Conservative Perspectives of Political Outsiders
IN THIS ARTICLE
Western conservatism is often conceived as the philosophy of large landowners in the past and business executives in the present. Heightened awareness of racial and class disparities in recent years has increased the perception that conservatism is the ideology of the elite. In this paper, I will explore the conservative philosophies of three individuals who contradict this notion: Cicero, Edmund Burke, and Alexander Hamilton. I argue that conservatives consider their in-group to be those who share their values and traditions, and those traditions and values are their most salient identity. Disruption to the status quo set by these traditions does not derive from the rise of individuals from lower stations to higher stations, but rather from the rise of individuals who oppose the traditions that define the in-group. Therefore, the advancement of men like Cicero, Burke, and Hamilton is not inconsistent with conservatism. To the contrary, it is consistent with the ideology because these men exemplify the values of their societies and consider those values to be their most salient identities, rather than their origins.
“Conservatism is only as good as what it conserves.”1 This sentiment, articulated in the aptly-titled essay Why I Am Not a Conservative, has long been shared by those whose class, race, or other immutable characteristics place them outside the dominant class established by tradition and preserved by conservatives. Recent leftist activism in the United States in particular and the West in general has criticized universities, museums, and numerous cultural institutions for conserving a tradition dominated by “old white guys”—one which they do not consider worthy of such conservation due to its exclusivity.2 While the notion that conservatism is an ideology by and for the elite is ancient,3 so too are examples of individuals from non-elite backgrounds who devoutly espouse conservative ideas. Though their critics accuse these “outsiders” of insincerity and abandonment of their identity in exchange for personal advancement,4 a further examination of the writings of Cicero, Edmund Burke, and Alexander Hamilton—all born outside the elite of the states they came to shape— indicate that such a cynical understanding of “outsider conservatives” is both overly simplistic and incorrect.
While liberal philosophers like John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau contemplated the nature of man and his original state as a universal concept, conservatives like Cicero, Burke, and Hamilton wrote about their men—that is to say, the Romans, the British, and the Americans, respectively. Rather than concerning themselves with the trajectory of humanity as a whole, these writers considered the histories and futures of their cultures specifically and understood these cultures to be transmitted through shared traditions and values. These shared traditions and values are what defines the culture, as Burke describes when he delineates the differences between the English people and their culture in comparison to the French people and theirs.5
Because tradition and national character, not individuals, are the focus of conservative thought, the elevation of some individuals of lower status within the culture does not inherently threaten conservatism.6 What is dangerous to the essence or sine qua non of a culture, which conservatives prize above all else, is the elevation and advancement of ideas at odds with the culture’s traditions and values. Thus, Rome was much more threatened by the Gracchi brothers or Publius Clodius Pulcher, who advanced populist concepts that struck at the heart of Roman tradition and social order, than it was by the a consul like Cicero, who had been born an Equestrian but clung to the virtues entrenched in the empire and cherished Romanness for its own sake.
Cicero, Burke, and Hamilton were indeed outsiders by birth, but they went to great lengths to guard the distinctive characteristics of their cultures and to avoid disruption to what they understood to be the central values thereof. Their primary loyalty was not to the identity that separated them from the aristocracy, but with the traditions and culture they had in common with it from early in life. The preservation of these traditions and the culture they built were advanced earnestly, not cynically, as these men considered themselves members of the culture they aimed to conserve long before they considered themselves to be members of any sub-group within or without it.
An Equestrian, an Irishman, and an Orphan
Marcus Tullius Cicero (“Cicero”) (106-43 BCE), the oldest of these three writers, was born to an Equestrian family, a class which fell beneath the Senatorial standard typically required for entry into Roman political life.7 Rather than the inheritance enjoyed by most of his peers in the Senate, Cicero rose through the study of law and remarkable rhetorical skill to the height of Roman politics as consul in 63.8 Regardless of his status as a novus homem (“new man,” in reference to his comparatively lower-class origin), Cicero’s sympathies in both his writings and his political career aligned with conservative senators, known as Optimates, and the height of his rhetorical power is preserved in the Catiline Orations—a series of condemnations of Cicero’s populist rival, Catiline, who campaigned on the cancellation of debts and redistribution of property.9
Like Cicero, Edmund Burke (1729-1797) was born to a family outside the center of his empire—specifically, in Ireland rather than England, and to a family of Catholic origin, which threatened to lock Burke out of Protestant-controlled political life.10 Unlike many Irishmen and contemporary political figures (namely, Dr. Richard Price, who is directly referenced throughout Reflections on the Revolution in France11), Burke did not consider the status of Ireland as “a special problem in imperial regulation”12 or the recent American and French Revolutions as justification for an alleged right of the English people “[t]o choose [their] own governors, [t]o cashier them for misconduct, [and] [t]o frame a government for [themselves].”13 Persistently averse to drastic change, even when such change would benefit men like himself, Burke hewed closely through his career to his statement that it is “better to be despised for too anxious apprehensions, than ruined by too confident a security.”14
As of 2015, Alexander Hamilton has re-entered American culture as a self-made legend: “A bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean…[who] got a lot farther by working a lot harder, by being a lot smarter, by being a self-starter.”15 Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical does not hesitate to emphasize Hamilton’s outsider status; before marrying into a powerful and wealthy New York family, Hamilton was an illegitimate child and then an unwanted orphan passed off from home to home in the British West Indies.16 Like Burke, Hamilton supported the American Revolution wholeheartedly (and risked his life in battle for its sake), but nevertheless resisted the structural innovation and wider democratization advocated by French-influenced Democratic-Republicans.1718 Hamilton’s rivals long criticized him as a secret monarchist,19 and he did little to assuage these anxieties when he proposed lifetime terms in the legislature20 and judiciary.21
Sine Qua Non: A Conservative Approach to Defining Identity
Edmund Burke wrote that “circumstances…give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing colour, and discriminating effect. The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind.”22 Cicero did not contemplate the ideal government for all men when he wrote The Republic; he searched for the ideal government for Romans.23 Alexander Hamilton did not aim to describe a government fit for any situation other than that of the new United States as it struggled under the Articles of Confederation, and spends most of his fifty-one Federalist Papers referring to uniquely American concerns.24 This shared specification in political writings provides insight into the thinking of the above-mentioned figures: they were not nearly as concerned with the nature of man, the state of nature, or the ideal government in a hypothetical context as they were with the particular and contextualized needs of their society.
Notably, Cicero, Hamilton, and Burke were politicians first and philosophers second, if they would consider themselves the latter at all. All three had extensive careers in political office, and writing was most often employed when the men were prevented from addressing something through wholly political means, such as when Hamilton needed to persuade Americans to use the political process in favor of the Constitution or when Cicero was in exile. These three men also each had legal careers before entering public life and were thus educated in the importance of details and specifics for their cases and, later, for the passage of legislation. This is particularly true of Cicero, who was a student of Philo and the New Academy, which explicitly sought to “combat rash claims of certainty” (though such moderation is hard to find in the Catiline Orations).25
Conservatives’ focus on the nature and governing of their particular group begs the question: What is the sine qua non of this culture? What made an Englishman an Englishman to Burke; an American an American to Hamilton; or a Roman a Roman to Cicero? Though each man would, of course, respond differently, the connective tissue between their ideas remains relatively similar. Cicero, Burke, and Hamilton all emphasized the values, traditions, and uniqueness of their cultures heavily.
In The Republic, Cicero goes so far as to imagine a heavenly afterlife made by and for virtuous Romans and espouses it through Scipio Aemilianus, who was adored by Roman conservatives for his military accomplishments and long dead by the time Cicero’s work was written.26 Burke frequently speaks of the English to the exclusion of the French, contrasting the two cultures as if they are different breeds and barely stops short of using such blunt terminology.27 These particular values and traditions are not only exclusive and, arguably, partially innate to those within the culture; they must be actively preserved by those with the position and knowledge to do so. In Hamilton’s words, “[w]hen occasions present themselves in which the interests of the people are at variance with their inclinations, it is the duty of the persons whom they have appointed to be guardians of those interests to withstand the temporary delusion.”28
Conservatives perceive inherent value in “preserv[ing] a close conformity to the practice of their ancestors” because this preservation is what makes one a part of the same culture as their ancestors.29 Unlike Burke, neither Cicero nor Hamilton came from or wrote as citizens of a nation based on bloodlines and traditional territory. Both Rome and the early United States were vast and diverse, and both emphasized membership to a nation-state over membership to an ethnicity or religious group. The “ancestors” Burke speaks of, thus, are ancestors in thought and norm for Cicero and Hamilton more than they are ancestors in any literal, genealogical sense.
The ancestors that conservatives emphasize—from Scipio30 to William and Mary31—are stewards of tradition from whom norms have proceeded and who embodied the intellectual lineage traditionalists seek to preserve. Conservatives understood themselves to be inheritors of a great tradition, one unique to their culture and people. This tradition served the purposes of defining these men and their culture, serving as a guide for the future, giving them a sense of meaning and a place in history, and providing a blueprint for how to bring up new generations of men like them, who would observe the tradition, steward it, and eventually pass it as their ancestors had inherited it. Inheritance and stewardship of this cultural tradition lies at the heart of conservative identity.
Mind Over Matter: What Constitutes a Threat to Tradition and Culture
If tradition and cultural identity are the core of conservative thought, then dramatic social and cultural change are its natural threats. It is necessary to note that conservatives are not inherently opposed to all change, as “a state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.”32 Rather, conservatism is threatened by change that leads to a transformation of a peoples’ identity and culture, which they perceive as an irreparable loss.
Cicero vehemently opposed populist leaders who sought to alter the fundamental social order of Rome, even as he advanced beyond his original position within that social order. In his political career, this is epitomized in his aggressive destruction of Catiline and his supporters and subsequent appeal to “concord between the classes” in place of class consciousness.33 The year he authored The Republic, Cicero’s political career centered around opposition to land reform set up by Tiberius Gracchus, whose program for redistribution Cicero considered “the beginning of the end of the Roman Republic.”34
Critically, Catiline35 and the reformist Gracchi brothers36 were born into the aristocracy to families of considerably higher status than Cicero’s Equestrian class.37 The threats they posed to the Roman Republic were clearly tied to their populist impulses rather than their origins. By contrast, Cicero uses Scipio as a mouthpiece for traditional Roman values in The Republic.38 Scipio was an acclaimed war hero beloved by conservatives in Rome for his victories in the Third Punic War and in Spain; he was also a relative of the Gracchi brothers.39 It was the ideas and cultural symbolism of these different men, not their connected bloodlines, that made one a pillar of virtue and the others existential threats in Cicero’s writings.
Burke is arguably best remembered today for his vehement opposition to the French Revolution as it is preserved in Reflections on the Revolution in France: “[The Jacobins’] liberty is not liberal. Their science is presumptuous ignorance. Their humanity is savage and brutal.”40 Yet Burke’s support for the English41 and American Revolutions42 indicate that he was not universally opposed to change—so long as he perceived that change as a correction back towards the traditional order. The threat posed by Dr. Price and his contemporaries was due to their taking “the deviation from the principle for the principle.”43 To Burke, change is properly employed when it is rare and targeted at the reformation of a specific issue—like taxation in the American colonies44 —but should not be considered the norm, as the goal of culture and government are to preserve one’s cultural inheritance rather than to transform it.
The horror with which Burke observed the French Revolution was rooted in the wholesale destruction of not only France’s monarchy, but its norms, traditions, manners, and values. The newly formed French government was primarily composed of those who neither knew nor valued French tradition,45 and such an intentional and complete disruption of tradition broke “the whole chain and continuity of the commonwealth…No one generation could link with the other. Men would become little better than the flies of a summer.”46 To Burke, the French Revolution was a source of revulsion and fear, as French culture’s most foundational principles and basic underpinnings, from its Estate structure to its calendar, were uprooted and replaced by a reign of terror with no promise of stability to come or new culture to emerge and be transmitted to the coming generations. This, in the conservative mind, is the creation of the ultimate “lost generation”: Frenchmen who are as isolated from their ancestral traditions and unmoored from their identities as “flies of a summer,” and thus doomed to an equally insignificant and atomized existence.47
Unlike Burke and Cicero, Hamilton did not come to power in an established empire: he helped to build one. Born in one British colony and later fighting for the independence of another, Hamilton’s brand of conservatism is necessarily different from those of his predecessors.48 His writings, while arguably less easily classified as conservative than Cicero’s and Burke’s, nevertheless demonstrate that “conservative revolutionary” is not an oxymoron.
While the United States itself was being born, Hamilton understood himself to come from a tradition and a culture rooted in England and its laws. As a lawyer, he was intimately familiar with English law, and began his career defending the recently defeated Loyalists who remained in the new country after the American Revolution.49 Hamilton’s deep appreciation for English law, and his understanding of the importance of continuing both the legal and cultural tradition established during colonization, are evident in The Federalist Papers, of which he wrote fifty-one essays.50
Like Burke, Hamilton did not consider the American Revolution to be a cause for uprooting everything the English had planted, but for pruning away its imperfections. The conservative prizing of stability and a distinguished class of leaders is most evident in Federalist No. 72 and Federalist No. 78, in which Hamilton advocates for lifetime tenure (with good behavior) for both executives and jurists.51 Hamilton argues in Federalist No. 72 that lifetime tenure is key to attracting the best men to public office, which is necessary for the best government; like Burke’s warning that the French National Assembly would doom the body before it passed any laws because it was composed of uneducated and unskilled men, Hamilton understood the necessity of putting the best men in the highest offices.52 To forbid lifetime tenure—which Hamilton’s rivals considered to be tantamount to monarchy53—was a both waste of America’s resources and a threat to the perfection of its culture: “Would it promote the peace of the community, or the stability of the government to have half a dozen men who had credit enough to be raised to the seat of supreme magistracy, wandering around the people like disoriented ghosts, and sighing for a place which they were destined never more to possess?”54
The conservatism delineated by Cicero, Burke, and Hamilton begins with three fundamental understandings: First, that belonging to a unique culture is the core of one’s identity; second, that culture is to be preserved and transmitted through traditions; and third, that adherence to those traditions is inherently valuable and virtuous. With culture, rather than the individual, as the locus of traditional conservatism, the elevation of individuals like Cicero, Burke, or Hamilton, who did not belong to the traditional ruling class was not inherently a threat to the established order, so long as those individuals sought to preserve that order and identified primarily with their particular cultural identity than with any sub-group within that culture, such as class or religion. Their advancement and espousal of conservative ideas was therefore not only earnest, but consistent with their own understanding of their cultures and governments. By contrast, the elevation of ideas that cut at the fabric of cultural identity—land redistribution in Rome, revolution in Europe, or excessive democracy in America—posed a threat regardless of who advanced them. Ironically, those advancing such radical ideas, such as Clodius or Thomas Jefferson, were often born into higher status than the men who sought to guard their cultural traditions against any such change.
The development of conservative ideas has fanned widely since Hamilton’s death in 1802.55 Yet many of the threads one can follow through the writings of Cicero, Burke, and Hamilton are identifiable in conservative parties and movements today. Samuel P. Huntington’s theory of a world composed of different “civilizations” that are innately different from one another and ascribe to values and interests inherently at odds with one another echoes Burke’s distinctions between Englishmen and Frenchmen.56 Though it is not always referenced by name, Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” theory has risen to new prominence in the wake of mass migrations across cultural lines.57 Conservative parties have been eager to prevent such cross-cultural migration and frequently frame it as an existential threat to the preservation of the unique culture of their homeland.58
The last forty years have also ushered in a new generation of powerful “outsider conservatives” who ignite at least as much controversy as Cicero, Burke, and Hamilton did, and whose sincerity is similarly questioned. Margaret Thatcher was born a grocer’s daughter in a non-descript town over a hundred miles from the center of power in London, and rose through the British Conservative Party to win three consecutive terms as prime minister—the only politician to do so in the Twentieth Century—and “became, by personality as much as achievement, the most renowned British political leader since Winston Churchill.”59 Clarence Thomas, the staunchly conservative Supreme Court Justice, was abandoned by his father at age two, raised by a single mother working as a maid, and grew up in the segregated American South.60 Most recently, conservative jurist Amy Coney Barrett, mother of seven and now the only Supreme Court Justice not to have attended an Ivy League university, is widely expected to “undo decades of the progress that Justice Ginsburg worked her whole life to achieve” in favor of advancing conservative principles.61 Whether or not these latest examples are cynically exploiting optics for their own advancement or sincerely align themselves with their traditional culture—at times, to the exclusion of loyalty expected by other members of their class, race, or sex—may remain to be seen. However, Margaret Thatcher’s life and career both ended without indicating any such ploy at work, and Justice Thomas’s numerous opinions during a lifetime tenure suggest they are more similar to Cicero than Caesar.
Though modern Western conservatism differs from the thinking of Cicero, Burke, and Hamilton significantly, the two schools of thought are not divorced. At the core of conservatism are identity and value: A conservative sees himself first and foremost as a Roman, an Englishman, or an American, rather than a human, an Equestrian, a Catholic, or an immigrant, and he sees this as a fundamentally good thing. In spite of increasingly popular critical theory and a rising emphasis on other sources of identity, Cicero, Burke, and Hamilton demonstrate that “outsider conservatives” are neither oxymoronic nor dishonest. They are, first and foremost, those who “wish to derive all [they] possess as an inheritance from [their] forefathers.”62
1.) Friedrich A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (1960).
2.) Sohrab Ahmari, Professor’s Rant Against “Old White Guys,” Wall Street Journal, Apr. 15, 2013 at https://www.wsj.com/video/opinion-professors-rant-against-old-white-guys/62C24DE5-FB49-441A-A97C-C0B26DF155DC.html.
3.) Vittorio Bufacchi, Populism and the Politically Excluded: Lessons from Ancient Rome, 21st Century Global Dynamics, May 2018 at https://www.21global.ucsb.edu/global-e/may-2018/populism-and-politically-excluded-lessons-ancient-rome.
4.) Jessica Valenti, The Myth of Conservative Feminism, N.Y. Times, May 19, 2018 at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/19/opinion/sunday/conservative-feminism.html.
5.) Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, 201-07 (1790).
6.) See id. at 99-207.
7.) Cicero & Niall Rudd, The Republic and The Laws, xi (1998).
8.) John Ferguson, Marcus Tullius Cicero: Roman Statesman, Scholar, and Writer (2020), https://www.britannica.com/biography/Cicero.
10.) Charles William Parkin, Edmund Burke: British Philosopher and Statesman (2020), https://www.britannica.com/biography/Edmund-Burke-British-philosopher-and-statesman.
11.) Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, 93 (1790).
13.) Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, 99 (1790).
14.) Id. at 92.
15.) Alexander Hamilton, All Musicals (2020), https://www.allmusicals.com/lyrics/hamilton/alexanderhamilton.htm.
16.) Poole College of Management, A Brief History of Alexander Hamilton (2020), https://poole.ncsu.edu/undergraduate/global/hamilton-scholars/a-brief-history-of-alexander-hamilton/.
18.) John Ferling, How the Rivalry Between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton Changed History, Time Mag., Feb. 16, 2016 at https://time.com/4210440/jefferson-hamilton-excerpt/.
20.) Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 72: The Same Subject Continued, and Re-Eligibility of the Executive Considered (1788), https://guides.loc.gov/federalist-papers/text-71-80#s-lg-box-wrapper-25493464.
21.) Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 78: The Judiciary Dept. (1788), https://guides.loc.gov/federalist-papers/text-71-80#s-lg-box-wrapper-25493464.
22.) Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, 90 (1790).
23.) See Cicero & Niall Rudd, The Republic and The Laws, 3-94 (1998).
24.) Publius, The Federalist Papers (1788), https://guides.loc.gov/federalist-papers/full-text.
25.) Cicero & Niall Rudd, The Republic and The Laws, xiv (1998).
26.) Cicero & Niall Rudd, The Republic and The Laws, 86-94 (1998).
27.) Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, 201-07, 163 (1790).
28.) Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 71: The Duration of the Office of the Executive (1788), https://guides.loc.gov/federalist-papers/text-71-80.
29.) Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, 103 (1790).
30.) Cicero & Niall Rudd, The Republic and The Laws, 3-94 (1998).
31.) Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, 101-12 (1790).
32.) Id. at 106.
33.) John Ferguson, Marcus Tullius Cicero: Roman Statesman, Scholar, and Writer (2020), https://www.britannica.com/biography/Cicero.
34.) Cicero & Niall Rudd, The Republic and The Laws, xviii-xix (1998).
35.) Catiline: Roman Politician (2020), https://www.britannica.com/biography/Catiline-Roman-politician.
36.) Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (2020), https://www.britannica.com/biography/Tiberius-Sempronius-Gracchus.
37.) John Ferguson, Marcus Tullius Cicero: Roman Statesman, Scholar, and Writer (2020), https://www.britannica.com/biography/Cicero.
38.) Cicero & Niall Rudd, The Republic and The Laws, 3-94 (1998).
39.) Howard Hayes Scullard, Scipio Africanus the Younger: Roman General (2020), https://www.britannica.com/biography/Scipio-Africanus-the-Younger.
40.) Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, 174 (1790).
41.) Id. at 99-108.
42.) Charles William Parkin, Edmund Burke: British Philosopher and Statesman (2020), https://www.britannica.com/biography/Edmund-Burke-British-philosopher-and-statesman.
43.) Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, 107 (1790).
44.) Charles William Parkin, Edmund Burke: British Philosopher and Statesman (2020), https://www.britannica.com/biography/Edmund-Burke-British-philosopher-and-statesman.
45.) Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, 136-42 (1790).
46.) Id. at 193.
47.) Id. at 193.
48.) Poole College of Management, A Brief History of Alexander Hamilton (2020), https://poole.ncsu.edu/undergraduate/global/hamilton-scholars/a-brief-history-of-alexander-hamilton/.
49.) Alexander Hamilton (2017), https://www.biography.com/political-figure/alexander-hamilton.
50.) Publius, The Federalist Papers (1788), https://guides.loc.gov/federalist-papers/full-text.
52.) Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, 136-42 (1790).
53.) John Ferling, How the Rivalry Between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton Changed History, Time Mag., Feb. 16, 2016 at https://time.com/4210440/jefferson-hamilton-excerpt/.
54.) Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 72: The Same Subject Continued, and Re-Eligibility of the Executive Considered (1788), https://guides.loc.gov/federalist-papers/text-71-80#s-lg-box-wrapper-25493464.
55.) Alexander Hamilton (2017), https://www.biography.com/political-figure/alexander-hamilton.
56.) Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order (1996).
57.) Ana Isabel Xavier, The (New) ‘Clash of Civilizations’: Migration and Terrorism, E-International Relations, Apr. 24, 2018 at https://www.e-ir.info/2018/04/24/the-new-clash-of-civilizations-migration-and-terrorism/.
58.) Katie Reilly, Here Are All the Times Donald Trump Insulted Mexico, Time Mag., Aug. 31, 2016 at https://time.com/4473972/donald-trump-mexico-meeting-insult/.
59.) Hugo Young, Margaret Thatcher: Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (2020), https://www.britannica.com/biography/Margaret-Thatcher.
60.) Brian P. Smentkowski, Clarence Thomas: United States Jurist (2020), https://www.britannica.com/biography/Clarence-Thomas.
61.) Lara Bazelon, Amy Coney Barrett Is No Ruth Bader Ginsburg (2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/26/opinion/amy-coney-barrett-nominee.html.
62.) Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, 117 (1790).