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IC's Top 25 Philosophical and Ideological Conservative Books
No. 18 - Willmoore Kendall, The Conservative Affirmation
by Dr. Enrico Peppe
17 March 2004The Conservative Affirmattion

Dr. Willmoore Kendall was a colorful figure as well as a penetrating analyst. 

Willmoore Kendall's The Conservative Affirmation, a collection of acerbic essays, tackled the still-dominant issues permeating
political ideology (now found in more modish guise): the conservative definition, Lockean philosophy, McCarthyism (its interest level attested to by Miss Coulter's bank account), freedom of speech, the Social Contract, the "Open Society," and Christian Pacifism. In addition, clusters of Kendall's book appraisals, while seemingly outdated, yet startlingly relevant, round out the contents.

Kendall defined conservatism in provincialist terms. The ideology of the Founding Fathers is considered unique, and simply, the best -- "The Federalist" -- its Bible. Political theory expert Gregory Wolfe explains,

(For Kendall), American conservatives were preserving the system created by the founders...A continual theme in Kendall's writings is that far from an 'open' or 'pluralist' society, American politics is based on 'the deliberate sense of the community' or a 'consensus society,' mediated by the virtuous statesmen of the legislative assemblies.

It would be a vapid review indeed not to discuss the life of Dr. Kendall. He was a colorful figure as well as a penetrating
analyst (only Rothbard could be considered superior regarding the latter).

But Rothbard wouldn't even be in the ballpark when it came to Kendall's personal dysfunction.

Born in 1909 of an Oklahoma Methodist family (his father, a blind itinerant preacher), he devised his own at-home curriculum and graduated from the University of Oklahoma at 18. At the same time, he published a book on baseball under the monicker, "A. Monk." He studied Romance Languages at the University of Illinois, but didn't finish the degree requirements. He was awarded a Rhodes stipend for Oxford, where he studied in the classical tradition of Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. Upon return to Illinois, he studied political theory under the great Catholic scholar Francis G. Wilson. His dissertation on Locke, later expanded and written in book form, earned him an appointment at Yale as a teacher of politics. He was granted tenure.

To Yale's horror..

(IC readers would do well to read Jeffrey Hart's fine piece on Kendall eccentricity, Garry Wills' telling of the Kendall years at the early National Review (WFB and L. Brent Bozell had been student worshipers) in his 1979 I-Have-Become-a-Radical Leftist book, Confessions of a Conservative, and the great Saul Bellow's 1968 novella, "Mosby's Memoirs," now available on the web courtesy of The New Yorker.

Back to Yale..

By all accounts, Kendall,
(1)...was antagonistic toward all his Yale colleagues. Dwight MacDonald described him as "a wild Yale don, of extreme, eccentric, and very abstract views, who could get a conversation into the shouting stage faster than anyone within memory;"
(2)...was an excessive drinker. After Yale, his Stanford post wasn't renewed, ostensibly due to a drunk driving conviction;
(3)...was a womanizer. Jeffrey Hart: "There is... (a)... leather couch at National Review, known as 'The Willmoore Kendall Memorial Couch,' on which he had been surprised after hours 'in flagrante' with a secretary."
(4)...ran through friends like wine and women.
After Hart declined an offer to teach at the University of Dallas (Kendall's last post), a note arrived stating that (Hart) was "as corrupt as Buckley." Kendall had fallen out, at one time or another, with Wills, Bozell, Cleanth Brooks, and others of repute.
(5)...had CIA affiliations.

Yale bought his tenure rights for a huge amount of cash...

Quincy Jones, introducing an ailing and aged Miles Davis at the Montreux Festival, pointed out that even if he never played another note, he should be revered for leading those responsible for the "cutting edge" in jazz.

It's in this light that Kendall's collection should be included in IC's "best of"...

Especially three essays:
(1) "What is Conservatism?"
(2) "The Two Majorities in American Politics."
(3) "The Social Contract: The Ultimate Issue between Liberalism and Conservatism."

Kendall doesn't define the conservative concept exactly. He peels around it and chews at the innards. Liberals are revolutionists, he says quickly and succinctly (he talks of "Liberals" and "liberals" as Leftists and doesn't make a distinction; he seems wont to abbreviate the classical liberal tradition). The Founding Fathers thought of representative government where the idea of plebiscite rang anathema. Liberals construe the Founding Mandate as egalitarian, not equalitarian as in its intended sense. For Kendall,

The egalitarian principle stands over the equality principle in a relation like that of a caricature to a portrait, or a parody to a poem...The equality of the Declaration is the equality to which, say, Abraham Lincoln was born -- an equality that conferred upon him merely an equal right to compete with his fellow-men in the race, as we run it in America, for whatever prize he in his equality chose to go after.

The egalitarian would bus Old Abe to a publicly-financed school, feed him a free lunch, teach him in and about Dewey-imbued democratization, protect him from the rich and powerful, and more than likely, therapize him if he appeared lazy and confused.

Conservatives can save Mr. Lincoln from Oblivia when,

...the pools of Conservative resistance ...become fully aware of one another...(when these)...will have made it their business to establish back and forth among themselves, the channels of communication without which large-scale warfare is impossible.

Dr. Kendall's "two majorities" are one and the same electorate who vote in a President and Congress in the same breath. This same electorate, on a yearly basis, (maintains)..."a President devoted to high principle and enlightenment, and a Congress that gives short shrift to both."

Is the electorate nuts? No, says Kendall. While the political behaviorists should study the matter deeply, it is quite apparent that the philosophy embedded in The Federalist and the common sense of homo americanus meld fittingly. The theoretical, the necessary tension between the two branches envisioned by the Founders finds fruit in the practical mind of the citizenry who want neither majority to encounter omnipotence.

The essay on the Social Contract, subtitled the "ultimate issue between Liberalism and Conservatism," saw a later Kendall who had discovered Strauss and Voegelin (See my IC reviews on both, below). Apparently, Strauss and Voegelin had broken the code. The Framers were not Lockeans. Rather, these greats held to a classical-biblical worldview whereby man and society were interwoven by natural law.

Gregory Wolfe writes, "Given these insights into the gulf separating the 'ancients' from the 'moderns,' Kendall was able to show that the Framers were in fact continuous with...(the)...older tradition."

Kendall's cantankerous logic holds sway. There was no perceived Social Contract enveloped in Framer Mentality:
(1) There is no historical evidence of a "state of nature."
(2) If there was a previous state, the men living in it wouldn't have known about contracts.
(3) The supposed contract cannot "fulfill its own terms."
(4) Once men find the contract not in their interests, they are no longer bound to it.
(5) Why would the descendants of the original inheritors of the contract need to fulfill its obligations?
(6...Pure Kendall): "Most of the persons who grow up in a society have no genuine alternative to remaining within it; their remaining is not, therefore, an expression of consent -- indeed to insist on the contract is to deprive the descendants of the original contracting parties of...the...rights those original parties exercised in making the contract."
(7) The contract confuses the problem of when men should obey and when they should not obey.

(Like "The Voice" in his later years when the notes cracked and the reach was too high, the performance was always gutsy.)

The political push-and-pull, the results, from Kendall's analysis reach a definitive crescendo:

In America...these struggles are struggles between Conservatives and Liberals: Conservative affirmation and Liberal denial, Conservative faith in the growing Great Tradition...and Liberal relativism. The Lockeans...are the Liberals; and the Conservatives, who disagree with the Liberals on all crucial points, must learn to understand themselves as anti-Lockeans. Then, at least, the record can be put straight.

Within the fashion of Intellectualconservative.com in general, and these reviews in particular, it would be prudent grist to place Kendall somewhere within current rightist fissures. To this end, the following questions seem in order:

(1) Was Kendall a closet populist?

Yes and no!

His Oklahoma roots would seem to suggest so. He loved its soil, its ethos. Sam Francis, in his excellent piece for the February, 1986 issue of World and I, posits that, for Kendall, the American ideology could be discerned by its "way of life as it actually lives it." Francis brings it home:

...it is true that the persistent theme throughout most of his work is that the locus of political virtue in the United States resides in the American people and is expressed in their majority will through the deliberate processes of the constitution...It was in terms of its...public orthodoxy...that Kendall defined conservatism...the disposition...to defend and preserve its political institutions and government. (He)...expresses a sense that the American polity is basically sound and faces no challenge...that cannot be met within the framework...of (its) traditional political institutions.

For the reviewer, however, equating an admiration for the American mind with populism presents a partially satisfactory, but incomplete understanding of either the mindset or the ideology. The populist notion of majority rule morphs into democracy, not republicanism, a direct electoral process sans college, a sterilization of moneyed rulers, not "skull and bones" leadership, and the living room as home for policy formulation, not the corridors of Think Tank. Populism combines Left and Right in a paradoxical melange often heard in the corner tavern. Amy H. Sturgis' chapter in Political Theories for Students grasps the complexity:

The most theoretical and abstract of the strains of populism is the desire for inclusion, for involvement, for greater participation and less control by the elite...Even in so-called democracies, the efficiency of republicanism remains in tension with the values of democracy...As a grassroots campaign, populism is less of a political theory than a political reaction. Its various faces reflect core ideas, but also illustrate variations in how they are applied, from Abraham Lincoln to Adolph Hitler.

Dr. Kendall would have avoided taverns where there was populist talk.

(2) Did Kendall get Locke right?


Toward the end of his career, when he fell under the spell of Strauss and Voegelin, his "Locke" became a proto-creature of modernism. For both, every species of political philosopher became suspect. Strauss kept his sanity somewhat; Voegelin began to suspect even himself. To think of John Locke as a philosopher not part of the "older tradition" is highly imaginative scholarship.
Granted that the Left and Right have, at one time or another, embraced this great parent of the Scottish Enlightenment; his membership in Greek, Hebrew, and Christian tradition is solid.

Perhaps Kendall's enthusiasm to become the prime Straussian student created a lapse in theoretical judgment. He thought of Locke as unidimensional, as he did Mises and Rothbard
(i.e., emphases on free enterprise and property rights). He had written, early on, that both camps, Libertarian and Carlist, were not to be taken seriously. That there is flavorful social philosophy in the works of Mises and Rothbard at one end and in the works of Wilhelmsen and Kuehnelt-Leddihn at the other end was unacknowledged by Kendall.

(3) Where should we place Kendall within the Neo/Paleo spectrum of today?

We shouldn't!

Kendall's conservatism was narrowly constructed. He was, in fact, a unidimensional theorist. His understanding of things was confined to the variegated dimensions of American Federalism (for which he deserves plaudit). His knowledge of European contributions to the cause of the Right, while, without doubt, vast, (his brilliance is a given), nevertheless, was not found but little in his written work. He was essentially an essayist (his only full-length book, the early one on Locke). His mission was to formulate salient points for students to expand upon. Many, especially at the University of Dallas while working under Kendall, did just that.

Kendall was aware of the creeping abandonment by National Review of its credenda and had complained (shouted) heatedly. Today's NR? We can only guess the degree of vitriol. In spite of his late-term love affair with Strauss (the correspondence between the two is fun reading), he would have jumped ship sometime in the 80's when the Kristol interpretations began. As for the Paleo-libertarians (conjecture admitted), the first time he would have read a defense of the Articles of Confederation, an apoplectic rage of the force of Vesuvius would have been heard for miles. Certainly, no Hoover, Cato, or Mises affiliation.

But he, and the book under review, deserve tremendous credit for acumen, for developing openings, the resultant of which is found in today's necessary and perpetual discussions of constitutionalism, egalitarianism/equalitarianism, and the ingredients necessary for virtuous societies.

Willmoore Kendall died in 1967 at the age of 58

The Conservative Affirmation is available on Amazon.com.

Other books in the series
#19. Jose Ortega y Gasset -- The Revolt of the Masses
#20. Gregory L. Schneider -- Conservatism in America since 1930: A Reader
#21. Richard Weaver -- Ideas Have Consequences
#22. Ludwig von Mises -- Method, Money, and the Market

#23. Eric Voegelin -- Science, Politics and Gnosticism
#24. Frank Meyer -- In Defense of Freedom: A Conservative Credo
#25. Leo Strauss -- Natural Right & History

Dr. Enrico Peppe is a retired educator who runs the website The Third Way. A widower with too much time on his hands, he spends most of his time reading and thinking about the conservative movement, studying Catholic theology, working on his "Third Way" website, listening to Sinatra and Miles Davis, and admiring Ann Coulter.

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