Conscience Republicanism in the 21st Century

“They’re going the way of the Whigs.” We’ve all heard this statement before, generally in reference to a political party or movement becoming defunct due to changing times. It has been applied to the Republican Party at the height of the New Deal Era of the 30s and after Watergate, and to the Democrats after a Republican president won yet another term in 1988. More recently, the term has been used when describing the modern GOP after reports surfaced that President Trump intended to start his own third party in 2021 so as to help push those in his personal circles back into positions of political power. But who exactly were the Whigs, and what terrible thing happened to them that resulted in their name being stained in such a fashion centuries after their collapse? 

Our more historically inclined readers will recall that the Whig Party was one of the two major parties in American politics in the 1830s, 40s, and 50s, representing a similar strain of Hamiltonian conservatism as their ideological predecessor, the Federalist Party. Historians often struggle to describe their exact ideology, but the general consensus is that they were inclined towards philosophical Aristotelianism, deeply concerned with upholding such things as social order, what they saw to be traditional American culture, private property, public education, economic modernization, and evangelical moralism. Like their Federalist forebears, they tended to favor economic nationalism and the American school of economics, with a sizable number also supporting temperance laws, the slowing down of Manifest Destiny and a substantial restriction of immigration into the United States. For much of their existence, the Whig Party drew strong support from both Northern and Southern economic elites. Their rivals, the far more well-organized Democratic Party, were often successfully able to use these characteristics to paint the Whigs as being an overly aristocratic, anti-democratic entity. This resulted in the Whigs more often than not being an opposition party during their 23 years of existence, and combined with sharp internal party divides on the question of slavery, resulted in their eventual collapse in 1856. That very same year, the newborn Republican Party ran its first presidential candidate, John C. Fremont, who won 11 of the 16 northern states and came in second place, bringing about our current two-party system.

I remember first learning about the elections of 1856 and 1860 in the eight grade, where the vastly oversimplified curriculum taught us that all the old Whigs and members of the small Free Soil third party merged into the GOP. Naturally this was not very accurate, as Fremont was not even on the ballot in 2 of the 4 states carried by the Whigs in 1852. In actuality, the Republican Party was founded by a coalition of disenchanted Whigs, Free Soilers, Know-Nothing nativists and a surprisingly large number of anti-slavery northern Democrats. The focus on this piece is largely on the Whigs who would later join the Republican Party.

In those days, a man could be one of two sorts of Whig, a Cotton or a Conscience. The factions shared similarities, of course, chiefly in their disdain for Andrew Jackson & support for a more Hamiltonian approach to economics and a national bank, but were bitterly divided over many of the chief issues of the day. The Cotton Whigs were strongly affiliated with the business world of that era, and could be subdivided into two further categories: the Southern Cottons, who drew support from wealthy industrialists, merchants and planters in the South that sought to slowly expand slavery, build public infrastructure, limit the growth of tariffs (but were not as anti-tariff as Southern Democrats), and the Northern Cottons, who were less anti-tariff than their Southern counterparts and closely tied to the burgeoning textile industry in the North, which substantially relied upon cheap, slave-grown Southern cotton. Barring a few members, the Cotton Whigs were not fanatic defenders of slavery as an institution; they did not support United States expansion into Latin America and were wary of allowing newly conquered American territories to allow slavery within their borders. A more accurate description of their stance would be that of indifference. A good number of them like Robert Charles Winthrop were moralists who personally found the institution to be wrong but did not do much about it due to their “pro-big business” economic stances and fears of disrupting national unity. Other examples of Cotton Whigs include Massachusetts congressmen Abbot Lawrence and Daniel Webster and Virginia congressman John Botts. On the other side of the aisle were the Conscience Whigs, who unlike their Cotton counterparts were exclusively found in the Northern states (New England, Upstate New York, Upper Midwest, Ohio Western Reserve). To put it plainly, those men were moral crusaders, their evangelical passions forged in the fires of the Second Great Awakening. Well-known Consciences included Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner and former President John Quincy Adams.

After the failure of their party, politicians from each faction parted ways, with most Consciences joining the Republican Party and most Cottons joining either the Constitutional Union Party or the Know-Nothings, though some would later become Republicans or Northern Democrats. In addition to influencing the GOP towards abolishing slavery and securing the civil liberties of Black freedmen, the ex-Conscience Whigs’ legacy was present in many other noble Republican projects like the temperance movement, women’s suffrage, civil rights for Native Americans, Theodore Roosevelt’s Square Deal/environmental conservation, the spread of constitutional government throughout the world, the fight for the dignity of the unborn, and the Civil Rights Act. Whether we would like to admit it or not, that old-fashioned Yankee moralism has always been an integral part of the Grand Old Party, and I pray to God Almighty that it will remain so in the coming years.

This brings us to the present day, in which the Democratic Party has a trifecta in the federal government (albeit a narrow one) while the Republicans are fractured and unsure of what direction their future lies in. Commercial interests, once strong supporters of the GOP, are becoming increasingly hostile to conservative principles and conservative people of ordinary means, having realized that there is no better way to divide the working class than with Jacobin political charades. It is in this time that it would do good for our movement to remember the turbulent era of the 1840s and like the brave men of that era, to take a stand for our fundamental moral principles and the common good. In other words, the time has come for “Conscience Republicans”.

To be sure, the magnitude of the issues confronting our nation today cannot be compared to the years immediately leading up to the American Civil War. Dangerous as our foes are today, it is unreasonable to compare them to the Slave Power, or to compare their actions to the abominably wicked institution of chattel slavery. That being said, we do face foes like the People’s Republic of China, a behemoth responsible for such horrors as the internment and genocide of the Uyghur people and the subjugation of developing nations through economic neocolonialism. Why, then, are there a great number of Republicans perfectly willing to do business with the Scarlet Dragon despite being fully aware of their murderous Bolshevistic designs? Why are so many conservative figures tolerant of the growing influence of increasingly illiberal social media corporations over our society, content with a progressively larger share of corporate lobbyists promoting left-wing causes (perhaps assuming that Wall Street could ever be a beacon of traditional values wasn’t a brilliant idea)? Fusionist political philosophy has unfortunately converted large swaths of both the Republican establishment and the conservative base into radical economic libertarians unwilling to accept the conflict between their devotion to economic freedom and our world’s current state of affairs™. “Cotton Republicans” are seemingly present in every faction of the Republican party. 

The aim of this essay is not to rage against these politicians; there are already countless writers online expressing their frustrations and condemning “elitists”, “traitors”, “RINOs”, “market fundamentalists”, etc… I believe that unlike the Whig Party, who fractured over such matters, we as Republicans have a unique opportunity to unify our party over the core principles we cherish so dearly. A relatively unknown fact is that the Republican Party was actually named after Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic Republican Party, despite the fact that the majority of Jeffersonians eventually became Democrats. This is because our party has, unlike the more aristocratic Whigs, always been dedicated to the principles of republicanism and cultivating the civic virtue of ordinary people. The slogan “Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor, Free Men” has embodied these values without failure since 1854. It is up to us to strategically work through various political and cultural arenas to restore a “Conscience” sensibility back into our party. How exactly this should be done is naturally circumstantial, but I have several broad ideas:

  • Ask your fellow conservatives which they hold dearer, their pro-business attitudes or their traditional sociopolitical values. Nine times out of ten you will find that even the most devoted free marketeer will put their belief in God and constitutional government above any desire to limit state intervention in the economy. There was once a time when asking such a question might have been intellectually dishonest but at this moment, not much unlike the Gilded Age, there is a clear and present conflict between these two. Another question to consider is why it is acceptable for a private entity to exert as much hegemonic influence as a government one, and at what point can the line drawn between the two be considered “blurry”?
  • We must stop treating the People’s Republic of China as just another country and have to address it as what it is: a genocidal autocracy determined to spread their borderline fascistic state-capitalist rule across the globe. Before us is not just a country with different social mores than us, but another Evil Empire no better than the Soviet Union. It’s vital that we change this attitude not only within our own circles but also among as much of the general public as possible.
  • It is worth remembering that a great deal of compromise will be necessary in our day and age, and hence being stridently opposed to it will do us no good. What matters much more are the specific sorts of matters we should be open to making compromises on. It is one thing to strike a bargain on taxation or budgetary matters and another to compromise on fighting global Communist tyranny or the sanctity of human life. We shall have to make such decisions both internally and in external political matters. Yes, that means that it is perfectly reasonable to compromise and work with fusionists, “paleoconservatives”, “neoconservatives” or even libertarians on certain matters, so long as we proceed in all matters with Burkean caution. The Conscience Whigs understood the value of avoiding chaos on non-essential matters. For example, while organizing the Free Soil Party in between their tenures in the Whig and Republican parties, the Consciences were joined by northern Barnburner Democrats who shared their commitment to abolition and a free republic. These Northern Democrats, however, were strident Jeffersonian democrats who opposed Whiggish economic developmentalism and protectionism, which in turn meant that the new party would have to strike some sort of middle ground on economics. The Free Soilers decided that their platform would mix the Whigs’ policy of state funded internal improvements combined with the Barnburners’ desire for lower tariffs, and it worked extremely well; their success as a third party in that era would make any modern-day Green or Libertarian green with envy.
  • There was once a time in which the mention of Republicanism would be associated with concern for civil liberties, though that has long since passed. Let’s work to change that. There’s absolutely nothing conservative about either corporate or state surveillance, nor is it very “trad” to allow the People’s Republic of China to continue harvesting our citizens’ data through applications like TikTok. Likewise, it is hardly reasonable for there to be immense animosity between a community and those that police them; Republicans who stalwartly oppose police reform are fighting a losing battle, and fail to realize that a healthy respect for our ancient liberties as citizens and law & order cannot exist without one another. This is not “catering” to minorities as some in our party have put it, but rather a basic affirmation of the principle of limited government which has existed since the signing of the Magna Carta. And of course it would not hurt us to receive more votes from voters of color, though policies like police reform and the defense of our digital privacy are broadly popular in America, especially among the youth.

We have a long road ahead of us, and it is by no means an easy one. I would not be surprised if for every Conscience Republican, there are currently four or even five Cottons. It is the goal of this publication to advance a “new conservatism” which infuses ancient and early modern political thought into pragmatic policy solutions for the current age. As our about page reads, we value republicanism, moralism and a Burkean sensibility. Yes, our writing is intended to inspire you, to open up your mind to ideas seen as unorthodox in the current conservative climate. But even more important than this is our call to action. What will you do in these uncertain times?