Most political rhetoric dies a quick and deserved death, but a statement adopted on this date 55 years ago remains the most widely accepted definition of the Conservative Idea. I refer to the magisterial Sharon Statement, drafted by 26-year-old M. Stanton Evans and approved by Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) at its founding meeting in Sharon, Connecticut.
Less than 400 words in length, the Sharon Statement is reminiscent of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in its concise language, listing such truths as,
- Foremost among the transcendent values is the individual’s use of his God-given free will.
- Political freedom cannot long exist without economic freedom.
- The purposes of government are to protect these freedoms through the preservation of internal order, the provision of national defense and the administration of justice.
- The market economy is the single economic system compatible with personal freedom and constitutional government.
- The forces of international communism are the greatest single threat to these liberties, and the United States should stress victory over rather than coexistence with this menace.
Here are the central themes that have been at the core of modern American conservatism for the past six decades: Free will and moral authority come from God; political and economic liberty are essential for the preservation of free peoples and free institutions; government must be strictly and constitutionally limited; the market economy is the system most compatible with freedom; and Communism, terrorism or any other major external threat must be defeated, not simply contained.
These themes reflect the basic philosophy of the major strains of conservatism at the time—traditional conservatism, libertarianism, and anti-communism, the glue that held conservatives together. And they are compatible with the thought of the present major groups of conservatism—social conservatives, economic conservatives, and national security conservatives.
Evans later explained that he had been able to draft the Sharon Statement in just a few hours because its language was all around him in the books and columns and articles and speeches of conservative luminaries like F. A. Hayek, Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley Jr., and Whittaker Chambers. It also helped that Stan Evans was the youngest editor of a daily newspaper in America and knew how to put words and thoughts together in a compelling way.
A major reason for the enduring influence of modern American conservatism in the last six decades or so is its ability, in good times and bad, to look to extraordinary documents like the Sharon Statement for philosophical guidance and inspiration.
Lee Edwards is the distinguished fellow in conservative thought at The Heritage Foundation's B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics. A leading historian of American conservatism, Edwards is the author or editor of 20 books, including biographies of Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater and Edwin Meese III as well as histories of The Heritage Foundation and the movement as a whole.
Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by The Heritage Foundation.