Ask a conservative to list his political heroes, and you are likely to hear names such as Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater, and William F. Buckley. Those looking further back in time might list Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Fewer people are likely to mention Nathaniel Macon or Josiah Bailey, unless they have read the latest book from Raleigh author Garland Tucker. Tucker, chairman and chief executive officer of Triangle Capital Corporation, profiles important figures from American history in the book Conservative Heroes: Fourteen Leaders Who Shaped America, From Jefferson to Reagan. Tucker discussed the book with Mitch Kokai for Carolina Journal Radio. (Click here to find a station near you or to learn about the weekly CJ Radio podcast.)
Kokai: You have written another book that was spotlighted on this show a few years back, The High Tide of American Conservatism, but this time, spotlighting some conservative heroes. Why?
Tucker: Well, I think the book is really written for conservatives about conservatism, and it’s my hope that it will help conservatives sharpen up their thinking a little bit on what the basic principles of conservatism really are. And in looking at the lives of these 14 leaders, we’ll get a feel for what it’s like to live out those principles, in a historical context.
Kokai: We’re going to get into some of the leaders in just a bit, but first, you mentioned conservative principles, and your opening chapter really sets out a handful of principles that all these leaders relied upon. What are some of those principles?
Tucker: I lay out five that I suggest are very basic. The first one is a basic conservative view of human nature. Liberals would hold that human beings are getting better and better. Conservatives aren’t that optimistic but think that a government can properly set some limits within which human beings can flourish.
Another key concept is the importance of private property. Limited government is another very important concept. The conservatives would argue that there are really only two basic roles for government: to establish order and then to preserve liberty.
And finally, conservatives would say that the basis on which any society or country rests are really individual or private virtues, and those private virtues in case of the American Republic are very much [baeed] on Judeo-Christian traditions.
Kokai: We’re going to have a chance to get into some of the leaders. I don’t think we’re going to hit all 14 in the time that we have. So because of that, let’s focus on a couple of the lesser-known people, who may be of interest to a North Carolina audience. One of the names we mentioned at the top of the interview — Nathaniel Macon. Who was he, and why is he a conservative leader?
Tucker: To get a little overall context, as I developed the book, the 14 leaders, it goes chronologically through American history over 200 years, and starts with Jefferson and Madison at the very beginning of the Republic. But the second chapter is devoted to Nathaniel Macon and John Randolph. These were two very early Jeffersonians, and Nathaniel Macon was from North Carolina.
He was speaker of the House of Representatives under Jefferson and one of Jefferson’s closest political associates, particularly leading up to Jefferson’s election in 1800. And it’s, I think, pretty well known — at least among historians — that once Jefferson and Madison were elected president in their own right, they became a little bit more expansive in their views of limited government.
But Nathaniel Macon and John Randolph never did. They held very firmly to those original Jeffersonian concepts and were an important link in Jefferson’s limited government views, between 1800 and the Civil War.
Kokai: And for those who think that Jesse Helms was “Senator No,” Macon had a reputation for voting no quite a bit, didn’t he?
Tucker: Yeah, that’s right. There’s evidence that Jesse Helms was very envious of Nathaniel Macon’s record of no votes.
Kokai: There’s another North Carolina figure who might not be particularly well-known, especially outside of the Tar Heel State or even outside Raleigh, and that’s Josiah Bailey. Who was he?
Tucker: Josiah Bailey was the Democratic senator from North Carolina in the 1930s and ’40s, and he was a leader in the conservative movement within the Democratic Party and within Congress that began to push back against [Franklin] Roosevelt and the New Deal, beginning — well, primarily in 1937.
He led the successful fight to block Roosevelt’s court-packing scheme, and then shortly after that, he led an effort that was not successful, but it was the development of something that he called the Conservative Manifesto, which was the first attempt to create a bipartisan coalition of conservative members of Congress.
And this was also in 1937. Bailey was regarded as one of the best speakers in the Senate, a very intelligent individual, and someone that North Carolina, I think, can be very proud of.
Kokai: This is the second time that you’ve written a book that highlights someone who doesn’t get a lot of attention, and that is a fellow named John W. Davis. Why is he one of your conservative heroes?
Tucker: Davis was the Democratic nominee for president in 1924, and was arguably, I think, the last conservative that the Democrats nominated. He’s included in this book because of his contribution in the 1930s, ’40s, and even into the 1950s, of successfully challenging New Deal and Fair Deal legislation before the court, primarily the Supreme Court.
He was very successful in securing the overturning of a lot of legislation. In fact, he earned Roosevelt’s nickname as Public Enemy No. 1, which Davis very much cherished that nickname.
Kokai: Your book starts with basically the start of the American Republic, with Jefferson and Madison. You go up through Ronald Reagan, and, of course, it’s been more than a quarter century now since Reagan left office. Is this a bad sign, that we don’t yet have someone else to add to this list?
Tucker: The last chapter deals with William F. Buckley, Barry Goldwater, and Reagan, which covers a good bit of the last half of the 20th century. But I would certainly want to make it clear that I don’t, in any way, view this as the final chapter of conservatism.
I think there will be, hopefully, many additional chapters, and hopefully some soon. One of the premises on which the book is written is that conservatism is as old as the Republic itself, and it’s based on truths that have been around since before the Republic. So I think it’s just as current today as it was when Reagan was president or Coolidge or Cleveland, or some of these other leaders. So I’m certainly hoping and believe that there will be subsequent chapters that somebody will write.
Kokai: In the brief time that we have left, do you think that a leader who espoused and actually followed those five principles that you set out would be leading us in the direction we need to go?
Tucker: Absolutely. That’s what I hope will be apparent to anyone reading the book, is once you’ve read the introductory material on the five concepts behind conservatism, I think you can see those concepts were lived out by these 14 leaders, and, admittedly, they had to address different issues in their different eras, and there will be different issues in the future, but I think the five concepts will be just as applicable in the future as they have been in the past.