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Capturing Early 20th Century Conservatism

Bruce Frohnen’s review of our American Conservatism, 1900-1930: A Reader, requires only a brief response, but we feel compelled to clarify two simple points.

The key premise of Frohnen’s argument that we have presented a “narrow, sanitized, and somewhat superficial picture of American conservatism” is that we excluded from the reader “deeper social and cultural criticism” from “poets and literary critics,” as well as Southern Agrarians and isolationists. Consequently, he alleges, the book “furthers a specific narrative within conservative thought.”

What accounts for our inclusions and exclusions? It is quite simple. As the title explicitly states, this is a book about conservatism during the Progressive Era. The purpose, as the first paragraph of our introduction explains, is to highlight “the contribution that leading conservatives made to the history and political development of the period.” Had we excluded important political figures such as Warren Harding, Herbert Hoover, Elihu Root, and William Howard Taft from the book in favor of the authors of I’ll Take My Stand, we would have failed to do this.

To put it bluntly, we included people who contributed to the politics and constitutional history of the period, and excluded people who did not (whatever their effect on post-1930 conservatism may have been or how dear they remain to partisans of one tradition or another). It should go without saying that we did not select the sources based on our agreement with them or their depth of theoretical analysis—that is not our role as editors. Instead, we sought to represent the predominant arguments of prominent figures during the period and to underscore the centrality of constitutional principles in their resistance to Progressivism.

Additionally, our goal was to reproduce sources that have not been reprinted in other collections about American conservatism. The Southern Agrarians, as well as the legal debates over Lochner and the scope of federal authority, are widely available and have been for some time. Our book is introduced as a complement to these works, most notably Gregory Schneider’s Conservatism in America Since 1930, which contains a section on the “Old Right” and selections from the Southern Agrarians. We likewise seek to aid the teaching of the Progressive Era by complementing the best existing collection (Ronald Pestritto and William Atto’s American Progressivism). We state this aim clearly in the first paragraph of our introduction, connecting our book to these collections for anyone wanting to teach a course on American conservatism or the Progressive Era. Similarly, discussion of the legal arguments surrounding the “Lochner era” is so extensive we saw no need to reproduce it in our volume. Instead we sought to widen the perspective beyond the realm of Supreme Court decision making. Our goal was to add to the sources available, not to duplicate them.

Our second clarification is more serious and goes to our alleged motivations (in Frohnen’s closing statement, our “narrative purposes”). We embraced no narrative purpose as such in a collection of primary sources. Again, this is a reader designed to complement what is currently available, not to stake out a position on the true or legitimate definition of American conservatism. It is meant to help people teach these subjects more effectively by giving them easier access to sometimes obscure sources that were important to the history and politics of the period. That is all.

Insinuations that we would “sanitize” a period of political thought in order to influence a popular narrative are serious, and in our view should not be relied upon when the evidence and our own statements attest otherwise.

In sum, this volume is designed to present the most prominent conservative voices from a specific period, those that most significantly informed the constitutional history and politics of that period. It is meant to bolster the existing sources available on both the Progressive Era and American conservatism—as we explain in the very first paragraph of our introduction. Our motives are quite simple: to provide people with ready access to materials about these topics that are not easily available elsewhere. We’ll leave the crafting of narratives to others.

Reader Discussion

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on January 31, 2020 at 07:28:09 am

Messrs. Post and O’Neill are understandably concerned to argue that my review mischaracterizes the nature and intentions of their volume. If my conclusion comes off a bit harsh, I note in mitigation of my sin that I was careful to point out their inclusion of important and powerful readings. My central point is methodological. A one-volume collection aimed at classroom use cannot properly be crafted to exclude central issues of contention simply because one side of the debate “lost” or because the readings are widely available elsewhere. Centralization of power through Supreme Court overreach was an issue of contention across the political spectrum and is of obvious relevance to understanding “constitutional conservatism.” Post and O’Neill say that their goal was to reproduce writings of “people who contributed to the politics and constitutional history of the period.” They clearly mean the phrase “contributed to” in the sense of dominating, hence my observation that the book is about the “mainstream” of conservatism during the era. This is an explanation for leaving out minority views among conservatives, though unfortunately the result lacks much of the intrinsic, clarifying drama of politics. We can agree to disagree on the value of such a narrowing criteria for inclusion in this collection. But to leave aside issues as central as the assertion of federal judicial control over local police powers in such a book is, I continue to believe, a significant flaw.

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Bruce Frohnen
on January 31, 2020 at 17:25:37 pm

Looking at the Table of Contents for your new collection, I was literally thinking to myself: this would be a good complement to Pestritto and Atto’s "Progressivism Reader." Names of interlocutors such as "Elihu Root" and "Calvin Coolidge" come up in the Progressives' discussions, which require us teachers to try our best to explain them to our students. I'd much rather have my students read them. Thank you for publishing this!

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CJ Wolfe

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.