Daniel Webster, Yankee National Conservative
What 'the forgotten man of American conservatism' has to say about current debates on the right.
The American conservative movement has been struggling with an identity crisis since the 2016 election. Discussions of when and where the state—the longtime bête noire of the American right—can intervene in private life has turned into an outright civil war between two broad factions, the libertarians and the nationalists. There are varying flavors of these two camps: conservatarians, right-leaning neoliberals, national conservatives, post-fusionists, and more. But these groups usually align in the two broader camps.
Both groups often portray the American Founding as an innately liberal movement. Scholarship (both specialist and general) and political commentary (both for and against) routinely repeat this meme. While liberalism clearly had a deeper impact in early America than it did in Europe, it is a mistake to see American conservatism as mostly ossified liberalism, making the national conservatives Euro–Canadian interlopers, if not outright usurpers.
While there’s a lot of literature that disrupts this narrative, I recently ordered a reprint of Richard Current’s 1955 book on Daniel Webster to better understand the native American roots of the burgeoning national conservative movement. It was an insightful and concise look into the life of Daniel Webster, his relatively forgotten legacy in American politics and how his unique conservatism has application to today.
Northern, National Conservatism
Although Northern politicians are often portrayed as innovative and progressive descendants of fanatical Puritans, in reality Northern conservatism survived well into the 19th century. While different from their Southern cousins, they shared a surprising large amount of family traits. Webster’s stances on economics and political power (to him the two were inseparable) were dictated first and foremost by his concern for stability and prosperity.
For instance, during his free-trade period, Webster argued that industry “tended to make the poor more numerous and more poor, and the rich less in number but more rich.” By contrast he praised the American yeoman:
He has a stake in society, and is inclined, therefore rather to uphold than demolish it…[Industrial workers] have no stake in society; they hang loose upon it, and are often neither happy in their condition nor without danger to the state.
Though Webster would change his position on industry and the tariff (as did the South), his concern for preserving order was always his north star in politics. He backed free trade when he felt free trade supported prosperity for the average American, and he backed the tariff when he felt the opposite. Webster had no love for some invisible hand that must be obeyed. For Webster, American economic policy should follow American interest, as “the truest American policy which shall best employ American capital and American labor, and best sustain the whole population.”
While not likely to get a staff writer position at the libertarian Reason, Webster was hardly a Bernie Bro. His concern about economic reforms was rooted in conservative premises. Current explains that his worldview was one that was premised on private property ownership, religion (specifically Christianity) as the center for our nation, reducing class tensions and maintaining American constitutional order.
Webster resembled an early American Pope Leo XIII or rather a Yankee Abraham Kuyper. Additionally, his belief in using national state power to ensure prosperity for the common man was mirrored by his stance that political power should be restricted to the propertied. For Webster, stable government relied upon connecting power to property. He first advocated restricting suffrage to property owners, then, once Jacksonian democracy expanded the franchise, turned to ensuring that property ownership was spread among the newly widened electorate. A conservatism that couples an active federal government with a prosperous and religious American order may not be recognizable to some today, but it can hardly be called un-American (“un-American” being yet another Websterian contribution to our political language).
Websterian Conservatism For Today
While much of Webster’s battles can seem arcane to us today (although discussions of the dissolution of the Union may be more contemporary than we hope), his thoughts on how conservatism should interact with the market are more than applicable. The downwardly mobile Sanders/Trump voters of today had their antecedent in Webster’s constituents. New England farmers found themselves on unproductive acreage and out-competed by Western farmers who had much richer land. Consequently Yankees either migrated to Northern mill towns, moved out West, or watched their community slump into destitution. British writer Thomas Hamilton observed that these anxieties turned into rallying against the “aristocracy of knowledge” and the “commonwealth of property [and] of stocks.”
Like today, a significant faction of conservative leaders felt that this was not a pressing issue. For them, cheap western land and increased access to education would stave off any economic discontent, belying the need for any serious economic reform. Thomas Hamilton and Webster disagreed:
At present the United States are perhaps more safe from revolutionary contention than any other country in the world. But this safety consists in one circumstance alone. The great majority of the people are possessed in property; they have what is called a stake in the hedge; and are therefore, by interest, opposed to all measures which may tend to its insecurity. It is for such a condition of society that the present constitution was framed.
Without a serious effort to make the social facts fit the constitution, Hamilton and Webster predicted that society would break down into “the great struggle between property and numbers.” Today we face a similar situation. Americans are increasingly pessimistic, angry, living in an increasingly precarious economic state and saddled with an immense amount of personal debt. While it could be argued whether Jackson’s or Webster’s policies were best suited to the 19th century’s problems, the overall Websterian approach remains innately relevant to today.
The current political climate has led to Americans investigating conservative alternatives to the neoliberal status quo. Republican attempts to deal with market instability and inequity generated accusations that this national conservatism is fundamentally foreign and un-American. Ultimately this fusionist talking point relies on the narrative of a classical liberal American founding. In reality the American founders’ political philosophy—hardly monolithic even at their most united—was far more illiberal and nationalist than fusionists are willing to admit. The overall tenor of American political philosophy was explicitly religious and communitarian in nature. Steele Brand of The King’s College found that early Americans did not look to the Enlightenment for inspiration. They saw the new American republic as a distinctly Old Testament republic, emulating the political norms and language of the Scriptures. Rather than looking to classical liberalism or the philosophes, Americans were far more likely to be inspired by examples of governance as found in the Kingdom of Israel. By the late 18th century, over 70 percent of American political writing was in the form of sermons. Brand notes that the typical view was not some individualist social contract but one in which, “local communities, and not individuals, were the fundamental building blocks of society.”
This more communitarian and illberal outlook had its effect in early American laws. Notably, as late as the early 19th century, states retained established Protestant churches. American states also maintained a robust system of market regulation. Businesses required licenses and products required inspection. Madison, among others, rejected free-market fundamentalism in favor of a middle ground, advising us to the correct path can be found “between admitting no exception to the rule of ‘laissez faire,’ and converting the exceptions into the rule.” Daniel Webster’s national conservatism was not some aberration but rather a natural outgrowth of the modal American’s political worldview, a worldview that valued religion, ordered liberty, and the common good.
American conservatism is not simply right-leaning liberalism and national conservatism is not some illegitimate latecomer. Using the levers of power to preserve order, the American constitution and the common good is an inherently American, conservative trait. As Current reminds us, we just have to look for it:
After more than a century, many of Webster’s speeches on public issues, with only a word changed here and there, that would have served conservative politicians admirably in speaking on the issues of their time. But these politicians seldom quoted Webster or even mentioned him. He was the forgotten man of American conservatism.
Joseph S. Laughon is a political thought graduate of Concordia University, Irvine and a specialist in the logistics industry. He lives in Los Angeles, where he writes on culture, religion, politics, and national security. His own writings can be found at Musings On The Right. You can follow him on Twitter.