Revisiting the Intellectual Foundations of Conservatism — One Book at a Time

by Suzanne Munson

From time to time, members of every great movement such as American Conservatism need to stop, take a breath, and see where the movement is going. Great movements, founded by great individuals, can sometimes be hijacked by lesser minds.

Many of the founders of modern conservatism were intellectuals. William F. Buckley was able to criticize liberalism articulately from the foundation of a fine education, intellectual curiosity, and deep reading.

While there are knowledgeable thought-leaders in today’s conservative movement, there are others who call themselves conservatives who may be giving the movement an unfortunate image.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines conservatism as “a political philosophy based on tradition and social stability, stressing established institutions, and preferring gradual development to abrupt change.” Much more can be added to this definition, such as limited government, fiscal responsibility, and a belief in traditional, wholesome values.

It is interesting to examine a recent incident in Florida to see where some who term themselves “conservatives” have created an embarrassing situation. Members of a book club, reported to consist of conservative members, rescinded an invitation to a respected author to speak to their group.

The program was a book and author event at $100 a plate, so one would assume some level of education and sophistication. Rachel Beanland, a well-regarded Richmond, Virginia author and teacher, was invited to speak about her new novel, The House Is on Fire.

She had spent hundreds of hours researching the tragic theater fire of 1811 in which some of Virginia’s most prominent citizens perished. The book features individuals, real and imagined, who resided in Richmond at that time–tradesmen, theater workers, politicians, slaves, doctors, widows.

Yes, there are slaves in the book and yes, their lives were difficult, and yes, some white characters in the book treated them poorly. What else is new? There were white characters in the story who also had poor treatment at the hands of other whites. There is always plenty of trouble to go around in an interesting novel.

This is a work of historic fiction, written primarily for the adult market, not for school study. At the end of the book, the author is careful to explain the difference between historic facts and fiction. When she gives talks about her work, Rachel is anything but inflammatory. She speaks primarily about the writing process. She is delightful.

When her invitation was withdrawn, the reason given was not the quality of her writing or speaking, but something else:

This is Florida and our politics around the Black community, the history of the Civil War, and education in general are…complicated.

It was thought that her book, including the misfortune of several slaves, might make some conservative attendees “uncomfortable.”

So, reading between the lines, these book lovers were not going to tolerate a work of adult fiction that envisions some problems that enslaved individuals might have had in 1811. Not quite as bad as Holocaust denying, but on the same path.

How did some, who call themselves conservatives, get to this low point intellectually?

The movement to examine literature started gradually, with good intent. Some people were concerned about what students might be reading: the perceived indoctrination of victimhood in the teaching of American history, a lack of proper honor paid to the legacy of the Founding Fathers, and the introduction of inappropriate issues too early in a child’s development.

This led to book-banning. Some books are certainly improper for young readers. And certainly, the regrettable history of slavery should be recognized honestly, including a worldwide, historic perspective, but not turned into a doctrine of perpetual victimhood.

But the movement didn’t stop there. Good books were banned that should have remained on the shelves for curious minds. Low-information activists, in the name of conservatism, have created a vigilante mentality that is driving many good educators from the profession during a time when they are most needed.

Smart conservatism is also being hijacked by certain media talking heads who represent themselves as conservatives but who are primarily interested in ratings and in making money, by keeping viewers and listeners ginned up and hungry for red meat. Some of these individuals have been proven untruthful, but devoted followers are addicted to the negative energy. Knowledgeable conservatives should seek higher ground.

During the 20th century, schools of journalism were organized to counter “yellow journalism,” information that was clearly biased and often untruthful. Future journalists were taught to present facts and events as objectively as possible. Inserting one’s personal opinion and slanting coverage according to political partiality violated the cardinal rule of honest journalism.

Yet, today some liberals as well as some conservatives tend to gravitate to biased news sources that show only one simplistic side of complex issues, focusing on personalities rather than principles. Often, these viewers are not exposed to ideas from the other side that may have validity. Public figures of the opposite persuasion are demonized. Extreme partisanship and media hype are poisoning friendships and family relationships across the country.

Perhaps it’s time for more well-reasoned, well-educated, and well-motivated conservatives to upgrade the conversation and also to become more involved in the political process. This means getting off the golf course and engaging in rational public discourse.

For starters, consider attending precinct meetings, then state and national political conventions. Encourage excellent people to run, and support them. Democracy is not a spectator sport.

Suzanne Munson is an historian who lectures frequently at the university level on the legacy of Virginia’s Founding Fathers, including a talk on “America’s First Leadership Crisis.”