Excerpted from 'Coming Home: Reclaiming America's Conservative Soul' by Ted McAllister and Bruce Frohnen. Published with permission from Encounter Books.
The rise of ideology in late-nineteenth-century America presented challenges beyond those inherent in the political, economic, and cultural changes of the time. By the early twentieth century, progressivism had become a powerful force—a movement declaring that the structures and limitations of the American Constitution must be set aside so that “the people’s will” could be divined and put into action by a centralized federal government in an era of centralized national and international economic power. While conservatives entered into a complex and sustained engagement with these challenges, conservative prejudices, habits, and norms remained strong in America, thriving in New England, the Midwest, the Great Plains, the Mountain West, and, in an eccentric version, in the South. In these regions, communities were organized around the principles of ordered liberty in the context of community and reciprocity among neighbors. There the people belonged to myriad voluntary and fraternal associations, they stressed biblical religion, and they continued to believe in the centrality of self-reliance.
From this stream of practical American conservatism came one of the key figures in this tradition: Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge gave conservatism a spare but eloquent voice, enlivening coherent principles and norms in a time of change. He grew up in New England, one of the seedbeds of local self-rule, rooted in a culture dedicated to both thick community and the self-reliance of individuals and families. Educated classically at Amherst College, Coolidge came of age with a deep knowledge of, and love for, American history, and he drew special inspiration from Abraham Lincoln. As a young lawyer (among the few by his time to still enter that profession through apprenticeship rather than attending law school), Coolidge often defended the property rights of small interests. While he understood the importance of concentrations of capital, he stressed that work was prior to capital and that ordered liberty rests on the ability of people to use their freedom and their labor to create property and supply the necessary conditions of life in self-governing associations.
Throughout his career’s ascent from local politics to governor of Massachusetts and ultimately president of the United States, Coolidge embodied the conservative politician as have few others. He was deeply rooted in his regional culture, devoted to his family and the range of obligations that make family important to each person’s identity, hard-working and self-reliant, intensely patriotic, quietly but profoundly religious, and committed to the principles of conservatism while offering no ideology. In times of dramatic change, Coolidge sought to apply conservative principles.
A practical but passionate focus on freedom and opportunity shaped Coolidge’s prudential response to progressive reforms. Devoted to constitutionalism and fully aware of society’s reliance on deep, widespread respect for the law, Coolidge generally accepted reforms done within the limits of both. When Theodore Roosevelt used the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890 to break up monopolies, Coolidge appreciated this government action designed to provide greater opportunities for entrepreneurs and small commercial interests. Here Roosevelt acted within the law and did so in defense of what Coolidge called the American ideal. In his many local and state roles, including mayor and governor, Coolidge not only worked to prevent monopolies from taking away opportunities but also followed Roosevelt’s lead in trying to find common ground between labor unions and corporations.
Coolidge sought to encourage economic and technological progress in ways that supported communal self-governance. The railroads, primary targets of progressive reformers, for Coolidge were crucial assets for communities. To deliver its services a railroad needed huge amounts of capital and certain governmental protections. But only the railroads, even within certain inescapable regional monopolies, allowed small towns easy access to larger cities and markets. In this case, a well-run and properly regulated, relatively corruption-free railroad supported both economic growth and self-governing local communities.
Accepting some of its reforms, Coolidge opposed progressivism’s ideology. This opposition emerged in response to the administration of President Woodrow Wilson and particularly its actions during World War I. The federal government, under the guise of wartime measures, had violated many sacred American principles. The Wilson administration had abused property rights, undermined constitutional limitations on federal power embodied in the Tenth Amendment and the structures of federalism, and expanded presidential powers through unconstitutional executive actions. Worse yet, the Wilson administration undertook the most extensive repression of speech and civil liberties in American history, imprisoning and deporting thousands without due process for any speech the government deemed subversive, including any “abusive language” against the flag, the Constitution, and American military uniforms. These wartime measures built on years of abuses—including Wilson’s personal decision to impose racial segregation among federal employees—and exposed the power of an imperial presidency to rule without law.
The authoritarian and lawless nature of the progressive regime frightened Coolidge and set the context for the policies and practices he would pursue as president. Coolidge believed that his primary task as president was to manage the government well, according to the strict requirements of law and the Constitution. Thus he devoted much of his energy not to introducing changes but to making the government responsive within its limited realm. After a spate of progressive reforms (many salutary and legal, but many others harmful to American principles and extralegal), Coolidge wanted government to get out of the way of self-reliant Americans while working efficiently to create and sustain the order and structure that facilitated private and associational life.
Coolidge’s learned and brilliant speech celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence articulated American principles as well as any presidential address. Rejecting the progressive claim that the Constitution was an open-ended call for ceaseless change in the name of personal autonomy, Coolidge insisted that the American revolutionaries were no radicals. Rather, the Revolution “was conservative and represented the action of the colonists to maintain their constitutional rights which from time immemorial had been guaranteed to them under the law of the land.” Coolidge deftly explored the deep religious sources of American principles while connecting “natural rights” to both these religious commitments and the Anglo-American tradition.
In a speech welcoming Charles Lindbergh back to America and celebrating his famous solo flight across the Atlantic, Coolidge articulated the principles most evident to American conservatives in this time. First, he praised Lindbergh’s character. For conservatives, character had long been a key term denoting a well-formed person: one who has matured so as to be self-governing, in mastery of his passions, and in love with good and noble things, and who possesses such virtues as to be a good citizen, family member, and neighbor. To praise a man’s character is to suggest that he is unspoiled, unwilling to “commercialize” himself or to seek cheap fame. More than that, to praise a man’s character implies praise of his family, his community, and those who helped form him. And so Coolidge gave clear voice to the conservative view of the self-reliant man—one with character, shaped by others in tandem with his own indomitable will to become self-possessed and self-ruling. Moreover, the liberty of the individual person is possible only when the relevant social institutions have shaped that person to possess good character. Otherwise liberty is transmuted into libidinous license, which ends not in self-rule but in a pathetic form of dependence.
Coolidge did not confine himself to praise for Lindbergh; he made special mention of the more than one hundred American companies that contributed to the making of Lindbergh’s plane. It was a technological marvel, and it would not have been possible without the “genius” of American economic liberty. Coolidge called these companies “silent partners” with Lindbergh and praised American economic ingenuity because America’s free-market system, when it is entrepreneurial, helps empower people of character, of strong will and desire, to make their mark on the world. The American hero—as exemplified by the brave, solitary pilot—is possible only through community and by way of American principles at work in the economy and society. Conspicuously, Coolidge celebrated Lindbergh’s achievement as a sign of American greatness: a greatness not made by government action but arising out of its people and their sense of industry.
Coolidge embraced prudential reforms labeled “progressive” when they served American communities, traditions, and principles. He opposed ideological progressivism, which focuses on the abstract idea of a “good society” while pursuing particular goods in defiance of constitutional and historical norms and regardless of social costs. This progressivism would come to dominate the American government during the New Deal and the war years that followed. Because progressives believed that modern conditions had made inherited constitutionalism obsolete, they helped construct a different purpose for the federal government. During the New Deal and its aftermath, a government claiming to guarantee the substantive good of the people also claimed unprecedented power to do so. Conservatives thus confronted a challenge new both in principle and in degree. This confrontation would help spawn the modern conservative movement. The great American conversation was no longer limited to American liberals and conservatives; a new species of progressive liberalism (a version of leftism) would become important in shaping the America of the next hundred years. The most powerful figure in writing this progressive ideology into American politics was Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
FDR’s pedigree and character did not suit him ideally for the role of revolutionary. Inheritor of vast wealth and privilege, holder of no particular deep thoughts or convictions, he forged his “New Deal” out of expediency and short-term responses to great events. Consequently, if Roosevelt’s New Deal was not doctrinaire progressivism, the regime clearly had no sense of loyalty to inherited principles. His presidency and the New Deal represented experimentation with new powers and new methods, and this alone made them dangerous. Vastly expanding work begun under Wilson, the Roosevelt presidency presented American conservatives not only with ideological challenges but also with a vastly expanded federal government, with new powers and new institutions that would be almost impossible to reverse. This, along with new geopolitical realities during World War II and the subsequent Cold War, produced novel conditions for American conservatives and required compromises, coalitions, and challenging decisions about which principles must be preserved and which ones might be temporarily sacrificed to the exigencies of the historical moment. These factors produced a movement that included powerful conservative voices but embraced a competing liberal ideology: a right-wing liberalism. This modern conservative movement could function only so long as the conditions that produced it were still operative. But if this new movement would not be fully conservative, it nonetheless represented the most prudent option for conservatives during times of unprecedented challenges to individual liberties and the nation as a whole.
The New Deal rested on assumptions and declarations that deviated from the American tradition and became more radical over time. First, as declared in his famous Commonwealth Address, Roosevelt believed that the principles and forms of government established in the Founding were outdated. Second, the New Deal assumed that modern life required of the federal government a level of involvement in regulation and support formerly unknown in the United States and inconsistent with constitutional limitations. Third, even more than Wilson, FDR built a bureaucracy premised on belief that the complexity of the circumstances combined with the new roles played by government required experts to make decisions outside the democratic process. The Roosevelt administration did dramatically more than any prior administration to turn governance over to a managerial class of bureaucratic elites and academic advisors. Fourth, because of the New Deal the new capitalism was going to be steered less by entrepreneurs and more by the joint efforts of business and government managers. Fifth, the Roosevelt administration established the enduring principle that the federal government has a compelling interest in providing basic protections for its citizens, from old-age pensions to direct and indirect assistance to find work or obtain unemployment support.
The sixth change, which came at the hands of the Supreme Court, is perhaps the most important. In a dramatic reversal in constitutional interpretation, the Supreme Court authorized Congress to make laws, establish agencies, and create new powers as it wished so long as these changes served the “general welfare” of the American people. The key passage in the Constitution is found in Article I, Section 8: “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, … to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States.” Since the founding period this section had been understood as a limit on the “enumerated powers” of Congress. In effect, it outlines the specific powers delegated to Congress and states that outside of those specifically enumerated Congress has no authority. For the Constitution’s framers, the general welfare language further limits the power of Congress by saying that legislators could use the enumerated powers only to the degree that they were providing for the general welfare. It was out of an abundance of caution that the First Congress proposed what would become the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, specifically stating that “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” No major Supreme Court decision and no real precedent existed for a different understanding of the constitutional language until the Supreme Court’s 1937 decision in Helvering v. Davis, along with several subsequent decisions over the next five years.
Without any democratic process, and without any developed precedent, the Supreme Court handed Congress the power to do whatever its members deemed in the general welfare, expanding the reach and power of the federal government beyond anything imagined at the Founding or chosen by the people. The contrast with earlier progressive reforms is important: to accomplish their key goals, progressives followed the constitutional amendment process to alter that document four times in seven years. Since that time, armed with a handful of unelected judges’ novel interpretation of the general welfare clause, Congress, presidents and executive agencies, and even courts repeatedly have increased the power and reach of the federal government without recourse to the constitutional amendment process. This broadened understanding of federal power as tending to the needs of the people has undermined the people’s formerly cherished principle of self-reliance.
Strangely neglected in discussions about preserving constitutional rule, the Helvering decision undermines two essential principles of Anglo-American conservatism, that governments must be limited in their scope of power and that only the people have the authority to grant powers. Once congressional power extends to anything it deems relevant to the citizens’ welfare, limits on governmental power become unclear and may change with congressional or judicial whim. Worse yet, this expansion of congressional power alters the nature of the relationship between the executive and legislative branches. Congress, passing laws to assist in the general welfare, turns over the administration of those laws to the executive branch. The modern president directs and oversees a vast administrative system, giving the executive branch near-complete freedom, subject primarily to checks from the judiciary, to determine how to administer the laws. Congress might pass a law requiring clean air, for example, but it is an administrative agency, which answers to the president but not to the people, that defines clean air, determines what regulations must be in place to achieve clean air, and decides how to enforce regulations the agency itself interprets. Congress ends by abdicating most of its newfound power to an ever more imperial presidency.
No sustained American conservatism—no ordered liberty, no rule of law, and certainly no respect for traditions of self-governing communities—is possible without altering this power arrangement and without establishing clear boundaries and checks on power. A large, powerful, distant government wars against the conditions that foster self-rule and attachment to institutions that ought to connect individuals to their society and their nation. We can expect no truly conservative political regime unless we reclaim the robust power of the people to authorize and limit what governments can do and by what means. If we can understand that the conditions of World War II and the Cold War might have prevented conservatives from giving appropriate attention to this abuse of constitutional powers, we can insist that the time to reclaim our protections against tyranny is now.
Even before World War II, the Roosevelt administration had put in place a set of principles and practices hostile to American constitutional traditions. The reception of these changes, however, was complicated and would shape the coming conservative movement in profound ways. Conservative responses to FDR’s innovations were vigorous and numerous. But among those who grew up during the Depression, their understanding of the New Deal was emotionally complex. Many, like Ronald Reagan, would be critical of certain parts of the New Deal but otherwise see in FDR and his policies a genuine effort to empower the “forgotten man”—to help him, with a job and a safety net, to regain the dignity of being able to take care of himself and his family without “going on the dole.” By the same token, the often forgotten pressures of a life-and-death struggle with Marxist totalitarianism during the Cold War caused most Americans to overlook or accept the ever-solidifying concentration of federal government power in the interests of victory in a long, difficult, and often bloody international struggle. It is to these post–World War II realities that we turn next.