Common good conservatism is a bit of an anachronistic and even superfluous definer. True conservative governance is by its very definition for the common good and cannot be divorced from those higher things that determine the nature of human life: morality and religion. Russell Kirk noted that “at heart, political problems are moral and religious problems.” Politics inevitably intersected with both morality and religion because politics inevitably dealt with humanity. If, Kirk noted, good institutions were neglected and ancient moral principles were ignored, “the evil in us tends to predominate.” Kirk was not arguing that politics could make men good; he did however rightly believe that evil need not be given free rein.
There has been a tendency among self-professed conservatives to believe that because evils cannot be entirely obliterated by politics that any political exertion (beyond mere libertarianism) to control societal evil is an unacceptable invasion of individual rights. Historic conservatism in the United States, of course, was far from merely libertarian. During the Early Republic Henry Clay’s American System offered a liberal conservative antecedent to One nation conservatism in Britain that included some liberal measures without endorsing political fanaticism or radicalism in the name of untrammeled liberal progress. In Clay’s political economy business, government, and religion all had important roles to play in the maintenance of stable republican society in the Early Republic United States. Clay’s most famous political disciple, Abraham Lincoln, stated that his political commitments to moderate protectionism and federal legislation supporting internal improvements—infrastructure—mirrored Clay’s. Lincoln eventually took Clay’s policies a step further and enacted a series of overtly pro-family policies through the Homestead and Morrill Acts. Government offered cheap land to heads of households with the promise that their children could be educated at land grant universities funded by proceeds from federal and state taxes. The acts passed in 1862 only after the Civil War cleared Congress of southern Democrats who regularly voted against any legislation that threatened free trade. Lincoln’s commitment to liberal precepts were not a commitment to liberalism in the abstract, but liberal freedoms bounded by a conservative national and republican order shorn of chattel slavery.
Lincoln’s embodiment of the best of the liberal conservative political tradition was illustrated by the cautious but substantive way he sought to end the moral evil of chattel slavery in the United States. Conservatives in the United States, even those who hated slavery, feared that emancipation might lead to social upheaval. Southern reactionaries hampered any attempt at ending the institution. It finally was ended by Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party at the end of the Civil War, which guaranteed a liberal conservative nationalism endured in the united American Republic.
Liberal conservatism offers an important historical antecedent to Americans in the Twenty-First Century who feel compelled to choose between competing integralist and libertarian articulations of conservatism. Observers like Ahmari are correct in viewing the libertarian orientation of the Right as unsustainable and ultimately harmful to the common good. But the answer does not lie in returning to forms of absolutism or throne and altar politics that don’t include the meaningful extensions of basic civil rights to religious minorities enacted through liberal conservative politics. Liberal conservatism protects traditional religion, ordered liberty in society, the rights of minorities, and a united vision of the common good. Our search for a better and new Right need not take us any further in history than our own Anglo-American liberal conservative tradition of ordered liberty.