- A review of Willmoore Kendall: Maverick of American Conservatives, edited by John A. Murley and John A. Alvis
John A. Murley and John E. Alvis have done the current generation a huge favor. They have introduced them to the work of Willmoore Kendall, one of the most vigorous, controversial, and astute observers of mid-twentieth century American politics. Kendall’s prolific and challenging writings on behalf of the American regime, against what he saw as the 1) wholesale rejection of America by the intellectual and political Left, and the 2) bankrupt defense of America by various comfortable “sages” of the Right, have gone largely neglected since his death in 1967 at the age of 58. And this despite the fact that many a tall-tale is still told by those who remember Kendall, cigarette dangerously perched between the fingers of his left hand, either having a bourbon in his right hand or pointing his right forefinger directly at the souls of his captive audience. The Murley-Alvis collection should go a long way in turning attention once more to this provocative conservative theorist.
The editors have assembled essays by seven authors who portray Kendall as a wholly American conservative, and correctly so. In this sense he is indeed a “maverick,” as the subtitle of their volume suggests. Yet, at the end of the day, however much one tries to trace a “lineage” to Kendall—and Murley-Alvis and the other authors can’t resist the temptation to do this—Kendall simply can’t be pegged. He was an original thinker who was fearless, perhaps imprudent, in staking out positions where others feared, or were too prudent, to tread. And true to the best of Kendall, the editors and contributing authors do not come simply to praise him, but also to criticize his work. Kendall is a mixture of Rousseau, Locke, the Classics, The Federalist, the Puritan tradition, the Southern Agrarians, and baseball. Put differently, he is an American.
Why Read Kendall?
Kendall described himself as an “Appalachians-to-the-Rockies” conservative—he lived in Konowa, Hartshorne, Stillwater, and Mangum, Oklahoma, as a young lad and graduated with a B.A. in Romance Languages from the University of Oklahoma at the tender age of 18—and considered the American people to be similarly conservative: They, like him, were “conservative in their hips.” He thoroughly loved America—his heroes were American thinkers and statesmen—and certainly, in an intellectual sense, he was very much the rugged individualist and perhaps even an “irrepressible iconoclast.” And yet he expressed an unswerving commitment to “consensus” politics based on the “deliberate sense of the community.” No one before, or after, Kendall has managed to confront libertarian and communitarian conservatism so deeply, or in so quirky a manner. It is this unique blend of liberty and virtue that is the “Kendallian” contribution to the continuing conversation about liberty and responsibility in the conservative movement. And once again, the contributors to this volume are very mindful of this Kendallian homegrown blend of dueling conservatisms.
Kendall battled other conservative intellectuals whom he referred to as “false teachers” of conservatism. They sought conservatism outside of the American context. For example, he rejected the traditional conservative “Burkean” pessimism of Russell Kirk that suggested the people were incapable of self-government; on the contrary, he argued that the future of the republic rested on the support of the virtuous American people. Kendall thought that despite everything that the liberals were doing to build up the presidency and the Supreme Court and undermine representative democracy, conservatives were actually winning the battle for America in the Congress. In this regard, he anticipated the shift in conservatism of the 1970s and 1980s, namely, to a populist appeal to the silent and decent American majority. Unfortunately, not much appears in this book about his disputes with Kirk. Perhaps that’s because this volume tries to bring conservative thinkers together under one roof, rather than to expose their differences.
Kendall was also very critical of Soviet Communism and wrote passionately about his objections to “left-wing liberation movements” and the unexamined defense of these doctrines in the academy. In fact, he was ostracized for defending Senator Joseph McCarthy. In this regard, he reminds us of the extent to which the crisis in the West is linked to the politicization of the academy.
But Kendall reserved his most extensive and pointed criticism for contemporary liberals. He portrayed them as attempting to institute a revolutionary—and certainly non-American—understanding of majority rule that would fundamentally alter the traditional moral, intellectual, and political constitution of America. Kendall’s project was to retrieve a rigorous understanding of the basic principles of the American order that were under relentless assault by the advocates of contemporary “open society” liberalism. His analysis of the dangers of plebiscitary politics, election mandates, bureaucratic regulations, court orders, and moral relativism is still strikingly contemporary.
The structure of this volume moves from Kendall’s place in the context of American politics and the development of mid-twentieth century conservatism, to a consideration of his major writings, and finally, to his encounter with Leo Strauss as represented in their correspondencee.
The Straussian Connection
The editors are clearly excited about including the hitherto unavailable Strauss-Kendall correspondence, which took place over a period of nearly twenty years starting in 1949 and continuing until Kendall’s death. And their publication of this correspondence is a very valuable contribution to our understanding of both Strauss and Kendall. In Chapter 7, they reprint 20 letters from Kendall to Strauss and 46 letters from Strauss to Kendall. In Chapter 6, George Anastaplo emphasizes how the letters show that Kendall was a “convert” to “the Straussian persuasion.” And the editors’ six-page preface is almost wholly devoted to the implications of the correspondence for American conservatism and students of political theory. Together these three entries constitute one half of the entire book.
In their discussion, Murley and Alvis ask how their revered, and larger-than-life, “tenacious,” and self-confident teacher—Willmoore Kendall—in this correspondence could be so vexed with “self-doubt” and a sense of utter inadequacy? They note Kendall’s “extraordinary deference to Strauss,” and how even near the end of his life, Kendall decided to “reschool himself” by taking Stauss seriously. One of the, perhaps inadvertent, outcomes of the book’s structure is to encourage a view of Kendall as a fumbling “disciple” rather than a self-assured “maverick,” though Anastaplo does say that “Kendall was not, strictly speaking, a disciple: neither his temperament nor his training equipped him for such a role.”
We don’t deny the influence of Strauss on Kendall. In fact, we would go even further than the editors and point out certain vital turning points in Kendall’s thought that are due to his reading of Strauss’s Thoughts on Machiavelli and What is Political Philosophy? Strauss taught him how important it was to have “a universal confrontation with the text” in order to make sense of the great political thinkers. A true political theorist was in fact a detective in search of “a criminal syndicate.” And a glance at Kendall’s The Conservative Affirmation (1963) shows that he is curious and excited by Strauss’s attention to esoteric writing in general and by the argument of Natural Right and History in particular. In the preface, Kendall identifies chapter five as “in the terminology of my greatest teacher, the ‘center’ of the book.” And in the Acknowledgment section, he gives thanks to “the greatest living teacher of politics, whom I have ventured to imitate in the very structure of the book, for his teaching.” Kendall clearly has Strauss in mind here.
When we turn to that central chapter, Kendall portrays the “ultimate issue between Liberalism and Conservatism” to be, in effect, “Where do you stand with respect to John Locke?” Strauss had persuaded Kendall to revisit twenty years of research on Locke and to alter his own position on Locke’s centrality to the American tradition. Strauss taught Kendall that Locke—with Hobbes and Machiavelli—was in conflict with the “Grand Tradition,” and so, Kendall concluded, Locke and this “criminal syndicate” must be read out of the American tradition.
Kendall turned to the next stage of his investigation: Can the origin of the American tradition be located in sources prior to both Hobbes and Locke and independent of Machiavelli? Kendall found this pre-modern origin of America, not in the Burkean tradition of the rights of Englishmen, as did Kirk. Strauss had also taught Kendall to be suspicious of the soft historicism of Burke. Besides which, Burke was a European, and weren’t Americans capable of creating their own brand of conservatism? Kendall found his brand in the wholly American covenanting tradition of the 1620 Mayflower Compact. Ironically, he was led to this discovery by the work of Eric Voegelin rather than Strauss because—as we see it—Voegelin saw the vital role that religion must play in the preservation of the polity, and he found the Straussians lacking in that dimension. Adding to the irony, Kendall could have benefited greatly from the work of Alexis de Tocqueville, who also identified the origin of America with the Mayflower Compact and warned about the dangers of egalitarianism. The absence of Tocqueville from Kendall’s story-telling is truly baffling.
To get a fuller understanding of the relationship between Strauss and Kendall one must consider Kendall’s relation to Voegelin, with whom Kendall also had a lengthy correspondence.
We note the following just to “problematize” the connection between Strauss and Kendall. We learn from the Kendall-Strauss correspondence that Kendall is thinking about writing a textbook in political theory, and that Strauss is anxious to have a personal conversation with Kendall on the matter. What we do not learn from this correspondence, but do learn from the Kendall-Voegelin correspondence, is that the book Kendall has in mind will be an effort to make Voegelin’s argument in the first three volumes of Order and History accessible to students, that Kendall had found a publisher, and that Strauss talked Kendall out of the project because he (Strauss) did not want a volume competing with the then-in-progress Strauss-Cropsey History of Political Philosophy. Voegelin, it should be noted, did not encourage Kendall to start his project, but did encourage him to complete it, regardless of what Strauss and friends had in the works.
In his comprehensive essay, John Alvis writes, “Kendall managed somehow to hold himself apart from declaring allegiance to either of his acknowledged mentors at the expense of the other.” This view is bolstered by two of the letters Kendall wrote to Voegelin, to which Alvis did not have access. First, in a letter telling Voegelin of a meeting Kendall had had with Strauss, he concludes a discussion of Strauss’s students—”Strauss and his ‘boys’ (Berns, Jaffa, Horowitz, White) are riding high these days, and will continue to do so—they are industrious beyond belief”—by wondering why they can’t learn from both Strauss and Voegelin, the way Kendall himself does. After all, Strauss and Voegelin are anti-behavioralist. Second, in a letter informing Voegelin of the establishment of the Ph.D. program in literature and politics at the University of Dallas, Kendall tells Voegelin that the program was modeled as closely as possible on the thought of Strauss and Voegelin. In his letter to Strauss announcing the formation of this program, Kendall attributes his inspiration exclusively to Strauss.
We think that this difference is based on Kendall’s sense that Voegelin is more open to Strauss’s work than Strauss is to Voegelin’s, which is in turn based on the fact that, as Alvis notes, “[f]or Voegelin, the content of Revelation and the content of classical philosophy seem ultimately compatible.” In fact, our preliminary examination of the Voegelin-Kendall correspondence, which began in 1941 and lasted until Kendall’s death, shows that it was Voegelin who introduced Kendall to Strauss. In April 1948, Voegelin wrote to Kendall: “There is a very important article on Rousseau by Strauss in Social Research (December, 1947).” The first letter from Kendall to Strauss is dated June 1949. There Kendall concludes his letter, the primary purpose of which was to ask Strauss to send him an off-print of his articles “on the classical politics or that on hidden writing,” with the following: “Your piece on Rousseau gave me quite a jolt, for which I am deeply grateful.” His former hero Rousseau is revealed to be part of the “criminal syndicate”!
Both Alvis and Leo Paul de Alvarez note that Kendall adopts a Voegelinian framework for his lectures on the American political tradition delivered at Vanderbilt and published with revisions by George Carey as The Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition (1970). Alvarez concludes: “In following Voegelin rather than Strauss, Kendall betrays the ultimate nonrational basis of his thought.” Perhaps, however, this choice is reflective of an understanding of the compatibility of reason and revelation that can only be gained by approaching the question from the standpoint of revelation, and never by approaching from the standpoint of reason alone. We suggest further that there is something neither Straussian nor Voegelinian going on here; the origin of American thought may be wholly American.
Willmoore Kendall had been William F. Buckley, Jr.’s teacher at Yale University, and their relationship continued after Buckley’s graduation and into the early days of National Review, for which Kendall served as a senior editor between 1955 and 1963. Buckley contributes a foreword to this volume, recasting sections of The Redhunter (1999), his novel based on the career of Senator Joseph McCarthy, in which he reproduces conversations he had with Kendall while they watched the Army-McCarthy hearings together on television. As Buckley notes, a major part of Kendall’s originality is found in his temperament, and it is this temperament that accounts for the many tales told about him.
Now anyone who has read Kendall’s “McCarthyism: The Pons Asinorum of American Conservatism,” knows that Kendall identifies “the issue” that “everybody was mad about” as: “are we or are we not going to permit the emergence, within our midst, of totalitarian movements?” According to Kendall, “a vital democratic society has two functions, one is inclusive—bring in the new ideas, assimilate them. The other is exclusive, reject unassimilable ideas.” (Italics in original.) Kendall identifies himself with the McCarthy position: we are not going to permit such unassimilable ideas in the United States. But Kendall’s defense of McCarthy was contingent upon McCarthy’s unswerving commitment to the “noble cause.” Once he put the cause in danger, by making himself the issue, Kendall cut him off at the knees. Buckley, himself, was later on the receiving end of one of Kendall’s friendship-ending initiatives.
George Nash’s essay is concerned with the political Kendall, and places him in the context of mid-century conservative politics. Nash is vital for understanding the conflicts within the emerging conservative movement. True, Kendall attempted to rally conservatives for war with the liberals, but he also spent much time criticizing fellow conservatives for their missteps, among them Russell Kirk, Frank Meyer, and James Burnham (all associated, it should be noted, with National Review). Politically, Nash concludes, Kendall was important because he Americanized conservatism, finding the roots of tradition in America rather than in Europe; he politicized conservatism in a broad sense by focusing attention on institutions and not just policy outcomes; and he articulated a conservatism which saw itself as resisting contemporary liberalism. We agree with Nash that unlike other conservatives, Kendall’s “essence” was his “baffling optimism.”
Three essays develop aspects of Kendall’s own thought, with George Carey writing on Kendall’s understanding of majority rule, John Murley on equality, and John Alvis on the evolution of Kendall’s thought.
Carey, of course, has long been associated with Kendall in articulating a defense of majority rule, particularly one that rejected the strictly quantitative, or “counting,” approach, the “intensity” or “weighing” adaptation, and the “deadlock,” and “populist” variants of Robert Dahl and James McGregor Burns. This led Kendall, according to Carey, to a greater appreciation of The Federalist‘s understanding of majority rule and its anti-populistic and pro-deliberative elements. Over the years, scholars have wondered whether or not Kendall is a populist and a democrat; after all, he seems to have such great faith in the virtue of the common people. Yet he is uncompromising in his critique of 20th century democratic theory and practice.
There does indeed seem to be an early Kendall, who is rather populist and even value-free, but in the final analysis, we agree with Carey that Kendall’s attachment to The Federalist‘s doctrine of the “deliberate sense of the community” is his definitive defense of majoritarianism and gives him a “unique place among conservatives.” We would add that this attachment is unique to virtually all interpretations of The Federalist. Unlike anyone else, he taught us to read Federalist10 and 51 in light of Federalist 63 and 71.
This attachment to the deliberate sense of the community raises, in our mind, the issue of Kendall’s connection to John C. Calhoun’s concept of the concurrent majority. In all his printed work, Kendall distances himself from Calhoun’s doctrine, going so far as to declare the doctrine to be antagonistic to majority rule. Yet in the Buckley piece, Kendall tells his fictional former student, Harry F. Bontecou, “The prevalence of the general will was lost under President Andrew Johnson. I taught you, did I not, that Calhoun is a ranking American political theorist?” Harry responds: “Yes. There was the difficulty that his ‘law of the concurrent majority’ would have preserved slavery.” Kendall replies: “Only so long as the general will in the individual states wanted it.” Harry has changed the context of the discourse from doctrines of majority rule to the issue of slavery and equality. “All the Negro would have to do was wait, right Willmoore?” Kendall responds: “When you leapfrog the general will, you get things like civil wars. Right Harry?” To which Harry replies: “When you don’t leapfrog the general will, you get things like the prolongation of slavery, right Willmoore?” Kendall concludes, Harry, “You’re slow on the aspect of statecraft.”
John Murley tackles head-on the challenge by that other Harry—Harry V. Jaffa—that Kendall is a Calhounite because he rejects the natural equality teachings of the Declaration of Independence. This “Kendall thesis,” says Murley, is a misunderstanding of Kendall’s position. He never endorsed Calhoun or slavery; rather he pointed out the “misuse of equality” as a principle. At the same time, Murley criticizes Kendall for being “unnecessarily dubious about the opening of the Gettysburg Address.”
Alvis traces Kendall’s evolution from early social science positivism, grounded in the fact-value distinction, to a later, and more “mature” deliberative theory informed by the teachings of classical political philosophy. And the evidence corroborates Alvis’s contention that Kendall “managed somehow to hold himself apart from declaring allegiance to either of his acknowledged mentors at the expense of the other.
Kendall’s Conservative Legacy
For Kendall, the “Philadelphia Constitution” of 1787 is a “crossroads,” open to a number of different interpretations. The Constitution then is a document of potentiality rather than finality. The Federalist provides one depiction of a constitutional morality—perhaps, from Kendall’s standpoint, the most comprehensive depiction available. The “constitutional morality” of The Federalist can be imposed on the Constitution, but is not inherent in the Constitution, and is in competition with other “constitutional moralities,” such as majoritarian democracy and plebescitary democracy. And he urges conservatives to read and reread The Federalist and make it their own as they do battle with the forces of liberalism. Kendall sees The Federalist as the sacred text, yet he urges us to follow the spirit of the text rather than the letter. According to Kendall, conservatives should not be involved in blind reverence for the past; they should govern themselves, and self-government includes “feeling with your hips” and “thinking on your feet.”
Contemporary conservatives have several reservations about The Federalist. Isn’t it a rather too nationalist commentary? Certainly there is no indication in Kendall’s writings that he is a states’ rights conservative, although he does at various times call for the overturning of the Fourteenth Amendment. And many libertarian conservatives—for whom Kendall had considerable suspicion—have a problem with the whole notion of the public good. According to Kendall, however, what ultimately will protect, or conserve, the nation, if we are to be protected and conserved, is the “deliberate sense” of the community. Unlike some conservatives, Kendall has little affection for the Supreme Court and the doctrine of judicial review. And he is certainly suspicious of those who argue for the marketplace of ideas and services. He challenges us to ponder how one can be a majoritarian and a conservative at the same time. He seems so populist, yet he insists on the need for orthodoxy.
It is such paradoxes that made, and continue to make, Willmoore Kendall a maverick among conservatives; a serious thinker with a singular appreciation of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.