away from this classically liberal tradition. Conservatives fear that Democrats don’t respect liberalism any more. If the political dialogue acknowledged American conservatism for what it is, our debates would be much more productive.
Image Credit: Howard Chandler Christy [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons