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Saturday, April 1, 1972

A Reviewer’s Notebook – 1972/4

I knew Willmoore Kendall, who is now presented posthumously in a wide-ranging selection called Willmoore Kendall Contra Mundum (Arlington House, $11.95), when he functioned as the book editor at Bill Buckley’s National Review. I had heard stories that he was a most “difficult” man, forever getting into trouble with his colleagues, whether at Yale or elsewhere, for disputatious reasons that, according to Dwight MacDonald, often ended in the “shouting stage.” But, like Jeffrey Hart, who contributes an illuminating biographical introduction to this representative collection of Kendalliana, I found him to be unfailingly considerate at all times.

I could only conclude that most of the difficulties that Kendall encountered came from the “liberal” bias of academia, a bias that refused to accept the fact (which Kendall insisted upon) that older American orthodoxies that still prevailed beyond the limits of the campus had a continuing legitimacy, even though (as in the case of Senator Joe McCarthy) their proponents sometimes made stupid mistakes in arithmetic. It was the standard opinion at the Yale of Willmoore Kendall’s time that “McCarthyism” imperiled academic freedom, yet ironically, the only academic casualty of the “McCarthy period” that I know was Willmoore Kendall, who was chivvied into relinquishing his professorial tenure because he insisted on the need for strong means to keep Communist subversives out of sensitive positions in Washington. The actual “Mccarthyism” of the campus in the Fifties and early Sixties was practiced by the liberals themselves, and Willmoore Kendall was their most conspicuous victim.

But what were Kendall’s actual positions? As one uncovers them in the articles in Willmoore Kendall Contra Mundum, they were mostly derived from an intense preoccupation with The Federalist, particularly the contributions of James Madison. Kendall had his reservations about John Locke because, as he saw it, Locke’s thinking (which trusted to the good sense of the British parliament) provided for no substantial defenses against the possible madness of a majority as represented by a single branch of government. It is the triumph of the American system that it has provided for what Kendall calls “the two majorities.” The same electorate that selects the President as the leader of “all the people” also determines the composition of Congress, which, through its committee system and its control of the purse, often acts as a brake on what a Utopian occupant of the White House might want to do. This is the Madisonian system as bequeathed to us by the Founders, to whom Kendall made the unorthodox obeisance of accepting all their goals, the necessity of providing for the common defense and maintaining a more perfect union as well as the desirability of protecting such individual rights as free speech and freedom of assembly.

One thing that made Kendall “difficult” was his refusal to slide around the great enigmas of our time. How does one reconcile a belief in justice with a belief in majority rule? (After all, an absolute majoritarian must concede the right of 50.1 per cent of the voting population to send 49.9 —including nonvoters — to the gas chambers.) How does one square the use of the Fourteenth Amendment to compel many things that were left to the jurisdiction of the States, or to the individuals themselves, by the Ninth and Tenth Amendments? (After all, nobody has ever argued that the Ninth and Tenth Amendments have been repealed.) Kendall could not settle the great contradictions, but he insisted that they be confronted and argued about. And this made him an uncomfortable fellow among his faculty colleagues in the university common room, most of whom accepted an unconscious bias for the Declaration of Independence, which stresses equality, and against the Preamble to the Constitution, which says nothing about it. But if Kendall wasn’t liked by his fellow professors, his faculty for directing students to the actual words of our basic documents made him a great teacher.

In his essay on “The Two Majorities” Kendall speaks of the “bias toward Quixotism inherent in our presidential elections” and the “corrective” of “Sancho Panzism” as applied by the off-year and staggered elections for Congress. He himself was Don Quixote in his hopes that universities could actually provide for real confrontation of issues and Sancho Panza in his willingness to undercut the modern liberal orthodoxy. His bloodiest fights came over his insistence that “equality of opportunity” is the ignis fatuus, the light of fools, of modern political discourse.

To get “equality of opportunity,” one would first have to abolish the family, which would be wrong. Secondly, one would have to level off incomes and accept some form of socialism. This would not only be morally wrong in Kendall’s opinion, but it wouldn’t work. Kendall trusted the “second majority,” that of Congress, to resist the attempt to legislate “equality of opportunity.” He didn’t live to see what our judges are doing to confuse our educational scene, but he would, if he were still around, almost certainly make the point that it must hurt everybody, the poor included, if superior minds are to be kept by a leveling process from getting a superior education. If it hadn’t been for inequality, the poor would never have had the benefits resulting from such modern commonplaces as vaccination, pasteurization or, indeed, the electric light bulb. We all have a stake in letting the uncommon man get all the opportunity that his genes, his family or the pure luck of an unequal draw can give him. This doesn’t mean that when compulsorily seized tax money is being spent it shouldn’t be disbursed in accordance with a sense of equal justice. But it does mean that nongovernmental agencies, such as the family, the corporation, the foundation and the private school, should be left alone to favor individuals and causes as they choose. Out of the variety of inventions, discoveries and good works that come from letting individuals push their unequal faculties as far as they can, we get a far better quality of life for everyone than would otherwise be the case.

Kendall was always delightfully alive to paradoxes. He multiplied difficulties for himself by his refusal to allow people — such as myself — to ground their assertion of rights on feelings that we must assume are fairly common to human beings everywhere. John Locke, I take it, based his claim that governments are instituted to protect the individual in his right to life, liberty and property not only on what he took to be historical evidence but also on his own interior feelings. Those feelings happened to be in accord with what is asserted as Revelation (“Thou Shalt Not Steal” and “Thou Shalt Not Kill”). In his own thirst for both divine sanctions and human delaying agencies, Willmoore Kendall couldn’t admit that Locke was doing the best he could in a pre-Madisonian situation. If Locke had had to corral thirteen separate colonies under one Constitutional roof, he might have done more to eliminate the dangers inherent in a pure majoritarianism as practiced by a single arm of government. 

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.