Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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CONSERVATIVE, a name generally adopted in free countries by the party opposed to sudden innovations. It is sometimes known, also, as the party of resistance. In England the conservative is almost identical with the tory party. The reform party was represented formerly by the whigs; but for sometime past a third party, known as the radicals, has existed. The whigs now form a sort of middle party between the radicals and the tories.


—In France, under the monarchy of 1830, the name conservative was given to the party which supported the moderate politics practiced by Louis Philippe and his ministers. It was not really conservative in one sense, for it adopted the principles of the revolution of 1830, which excluded the elder branch of the Bourbons from the throne; but, within the limits of constitutional order founded by this revolution, it really merited the title, because it was occupied in preserving existing institutions while progressively developing them. It was against this party that the revolution of 1848 was organized, which established the republic in France, and which succeeded in re-establishing the empire at the end of three years. The time has not come to judge these events historically. Let it suffice to state, that, immediately after the fall of the constitutional monarchy, a conservative republican party was formed; and, immediately after the fall of the republic, a conservative imperial party. A similar thing happened with reference to the government which came into power after the revolution of Sept. 4, 1870. It is the essence of all governments to preserve their own existence, first of all. In republics having a less ephemeral existence than in France, such as Switzerland and the United States, there is also a conservative party, which assumes various names, but always with the same end in view. This party is sometimes victorious and sometimes beaten at elections, in proportion as the public mind inclines to novelty, or goes back to tradition. But it is especially in monarchies that the conservative spirit shows itself, because, in a certain sense, it is manifested in a person representing hereditary power. It is extremely difficult to lay down rules in a matter of this kind. The spirit of conservatism is obliged to conquer or yield, according to circumstances. Carried to excess, it becomes the triumph of immobility: reduced to helplessness, it leaves a dangerous void in society. All that may be laid down as a general rule is this: that, the less political liberty a country enjoys, the more dangerous conservatism is; and the freer a country the more salutary does the conservative spirit become. In the first case it represents the permanence of oppression; in the second it represents order, the first condition of liberty. It is for this reason that constitutional monarchies offer the best conditions of government yet known. Side by side with a broad liberty they place great stability. On examining the history of England we find that reform parties obtain power only at long intervals, and retain it but a short time. The conservative party maintains ascendency most of the time, and loses it only to re-appear with renewed force. In this way the need of change is reconciled with the need of stability, which is no less essential. When a new idea appears it is taken up by enthusiastic minds, but there are as many chances of its being bad as good. The instinctive resistance of the conservative party permits examination, discussion, putting to the proof. This delay is productive of more advantage than inconvenience, for, though it delays real progress somewhat, it gives time to separate the false from the true. In fine, when a new and correct idea has carried the day, the conservative element knows best how to repair the breach made, and bring it into harmony with the whole national organization. If, on the other hand, no organized force is opposed to innovations, all things are in question every day, the most unfortunate experiences follow each other, a universal unrest seizes on men's minds. Whenever the past is not respected, confidence in the future disappears, for, as M. de Maistre has said, time respects only that which it has founded. Nothing is more contrary to the material and moral progress of a nation than the continual feeling of uncertainty.


—The chief seat of conservative power in a constitutional country is generally in the second chamber, called the senate, or chamber of peers. The constitution of this body may vary: it may be hereditary, as in England; elective, as in Belgium; for life, as recently in France; but, in all countries, it is prudent to have one as a check to the precipitate action of a single house. Even in the United States and Switzerland this necessity has been felt. But the wisest institutions are of no avail unless public opinion guards itself against its own fancies. Quid leges sine moribus? It is useless to insert legal restrictions in a constitution: they will endure but a short time if national passions pay no attention to them. The mode of action most opposed to the conservative is the revolutionary. Popular as it is in our day, it is rarely for good. Seldom can a nation applaud itself for having caused a revolution. It is better to wait patiently for the success of legitimate improvements than to break down every obstacle at the first blow. The most obstinate conservative party does not resist forever; it ends by yielding to the pressure of necessity; but, unfortunately, to attain this result, it is necessary, while working for the legal triumph of one's opinions, to have a mixture of decision and patience, of firmness and moderation, rarely met with in nations. A revolution seems the shortest way, although in reality it is the longest. There is no constitution in which resistance is more firmly organized than in England. The house of lords, besides having an absolute veto on all propositions of the commons, has a considerable influence in the house of commons itself, through the electors of the counties. Still, all the wishes of the commons have been embodied in laws whenever they have been maintained with persistence, without commotion, without revolutions, by the sole power of lawful weapons. For England liberty is a broad river which respects its banks. One of the most striking examples of the opposite disposition was shown in France during the revolution of 1848. In England the house of commons struggled for many years to obtain the electoral reform: it had to endure several adjournments. In France the electoral reform was on the eve of finding a majority in the chamber of deputies, and the chamber of peers had not power enough to stand in its way. The triumph of the reform was sure within a short time, without meeting one-half of the delays and difficulties which it encountered in England. There was not patience enough to wait for a few months, perhaps a few days. It is true that those who demanded the electoral reform in England wished only for electoral reform; while in France the majority of those who asked for reform wished for a revolution, and those who did not, allowed it to come. Never has France proved more clearly her lack of that conservative instinct which animates all English society, as well the reform as the conservative party itself.


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