While not a large percentage of conservatives, the libertarian subset is nevertheless quite influential in shaping general patterns of conservative thought even when it does not seem to be powerful politically. And while what follows oversimplifies dramatically, it is accurate in its essentials as a lens through which to view American history from an honest libertarian perspective.
If you take the libertarian focus on contract law as the sole arbiter of government rule, then it becomes very easy to categorize American history as the evolution away from even the pretense at honoring contracts.
The first century of America (1776-1876) can be seen as an era in which contracts were routinely violated, but during which residual senses of honor and noblesse oblige led the men violating these contracts to occasionally feel bad about doing so. Their justifications thus attempted to be rigorous and ground themselves in the notion that they were enforcing other, higher-level contracts. But they were justifications after all.
The second century of America (1876-1976) can be seen as the gradual loss of the fig leaves of high-flown justification. Instead, there was a steady move towards continuing to rampantly violate contracts, while justifying the violations themselves as valid. There was less and less sense that the rule of law governing those contracts needed to be taken seriously even when disregarded. Needless to say, that brings us to the present day.
The current century of America (1976-2014) is unlikely to be an entire century, as at this point there is no concern for the rule of law as being important enough to justify violations of it in specific instances. The idea of contracts as valid is dead and the idea that you’d need some fig leaves is thoroughly comical to the current governing figures. There is no longer any pretense. The behavior is similar, but the idea that it wasn’t necessarily right or proper to do it is missing.
This is, needless to say, not the contract-lens through which your average libertarian views American history. They tend to distill it down into heavenly anarcho-topia of pure contract-honoring awesomeness before 1916 (income tax introduction) and nightmare of socialism and overregulation afterwards, particularly starting with the New Deal a generation after the income tax. Some don’t know about the income tax introduction and move the time of glorious contract-bliss forward to right before the New Deal.
This is one of many reasons I am no longer libertarian. Reading primary sources of American history, especially before 1900, rinses a lot of that gunk out of your brainpan in a hurry. The reality is that even if you distill libertarian views down to contracts uber alles, American history is not a history of a nation that was awesome at honoring contracts to the extent often claimed.
This does not mean that there was no honor or just dealing, it simply means that the honor came paired with plenty of dishonorable action, sometimes from the same people during the same time period.