The Willmoore Kendall Site

This is a memorial site for Willmoore Kendall.

Political Scientist, Student of the American Political Tradition, and Defender of Majority Rule

Willmoore Kendall was one of the founders of the American Conservative Movement after the Second World War. As well as being a conservative thinker and teacher, he was also a renowned political theorist. His work on John Locke is considered a classic in Locke scholarship. And also a rarity among Conservatives of his era was his defense not only of democratic majorities but also of the Congress. Kendall often argued that Congress was the most conservative of American political institution at the time when most Conservative held it to be (along with the American people) something easily sold to the highest bidder. And a decade or two after his death, there was scarcely a Conservative scholar who would champion the Congress at all, seeing it as firmly and irretrievably in the hands of liberals. It could be said that Kendall was the un-listen to prophet who foresaw the possibility of 1994 three decades before it occurred.

Born in 1909. He was one of a kind--A truly original personality. Graduating the University of Oklahoma at 18. At the same time he published a book on Baseball [A. Monk, Baseball: How to Play It, How to Watch It. For his life story I would recommend turning to the account made by Jeffery Hart (which I refer to bellow).

Kendall was ADB in Romance Languages at the University of Illinois in 1932, when he was awarded the Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford. At Oxford he enrolled in the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics program and upon doing this started his voyage as a life-long student of politics. Although at the time he was a man of the radical left, but time in Spain during the Spanish Civil War turned him against Communism. Upon returning to the states, he returned to the University of Illinois and started the Ph.D. in Political Science, writing his dissertation upon John Locke on Majority Rule under Francis Wilson. He was hired and then later received tenure at Yale, but this was never a happy environment for him.

In 1961, after over a decade of grief, fighting with the liberal orthodoxy at Yale, he offered them the let Yale buy out his tenure. This allowed him to start a Politics program modeled after his experience at Oxford at a newly formed Catholic University--The University of Dallas. At Dallas, Kendall spent the rest of his life until he died of a heart attack in 1968. Kendall is also known for his participation in the founding of National Review, the Conservative bi-weekly edited by William F. Buckley, Jr.

However, Kendall himself probably would like to be remembered for his work on the American political tradition. Kendall's Vanderbilt Lectures is the major work in which he tries to understand what the American political tradition actually is. By examining these lectures, this thesis will try to understand the role Kendall gave to the principle of equality in the American political tradition. Kendall's understanding of the American political tradition turns on his understanding of the place of equality within it.


Kendall is charged with asserting that equality is not part of the American political tradition. There are, indeed, many places in his work where Kendall says that equality is not a part of the American political tradition, where he argues that the nation's traditions are, in part, being "de- railed" by the interpretation of the principle of equality by the "Liberal Revolution."

Kendall, however, does not attack the founders' understanding of equality, which is a definite part of the American political tradition, but "the current understanding of equality that current pundits and commentators expound." What the "current pundits and commentators" understand equality to be is equality of condition, which he regards as the men Marx and the radical left. Kendall sees that understanding to be wholly contrary to what the founders believed equality to be and antithetical to the whole system of government that the American political tradition established in 1787. Kendall assures the reader that he does not assume that the American political tradition consists of the traditions of liberty and equality simply. He tells the reader that the ordinary books assume that the official literature gives a particular answer to the question of what equality is. However, Kendall argues, the official literature of the tradition does not in fact answer that question, because for "good or ill, it systematically avoided [it]." A closer look at Kendall's work shows him to be attacking current misconceptions and misunderstandings of equality, but also reveals another understanding of equality which Kendall acknowledges to be part of the tradition. Kendall argues that scholars such as Bernard Bailyn, Richard Hofstader, Max Farrand, Merle Curti, Clinton Rossiter and Louis Hartz make the argument that the theme of the American political tradition is that of the liberal tradition, that of equality and freedom. Hartz argues that the reason why radical and Marxist assaults fail to work in America is that America never had a feudal system incorporating a particular class system.

Hartz and Bailyn would argue that the American Revolution and the resulting regime are ideological in nature and liberal in temperament. With this basic assumption (that the American political tradition is a liberal one) radical developments, such as socialism and radical egalitarianism are logical developments of the American political heritage. Kendall's approach denies the assumption of Hartz, et al., that the temper of the American political order is liberal. He would argue that such interpretations are naive, if not simply ignorant of the natures and histories of the American colonial political orders. Kendall invites those who like to believe in the liberal understanding of the American political tradition to read L. Levy's book, A Legacy of Suppression, to see how liberal the origins of the American political tradition were. Kendall would argue (in a way agreeing with radical critics of American society, especially of religion in New England) that the colonies were intolerant and repressive. Unlike scholars such as Hartz, Kendall would argue that intolerance and repression is the normal response of a political system to those who seem to "rock the boat." Kendall would defend the public orthodoxy against the demands of radicals for individual liberty.

Harry V. Jaffa asserts that Kendall believes that even to talk about equality is a dangerous thing. Jaffa says that Kendall believes that "all the liberal and radical demands, which would today transform constitutional into totalitarian government, are imperatives of equality." Jaffa criticizes Kendall for believing that "the power of this idea, or the power radical and liberals have derived from it, stems from a misinterpretation or misapplication of the Declaration of Independence." Jaffa says Kendall's position is weak, because the conclusions demanded by equality can be different than those demanded by the liberals and radicals. Jaffa argues that the "imperatives" (or results) of equality can also be understood from a conservative perspective (ie; one which upholds the founding). This understanding implies that the "imperatives" of equality are non-partisan and can be made partisan issues only because conservative thinkers have abandoned the imperatives of equality. This allows, Jaffa argues that liberals and radicals to seize the abandoned "imperatives" and to use them for their rallying cry against both the conservatives and the principles of the founding. Jaffa's criticism of Kendall does not hold up to a careful reading of what Kendall is saying, because Jaffa understands Kendall's rhetorical attack on current abuses of the use of equality to be an attack on the principle of equality itself. Kendall would disagree with Jaffa's premise, that the "imperatives of equality" are non-partisan. Kendall argues quite the opposite that those "imperatives" arise out of an ideological program. He would argue that if conservatives adopt the rhetoric of the enemy, they would either be hypercritical or be abandoning (or in Kendall's words, surrendering) their principles in order to gain the so-called "imperatives of equality."

In Kendallian bluntness, Jaffa, like Machiavelli, advocates "preoccupying the ways of Caesar," however one must realize that this course of action might backfire just as Jaffa's speech for Goldwater did in 1964. To be even more blunt, Kendall would argue that Jaffa's arguments usually lend "aid and comfort to the enemy." Kendall advocates restraint in glorifying the word 'equality' because he realizes that the founders' and the political literature in general did not share a single understanding of equality. It is Kendall's conservative disposition - a concern for the American tradition, a concern for the virtue of the people and the love of the Constitution - that makes him an enemy of modern egalitarianism. However, it seems that those questions that the literature of the tradition avoided answering are very important to our understanding of the American political tradition. As Eric Voegelin teaches, "the task of political analysis begins with each people's attempt at self-interpretation, at self-understanding, as a political society."

However, we are confronted with the fact that the self-expression of a people may not always be what we, who later look back upon and study it, want it to be. That self-expression may have been a justification by one group of white males to dominate and subjugate. This is how the "current pundits" desire us to look at our heritage. The "current pundits" who are the enemies of the American political tradition desire us to despise our past, to look at it with disgust and horror, as a tradition of suppression, superstition, and ignorance. The enemies of the American political tradition desire `deconstruction' of the old myths or more correctly, our heritage and tradition. They want to reduce the past to mere `will to power', experiences of the authoritative class, subjugating the rest of mankind. The current pundits plan to destroy what we understand to be our way of life and replace it with a tale of lies, a tale self-serving to their design to fool a people to despise their past and therefore despise themselves. This attempt to make the American people despise themselves comes from the left, from persons who despise what the founders intended. They desire to replace it with a new founding, a new founding based on the principles that would create a new political order, based on the principles of equality of condition, not just of opportunity. A very rhetorical restatement of their principles is that they desire "death, slavery, and the pursuit of misery."

Kendall warns us that recent years have taught us that, "the official custodians of our political lore cannot answer about our tradition even the most obvious and inescapable questions that,"once critical intelligence is brought to bear upon it, arise and demand answering -- and this, true partly, but only partly I am saying, because a great deal even of the initial necessary spadework has not been done in those corners of the graveyard in which the answers are presumably buried." Here Kendall warns the reader that he will not "end up these lectures answering the questions satisfactorily." The reason why he will not be able to answer these questions is that he fears that America "is a society [where] these questions cannot be answered satisfactory." It seems today that we cannot look critically at our past without losing faith in our political heritage. The attempts of scholars such as Bailyn and Hartz to examine the American political tradition conclude with alternative understandings of what the American political tradition is. Kendall would argue that, by using his "Basic Symbols" approach, the examiner of the American political tradition could rediscover the meaning that the founders had in mind when they began that heritage.

When looking at Kendall's scholarship, one often turns to what was (and still is) considered a classic in Locke scholarship his John Locke and the Doctrine of Majority Rule, (Urbana: The University of Illinois Press, 1959).

Another important piece of Kendall scholarship are his Vanderbilt Lectures, which were bound by the Author and can be found among his paper at the University of Dallas' library. They were a series of lectures given at Vanderbilt University in 1964. These are the lectures that this thesis relies on to ask the question of what is understood by Equality in the American Political Tradition. After his death George Carey collected and rounded off these lectures in The Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition, (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1970), which Carey co-wrote with his departed mentor. Actually Carey took the Vanderbilt Lectures, edited them (adding notes, etc.) and turned them into the first four chapters and then using theme Kendall and he have written on previously finished off the topics that Kendall were to cover but his death prevented him addressing.

In The Conservative Affirmation, (Chicago: Regnery Books, 1985) one can find the shorter works by Kendall put together as a book, during his lifetime. In this book Kendall gives a sharp criticism of Lincoln and modern egalitarianism.

Kendall was also known for co-authoring books and articles with former students and colleagues. Some of the more known articles were co-authored with George Carey. But also well respected his is the book he co-authored with Austin Ranney on Democracy and the American Party System (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1956). It is a much neglected classic on both democratic theory and the character of the party system in America, which someday a press might think about reissuing.

Also neglected aspect of Kendall's scholarship was his attempt to rescue Rousseau from the Irving Babbittesque gloss on him usually advanced by American Conservatives. Kendall translated and published both Rousseau's Social Contract and The Constitution of Poland (the latter has been re-issued by Hackett with an introduction by Harvey Mansfield).

For a wonderful collection of his collected essays see Nellie Kendall's edition., Willmoore Kendall Contra Mundum, (New Rochelle: Arlington House, 1971)(Republished by University Press of America in 1996--adding his famous APSR attack on Karl Popper's 'Open Society' thesis). This is the posthumous collection of Kendall's published articles. His wife edited the work, which includes most of the important pieces considering equality and the American political tradition. Through this work one can see the great depth of Kendall as a political theorist. It also has a wonderful introduction by Jeffery Hart, which he recently rewrote (adding a few more tidbits) and published in March 2002 in The New Criterion.

Also important is "Equality: Commitment or Ideal," Phalanx, Vol.1., No.3. [Reprinted in The Intercollegiate Review in the early 1990's]. Here is the critical essay that attacks the Natural Right school, which interprets the equality clause as Lincoln does, as a commitment.

Aside from the collection of Kendall's letter to his Father written while he was at Oxford [The Oxford Years (ISI Press)], his correspondence to Leo Strauss has now come available in a volume of essays celebrating his life as a teacher and a scholar by several of his former students and collogues, Willmoore Kendall: Maverick of American Conservatives (Lantham, Md: Lexington Books, 2002), edited by John A. Murley and John E. Alvis.

Here are some of Willmoore's Books still in Print!!

Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition

Willmoore Kendall Contra Mundum

Letters of Willmore Kendall to His Father

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Last Updated July 4th, 1999 by Clifford A. Bates, Jr.

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