Friday, May 15, 2009

Patrick Allitt's "The Conservatives"

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

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities Throughout American History, and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Conservatives describes the life and work of William Graham Sumner, who trained to be a minister in the late nineteenth century but discovered that his faith in God was less intense than his faith in the free market. He gave up the church and became a professor of political economy at Yale instead, where he developed a legendary classroom reputation. One student wrote that "the majority of our teachers were mechanical and dull" but that "we came to Sumner's teaching with eager expectations and were never disappointed... He used to enter the classroom as if he were pushing his way triumphantly through hostile forces; he had the air of a conqueror." Sumner was conservative only in a paradoxical way; he certainly didn't believe in looking to the past for guidance ("A man of good faith....must come to the conviction honestly, that the traditional doctrines and explanations of human life are worthless"). He said that economics should be thought of as a coldly rational science and that it was time for modern universities to get rid of their philosophy departments. "Philosophy is in every way as bad as astrology," he wrote. "It is a complete fake ... We might just as well have professors of alchemy or fortune-telling or palmistry."

The book as a whole traces American conservatism from the Founding Fathers to the present and shows that conservatism has meant very different things at different moments of American history. In the early republic, some conservative writers opposed the idea of human equality and did not think the United States should be a democracy. Southern white conservatives before the Civil War wrote ardent defenses of slavery. In the early twentieth century writers like Irving Babbitt thought of America as the defender of a vast civilization ("Christendom") that was jeopardized as much by vulgar materialism as by Communism. Many of the characters introduced in the book, especially more recent ones like William F. Buckley Jr. and Irving Kristol, have been controversial. I have tried to keep the rhetorical temperature low and to avoid taking sides, presenting each figure's ideas impartially, along with those of his or her opponents. I believe and hope that it's a book anyone interested in conservatism, American politics, and American ideas, can turn to for a useful introduction.
Read an excerpt from The Conservatives and learn more about the book at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue