Tom Silver always spoke well but rarely spoke about himself. In his first book, Coolidge and the Historians, it is easy to see his character. It is also easy to see why in 1983 President Reagan counted the book among his favorites. In its pages, Tom defends Calvin Coolidge against ungenerous, untrue attacks unleashed by big-name historians such as Arthur Schlesinger in the decades following Coolidge’s presidency, when Progressives overtook American politics.
Tom rights a wrong in that book, and teaches us what a great American statesman says and does. He followed in the spirit of Coolidge, who said: “A wholesome regard for the memory of the great men of long ago is the best assurance to a people of a continuation of great men to come, who shall be able to instruct, to lead, and to inspire. A people who worship at the shrine of true greatness will themselves be truly great.”
Coolidge also said we Americans have been characterized by a resolve “to show our actions our adherence to those seasoned and established principles which have made our country the greatest among the nations of the earth.”
From his days serving in Vietnam and serving as chief of staff to Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, to his days serving as co-founder, board member, and then president of the Claremont Institute and publisher of this journal, Tom was of good character, of American character, showing his actions his adherence to the principles that made America great. Tom leaves behind him Nancy, his wife of 25 years, and two sons, Arthur and Tony. They have lost a constant and loving husband and father. America has lost a patriot-scholar.
As a tribute to Tom Silver, we invited some of the co-founders of the Claremont Institute to offer a few reflections on their friend and comerade.
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“He was the best of us.”
Larry P. Arnn
Once we were playing basketball, in the spring of 1975. We graduate students had discovered that advanced study of political philosophy requires lots of basketball. It was a beautiful day. Our blood was up. We were making memories of the kind that we rehearse to this day.
Tom Silver announced he was going home. “Why?” we hassled him. He said he had to go to the library. Why? we pressed. “There are no papers due.” He was a graduate student, he replied, and must spend six hours each day in the library. We respected Tom for this. Also, we thought that he was weird. Also, we thought he was the best of us.
I for one am deficient both in space and in ability to give a rounded account of the character and achievements of Tom Silver. If I had them both, I would begin with the virtue of moderation. Tom had self-control to as great an extent as I have seen in any man. He was the last to speak, but was somehow the quickest. Beneath his self-control were powerful forces—the other virtues—held in check and permitted to display themselves only in the right time and the right way.
Many times Tom and I and a few others had long talks about the future and what we must do. A very few times I heard him use the expression “When we get our chance.” He meant a lot by this. He meant when we got a chance to do what Calvin Coolidge did, to help to put things right. This you might call an unguarded statement, but it was not. It was just what he meant. A high and quiet hope. I myself believed it would happen—because his ambitions were reachable—because he governed them so strictly. He wrote of Coolidge and the Boston Police Strike that Coolidge waited until everyone else had tried and failed. Only then did he step in, and resolve the crisis—which made it possible for him to become President of the United States. Something similar was, quietly, Tom’s plan for his life and for all our lives.
Tom was courageous. We did not get to see him fight in Vietnam, and he would not speak of his time there except to make light of it. But he was brave. We know that from little things he said that he was under fire. But then we often saw him under fire, when things were tough, and he had the moral courage that goes with and transcends the physical. I cannot remember anything he ever said that was not cool and considered, precise and deliberate.
Tom was just that. Why did we trust him? Because he never gave himself anything he did not deserve. I cannot recall him praising himself, or claiming more than his due.
Tom possessed prudence of a kind that reaches up to wisdom. His understanding was in proportion, restrained, bounded where it needed to be. He loved his wife, Nancy, and his sons Arthur and Tony first. But he also loved battles and crises and fierce arguments and turning points in history.
For several years, I pushed Tom—you could push Tom, and if he moved, you knew that you were pushing in the right direction—to write his sequel to Coolidge and the Historians. One morning the book arrived as an attachment in my e-mail. He had written it on the train on the way to and from work, and also late at night. Like his first book it is concise, tight, and authoritative. The fact that this superb diligence, moderation, and thinking power has been cut off so young is, of course, one of the worst things that could happen to any of us.
I shall miss most about Tom the chance to talk things through with him. He was one of those people to whom you put things as well and honorably as you could, because though he might not say so, he would know if you did not. For this deep reason his passing leaves me, and all his friends, diminished.
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“He knew what was important.”
By the time I met Tom, when he was in his early 20s, he was already a stalwart Socratic-American. I mean that, even at that young age, he considered it his high and pleasant duty to understand and to defend what was best, in itself, and in and for his friends and his country.
In the 30 years since, so far as I could tell, he never wavered in this ruling purpose. There was no uncertainty in him on this main point. He knew what was important, and he knew what was required of him. Because of this—it always seemed to me—there was no wasted motion in Tom’s mind, no dithering or fumbling about; and there was at once a sweetness and a gravity in all he did. It goes without saying in these times, that being a man of reason and such a patriot necessarily made him a staunch conservative.
Tom had the full courage of his convictions. A simple love of truth and fidelity to duty always drew him to seek out and understand the strongest arguments that might stand against him. In philosophy and in politics, he sought to articulate the positions with which he disagreed as persuasively as they could be made by their wisest proponent. As to his own position, no one demanded from him more rigor in an argument than he demanded from himself. This could be unsettling to political or philosophical friends with more easy-going allegiances. But it did them the honor and the benefit of inviting them to think for themselves.
Tom did not go in for small talk—or big talk. Those who did not know him well could easily get the impression that he did not go in for talk at all! But he loved conversation as he loved language and pursuit of truth. He just had no need of display. He was one of the most self-sufficient men I have known. In the many conversations and deliberations I was blessed to share with him over three decades, he generally spoke less and understood more than anyone in the room.
I never knew or heard of Tom doing anything unseemly, though in our student days we strove to give him many irresistible opportunities. Never to my knowledge was he anything but kind and considerate in his treatment of others. I never heard him raise his voice, and I never saw him lose his composure. It was impossible to get Tom to tell a stretcher, even in a good cause, unless it was to protect the innocent. He just did not have it in him.
There was no presumption in Tom, no boastfulness and no diffidence either. He was never daunted by misfortune or carried away by success. He had a quiet, unshakable equanimity all his own—a poise of soul that kept him steady in all weathers. He met the world and everything in it on its merits, with benign and intelligent purpose, and he was utterly trustworthy. It was an honor to be called friend by such a man.
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“We decided to stand against chaos.”
Tom Silver and I arrived at Claremont Graduate School at the same time. It was the fall of 1971 and it was the time of shouting and marching and chanting. The ’60s and its sequels had affected even this place of thinking. The left was loud and firm in its assertions that nothing was firm. The ground under American feet seemed to be shifting. It had become increasingly difficult to stand tall.
But there was red-haired Tom, seemingly unperturbed by the spinning events, standing straight-backed in the midst of fellow students. I entered the conversation first and only later found out his name. The issue being pursued had to do with a question raised by Plato’s Phaedo: Was the soul immortal? Sides had already been taken and arguments were laid out. One fellow was talking only to impress, while another just wanted to prevail. Tom ignored the former and, turning to the lover of victory, he asked a piercing question.
It is typical of me that I do not remember what the question was. But I do remember the moment and the effect. The discussion was transformed. From that moment on the group was turned in the direction of clarity and knowledge. From the start, Tom exemplified both the courage and the moderation necessary to the study of political philosophy. And he revealed that he was a partisan of virtue.
The Silver effect was permanent. In the classroom he was a bit more circumspect and deferential. (The harshest thing he ever said about a teacher—who the rest of us were railing against—was this: “He doesn’t want to spend a lot of time on the difficult questions, does he?”) Outside on the lawns he was more forthcoming and pressing and allowed himself to laugh aloud a great deal. In our own seminars—each semester a few of us, and the numbers grew, read a book aloud and talked about it—he was at his best. He was now among friends and fellow explorers as we embraced Homer and Shakespeare, Churchill and Lincoln. And to those of us who were inclined to push and shove an argument around, Tom was always there to show us how to think through the thing in a way that always appeared to be most wise and prudent.
We made life swing. Everything was open and contestable and fun. We seamlessly went from Being to consent to equality to beauty and back to basketball (the rudiments of which I was forced to learn, just to spend more time with my friends). What is the connection between natural right and natural rights? Were the old men sitting on the walls of Troy right—as they gazed upon Helen passing—that it was all worth it? Was Harry Jaffa’s latest letter really necessary? Can reason move without wonder? We even argued about Greek grammar.
But the confusing political world was there, too. Events continued to whirl and statesmen were not forthcoming. By the time Jimmy Carter became president, we were persuaded that we had learned a thing or two about where the country was heading and began ever more seriously to look into the cause of things. What struck us above all else was the banal liberal voices couldn’t defend themselves from the nihilistic onslaught of the New Left, and that there was no comprehensive counterattack from those who called themselves conservatives. It was not enough to talk of policies and programs. We had to get to the heart of things.
Carter asked citizens to find a few nice things to say about America, but his disposition revealed the hopelessness he felt and, unwittingly, conveyed to the people. The President of the United States could not give an accounting of the regime’s virtues and he couldn’t recognize tyranny until the monster bit. The president himself was caught in the spiral. The ancient creed itself—the massive fact of the American idea—seemed to be teetering.
We decided to stand against chaos. “Malaise” was not a word that should have a home here. The circumstances called for political action, but not the ordinary sort. We had decided not to run for public office. We decided to think in public, and to influence the public. We had learned from Lincoln that in this regime public opinion was everything; whoever molds public sentiment, in the end, makes the laws and all other good things possible.
We needed to explain to our fellow citizens both what we once were and what we may yet become. We were confident that the character of the people was essentially sound, that they only needed reminding of the things for which the country stood. They needed to hear again the arguments and the drum beat of the American Revolution and the statesmanship that made it possible.
The ground under our feet was to be made solid and firm. The words and the language of our ancient faith had to be reconstructed, and the signs and manners that went with them.
And so we schemed and plotted and sacrificed. We took jobs—teaching or pumping gas—only as a means to that end. Our families learned to live with lean years. This band of friends needed an organization, a structure. We incorporated as the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy, bought used typewriters and wrote and talked and persuaded. We pulled people into our orbit. We raised some money, published in obscure newspapers, talked to humble clubs.
In laying down the argument of America’s Founders and attempting to recover their purposes, we aimed to remind citizens of the peaks of human excellence, of the nature and self-government, of the conditions of freedom itself. The good at the heart of our country had to be revealed and re-animated. In doing so we ceaselessly attacked the enemies of freedom, root and branch. No one was better in doing this than Tom Silver. He laid out the heart of the Progressive movement (and hence of modern liberalism) better than anyone, and he made great advances against the post-liberal nihilists, the loudest of the shouters.
Whether or not we have proven or shall prove successful is for others to judge. But I will say that all these three decades of effort to prove a proposition true could not have been done without Tom Silver, this Tom Sawyer-like fellow who never faltered, never stopped reading, never relinquished hope, and never stopped thinking and persuading. He was a fine American man, this soldier, this citizen, this friend. I will now have to reconstruct the argument about the immortality of the soul with what friends are left, and it will be more difficult.