Richard Reinsch (00:04):
Hello and welcome to Liberty Law Talk. I’m your host, Richard Reinsch. Liberty Law Talk is featured at the online journal, Law and Liberty, which is available at lawliberty.org.
Richard Reinsch (00:19):
Hello, I’m Richard Reinsch, and today we’re talking with Christopher Owen about his new biography of the conservative thinker, Willmoore Kendall. The book is titled Heaven Can Indeed Fall. Christopher Owen is Professor of English at Northeastern State University in Oklahoma. Christopher, welcome to the program.
Christopher Owen (00:40):
Thank you, Richard. I really am excited about being on your program. It is Professor of History instead of English, but other than that everything’s right.
Richard Reinsch (00:49):
I apologize for that.
Christopher Owen (00:51):
Richard Reinsch (00:52):
Okay. So who was Willmoore Kendall and why does he matter?
Christopher Owen (00:57):
Yeah, a great question. Willmoore Kendall was probably best known as being the mentor of William F. Buckley Jr. at Yale, so he was a Professor of Political Science at Yale off and on after World War II. And at Yale, certain talented students fell under his influence. He was a dynamic, colorful personality and really a great teacher. So William F. Buckley and also L. Brent Bozell Jr. were both sort of his mentors, or he was their mentors at Yale. And he had a great influence on their life, and their thought, and their activism, which is important in itself. But I believe, and I argue in the book, that he’s probably most important as a political theorist. So he was a founder of conservatism, one of the co-founders of National Review, for example, but his thought doesn’t really fit neatly into any of the common categories that we think of as contemporary conservatism. So not a neocon, not really a state’s rights guy, not really a theocon, not really a social or religious conservative exactly either. I call him in the book a populist. One might call him in today’s lexicon, I guess one could call him a national conservative. Those were neither terms that he would necessarily have embraced. But when thinking about his ideas and his thought, that’s really where I would put those. I would say that if you look at the early days of National Review for example, his ideas had some importance and resonance that in time kind of faded away, particularly as conservatism came closer to power and liberalism went more on the defensive.
Richard Reinsch (02:52):
He also worked in the CIA and part of his influence over Buckley was recruiting him to the CIA. Is that right?
Christopher Owen (03:01):
Sure. That’s right. Buckley, I guess, was recruited by Kendall to serve in the CIA. That was one way he could avoid getting drafted and sent to Korea, I guess, was part of it. There were other people at work in the CIA with National Review, James Burnham, for example. Kendall’s work as an intelligence officer was really important, and he was really good at it, and he was briefly head of what became the CIA for all of Latin America. He was also really important as an intelligence officer during the Korean War. But I think that experience that he had in the bureaucracy of the federal government made him skeptical about the federal bureaucracy and that it should be maybe more controlled by the popular will.
Richard Reinsch (03:54):
Yeah. That’s interesting in itself, a PhD in political science who had spent some time in academia at that point, then making his way into the CIA. How did that happen?
Christopher Owen (04:04):
Sure. Well, he really spent most of his entire life really in academia. So he had been in the 30s, Kendall was a man of the left. He was an isolationist. So he was sympathetic, I guess, with Trotskyism, though not so much as James Burnham would’ve been. He sort of, as the war broke out, which he had opposed the U.S. entry into the war, so after Pearl Harbor he had to figure out what to do. And what he ended up doing is falling in with a group that was led by Nelson Rockefeller called the CIAA, which is the committee for—I can’t remember the exact initials, but essentially an intelligence group that where it’s the—The Coordinator for Inner American Affairs is what that stands for. It was basically American intelligence work in Latin America. So Kendall was fluent in French and Spanish and so he put his language skills to work there. Worked in Columbia for a while and was really good at sort of public information, I guess we would call it propaganda, counterintelligence, not covert stuff, not spying so much as public intelligence work. His Spanish also kind of bonded him to Buckley, because I’ve heard that William F. Buckley’s first language was Spanish, and Buckley’s dad made his money in Mexican oil investments. And so that was probably one thing Kendall and Buckley had in common-
Richard Reinsch (05:36):
Christopher Owen (05:36):
… was that language.
Richard Reinsch (05:38):
Thinking here, you mentioned Kendall was at Yale, so very bright obviously. Early on, his career took off academically. You write in the book and maybe help us understand this, he had a way of analyzing texts that was unique amongst political theorists and this seemed to really bring out the brilliance in his work. Talk about that some.
Christopher Owen (06:06):
Sure. So he had a couple of different influences in that way. He was a Rhodes Scholar and he was a student at Pembroke College in Oxford and was a student there of the philosopher, R.G. Collingwood. And Collingwood was an analyst of the philosophy of history and Collingwood really focused on sort of investigating questions, almost like a detective asking the right questions, trying to carefully, systematically work through your evidence logically to come to a logically coherent answer. That was part of the influence. The other was when Kendall, in the late 30s, taught at LSU, which at that time had a lot of money and was pretty prestigious. And there he became good friends with both Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks, who were sort of pioneering the new criticism of close reading of texts and they would sort of put historical context aside to really focus in on the text itself. Kendall became, I don’t know of any other political scientists who did this, but he really liked to focus on a specific text and delve into and dig out its deepest meaning and putting aside historical context for the purpose of analysis. And so he was really able to do that with John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government very effectively and kind of come up with some new ways of looking at that key text that others hadn’t really brought out too effectively.
Richard Reinsch (07:40):
Also, I mean, I think this is sort of key to his unique position in conservatism is an author who’s a foundation for Kendall was Rousseau. So talk about that, because I think that helps us understand his thinking better.
Christopher Owen (07:57):
Yeah. So Kendall was very sympathetic to Rousseau. He found him first really as a man of the left. A lot of Kendall’s focus was on democracy and so he saw Rousseau as the sort of main theorist of democracy. Most conservatives, Kirk, etc., Russell Kirk, hated Rousseau. In fact, I don’t know of any other conservatives but Kendall who really admired him. I’m sure there are some. Look, so Kendall said, “If we’re going to have democracy, we have to figure out how to maintain it in the large nation state,” which is a reality of the day. So how do you have both a large nation state and democracy? So that, I think, drove Kendall to focus on local government where he believed democracy was more real and so he really, when he got an assignment to do a discussion of local government, he taught classes on local politics at several different universities, but he went to Rousseau to make this not just a mundane routine assignment on the, I don’t know, the commissioner system of elections, but something that was more fundamental to maintaining democracy. And therefore he came to believe, I think, that representatives in Congress and so forth really ought to protect and safeguard the interests of their own local communities, which they represented. And that ultimately was Rousseauian in the way to best preserve democracy in a large state.
Richard Reinsch (09:34):
So in that regard, it’s interesting just to think about his work on Locke as well.
Christopher Owen (09:41):
Richard Reinsch (09:41):
And his dissertation on Locke, which very well received at the time.
Christopher Owen (09:46):
Richard Reinsch (09:46):
And he does something new with Locke. He says, Locke is a majoritarian theorist. He’s not… To think of him as a proponent defending individual rights doesn’t fully make sense of that.
Christopher Owen (09:58):
Richard Reinsch (09:59):
And talk about that too because that seems like it’s going to play out later in his career, particularly when he turns to writing on politics in the 60s.
Christopher Owen (10:08):
Sure. So he starts out as, at that point, I call him an absolute majoritarian, Kendall, so the majority had the right to rule, the minority has the duty to obey. So in reading the Second Treatise, instead of relying on what others had said about it, he read it and analyzed it carefully. And one of the things he noted is chapter one focuses on the right of the majority to rule the community and to impose its will up to and including the death penalty for those who step outside of its bounds. And it’s really only in the second chapter when Locke turns to natural rights. So the right of the community to rule as it sees fit is logically and prior to the rights of the individual not to be ruled by this society. So he argued really that there’s a fundamental contradiction, I think, between those two things. That if individuals have natural rights that are not given to them by society and cannot be taken away by society, that seems to contradict the idea that the majority has the right to impose its will on the rest of society. So he sort of saw that seeming contradiction by suggesting that Locke had a tacit understanding that the majority was virtuous enough that it would never take away the rights that individuals deserve. That was his position, at least in 1941. That changed a little later.
Richard Reinsch (11:49):
He changed later. His thinking changes about Locke as well. I guess we should say Willmoore Kendall found the politics department at the University of Dallas.
Christopher Owen (12:02):
Richard Reinsch (12:03):
And towards the end of his career, he dies, I think, in 1966?
Christopher Owen (12:09):
Richard Reinsch (12:09):
’67. And he taught at Yale. He had a, shall we say, a difficult personality wherever he went.
Christopher Owen (12:17):
Richard Reinsch (12:18):
I think it was said of Kendall, he never wanted to be on speaking terms with more than two people at the same time.
Christopher Owen (12:24):
Richard Reinsch (12:26):
And he was an alcoholic, he was married three times, and very just challenging personal life. But he was also a genius who entered, was it he entered Northwestern at the age of 13 or 14?
Christopher Owen (12:41):
Right. 13, yeah.
Richard Reinsch (12:43):
Yeah, and overbearing father, his father was a blind Methodist pastor, a progressive pastor in Oklahoma in the early part of the 20th centuries. So I think that also is obviously a part of Willmoore Kendall’s story.
Christopher Owen (13:01):
Absolutely. So he certainly had a contentious personality, but I think that was one of those things where it was a thing that also attracted people to him because people never really forgot meeting him when they did meet him.
Richard Reinsch (13:18):
Christopher Owen (13:19):
Saul Bellow wrote a short story or a novella really about him called Mosby’s Memoirs. He knew Saul Bellow and he just made a vivid impression on people when he did meet them. So he had a charisma about him, particularly when he was young, that attracted women and young people and his contentiousness was mostly focused on his superiors or his colleagues. He was never brutal or really argumentative with his students. In fact, he was never really ideological with his students, he was able to tolerate people of all sorts of shades of opinion within that. And I do try to… I don’t really connect necessarily all the dots, but… Yeah, so his childhood, he was really rushed into a lot of stuff by his dad as a child prodigy and he had a lot of scars from that I think, and that really came out in his later life. I do mostly in the book try to avoid saying that his father, Reverend Kendall, that it was unfortunate that he did blah or whatever, because kind of my idea was that it is what it is and so the good that was in Kendall and some of the contentious parts all came from that. And he could have been an obscure professor somewhere and nobody would’ve ever heard of him, he might have lived a happier life, but made less impact. So I tried not to make too many judgements on that and just tell the story like it was.
Richard Reinsch (14:54):
Yeah, Kendall… I mean, if you’re trying to consult him to understand sort of the essence of his thought there’s several books of his that are really collections of his essays. The one that sticks out to me is the Conservative Affirmation and although there’s a collection of contra mundum, but we’ve been talking about this, how would you define his approach to American constitutional thought?
Christopher Owen (15:20):
Sure. Well, it’s also lined out in his book, Basic Symbols.
Richard Reinsch (15:25):
Christopher Owen (15:27):
Really I think for American constitutional thought he really regards himself as a follower. I call him a Madisonian, but Madison himself is all over the place at times. He really calls himself, I think, a follower of Publius, and the Federalist, and the Constitution and the papers that explain the Constitution is really where he came down. And he even comes down with the original Constitution pre Bill of Rights because he believes. He cites Madison at a couple of points that the Bill of Rights are really part, what he calls, parchment barriers, paper that really don’t mean anything unless you have a virtuous people who’s willing to rule with restraint, carefully deliberate its course, and proceed into the future, so that’s really where he lies. And he really puts a lot of emphasis on the Preamble to the Constitution as the purpose of American government, so more perfect union, justice, domestic tranquility, general welfare, and so forth. So his thought really uplifts the Constitution, the Preamble, the Federalist. He is less enamored with the Declaration of Independence, which he thinks is sort of hastily put together, not well thought through, and less coherent than the Constitution, which was carefully deliberated over months before it became the law of the land.
Richard Reinsch (17:08):
But you said, Publius mattered.
Christopher Owen (17:10):
Richard Reinsch (17:11):
How did Publius inform his thought and how did he understand Publius?
Christopher Owen (17:15):
Sure. So he likes to… The Publius of course is John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison, the anonymous title, pseudonym, that they wrote the Federalist Papers justifying the Constitution. So Kendall, like his focus on textual analysis, he thought it was less important in trying to determine which of those individuals wrote each, Federalist 51, Federalist 10, or whatever, than to look at the document focusing on the text itself and what it said about the American Republic and how it was supposed to operate. So the Federalist, written by Publius, he thought was the best guide to how the Constitution ought to be understood and interpreted, and really the best guide for how the American system of government was supposed to operate. And that was a defense of the Constitution before the Bill of Rights was attached to it.
Richard Reinsch (18:21):
Uh-huh (affirmative). So talk more about that, because I know he had this idea of constitutional morality inside the workings of the federal government should guide those people, people working in the institutions and the branches. Help our listeners understand that.
Christopher Owen (18:37):
So Kendall believed that there was a constitutional morality of restraint, and a lot of that meant not seeking to impose one’s will, or desires, or policy goals at the expense of other forces in society, that if you through, this is his later thought, it changed from what he was thinking early, that if social forces, reformers, et cetera, tried to impose their will and ran sort a roughshod over large groups who resisted, that that would almost certainly lead to social disorder, disrupt if not destroy the public government, the federal government. So Kendall really put the sovereign center and his focus on Congress, that Congress really was the place where sovereignty as loaned to Congress by the people resided and that as Congress went, so went the Republic. And when Congress was weak, that wasn’t good, that that really threatened sort of dictatorship.
Richard Reinsch (19:50):
Thinking about that, he has a great essay about the different types of majorities in American politics, and there’s a presidential majority and the congressional majority. And the presidential majority, I would say, I’m interested to get your thoughts, I think that largely governs us now. And Kendall was trying to say, well, congressional majority are different, that they’re defined by districts, by personalities representing those districts, and it’s going to be more directly responsive. And the goal should be to build around those majorities, which would represent something that approximates the majority of the actual people. And a presidential majority, it’s about television, it’s about grand ideals, it’s foreign policy related, it seems to be more elite driven. It’s a brilliant essay, but I think it’s… Now, it’s very much how we do politics and it has been true for decades.
Christopher Owen (20:52):
Yes. I think that’s true. And he saw that coming and he thought that, that would be really destructive. By the way, I think in that he was, even in his day, he was butting his head or running against the grain there because a lot of political scientists believe that the presidential majority is where real democracy resided. So a lot of that, he uses the phrase structured communities, so your Congressman represents a particular community, a structured community, his constituents can know him. He understands the particularities of his place in a way that presidential candidates never can. So he talked about how in a congressional election the candidates can talk about something real, tangible, local that affects people. Whereas in presidential campaigns, he said, mostly the candidates were just full of hot air talking about nothing, just sound bites that really didn’t mean a whole lot when it came right down to it. So absolutely he saw that coming and thought it would be destructive.
Richard Reinsch (21:57):
Yeah, and I think this leads into my next question. I’d like to get our listeners to understand. So Kendall defended Joseph McCarthy, why did he defend McCarthy?
Christopher Owen (22:07):
Yeah, that’s a great question and that’s something that I’ve really struggled with. And boy, if you want to turn someone’s head say someone was favoring Joe McCarthy, that’s still… McCarthy, his name is not well received, obviously. So look, that does go with what he’s saying. So Kendall, and this is the early 50s, he basically sees that there’s an out of control bureaucracy. So there’s some resonance here when people today start talking about the swamp, et cetera, Kendall didn’t use those terms, but that’s what he was thinking back in the 50s. And there’s a bureaucracy that doesn’t really have a particular boss anywhere, it’s kind of loosely under the control of the Executive Branch. There’s an unelected judiciary and he links them together in what he calls kind of this three-headed great bureaucracy, which he says is the news media, the federal bureaucracy, and the judiciary, and that those three combined basically are imposing their will on the people.
Christopher Owen (23:19):
And his whole idea was in a democracy you need someone to right herd on this bureaucracy and the only real institution set up to do that is Congress. And Congress of course, that would be in this case, Joseph McCarthy, could have been Martin Dies from earlier on in the 1940s, and that the only way that the people can exercise some control on this bureaucracy is through their elected representatives in Congress. So that’s why it sort of logically connects, I mean, he had no illusions about McCarthy.
Richard Reinsch (23:55):
Christopher Owen (23:55):
He knew what McCarthy was doing and he didn’t think of him as right on all accounts by any means, but he saw no alternative to what he said, right herd on this bureaucracy, the only body to do that would be Congress. And so I think that’s why he would gravitate towards supporting some of what McCarthy was doing.
Richard Reinsch (24:16):
And he also wrote a brilliant essay on the trial of Socrates.
Christopher Owen (24:25):
Richard Reinsch (24:25):
And I think further revealed sort of the political thought of Willmoore Kendall.
Christopher Owen (24:29):
Richard Reinsch (24:30):
But why wouldn’t he defend Socrates?
Christopher Owen (24:34):
Well, he might defend Socrates’ ideas, but look, his basic idea is there. A great example, great article, he loved to shock people by saying it was right to kill Socrates, so he definitely got a rise out of people by doing that. But the basic idea there is that the Athenian’s Assembly of the People’s purpose, function, was to safeguard the Athenian way of life and that’s the purpose of any government is to safeguard the life of its people. And if you have a dissident who attacks, attacks, and refuses to stop attacking that way of life, that the Athenian Assembly was within its rights in order to defend that way of life to silence that criticism any way that it saw fit. And then he of course goes on to make the argument that Socrates himself recognized the democratic Assembly’s right to do so by refusing to flee when sentenced to death. So that essentially was the idea that the people have the right to defend their way of life, and that there are critics who refuse to stop attacking that way of life, then the Assembly has the right to silence them through death or exile.
Richard Reinsch (25:53):
So you would say he’s an offender of the polity and the centrality of their needing to be a governing consensus, a moral consensus that governs the people, which I think that would make… That’s another way to enter into his thought and even to think about… He’s sort of reemerged recently, and you note this in the book, some conservative thinkers talking about Kendall again in the current moment, the present moment, applying Kendallian insights. Matthew Contenetti has done so in a couple of essays, Daniel McCarthy. I wrote a piece about Basic Symbols for the 60th anniversary last year and thinking about trying to develop that approach, the constitutional consensus approach. How do you see those efforts and how do you see Kendall’s ideas? Does it give us leverage in thinking about problems today and should conservatism become more, or is it becoming more Kendallian, not necessarily intentionally, but just through experience?
Christopher Owen (26:56):
Yeah. Well, so I say in the book that really Kendall is the theorist of what I call conservative populism, so a brand of conservatism that takes seriously the right of the people to enact their will into policy. Some of that does have to do with having a political orthodoxy, a standard to which we adhere, a minimum standard to which we all adhere. And Kendall, a lot of what he says is a society that doesn’t have that, a society that’s open to every point of view, a society that says it’s okay to talk about destroying the Republic, is not a society that lasts very long. It’s destroyed. It comes apart at the seams. So he said at one point that the open society, that is a society where all points of view are equally fine, is an enemy to the free society because a society where all points of view are fine ends up destroying itself. And so the goods that we have, and one of the goods, the freedoms that we have, end up being destroyed in sort of what he calls the phosphorus of political debate, where everyone hates one another.
Richard Reinsch (28:11):
John Stuart Mill, he was not a defender of John Stuart Mill. He was a passionate-
Christopher Owen (28:16):
[crosstalk 00:28:16] Not a fan of John Stuart Mill, right.
Richard Reinsch (28:17):
… So the society that believes in everything, I guess Kendall would say falls apart because it can defend nothing.
Christopher Owen (28:26):
That’s right. And it doesn’t have a place to stand. It doesn’t have a political, social orthodoxy to defend and with no social orthodoxy to defend, you suddenly sort of fall apart.
Richard Reinsch (28:39):
Christopher Owen (28:40):
Another thing I’ve been thinking about some with current events is… So you mentioned McCarthy and I don’t want to dwell on McCarthy per se, but one of the things I talk about in the book is Kendall made his conservative turn partly because he was personally involved in ferreting out some Soviet spies that were at work in some of the bureaus that he was in. And so I guess one of the things I thought recently about foreign influences on the American policy and if different actors, I don’t know, it could be Russia, or China, or whatever, if they’re having a major influence on our policy makers, or at least our bureaucrats and so forth, and that’s negative for our country, who is it that can stop that? And I think the only place I can come up with is where Kendall came up with, which is Congress. Congress has to somehow reign that in if that is in fact what’s happening. So a similar question in a different context to what was happening in the 50s, I would say.
Richard Reinsch (29:45):
Christopher Owen (29:46):
40s and 50s.
Richard Reinsch (29:47):
… I think that’s interesting and it also raises the point too of orthodoxy, that for example, American corporations acting in this country in ways that the Chinese government wants them to act.
Christopher Owen (29:59):
Richard Reinsch (29:59):
Or firing employees, if the Chinese government tells them to, silencing voices, pulling people off a social media platform, that raises this question of well, do we know what it means to be an American now? And I think Kendall… Kendall says, you probably know it, it’s something like Americans live their liberty in their hips. I mean, it’s just like something that they do.
Christopher Owen (30:25):
Richard Reinsch (30:25):
They know how to do it.
Christopher Owen (30:26):
Richard Reinsch (30:26):
And do we still know how to do it? Well, I mean, would Kendall just be pulling his hair out right now?
Christopher Owen (30:31):
I think he’d be pulling his hair out to some extent, but Kendall had really this abiding faith in the people to make the right decisions. So if he looked at what’s going on right now, he wouldn’t blame the people. Okay? He would blame sort of the corrupt institutions that are failing to enact the will of the people. So he always really did… He trusted democracy, but he believed that people could be misled by the elites. By the way, he stole that in the hips thing, that’s a Lincoln Steffens thing I discovered.
Richard Reinsch (31:02):
Christopher Owen (31:04):
That he picked up from him, which I didn’t know until I discovered that. But yeah, so that’s definitely… I think he would have faith that the people ultimately can do the right thing. So his idea of the role of a political theorist or philosopher was not to tell the people what was right, but to try to guide them in the sense of if you decide A, the consequences will be B. That’s what a political leader or political scientist was supposed to do, not tell the people what to do, but to tell them, let’s say, if you mandate COVID vaccines, then this is a consequence that might ensue from that, not to tell them whether they should or they should not do that and that’s a key point. Another key point I’d really like to talk about is his ideas about political parties.
Richard Reinsch (31:58):
Christopher Owen (31:58):
So he was one of the few people in his day who thought it was good not to have ideologically distinct parties. It was good to have overlap. It was good to have conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans, so that you had to have these cross-party negotiations in order to enact a law, in order to enact change, to make changes. So the votes that we’ve had really, I mean, I guess for the last several decades, but really, I think starting with… I did a thing on the Obamacare vote, where you have a vote that’s pretty much right down the line, like zero Republicans vote for it, all but one Democrat’s votes for it or whatever, or some of the recent votes we’ve had on spending bills that are right party line votes, that he thinks is really destructive because what you get is two camps, two choices, one side hates the other, and that’s a division that cleaves right down the middle and divides us as Americans. And he thought that was almost certain to be destructive, which went against what almost every other political scientist at the time was saying, that they believe we needed two ideologically distinct parties. He thought that would be almost certainly destructive.
Richard Reinsch (33:22):
No and that’s very well said in thinking also now we’ve become accustomed to it in the last, what? I would say, 15, 20 years to having these two ideologically distinct parties.
Christopher Owen (33:35):
Richard Reinsch (33:35):
And it makes it… It’s interesting watching the debate over this Build Back Better bill that even within, say the Democratic party, but the Republicans aren’t immune from this either, but that there would be a handful of senators choosing against the President itself has become a spectacle. It’s interesting in that regard.
Christopher Owen (33:56):
And that’s part of the nationalization of politics. So Kendall would argue that those different representatives of whichever party they might represent really ought to be safeguarding the interests of their own particular district rather than serving well, what the national leader of their party might tell them what they should or should not do.
Richard Reinsch (34:20):
Also just thinking, Kendall was a part of National Review at the beginning and has a falling out with Buckley and leaves, and what was he doing in National Review? How would you characterize his writing?
Christopher Owen (34:36):
Yeah, so he writes a column called The Liberal Line, which is pretty much a regular feature in every issue from the founding of the magazine until 1958, so three or four years. And in that… It’s amusing to read, so he could write in amusing… His best writing’s pretty dense. You got to work, it works you.
Richard Reinsch (35:00):
Christopher Owen (35:00):
But he could write in an offhanded kind of satirical way. So he basically used that as a metaphor, arguing that there was kind of a liberal machine that had told its echelons what the right story was that they needed to come up with and follow, and that there was kind of a liberal machine that tried to control both parties. So he really kind of set out, I argue in the book, to kind of denigrate the term liberal and to make it not a term of praise, but one that you might hold with, if not contempt, at least not a great deal of respect. So he was pretty good at that. He was initially also, I think, the book review editor and he was sort of dropped from that. So Kendall kind of distinguished between his serious writing I think and his popular writing and his serious writing was not really that accessible to a mass reading public. And I think he, over time, wanted to focus more and more on his political theory and a little less on his popular writing, but he did value National Review and that was really important to him. And I think getting kind of eased out of that, that hurt him. He was kind of emotionally hurt by the break with Buckley and kind of getting pushed out, eased out at National Review. That was, I think, hurtful to him.
Richard Reinsch (36:31):
Christopher Owen (36:32):
But he had started focusing more on his formal academic political theory and less on his popular writing at National Review, which is one of the reasons he was eased out there.
Richard Reinsch (36:43):
That’s interesting. In Kendall’s overall writings, what do you find to be the most compelling?
Christopher Owen (36:56):
Gosh, that’s a little tough to say because Kendall, he doesn’t write one big, huge book, here’s my total theory. I think the thing about when you read Kendall and the thing that got me really fascinated with him, when you read Kendall, you go, I never really thought about it that way before because he says stuff in a way that nobody else said it. So I would say with Kendall, it really starts with we the people. That’s the key. How do we make democracy real in the modern world? He also comes in later life under the influence of Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin. So Kendall does believe that there is an ethical, moral component, there is a right and wrong independently of what we think, what we do, grounded in Christianity or grounded in natural reason, whether that be this Voegelin or Strauss. But he also believes that the people are the most likely to enact that virtuous society, more likely than smaller self-interested bureaucracies or nine people on the Supreme Court. Trust the people, don’t trust the elite. Interesting, another thing he really talks about, this is really early, going back to 1938 in his career, he has a distrust that scientists know what’s best for society. He argues really… I mean, some of this I’ve thought a lot about with the COVID stuff. He argues back in ’38 that scientists know the mechanics of their field, but they don’t have any special insight into what the good is.
Richard Reinsch (38:50):
Christopher Owen (38:51):
So determining what is the good, he believes the people are just as good, if not better at that than the experts. So he believes we should trust the people to determine the good and that the experts should help guide the people in order of how they might enact their will.
Richard Reinsch (39:11):
So he has an… I mean, it’s a classical notion of politics in many ways of politics is an ethical pursuit, an ethical practice.
Christopher Owen (39:18):
Richard Reinsch (39:20):
And he’s constantly… And I think also, as I’ve thought about it and you said, he really looked to the political philosophy in the Federalist Papers to ground the Constitution. Sometimes I thought his understanding of Publius is almost like an anti-Federalist understanding in the sense of he wants to bring out virtue as a part of political deliberation and Publius has some nods to virtue, but it’s also very much focused on institutions themselves doing a lot of work and balancing those appropriately. What do you think of that?
Christopher Owen (40:00):
Well, Kendall did not like, in theory, the anti-federalists because that’s one of the things where it gets complicated. So he focuses on local government, but he’s not at all into states rights. He really-
Richard Reinsch (40:14):
Christopher Owen (40:15):
… believes that Congress is the place… So it rests with Congress because Congress is where the structured communities from all over the country can send the representatives and these are, as I say kind of in the conclusion, they’re sort of Aristotelian best men to deliberate for the future of the country. So he really focuses on the powers of Congress and he really puts the central symbol, I think he says, is the people deliberating together in their assemblies, that he says is really fundamental and that. So I think he doesn’t say a lot about this, but I think he’s enamored of the British parliamentary system as it was in his day, which he thought safeguarded democracy as much as the structured judicial review and so forth that was associated with the American system. So he really put a lot of focus on that deliberation of the people. He thought the anti-federalists were, I think, too provincial, maybe, too focused on state’s rights, which he was not particularly sympathetic to, even though some have called him a Calhounite, I think that completely misunderstands where he’s really coming from. So really he believes a powerful Congress where representatives deliberate can best safeguard democracy at the local level, but that sovereign power rests at the center with Congress.
Richard Reinsch (41:52):
Yeah, and you allude to Harry Jaffa, I think referred to him as a Calhounite, and Harry Jaffa referred to a lot of people as a Calhounite. Steven Hayward, a student of Harry Jaffa said, “That’s an unfinished argument between Jaffa and Kendall and is worth reviving and worth thinking about.” I agree with Hayward. Talk about, maybe we can end with this, the title of your book is a great title, Heaven Can Indeed Fall, talk about the significance of that.
Christopher Owen (42:21):
Sure, so that comes really from a lecture that Kendall gave at the University of Dallas and it relates to Kendall’s reaction both to liberals who want to promote rapid social change and to conservatives in the Jaffa, I guess, Strauss camp. Kendall liked, actually he liked Jaffa for that matter, he got along with him fine on a personal level and he admired Leo Strauss immensely, but he saw danger in those who wanted to promote social change at all costs. So he says, “These are the people,” in this lecture, “who will do justice, even if the heavens fall. And I say to you,” he’s talking to his students, “heaven to can indeed fall and it can hurt those heads it falls on mighty hard.” And what he meant by that is if you promote your reform, liberty, or justice, whatever camp that might fall into at the expense of other social goods, you can collapse the whole social system. So if you want to promote liberty at the expense of the general welfare, well, that’s going to cause problems. If you want to promote justice and you don’t care about domestic tranquility, you’ll end up having neither, neither justice nor domestic tranquility. So he really looks a lot at the preamble and those six goods enumerated there have to be held in balanced tension. You cannot promote domestic tranquility at the expense of justice nor justice at the expensive domestic tranquility. They have to be held in balanced tension with each other. So as you know, I mean, Jaffa wrote Barry Goldwater’s “Extremism in the Defense of Liberty” speech and Kendall hated that speech.
Richard Reinsch (44:21):
Yeah, that’s interesting.
Christopher Owen (44:24):
Because he believed that you can’t… Extremism as a defense of liberty is a vice, if it destroys the other social goods in society. So those have to be held in balanced tension and if you’re promoting liberty and the society general welfare is collapsing, rural America’s dying, or something, then you got a problem.
Richard Reinsch (44:49):
Yeah. No, well said. Christopher Owen, thank you so much for coming on to discuss your new book, Heaven Can Indeed Fall. Thank you.
Christopher Owen (44:57):
Thank you so much for having me on Richard. It’s been a pleasure.
Richard Reinsch (45:02):
This is Richard Reinsch. You’ve been listening to another episode of Liberty Law Talk, available at lawliberty.org.