Willmoore Kendall: Forgotten Founder of Conservatism
Willmoore Kendall held that American politics is not supposed to reflect universal values expressed through the rhetoric of a single leader, but rather the values or truths that American politics expresses must become known through the deliberate sense of the community…
Willmoore Kendall is one of the most overlooked founding fathers of the conservative movement and also one of the most interesting. He’s overlooked in part because he never wrote a “big book”—The Conservative Affirmation is a collection of essays and reviews rather than a manifesto—and in part because he doesn’t fit into any right-wing factional stereotype. He wasn’t a libertarian. He became Catholic, but his scholarly interest in American institutions set him apart from most traditionalists. He admired Leo Strauss, and also Eric Voegelin, but he was too distinctive a thinker to be subsumed into anyone else’s school. William F. Buckley Jr., Brent Bozell Jr., Garry Wills, and George Carey were all greatly influenced by him, but in idiosyncratic ways.
(Kendall edited and helped polish the first books by his Yale students Buckley and Bozell—God and Man at Yale and McCarthy and His Enemies—and Buckley’s quip that he’d rather be governed by the first 400 names in the Boston phonebook than by the faculty of Harvard reflects Kendall’s thinking at least as much as Buckley’s.)
Kendall was in truth the top Americanist of the postwar conservative movement, more concerned to relate his ideas to the Constitution and The Federalist than to, say, a wider Anglo-American Burkean tradition (as in the case of Russell Kirk) or to a modern Machiavellian outlook (in the case of James Burnham) or to an abstract set of libertarian or other principles (in the case of Frank Meyer and many natural-rights proponents). It’s perhaps ironic that Kendall’s all-American political philosophy found the fewest adherents on the late 20th-century right, but perhaps the future will be kinder to him.
Kendall is remembered most of all today by those who misunderstand him. Harry Jaffa, who propounds an Americanism very different from Kendall’s, has over the decades portrayed Kendall as a neo-Confederate. Kendall died in 1968, but Jaffa is still alive, age 94, and still misrepresenting a dead man who can’t defend himself. In his new book, Crisis of the Strauss Divided, Jaffa refers to “that old Confederate Willmoore Kendall” and claims “that Calhoun… was Kendall’s and Wills’s hero.”
You wouldn’t know it from reading Jaffa, but in The Conservative Affirmation, Kendall had explicitly written that conservatism as he understood it can “do no business with Calhoun…. Its highest political loyalty, in fine, is to the institutions and way to life bequeathed to us by the Philadelphia Convention.”
The Conservative Affirmation doesn’t have much more to say about Calhoun, who only crops up again in a book review in which Kendall draws attention to the author’s inconsistency in professing to admire Calhoun and Hubert Humphrey both. But more of what Kendall himself thought about Calhoun can be found in a key essay reprinted in the collection Willmoore Kendall Contra Mundum: “The ‘Intensity’ Problem in Democratic Theory,” co-authored with George Carey.
“Majority rule” was a topic of enduring interest to Kendall, whose dissertation was published as John Locke and the Doctrine Of Majority Rule. One of Kendall’s contributions as an Americanist was his argument—which I take to be correct—that the U.S. Constitution was a document thoroughly based on popular rule. But is popular rule the same thing as majority rule? And what happens when a majority seeks to abuse minorities? These are some of the questions “The ‘Intensity’ Problem” examines. Kendall was not satisfied with what might seem like the obvious remedies to majoritarian abuses, the enshrining of minority rights protected by a negative on majority action—Kendall considered this “minority dictation.” A minority could abuse its veto to frustrate the majority at any time, for any reason. But if majoritarian abuses were real, what was the alternative?
Calhoun’s solution to this problem in his “Disquisition on Government” is to institutionalize factional interests. Calhoun proposes:
give to each division or interest, through its appropriate organ, either a concurrent voice in making and executing the laws, or a veto on their execution. It is only by such an organism, that the assent of each can be made necessary to put the government in motion; or the power made effectual to arrest its action, when put in motion—and it is only by the one or the other that the different interests, orders, classes, or portions, into which the community may be divided, can be protected, and all conflict and struggle between them prevented—by rendering it impossible to put or to keep it in action, without the concurrent consent of all.
The instruments by which Calhoun would achieve his intended effect are the tools of what Kendall called “minority dictation.” As Calhoun writes:
The necessary consequence of taking the sense of the community by the concurrent majority is, as has been explained, to give to each interest or portion of the community a negative on the others. It is this mutual negative among its various conflicting interests, which invests each with the power of protecting itself—and places the rights and safety of each, where only they can be securely placed, under its own guardianship.… It is this negative power—the power of preventing or arresting the action of the government—be it called by what term it may—veto, interposition, nullification, check, or balance of power—which, in fact, forms the constitution.
“The ‘Intensity’ Problem” considers at length various proposed remedies to the problem of majority tyranny, including Calhoun’s idea of the concurrent majority and John Adams’s thoughts about natural aristocracy. But Kendall rejects both of those ideas. Instead, the ideal he aims for is what he often called the “deliberate sense of the community,” with each side in a dispute having to adjust its demands based on its relative power within the whole community and the intensity of each faction’s feeling on the issue at hand. In other words, negotiation—or deliberation—builds consensus, with everybody getting something, even if no side (neither a usually apathetic majority nor any of several energetic minorities) gets everything. “The people” as a whole are the check on majority abuses and minority self-interest. Additional protections—negatives of the sort contemplated by Calhoun—are incompatible with self-government, as Kendall understands it, since they involve factions of the people carving out exceptions for themselves to the general practice of deliberative government by the whole.
The essay is a very fine, very sophisticated articulation of the idea that politics is the art of compromise. But compromise can’t always arrive at results acceptable to all factions, and Kendall is honest about that: The most that a well-designed political process can do in the face of irreconcilable differences is clarify what the factions envision as being at stake. By this standard, Kendall argues, the failure of the Constitution to prevent the Civil War was not a design flaw. He cites Calhoun to prove his point:
While many have contended that the Civil War was the great failure of the American political system, there is, within the framework we suggest here, reason to dispute this. Calhoun’s last speech to the Senate in 1850 certainly reflected an awareness of things to come.
[Quoting Calhoun] “I have… believed from the first that the agitation of the subject of slavery would, if not prevented by some timely and effective measure, end in disunion. Entertaining this opinion, I have, on all proper occasions, endeavored to call the attention of both the two great parties which divide the country, to adopt some measure to prevent so great a disaster, but without success. The agitation has been permitted to proceed, with almost no attempt to resist it, until it has reached a period when it can no longer be disguised or denied that the Union is in danger. You have thus forced upon you the greatest and the gravest question that ever can come under your consideration: How can the Union be preserved?” We repeat: All that a well constructed political system can possibly do is to provide the means for correct reciprocal anticipations, and with respect to the Civil War the American system probably rates an A+ on this score.
That’s far from deeming Calhoun a hero: Kendall only saw Calhoun as a man who accurately read the situation arising from the limits of compromise. Where there can be no compromise, there can be no “deliberate sense of the community”—and there will be war.
Kendall was, in American constitutional terms, a “nationalist” rather than an advocate of states’ rights. (States’ interests do have a place in the system as factions, however.) This is borne out even in unexpected places: the book Kendall co-authored with George Carey, The Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition, does indeed treat a single “tradition” that is “American” (not merely the tradition of this or that region) dating back to colonial times. Long before the Revolution, Britain’s American colonists had an incipient political unity as self-governing Christians in the New World. They were a people.
Calhoun’s idea of the concurrent majority among different groups (and in effect, different peoples) is antithetical to Kendall’s understanding of a united people encompassing many factional interests. “The deliberate sense of the community” makes no sense if there are many communities; the whole can’t check the abuses of majority or minority factions if there is no whole. Not only is Calhoun not Kendall’s hero, but the entire intellectual edifice Kendall devoted his life to describing—in The Conservative Affirmation, in Basic Symbols, and in the essays and fragments of Contra Mundum—is built on a foundation that denies Calhoun’s premises.
To be sure, Kendall was Oklahoma-born and culturally Southern. He found the philosophy of equality in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, as described by Jaffa in Crisis of the House Divided, to be dangerously universalistic. Yet even there Kendall’s point was not what one might think: Kendall was not attacking Lincoln’s actions, let alone defending slavery, but making a fine distinction about the way American politics is supposed to work: it’s not supposed to reflect universal values expressed through the rhetoric of a single leader, but rather the values or truths that American politics expresses must become known through, again, the deliberate sense of the community. Otherwise, you have not an assembly of self-governing citizens or believers (the dissenting Protestant roots of this American tradition should not be overlooked), but a Philosopher King—a completely different political system, predicated on a completely different understanding of how truth is known.
If all that seems extraordinarily rarified, well, that was Willmoore Kendall. He was brilliant and brilliantly unconventional. He could take a hackneyed argument in the history of American political thought and approach it from an angle no one had thought possible, completely re-framing the dispute. His ideas are not always easy to grasp—I certainly haven’t entirely done justice to them—but the core of his understanding of American political philosophy is out in the open in all of his major works, and anyone who has read them cannot fail to appreciate how unlike Calhoun’s thinking Kendall’s was.
Even in practical politics, Kendall can be a difficult figure to describe. He was critical of the civil rights movement yet also saw the 1964 civil rights act as a triumph of the deliberate sense of the community. It’s not only Jaffa who misunderstands Kendall; the late hard-right political theorist Sam Francis did as well, concluding that Kendall could only have taken this view of the 1960s civil rights legislation if he didn’t really understand what it would lead to. Considering that Kendall was not an absolutist about states’ rights or property rights and his whole political philosophy was about negotiating the way to broad agreement among factions within a political whole, it’s safe to say he would object more strongly to Supreme Court interventions in the name of various rights than to any particular policies the legislative branch might devise. The procedure—legislative and deliberative and consensus-building—was of more importance to him than the particular policy outcome. He understood a certain procedure, or at least deliberative spirit, to be the very essence of the American political tradition.