Liberalism Driving the Speed Limit

How neocons locked the Right into a leftward drift.

Glenn Ellmers, the diligent biographer of Harry Jaffa, has called attention to the insufficiently understood friendship between Lincoln scholar and Lincoln admirer Harry Jaffa and the Southern conservative M.E. Bradford. Most historians of the conservative movement know that these two titans of post-World War II conservatism battled furiously in the pages of Modern Age starting in 1975. Given the ferocity of their polemics, it is generally assumed the two debaters must have disliked each other personally. As Ellmers demonstrates in statements taken from his deceased teacher, however, Jaffa and Bradford were close personal friends and even encouraged each other’s work. When Bradford died in April 1993, Jaffa wrote a long, moving eulogy in National Review, which Ellmers provides in full in American Greatness.

In 1959 when Harry Jaffa brought out his magnum opus Crisis of a House Divided, the populist conservative Willmoore Kendall published a memorable critical review. Although we paleos are inclined to quote Kendall’s animadversions about fighting endless wars in the name of natural rights and the dangers of a succession of American Caesars in the image of Jaffa’s Lincoln, Kendall also praises Jaffa’s exalted prose and moral tone. What may have contributed to the Bradford-Jaffa debates was Jaffa’s broadside against a book Kendall prepared with George Carey, Basic Symbols of the American Tradition, which was published in 1970, three years after Kendall’s death. Jaffa tore into that book with obvious passion for ignoring the natural rights tradition that from his perspective lay at the heart of the American Founding.

Jaffa’s critics complain about how savagely he attacked the deceased Kendall and explain that it was Bradford who came to the aid of a fallen comrade and his followers. As someone who stands much closer to Burkean conservatism than the natural rights camp, let me point out the obvious here: vigorous debate about historical subjects is the lifeblood of my discipline. I enjoyed reading the polemics produced on both sides of the questions raised about the American Founding in Modern Age.

Most importantly, however, we should recall the framework in which these debates occurred. The participants respected their opponents and were personal friends. Well into the 1980s, the conservative movement included both West-Coast Straussians and the historically based, traditionalist Right, just as it had room for both traditionalists and libertarians. Indeed, the Right of yesteryear often looked and sounded like a debating society, which was certainly true of National Review in the 1960s, when Frank Meyer, Russell Kirk, James Burnham, and other editors went at each other hammer and tongs. It is necessary to see these battles in perspective. Although the conservative movement was then well to the right of where it is now, especially on social issues, and was united by opposition to a dangerous Communist challenge, it was open to philosophical differences and far-ranging dissent on political questions. This did not stop debating opponents from socializing or keep Kendall from extolling Jaffa’s elevated tone in a book that in other respects he disagreed with.

David Frisk, a Kendall biographer, has made available to me a statement that his subject made in an article published in Intercollegiate Review in 1965:

yet the Strausses and Voegelins and Jaffas and Weavers continue to ply their trade, and produce books that breathe confidence, a confidence that the apt pupil will quickly learn to recognize and value: that the ultimate effect of their books will be to purge the intellectual climate of ideology, and to restore true philosophy to its rightful place of honor and influence.

Note how Kendall places Jaffa, his supposed adversary, among thinkers he obviously admired. He also mentions Crisis as a work of great scholarly value.

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