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The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities Throughout American History [Hardcover]

Patrick Allitt
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

May 26 2009

This lively book traces the development of American conservatism from Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Daniel Webster, through Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Herbert Hoover, to William F. Buckley, Jr., Ronald Reagan, and William Kristol. Conservatism has assumed a variety of forms, historian Patrick Allitt argues, because it has been chiefly reactive, responding to perceived threats and challenges at different moments in the nation’s history.

While few Americans described themselves as conservatives before the 1930s, certain groups, beginning with the Federalists in the 1790s, can reasonably be thought of in that way. The book discusses changing ideas about what ought to be conserved, and why. Conservatives sometimes favored but at other times opposed a strong central government, sometimes criticized free-market capitalism but at other times supported it. Some denigrated democracy while others championed it. Core elements, however, have connected thinkers in a specifically American conservative tradition, in particular a skepticism about human equality and fears for the survival of civilization. Allitt brings the story of that tradition to the end of the twentieth century, examining how conservatives rose to dominance during the Cold War. Throughout the book he offers original insights into the connections between the development of conservatism and the larger history of the nation.

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"This is a spirited and scouring intellectual history, likely to become a minor classic.  What is called 'conservative' is shown to be a uniquely American core of convictions repeatedly summoned to hold the fort against waves of Europeanizing assailants."—Charles Hill, Hoover Institution, Stanford University
(Charles Hill)

"Patrick Allitt has written a perceptive, rigorously balanced, and richly panoramic account of conservative ideas and thinkers in American politics and culture since 1787.  This is a welcome indeed, necessary book."—George H. Nash, author of The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945
(George H. Nash)

"Allitt shows how 'conservatism' has an American history best understood in terms of its fluid meanings, plural definitions, and oppositional currents."—David Hoeveler, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

(David Hoeveler)

"Allitt's writing is lively, and he has a gift for summarizing the complicated ideas he deals with in this welcome history."—Leo P. Ribuffo, George Washington University

(Leo P. Ribuffo)

“[Allitt’s] sketches are on target, quick, and well done. … Professor Allitt has succeeded in his goal. He writes with vigor, clarity, style, enthusiasm, and high intelligence. He obviously enjoys his subject thoroughly, and it must be a great pleasure to take his courses.”—The American Conservative
(American Conservative 2009-08-01)

"Thus the book's main benefit: One learns a lot without being either lectured at or pandered to."—Mickey Edwards, Boston Sunday Globe

(Mickey Edwards Boston Sunday Globe 2009-06-12)

"Patrick Allitt has succeeded admirably in his objective of producing a compact survey of American conservative thought that will be useful to students and general readers. The Conservatives features excellent succinct summaries of key conservative thinkers, going back to the Founding era, ably conveying along the way the inconsistencies and internal divisions on the right."—Steven F. Hayward, The Weekly Standard

(Steven F. Hayward Weekly Standard 2009-08-17)

"[This] wideranging, briskly written survey of the American Right from the founding era through the end of the 20th century is no conservative history of conservatism in the sense of an attempt to vindicate a conservative viewpoint against others, nor is it a liberal debunking exercise. Rather, it is a descriptive account, situated at the crossroads of intellectual and political history, that seeks to allow the various strains of conservative thought in America to emerge in the context of the political debate of their time."—Tod Lindberg, The National Review

(Tod Lindberg National Review 2009-08-10)

"Tracing the origins of American conservatism is a challenge, especially when the very term itself was not generally acknowledged by its practitioners until the mid-20th century. In The Conservatives, Patrick Allitt has taken on the task and drawn the conservative lineage from this nation's founding to the present day."—Wes Vernon, The Washington Times

(Wes Vernon Washington Times 2009-08-21)

“Allitt’s generally unbiased and objective treatment of conservative thinkers and ideas through the decades is one of the best ever produced.”--Stephen F. Hayward, Claremont Review of Books
(Stephen F. Hayward Claremont Review of Books)

About the Author

Patrick Allitt is Goodrich C. White Professor of History and Director of the Center for Teaching and Curriculum at Emory University. He lives in Atlanta.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Customer Reviews

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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars On the Burkean Conservative Tradition Aug. 28 2009
In this important historical survey, Professor Patrick Allitt seeks to explore the intellectual tradition of conservatism as experienced in the U.S. and its impact on the political and economic scene. Its opposition to a liberal tradition which according to William F. Buckley is philosophically incoherent, lacking in moral foundation, suppressive of individual freedom, fetishizes doubt rather than standing firm on the certain truths, and believes in the power of the state to engineer equality and social progress.

In my opinion, Allitt does a great job emphasizing and exploring the historical construct and etymology of the term "conservatism" and what it actually means. Not until the 1950s did conservatives themselves refer to their ideology as "conservative" and therefore we must be careful in its use.

In my opinion, Allitt's analysis is especially strong during the revolutionary and antebellum era. The intellectual tradition established by Henry Clay and Daniel Webster of the Whig Party in opposition to the populist swagger of Andrew Jackson is very well explored, if a little short. By the time Allitt reaches William F. Buckley I think the book begins to feel a little rushed. The confluence of traditionalism, libertarianism, and communism could certainly fill several books, but Allitt is unfortunately only able to partially explore them fully. In this way, Allan J. Lichtman's "White Protestant Nation" does a better job exploring conservatism in the context of the later half of 20th century America.

With the ascent of a liberal, progressive, Democrat now in the White House, there has been much recent discussion about where the conservatives go from here, this book is a good primer on how they got to where they are now. Therefore, I recommend this as mandatory reading for all those who considers themselves conservatives.
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Extremely well written and easy to read Sept. 15 2009
By Winston
A non-partisan history of the Conservative movement. As a non-American conservative, I've always looked at the US conservative movement of the 2nd half of the twentieth century to draw my own lessons. The author has written a very well balanced history book about the ideas/persons of the Conservative movement since the beginning of the republic. I enjoyed it and above all, its simplicity in story telling was of great value. I liked it. 5/5
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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars You can't get much more fair-minded than this Sept. 22 2009
By Christopher Barat - Published on
If you're interested in reading a history of American conservatism that comes neither to panegyrize nor pathologize, then this may be the book for you. Allitt's fair, dispassionate account of various strains of conservative thought throughout American intellectual history keeps on the high road throughout, touching upon present-day debates when necessary but focusing on ideas first and foremost. Allitt identifies the following as characteristic of American conservatism:

1. an attitude to social and political change that looks for support to the ideas, beliefs, and habits of the past and puts more faith in the lessons of history than in the abstractions of political philosophy;
2. a suspicion of democracy and equality, more specifically, the confusion between the notion of men as being legally and politically equal and being equal when it comes to virtues, abilities and talents;
3. the view that civilization is fragile and easily disrupted and we need virtuous citizens to keep our civilization whole;
4. the desire for a highly educated elite as guardians of civilization.

That's as elegant a summary of basic conservative ideas as I've ever read. Of course, being in academia, I know that we've got a "highly educated elite" in place; the problem is that too many of them are on the other side.

Liberals are especially encouraged to read this book. The first step to good debate is knowing and respecting where your opponent gets his ideas from.
33 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Historical Perspective of American Conservatives June 3 2009
By CT - Published on
Patrick Allitt had essentially given a scholastic survey of historical figures he considered to be conservatives throughout the American history. Starting from the Founders of the American republic to the present day modern conservatives, Allitt tells their ideologies, personalities and what make them to be American conservatives in a lively manner. I recommend this book to any general reader who has interest in the history of American conservatism. In this book, I find it fascinating how the clashes of ideas within American conservatism played out in history. Overall, this is a very good book that gives the historical perspective of American conservatives.
23 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Timeless History June 26 2009
By Daria Snadowsky - Published on
The worst thing about no longer being a student at Emory University is not being able to take Dr. Allitt's history classes anymore. Luckily, he keeps writing incredible books with universal appeal that even non-historians like me can enjoy. And with his latest opus, THE CONSERVATIVES, Dr. Allitt raises the bar even higher. No wonder Booklist awarded it a starred review.

With his signature wit and insight, Dr. Allitt has created an endlessly fascinating, remarkably thorough, and completely unbiased history of notable conservative figures and movements in the U.S. During a time when merely the word "conservative" can have polarizing effects, Dr. Allitt tackles this normally controversial subject with no agenda other than to provide a gripping, well-researched overview of an ideology that has figured largely in this country's past, from our Founding Fathers right up through 9/11.

Best of all, THE CONSERVATIVES escapes the fate of far-too-many scholarly works which overwhelm with names, dates and boring facts. Dr. Allitt's book is so deftly-paced and structured that it reads more like a non-fiction "great American novel" than an exemplary and definitive historical treatise, which it is.
4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Easy to like, very educational Dec 29 2009
By Pat Gunn - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Allitt's book made the history entertaining and educational without sacrificing either. It is admirable that he handled a complex topic without oversimplification; this is as a go-to book for understanding some of the traditions of American history. It is (usually) fair to the movements it describes (although it is a bit snarky in places) and should be good reading for intellectual Americans, regardless of whether they are liberal, conservative, or something else.
24 of 38 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Factual errors undermined my confidence in this book Jan. 10 2010
By Bob H. - Published on
Having read many earlier books on American conservatism, before undertaking to buy this book, I decided to sample a few pages about the people and period I knew best. Unfortunately, Prof. Allitt's breezy handling of facts, dates and labels does not inspire confidence in his work. On p. 161, he gives the wrong birth year for Ludwig von Mises; it should be 1881, and two pages later he generously adds an extra decade to the life of Murray N. Rothbard, who actually died in 1995, not in 2005. More serious, he says that Mises and F.A.Hayek, like Rothbard (who was an anarchist) thought of "government as an enemy." That is nonsense; they were passionate defenders of LIMITED government, which hardly makes anarchists. In his discussion of Ayn Rand, he errs when he says that she "wrote essays with titles like 'The Virtue of Selfishness'; it is actually one of her books, but she wrote no essay with that title. One suspects that his knowledge of Ayn Rand derived entirely from second-hand sources, e.g. his claim that John Galt's speech in Atlas Shrugged filled one hundred pages-- it was actually sixty (pp.1009-1069) in the 1957 hardcover edition. Instead of using a reliable source for his discussion of Alan Greenspan (e.g. the biography by Justin Martin), he relies on the superficial and salacious book by Jerome Tuccille, and he misspells the name of the author of the 2005 Berkeley doctoral dissertation on Ayn Rand -- it should be Burns, not Bryne. Based on this admittedly small sample, I shall re-read George H. Nash's magisterial work and buy the newer book by Paul Gottfried. Six errors in three pages is scandalous for a scholarly book from a major university press.
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