Fifty years after its appearance in 1970, The Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition by Willmoore Kendall and George Carey remains a leading interpretation of our tradition for the opponents of not just one, but two schools of thought. It was a pioneering effort to counter what these dissenting political scientists called “the official literature” on the American Founding: the view of Progressive Era interpreters (following Abraham Lincoln’s similar understanding) that it was dedicated foremost to individual rights and equality, and that the American political system, as ideally conceived, is likewise dedicated to these principles.
In the authors’ view, the progressives were responsible for a “derailment” of the American tradition because they so wrongly misinterpreted it, displacing majority rule or self-government and a virtuous political civility from their rightful pre-eminence therein. Although the late political philosopher Harry Jaffa and the associated “Claremont school” have deeply opposed the thinking of progressivist historians and social theorists, Basic Symbols is also used as an intellectual cudgel against them, for they too have followed Lincoln in insisting on the centrality of individual rights and equality to the American tradition.
Identifying the Derailment
The flamboyant Kendall (1909-1967), who was politically but not temperamentally a conservative, and his modest younger collaborator Carey (1933-2013), a conservative in both respects, were in some ways an odd couple. But in political philosophy, or at least on the American Founding, they saw eye-to-eye. Basic Symbols is not, therefore, a compromise negotiated by two divergent writers, but a truly co-authored work like the Federalist Papers. In the decades following Kendall’s untimely death of a heart attack a few years after he happily joined the faculty at the University of Dallas, Carey’s enduring career at Georgetown University allowed him to serve as teacher and intellectual mentor to a much longer stream of students and future scholars.
Kendall, a “wild Yale don” and “natural aginner” as two observers have called him, was among the founders of America’s 20th-century conservative intellectual movement and is still very much a name to conjure with. But Carey is himself a powerful presence among scholars of American political thought, especially those who are right-of-center. His quiet persistence in the vineyard of constitutionalism did much to maintain his old intellectual partner’s influence for two full generations, an influence that continues today and likely can be expected to in the future. Carey’s greatest contribution in this sense, perhaps, was to extend a small set of interesting lectures into an even more interesting book, Basic Symbols.
The first half of this short, concise volume consists of four lectures that Kendall gave at Vanderbilt University in 1964, lightly edited for publication. The next three chapters, on the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, were written by Carey, who describes them as a continuation of the first half, implying that they adhered fully to the view Kendall held of those later documents. The final chapter, with more on “the extent and causes” of the alleged derailment, originated as one of the Vanderbilt lectures, but unlike the others was “written on the spot under the pressures of time and circumstance.” For this reason, Carey made “fairly substantial” additions and changes. But in making these revisions, as in writing chapters five through seven, he closely consulted students’ notes on course lectures given by Kendall, as well as some of the latter’s writings and their private correspondence.
In his preface to the 1995 edition of Basic Symbols, Carey amplified, and answered objections to, his and Kendall’s comments on the American tradition’s alleged derailment. But the point can be stated quite simply: The “official literature” on the Founding which he and Kendall oppose, Carey writes later in Basic Symbols, “cannot place the Declaration in its proper context.” It reflects “a total ignorance of the tradition that both preceded and followed” it.
An equal right among all men to consent to a governmental system and to participate, however indirectly, in its lawmaking is the limited, yet very deep, sense of “equal” that Jaffa and the Claremont school understand the Declaration to have announced. For the progressives, equality means far more. In essence, it means continued progress toward greater equality of condition. For Kendall and Carey, in stark contrast, the Declaration’s “all men are created equal” simply means, as best they can tell, that all peoples have an equal right to self-government, that the Americans are claiming equality in this sense with the British. For that and other reasons, they see in it no elevation of any kind of individual equality as the central concept or (in their special sense of the word) “symbol” of the American polity—nor even any affirmation that such equality is one basic symbol among many.
Self-Government and the American Symbols
What was it, then, that the interpreters responsible for the “derailment” failed to grasp? After an initial overview of his own approach to the American political tradition, Kendall’s lectures cover four significant and, in his opinion, quite wrongly neglected founding documents: the Mayflower Compact (1620), the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut (1639), the Massachusetts Body of Liberties (1641), and the Virginia Declaration of Rights (June 12, 1776). They too are defining examples, Kendall believes, of what Thomas Jefferson would later call “the American mind,” and they aren’t essentially about rights or equality.
Another political theory scholar, Eric Voegelin, is a kind of third partner in the book. As he explains in his first lecture, Kendall applies Voegelin’s concept of core “symbols” as the organizing principle for his analysis of the earlier documents—and for what he and Carey will later say about the Founding Era. In his trademark conversationally passionate tone, he explains why:
What do I assert as true, as good, as meaningful, as beautiful? These, Voegelin teaches, are questions that no people constituting itself as a political society can sidestep, questions that do arise [as a people] gets itself politically organized for action in history … [or simply as it] lives its life as a people and chooses between alternative courses of action.
Along with these basic questions of truth and value, Kendall explains, comes the most basic political question:
How do I—this people—decide what to do? To what standards do I refer my decisions as to what to do? By what procedures am I to decide what to do, and on which persons or types of persons … am I to rely when I make such decisions? All these, says Voegelin, are questions to which all peoples give, have to give, some kind of answer …
To answer these compelling questions, Voegelin theorized, peoples develop “symbols.” Symbols, in his particular vocabulary, are concepts reflecting what the people most highly value in public life. Their political principles, articles of political faith, or propositions about what is politically true come only later, as further thinking in the light of experience clarifies these early fundamental commitments and thus generates something like a political philosophy. Therefore, scholars who wish to understand their regimes must begin by fully grasping the underlying symbols.
Also crucial in Voegelinian interpretation is the point at which a people, or at least their primitive polity, can be said to have originated. Scholars such as J. Allen Smith, Charles Beard, Vernon Parrington, and later Robert Dahl and the eminent Founding expert Gordon Wood have, according to Basic Symbols and Carey’s preface, furthered Lincoln’s initial derailment of Americans’ understanding of their tradition, all of them simplistically stressing the Declaration as our true founding and in that respect de-emphasizing both the Constitution and our previous political heritage. And admirers of Basic Symbols and its authors often say the same of the Claremont or Jaffa school. Kendall and presumably Carey insist, on the contrary, that even the Mayflower Compact—though it acknowledges “our dread Sovereign Lord” King James—more truly encapsulates that tradition.
Kendall places great emphasis on the Mayflower Compact’s phrase “for our better Ordering,” which he interprets as “the building of a good order” and thus as implying the possibility or likelihood of “continuous deliberation about what is good order” or a good political arrangement. Indeed, he hammers on this point: “political order is placed on notice … that it must be good political order, must justify itself as good and as serving the purposes named, or, failing that, get busy and improve itself.” The emphasis on “good” means that the concept of a higher standard or law, not of the covenanters’ own making, is essential to the Compact.
Additionally, Kendall places great weight on the word “thought.” The signers on their ship, before setting foot on what later will be called American soil, pledge to “enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions, and Offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet [suitable or proper] and convenient for the general Good of the Colony,” then promise “all due Submission and Obedience” to these laws.
The reference, all the way back in 1620, to that which “shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general Good” turns out to be the core of the American political tradition as presented in Basic Symbols. It means, in effect, self-government driven by careful thinking, religious piety, and a morally educated conscience. It is also subject to revision and is not to be understood as perfectible. As Kendall notes, “the general good is not treated as a settled matter” but calls, rather, for “continuous thought” and occasionally “new decisions.” The little band of colonists is saying: “We did not promise laws that are meet and convenient, but only such laws as are thought to be; it is enough if a given law reflects the general thinking amongst us as to what is meet and convenient; it is that which you [any objector to a future law] have promised to obey.”
Kendall explains that the symbols in these founding documents develop, growing clearer and more complex—or, borrowing another term of Voegelin’s, they “differentiate”—over time. One symbol in a constitutional document or other authoritative articulation might grow more important than one, or perhaps all, of the others, and a symbol might come to mean different things. In the case of the Mayflower Compact, for example, the concept—symbol—of “just and equal Laws” might eventually predominate in the society it is founding. Or “thought most meet and convenient for the general Good” might be stressed, elevating deliberation (patient, public-spirited thinking and discussion) in government as the “supreme symbol.”
The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut two decades later have an actual constitution, “a written statement of the procedures by which laws are to be made and enforced.” Thus, the Compact’s simple symbols of “better ordering” and of framing “just and equal laws” have differentiated into “a cluster of new symbols … the written constitution; the supremacy of what is recognizably a legislature,” and the majority-vote principle for elections and laws. But there’s still no concept of individual rights. Two years after that, the Massachusetts Body of Liberties does include, as its title suggests, something like them: “liberties, immunities and privileges,” also called “freedoms.” But these freedoms, it says, are “due to every man in his place and proportion.” They are not understood as due to everyone equally.
Importantly, the legislature or General Court is described as legally but not morally omnipotent. Legislative determinations on which liberties are due to whom are, implicitly, to follow the standards of “humanity, Civility, and Christianity,” and there isn’t the slightest suggestion, Kendall notes, that the legislators may “improvise” in deciding what is humane, civil, or Christian. Thus the Massachusetts Body of Liberties adds to—further differentiates—the concepts in the Fundamental Orders by including humanity and civility as authoritative principles. It appeals to what Kendall calls “the transcendent truth of the soul and society as continuously explored by Western man, over the centuries, through the experience of philosophy and religion.” The document’s understanding of public deliberation is “precisely,” he says, that which will be seen later in the Federalist Papers. The concept—symbol—of a “virtuous people” which consciously subordinates itself to such transcendent truths about the soul and society, implied in the Mayflower Compact, is actually “specified” in the 1641 document. But the size of the society now requires that its deliberative lawmaking be done by representatives rather than the whole body of citizens.
The Federalist’s Constitution
In its analysis of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, Basic Symbols incorporates interpretations found in some of Kendall’s essays. Central to the book’s treatment of them is his three-part distinction between the “Philadelphia Constitution” (the document which the convention adopted and sent to the states for ratification with no Bill of Rights), the Constitution including the Bill of Rights, which Congress and the states soon added to it, and the Constitution as interpreted during the ratification process by the Federalist Papers. Carey channels Kendall when he writes that Americans “for most purposes … do not live under the Philadelphia Constitution, or under the Bill of Rights, but under what we may term the ‘Federalist Papers Constitution.’”
In essence, they mean this: The document on its own, minus Alexander Hamilton’s and James Madison’s interpretation of it in the Federalist Papers, really institutes legislative supremacy, not a wholly reliable separation of powers or adequate checks and balances. The Constitution itself, minus its interpretation by “Publius,” gives Congress “weapons with which, when and if it chooses to use them, it can completely dominate the other two branches.” Without the “constitutional morality” taught in the Federalist Papers, it would be free to abuse its powers—and free, even, to refuse to deliberate, quite contrary to America’s pre-existing tradition. It is those 85 essays that tell Americans that the three branches must, instead, work together and not force constitutional showdowns, crises potentially fatal to the republic if they are frequent. Kendall and Carey reject the common interpretation of the Federalist Papers that finds its keys to good government in such non-moral safeguards as America’s size and diversity (the “extended sphere” argument in #10) and built-in conflict among three proud, assertive branches (#51: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition”).
The constitutional morality to which Kendall and Carey refer, extended from the government to the public, is stated briefly as follows: “One of the virtues of a virtuous people … one of the virtues that, as individuals, they must cultivate, is that of not expecting the political order, the government, to reflect and act upon the beliefs that they, as individuals, hold most strongly.” Another such virtue is “that of not being in too much of a hurry, and another is that of not expecting other people, their neighbors, to give up overnight their own strongly held beliefs.” The complexity and the predictable slowness of action by the federal government are supposed to force not merely better thinking by the elected branches, but more civility and more regard for, even deference to, other views and interests among citizens.
Basic Symbols also directs our attention to two key assumptions which, it says, Publius clearly makes. One is that the American people have “a sense of right and wrong … a feeling for justice and [for] doing that which promotes the true interests of the community.” The other, rather similar, is that given the opportunity to deliberate, they will indeed choose “just” politics, likely to promote what Publius calls the “permanent and aggregate interests” of the whole. The Federalist Papers and not the Constitution proper are the place, Kendall and Carey say, where “the supreme symbols of the American tradition, rule by the deliberate sense of a virtuous people, [are] held up to us.”
The book offers no clear explanation for progressive scholars’ success in making their egalitarian and individualistic view of the Founding predominant. The most relevant comments, in its jointly authored last chapter, suggest a difficult question: “The philosophical plants of derailment were seeded and began to grow full force sometime between the very early years of the Republic and the Civil War. This is precisely why Lincoln could speak in the manner he did at Gettysburg and get away with it.” It was also helpful to the progressives that these plants had been “lavishly fed and nourished, sometimes unwittingly, after the Civil War.” The first point would, of course, lead many readers toward Alexis de Tocqueville’s early 19th-century work Democracy in America and its discussion of a great modern compulsion toward further equality of condition, heightened by Americans’ already considerable equality.
The Kendall/Carey interpretation of our political tradition remains relevant especially because its notable opponents, the “official literature” progressive school and, more recently, the Jaffa school, have such strong followings. It is a compelling counterpoint to the dual commitment to individual rights and equality that so many Americans take as the essence of Americanism. Also compelling is the inclination to trust the people, a major complementary theme in Kendall’s writings. Deliberative majority rule under divine guidance, it may fairly be objected, can’t guarantee either rights or equality. But then, what can?