The Early History of Conservatism
An excerpt from my forthcoming book, Left Wing, Right Wing, People, and Power.
The earliest uses of “Left” and “Right” in politics did not reflect political philosophies or ideologies. Instead, they indicated support for or opposition to a particular government. “Left” and “Right” as relative terms came from their first uses in the days of the French Revolution. In 1789 in the French Legislative Assembly, supporters of the king chose to group themselves sitting to the right of the assembly president, and opponents of the king sat opposite them on the left. The French newspapers of the time used the terms “the Left” and “the Right” to describe the opposing sides, and the usage spread throughout Europe.
Political groups in the 1790s used “Left” and “Right” to express common ground with one or the other side during the French Revolution. Before long, all political movements opposed to a sitting government were called “the Left,” with “the Right” referring to those who supported that government.
The French Legislative Assembly members who, in 1791, sat to the right of the assembly president were united by a common cause to maintain the position of the king, Louis XVI. On the one hand, their politics were a continuation of an old order that had been in place for centuries. On the other hand, their politics were a response to new events unfolding in their nation. Out of a blend of old ideas and new realities was crafted the philosophy of conservatism, the precursor to the various movements today that can be classified as right-wing.
There are three main trajectories of right-wing thought — conservatism, reactionism, and libertarianism. They are at times starkly different, but they share a fundamental belief on how power should be structured. I will discuss reactionism and libertarianism later, but first, I will address the philosophy that preceded the other two, conservatism.
The Father of Conservatism
Edmund Burke (1729–1797) is widely regarded as the father of conservative thought because of his philosophical attack on the French Revolution. He was English, but he sympathized with the…