American conservatism is notoriously difficult to define, mainly because of the wide spectrum of contemporary conservative thought. Someone can reasonably call himself a conservative even while subscribing to components of various schools of thought: fiscal and social conservatism, fiscal and social liberalism, hawkishness and dovishness, populism and elitism. Commonly, this breadth of thought leads to misunderstandings among non-conservatives, such as the conflation of conservatives with reactionaries or accusations of hypocrisy when conservatives support vigorous government action. A proper analysis of conservatism must transcend these wrongful caricatures in order to consider the basic characteristics that define conservatives and their political practices.
Conservative theory can be distilled, though non-exhaustively, into three core convictions. Conservatives believe that government actions are not immune from the law of unintended consequences, and that the harm done by “solutions” oftentimes exceeds the problems that they are intended to rectify. Thus, conservatives support limited—though not necessarily small—government. Conservatives also realize that manis a rational actor and that all men are created equal. Therefore, they prefer to delegate problem-solving to the lowest possibledenominator, whether it is a polity, the family, or the individual. This decentralization of power is called subsidiarity. Finally, conservatives seek to conserve what exists and has proven effective. The tried and true is certain, whereas change is volatile and suitable only as a last resort. That is why conservatives are wary of challenges to private property, deviations from the Constitution of the United States, and challenges to the fiscal, moral, or territorial integrity of the republic. The United States is better than the alternative, conservatives believe, so its preservation is imperative. Policies which are inimical to American survival should be avoided at all costs.
These conservative commitments are instinctual as opposed to ideological, but they are the foundation upon which conservatives build their broader intellectual framework. There are five presidents who each possessed the conservative instinct in their own unique manner: Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Grover Cleveland, Calvin Coolidge, and Ronald Reagan. All five were grounded in a general commitment to limited government, subsidiarity, and the preservation of what is tried and true. And most importantly for our purposes, these executives offer crucial insight into conservative practice.
That said, this piece should not be viewed as an endorsement of the presidents outlined or their respective policy agendas. All mortals are capable of error, and these presidents are no exception.
Andrew Jackson: Power for the People
As the first president who was not from Massachusetts or Virginia, Andrew Jackson’s staunchest ideological commitment was his oppositionto rule by the elites. He believed that the people should be the most important decision maker. And he defended constitutional limits on federal power, propelling him toward a distinctly conservative outlook. However, unlike a conservative whose knowledge is theoretical and limited to the academy, Jackson’s belief system was based on his own experiences and practicality. His presidency is a testament to the fact that conservatism can sprout from a populist worldview.
The clearest manifestation of Jackson’s ideology was his crusade against the Bank of the United States, a facility that operated under the auspices of the federal government and received two congressional charters. Tasked with collecting taxes, providing a place for the federal government to deposit revenues, and loaning the government money, the bank also became a major commercial lender and a monopoly of sorts. To Jackson’s chagrin, the bank’s dominance resulted from the government’s deposits and the usability of bank scrip for tax payments—and its lending practices influenced financial conditions nationwide.
This government-sponsored centralization of power was abhorrent to Jackson, as was the bank’s production of paper notes in lieu of gold and silver coins. Jackson believed that states should coordinate banking policy and that a federal institution represented too much power in the hands of too few. When Congress passed a bill to renew the bank’s charter, Jackson vetoed it. On July 10, 1832, he railed against the proposal, arguing that “the present stockholders and those inheriting their rights as successors” were established as a “privileged order, clothed both with great political power and enjoying immense pecuniary advantages from their connection with the Government.” Jackson further exhibited the anti-elitist foundations of his political outlook when, in this same 1832 message, he wrote about his commitment to subsidiarity, limited government, and constitutional conservation. Jackson asserted that the “powers and privileges possessed by the … bank are unauthorized by the Constitution, subversive of the rights of the States, and dangerous to the liberties of the people.”
Jackson then removed the federal government’s deposits from the Bank of the United States and placed them in state banks. This stripped the bank of the capital it needed to be a monopoly and gave fresh life to the Tenth Amendment: “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.” Jackson would justify his actions by arguing that one of the powers not delegated to the federal government is that of banking.
Jackson’s conservatism aside, he is presently controversial because he enforced the Indian Removal Act of 1830; brokered 70 removal treaties, sometimes under questionable circumstances; and activated the forcible relocation of the Cherokee Indians from the Southeast to the Indian Territory. Many conservatives see Jackson’s conduct in this area as abominable, both constitutionally and morally. In a legal sense, the Indian Removal Act—passed at the request of the Jackson administration—was a precursor to later capitulations of congressional authority. It obviously conflicted with the text of the Constitution, which declares that Congress, not the president, “shall have the power to regulate Commerce with … the Indian tribes” (Article One, Section Eight).
Sadly, the consequences of Jackson’s power grab quickly became manifest. As a State Department report notes, the Indian Removal Act allowed “Jackson and his followers … to persuade, bribe, and threaten tribes into signing removal treaties and leaving the Southeast.” There is a reason why conservatives seek to uphold the Constitution: the alternative, the absence of checks and balances, allows for abuses like those perpetrated by Jackson.
Morally, Jackson was wrong to view Native Americans as movable pieces on a chessboard, capable of being shifted according to the needs of Southern planters. Daniel Feller, a professor of history at the University of Tennessee, notes that Jackson “regarded tribes resident within the states not as independent sovereign entities but as wards of the government and tenants-at-will.” This disregard for subsidiarity and individual volition conflicts with the conservative instinct and shows that the Indian Removal Act was a decidedly un-conservative component of Jackson’s presidency.
That said, a sweeping conservative rejection of Jackson would be tantamount to liberals casting aside Franklin Delano Roosevelt because of his unwillingness to protect European Jews and his direct role in interning hundreds of thousands of Japanese. Instead, individuals on the political left exalt Roosevelt—warts and all—because of his success in implementing a progressive agenda. It is also worth observing that nuance-free condemnations of Jackson were rare until fairly recently, even among those who did not see value in his limited-government ethos. As late as 2017, the Virginia Democratic Party sponsored an annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner.
The right may oblige to be less effusive in its praise for Jackson than the left is for Roosevelt. And the right may decline to memorialize him with Jackson-themed dinners as Democrats did just a few years ago. However, America’s seventh president offers a timeless lesson: just as one can become a conservative by studying the works of John Locke or Edmund Burke, the conservative instinct can be a natural byproduct of a populist and practical outlook. And such a perspective can manifest itself in limited-government outcomes.
Abraham Lincoln: Stand Athwart Radicalism
Admittedly, Abraham Lincoln is not commonly identified as a conservative. He is oftentimes presented as a cross between a statist and a revolutionary, someone who exceeded his constitutional powers to achieve egalitarian ends. While Lincoln was not a fanatic for limited government, he was firmly committed to the devolution of power and the conservation of the United States, American political traditions, and the Constitution. Two of Lincoln’s political initiatives—land privatization and the phaseout of slavery—serve as excellent case studies in his conservatism.
In 1862, Lincoln signed into law the Homestead Act. This legislation offered citizens 160-acre parcels of Western land, contingent upon them “improving” the land and residing there for a term of five years. “Homesteaders” claimed 80 million acres and another 420 million acres were acquired by private commercial interests—catalyzing the development of the West at no monetary cost to the taxpayer. Skeptics may argue that the Homestead Act was a socialist handout, but it was actually a large-scale privatization of government assets consistent with libertarian philosopher Murray Rothbard’s homesteading principle: “[T]he way that unowned property gets into private ownership is by the principle that this property justly belongs to the person who finds, occupies, and transforms it by his labor.” By allowing the smallest common denominators—individuals, families, and business interests—to determine the West’s path, Lincoln’s Homestead Act affirmed the conservative commitment to subsidiarity, limited government, and private property.
In 2020, however, Lincoln is not best known for privatizing Western Land, but for waging war against the Confederate States of America, the breakaway republic consisting of 11 former American states. Contrary to the impression that one may develop at first glance, this component of Lincoln’s presidency illustrates his commitment to conservatism—namely, upholding the tried and true in the face of radical and untested alternatives.
It is important to note that the Founders were acutely aware of the moral abomination that is slavery and, as a result, the Constitution allowed Congress to ban the international slave trade starting in 1808. Atop this foundation—the recognition of slavery’s incompatibility with American ideals—arose a carefully orchestrated political order. As Doris Kearns Goodwin explains in Leadership: In Turbulent Times, slavery persisted in the South, but the addition of new Southern states—and the resultant increase in Southern political power—was counteracted by the addition of Northern states. Consider the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which granted statehood to both Maine, a free state, and Missouri, a slave state. The Missouri Compromise also banned slavery north of the 36°30’ parallel. Slavery was kept on life support, but the ultimate trend was toward its abolition and the fulfillment of America’s founding creed: “all men are created equal.”
However, in the years preceding the Civil War, Southern representatives and senators agitated for the addition of new slave states, even pursuing the expansion of slavery north of the line established by the Missouri Compromise. This push led to the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the determination, by popular referendum, of those states’ policies with regards to slavery. Lost was the Founders’ recognition that slavery was a relic of the pre-Enlightenment world that should be contained to locales where its abolition was not immediately politically feasible—and, with it, an inclination toward constitutional and institutional conservation. Instead, the South wanted to conserve the status quo, a different proposition entirely. And the outcomes of this approach were bloody.
The South, which lobbied for the unrestrained spread of slavery in contravention of the political order that prevailed up to that point, was actually the radical actor. On a superficial level, Southerners wanted to preserve a preexisting institution, slavery, by ensuring their political clout; on a deeper level, their aims were antithetical to the pro-freedom trajectory of the United States. Since America’s founding, the country was committed (albeit imperfectly) to the equality of all men before the law. In 1860, Lincoln defended this commitment to the country’s founding principles, by campaigning on his opposition to the spread of slavery. Like his conservative brethren, Lincoln preferred the safety of what was tried and true: the restriction of slavery, with the goal of phasing it out over time.
The takeaway is that conservatism is not necessarily the endorsement of the way things are, but support for what has proven most effective. In Lincoln’s case, the gradual elimination of slavery was far more palatable and workable than the South’s proposal for its enlargement. Therein lies the difference between a conservative and a reactionary.
Grover Cleveland: Just Say “No“
Of the five presidents on this list, Grover Cleveland is the most obscure. From a policy perspective, he is best known as the executive who opposed organized labor at the turn of the century, deploying federal troops to Illinois when strikers led by Eugene V. Debs interrupted the operations of the United States Postal Service. However, Cleveland should be better known as a conservative defined by two of his positions: support for the gold standard and opposition to the earliest manifestations of welfare statism. Cleveland demonstrates that conservatism oftentimes requires “stand[ing] athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so,” as William F. Buckley put it so succinctly in the mission statement for National Review.
Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms, winning in 1884, losing in 1888, and winning again in 1892. He was able to return to the White House partially because of his ardent advocacy for the gold standard, the stability of which was challenged by the widespread issuance of silver certificates under the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890. Once re-elected, he managed to secure the repeal of the Sherman Act and, with it, the preservation of the gold standard that had served the United States so well up to that point. Cleveland thus conserved America’s monetary order.
Cleveland was also a staunch opponent of pensions for Civil War veterans in good health. Half of his 414 vetoes—a presidential record in its own right—were exercised against bills expanding eligibility for pensions. Cleveland also railed against industry-specific federal aid. In a veto message issued in 1887, Cleveland wrote, “Federal aid … encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the Government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character, while it prevents the indulgence among our people of that kindly sentiment and conduct which strengthens the bonds of a common brotherhood.” Inherent to the aforementioned statement is Cleveland’s recognition that federal action is not without unintended consequences, and that the harm done by subsidies—e.g., the inculcation of a sense of reliance—can supersede the suffering that such subsidies supposedly alleviate. Additionally, by acknowledging “the bonds of a common brotherhood,” Cleveland endorsed the spontaneous societal order that results from government non-intervention in the society.
More than a century before Senator Tom Coburn (R., Oklahoma) became known as “Dr. No,” Cleveland showed that conservatives frequently maintain their virtue by boldly rejecting policies inimical to their preferred ends.
Calvin Coolidge: Stand Back
Like Jackson, Calvin Coolidge arose from a hardscrabble backwater—Plymouth Notch, Vermont—and learned at a young age the importance of hard work and thrift. His personal values influenced his politics, steering him toward support for the foundational conservative instincts: limited government, decentralized control, and the conservation of the tried and the true.
And Coolidge notably left behind him a treasury of quotations about the proper role of government, which remain relevant to conservatives and libertarians in the 21st century. For example, in a Cleveland-like endorsement of subsidiarity, Coolidge once professed, “It is very difficult to reconcile the American ideal of a sovereign people capable of owning and managing their own government with an inability to own and manage their own business.”
As president, Coolidge put his money where his mouth was and embodied a wise dictum: “Don’t just do something, stand there.” This doesn’t mean that Coolidge was an inactive president. Instead, it means that he conserved the policies that worked (by “standing in place”), while tirelessly working to change the ones that didn’t. He and his secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon, reduced government limitations on prosperity, namely the sky-high marginal tax rates established in the heat of the First World War. Between 1923, when Coolidge took office, and 1929, when he was succeeded by Herbert Hoover, the top tax rate was reduced from 43.5% to 24%. As outlined by Mellon in his book Taxation: The People’s Business, the philosophy underpinning these cuts was as follows: high tax rates encourage the wealthy to funnel their earnings into tax-exempt government bonds, which shifts capital away from productive use and encourages government extravagance. And Coolidge and Mellon’s tax-reduction initiatives were compounded by deregulation.
Otherwise, Coolidge—determined to allow freely-acting individuals to chart their own courses—oftentimes declined to act and intervened only sparingly in economic and societal matters. As David Greenberg of Rutgers University puts it, Coolidge “frequently deem[ed] restraint to be the wiser course than bold action,” a ringing endorsement of the conservative belief that positive policy outcomes are often supplanted by negative consequences.
Coolidge could not have asked for better results. Between 1923 and 1929, America’s total economic output—i.e., gross domestic product—increased from $802.6 billion to $977 billion in real terms, and real per capita GDP rose from $6,460 to $8,016. In his book Discrimination and Disparities, the Hoover Institution’s Thomas Sowell outlines the real-world benefits of this prosperity: the number of electrified homes increased from 35% (1920) to 68% (1929), the number of Americans who owned a car surged from 26% (1920) to 60% (1929), and stores dramatically increased the range of products available to average Americans. In other words, Coolidge’s rising tide lifted all of the boats.
Critics argue that it was Coolidge’s hands-off approach that catalyzed the Great Depression. As Murray Rothbard explains in Economic Depressions: Causes and Cure, economic prosperity does encourage wasteful investments, which are certain to burst in a properly calibrated economy. This leads to mass liquidations and contraction, as investors attempt to accumulate dollars. This was the case in 1929, when the stock market crashed after nearly a decade of prosperity. However, economies in recession are bound to recover once investors accumulate enough cash to feel comfortable lending again. Sowell notes that absent government action, this point would have been reached in June 1930, when the unemployment rate dipped to 6.3%. However, the initiatives of Coolidge’s successors—tariffs, government-directed projects that misdirected scarce capital, and wage mandates—triggered a spike in the unemployment rate, which remained at 20.7% as late as April 1939.
Because Coolidge’s record is not blemished by an objective assessment of the Great Depression, his demonstration of conservative practice remains relevant in the 21st century. Of these demonstrations, he most importantly showed that the best solution, sometimes, is limiting government intervention in the economy and society. Coolidge is content with sitting back and allowing free-acting individuals to make the choices relevant to themselves, their families, and their communities.
Ronald Reagan: Government Can Be Limited Without Being Ineffectual
Ronald Reagan’s most important lesson is on the distinction between small and limited government. Small government suggests a government with a fixed size and scope, inevitably raising the question of whether the government—emaciated, deprived of resources, and incapable of purposeful action—will be able to fulfill its core function: the protection of the citizens’ life, liberty, and property. On the other hand, a government which is limited is still restrained, but its ability to govern is not handicapped by the absence of resources or jurisdiction. Reagan endorsed the latter form of government, wholeheartedly supporting a contraction in the government’s scope unless it interfered with the proper responsibilities of the state.
Even as Reagan agitated for a reduction in tax rates, demanded the elimination of federal programs he perceived to be wasteful, and extolled a balance between local and federal power, he pushed for increases in defense spending. He had two motivations: the projection of American strength in the face of foreign obstacles and the protection of American lives, liberty, and property.
Thanks to Reagan’s advocacy, military spending increased from $169.9 billion in 1981 to $304.1 billion in 1989. In real-world terms, this meant more tanks for the Army, ships for the Navy, and stealth fighters and ballistic missiles for the Air Force. Since the United States’ buildup prevented the Soviet Union from reducing its defense spending, the Soviets were unable to support their inefficient economy with state aid—helping spur their collapse and the elimination of a longstanding threat against American security. Meanwhile, Reagan challenged Soviet proxies in Grenada, toppling their hold on the island in Operation Urgent Fury, and used retaliatory force to dispel Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s hopes of challenging the United States. And while Reagan’s actual uses of force were relatively minimal, his military buildup kept further threats at bay.
Meanwhile, the cost of Reagan’s initiatives was tempered by his ideological conservatism. While military spending increased massively under Reagan, he ensured that defense would not consume a disproportionate share of America’s gross domestic product by pairing his support for defense with tax cuts and deregulatory initiatives that stimulated economic growth. In 1981, defense spending comprised 5.43% of GDP; by 1989, it had increased marginally to 5.55%.
Through these actions, Reagan demonstrated the important distinction between small government, which can hinder national survival, and limited government, which balances survival with the conservation of the Constitution and other conservative aims.
While the basics of the conservative instinct are identifiable, conservative ideology is often difficult to define. An analysis of each of the aforementioned five presidents allows for a clearer conception of how conservative thought materializes outside of the classroom: conservatives seek to demolish institutional structures that empower the power-hungry and weaken the individual (Jackson), and they are willing to reject policies that conflict with their worldview (Cleveland). In fact, they oftentimes refuse to act at all (Coolidge). However, conservatives are hardly anarchists. They seek to preserve institutions and arrangements that have proven effective (Lincoln), and they are not reflexively opposed to targeted, minimalist, and properly-oriented government actions (Reagan).
In short, conservatives recognize the importance of the smallest common denominator, the individual, while supporting the time-tested institutions essential for his survival and flourishing.
Declan Hurley is the Chicago Thinker’s Publisher and Editor-in-Chief. A rising fourth year at the University of Chicago who is studying Economics and History, Declan is also a small-business owner, the editor of FDL Review, and an active participant in the politics of his home state, North Carolina. He loves to partake in the battle over ideas; and, in his free time, he likes to run, read, and review public-opinion polling.