The Classical Conservative Definition:
A classical conservative values tradition and freedom over governmental power. Conservatives, under this definition, advocate a free market economy without governmental intervention. Conservatives tend to view government as a necessary evil, whose primary responsibility is to protect people from violation of their rights and freedom by others. Conservatives distinguish this from government taking action to guarantee people's rights and freedom (a subtle, but important distinction). Conservatives think of morality as something that binds people into groups through loyalty and authority (in certain cases, substituting religion for authority). Conservatives tend to be tribalists.
There is likely not as much difference between the two philosophies as you may have thought. The distinctions are subtle, but they do lead to a different philosophy of both the purpose, and responsibilities of government. Distinctions between the two philosophies shift and morph to suit the politics of the day.
Conservatives are usually regarded as associated with the Republican Party, liberals with the Democratic Party. This is an over-generalization.
Both parties embrace certain conservative and liberal tendencies. Moreover, it does not account for those that do not affiliate with either party, standing as independents, a very large segment of America's political society.
FOUNDERS OF CONSERVATISM
Edmund Burke is often regarded as the founder of the conservative philosophy. Burke stated in 1791 that it was not necessary to tear apart society to cure its evils:
"An ignorant man who is not fool enough to meddle with his clock, is however sufficiently confident to think he can safely take to pieces, and put together at his pleasure, a moral machine of another guise, importance and complexity, composed of far other wheels, and springs, and balances, and counteracting and co-operating powers.
Men little think how immorally they act in rashly meddling with what they do not understand. Their delusive good intention is no sort of excuse for their presumption. They who truly mean well must be fearful of acting ill."
Burke professed that change should only be made when fully aware of the consequences of the actions. Society is complex and interconnected, so changes must be made with deliberation and knowledge of history. The damage from miscalculated changes can be too disastrous to society, to do otherwise.
This is not to say conservatives oppose change. Conservatives recognize that change is necessary in society; however, conservatives move at a slower pace than liberals.
The Modern Conservative Movement
Many credit Russell Kirk's 1953 book, "The Conservative Mind" with the birth of the modern conservative movement in the United States. In 1957, Kirk condensed he beliefs in "The Essence of Conservatism:"
"...The conservative is a person who endeavors to conserve the best in our traditions and our institutions, reconciling that best with necessary reform from time to time...Our American War of Independence...especially in the works of John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison, we find a sober and tested conservatism founded upon an understanding of history and human nature. The Constitution which the leaders of that generation drew up has proved to be the most successful conservative device in all history."
In this statement, Kirk restated that the U.S. Constitution is an instrument that protects people from abuse by government; in that regard, the Constitution must be strictly interpreted to guarantee that protection.
Barry Goldwater was the first politician to waive the modern conservative banner. His book, "The Conscience of a Conservative" was required reading at Harvard, at least for a while. When running for president in 1964, Goldwater promised to enforce the U.S. Constitution.
However, it was Ronald Reagan that legitimized the conservative political philosophy as President in 1980. He ran on a platform of cutting government, as he did when governor in California, where his main reform was in welfare.
As President, Reagan cut taxes in his first year. Whether as a direct result or not, the U.S. economy began an unprecedented economic boom in 1982 that lasted until 2001. However, Reagan will also be remembered for not only his economic forecast in 1982, but his prophesy that: "The march of freedom and democracy ... will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people."
The fall of the Berlin wall came in 1989, followed by the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
In looking at the above comparison of conservative and liberal values, it is apparent that arguments can be made for the value of either position. However, such a limited view misses the point. Combining both philosophies can take the best from each to provide solutions to our problems.
As an example, take the issue of trust as to whether government is the best answer to our problems. Conservatives are wary to trust government as the answer; liberals tend to see government as a necessary evil, but still the best answer to solve our problems. Both are appropriate views. Our Founding Fathers recognized this dilemma and developed a system of checks and balances, a separation of powers for an effective government, but one that never developed too much power over its citizens.
The Founding Fathers listened to both sides of the conservative and liberal argument to try to find a system that meets the needs of all.
Today, our society needs to move forward to meet new challenges; liberals say we need new solutions to those challenges; conservatives say we need to trust proven solutions because miscalculation could make our problems worse. Again, both views have value; and a blending of both is likely the best answer: learn from the past, while we forge the future.
Unfortunately, our politics have become too polarized and too divisive. People take positions rather than work together. Political parties provide those positions. Many Republicans revert to religion as a bastion, while many Democrats turn their party into a religion.