If you want to understand it, look no further than the Declaration of Independence.
Is there a distinct form of American conservatism that distinguishes it from varieties of conservatism found in other countries? The answer to that question is certainly “yes.”
The conservative movement in America in the post-war period advanced in two broad stages. In the first phase, running from the 1950s into the 1970s, influential thinkers sought to define conservatism broadly in terms of an approach to politics and society that transcended national boundaries. In the more recent period, conservatives have advanced a set of ideas that are uniquely American, focusing on America’s founding institutions, the Founding Fathers, and a few other notable American thinkers.
William F. Buckley, Jr., is generally credited with launching the post-war conservative movement when he founded National Review in 1954. In launching the magazine, Buckley was greatly influenced by two canonical books that shaped conservative thought in the 1950s: Witness, by Whittaker Chambers (published in 1952), and The Conservative Mind, by Russell Kirk (published in 1953). These books were widely read (both were best-sellers) and favorably reviewed in prominent newspapers and journals, and had great appeal to a reading public searching for something different after two decades of liberal control of national politics. Both Witness and The Conservative Mind, however, outlined versions of conservatism that transcended national boundaries and particular regimes. They were about “Conservatism,” not necessarily American conservatism.
James Piereson is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
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