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Conservative Heroes by Garland Tucker III

Garland S. Tucker III

Reviewed by:
On July 11, 2015
Last modified:July 13, 2015


Conservative Heroes is a fantastic book filled with with and anecdotes that leave the reader with a sense of nostalgia and a tinge of sadness for a time when being principled was something that existed outside of party affiliations.

Conservative HeroesConservative Heroes is named appropriately, and unapologetically.  It is a book about 14 Americans, starting from the time of the founding up to Ronald Reagan.  However, the book could also have been named 14 American Heroes.  In the book’s Foreword, Amity Shlaes goes so far as to suggest that the book will “broaden both college and high school syllabi.  It would be a great thing if this were to happen.  This reviewer is dubious of the likelihood of this happening, given its title.  One can only hope.

But, as Tucker states in the opening chapter,

This book is situated unabashedly in the conservative camp.  It treats conservatism as a serious political philosophy and shows how its foundational principles have remained consistent throughout American history.

Tucker lists these foundational conservative principles:

  1. Conservatism is grounded in a realistic view of human nature.  Conservatives believe that there is nothing in human history to suggest the perfectibility of man.
  2. Because of man’s nature, the primary roles of government are to establish order and preserve liberty.
  3. Government is limited to these two roles.
  4. Property rights and human rights are inseparably bound together.
  5. The social and political life of a community depend on private virtues.

The author briefly shows how each of these propositions were inextricably bound to the founding of America and were held in universal agreement by the founders.

Having set the stage with his definition of conservative principle, the author proceeds to show how his subjects lived these principles.

Tucker’s heroes are not perfect and he does not cast them as being so.  Amity Shlaes points out in the introduction,

Tucker, for example, reclaims Thomas Jefferson as a conservative, not a move of which today’s Jefferson-shy Grand Old Party is likely to approve. And as Kennedy did [in Profiles in Courage], Tucker illuminates not only his subjects’ integrity but also their flaws, even when fatal.

And so, the first of Tuckers subjects are Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.  This reviewer recognizes a tendency among many conservatives to abandon Jefferson and sometimes even smear Madison by association. Conservatives are just as foolish as liberals when they expect perfection from their icons.

Jefferson analysis of the Constitution bears analysis.  Tucker explains,

In a letter of December 20, 1787, Jefferson offered Madison his thorough analysis of the approved Constitution — its shortcomings but also its merits.  In signaling his reservations, Jefferson was among the first to advocate a bill of rights “providing clearly and without the aid of sophisms for freedom of religion freedom of the press, protection against standing armies, restriction against monopolies, the eternal and unremitting force of the habeas corpus laws, and trials by jury in all matters of fact triable by the laws of the land and not by the law of nations.”

One can certainly find flaws in Jeffersons character, crazy sounding quotations, and all kinds of reasons to dislike Jefferson, but perhaps we should not be so quick to cast Jefferson aside.  Nobody is perfect.

Tucker compares and contrasts Madison and Jefferson and states that while Jefferson had more faith in democracy and the rationality of the people, and Madison tended to support government restrictions on unruly local majorities, both men were in agreement about the need to limit government, although they drew their lines at different points.

Tucker credits Madison and Jefferson with the advent of “strict constructionism” in the interpretation of the constitution, as both men resisted the concentration of power in the federal government at every turn, starting with the formation of the Bank of United States.

In Jefferson’s Kentucky resolution one can clearly see Tucker’s first conservative principle, people are neither perfect nor capable of achieving perfection.

In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.

Madison made his views on this clear in Federalist 10.

The latent causes of faction are sown in the nature of man.

What follows are 8 more chapters on people, some known, and some sadly unfamiliar to this reviewer.  Each of these chapters cover one or more subjects.  When more than one is covered, it is because they were contemporaries.

All of these characters share certain commonalities aside from their conservative principles.  Most striking (other than perhaps with Jefferson) was their steadfast adherence to their beliefs.  (Despite Tucker’s valid and worthy attempt to redeem Jefferson, this reviewer still feels that Jefferson was one of the least successful founders when it came living out his principles.)

Tucker moves forward chronologically from Madison and Jefferson to “The Tertium Quids.”  Nathaniel Macon and John Randolph. While it is not practical to recount their brief biographies in the space of this review, here a few notable quotes from these men.

Nathaniel Macon addressing the House of Representatives arguing to reduce the funding for the army in 1799,

If we contract a debt, we ought to pay for it, and not leave it to your children. To be sure, it is much easier to vote money than to lay taxes because people do not directly feel the vote,  but if taxed they must instantly know it.

John Randolph agreed, with sardonic wit, poking fun at … the loungers, who live upon the public, who consume the fruits of their honest industry under the pretext of protecting them from a foreign yoke. They [the people] put no confidence, sir, in the protection of a handful of ragamuffins.

Both Macon and Randolph were adamant in their opposition to an ever expanding role for government and the dangers of deficit spending.  Macon warned in an 1828 letter,

Almost every bill reported is to take money out of the Treasury.  It must be thought by some that a public debt is a public blessing and all who live on the public, no doubt think, the more taxes the better, and that every tax adds to industry; from such I wish to be delivered.

He and Randolph, although in Jefferson’s Republican party, did not favor unadulterated democracy not subject to the moderation of time-honored principle.  This frequently put them at odds with the Jefferson administration.  Randolph warned:

If ever the people of this country lose their liberties, it will be by sacrificing some great principle of government to temporary passion. There are certain great principles, which if not held inviolate, at all seasons, our liberty is gone.

Tucker devotes the next chapter to John C. Calhoun and focuses upon his principled opposition to tariffs favored by Northerners, which came at the expense of the South.  Since this has already been covered at WWTFT, more will not be said of Calhoun in this review.

There were a number of Tucker’s subjects that piqued this reviewers interest (and will no doubt result in increasing his reading backlog).  Grover Cleveland is one of these.  Cleveland’s ascent  to the presidency was nothing short of meteoric.  He went from being mayor of Buffalo – 1 year, to governor of New York – served less than 2 years, to the presidency.  This was on the strength of a reputation for rooting out corruption and being steadfast in his principles.

Cleveland remained consistent after being elected, much to the chagrin of his party, he refused to hand out political spoils to his supporters.  Neither would Cleveland support expending government funds for purely charitable purposes.  In opposing the Texas Seed Bill, Cleveland warned,

Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the Government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character, while it prevents the indulgence among our people of that kindly sentiment and conduct which strengthens the bonds of common brotherhood.

A prevalent tendency to disregard the limited mission of this [the federal government’s] power and duty should, I think, be steadfastly resisted, to the end that the lessons should constantly be enforced that, though the people support the Government, the Government should not support the people.

Tucker includes much more about Cleveland, perhaps most significantly his efforts to reduce a  budget surplus – not by spending it – but by lowering taxes.

After Cleveland, Tucker covers:

  • Calvin Coolidge and Andrew Mellon
  • Josiah W. Bailey
  • John W. Davis
  • Robert A. Taft
  • Wiliam F. Buckley, Barry Goldwater, and Ronald Reagan

Of these this reviewer was most enamored with John W. Davis, the man Franklin Delano Roosevelt labeled as Public Enemy Number One.  The moniker was given to him because of his staunch opposition to the New Deal.   Like many of the other Conservative Heroes in the book, Davis was a Democrat.

Davis had a fascinating history, appointed by Wilson as Soliciter General, and a fierce opponent of the New Deal.  By all accounts (Davis was highly regard by everyone) Davis was a brilliant orator, deep thinker, and also, like many of the others portrayed by Tucker, was a heck of nice guy.  Davis turned down a nomination to serve on the Supreme Court, served as Ambassador to Court of St. James (which severely depleted his finances), and ran against Calvin Coolidge for the presidency.

Hoping that FDR might not go off the rails, Davis supported him in his first run for the presidency and tried to influence the direction the administration would take.  In a New York Times article he wrote after FDR assumed office, Davis tried to get him to adhere to formerly touted principles,

The chief aim of all government is to preserve the freedom of the citizen. His control over his person, his property, his movements, his business, his desires should be restrained only so far as the public welfare imperatively demands. The world is in more danger of being governed too much than too little.

It is the teaching of all history that liberty can only be preserved in small areas. Local self government is, therefore, indispensable to liberty. A centralized and distant bureaucracy is the worst of all tyranny. Taxation can justly be levied for no purpose other than to provide revenue for the support of the government. To tax one person, class or section to provide revenue for the benefit of another is none the less robbery because done under the form of law and called taxation.

One of the things that really stands out in reading Conservative Heroes, is that Conservatism, like Progressivism frequently crossed party lines – up until the mid 20th century.  Unfortunately, after that, the Republican party remained split between its Conservative wing and its Progressive wing, while the Democrats successfully forced out all non-Progressive dissent.

Before the Democrats purged all dissenting voiced from their ranks Davis stood among those voices in his criticism of the New Deal.  He founded The American Liberty League which was envisioned as a nonpartisan educational institution designed to expose the dangers of the New Deal and educate the public on Jeffersonian (Conservative) principles. In a major address at the University of Virginia Davis explained,

Every government of whatever kind, professes always to be acting for the public good. The bloodiest tyrants in history claimed no less. The limitations which our Constitution’s seek to impose, however, are not intended to prevent Government and its agents from doing those things which no one could wish to do on any pretext, but rather to fix the bounds which cannot be exceeded even by conscious rectitude and righteous people.  If these bounds can be over passed at will by the mere magic of the grand, omnific word “emergency,” surely they are made of gossamer.

Conservative Heroes is a fantastic book filled with with quotes like these, and anecdotes that leave the reader with a sense of nostalgia and a tinge of sadness for a time when being principled was something that existed outside of party affiliations.   Tucker, like Charles Murray in By The People (reviewed here) successfully illustrates that the principles of the founding transcended party and remained strong in both parties until the middle of the 20th century.

Tucker concludes his book with three “thoughts”:

  1. Ideas have consequences.  One’s belief about central issues shape his worldview and dictate his course of action.  Conservative philosophy has survived because it is based on fundamental truths.
  2. It’s important to study history.  … To know where we should go, it’s essential to know where we have been.
  3. Graciousness and civility are not outdated political attributes.

Tucker’s subjects applied conservative principles to their lives (except for maybe Jefferson) and their political careers.  They were students of history, students of human nature, and knew what foundation they were standing upon.  And they were all pretty good people.






1 Herbert R. { 07.12.15 at 10:52 am }

Whereas in the past, patriotism, morality, and individual sacrifice characterized the American way of life, today such qualities are exceptions rather than the rule. Thank you for presenting the qualities of this book highlighting the virtues of conservatism. I will purchase it..


2 Martin { 07.12.15 at 11:44 am }

You are welcome, Herbert. It is very well written and introduced me to people with whom I had been unfamiliar.


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