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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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I. INTRODUCTION

1. Contemporary Usage. With the exception of
Scandinavia, England, and a few countries of the
British Commonwealth, no major national political
party has officially labelled itself “conservative.”
Parties of the political “right” are, however, frequently
called “conservative.” Moreover, in the course of a
general broadening of the political spectrum to the
“left,” the range of positions called “conservative” has
become increasingly wider; however, it has become
necessary to make a distinction between conservative
and reactionary positions and policies. In everyday
speech in the 1960's the term “conservative” seems
to be more widespread than the contrasting terms
“liberal” or “radical”; it denotes, as used by opponents
mostly with a critical or pejorative tone, an attitude
that attaches greater importance to the preservation
and care of the traditional and enduring than to inno-
vation and change. The typical conservative defends
individual and collective material and cultural posses-
sions, fears and resists revolution, and accepts progress
only as a gradual development from the existing politi-
cal system. This in turn places those who think and
feel conservatively in a permanently defensive position
from which they either incline to cultural pessimism
or are obliged to demonstrate that “genuine,” “true”
conservatism is not really hostile to change, but is
indispensable for the stability of a society with deep
concern for the maintenance of continuity.

2. Etymological Summary. In Latin conservare
means to protect, preserve, save; the noun of agency,
conservator, appears as a synonym for the substantives
custos, servator. Just as the Greek Sōter (“Savior”) was
adopted from the religious realm by the Hellenistic
cult of the ruler, so too conservator is found among
the Romans beginning in the Augustan era (as an
epithet of both Jupiter and Caesar). Augustus appears
as Novus Romulus, as protector of the mos maiorum
and pater patriae to whom the Senate dedicated the
coinage inscription Parenti Cons (ervatori) Suo.

In Christianity conservator appears along with the
proper name for the Savior (salvator) on some occa-
sions. Beginning in the thirteenth century, upon the
acceptance of Roman law, conservator appears north
of the Alps as a juridical and administrative term for
an imperial, royal, or church functionary charged with
the preservation or restoration of rights; in England
they were predecessors of the “Justices of the Peace.”
In French conservateur is used roughly from 1400 to
the end of the eighteenth century in the sense of an
“official charged with the guardianship and protection
of certain rights, of certain public property.”

The political usage of “conservative” is derived from
the French conservateur, and begins to appear only
after the French Revolution, and then very hesitantly.
In his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)
Burke used the verb “to conserve,” while his German
translator, Friedrich Gentz, later spoke of the “tend-
ency to conserve.” In France conservateur in the sense
of moderation and conservation may also refer primar-
ily to idéés libérales. In this sense it was used, among
others, by Mme de Staël (1798) and by Nepoleon on
the 19th of Brumaire 1799: “Conservative, tutelary,
and liberal ideas have come into their own by the
dispersion of the factions which have been oppressing
the Councils.” The modern political meaning: “one
who is a partisan of the maintenance of the established
social and political order,” derives from Chateaubri-
and's weekly newspaper Le Conservateur (started in
1818). (“Le Conservateur will support religion, the
King, liberty, the Charter, and loyal, respectable peo-
ple....”) “Conservateur” has never appeared as the
official name of a party in France.

The characteristic political connotation of the
English term “conservative” took final form in the
1820's in line with French usage. In 1827 Wellington
expected from the “parti conservateur” of England the
unity of all forces dedicated to the preservation of
monarchical and aristocratic privileges in opposition
to radical demands; in the struggles over the final
version of the Reform Bill after 1830, “conservative”


478

was often understood in the sense of “local, consti-
tutional,” and as the antithesis of “anarchic, radical.”
As the name of a party and as the expression of a
changed conception of its own policies, “conservative
party” appeared along with “Tory party” for the first
time in 1830, though its meaning remained contro-
versial. It was the personality of Peel that imposed an
interpretation on the word “conservative” that may
still count as valid to this day: defense of law and order,
along with a willingness to reform any institution really
in need of amelioration, but by gradual and deliberate
steps.