Classical Conservatism

Tomi Ann Limcangco & Darko Acimov

Classical Conservatism emerged in the the 18th Centruy as a new ideology that developed in opposition to Classical Liberalism. It is an ideology that says the government should represent the legacy of the past as well as the well-being of the present; that society should be structured in a heirarchical fashion; that government should be chosen by a limited electorate; that leaders should be humanitarian and that the stability of society is all important. [6] In reference to the political spectrum, Classical Conservatism is considered to be on the Far Right.

Contents1 Background
2 Important Figure
3 Modern Conservatism
4 Relationship to Liberalism
5 References


Classical Conservatism, also known as “traditional conservatism” or “traditionalism” describes a political philosophy accentuating the need for the principles of natural law, tradition, hierarchy, organic unity, agrarianism, classicism and high culture. This political philosophy began with the thought of the Anglo-irish ‘Old Whig’ statesman Edmund Burke. The main beliefs of Classical Conservatives are:
  • Society is an organic whole that should be structured in a heirarchical fashion with those best suited to leadership at the top, because people do not have equal abilities
  • Government should be choses by a limited electorate with special rights, responsibilities, and privilages
  • Leaders should be humanitarian - their role includes the responsibility to care for the welfare of others
  • The stability of society is the paramount concern, to be achieved through law and order and the maintenance of the customs and traditions that bind society together

Important Figure(s)

Detailed portrait of Edmund Burke, identified with the development of the ideology of Classical Conservatism
Detailed portrait of Edmund Burke, identified with the development of the ideology of Classical Conservatism
Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke was a contemporary of Adam Smith who viewed the French Revolution from Britain. He is synonymous with the term Classical Conservatism. Horrified by the extremes of the French Revolution, Burke used these as an example of the flaws of Classical Liberalism regarding the values of equality, individualism, and freedom. Burke believed that:
  • Established institutions, run by the educated people of society, were necessary to control the irrational passons of the uneducated masses
  • Uniformed people should not have a say in government
  • Only those who naturally understood their duties to the country and the people, those with expreience and wisdom should run the government
  • Tryranny in any form is unacceptable, wheter it be in a monarchy or a less organized structure
  • Rousseau's concept of the "general will of the people" was misguided as it would allow the mediocre, uneducated and uninterested power to rule

He also believed in prescriptive rights, including the unwritten law of “Ordered Liberty”; best reflected in the unwritten law of the British constitution. Burke also believed in the transcendent values that found support in institutions such as the family, the church and the state. [1] Burke was a fierce critic of the principles behind the French Revolution and even wrote on its excesses’ and radicalism in his paper titled ‘Reflections of the Revolution in France’.

"But what is liberty without wisdom, and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint."- Edmund Burke [5]
Burke's belief that liberty without a solid, educated base is foolish comes out fully in this quote. It can be related to his distaste for the French Revolution and the fact that all of the individuals he considered wise who were running the country before the revolution were deposed. Thus it can be seen that the virtues the French Revolutionaries claimed as just cause for their revolution were criticized by Burke.


In this cartoon the Prince of Wales, son of George III, sits with his arms folded awaiting the outcome of the tug-of-war over the English crown. The Tories at left, represented by the figures of Edward Thurlow and William Pitt are struggling against Old Whig party members Edmund Burke and Charles Fox. In 1788 and 1789 George III's mental and physical health was so unstable that the two parties fought over whether the king's son should be replaced. However, the monarch's recovery put an end to the crisis. [4]

Edumnd Burke’s influence extended to later thinkers and leaders both in Britain and abroad. Among those influenced were the counter-revolutionary writers: François-René de Chateaubriand and Louis de Bonald, and the Savoyard Joseph de Maistre. [2] In the United States, figures such as President John Adams and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton best represented the ideology of Mr. Burke. [3]

Modern Conservatism

Modern Conservatism emerged in the United States during the 1950's and 1960's as a reaction against Modern Liberalism. This ideology favours a return to Classical Liberal principles as well as, identifying the return of family and traditional values in society. Popularity with this ideology grew in the 1980's and was reflected in economic, social and foreign policies of american president Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. It is an ideology that somewhat contradicts classical conservatism because of the fact that it seeks to conserve the principles of individualism, competition and self-interest that Burke essentially thought was distructive towards a society.

Relationship to Liberalism

Classical Conservatism relates to Liberalism in that it sprung up because of the left-wing classical liberalist policies and ideologies taking foot in European society during the 18th century. It was created in order to counter the liberalist policy of replacing old, well-established and socially smart institutions that had been around for a long time. Classical conservatism emphasizes a concern for keeping established tradition, respect for authority and religious values. It contrasted itself with classical liberalism, which supported freedom for the individual in both the economic and social spheres.


[1] Frohnen, Bruce, Jeremy Beer, and Jeffrey O. Nelson (2006) American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, pp. 107-109
[2] Blum, Christopher Olaf, ed. (2004)Critics of the Enlightenment, Wilington, DE: ISI Books, pp. xv-xxxv
[3] Viereck, Peter (1956, 2006)Conservative Thinkers from John Adams to Winston Churchill. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, pp. 87-95
[4] J. Aitken. (January 2,1789) Etching
[5] Edmund Burke. (unknown date)
[6] Fielding, J. (2009). Chapter 4: Responding to classical liberalism. In L. M. Linton & M. Schwalbe (Eds.), Perspectives on Ideology (pp. 140-141). Ontario, Canada: Oxford University Press