Origins of Conservatism (Part I): Richard Hooker

Origins of Conservatism (Part I): Richard Hooker

Growing up, my parents instilled in me the virtues of limited government, the morality of an equality of opportunity, and the importance in rule of law. Naturally, my political leanings pointed rightward, and conservative to be more precise. I began ascribing myself as a Conservative Republican. Of course I knew what a Republican was (who doesn’t?), but I discovered explaining Conservatism was somewhat difficult. After all, the Republican Party has a platform that can be cited, while Conservatism does not.

After reading Founding Brothers in my freshman year history class, I became obsessed with the Founding Era and the philosophy behind it. Any student of American History, and more specifically the Founding of our country, knows that many philosophical insights influenced the system established by our Constitution. While delving into the details, I found a resemblance to the values I likened to Conservatism within our structure of government. The separation of powers, various checks and balances allotted to the Federal Government, the States, and the People, and a commitment to tradition, natural rights, and the obligation to rule of law. This realization begged the question, where did “Conservatism” as we know it today come from? The layman will attribute it to Rush Limbaugh, Margaret Thatcher, and of course Ronald Reagan. But in reality, the bricks of modern Conservatism were laid centuries ago. Four men, some of whom I had only known their name, can be considered the Founding Fathers of Modern Conservatism, and this series is dedicated to them.

During the 16th century, there was a growing frustration with the Catholic Church. Apparent corruption marred the church’s image and detractors began surfacing everywhere. Men like Martin Luther and John Calvin attempted to reform Catholicism from the inside, but eventually decided to break away. Their schism, coupled with Henry VIII and his newly established Church of England were main components of what is known as the Protestant Reformation. During this time, many different religious practices clashed and numerous new disciplines of Protestantism were established. However, in the dawning years of Henry VIII’s Church of England, one man stood athwart radical reformed theology (i.e. Puritanism). His name was Richard Hooker.

Hooker was born in Exeter, England around 1554. In his short 46 years on Earth, Hooker became a staunch defender of not only the hierarchical system, but also the importance of the laws of men. Conversely, the Puritans (and the degree to which varied between different Puritanical denominations) believed in strict adherence to scriptural law. The reason Puritans sought to greatly reform the Church, and eventually to break from it, is they believed the laws of man had strayed too far from God’s written word. Hooker objected to this idea and instead offered his belief in certain unalterable morals, but also in flexible realms of law from which man could govern themselves. This greatly reflects modern conservative thought.

Unalienable rights bestowed on us by our Creator like the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (which can be interchanged with “pursuit of property”) are inflexible guidelines for which man must govern in accordance. Within those guidelines, however, man’s morality must guide, not predetermine, the legislative process. Hooker remained faithful in not only England’s monarchy, but its partnership with Parliament. His greatest contribution to Conservatism lay in his preference for gradual, systemic change in law, as opposed to methods of radical upheaval (this became the central theme of Hooker’s philosophical successor, Edmund Burke).  

Hooker’s commitment to the rule of law is the foremost reason he is considered a Founding Father of Modern Conservatism. Perhaps his most famous work, Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, illustrated his philosophy on law and order. Hooker firmly believed that the operation and observance of law was the glue that held the world together. Without order, there can be no civilized society. Hooker also believed that reason, derived from God’s law, should be society’s guiding force rather than unadulterated adherence to scripture. In today’s day and age, conservative’s share Hooker’s fondness of measured amendment to law and abhor proposed radical overthrow of our established system.

Additionally, because of Conservatism’s intrinsic partiality to religion, they share another view of Hooker’s. He believed that the Church and State possessed common interests, and should thus work together to achieve their goals. While in America, there is a separation of church and state, it only prohibits the State establishing an official religion. It does not outlaw influence of religious values on law. Even though Hooker would be in favor of a State-sponsored religion, he believed such in order to better allow application of what we understand today as Judeo-Christian values on law. Religion was a key component of the American Founding, and to deny such is to deny history. Conservatives remain steadfast in their opposition to a State religion, but religious values remain deeply-rooted in conservative’s philosophical make-up and their politics today.

Richard Hooker contributed greatly to modern conservative thought and deserves recognition for it. Anyone who labels themselves a Conservative, must understand the origins of its convictions. Ignorance regarding Conservatism’s ideological roots only leads to abandonment of principle and the underlying philosophies that shaped it. The concept of natural rights, necessity of rule of law, and the revelation that remains government “of, by, and for the People” depend on preservation of the principles of Conservatism and the men who forged them. 

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