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Conventional Wisdom

America’s Founding Was A Conservative Movement

America’s founding rests on conservative morality, and conservative principles and processes which follow from that morality. The notion that it was liberals who created this country is factually false. For an example of a liberal revolution see France circa 1789.


Moralities and ideologies (different words for the same thing) differ in the degree to which they employ six evolved psychological mechanisms of social perception, subconscious intuitive understanding, and conscious reasoning. See the book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by liberal social scientist Jonathan Haidt from NYU. The moral foundations are care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. Liberal morality rests mostly on only the first three of those foundations, and of those mostly just care/harm. Conservative morality rests on all of them relatively equally. There’s no liberal moral foundation that is not also a conservative foundation, but half of the conservative foundations are essentially external to liberal morality. Any fair and honest reading of The Federalist Papers (Signet Classics) and/or the period and events of the American founding shows beyond doubt that the culture and thinking of the time rested on all of the moral foundations, not just half of them. By morality/ideology, the American founding was conservative.


Liberalism rests mostly on principles of Positive Liberty and concepts of equality, justice, and fairness as outcomes.

Conservatism rests mostly on principles of Negative Liberty, and concepts of equality, justice, and fairness as processes.

Negative liberty essentially means freedom from. It means minimizing oppressive forces external to the person or to society that hinder people or groups from the pursuit of happiness. It rests on principles of property ownership.

Positive liberty essentially means freedom to. Key to understanding positive liberty is understanding the thought behind “What good does it if I’m free to join a country club but I don’t have the means to do it?” The concept of positive liberty requires, in one way or another, to some degree or another, redistribution of wealth and/or property and the imposition of oppressive external forces to “level” the playing field so that the “disadvantaged” have better odds of achieving a positive result.

Here’s quick illustration of conservative process-based concepts and liberal outcome-based concepts

I play in a weekly poker game. I lose ever single time. Is the game fair?

The conservative answer is: If there is one set of rule that applies, and is applied, to all people the same, and if everyone followed those rules and nobody cheated, then yes, by definition, the game is fair.

The liberal answer is: Since I lose every time it is self evident that there is something inherently unfair about the game. The game’s rules should therefore be rigged so that the disadvantaged (me) have a better probability of a positive outcome. This  requires different rules for different people, and a focus outcomes, to create “equality.”

The conservative principles of negative liberty and process based equality, justice, and fairness are enshrined in the Constitution, Declaration and Federalist Papers. Indeed, they arguably defined American culture as a whole at the time of our founding. Liberal principles of positive liberty and outcome-based equality, justice, and fairness are the antithesis of America’s founding principles, and arguably precisely what the founders sought to prevent.


Liberal ideology rests on reason; the power of the human mind, through abstract reasoning, to overcome obstacles and solve problems. Liberalism essentially believes that reason is the path to moral truth. If a social policy cannot be explained or defended by reason alone then it should not exist. The liberal process for developing social policy is, generally speaking, to get rid of old ways that are perceived as not working and invent whole new ways of doing things. Liberalism tends toward wholesale change; revolutionary change. It seeks to “fundamentally transform” society into a new model of its own creation.

Conservative ideology rests on the combination of reason and experience. It is based on epistemological humility. Human action, both at the individual level and at the group level, is so complex and interrelated that it is quite literally impossible to have all the facts. And even if it were possible for a person or group to have all the facts it is beyond the capabilities of human thought to process all of them in ways that can reliably predict how people will react to them. Even the greatest chess masters the world has ever known can see ahead only a limited number of moves. Human social behavior is infinitely more complex than any chess game. Based on experience we know that some things work, and other things don’t work, even if we can’t find perfect “reasoning” to explain why. The conservative process for developing social policy, therefore, is to first study the past. It is to ask “Who before us had similar problems? How did they deal with them? Did their approach work?” It is keenly aware of the danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It seeks to preserve those aspects of society that work well and are successful, even while it seeks to make adjustments that might improve it. It studies the past carefully, and makes changes cautiously, more wary of the devil we don’t know than the devil we do know.

The conservative process described above is precisely the process of the American founding. The British citizens living in North America perceived that their own government was pulling the rug of long-established principles of Negative Liberty and process-based fairness, justice, and equality out from under them and replacing them with arbitrary rule. The British citizens in Noth America sought to preserve – to conserve, the very principles they had brought with them from the mother country, that had in turn evolved gradually there for hundreds of years starting at least with Magna Carta in 1215, if not earlier.

American Revolution was not really a revolution at all. It was, truthfully, a war for independence.

The conservative founding generation knew that the enemy of liberty is consolidated, concentrated, government power. This explains the concept of separation of powers enshrined in the Constitution; a concept the founding generation inherited from Mother England, that had evolved there for centuries. The American founding strengthened the idea by adjusting its basis from class (i.e., monarchy, aristocracy, and commons) to function (Legislative, Executive, and judicial).  Out of the goodness of its heart, liberal policies tend to consolidate and concentrate government power. Liberalism achieves precisely what the founders sought to prevent.

In every meaningful way the American founding was a thoroughly conservative event. It was motivated by conservative morality and principles, and achieved through conservative processes.

The notion that the American founding was in any way liberal is, well, just plain wrong. It is completely and utterly refuted by historical fact. The notion that the American founding was in any way liberal demonstrates the abject failure of America’s education system to perform one of its most basic functions.

For an example of a reason-based, outcome-focused, wholesale-change revolution see the French Revolution, with its “cult of reason,” which degenerated into The Terror and genocide.


2 thoughts on “America’s Founding Was A Conservative Movement

  1. A lot of slash-and-burn thinking, a kind of self-congratulatory romp through a veering, selective look at liberal and conservative impulses in historical America. “In every meaningful way the American founding was a thoroughly”…I don’t care what one fills in after a phrasing like that, it is bound to be quite wrong and deceptive. If you choose to characterize liberalism by equivocating it with ‘the cult of reason’, the Terror and genocide, then you may finish the sentence as you like, of course, but you are merely raising up a straw man again whom you find convenient and easy to peg, from your very biased perch far on the right. Implicit in your argument is the assertion that liberalism had ‘nothing’ to do with separation of powers, or the tension behind the often bitterly fought compromises that make up all the early , important documents. Where were the liberals while the adults did the useful stuff- peeing in the corner? Where, in this considered analysis of the natural tug-of-war between liberal and conservative impulses, does Hamilton fit into this sweeping schema- conspiring for big government, a liberal, aligned with Paine somehow, against Adams?

    > half of the conservative foundations are essentially external to liberal morality

    poppycock. I’ve discussed this with you now many times, your sweeping need to see lower levels in liberal in the binding foundations as meaning that the binding foundations are ‘external’ to our world view, which is then turned before our eyes into a proof, entirely based on your personal assertion, that a magical balance is achieved at conservative relative levels of moral impulse. Overstatement, but a special kind: it makes the above grand statement false, both statistically and empirically.

    > Human action, both at the individual level and at the group level, is so complex and interrelated that it is quite literally impossible to have all the facts.

    Ah yes- the idealogue’s trope, trotted out when liberals ask that their efforts at reason or transparency be injected into existing process. In the real world, often used as a mindless justification of authority and institution, and an a priori rejection of the applicability of reason. Here used in the normal way. Often combined by you with an assertion that liberals want to start new on everything, and reject all former approaches. The devil isn’t just in the details- he’s alive and well in the sweeping language as well.

    I must ask you, now that I’ve seen your poker simile so much- do you really think that liberals would want to rig the game, or are you just setting up another straw man for trying to make striving for positive liberty look stupid? If the latter, perhaps you succeed with those who haven’t studied rhetoric, and it’s your privilege to work a weak angle if you’re so hot on your point. If the former, you need to stop using the simile; I play poker with liberals all the time, and no one has ever suggested such a thing. The closest I’ve seen is paying someone’s buy-in for them, or sharing a pot on questionable logic, for beginners, or for women who are playing for social connection purposes.

    I do sympathize with aspects of your argument. I even sympathize with an important reason why you can make errors like this: liberals are not easy to peg, because they have problems wiht working under the rubric of a coherent set of principles, or cogent set of foundational ideas. There are both good and bad reasons for that lack, but one negative is that people like you feel justified putting words in our mouths about what liberalism ‘really’ is, based on various historical events or outcomes. While this isn’t a doomed activity- not at all- it has a tendency to be open for cherry-picking, in the way you do here, to create distinctions that make for no clear difference, i.e., that aren’t useful. To assume that underlying all liberalism somehow is a set of ideas that lead inevitably to events like the French Revolution, is no more accurate or enlightening than it is to say that underlying all conservatism is a set of ideas (Trump’s, say) that lead inevitably to fascist aggression, imperialism, and capitalist corruption.

    One of the points I come back to personally is that I can espouse, as a liberal, almost all of Kirk’s assertions about conservatism. How can that be? Well, it’s easy: to me, they’re somewhat self-evident, aligned with human values, and I haven’t others that compete with them. I wouldn’t even do much to them, if I was to set up my own approach. I have had conversations with other liberals, even of the far left, who also feel this way. There is a way that liberalism can and does easily incorporate the principles espoused there. Enter you, claiming all those values as things that liberals categorically do not share- as if liberalism’s approach to America’s founding was a categorical rejection of the use of the British precedent which you described, for example. That’s incorrect, or partial, or deceptive or all three. It is your privilege to assume that conservatism somehow earned the patent on achieving balance of powers, but there’s no there there, in the sense of useful argument. And it’s a very heavy-handed distortion of history to claim that liberalism loves large, unchecked government, and conservatism fights it categorically. If anything, I experience things as a bit of an opposite quite often.

    Also, threading through this whole affair, as is often the case in your writings, is an assumption that we don’t, as human beings, all believe in varying degrees in the concepts of both negative and positive liberty; further, a refusal to accept that ALL the basic values imply competing tensions that even ideologues like yourself must make in the real world. You’ll pay lip service to the notion that liberals are ‘more’ concerned with this or that; but by the end of the article, liberals wholly embody whatever it is you’ve conjured as the boogeyman that day (in this case, the love of positive liberty, to the exclusion of negative liberty, leading to a world of tiny French revolutions in every liberal town and vale, unless the cavalry arrive in time). I realize how deeply you’re addicted to getting us into the bad box- that it lets you sleep better at night, fingering your moral underlayment beneath the mattress nightly before turning in- but consider that any moral outlook that excludes the science and art behind the integration of such necessary, naturally competing basic values is a narrow-minded, assumptive game.

    Heaven forbid, for instance, that we discuss the use of reason (i.e., as a complex value, with good and bad aspects of slippery assignation) as a liberal tendency: no, we are presented only with liberal overuse of reason as an axiom. And it’s always bad to ‘overuse’ one’s reason, and it’s always easy to know when overuse is happening, or underuse, or the mama bear just-right use of reason, which, apparently, is the sole province of conservatives. It’s much more accurate to say that the ideologies balance differently the tension between the use of reason and the reference points of tradition- but that’s way too murky when one has to sum up the situation, morally and otherwise, in a sentence, as you’re wont to achieve. That way, one can avoid the complexity of admitting to the difficulty of determining what balance means between reason and tradition, say, in the real world. Or discussing the patterns of misuse of reason of idealogues of all stripes, or the misuse of tradition by the right. These may all be neatly skirted, in the interest of chasing the only acknowledged or discussed boogeyman.

    You don’t have to reach for sweeping declarations that render history inert to make good points about who contributed what. But to assert, pretty much ad infinitum, that conservatism brings all the good stuff, and liberalism all the bad, is getting to be a very, very old game. You make decent and even good points here and there, but there’s no clarity, no complexity, and little sense in the overall notion. As I’ve said before to you, stop ignoring the tremendous evidence we have that liberals got here legitimately, through at least somewhat healthy evolutionary impulses, because they have something important to survival to contribute.

    Reason as a guide is limited: we can agree there. Reason can be overemphasized on the left- ditto. I’m then brought, in a scurry of whambang to ‘For conservatism, see America’s founding; for liberalism, see the French Revolution.’ Is it even possible to be more reductionist and simplistic, to be more of an idealogue?


    Posted by jswagner | March 3, 2016, 5:37 am


  1. Pingback: Never Hillary, or any other liberal. Here’s why: Facts and Reason. | The Independent Whig - July 18, 2016

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