by Jim Tynen
Conservatives seeking inspiration, guidance, and perhaps a few words of caution can find all that in Conservative Heroes, the latest book from Raleigh businessman and author Garland S. Tucker III.
Tucker is the CEO of Triangle Capital Corp. and the author of a previous book that examined a key moment in conservative history: The High Tide of American Conservatism: Davis, Coolidge, and the 1924 Election.
Subtitled “Fourteen Leaders Who Shaped America, from Jefferson to Reagan,” Tucker’s latest effort highlights conservative ideas in action, and a selection of men who defended these values, sometimes in victory, sometimes in valiant defeat.
Those heroes are a varied array, from figures any concerned American knows to men often overlooked in the history books, such as two North Carolina heroes that probably many of us in the Tar Heel State don’t even know about. One was congressman Nathaniel Macon, speaker of the U.S. House beginning in 1800, who labored mightily to keep the nation true to its founding. In the New Deal era, Sen. Josiah Bailey was one of the boldest and most effective critics of President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration.
Conservative Heroes begins with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, close friends and collaborators who prized freedom and limited government and laid the foundation for the nation that embodied these values, though they often differed on how to do so. Yet despite such a bright beginning, government money and power proved alluring to many Americans. While conservative politicians struggled to keep government in check, their constituents kept clamoring to get government checks.
In Congress, the influence of Macon; Rep. John Randolph of Virginia, another conservative hero; and other defenders of freedom ebbed as their countrymen took prosperity for granted and chafed at the restrictions the Constitution put on them.
Throughout the years, their conservative congressional successors fought similar battles. Sen. John C. Calhoun of South Carolina defended the prerogatives of the states in the 19th century; in the 20th, Robert Taft of Ohio took up Bailey’s mantle and pushed back against the New Deal. In the White House, presidents Grover Cleveland, Calvin Coolidge and Ronald Reagan proved that a leader can attain the highest office while pursuing and advancing conservative causes.
Nor does one need to serve in an elected office to advance the cause, Tucker shows. Though John W. Davis was defeated in his run for the White House, he was one of the most effective lawyers to ever argue before the Supreme Court, often derailing some of the New Deal’s more outlandish schemes.
Barry Goldwater also lost in his drive for the presidency, but his fiery idealism inspired a generation of Americans. Andrew Mellon as treasury secretary, in partnership with Coolidge, proved that smaller government and lower taxes do bring prosperity. William F. Buckley, as a magazine publisher, TV host and debater, showed how wit and clarity of expression can change minds.
Nevertheless, the stories of Conservative Heroes include times when the cause suffers setbacks. By the end of the Civil War, the Jeffersonian vision of a country of proud yeoman was overshadowed by the emergence of an industrialized, centralized United States. The growth of the nation under Cleveland and President William McKinley was proof of the power of free enterprise. But they were followed by the Progressive Era. Under President Warren Harding, Mellon, and Coolidge, the United States enjoyed unprecedented prosperity. Yet when the economy crumbled, President Hoover panicked and tried Big Government solutions, FDR rammed through the basics of the modern welfare state, and liberalism seemed triumphant.
Yet, Tucker reminds us, when the situation looks bleakest, a conservative hero seems to arise from nowhere. Cleveland was a prosperous but otherwise obscure attorney just a couple of years before entering the White House. Coolidge was also a little-known politician until shortly before he was elected vice president, before becoming president. And of course the elite laughed at the idea that a staunch conservative and former movie star could become president – until about the time Reagan was giving his first inaugural address.
Finally, as conservatives understand the human race is flawed, we shouldn’t be blind to the shortcomings of these leaders. When Jefferson and then Madison became president, they did not always live up to their conservative ideas. Calhoun defended constitutional principles, but also slavery. Firebrands like Randolph and Goldwater roused the faithful, but on occasion they failed to communicate their message to the wider public. These flaws give us insights as well.
For overall, in victory and in defeat, in good and in bad, conservative heroes provide valuable lessons for Americans today. Conservative Heroes may be history, but readers will see in it many parallels to the leaders and issues they see on TV every day. With that, we on the Right have to hope that another such conservative hero will soon stride on to the scene.