Conservatism in the United States

Conservatism in the United States has a long and evolving history. Modern conservatism as we know it emerged in the 1920s with the Republican party. Although conservatism aimed to isolate America from Europe's messy wars, this proved unrealistic throughout the twentieth century.

Conservatism in the United States Conservatism in the United States

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Table of contents

    Modern Conservatism in the United States

    In the 1920s, after the First World War, a series of three Republican presidents were in power, and all were strongly committed to conservatism. But how does Modern Conservatism relate?

    Modern Conservatism

    In the United States, this political ideology favours a free economy, private ownership, a limited federal government, and maintaining traditional social ideas.

    Modern Republican conservatism opposed the idea of government intervention. Here are three ideologies that define modern conservatism:

    Laissez-faire capitalismThis meant businesses were free to expand without government restrictions. Conservatives believed that as these businesses grew wealthier, everyone would benefit as wealth would ‘trickle down’ in the form of employment opportunities. In practice, this led to policies like lowering taxes on personal income and business profits, weakening the power of unions, and reducing overall government spending.
    ProtectionismIt involved increasing taxes on foreign goods, in order to protect American businesses from competition.
    IsolationismWhen a country ignored international events in favour of focusing on national interests. However, complete withdrawal from international relations was impractical during the 1920s.

    Modern conservatism operated on the idea that the government stifled economic progress and innovation.

    The Rise of Contemporary Conservatism in the United States

    Conservatism's laissez-faire capitalism was reminiscent of the Gilded Age, a period of huge economic growth in the late nineteenth century. In a similar way to then, conservative policies in the 1920s benefited big businesses and helped to reduce government debt, leading to an economic boom.

    Laissez-Faire economics

    The ideology that the government should have no intervention in the free market or economy.

    Why was conservatism popular in the 1920s?

    The Republican President Warren Harding campaigned for ‘a return to normalcy’, which Americans were ready for after the First World War and the government policies of the Progressive Era.

    The Progressive Era

    Lasting from the 1890s until 1920, this period focused on political reform and the regulation of big businesses. In contrast to conservatism, progressive aims included a greater role for the federal government, protecting workers' rights, providing state-funded welfare benefits, and introducing reforms to help minorities.

    By the end of the war, however, the American public no longer favoured this approach. Instead, they wanted to focus on their businesses and reduce the government's involvement.

    Conservative Politics

    There were three Presidents who implemented the conservative policies of the 1920s: Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover.

    Warren Harding

    Warren Harding (1921 - 1923) was tasked with reducing government spending, which had increased tenfold between 1910–20. He relied heavily upon his advisors, most notably appointing pro-business multimillionaire Andrew Mellon as Secretary of the Treasury. Mellon would remain in this post for both other presidents of the 1920s, reducing the national debt by nearly $10 billion between 1919–29.

    Conservatism in the United States Portrait of Warren Harding StudySmarterFig. 1 - Warren Harding

    Some notable actions of the Harding administration include the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921. This gave him more control over the nation's budget by forcing other government departments to have presidential approval for their budgets. Harding also introduced the Fordney-McCumber Tariff in 1922, which imposed a tax on foreign goods, encouraging Americans to buy goods produced in America.

    Government expenditure fell by over $1 billion in the first year of administration, which meant that taxes could be reduced. Although the tariff promoted American businesses, it was detrimental for farmers as they had to pay more for machinery, and it made it difficult for Europeans to repay their debts to the US.

    Did you know? In terms of foreign affairs, Harding focused on international cooperation and disarmament.

    Calvin Coolidge

    Calvin Coolidge took over after Harding died in 1923 and remained in office until 1928. The election of 1924 has been said to be the high point of conservatism in the United States, as both the Republican and Democratic candidates campaigned on conservative principles.

    Coolidge famously said that ‘the chief business of the American people is business,’ which became the dominant attitude of the time. His policies epitomised laissez-faire, and by the end of his time in office, unemployment had reduced, government debt had shrunk by $5 billion, and the stock market was at a high point.

    Conservatism in the United States Portrait of Calvin Coolidge StudySmarterFig. 2 - Calvin Coolidge

    Despite his laissez-faire policies and his support of conservatism, Coolidge held some progressive social beliefs. For instance, he supported women's suffrage, signed a law that gave Native Americans citizenship rights, and pushed against lynching and the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist terrorist group. However, he signed the 1924 Immigration Act, which restricted immigration from parts of Europe and Asia.

    A key piece of foreign policy introduced by Coolidge was the Dawes Plan, which provided long-term loans to Germany as they were struggling to pay their war reparations to Britain and France. With Germany able to pay with American aid, Britain and France paid back their war debt to the US.

    Did you know? The Dawes Plan hugely benefited American bankers, as well as the countries involved.

    Herbert Hoover

    Herbert Hoover was the final President of the 1920s conservative era, holding office from 1929 to 1933. He held similar views to Harding and Coolidge but further emphasised individualism. He believed that people should solve their own problems by working harder and without government assistance.

    Conservatism in the United States Portrait of Herbert Hoover StudySmarterFig. 3 - Herbert Hoover

    He introduced the 1931 Hawley-Smoot tariff, which raised tariffs on foreign goods to an all-time high, in order to promote American businesses.

    He expressed the concept of conservatism well in the following quote:

    When the Republican Party came into full power [in 1921] it went at once resolutely back to our fundamental conception of the State and the rights and responsibilities of the individual. Therefore, it restored confidence and hope in the American people, it freed and stimulated enterprise, it restored the Government to its position as an umpire instead of a player in the economic game.1

    - Herbert Hoover, "Rugged Individualism" Campaign Speech 1928

    Hoover was very optimistic about the economy when he took office, but this soon changed after the 1929 Wall Street Crash led to the Great Depression, which would last until 1939. Hoover's ideas about individualism no longer appealed to the American people when it came to the election of 1932, as they were facing a deep depression. The dire economic circumstances of 1929, and America's inability to cope with the Wall Street Crash, paved the way for progressive Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt.

    Did you know? President Roosevelt campaigned on a policy of government intervention and relief for the poor. His "New Deal" programmes included financial regulation, public works programmes, unemployment relief, creation of new parks and green spaces, and aid to the farming industry.

    Examples of conservatism in the United States

    Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover all represented conservatism in the United States. Here are some examples of their policies after the First World War:

    • The soldiers who fought during the First World War received a much lower wage in the army than they would have in civilian jobs. They asked the government for a bonus to make up for the loss in earnings but all three Presidents opposed this.

    • During the First World War, a dam was being built on the Tennessee River to power two chemical plants. After the war, there were calls for the government to finish the dam to provide electricity and fertilisers to the area. Coolidge and Hoover opposed this idea of government ownership, favouring private business.

    • The conservative Presidents opposed buying surplus farm produce. During the First World War, farmers produced more food, but upon the end of the war, the demand was much lower, so they were left with excess goods. The lack of government assistance combined with debt amassed during the war meant many farmers could not afford to keep their farms running.

    Social Conservatism in the United States

    The most notable policy of social conservatism of the 1920s was Prohibition. The prohibition of alcohol was introduced in 1919 by the 18th Amendment and was maintained throughout the 1920s. While President Harding personally disregarded prohibition, Herbert Hoover called it ‘a great social and economic experiment, noble in motive and far-reaching in purpose.’ This policy was ineffective as the illicit trade of alcohol grew and led to organised crime, so it was repealed in 1933.

    Conservatism in the United States Detroit Police after finding clandestine brewery StudySmarterFig. 4 - The Detroit Police inspecting some equipment found in a clandestine brewery during Prohibition

    After the First World War, the US experienced the first Red Scare in response to the 1917 communist Russian Revolution. Thousands of suspected socialist radicals were arrested, immigration was restricted, and labour unions were seen as suspicious.

    In line with the conservative goal of maintaining traditions, there was a fundamentalist Protestant revival, with some states banning the teaching of evolution. In the first half of the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan grew to its largest membership number, serving to promote white supremacy as well as functioning as a type of conservative social organisation in the Midwest and the South.

    Conservatism in the United States - Key takeaways

    • Conservatism became popular after the First World War as it offered the American people ‘a return to normalcy’ in comparison to the reforms of the Progressive Era.
    • Key economic concepts of conservatism include laissez-faire capitalism, the trickle-down principle, and protectionism.
    • The conservative ideal for foreign policy was isolationism, but this period focused on disarmament, cooperation, and policies that helped US national interests.
    • The three conservative Republican presidents of the 1920s were Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover, who were consistent in their conservative policies.
    • Conservative policies included tariffs on foreign goods, reduction in government spending, and tax reduction.
    • Social conservatism focused on maintaining traditions, which manifested in the 1920s as fear of anything ‘alien’, including socialists, immigrants, and minorities. It was also the basis for prohibition and fundamentalist Protestants banning the teaching of evolution.


    1. Herbert Hoover, "Rugged Individualism" Campaign Speech 1928.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Conservatism in the United States

    What are conservative values in the USA?

    Conservative values include a free economy, private ownership, a limited federal government, and maintaining traditional social ideas.

    What is conservatism in simple terms?

    Conservatism is a philosophy that emphasises traditional values and limited government interference in the economy.

    Who are conservatives in US politics?

    Conservatives are generally members of the Republican party.

    What is conservatism in society?

    Conservatism in society, or social conservatism, historically focused on alcohol. It fought for Prohibition (1920 - 1933) which banned alcohol in the United States. Extreme social conservatism saw the growth of the KKK and white supremacy in the South. 

    What are the main features of conservatism?

    The main features of conservatism are: 

    • a free economy
    • private ownership of property and businesses
    • a limited federal government
    • maintaining traditional social ideas

    When was the rise of conservatism in the US?

    Modern conservatism emerged in the 1920s with the Republican party. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of these is not a conservative idea?

    What percentage of the popular vote did Harding win in the 1920 election?

    What political philosophy did Coolidge believe in?


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