Basic Principles of Temperamental Conservatism, Hamiltonian Nationalism, and Machiavellian Realism

The following log of three passages, excerpted from three different books, is one of the central segments of my little conscience handbook ,”A Compass-Mirror.” In my view these three sets of principles- both descriptive and prescriptive in nature- are better codifications of my own political thought than anything I’ve written. Perhaps eventually I will synthesize them into unified prose more reflective of my own literary tastes, but even if I do the content would remain the same.

Temperamental Conservatism, Hamiltonian Nationalism, Machiavellian Realism- this is my political thought in a nutshell. 


“Principles of Conservatism,”

 by Clinton Rossiter

Excerpted from “Conservatism in America: The Thankless Persuasion”

There is a quality of mystery, a feeling for things unseen and therefore best left undefined, in Conservatism. It is a whole greater than the sum of its parts; it is a stew whose wonderful flavor cannot be accounted for simply by ticking off its ingredients… Here, for what it may be worth, is a bare-boned rendering of the principles of the Conservative tradition:

The mixed and immutable nature of man, in which wickedness, unreason, and the urge to violence lurk always behind the curtain of civilized behavior.

The natural inequality of men in most qualities of mind, body, and spirit.

The superiority of liberty to equality in the hierarchy of human values and social purposes.

The inevitability and necessity of social classes, and consequent folly and futility of most attempts at leveling.

The need for a ruling and serving aristocracy.

The fallibility and potential tyranny of majority rule.

The consequent desirability of diffusing and balancing power- social, economic, cultural, and especially political.

The rights of man as something earned rather than given.

The duties of man- service, effort, obedience, cultivation of virtue, self-restraint- as the price of rights.

The prime importance of property for liberty, order, and progress.

The uncertainty of progress- and the related certainty that prescription, not purposeful reform, is the mainspring of such progress as a society may achieve.

The indispensability and sanctity of inherited institutions, values, symbols, and rituals, that is, of tradition.

The essential role of religious feeling in man and organized religion in society.

The fallibility and limited reach of human reason.

The civilizing, disciplining, conserving mission of education.

The mystery, grandeur, and tragedy of history, man’s surest guide to wisdom and virtue.

The existence of immutable principles of universal justice and morality.

The primacy of the organic community.

Reverence, contentment, prudence, patriotism, self-discipline, the performance of duty- the marks of the good man.

Order, unity, equity, stability, continuity, security, harmony, the confinement of change- the marks of the good society.

Dignity, authority, legitimacy, justice, constitutionalism, hierarchy, the recognition of limits- the marks of good government.

The absolute necessity of conservatism- as temperament, mood, philosophy, and tradition- to the existence of civilization.



“Political Principles of Alexander Hamilton,”

by Clinton Rossiter

 Excerpted from “Alexander Hamilton and the Constitution”

Engaged as we seem to be in an effort to save our dominant liberal tradition from the defects of its own virtues, and also to extend its range to new social and economic problems, we are rummaging in the past for political thinkers who can help us to perform this critical task… If it is pushed with prudence and imagination, one can expect that [Alexander] Hamilton, too, will be offered a new measure of respect…

…The [political principles] we learn from Hamilton the political thinker will reinforce and energize the liberal tradition, not sap or corrupt it. And the best of those lessons would seem to be:

Men are driven to strive and to achieve by their “passions,” of which the most politically significant are the desire for esteem, the anticipation of gain, and the love of power.

Men also wish to preserve and advance their “interests,” which are the physical and psychological fruits, real or merely hoped for, of their strivings. It is next to useless to preach to men about their duty as citizens to control their passions and rise above their interests.

There is, however, a variety of political techniques through which passions can be steered into channels of healthy creativity and interests can be secured against the assaults of fear and envy.

The test of a sound and viable government is its ability to use old techniques and invent new ones that can harness the passions of men and enlist their interests in the service of the common ends of society.

Encompassing the mass of private interests, yet rising above them to live a life of its own, is the interest of all men in the pursuit of these ends- the general welfare, the common felicity, the public good.

No society can survive and prosper unless its citizens understand the commands of the public good and can generally, whether lured by carrots or threatened by sticks, be made to obey them.

No society can survive and prosper unless it has ways to nurture “choice spirits,” men of uncommon virtue and talent, and to place them in positions of responsible authority.

As the opinions of the people are the decisive force in the political process, so the confidence of the people is the principal support of government.

Confidence is inspired chiefly by an honorable, dignified, efficient administration of public affairs.

It is also inspired, up to a point, by the sounds and appearances of such an administration.

The worst of social ills are disorder, violence, instability, and unpredictability- in a phrase, “the hydra Anarchy.”

The worst of political ills is a weak government unable to cope with the convulsions of anarchy, because the next stop beyond anarchy is not chaos but despotism.

The most likely candidates for the role of despots are demagogues.

In a disordered world, there is more to be feared from a dearth of political power than from an overdose of it.

The cutting edge of power is energy- the use of power imaginatively and forcefully in the public interest-which is the indispensable quality of good government.

The executive is the chief source of political energy.

An energetic executive is as necessary to the success of democratic government as it is to any other kind.

The happiness of men in a civilized society depends to a critical extent upon the capacity of good government, not merely to keep order and to protect them in the enjoyment of their rights and property, but actively to promote social, economic, and cultural growth.

Banks, factories, and armies are as important for the freedom and progress of civilized men as schools and churches. The authors of constitutions for those who aspire to be such men will make room in their planning for such instruments of society.


Principles of Machiavellism,

by James Burnham

Excerpted from “The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom”

I shall now summarize the main principles of Machiavellism, those principles which are common to all Machiavellians and which, taken together, define Machiavellism as a distinct tradition of political thought. These general principles constitute a way of looking at social life, an instrument for social and political analysis. They are capable of being applied concretely in the study of any historical period, including our own, that may interest us. They are to be found, implicit as a rule, in the writings of Machiavelli himself…

  1. An objective science of politics, and of society, comparable in its methods to the other empirical sciences, is possible. Such a science will describe and correlate observable social facts, and, on the basis of the facts of the past, will state more or less probable hypotheses about the future. Such a science will be neutral with respect to any practical political goal: that is, like any other science, its statements will be tested by facts accessible to any observer, rich or poor, ruler or ruled, and will in no way be dependent upon the acceptance of some particular ethical aim or ideal.
  1. The primary subject-matter of political science is the struggle for social power in its diverse open and concealed forms.
  1. The laws of political life cannot be discovered by an analysis which takes men’s words and beliefs, spoken or written, at their face value. Words, programs, declarations, constitutions, laws, theories, philosophies, must be related to the whole complex of social facts in order to understand their real political and historical meaning.
  1. Logical or rational action plays a relatively minor part in political and social change. For the most part it is a delusion to believe that in social life men take deliberate steps to achieve consciously held goals. Non-logical action, spurred by environmental changes, instinct, impulse, interest, is the usual social rule.
  1. For an understanding of the social process, the most significant social division to be recognized is that between the ruling class and the ruled, between the elite and the non-elite.
  1. Historical and political science is above all the study of the elite, its composition, its structure, and the mode of its relation to the non-elite.
  1. The primary object of every elite, or ruling class, is to maintain its own power and privilege.
  1. The rule of the elite is based upon force and fraud. The force may, to be sure, be much of the time hidden or only threatened; and the fraud may not entail any conscious deception.
  1. The social structure as a whole is integrated and sustained by a political formula, which is usually correlated with a generally accepted religion, ideology, or myth.
  1. The rule of an elite will coincide now more, now less with the interests of the non-elite. Thus, in spite of the fact that the primary object of every elite is to maintain its own power and privilege, there are nevertheless real and significant differences in social structures from the point of view of the masses. These differences, however, cannot be properly evaluated in terms of formal meanings, verbalisms, and ideologies, but by: a) the strength of the community in relation to other communities; b) the level of civilization reached by the community- its ability, that is to say, to release a wide variety of creative interests and to attain a high measure of material and cultural advance; and c) liberty- that is, the security of individuals against the arbitrary and irresponsible exercise of power.
  1. Two opposing tendencies always operate in the case of every elite: a) an aristocratic tendency whereby the elite seeks to preserve the ruling position of its members and their descendants, and to prevent others from entering its ranks; b) a democratic tendency whereby new elements force their way into the elite from below.
  1. In the long run, the second of these tendencies always prevails. From this it follows that no social structure is permanent and no static utopia is possible. The social or class struggle always continues, and its record is history.
  1. There occur periodically very rapid shifts in the composition and structure of elites: that is social revolutions.

It may be remarked that these Machiavellian principles are much closer to the more or less instinctive views of “practical men” who are themselves active in the social struggle, than to the views of theorists, reformers, and philosophers. This is natural, because the principles are simply the generalized statement of what practical men do and have been doing; whereas the theorists, most often comparatively isolated from direct participation in the social struggle, are able to imagine society and its laws to be as they wish to have them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: