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The Heart of Conservatism

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By Michael Gerson
Wednesday, December 12, 2007

For many conservatives, the birthday of the movement is Nov. 1, 1790 -- the publication date of Edmund Burke's "Reflections on the Revolution in France." Burke described how utopian idealism could lead to the guillotine, just as it later led to the gulag. He rejected the democracy of the mob and argued that social reform, when necessary, should be gradual, cautious and rooted in the habits and traditions of the community.

Some of Burke's contemporaries took these arguments further. "I am one of those who think it very desirable to have no reform," declared the Duke of Wellington. "I told you years ago that the people are rotten to the core." And this affection was returned. Wellington took to carrying an umbrella tipped with a spike to protect himself from protesters.

But there is another strain of conservatism with a birthday three years earlier than Burke's "Reflections." On May 12, 1787, under an English oak on his Holwood Estate, Prime Minister William Pitt pressed a young member of Parliament named William Wilberforce to introduce a bill for the abolition of the slave trade. Wilberforce's research found that the holds of slave ships were, according to one witness, "so covered in blood and mucus which had proceeded from them in consequence of the (dysentery) that it resembled a slaughterhouse." Enslaved Africans on the ships attempted to starve themselves to death or to jump into the ocean. Wilberforce thought this suffering a good reason for reform.

A later conservative, Lord Shaftesbury, fought against conditions that amounted to slavery in British factories, rescued child laborers from chimneys and mines, and worked for improved sanitary conditions in British slums. In 1853, for example, the citizens of Dudley, England, had an average age at death of 16 years and 7 months. "I feel that my business lies in the gutter," said Shaftesbury, "and I have not the least intention to get out of it."

Both Wilberforce and Shaftesbury considered themselves Burkean conservatives; Wilberforce was a friend of Burke's and a fellow opponent of the French revolution's wild-eyed utopianism. Wilberforce and Shaftesbury were gradualists, not radicals. They hated socialism and rejected the perfectibility of man.

But both were also evangelical Christians who believed that all human beings are created in God's image -- and they were deeply offended when that image was degraded or violated. Long before compassionate conservatism got its name, the ideas of compassion and benevolence were central to their political and moral philosophy.

Other conservatives dismissed these reformers as "saints," prone to "fits of philanthropy." But according to historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, these saints and others like them achieved "something like a 'conservative revolution' -- a reformist revolution, so to speak -- that permitted Britain to adapt to industrialism, liberalism and democracy without the violence and upheavals that convulsed the Continent."

And Burke himself had a foot in this tradition. He was an early opponent of slavery, supported reforms to help debtors and opposed discrimination against Irish Catholics. He accused reactionary conservatives of defending "their errors as if they were defending their inheritance." He was deeply critical of those who refused to act because they thought nothing could be accomplished. Burke has been quoted as saying, "Nobody makes a greater mistake than he who does nothing because he could only do a little." In many ways, Burke was a bridge between conservatives of tradition and conservatives of moral passion.

This history is directly relevant to modern debates. In some conservative quarters we are seeing the return of Burkeanism -- or at least a narrow version of it. These supposed Burkeans dismiss the promotion of democracy and human rights as "ideological," the protection of human life and dignity as "theological," and compassionate conservatism as a modern heresy.

But the compassionate conservatism of Wilberforce and Shaftesbury is just as old as Burke, and more suited to an American setting. American conservatives, after all, are called upon to conserve a liberal ideal -- that all men are created equal. A conservatism that does not accommodate the "ideology" of the Declaration of Independence, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. will seem foreign to most Americans. A concern for the rights of the poor and vulnerable is not simply "theological"; it is a measure of our humanity. And skepticism in this noble cause is not sophistication; it seems more like exhaustion and cynicism.

A significant portion of Americans are motivated by a religiously informed vision of human dignity. For them, compassion is not merely a private feeling but a public commitment -- as public as the abolition of slavery or the end of child labor. And they are looking not for another Wellington but for another Wilberforce.

michaelgerson@cfr.org


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