Among the 20th-century conservative movement’s legendary leaders, Willmoore Kendall (1909-1967) stands out as the one who most effectively offered a grounding in a specifically American philosophy. There is also a timeliness in this remarkable political scientist’s thought. Our society has become divided to an extent that Kendall might well have found horrifying—although not surprising. His acute sense of how such divisions can happen is, therefore, especially worth considering today. Kendall’s writings seem to converge on a single focus: how to make democracy work when so much threatens to either destroy it or turn it in a dangerous direction.
After studying at Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship during the Depression, Kendall completed a Ph.D. in political science at the University of Illinois. His dissertation was a groundbreaking reinterpretation of Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. But his fledgling academic career was interrupted by World War II. With his knowledge of Spanish and political science, he served at the State Department and in the Army bureaucracy, then worked for the early CIA.
His intellectual home was, formally speaking, Yale, where he taught some of the nascent conservative movement’s “young people,” including William F. Buckley, Jr., who graduated in 1950. In 1954, Buckley told the conservative publisher Henry Regnery: “I attribute whatever political and philosophical insights I have to his tutelage and his friendship.”
It was natural, then, that Kendall would be a founding editor of the ambitious conservative magazine Buckley started in 1955, National Review. But it was equally natural that this temperamental man walked away from both institutions. After leaving his Yale professorship in frustration with its uncongenial political science department in 1961, Kendall also became permanently estranged from Buckley. His last years were spent as a popular faculty member at the University of Dallas—a Roman Catholic yet middle-American environment where the populist native Oklahoman finally felt he was “home.” There he co-founded a great books doctoral program, inspired partly by Leo Strauss’s lifelong effort to revive a close engagement with mankind’s permanent philosophical questions through the intensive study of canonical Western texts. Unfortunately, Kendall, a smoker and a heavy drinker, died of a heart attack at age 58.
As a young scholar Kendall favored a radically democratic majoritarianism and was in some respects a radical leftist for a while. The mature Kendall grew not just increasingly conservative in a general sense but also more committed to the Constitution’s checks and balances, its implicit requirements for geographically dispersed and durable—not nationwide, numerical, short-term—majorities in order to enact major public policy. He also preferred congressional as against presidential and judicial power.
Another major theme for Kendall was public virtue in a free society. Rejecting the behavioralism already prominent (and he feared dominant) among political scientists, he similarly came to reject the widely held pluralist view that the American Founders envisioned self-seeking, mutually frustrating clashes between factions or interest groups as the essence of politics in the new republic. Rather, he argued that the Founding—as completed, Kendall believed, not by the literal Constitution but by the brilliant, politically realistic interpretation of it in the Federalist Papers—was more communitarian in its core doctrine, belonging to a venerable pre-existing American tradition based on the concept of a “virtuous people deliberating under God.” This conclusion would be central to his most renowned book, the posthumous Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition (1970), co-authored with his young colleague George Carey.
Also central to Kendall’s work was his belief in what is sometimes called public orthodoxy. As he wrote in one essay: “by no means are all questions open questions; some questions involve matters so basic…that the society would, in declaring them open, abolish itself, commit suicide, terminate its existence as the kind of society it has hitherto understood itself to be.” An example of a such question that he felt should be “closed” in America is whether communism should be accepted as a legitimate political system. Writing elsewhere, Kendall warned that complete ideological openness to the extent advocated in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty would cause politics to “descend ineluctably into ever-deepening differences of opinion, into progressive breakdown of those common premises upon which alone a society can conduct its affairs by discussion, and so into the abandonment of the discussion process and the arbitrament of public questions by violence and civil war.” He had seen it as a journalist in Spain in the 1930s.
Along with his deep learning in political philosophy—Rousseau became another major interest—and his in-depth study of our country’s political and constitutional traditions, Kendall felt a strong identification with middle America. Appropriately, he was a major source for many conservatives’ longstanding faith in the existence of a right-of-center “silent majority.” In his writings, we frequently see a shrewd sense of how typical Americans think about issues in their capacity as citizens. He probably would have understood both our current polarized polity and the current conservative political base quite well. He would have empathized, probably, with the right’s impatience for conservative reform, while starkly admonishing it to overcome that impatience and connect better with the general citizenry.
Kendall’s intellectual life had an indomitable integrity, while his life as a whole, as the eminent historian of American conservatism George Nash has remarked, was one of “restless eccentricity.” His strengths must have owed something to his weaknesses, his apparent inability to calm down or “settle” in either sense of the word. His protégé Buckley would later say of himself that he was not temperamentally a typical conservative. Neither was Kendall.
Both a disdain for loose thinking and an eagerness to make conservatives more politically effective were characteristic, too, of Kendall’s National Review colleague James Burnham. Despite great differences in their personalities and intellectual interests, they both understood clearly that the West faced an urgent crisis—the rampant growth of a centralized, bureaucratic state—which ran even deeper than communism, crucial though that challenge was. Yet another possible basis for a meeting of the minds was their common rejection of libertarianism and political individualism. A collaboration between Kendall and Burnham, then, might have been highly productive, as might others we could imagine. But it’s a bit problematic to say “collaboration” when writing about Kendall—or “productive,” except to suggest that he was insufficiently so.
Despite his drinking problem, his irascibility, and a tendency to spend too much time writing letters and the like, what he did publish was excellent. Except for his much-respected dissertation on Locke, Kendall did not produce a major work on his own (although in addition to his eventual co-authorship of Basic Symbols, he wrote a textbook on democracy and the party system with a more liberal political scientist, Austin Ranney). But his articles and essays are outstanding. Among the most relevant to conservatism are “The People Versus Socrates Revisited,” “The Two Majorities” (presidential and congressional), “The Bill of Rights & American Freedom,” “American Conservatism and the ‘Prayer’ Decisions,” “The Social Contract: The Ultimate Issue Between Liberalism and Conservatism,” and “Conservatism and the ‘Open Society.’” All could have been the basis for entire, even more instructive, books.
In reading them, one senses that weighty issues have been both meticulously chosen and rigorously analyzed, while brought to a fresh conclusion or restatement, not an echo of anybody else’s thinking. One hears Kendall speaking directly, in elaborately constructed yet beautifully clear, often colloquial prose, logically judging alternatives and making key distinctions. Discussions with him may have been similarly rigorous—even though he could, according to the left-wing essayist Dwight Macdonald, “bring an argument into the shouting stage faster than any man in town.” Also notoriously, Kendall is said to have been on speaking terms with just one of his fellow National Review editors at a time. Going along to get along, suppressing major concerns in the interest of careerism or friendship, were simply foreign to him.
And so, perhaps, were intellectual closure and finality. While Kendall would have had little affinity for New Age sensibilities, there may have been a sense in which he felt that the journey mattered more than the destination. An engagement with Strauss’s writings in the 1950s had inspired him to seek out the great University of Chicago scholar and admit that he needed to rethink major questions. Perhaps his “greatest virtue,” Christopher Wolfe suggested in his introduction to a reissued edition of Kendall’s collection, The Conservative Affirmation, “is that he constantly argued with himself; more than once in his mature years, he had the humility to ‘start over,’ changing his intellectual position in response to some challenge to his habits of thought.”
When Kendall deliberated on how to define leading principles for conservatism in the post-New Deal era, he did so partly because he thought the right’s other prominent intellectuals were, in general, “false teachers” and a “poor lot.” Before his untimely death, he had written parts of a book, ironically titled Sages of Conservatism. A key point in these fascinating chapter drafts is his insistence that Russell Kirk’s traditionalism was too vague and lacked real relevance to America (although he agreed with Kirk’s “moral teachings”). But Kendall also diverged markedly from the libertarian and mainstream right’s emphasis on individual rights, a principle for a democratic polity that he was skeptical of. Majority rule and societal cohesion remained more important to him.
Conservatism today needs Kendall more than ever. A philosopher and political scientist first and a conservative second, he was nonetheless a profoundly political man who aimed to make the right more effective. Kendall’s midcentury confidence that most Americans were right-of-center had some basis at the time, though arguably less reason for it today. Yet as the right rethinks its position in our society and reflects on the vast frustrations it has experienced in the decades since his death, he remains a compelling figure. He insisted that conservatives, if they were to become more successful politically, must convincingly articulate a claim to be the defenders of the true American political tradition. In addition, opposition to intellectual hypocrisy and complacency were major themes in Kendall’s restless life and writings. He had, in one scholar’s apt description, “no time for sentimentality, woolly thinking, or self-serving ideas.” Nor should we.