Conservatism's Historian - Intercollegiate Studies Institute: Think. Live Free.

Conservatism’s Historian

The conservative intellectual movement in America was forged in fierce dispute with its opponent to the left. Indeed, many of conservatism’s founding texts—Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, Whittaker Chambers’s Witness, Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences—were written as broadsides against the perceived leftward tendencies of a world in disarray. It is little wonder, then, that much of the commentary on conservatism has been polemical.

Nonetheless, the movement has also attracted the attention of sympathetic scholars. Foremost among them is George H. Nash, chronicler of the American Right’s ideas for nearly 50 years. Despite his own conservatism, however, Nash insists that he is not a cheerleader for the cause, only its historian. Nash sees his task as telling the story of American conservatives without inserting his preconceived notions or moral judgments into the narrative. “Objectivity,” Nash tells me, “is an ideal to be worked toward, to be aspired to, although I recognize that no one will ever achieve perfect objectivity.”

True to principle, Nash’s work avoids tilting the debate in favor of one form of conservatism over another. In his landmark history, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945, he gives a fair hearing to traditionalists and libertarians, neoconservatives and paleoconservatives alike, never intervening on behalf of the faction that he believes to possess the superior argument. Intra-conservative debates are presented with charity toward all sides.

Nash therefore favors a method of history that he admits to be rather old-fashioned. When discussing his historical work, he is averse to giving his opinion; indeed he prefers historical observation over theoretical speculation. He claims that his book, Reappraising the Right: The Past & Future of American Conservatism, is more polemical and opinionated than his other work, but most of its essays are exercises in historical investigation that are light on normative claims and heavy on descriptive ones. Nash does not lack opinions, of course, but it does take some effort to pry them out of him.

Read the rest over at City Journal

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