Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Origins of Conservatism: Setting the Stage


 Conservatism emerged as a coherent ideology in the late 18th and early 19th centuries from the social and political conflicts experienced by by European civilization and its provincial outposts in North America. The most violent conflicts occurred in France, where a revolution in 1789 drew all of Europe and even the newly independent United States into the vortex of war. With the defeat of the French Revolutionaries and the restoration of monarchy in France, the victors began to articulate an ideology in support of the social and politcal order that emerged. They called it conservatism.

These conflicts arose over the relative role of monarchy on the one hand, and the role of different orders of society in government on the other.


European monarchies arose from the ruins of the Roman Empire. Germanic tribes overran the empire Western Europe. These tribes assumed responsibility for governing authority in their locality. The leaders of these tribes gradually evolved into a landed nobility of feudal lords and eventually formed the basis for the European aristocratic orders.

The local control enjoyed by various princes and feudal lords eventually began to give way to hereditary monarchies. Stronger Lords began expanding their political and legal jurisdiction, backed by military force. They also secured control of the Church within their domains.They hoped to establish their regimes into organized, hereditary monarchies that would last beyond their lifetimes. The more successful included the Tudors in England and the Valois in France.

These early kings often met "in court" with his vassals. These assemblies of kings and their vassals evolvd into “representative” bodies known as estates-general in France, diets in the German principalities, cortes in Spain, and parliaments in England. In some countries, representatives from the emerging commercial towns attended. They enabled the king to strengthen his rule by utilizing the nobility not only as a source of revenue, but also as an instrument for carrying out policy decisions.

These assemblies did not represent individual citizens or voters. They represented the orders or “estates of the realm.” In England, the House of Lords represented “Lords Spiritual and Temporal” and the House of Commons represented the nation as whole. In France, the estates-general met in three bodies: The First Estate representing the higher clergy, the Second Estate representing the nobility, and the Third Estate representing the commoners. In both England and France, however, the so-called commons were largely led by affluent landed families and few of the new commercial middle class.

As the next post will suggest, the conflicts which gave birth to conservative ideology started between monarchs and the aristocracy. These conflicts were not over views of society. They were not about whether the desirability of social conservation or social change.

They were about who should rule.

1 comment:

Mrs. AL (Always Learning) said...

Thanx for the post, RD. History is fascinating, eh? Looking forward to your next post. When I return and re-read this post, will ask any Qs if I have them.