Willmoore Kendall (1909-1967) ranks as one of the most brilliant and original political theorists in the history of the United States. A child prodigy, he taught for more than a decade at Yale University. David Frisk, Resident Fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization (AHI), is preparing a major intellectual biography of Kendall, to be published by Encounter Books. The April/May issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture features an essay on Kendall by Dr. Frisk.
In “Remembering Willmoore Kendall: The Unsettled Conservative,” Frisk introduces readers to the political theorist and scholar who mentored William F. Buckley Jr. at Yale in the years after World War II. Kendall was both a high-profile maverick in the world of political science and, before his untimely death, an inspiration to many young conservative students in the 1950s and 1960s. He also helped Buckley to found National Review.
Kendall, a larger-than-life personality, was the son of a blind Methodist minister in Oklahoma who became a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford in the Depression years and went on to publish his groundbreaking doctoral dissertation on the political philosopher John Locke. After wartime service in State Department and Army positions, he taught in Yale’s political science department for a number of years and was briefly an official of the new Central Intelligence Agency, later teaching at other institutions.
He is most famous for his books John Locke and the Doctrine of Majority Rule and The Conservative Affirmation, and for The Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition, co-authored with George Carey. But an equally important part of Kendall’s legacy are his brilliant, original, intellectually rigorous essays on the nature of democracy and the U.S. Constitution. He had a remarkable ability to combine first-rate scholarship and rigorous thinking with a strikingly realistic sense of American politics. He was also an extraordinary writer with a highly personal voice.
“Kendall’s writings seem to converge on a single focus: how to make democracy work when so much threatens to either destroy it or turn it in a dangerous direction,” Dr. Frisk writes in his Chronicles essay.
“Along with his deep learning in political philosophy … and his in-depth study of our country’s political and constitutional traditions,” Frisk explains, “Kendall felt a strong identification with middle America. Appropriately, he was a major source for many conservatives’ longstanding faith in the existence of a right-of-center ‘silent majority.’ In his writings, we frequently see a shrewd sense of how typical Americans think about issues in their capacity as citizens.”