National Conservatism, Then and Now


Published Summer 2023

National Affairs

As American conservatives increasingly feel the cultural and political headwinds blowing against them, some have begun to mutter, only partially in jest, that it is time to start thinking again about secession. Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, never one to shy away from the spotlight, went so far as to suggest that it was time for a “national divorce,” so that red states could unburden themselves of having to compromise with and foot the bill for those pesky liberals in the blue states.

It would be easy to dismiss such slogans as mere rabble-rousing rhetoric, but Greene was only giving voice to sentiments that have taken broader hold among many conservatives. A poll conducted shortly after her headline-grabbing tweet showed that only 55% of Republicans firmly opposed the idea of their own states voting to secede from the union. In an inversion of political strategists’ hoary maxim, the motto of today’s war-weary conservatives in America increasingly seems to be, “if you can’t beat ’em, leave ’em.”

The feeling that we just don’t belong together is hardly a new one, of course. American conservatives have often had cause to feel like strangers in their own land. “The Land of Promise,” birthed in revolution by the “Protestantism of the Protestant religion,” rolling ever onward toward a seemingly limitless frontier, constantly renewed by fresh waves of immigrants, forever tinkering and experimenting, has appeared for much of its history to be above all the Land of Progress, with little time for even its own traditions. Throughout the nation’s history, authentically conservative statesmen and thinkers have often felt like lonely Jeremiahs, scorned by their countrymen as somehow un-American. Today, the reassertion of a more Burkean conservatism among the national-conservative movement has been greeted as something fundamentally out of step with the liberal and democratic American tradition.

This has led many national conservatives into a paradoxical political stance. On the one hand, they hold themselves forth as the apostles of a renewed nationalism, a political vision that takes pride in the idea of “one nation under God” with a shared history and definite borders, and that entertains anew once mainstream conservative ideas of national development and national industrial policy. On the other hand, many seem painfully aware that this vision does not resonate with large swaths of the country that have abandoned such ideals for either a borderless cosmopolitanism or a balkanized, woke, identity-politics vision. Faced with the implausibility of achieving national-conservative consensus or policy goals on a countrywide scale, many national conservatives have pivoted to federalism, extolling the examples of intrepid state leaders like Florida governor Ron DeSantis for their commitment to establishing havens of sanity within a left-lurching country.

But while national conservatives may hope that Florida could serve as a successful laboratory for future national policy, and that DeSantis could translate his winning formulas from the governor’s mansion to the White House, the fact is that DeSantis’s current political trajectory has at least as much in common with that of George Wallace as with Ronald Reagan’s. Their chosen causes could not be described as morally equivalent, to be sure, but both Wallace and DeSantis gained local support and national notoriety by positioning themselves as guardians of state autonomy against federal encroachment — an encroachment accomplished as much through cultural institutions as political ones. This kind of conservatism seems distinctly anti-national in its strategy, aiming to build a firewall around conservative states that will first insulate them from progressive contagion and then invite refugees from failing blue states to join their red oases.

This paradox is hardly a new one, but the closest historical analog is one that should give today’s national conservatives pause. The Federalist Party, too, embodied a traditionalist Burkean conservatism that stood for property rights, public religion, the rule of law, and a proud sense of nationhood anchored in a noble past. It also positioned itself as the standard-bearer of nationalism against either boundless individualism or sectionalist identities. And yet, despite a promising start as the governing party for America’s first 12 years of constitutional order, the Federalist Party was reduced to irrelevance by 1805 and to virtual nonexistence by 1816.

The reasons for its failure were numerous, and many rested on factors beyond its control. But the most damning was that the supposedly nationalist Federalists allowed themselves to become a sectional party — and worse yet, they leaned into this identity, whispering loudly about the need to consider a national divorce. Although the Hartford Convention of 1814-1815 ultimately rejected the possibility of secession, the mere fact that Federalists had contemplated such a move anathematized them in the minds of many Americans, putting the final nail in the coffin of an already dying political party.

If today’s national conservatives are to enjoy any success at the national level, or even lasting success at the local level, it is incumbent on them to learn from the failures of their forerunners in the Federalist Party, or else they will be doomed to repeat them.

FOUR COUNTERCULTURAL COMMITMENTS

Before considering the grievous strategic missteps of the Federalist Party, it is only fair to consider the stiff opposition that their political worldview encountered in the young American republic — opposition that national conservatives continue to face today. This, in turn, must be understood relative to the four main pillars of the Federalist vision: national cohesion, British roots, the rule of law, and public religion.

The first aim of the founding-era conservatives was to secure a national identity against the fissiparous localism and individualism of early American life. Through the 1780s, many revolutionary leaders worried that Americans were in danger of fundamentally misunderstanding liberty. Edward Rutledge confided to John Jay in the crisis year of 1786: “It is really very curious to observe how the people of this world are made the dupes of a word. ‘Liberty’ is the motto; every attempt to restrain licentiousness or give efficacy to Government is charged audaciously on the real advocates for Freedom as an attack upon Liberty.” The emerging Federalist Party argued that only a strong national state, able to enforce consistent laws and to channel the people’s passions toward a sense of national loyalty, could restrain such false ideas of liberty (which the French Revolution had given fresh fuel).

Forging a stable national identity, however, required boundaries, both against unlimited immigration from abroad and unrestrained emigration westward. Even during the 1790s this was a challenge, as Europeans sought refuge from war and poverty in the thriving new nation and the immense lands between the Appalachians and the Mississippi invited a flood of migrants from the original Atlantic states.

Thomas Jefferson’s pro-immigration policies and the Louisiana Purchase profoundly increased these pressures, destabilizing the settled commitment to place and community that anchored the Federalists’ nationalist-conservative vision. In its place, a frontier mentality began to take hold of the national psyche — a “yeoman’s worldview,” as Daniel Howe describes it, that manifested in an “aversion to taxes and suspicion of all authority.” Such suspicion was particularly directed at the national government, and found political expression in the decentralized ideals of Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans.

Federalists like Alexander Hamilton, however, worried that this lack of national cohesion would make the young nation ripe for exploitation by foreign powers. Accordingly, as part of their commitment to forging and maintaining a national identity, the Federalists pursued a statecraft of national self-sufficiency and development. Central to this was Hamilton’s comprehensive plan for an integrated and self-reliant American economy that would bind the states together and eventually rival that of the European powers.

From the beginning, Jefferson and his followers, committed to agrarian ideals, had fiercely contested these plans as unconstitutional. Although he proved more than willing to embrace a more capacious construal of the Constitution when it suited his own policy objectives, Jefferson bequeathed to two generations of Democratic-Republicans the doctrine that national economic development could only be achieved at the cost of fidelity to the Constitution — a doctrine that readily resonated with the “yeoman’s worldview” of the early republic.

Today, national conservatives have raised anew the banner of reforging national cohesion and pursuing national economic development in the face of growing foreign threats (preeminently from China), but have faced similarly aggressive pushback. This has not necessarily come from progressives — although the left’s embrace of unfettered immigration and borderless globalism certainly has parallels with the Jeffersonian view — but often from self-styled conservatives. The yeoman’s worldview remains deeply entrenched in the American psyche, and during the 20th century, Republicans took over as its chief standard-bearers. Accordingly, the idea of building a national industrial base at the cost of individual economic liberty has met with a decidedly cool reception despite urgent national-security considerations. Forced to choose between a self-reliant nation and a nation of self-reliant individuals, many on the right prefer the latter.

A second key feature of the Federalist worldview was a realistic perception of America as a nation among nations — but one deeply shaped by its British roots and with natural ties of friendship to the mother country. This Anglo-inflected nationalism guided the great feats of American foreign policy during the 1780s and 1790s: the 1783 Treaty of Paris and the 1795 Jay Treaty. During this period, the Federalists successfully asserted America’s independence in the sphere of European power politics while realistically assessing the limitations of its position and aligning the nation’s interests with its cultural roots. The constitutional vision of the early Federalists matched this diplomatic vision: The wisest way to order American government, they reasoned, was to learn from the example of other nations, especially the much-admired British constitution and common law, which they believed ought to shape and guide American political and legal institutions.

In 1800, the incoming Jefferson administration rejected nearly every feature of this vision. For the Jeffersonians, America was not just one new nation among the nations of the earth, but something fundamentally new, with a destiny, as David Hendrickson describes it, “to lead the world from the old to the new.” Hamiltonian state-building, on this reading, was an unwanted throwback to Old World politics that American democracy was ready to transcend, and Federalist diplomacy was a humiliating compromise with the Machiavellian machinations of European monarchy. America, the Jeffersonians believed, ought instead to fiercely assert her identity as the bearer of a novus ordo seclorum, one dedicated to natural rights and free from British influence.

Since no nation represented the noxious shackles of the old order like Britain, the Democratic-Republicans were keen to distance America from political, commercial, and cultural ties to the mother country, aligning instead as much as possible with republican France. They also deplored the overly British features of the American Constitution as relics of monarchy and sought to chart a course toward a purer democratic order. These tensions were heightened by the quarter-century-long Napoleonic Wars and the clashing sectional commercial interests that British maritime policy either harmed or helped. After the War of 1812, despite the pervasive British influence on the American legal and constitutional order, most Americans preferred to think of themselves in terms of their future rather than their past.

Parallels to our own day are not hard to find. For decades now, both left and right have embraced America as the “creedal nation,” a true novum in world history for its rejection of the traditional constituents of nationhood and its pursuit of pure ideals of freedom and equality. America, on this account, is indeed the predecessor of the French Revolution that Jefferson hoped it would be, a place defined by boundless futurism and abstract humanitarianism rather than the sober and mundane historical bonds — language, culture, religion, and law — that link it to its particular past. Such conviction of our status as “exceptional nation” cannot but produce hubris in foreign policy and provoke needless wars, much as the Jeffersonian embargo and obsession with remaining detached from Britain helped provoke the War of 1812.

A third key element of the Federalists’ vision, woven together with their respect for British constitutionalism, was their conservative wariness of rapid change, and therefore their high view of tradition, the rule of law, and the judiciary as guards against the whims of popular democracy. Indeed, the writings of Hamilton and John Adams regarding the French Revolution, while failing to match the eloquence of Edmund Burke’s celebrated Reflections, echoed many of its key arguments and insights.

Jefferson, however, was unabashedly enthusiastic about the French Revolution, and saw his own election in 1800 as a bloodless vindication of the same vision of popular sovereignty. Throughout his tenure as president as well as his long retirement, he railed against the federal judges who thwarted the will of the people. This populism was bolstered by Jefferson’s faith in reason, a reason he believed should be wielded against the prejudices and blindness of earlier ages. For Jefferson’s was a democratic vision of reason, one that paradoxically could blend easily enough with the reflexive anti-intellectualism of frontier America; both reason and “common sense,” after all, could join in rebelling against authority.

In Jefferson’s own South, this unruly impulse was soon quieted by the fear that the slaves might get wind of it. Slavery required stability, and it wasn’t long before Southerners were preaching the sternest forms of Old World hierarchy. In the North and West, meanwhile, the rapid changes unleashed by industrialization and migration profoundly disrupted the social orders beloved of the Federalists and made the rhythms of traditional life and the common law’s ideal of accumulated intergenerational wisdom seem increasingly irrelevant. Within this restless, mobile, and increasingly politically mobilized society, there was not much room for the Burkean ideal of gradual judicial reform. The courts were increasingly despised not as links to the past, but as shackles on the present.

Today, the democratic ethos has carried almost all before it; any attempt by the judiciary to place limits on the exercise of individual rights is decried as tyranny that dares try to turn back the clock of history, as we saw in the reaction to the Dobbs decision. Meanwhile, traditional constitutional restraints on popular whims have steadily eroded as the ballot referendum (its results generally manipulated by massive out-of-state advertising spending) has become the preferred form of enacting legal change. Many national conservatives have felt little choice but to jump on the populist bandwagon, hoping that the sheer common sense of their proposals will ensure their enactment by the most democratic of means. They would do well to remember the Burkean warning that passion and reason are rarely aligned, and the former tends to steamroll the latter unless mediated through resilient legal and constitutional forms.

Finally, a fourth Burkean feature of the Federalist conservatism that dominated the earliest days of the republic was its high regard for the divine dimension of politics — the intimate symbiosis of church and state that served as the best safeguard of public virtue. Despite the First Amendment’s disclaimer of an explicit federal establishment of a particular church, many Federalists saw the public affirmation of America’s Protestant commitments as necessary for the continued flourishing of government and nation.

In his draft of George Washington’s Farewell Address, Hamilton declared, “can we believe — can we in prudence suppose that national morality can be maintained in exclusion of religious principles? Does it not require the aid of a generally received and divinely authoritative Religion?” In Federalist-dominated New England, constitutional establishments of Congregationalist churches persisted for decades, and many saw the freethinker Jefferson, with his love of the French Revolution, as a closet atheist who would destroy American morals. Although this fear was exaggerated, Jefferson certainly did desire to weaken the influence of Protestant Christianity in American public life. Indeed, through the extraordinary authority later accounted to his letter to the Danbury Baptists and its memorable “wall of separation” phrase, he has posthumously succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.

In the early 19th century, though, the Federalist ideal of church and state was undermined less by Democratic-Republican policy and more by the simple logic of religious freedom in a rapidly diversifying society. Even where formal religious establishments were maintained, dissenting denominations received the equal protection of the laws and quickly multiplied at the expense of the old established churches. The proliferation of such new sects, most of which owed their success to laissez-faire policies, made formal alliances of church and state increasingly untenable as the century went on. And although many of the fruits of such partnerships were realized through the new vehicles of voluntary societies and their religious zeal for social reform, these associations, unmoored from traditional restraints, exhibited a decidedly un-conservative perfectionism in their sometimes utopian visions for moral transformation.

Today, we live two centuries downstream of this unraveling of the close partnership between the spiritual and the temporal dimensions of human life. Ours is not, as often alleged, an irreligious age, but merely an unchurched one. The various utopian waves of progressivism have each harnessed powerful latent religious energies, taking shape as millenarian and humanistic perversions of traditional Protestantism. Today’s social-justice movement is no exception; it borrows many of the trappings of revivalist evangelicalism, as Joshua Mitchell has perceptively argued. The difficulty is not that we lack religiosity, but that we have long since pitted religion and authority against one another, and so tend to use the religious impulse as a battering ram against social order rather than, as the Federalists imagined, one of its critical supports.

Today’s national conservatives face a paradox: In their effort to revive this older ideal of public religion, the primary wells of religiosity they have to draw upon are those of unruly and individualistic evangelicalism — readily mobilized as a negative force, but of little proven value in reforging social cohesion and public virtue.

From this survey, it might seem that “this American world was not made for” traditional Burkean conservatism — as Hamilton, one of its leading defenders, famously said of himself. From the beginning, it has faced stiff headwinds in the form of resistance to the very idea of national loyalty and national cohesion, an idealistic and futuristic exceptionalism that struggles to make pragmatic concessions to political realities, a levelling populism, and a fractured and fractious religious landscape that is more likely to use faith to tear down than to buttress social order. If these forces were strong at the dawn of the 19th century, they may seem all but insurmountable in 2023.

Still, the Federalist Party refused the temptation to fatalism, at least at first, successfully helming the ship of state through America’s first dozen tempestuous years as a constitutional republic. The Federalists’ subsequent failure must be laid at least in large part at their own doorstep — and this gives their admirers today some opportunities to learn from their mistakes and hope for a better political fate.

THE FEDERALISTS’ FAILURES

In the end, conservatism failed in the America of the early 19th century because the Federalist Party self-destructed. Indeed, the Federalist Party folded above all because it was not an authentically national party. For a party that had prided itself as the standard-bearer of American nationalism, this was a fatal flaw indeed.

During the critical years from 1797 to 1815, the Federalists faced three key challenges. In each case, they followed the path of least resistance while priding themselves on being men of high principle. And in each case, they declined to muster the imagination and the will to present their vision as an authentically American conservatism that could command the support of majorities across a far-flung republic.

The first and most fundamental failure of the Federalists was their elitism and disdain for democracy, which, like it or not, was the political culture of the nation they had helped forge. Here, their Burkean suspicion of the popular will, however justified, blinded them to political realities and stunted their imaginations. Jefferson and James Madison were elites by any definition, but they knew that political success in a democracy depended on their posing as men of the people. They soon succeeded in consolidating a strong Democratic-Republican majority in the Southern states.

In response, the Federalists quickly abandoned any effort to maintain a strong Southern wing of their party, seeking instead to consolidate in the more winnable North. In so doing, they forfeited the moral high ground. The Jefferson years presented to the country the strange spectacle of a supposedly nationalist party holed up in a sectional enclave and a supposedly sectionalist party commanding national support.

The Democratic-Republicans’ expanding electoral success had much to do with their built-in advantages as a progressive and democratic party in a forward-looking, anti-hierarchical society. They also had luck on their side at many points — the most eminent example being the windfall of the Louisiana Purchase that landed in Jefferson’s lap. But they proved brilliantly adept at capitalizing on their good fortune, while the Federalists rarely turned Democratic-Republican missteps to their advantage. At the root of this failure was Federalists’ unwillingness to soil themselves with the unseemly business of democratic politics.

When the Democratic-Republicans began organizing grassroots political clubs in the early 1790s, Federalists responded with a horror that seems comical in retrospect. The prominent Federalist Oliver Wolcott, Jr., insisted that the groups were “unlawful” because they were “formed for the avowed purpose of a general influence and control upon the measures of government.” George Washington went further, worrying that these groups would “shake the government to its foundations.” Where the Federalists saw sedition, we are liable to see the first seeds of organized democratic politics. Committed as they were to rule by the best men in the enlightened national interest, the Federalists proved extremely slow to cultivate grassroots popular support of their own. Instead, they imagined that the public would simply come around of its own accord to the wisdom of their measures. But with each passing election cycle, their share of votes dwindled.

Reflecting on these blunders years later, Fisher Ames wrote: “Federalism was…manifestly founded on a mistake, on the supposed existence of sufficient political virtue, and on the permanency and authority of the public morals.” The Jeffersonians, by contrast, “acted on the knowledge of what men actually are, not what they ought to be.” Unable to square their pretensions to aristocratic virtue and vision of a republic governed by rational public-spiritedness with the crude electioneering tactics needed to mobilize newly enfranchised lower classes, the Federalists quickly found themselves unable to win elections even within their regional stronghold. In 1804, Jefferson carried Massachusetts, and by 1807, Federalists in the state could not even hold onto the governorship. For a time, conservative leaders sought to stem the tide of mass democracy by clinging to property qualifications for the vote. They would have done better to read the national mood, embrace popular democracy, and undertake the hard work of rendering their message intelligible and persuasive to ordinary voters.

Second, the Federalists did not respond well to the challenge of national expansion. We have noted already how quickly they allowed themselves to become pigeonholed as the sectionalist party of New England rather than an authentically national party. This was in no small part due to the Federalists’ own self-fulfilling prophecies as they faced the prospect of the nation’s rapid western expansion. Fearful that a frontier society would undermine their moral and political values, they engaged in futile efforts to contain America’s frontiers rather than adapting their message to this brave new world of limitless plains beyond the mountains.

The Louisiana Purchase was a political gift from the gods to Jefferson on multiple levels. By doubling at a stroke the size of the American republic, it not only gave an immense boost to Jefferson’s prestige, but to the long-term electoral prospects of the Jeffersonian Republicans. Whereas the Federalists had envisioned an America of orderly, comparatively densely populated communities united by physical proximity, commercial interdependence, and economic development, the Republicans preached the yeoman ideal of self-sufficient farmers widely spread across the fertile soils of America, with little need for activist government to coordinate their activities. The Louisiana Purchase promised to dramatically reduce or at least limit America’s population density, encouraging a constant stream of westward migration into the frontier. As new states organized further west, they were far more likely to reflect the hardy individualism of Jeffersonian ideals than the hierarchical communities or commercial interdependence envisaged by the Federalists. Even on the Atlantic seaboard, the constant drain of out-migration was sure to prove socially and politically disruptive.

The Federalists understandably fretted about what such migrations might mean for the nation they had envisioned. Would a country so sprawling be able to hold together as a single republic? Their worries were less principled, however, than they liked to pretend; what really kept Federalist leaders up at night was the inevitable occlusion of New England’s own influence that Louisiana promised to accelerate.

Understandable as these worries were, they ultimately reflected a lack of courage and imagination on the part of Federalist leaders. One of the party’s great elder statesmen, John Jay, had long foreseen that America’s future lay westward, writing in 1779:

Extensive wildernesses, now scarcely known or explored, remain yet to be cultivated, and vast lakes and rivers, whose waters have for ages rolled in silence and obscurity to the ocean, are yet to hear the din of industry, become subservient to commerce, and boast delightful villas, gilded spires, and spacious cities rising on their banks.

The small-minded Federalists of the early 1800s, on the other hand, quailed before the vastness of the new nation opening up before them, preferring instead to retreat into their New England bastion.

Unable to conceive of the technological transformations that would knit Americans together more tightly than ever before even as they spread across longer distances, they doubted the plausibility of a national conservatism for a nation as large as the United States threatened to become. Possessed by such apprehensions and indignant that such a man as Jefferson should gain prestige from the purchase, they staunchly opposed it on exactly the sort of strict-constructionist constitutional grounds that they had dismissed just a decade earlier, doing themselves few favors in the court of public opinion.

Third, the Federalists were not up to the challenges posed by the global conflict between European powers. The final death stroke of the Federalist Party, as most students of American history know, was the Hartford Convention of 1814-1815, which confirmed in the minds of the American public the perception of Federalism as an unpatriotic sectionalist New England cabal friendlier to America’s enemies than to its government. This event, however, was simply the capstone of a long series of trials and missteps the Federalists endured during the quarter-century-long struggle between Britain and France.

Given the deep colonial and commercial ties binding both powers to the New World, America could not easily steer clear of the conflict, even in the absence of her cultural debt to the former mother country (which Federalists tended to stress) and her debt of gratitude to France for its assistance in the fight for independence (on which the Democratic-Republicans constantly harped). For many Americans, France represented America’s own struggle for republican freedom, and Britain the authoritarian hierarchy they had just escaped. By extolling America’s cultural and commercial ties to Great Britain, Federalists were soon perceived as closet monarchists, cheering on the reactionary policies of the nation that just a decade before had been brutally repressing America’s own bid for liberty while spurning the nation that had helped it win independence. Jefferson and his emergent Democratic-Republican Party brilliantly exploited this perception, twisting the knife of public opinion into the Federalists at every opportunity.

Even when the Federalists’ vision of foreign policy was vindicated time and time again — in the Reign of Terror, the XYZ Affair, and the outbreak of the War of 1812 and America’s dismal performance in it — they managed to keep losing in the court of public opinion. After all, in politics it is not enough to be right; it’s perception that matters. And public perception was much quicker to pick up on a fact that often eluded New England’s Federalist leaders: that alignment with Great Britain rather than France served New England’s commercial interests and helped line the pockets of its politicians. Convincing themselves that they stood for principle alone and that their principles would soon be vindicated, Federalist statesmen could not understand why so few of their countrymen were willing to let Revolutionary-era bygones be bygones.

The War of 1812 encapsulated and intensified this disjunction between perception and reality. In hindsight, it is not hard to see the war as the ringing vindication of two decades of Federalist warnings: that Britain would not forever tolerate American merchants’ connivance in evading her wartime blockade of France, that America was in no fit state to antagonize Britain, and that if Jefferson and Madison persisted in a belligerent foreign policy, they at least ought to properly prepare for war by investing in an American army, navy, banking system, and industrial base. Instead of vindication, however, the War of 1812 brought the Federalist Party’s final disgrace.

By intensifying public patriotism, war generally puts opposition parties in an unenviable position; even if the outbreak of war is the chief executive’s fault, there is little political capital to be gained from finger wagging. And to continue to oppose the war after its outbreak can be a recipe for political suicide, since it cannot but seem treasonous. Once more, the Federalists exhibited a startling blindness to these political realities, naïvely trusting that, simply because they knew themselves to be acting in the national interest, the country would see it that way, too. The increasingly narrow sectionalism of the Federalist Party compounded the problem. For most Americans, Federalist opposition to war looked like a naked assertion of New England’s interests, to which the Federalists were willing to sacrifice the last shreds of American honor.

When the Federalists convened at Hartford in December and January, bad political judgment and terrible luck combined to ensure the party’s final demise. With the war seemingly a disaster and Madison’s credibility in tatters, the convention debated a series of proposals to redress what they saw as the constitutional flaws that had contributed to the party’s political marginalization. Although these proposals proved comparatively modest, the public had already been primed by intemperate Federalist rhetoric to see the gathering as a treasonable conspiracy likely to end in secession. The Federalist commissioners managed to arrive at the White House just as the news of Andrew Jackson’s stunning victory at the Battle of New Orleans reached the president — meaning their proposals were not only dead on arrival, but also that the Federalists had managed to position themselves as unpatriotic defeatists at the very moment the young republic was vindicating its independence by force of arms.

In the aftermath of the war, a chastened Madison began to implement many longstanding Federalist recommendations for strengthening the national defense, treasury, and industrial base. But the Federalist Party was in no position to benefit from this belated vindication.

LESSONS FOR OUR TIME

Today’s America may seem to bear little resemblance to the Jeffersonian era, with its comparatively narrow horizons and seemingly archaic concerns. But history does manage to repeat itself just enough for a backward glance to prove instructive.

Once again, nationalist-minded conservatives find themselves tempted to hole up in sectionalist enclaves and whisper about the possibility of secession, while their globalist, identitarian, and individualist adversaries seem far more adept at reading the country’s mood and setting a national political agenda. Just as their Federalist predecessors dismissed the Southern states as a lost cause and focused on maintaining a regional power base, many Republicans today have written off more than half the country as liberal loonies and are actively encouraging a geographical sorting of political affiliations, inviting conservatives in blue states to emigrate to red strongholds.

To be sure, conservatives may not be competitive in statewide races in California or New York for the foreseeable future. But rhetoric and perception still matter. If Republicans make no effort to appeal to voters across the country or to govern for the nation as a whole, they too may find support eroding even among their base. One cannot pose as a champion of American patriotism while not-so-quietly wishing that half the country would go to hell. National conservatives today also seem torn, as Federalist leaders were, between the demands of democratic politics and their high-minded ideals. There is nothing wrong with high principles, but if you’re going to engage in politics at all, you must find ways to translate such principles into policies and slogans that appeal to ordinary Americans across a broad demographic and ideological spectrum.

Once again, conservatives face a world in which old boundaries seem to be dissolving, in which the ordered rhythms of national life seem to wither in the face of limitless frontiers and expanding trade, and in which their political opponents are not afraid to try and add new states to the union (the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico in our day) to improve their electoral prospects. We should be grateful for conservatives’ recent push to take boundaries and borders seriously after decades of free-trade follies; however, there is a fine line to be walked here. Conservatives must have the courage to tell their constituents that there is no going back to the “good old days”: We live in an interconnected and porous world, American demographics will continue to change, and the future looks a lot more like Miami than Mayberry. If conservatives cannot square their agenda of domestic renewal with America’s global role, and cannot find ways of making their core messages appeal to diverse groups of Americans, the GOP too will go the way of Mayberry.

Finally, although we have thankfully been spared the specter of a world war thus far this century, the conflict with Russia and escalating tensions with China have posed conundrums for many national conservatives. The war in Ukraine in particular, despite obvious differences, poses some intriguing analogues to the Napoleonic Wars. In both conflicts, one nation posed as the representative of liberal democratic ideals — liberty, fraternity, and equality — whereas the other symbolized for many a throwback to an earlier era of illiberal imperialism. In both conflicts, progressives in America rallied to the cause of the former, almost swooning in admiration for its leaders and pledging America’s support to her noble cause. In both conflicts, this sense of American solidarity with freedom fighters abroad was part of a larger vision of America as an “empire of liberty,” whose ideals transcended all borders and limitations. In both wars, nationalist conservatives sounded the alarm about viewing complex foreign conflicts through rose-tinted spectacles, stressed that American power is a scarcer resource than we might like to think, and insisted that such power must only be deployed when urgent American interests are at stake. And in both cases, conservatives were pilloried in the press as sympathizers with authoritarian regimes abroad.

There is, of course, only so much that one can do against a hostile press, and once a conflict has been narrated as a simple battle of good versus evil, anyone calling for nuance is liable to be framed as an apologist for evil. But this is all the more reason to tread with greatest rhetorical care, giving no hostages to fortune when called to voice unpopular opinions. Instead, many national conservatives have ham-handedly made excuses for Vladimir Putin and expressed open admiration for aspects of Xi Jinping’s China, all while calling for a neo-isolationist withdrawal from all foreign commitments whatsoever. This is not a winning strategy.

GLIMMERS OF HOPE

Thankfully, however, all is not doom and gloom. The lessons of Federalist failures in the early republic also carry a glimmer of hope. For while Federalism clearly imploded as a party, it managed to win remarkable victories as a policy agenda. By the 1820s, many Federalist proposals had become the law of the land: a national bank, internal improvements knitting together the growing nation, protections for domestic industry, a realist foreign policy that hewed closer to Britain than to France, and a legal regime that ensured a strong national government anchored in traditional English common law.

This was in large part the result of an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach. John Quincy Adams was the most prominent example of this movement, abandoning his father’s Federalism for a series of positions in successive Democratic-Republican administrations, until at last in 1824 he was in a position to reframe the party in a more nationalist and conservative mold. At the same time, from the outset of Jefferson’s presidency in 1801, the Democratic-Republicans found themselves “mugged by reality,” forced to accept the necessity and wisdom of Federalist policies they had formerly opposed, and even, grudgingly, to adopt Hamilton’s notion of implied powers in the Constitution.

Compelled to reckon with the bankruptcy (literal and figurative) of Democratic-Republican trade, industrial, and defense policies during the War of 1812, Madison emerged from the war something of the pragmatic nationalist that he had once been back in 1787. Together with his brilliant Treasury secretary Albert Gallatin, he embraced a quasi-Hamiltonian program of national development, culminating in the charter of the Second Bank of the United States in 1816. Although somewhat haltingly and inconsistently, James Monroe continued this trajectory during his two terms in office, authorizing spending on internal improvements that would bolster American economic self-sufficiency and help knit the far-flung nation together.

Most significant, though, was the nearly five-decade Federalist dominance of the federal judiciary, which ensured that the conservative vision of Christian common-law constitutionalism and vigorous national authority would sink its roots deep into the virgin soil of American jurisprudence. Here in the third branch of the federal government, the Federalist faith in the power of ideas over popular passion paid off. Although disgruntled Jeffersonians might mutter that the nationalist-conservative dominance of the judiciary was the result of Adams’s barrage of midnight appointments — most famous among them that of John Marshall as chief justice of the Supreme Court — the Federalism of the high court stubbornly persisted in the face of Democratic-Republican appointment after appointment, as new judges found its doctrines irresistibly compelling. The most notable among such converts was Justice Joseph Story, a Massachusetts Republican appointed by Madison in 1811 who would become Marshall’s staunchest ally, and, through his magisterial 1833 Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, offer perhaps the most eloquent and comprehensive statement of a Burkean national conservatism in the early American republic.

This judicial success is certainly a lesson that conservatives have taken to heart. Over the past several decades, the conservative legal movement has worked tirelessly to place strong conservative judges on the bench and educate jurists about the principles that have sustained the American experiment in ordered liberty. If anything, the right has been in danger of relying too heavily on this strategy, forgetting that judges are people too, and are unlikely to stand firm if the culture is shifting radically under their feet. If their stances are unpopular enough, they may even be ignored by politicians claiming to champion the popular will, as Andrew Jackson showed in the face of the Marshall Court’s opposition.

The infiltration strategy of men like John Quincy Adams, however, is one that may seem almost unimaginable in our era of hyper-partisanship. Should conservatives really seek to serve within progressive Democratic administrations, rather than attempting to thwart them from the outside? And even if they wanted to, is there any chance that they would be allowed to? Perhaps, perhaps not. And yet there are smaller ways in which this strategy might be emulated.

Consider, for instance, that on issues of trade policy and national security, Trump-era heterodoxies are well on their way to becoming a bipartisan consensus. The Biden administration has taken an increasingly hardline stance against China and prioritized the rebuilding of domestic supply chains — much the way Madison and Monroe quietly adopted many elements of Federalist economic and foreign policy. Faced with this development, conservatives can either throw stones from the sidelines to reinforce partisan distinctions, or else jump on board and look for ways to help steer the ship of state in the right direction.

Too often, conservative prophecies of their own irrelevance can prove self-fulfilling, as the lessons of the Federalist Party show. Convinced that the winds of change are blowing hard against them and that their old-fashioned ideas will never resonate with a majority of the electorate, they hole up in their sectional sandcastles and pronounce sage maledictions upon the rising progressive tide. But winds and tides never run in the same direction forever, and the wise statesman, like a seasoned mariner, knows how to make the most of even unfavorable conditions.

It may be that national conservatives, now as then, are in some measure not made for “this American world” — that there are biases deep in the American psyche against reckoning with the limits and limitations that are the constant theme of the Burkean tradition. Yet if true, this simply means that conservatives must learn to be far more careful and cunning than their adversaries, not less, shrewdly adapting their message to the concerns of the electorate without losing sight of their principles.

And they must, above all, refuse to despair of the American people or write off large swaths of the country as a lost cause or an alien people. It was, perhaps more than anything else, Hillary Clinton’s un-American dismissal of red-state voters as “deplorables” that doomed her politically. By embracing a de facto sectionalism, GOP leaders are in danger of making the same mistake in reverse. There is, to be sure, no guarantee that an attempted national-conservative revival will succeed in the face of the forces arrayed against it. But if it fails, let it not be from self-inflicted wounds; let it not be from a lack of faith in its own country.

Brad Littlejohn is a fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and president of the Davenant Institute. He thanks the Edmund Burke Foundation for sponsoring much of the research for this essay.

Picture from Unsplash


Brad Littlejohn, Ph.D., is a Fellow in EPPC’s Evangelicals in Civic Life Program, where his work focuses on helping public leaders understand the intellectual and historical foundations of our current breakdown of public trust, social cohesion, and sound governance. His research investigates shifting understandings of the nature of freedom and authority, and how a more full-orbed conception of freedom, rooted in the Christian tradition, can inform policy that respects both the dignity of the individual and the urgency of the common good. He also serves as President of the Davenant Institute.

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