Conservatism has been around, in one form or another, as long as people have had governments or other hierarchical power structures. As traditions develop, as stable practices are formed, some part of the population comes to believe that this is the way things should be. A slight expansion of this notion produces the idea that this is the way things have always been. Another expansion, and the notion arises that this is the way things should always be, now and forever.
Those who benefit the most from any given tradition are likely to become that tradition's most vociferous supporters. Those who benefit less from the tradition, on the other hand, are often more interested in overturning the tradition and doing something different, something that will put them higher on the ladder of power, status, and benefit. This sort of tension between traditionalists and rebels can be seen in historical societies, and it can be seen in societies today.
Conservatism as a school of thought was probably first articulated by Edmund Burke in the eighteenth century. This historical conservatism was based on the idea that tradition was the product of the wisdom of many generations, and therefore was a better guide to social practice than some overarching ideology. In essence, then, this systematic formulation of conservative thought preferred skepticism about "enlightened" notions and social systems, and viewed them as misguided attempts to create utopian societies that would ultimately falter. Burke also insisted that social change had to be organic, piecemeal, rather than revolutionary. As we can see, this honors tradition and prescribes a slow, steady-state type of social change, if there is to be change at all.
Joseph de Maistre was another writer who influenced the development of western conservative thought. He advocated the restoration of hereditary monarchies, and for the sovereignty of the Pope over the secular governments of individual nations. In these ideas he displays an extremely traditional view of an appropriate hierarchy of power, certainly one at odds with the changes that were taking place in the political sphere at that time.
The role of property and who owns what is very important in conservative thought. Unlike some other things, this thread of thought has been unbroken for hundreds of years, and is still very much in evidence today.
As far as economic notions go, most conservatives tend to favor free-market practices. There is some variation in the view of what part government should play in the free market, but most conservatives believe that less intrusion is better.
This, then, is the historical basis for modern conservatism. As I'll demonstrate in my next post, modern conservatism has changed, in some cases a lot, from what conservatism used to be.