Adam I. P. Smith: The Conservatism of Revolution

Smith: The Stormy PresentToday we welcome a guest post from Adam I.P. Smith, author of The Stormy Present:  Conservatism and the Problem of Slavery in Northern Politics, 1846–1865.

In The Stormy Present, an engaging and nuanced political history of Northern communities in the Civil War era, Adam I. P. Smith offers a new interpretation of the familiar story of the path to war and ultimate victory. Smith looks beyond the political divisions between abolitionist Republicans and Copperhead Democrats to consider the everyday conservatism that characterized the majority of Northern voters. A sense of ongoing crisis in these Northern states created anxiety and instability, which manifested in a range of social and political tensions in individual communities.

The Stormy Present is available now in both print and e-book editions.


The Conservatism of Revolution

In what Herman Melville called the “Red Year” of 1848, when barricades went up in European capitals and the old order seemed to teeter on the brink of collapse, a writer in a religious publication noted a new development in American political language. The terms “conservatives” and “conservatism” were now used so frequently that it “becomes a matter of some surprise, how our predecessors managed to dispense with them so generally.”

My own reading of the newspapers, books, letters and speeches in the Northern states in the nineteenth century amply backs up this empirical observation: the invocation of “conservative men” or “conservative principles” was talismanic. Self-described conservatives dominated public life. Even those who sought radical changes in American society often felt the need to argue that they embodied “true conservatism” while their opponents traded in “false” or “pretended” conservatism.

Conservatism, in the American nineteenth-century meaning of the term, wasn’t exactly an ideology and certainly not a political program. Nor even—confusingly from our perspective—did it suggest any opposition to liberalism or progress.

But if so wide a spectrum of people wanted to be seen as conservative, what could the term possibly mean? Conservatism, in the American nineteenth-century meaning of the term, wasn’t exactly an ideology and certainly not a political program. Nor even—confusingly from our perspective—did it suggest any opposition to liberalism or progress. Editors wrote quite comfortably of “progressive conservatism, or which is the same thing, conservative progress.” Conservatism clearly did imply positive character traits like “manliness”, respectability, or moderation. Most of all, however, the ubiquity of conservatism reflected the peculiar character of the United States as a post-revolutionary society. When Americans in this period looked at the challenges they faced—whether of immigration, rapid urbanisation, or slavery—they almost always saw them through the prism of defending the revolutionary settlement which had given them, as they saw it, a society of unparalleled economic and political opportunity. And since they believed their popular government was unique, Northerners were always acutely conscious of their place in the world. To be an American in the mid-nineteenth century was to be in the vanguard of the global struggle between the rights of man and the power of tyrants. The enemies of popular self-rule were at home as well as abroad, not least among the slaveholding class of the South.

So Northerners were conservative in defense of a social and political order which to Europeans seemed radical (either inspiringly or dangerously so according to one’s perspective). This was a peculiarly post-revolutionary conservatism, but conservatism nonetheless for it implied defense of established institutions and opposition to reckless experiment or radical disruption.

So if so many Northerners thought of themselves as “conservative” – albeit while disagreeing about so much — what implications does this have for our understanding of the Civil War? It reminds us that the path to revolutionary change—and military abolition was certainly a revolutionary transformation—can be paved by millions of men and women who could never have imagined themselves in that situation.

The Lincoln administration’s emancipation policy was deeply divisive within the North, but its supporters rallied in the name of conservatism. Before the war, most Northerners disliked slavery to a greater or lesser extent but only a tiny number of radical abolitionists thought that it was a pressing enough moral problem to justify overriding its constitutional protections. The rebellion changed that calculus fundamentally: now slavery was waging war on the Union, the conservative course was to destroy it—both because that was the right thing to do morally, but also because it was necessary for national survival. “Our chief fighters are our chief conservatives,” argued Harper’s Weekly shortly after the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation had effectively transformed the means of the conflict. Since the war as directed by the President was now “the only way to preserve our liberties,” only “demagogues and radicals” could oppose it.

But if Northerners, on the whole, supported emancipation from conservative convictions, that also explains why when the war was over their commitment to racial equality was so tragically limited. It explains why Northerners celebrated the end of the war using the language of preservation and vindication more than of transformation or revolution. And in the end, the conservative mind-set of Civil War era white Americans helped later generations to see the war as a subject of celebration rather than as a bitterly unfinished process of revolutionary change.


Adam I. P. Smith is senior lecturer in U.S. history at University College London.  You can follow him on Twitter, and visit his blog here.