C-SPAN recently launched a series airing Friday nights that profiles 14 presidential contenders that lost, but still had a great deal of impact on American history.
While the series has generated a little buzz for C-SPAN and is an interesting watch, there is a predominant focus on a lot of leftists and other candidates that a conservative viewer probably wouldn’t care too much about. The list includes men such as the Socialist Eugene Debs, and leftist egghead Adlai Stevenson.
So to give conservatives something more to their liking, here is a list of “contenders” that had an impact on the conservative movement. While each one of these men had flaws, and ideas that were sometimes out of step with conservatism, they all have contributed to the modern movement in some way.
John C. Calhoun
A South Carolina statesman from the Jacksonian era, John C. Calhoun was as controversial in his own time as he is today. His infamous speech in the Senate stating that slavery was “a positive good” has been both badly misunderstood and put him out of step with the course of American history.
However, Calhoun was one of the most original thinkers of his era, and he undoubtedly left an intellectual stamp on American governing philosophy.
Calhoun had an impressive political career, in which he served as a House member from South Carolina, senator, secretary of war and secretary of state. But his greatest impact was on political philosophy.
Two political treatises, “Disquisition on Government” and “Discourses on the Constitution,” highlighted his ideas on nullification and concurrent majorities. These two works were never published during his lifetime, but the ideas he put into them had an enormous influence on Southern thought leading up to the Civil War, and still have an impact on many of this nation’s policies up to this day.
His philosophy of concurrent majorities is in fact his greatest contribution to politics, despite his constant connection to concurrent majorities. This philosophy can be traced to the ideas of referendum and recall, which have allowed concerned groups of citizens to step around the economic levelers and the politicians that enable them.
Proposition 13 in California, which was passed in 1979, was a precursor to both the Reagan Revolution and the modern Tea Party movement. Concerned citizens rose up and put a permanent cap on how much politicians could raise taxes on property, which had become so high that many retired Californians were losing their homes.
Even though his attempts to run for President never got off the ground in 1824 and 1844, Calhoun’s unique governing philosophy echoed far beyond his own time and also outlasted his bad ideas about race and free labor.
John C. Fremont
Despite what President Obama said in his jobs speech, Abraham Lincoln was not the “Father of the Republican Party.” That title would probably have to go to John C. Fremont of California, who in 1856 was the first Republican to run for President.
While not truly a conservative, and much more of a radical than Lincoln, there is no doubt that Fremont represents much of what conservatism would become, and that he was instrumental in making the future home for conservatives, the Republican Party, a viable force in American politics.
Fremont’s original claim to fame was his influence in bringing California into the United States. He led an expedition, along with many legendary frontiersmen including Kit Carson, into California. His intent was to ensure that the poorly governed Mexican province would not fall into the hands of a foreign power, especially the British. Fremont’s efforts there paid off as he aided the California Bear Flag Revolt in 1846, and paved the way for eventual American annexation.
Californians who live in the state, of every descent, have a lot to thank Fremont for. The change in governance allowed California to become an economic and cultural powerhouse that has been the crown jewel of the American Republic.
Fremont’s impact on the presidential race was to put a nail in the coffin of the old Whig Party, which at that point stood for little and had become deeply fractured. Fremont, who ran on the platform of “Free Soil, Free Men, and Fremont,” helped the Republican Party discover that running on strong convictions could be a winner
These efforts paved the way for the Union’s victory in the Civil War and nearly a half-century of national electoral dominance by the Republican Party.
John W. Davis
An often neglected presidential candidate from the Roaring Twenties, John W. Davis of West Virginia represented a crossroads in American politics.
Davis was the last Democrat to run as a conservative, in a race that actually pitted him against another conservative, Calvin Coolidge, in 1924. Davis was demolished by Coolidge, and the Democratic Party would change course, but Davis’ impact did not end there.
While Coolidge’s reputation was revived by modern conservatives and by Ronald Reagan, who insisted that Coolidge’s portrait be put in the White House when he served as President, Davis has mostly been forgotten.
Out of step with his party’s trend to the left, Davis was replaced by left-wing candidates, such as Al Smith in the late 1920s, and then by the consummate big government liberal, Franklin Roosevelt.
Unlike the modern Democrat Party, Davis was a firm believer in states’ rights, limited government and fiscal conservatism. Davis even called himself a “Jeffersonian,” and claimed to be in line with Thomas Jefferson’s timeless values.
“I am a genuine Jeffersonian Democrat. I think Jefferson was the greatest political thinker this country has produced, and I expect to die in that faith. If Jefferson’s principles are true, and I think they are, then they remain true, even with changing times. Their application may change, but they do not,” said Davis.
Never entirely comfortable with the connection to big business that was often common with the Republican Party, Davis remained a Democrat. He was against both big government and big business during his career, but ultimately feared the expansion of federal and executive power during the Roosevelt presidency.
Most significant of his accomplishments was the legal fight against President Harry Truman, who tried to nationalize the steel industry in 1952, during the Korean War. Steel workers had been striking and slowing down production.
Davis made the case that this was an unconstitutional expansion of executive authority. He then argued that the Taft-Hartley law would allow him to settle the dispute with striking workers without violating the Constitution.
Davis closed his case by quoting Jefferson, “In questions of power, let no more be said of confidence in man but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.”
Robert A. Taft
The Taft-Hartley union law was a major accomplishment for conservatives in the 1950s, and it needed a conservative champion to get it past Truman. The man who championed that cause was Sen. Robert A. Taft from Ohio.
Taft earned the moniker of “Mr. Republican,” because he was the consistent voice of his party’s ideals for much of the mid-20th century. The son of former President and Supreme Court Justice William H. Taft, Robert Taft always tried to ensure that the Republican Party would remain conservative.
Opposing the New Deal, and the Northeastern Republican establishment that accepted it as a permanent part of American politics, Taft became a champion for conservative ideals when big-government liberalism was at its peak. He twice challenged more moderate Republicans, Wendell Wilkie and Thomas Dewey, for the Republican presidential nomination, but was defeated both times.
His most memorable achievement might have been the passing of the Taft-Hartley Act, which provided new rules for union members and businesses in the United States. It was a corrective to earlier practices of unions that strong-armed their employers, and occasionally put national security interests at risk.
Truman vetoed the bill, but Taft used his skill and influence in Congress to override the veto, gaining bipartisan support.
Taft’s final big moment in politics came when he made his third and final bid for the presidency in 1952. He challenged and lost a close nomination fight with the popular Dwight Eisenhower, who took a stronger stand on defeating communism through military strength. Taft was mostly an isolationist.
Even though the Republican Party, and conservatives, moved away from isolationism, Taft took deeply conservative stands against the liberal way of governance.
Much the way Barry Goldwater was a precursor to Ronald Reagan, Taft was the conservative standard-bearer who paved the way for Goldwater.
It was a speech that Ronald Reagan gave during Barry Goldwater’s 1964 bid for the presidency, called “A Time for Choosing,” that launched the iconic conservative into the national spotlight.
While Reagan became the conservative champion most recognized by his and future generations, the significance of Goldwater and his own impact on the conservative movement should not be diminished.
Having served in the Air Force during World War II, flying missions over the “Hump” in India, and successfully running his family’s business for years, Goldwater was not someone who would welcome a role as a politician. When Goldwater reluctantly entered politics, he rose to become one of the country’s true statesmen.
Goldwater became the voice of conservatism in the Senate when liberalism had run completely amok during the 1960s and 1970s.
In many regards, the most lasting legacy of Goldwater was his book published in 1960, called The Conscience of a Conservative. The delineation of conservative values has nearly as much salience today as it did then.
The 1964 fight for the Republican nomination was more than a fight to select the next President, which Republicans were unlikely to do after the assassination of Kennedy, it was a fight over the soul of the party. Goldwater ended up defeating the original liberal “Rockefeller Republican” Nelson Rockefeller in a dramatic nominating convention in San Francisco.
Speaking at the convention, Goldwater used the immortal lines originally uttered by Cicero, but now always associated with Goldwater.
Responding to Rockefeller’s claim that conservatives were extremists, Goldwater said, “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
The incumbent liberal President, Lyndon Johnson, launched one of the nastiest campaigns in American political history against Goldwater, painting him as a kook and a warmonger.
Less than 20 years later, Ronald Reagan would take the Republican nomination and the presidency, showing that in their hearts, Americans knew Goldwater was right.