JMC fellow Joseph Postell was published in Anamnesis, “a Journal for the Study of Tradition, Place, and ‘Things Divine.’” His article examines Harry Jaffa and Willmoore Kendall’s debate over the function of majority rule within American Constitutional design. He outlines their contributions to American political theory and offers corrections to the missteps in their thought.
Philosopher-Kings or the Sense of the Community? Jaffa, Kendall, and the Problem of Majority Rule*
Until his untimely death at the age of fifty-eight in 1967, Willmoore Kendall was one of the most significant thinkers of American conservatism in the late twentieth century. A cofounder of National Review, Kendall’s quarrelsome disposition and heterodox political views led Yale University to pay him handsomely to surrender his tenure and resign. After his departure from Yale, Kendall cofounded the Braniff Graduate School at the University of Dallas, where he educated many graduate students in the Great Books tradition and in American political theory. Kendall’s work spanned many subjects, but his overarching intellectual concern was reconciling majority rule with justice. His first major scholarly contribution, John Locke and the Doctrine of Majority Rule, was based on his doctoral dissertation and published in 1959. (Three years earlier he coauthored Democracy and the American Party System with Austin Ranney, the great scholar of America’s political parties.) His most famous work, the coauthored Basic symbols of the American Political Tradition, interpreted American constitutionalism through the lens of America’s preconstitutional history and concluded that abstract notions of equality were less central to understanding American than its culture, particularly its religious culture.
Like many other conservative thinkers, Kendall’s work attracted the critical attention of Harry Jaffa, the famous student of Leo Strauss and defender of the American Founding and Lincoln. Jaffa called Kendall’s version of conservatism a “distinctive American fascism, or national socialism” and equated it with the Old South and its aristocratic and illiberal institutions. In his final book, Crisis of the Strauss Divided, Jaffa called Kendall “that old Confederate” and proclaimed that Kendall’s hero was none other than John C. Calhoun. This was forty-five years after Kendall’s death.
Jaffa’s feuds with other conservatives are more widely known, but according to Steven Hayward, one of his prominent students, the feud with Kendall was the most fundamental.
*Footnotes omitted from the original.
Joseph Postell is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, where he teaches courses on American political institutions, American political thought, and administrative law. His research focuses primarily on regulation, administrative law, and the administrative state. He is the editor of two books: Rediscovering Political Economy (with Bradley C.S. Watson) and Toward an American Conservatism (with Johnathan O’Neill). He is currently completing a book titled Bureaucracy in America: The Administrative State and American Constitutionalism (under contract). He also contributes frequently to the Liberty Fund’s “Library of Law and Liberty” website on political and legal thought.
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