A Short History Of Conservatism

Post written by Anne Smethurst

Conservatism is a global notion, well respected and often adhered to by politicians and people all over the world. However, many who call themselves ‘conservatives’ don’t actually know the origin of their movement, or (in many cases) how what it stands for has evolved over the centuries. The history of conservatism is admittedly complex, convoluted, and, at times, contradictory. However, for those interested, here is a very brief summary of its history.

‘To Conserve’

The term ‘Conservative’ is drawn from the verb ‘To Conserve’. As such, it’s (ironically, for some) linked to concepts like ‘Conservation’. To ‘conserve’ something is to preserve it in its present form – or to proceed very slowly and carefully with change, in order to avoid expending too much too soon. The first Conservatives sought always to preserve the status quo, to maintain traditions, and to curtail excesses. Where it does allow for change, Conservatism seeks to introduce changes incrementally, to avoid turbulence and disorder. By its very definition, Conservatism cannot be radical. It is the polar opposite of radicalism. Over time, those who describe themselves as ‘Conservative’ have gathered a raft of associated socio-economic beliefs and policies around them – things like laissez-faire governance, pro-business ideals, and so forth – but, at its heart, Conservatism remains a movement based in preserving the traditional status quo against outside forces which seek to change things.


The roots of modern Conservatism can be found in the UK, during the Restoration of the monarchy (17th Century). Having been responsible for deposing (and beheading) the King some years previously, the British Parliament now needed to prove their loyalty to the new King. The ‘Tories’ – politicians who favored monarchial rule – swiftly flooded the Houses Of Parliament. The officially named ‘Conservative Party’ in Britain is still known colloquially as the ‘Tory Party’. The main opposition to the ‘Tories’ were the ‘Whigs’, who opposed absolute rule by the sovereign and advocated greater power for the people via Parliament. To this day, politics in the UK remains divided along similar (although updated for modern times) lines.

Revolution Reaction

Conservatism developed further during the 18th Century, as a reaction to the French and American revolutions. Fearing the excesses of the French Revolution, and the new world order indicated by the American Revolution, many European politicians sought refuge in the traditions and policies of the past. They promised to stand firm in turbulent times, to uphold monarchies and associated traditions, and to show stalwart strength against radical forces. Of course, many did scent the winds of change on the horizon, and these Conservatives used the strong and familiar foundations of tradition to navigate the Old World through the inevitable changes ahead. For example, in the UK, Conservative Prime Ministers enshrined the monarchy and its associated pomp, ceremony, and so on at the heart of British political life – but simultaneously reduced the actual power of the monarch considerably. Queen Victoria was respected, honored, and adored by her people – but her power, compared to that of her ancestors – was nothing compared to the democratic power of her Conservative Parliament.

Free Trade And Laissez-Faire Governance

As the 19th century progressed, Conservatism became increasingly associated with free trade and laissez-faire governance. At this point, European and American Conservatism also began to divide somewhat. European Conservatives, under the influence of figures like Benjamin Disraeli, began to loosen their ties with the aristocracy. They did, however, maintain their strong allegiance to a single, centralized governing force – opposing devolution with all of their might. In the USA, however, federalism and independent state governance became a rallying cry for conservatives across the nation. Both sides of the Atlantic maintained agreement that the government should intervene as little as possible in trade and business, but British conservatives began to lean towards Parliamentary intervention in certain social issues – many, for example, supported the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807. In the USA, however, conservatives maintained that government intervention should occur only where absolutely necessary. Much of this divide remains today. For example, American conservatives will generally agree that government bodies can advise the public on health issues like drug taking, obesity and so on, but would tend to oppose actively making things like smoking illegal. British conservatives, however, would be more open to legislation on such matters.

Modern Conservatism

Today, Conservatism remains a powerful movement with many supporters. Conservatism ushered in the modern economic era, under Ronald Reagan, and has experienced something of a boom recently, as people seek a steady hand on the tiller during turbulent times. What the future holds for Conservatism remains to be seen. Many people are desperate for change, and change is something Conservatism has always been cautious about. However, if treated with the right mix of realism and optimism, there is no reason why Conservatism cannot bring about the same kind of measured and well curated change that it has done in the past.

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