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The History of Conservatism at Harvard College

Conservatism has a long history at one of America’s oldest, most prestigious colleges.

Based on what is currently perceived about the Ivy Leagues being bastions of progressivism, most people would probably expect this to be a very short article about 17 frightened undergraduates cowering in a basement somewhere, but in fact conservatism at Harvard has an illustrious history of more than 350 years.

“Conservatism” today usually denotes movement conservatism, the phenomenon dating from the 1950s and involving such prominent figures as William F. Buckley Jr., Barry Goldwater, Russell Kirk and Ronald Reagan. I cannot give Harvard much credit for precipitating this movement; indeed, history puts in me in the awkward position of being forced to acknowledge that Yale graduates have played a greater role in the galvanization of conservatives after the Second World War. However, the conservative intellectual disposition existed in America for centuries before Yale ever got around to it, and we can most clearly trace it to one of the linchpins of American independence.

John Adams, Harvard class of 1755, is probably the most underappreciated Founding Father—notwithstanding those odd people whose favorite Framer is Roger Sherman—and certainly exerted an immense, conservative influence on the Revolution. While he was among the earliest supporters of independence, he was opposed to the intemperate, rabid and destructive impulses that afflicted other members of that faction. He found Common Sense naïve and condemned the poor grasp of history and political philosophy that led Thomas Paine to propose a unicameral legislature, not to mention the utter foolishness of Paine’s suggestion that the Patriots would easily win a war against Great Britain. Adams instead wrote his Defence of the Constitutions of the United States of America, in which he professed admiration for the English constitution and advocated a separation of powers that profited from the natural hierarchy of men. He wrote: “Was there, or will there ever be a nation whose individuals were all equal, in natural and acquired qualities, in virtues, talents, and riches? The answer in all mankind must be in the negative.” This was no communist usurper, no Jacobin revolutionary; John Adams defended liberty from the oppression of both the one and the many, from the tyrant and the mob.

The tradition was continued by a scion of the Adams family, Henry Adams, Harvard class of 1858, an ardent defender of the traditional republic and opponent of the populism and consumerism that were on the rise in the late 19th century. After teaching history at Harvard from 1870 to 1879, he wrote Democracy, a novel lambasting the corruption that plagued the federal government at the time. In an era of salacious muckraking and yellow journalism, Adams provided a principled and convincing critique of the loss of traditional American values that was occurring through the 1890s.

While he was still a Harvard professor, Adams taught the great statesman Henry Cabot Lodge, class of 1872, and was also his doctoral thesis advisor. Lodge became a close friend both of Adams and Theodore Roosevelt, and historians frequently rank him as one of the greatest U.S. Senators of all time. He is most famous for his fierce opposition to Woodrow Wilson’s brain-stepchild, the League of Nations, which he denounced as invasive of U.S. sovereignty, the same argument is now echoed in the United Kingdom as one of the primary motivations for the vote to leave the European Union. Indeed, the Left has had dreams of one-world government and an electron-sea immigration model for more than a century and a half, and it was largely because of Lodge’s opposition that the United States never joined the League of Nations.

Around the turn of the 20th century, Harvard also produced influential conservatives in the arts. Foremost among these was T.S. Eliot, class of 1909, who described himself as “classical in literature, Royalist in politics and Anglo-Catholic in religion.” While a prominent Modernist poet, the designation is not damning as it would be in, say, architecture; his works are devoted to the preservation of Western culture in the face of a loss of religious belief and traditional mores. His most famous poems, including The Waste Land and “Ash Wednesday,” draw heavily on the Christian foundations of our civilization, a feature that alienated him from other writers and critics on the secular, even anti-religious left.

This brings to a close the list of major conservative historical figures that have come out of Harvard. As regards conservatism on campus, it bears mentioning that the Harvard Republican Club, founded in 1888, is the oldest college Republican club in the country, and that The Harvard Salient, a monthly opinion journal, is one of the original conservative college publications that were founded in the 1980s on the same wave that swept Ronald Reagan into office.

And I would be remiss if I were to neglect to mention Harvey C. Mansfield, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Government, a renowned conservative scholar who has taught generations of Harvard students about the great works of Western political philosophy. Mr. Mansfield has been teaching at Harvard since 1962, and he has opposed with adamantine resolve every strange, leftist thing you see reported about universities: grade inflation, suppression of the great works of Western thought, androgynization of mankind, and all the other afflictions from which Harvard now suffers.

Thus while Harvard is far from a font of conservatism nowadays, you should never entirely rule out that the next great conservative hero might emerge from the traditional spirit that still rustles the ivy on the ancient red brick.


Liam Warner is a student of economics at Harvard College.

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