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Conservatism is the political belief which emphasizes retaining traditional social institutions in culture and civilization. It supports institutions and practices that have evolved gradually and are manifestations of continuity and stability, and it believes in an organic and interdependent society. Following the French Revolution in 1789, conservatism began to develop as a distinct political attitude and movement, and the term was introduced in France to describe supporters of the Bourbon Restoration in 1815. It was later adopted in the United States to describe John C. Calhoun and the supporters of states' rights.

Conservatism rejects the liberal optimism that humans are born with a tabula rasa (blank slate; free from evil), and conservatives support traditional political and cultural institutions to curb humans' base and destructive instincts. Conservatives place a high value on families, churches, and schools, believing that they encourage ethical behavior and responsible use of liberty. The Catholic Church, because of its roots in the Middle Ages, has appealed to more conservatives than has any other religion, and Edmund Burke praised Catholicism as the most effective barrier against radicalism.

The two original branches of conservatism were Burke's "traditionalist conservatism" and Joseph de Maistre's "reactionism". Burke's conservatism was evolutionary, and rejected revolution for the sake of civil liberties; Maistre's conservatism was counter-revolutionary, and rejected revolution for the sake of traditional authority (especially the authority of the monarch and church). Reactionism in France opposed the Enlightenment entirely and supported a return to a hereditary and absolute monarchy under the Bourbon Restoration. However, Maistre's rigid, hierarchical conservatsm died out, while Burke's conservatism became the main conservative force worldwide.

Old-style conservatism dominated the "Concert of Europe" period, with statesmen such as the Austrian leader Klemens von Metternich, Czar Alexander I of Russia, British foreign minister Lord Castlereagh, and French foreign minister Charles de Talleyrand supporting the maintenance of the status quo. At times, this required military intervention to crush liberal nationalist revolutions or uprisings. However, the discontent of urban liberals with the absolutism of Europe led to the threatening of the Congress of Vienna establishment. After the Revolutions of 1848, conservative factions either lost power to liberals or nationalists or clung on to power in coalitions with other groups. In the late 19th century, French Royalists were weakened by the fact that there were no less than three families claiming a nonexistent French throne, and conservatives among the Catholic clergy, the military officer class, and the landed aristocracy remained haunted by nostalgia for the Ancien Regime.

Industrialization hastened the decline of old-style conservatism, as it strengthened the commerce-minded middle class and created a new industrial class. Between 1830 and 1880, liberalism won repeated victories over the conservative establishment in Western Europe, and the decline in numbers of conservatives' chief source of strength, the rural peasantry, forced conservatives to identify themselves with nationalist sentiments in order to gain popularity. The Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck championed this new "national conservatism", using nationalist sentiments to unify Germany in 1871. For 20 years, as Chancellor, Bismarck undertook social welfare measures such as pensions and unemployment benefits to draw working-class support away from the Social Democratic Party of Germany, while also protecting the landowning junker class and the officer class. By the end of the 19th century, most conservative parties had adopted nationalism, facilitating the start of World War I in 1914.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a new form of conservatism, Christian democracy, developed in France, Germany, and Italy. Under Pope Leo XIII, the Church combined protection of the Church's institutional interests with policies of social justice designed to bring industrial workers back to the faith. Christian democrats supported private property rights, but also insisted that the rich look after the needs of the poor.

American conservatism, a unique brand of conservatism, developed in the late 18th century. As there was never a monarchy, an aristocracy, or an established church for conservatives to defend or liberals to attack, the ideology was based on the original classical liberal ideals of the Founding Fathers. The nearest thing to an American aristocracy was the wealthy plantation-owning class in the American South, which favored the rights of states against the power of the federal government. Currently, American conservatism emphasizes private property rights, a free market economy, Judeo-Christian values (social conservatism), and a strong national defense.

During the Interwar period that followed the end of World War I in 1918, conservative parties became standard bearers of frustrated nationalism. From the 1930s and into World War II, conservative parties across Central and Eastern Europe were destroyed or co-opted by the totalitarian regime of Nazi Germany. European conservative parties began to recover their strength only after the war's end in 1945, and only in Western Europe, as Soviet communism had come to dominate the East. Given socialism's apparent inability to speedily rebuilt shattered postwar economies, conservative parties promised economic growth and democratic freedoms, and the new conservatism was shorn of its aristocratic associations. It now emphasized the raising of living standards through a market economy and the provision of a wide array of social services by the state, and its parties were characterized by liberal individualism tinged with a strong sense of social conscience and implacable opposition to communism.