Thursday, September 29, 2016

Tonsor #12 -- Conservatism, Liberalism, Reaction

View of Washington, DC, on the approach to National.
September 17, 1987, was the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution. That morning I was on a jet bound for Washington, DC, to see one of the world's great charters of ordered liberty.

The descent was turbulent. The view from the left side of the plane offered a welcome distraction. On the approach to National I could look east onto the Washington Monument, Capitol Hill, and neoclassical buildings on either side of the Mall. The White House was barely visible, but the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials were vivid and close. This first visit to the nation's capital made me feel like Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Besides being infected with a corny kind of enthusiasm for historical sites, I was truly stirred by the monuments of civic republicanism.

But something else was stirring, too. Looking out at nation's capital, I thought the bleached monuments made the city look like a colony of the ancient Roman Empire. The scene reminded me of Stephen Tonsor's words: "Do not become corrupted by the Imperial City, Mr. Whitney. It's where scholars go to die."

In his autobiography, Edward Gibbon recounted his first trip to Rome where he experienced his "Capitoline vision." He ascended steps that overlooked the ruins of ancient Forum, musing as barefooted friars sang Vespers in the Temple of Jupiter. Suddenly he conceived the project to write what the world would later know as The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776).

My view from the plane did not inspire a correspondingly ambitious project. But I was working hard to understand what Tonsor had said one week before, after our first History 416 class. It was the conversation that left me scratching my head, yet I felt it mattered. What did my professor mean when he said that both "liberal conservatives" and "reactionaries" were his kind of people? How did three quite different -isms -- liberalism, conservatism, reactionaryism -- fit together in one man's head? I sensed that the answer would help me understand not only Tonsor's view of modernity, but also his notions of civilizational decline, cultural decadence, and imperial decay.

*     *     *

On the flight's descent, I found my imagination taking off. I was embarking on a journey that would lead me into territory for which my map had only the broadest contours, and not very accurate contours at that. So the key at the start of the journey was to take Tonsor at his word. No ideologue, the man said that he embraced life's complexities. He contained multitudes.[1]

1. In time I would understand that the conservative in Tonsor was grounded in the West's Judeo-Christian, Greco-Roman patrimony. Our civilization's first order had been informed by that synthesis during the Middle Ages. You can see it in the way St. Thomas Aquinas baptized and then went beyond the teachings of Aristotle. It's why the civilization Aquinas helped build was called "Christendom." Significantly Tonsor, a man of the modern age, did not cling to the forms of bygone Christendom. He would later tell me that a book like James J. Walsh's The Thirteenth, Greatest of Centuries was too nostalgic for his tastes. "The good old days," he like to say, "were not all that good."[2] So it was not the forms but rather the essence of the Judeo-Christian, Greco-Roman synthesis that inspired him -- its ethical precepts, religious insights, and spiritual comforts in a world wondrously made by its Creator. In essence, then, the conservatives were the guardians of civilization, men and women alive to Tocqueville's habits of the heart that are formed in families, religious communities, civil society, and local politics.

2. In time I would understand that the liberal in Tonsor celebrated the spirit of liberty in human nature. That spirit was always present in the West but emerged quite forcefully in the Enlightenment and challenged Christendom directly. (The Renaissance had challenged Christendom indirectly.) Our civilization succeeded in absorbing many of the resulting intellectual, moral, and spiritual tensions between Christendom and the Enlightenment, but these binary sources of authority led to the de facto renaming of our civilization. Henceforward we would be "the West" or "Western civilization" instead of Christendom. The Enlightenment was epitomized by Thomas Jefferson, whose newly articulated natural right to the pursuit of happiness would prove to be one of the most potent concepts to emerge from the so-called Age of Reason. The pursuit of happiness would justify the efforts of individuals to free themselves from "oppressive authority, outworn customs, arbitrary rules, unfair regulations, and tyrannical taboos." The process of liberation was good -- to a point -- so long as the pursuit was properly ordered to man's imperfect and imperfectible nature. Tonsor was no utopian.

Allow me to pause to emphasize Tonsor's argument that, in a healthy civilization, the liberal type who struggles to expand the empire of freedom must be balanced by the conservative type who is the guardian of the civilization's institutions and teachings. They are complementary types, these two -- the liberal reformer and conservative guardian -- and both are needed in productive tension. Indeed, it was that productive tension that gave rise to the dynamism of the West that we identify with modernity. Tonsor was teaching me to see modernity as successive experiments in freedom -- which sometimes turned out to be excessive experiments in freedom that had to be tested and sifted in light of our older Judeo-Christian patrimony.

3. In time I would understand that the reactionary in Tonsor required me to abandon the security of my Merriam-Webster preconceptions. Reaction, I would learn, was not a temporal concept -- it was not the politics of nostalgia that sought to turn back the clock to some mythic golden age. It was impossible to go back to anything. Rather, reaction was a philosophical or political or perhaps even a sociological concept at the center of what Tonsor called the "West's inner history."

Aristotle, son of the physician Nichomachus 
I had difficulty grasping Tonsor's unconventional notion of the reactionary, but my road-to-Damascus epiphany came when I could see the idea through his eyes as an Aristotelian.[3] If one sees the reactionary as a kind of physician in the Aristotelian mold, then the type makes sense.[4] The Aristotelian physician viewed diseases in terms of excesses or defects of elements in the body. Applied to politics, we see that the reactionary is an Aristotelian-like physician who seeks to restore the balance between the change element and the continuity element in a culture. Reaction is thus the cure for any disease of excess or defect in the body politic. It applied to the excess of liberalism (too much change) and to the excess of conservatism (too much continuity). When confronting liberals, the reactionary sought to reintroduce order in a society whose abuse of liberty had led to widespread disorder, anarchy, and licentiousness; thus the reactionary, seeing liberty abused, fought for order restored. When confronting conservatives, the reactionary sought to enliven the patient with an injection of reform that a dynamic society needs to stay healthy; otherwise the patient does not thrive.

Conservatism. Liberalism. Reaction. These three elements made sense in dynamic relation to one another and as part of the organic development of our civilization. Tonsor adopted the role of the Aristotelian physician. To preserve the West's humane order, the reactionary in him sought a balance between the liberal push for innovation and the conservative temperament for preservation. Thus the civilizational task of the reactionary-liberal-conservative to balance change and continuity was in no way ideological. From generation to generation the ideal is always evolving, always developing out of the tension between innovation and conservation. In his ethical critique of modernity, Tonsor's task was to discern the degree to which change and continuity were in right relation to one another.

I knew that it would take time fully to digest the meaning of these three concepts and their relation to one another. Tonsor's thought was not always easy to understand. His personal interactions were not always easy to navigate either, and in fact could get in the way of understanding his thought. As his colleague, fellow historian John Willson, observed, "Steve was often an enigma to me."[5] Willson's observation reminds me of a passage from Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities: "A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it!"[6]

*     *     *

With the plane's descent, the nation's civic monuments disappeared from view, one by one. Then came the bump of the wheels skidding on concrete followed by the rapid deceleration that pushed me forward in my seat. Soon I would be afoot in the Imperial City.


[1] Stephen J. Tonsor, "The Conservative Search for Identity," in Equality, Decadence, and Modernity, ed. Gregory L. Schneider (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), p. 247.
[2] Bernard Tonsor interview with GW, Jerseyville, IL, July 1, 2014.
[3] Ann Tonsor Zeddies correspondence with GW, January 26, 2015.
[4] Aristotle's father, Nichomachus, was the court physician to the king of Macedon.
[5] John Willson correspondence with GW, November 8, 2016.
[6] My thanks to Winston Elliott for this passage by Dickens.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Tonsor #11 -- Battles Royal

Harry Rosenberg (1923-2010)
What is grad school about? I am asked that question by students. They think that because they love to watch the History Channel, graduate study in history will be an extension of their personality. They should think again.

Take the professional class that grad students at Michigan enroll in to begin their career as historians. Our first meeting in History 616 was a historiographic set piece. Taught by two internationally renowned professors, Elizabeth Eisenstein[1] and Raymond Grew,[2] it was unlike anything to which I'd been exposed as an undergraduate. At Colorado State University, I had read the classics of historiography with a wonderfully engaging medievalist, Harry Rosenberg.[3] Under his direction our class studied Herodotus, Thucydides, Tacitus, Plutarch, St. Augustine of Hippo, Bede, Voltaire, Gibbon, and Tuchman -- not one of whom was a professional historian.

So naturally I wondered whether Eisenstein and Grew's class would continue in that vein. It would not: The difference between undergraduate study at CSU and graduate study at U of M was the difference between the Boy Scouts and the Marines (and I mean no disrespect to CSU). At Michigan, any amateur or populist or sentimental attachment to history was to be burned away like dross from diamonds. Was that a good thing? Was there not something valuable in the dross -- those popular biographies that make the best-sellers lists; those rollicking narratives produced by passionate non-specialists for the informed lay public?

Barbara Tuchman (1912-1989)
Indeed, what if some of the best sellers were the diamonds? And some of the monographs were the dross?

I fell in love with history as an undergraduate by traveling, taking classes with dedicated professors, and reading non-academic writers -- H. G. Wells, Will Durant, Barbara Tuchman, David McCullough, Robert Caro, Richard Norton Smith. I also enjoyed the first-rate documentaries I had seen by Jacob Bronowski, Kenneth Clark and, later, Ken Burns. But I quickly learned during these first weeks in Ann Arbor that the "amateurs" were verboten -- never to be referenced in an academic setting. To drop a name like Tuchman was not just bad form; it was lethal to professional advancement.

For that reason I identified a tension in myself early in Eisenstein and Grew's class. My heart was pulled by the amateur's love of a story well told; my head by the specialist's obligation to produce monographs that addressed a recognized historiographic problem. As time went on, that tension would stretch me painfully. Like any untreated pain, it threatened to grow until I sought a remedy.

In that first class, Eisenstein and Grew took turns outlining modern methods by which to study European history. They discussed eight major approaches and a number of minor schools that had arisen in the last two centuries. I had no idea there could be so many. Was the study of history really that complicated?

Elizabeth Eisenstein (1923-2016)
It was. The goal was to begin the process of professionalizing us. It was not just to make graduate students realize that history is written from a viewpoint; it was obvious that there was no such thing as perfectly objective history. Nor was it just to show that viewpoints change; change over time was equally obvious. The goal was to get us to see how each historiographic approach constituted a paradigm.[4] These paradigms were like warring religious sects. Each had its authorities. Each developed an agenda for research. Each defined the problems worth investigating. Each had its journals, jargon, and methods. Each had its biases and limitations. Each had its methodological gatekeepers who would fight to the professional death on behalf of the paradigm's defense. And each was responding to larger developments (e.g., the Marxian approach to the Industrial Revolution, and social history to the rise of democratic mass culture).

At the beginning of their professional training, graduate students were introduced to these various approaches to historical study so that they could recognize the battle lines the methodological gatekeepers had drawn. It was all inside baseball to the professionals, but I'll admit that it was fascinating for a journeyman like myself.

For example U.S. history, which was the bread and butter of our profession, grew out of nationalism -- one of the most powerful ideologies of the modern age. Some historians have argued that the -ism was sown during the Reformation; that it sprouted after the Westphalian settlement established the modern nation-state as the unit of international relations; and that the American and French revolutions saw its first flowering. In concert with these developments, the national history paradigm constructed a unified narrative to give a people a common heritage and destiny; also, in an age of immigration, to unify a country's different ethnic groups around a single narrative. This paradigm has dominated for two centuries. It was the approach that my grandparents' generation learned, that my parents' generation learned, and that my generation learned in school. Indeed, after the Civil War and Reconstruction, national history was important in the North's efforts to dominate the South's telling of history. To preserve the modern American nation-state, there could be no resurrection of the Lost Cause. As a Texan living in the North, I found this insight illuminating.

One of the most interesting topics that Eisenstein and Grew raised was that the two troubled instigators of the Second World War, Germany and Italy, were the last great European powers to achieve national integration. To what extent was there a causal connection, they asked.

The really important thing I learned early in History 616 would never be on a test. If the Socratic aim of education is to "know thyself," then I learned there was a persistent something in me that would resist professionalization. It hit me as I listened to Eisenstein talk about biographies. The writing of biography/hagiography was a dominant historical paradigm from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century. As background to the biographical paradigm, Eisenstein fleshed out some of the social history. She explained that what we now regard as a college education was available to only one or two percent of the population. In Europe the privileged young men of the aristocracy and haute bourgeoisie had two options to pursue higher learning. They could either attend a university associated with a Christian sect (in which case historical study would have been colored by Augustinian or Thomistic theology mixed with Platonic or Aristotelian philosophy) or they could learn from private tutors who introduced them to the international "republic of letters" (which consisted mostly of Greco-Roman authors in the original languages). Biography and hagiography, it was believed, were essential to training in aristocratic leadership. The tales of Great Men provided models and antimodels of oratory, statecraft, war-making, aristocratic leadership, and civil service. I listened to all this and thought, yes, this paradigm was an inspired use of history -- it made eminent good sense. Nonetheless, it was frowned upon in the historical profession because of its "methodological individualism": it studied only one human unit at a time.
Raymond Grew (1930- )

I will never forget the high-hat way Grew weighed in at the end of Eisenstein's summary, in case there was any temptation among us to sell out and -- Lord forbid -- write a popular biography: "Biographies may provide interesting reads on the beach and in suburban book clubs, but ask yourself if methodological individualism[5] really advances our understanding of any current historiographic problems." I liked Ray Grew, but you could almost hear him sniff at the words "suburban book clubs."

Sitting in class that first day, I wondered if professional historians criticized President John F. Kennedy for using a best-seller to avoid Armageddon. During the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, JFK asked his advisors to read Barbara Tuchman's riveting account of the outbreak of World War I, The Guns of August, in hopes of finding a peaceful settlement to the conflict.[6] 

History 616 felt worlds away from Tonsor's History 416. Certainly it was paradigms away from Döllinger, Acton, Burckhardt, and the other historians Tonsor loved to teach.[7] At the time I wondered if Eisenstein and Grew would regard Tonsor's favorite historians as antiquarians, and their books as historiographic curios. I would later learn that they did not.[8]

The battles royal in the history profession were interesting to discover -- certainly they mapped out an intellectual history that was important to know. Soon enough, though, I would feel additional battles royal brewing inside me.
  • The first was between my mind and heart: Would historical professionalization come at the expense of historical delight? I did not want to focus on theories at the expense of texts, or on methods at the expense of meaning. I'd heard of devout Christians going off to graduate school to study theology -- only to lose their faith in God. I did not welcome a similar fate. 
  • The second was between my pursuit of intellectual history (passé) and the new cultural history (trendy): Would my research in the history of ideas seem dated before I even got to "Go" on the board game of professional advancement? Unsympathetic peer reviews of my articles could sink my work at the start. 
  • The third was how I would respond to the growing awareness that my graduate advisor was isolated in the Michigan history department and an outlier in the broader profession.[9] There were red flags. They included Tonsor's friendship with Henry Regnery (the controversial conservative publisher); his relationship with Revilo Oliver, (his step-father-in-law who was a founder of the John Birch Society); his calling himself a Nixon Republican and serving the administration (loathed among the academic elite)[10]; and his seemingly anti-Semitic speech (at the Philadelphia Society in 1986). Any combination of these factors might be used to try and diminish Tonsor. Any one of them could also be used against me through guilt by association. I am a loyal person -- I was loyal to Stephen Tonsor -- but to what extent would my loyalty hurt my professional advancement?[11]
*     *     *

The next time I sought Tonsor out during office hours, I was on a mission. The air felt cooler, and autumn was making its lackadaisical way to Ann Arbor. The trees were still late-summer green but the sky was so blue it almost hurt to look at. I found my professor hunkered down in Haven Hall. He was wearing a tweed coat and a rather old-fashioned tie.

After inviting me to sit down, I asked him what he thought of the new paradigms I would be studying -- deconstruction, the new cultural history, identity studies, and all the rest. How did his notion of intellectual history fit in?

"I've suffered through many a talk by deconstructionists, Mr. Whitney, and the shallow tam-tam of their analysis leaves me underwhelmed.[12] As for their writing, well, only people with that much education could write so badly.

"Most of what passes for intellectual history these days is not especially helpful to my work. It does not help me chase down my quarry but is a diversion. I simply do not share the same concerns."

My mind flashed back to what Tonsor told me in an earlier conversation. His aim as an intellectual historian was to understand modernity; his goal as a cultural critic was to confront modernity.

Tonsor squinted at one of his shelves as if to look for a book. "Within the last year I read an article by John G. A. Pocock in which he threw up his hands when asked to define 'intellectual history.' He made the observation that it was Germans who had developed theories of history in the nineteenth century. Then the inevitable French came along in the twentieth century and set out to destroy what the Germans had created. There's nationalism for you! Now, what did French philosophers like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault turn around and do -- but perpetuate theories of history!"[13]

He chortled at the irony, and I along with him. It was good for me to see how Tonsor held himself aloof from intellectual fads that did not speak to the work he was trying to do. He was secure and did not need to impress others. Perhaps it was the stubborn German in him, but he knew what he was about and was not going to bend either to peer pressure or to intellectual fashion. Tenure gave him that protective "bubble." I appreciated having him as a role model.

As he grew more excited he breathed in little puffs and waved at the door: "Up and down this hall sit historians in judgment of 'high' intellectual history. It is considered elitist because it tells us nothing of the dramas of the valet and scullery maid. Now, there is nothing wrong with exploring the struggles of Everyman. There is nothing wrong with investigating the quotidian concerns of the middling sort. Likewise, there is nothing wrong with trying to understand why a culture's leading thinkers believe the way they do. We intellectual historians explore a different kind of drama -- the drama of debates won or lost, of books that moved a nation, of ideas that changed the world. We shine a light on the drama of wonder unquenched, of questions unanswered, of desires unrequited, of quests uncompleted. We study the symbols and myths men use to order experience, to convey meaning, to connect with others. Virtually every modern generation has had its battle of the books, and it mattered who won the battle. All a way of saying, Mr. Whitney, that intellectual history is central to the human drama."

Mission accomplished. Tonsor's words -- his character as a scholar -- was the fillip my sagging spirit needed.

*     *     *

Later that day, riding the bus back to my apartment on North Campus, I recalled what Tonsor had recently said to me about Washington, DC, the Imperial City where scholars/historians went to die. A related but altogether heretical question crossed my mind: What if the postmodern university was where historians go to die? Could Barbara Tuchman even be hired by a top-tier history department? Or were the great storytellers scattered about in the little denominational colleges, out in the provinces where they were little noticed? More heretical still: Perhaps it was the journalists who were writing the best history these days.

Looking back on the 1980s, I marvel at the irony of it all -- marvel at the fads and how each Next Big Thing was breathlessly embraced in trend-setting history departments. When I entered Michigan, intellectual history was passé. It struggled for respect. Tonsor struggled for respect. I struggled for respect. The situation has changed dramatically. Today, every Next Big Thing from the eighties is passé, every one of them.[14] And Michigan now prides itself on being one of the bellwether programs in the world to study -- intellectual history.[15]

"Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose." The more things change, the more they stay the same.


[1] For The New York Times obituary of Eisenstein, which surveys her significance as a historian, see URL, accessed September 23, 2016.
[2] For the University of Michigan commendation of Grew, see URL, accessed September 23, 2016.
[3] See URL, accessed September 25, 2016.
[4]The concept of the paradigm, developed by Thomas Kuhn in his groundbreaking 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, was one of the most important concepts that intellectual historians taught in the 1980s. It remains a key concept in the humanities. For the continuing applicability of the term, as well as for current insights and updated literature of the various historiographic schools, I am indebted to Lynn Hunt, Writing History in the Global Era (New York: W.W. Norton, 2014). She is a big name in historical studies now, and she was a big name in historical studies then.
[5] The term "methodological individualism" is freighted with history and embroiled in dispute. For the meaning of the method in the work of Weber, Hayek, and especially Karl Popper, see URL
[6] It turns out that Tuchman's ideas about the start of the war were not entirely accurate. See URL, accessed October 12, 2016.
[7] For the official description of Tonsor's History of History I (History 587), see URL, accessed September 23, 2016.
[8] In fact, I would soon discover in office hours conversation that Grew deeply appreciated Lord Acton's critique of nationalism and cited that appreciation in his article, "The Case for Comparing Histories," American Historical Review, vol. 85, no. 4 (October 1980), p. 763.
[9] In a review of Gregory L. Schneider's collection of Tonsor's essays, historian John Lukacs wrote: "In the academic circles of professional historians Tonsor is hardly known, perhaps even not at all. This is regrettable, but perhaps right too, because of the nearly inevitable false and corrupting conditions of recognition, publicity, success in the world in which we now live." John Lukacs, "The Art of History," The American Conservative, September 12, 2005; at URL, accessed December 10, 2016.
[10] GW phone interview with Paul Gottfried, December 16, 2016. Gottfried said Tonsor openly referred to himself as a "Nixon Republican" in 1971, when he was being interviewed for a position in the history department at the University of Rochester. Gottfried, who was also being interviewed for the position, said that Tonsor's willingness to reveal his allegiance to Nixon sank his chances of being hired there.
[11] Many years later I conducted two interviews with historians who helped me better understand my early professional concerns about Tonsor. First was my conversation with Dr. David A. Hollinger, one of the leading intellectual historians in the U.S. who is now emeritus at UC-Berkeley. In the 1980s Hollinger was a colleague of Tonsor's on the history faculty in Ann Arbor, and he served on my prelim and dissertation committees. In a conversation in Berkeley, CA, on April 26, 2015, Hollinger told me that Tonsor made little effort to raise the status of intellectual history within the larger profession. "I personally got along well with Steve," observed Hollinger, "but he was off doing his own thing, writing Emersonian essays and pursuing topics none of the rest of us cared about. He should have been teaching at a small denominational college where he would have been more appreciated." Second was my conversation with Dr. Gregory L. Schneider, a professor with the history faculty at Emporia State University. In my interview with Schneider in Emporia, Kansas, on August 3, 2016, I would learn that Tonsor himself suspected that he might be a professional liability to younger scholars. When I asked Schneider how Tonsor responded to his effort to edit a book of Tonsor's essays, Schneider responded that when he first traveled to Ann Arbor in 2004 to meet the Michigan historian, Tonsor was concerned about how the project could hurt Schneider professionally. Said Tonsor, "I don't want you to be sullied because you are writing about me."
[12] Stephen J. Tonsor, "Foreword," Lectures on the French Revolution, by Lord Acton (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2013), ebook loc. 36.
[13] John G. A. Pocock quoted in URL, accessed September 25, 2016.
[14] Hunt, Writing History in the Global Era.
[15] See URL; and

Friday, September 23, 2016

Tonsor #10 -- Enlightenment and Liberalism

"Modernity is the Enlightenment, and the Enlightenment is modernity," Tonsor proclaimed in his Shermanesque cadence from the lectern later that morning. "I exaggerate only slightly. In the second half of the seventeenth century and certainly by the first half of the eighteenth, Europe was seeing powerful new forces overtake the traditional thought and culture of Christendom. One of these forces, liberalism, was instantiated in the salons, writings, and reforms of the Enlightenment.

"I would like you to note two things. First, the Enlightenment was revolutionary. It was revolutionary because it would establish a competing source of authority in the European mind and thereby change the fundamental character of our civilization. Henceforward there would be not one source but two sources competing for intellectual and moral authority -- the ancient and medieval source of religious values that developed in Christendom, and the modern source of secular values that developed in the Enlightenment. The former was oriented to the things 'above'; the latter to the things 'below.' The struggle between these two competing sources of intellectual and moral authority would raise the pivotal question in the West's inner history: What should the relation between these two sources of authority be?[1]

"Note, further, that this shift in the fundamental character of our civilization did not follow the French Revolution but preceded it. Indeed, it was the Enlightenment that made the French Revolution and so many subsequent upheavals possible because men had already changed their minds. On our side of the Atlantic, John Adams made a similar point when he said the American Revolution had occurred in the minds of men at least a decade before any shots were fired. This point brings to the fore what I told you in our first class. Ideas have consequences. It is when men change their minds that other changes become possible. Our Marxist friends get it backward."[2]

There I sat in my chair, marveling at what my professor was saying. If we had been at the Met, Tonsor's intellectual dash in the opening minute of class would have been regarded as a bravura performance. The way he laid out "the pivotal question in the West's inner history" gave me the chemical fix I craved, the giddy frisson of discovery.  So, I thought, today's lecture[3] will be the Rosetta Stone, the sacred tablet that encapsulates Tonsor's take on the modern problem. We will see his fierce intellect[4] in all its brilliance reveal his intellectual task to understand modernity and his ethical task to confront modernity. In tandem these tasks comprised the civilizational mission of Stephen J. Tonsor.

Stirred with anticipation, I gripped my pen tightly and pressed down on my looseleaf paper with so much force it became crinkly. It was time to take a deep breath: Reverting to the days when I practiced Transcendental Meditation, I slowly exhaled my mantra to calm myself down.

Suddenly -- an intrusion. As Tonsor was saying, "Our Marxist friends get it backward," a woman with a longish ponytail walked up to the near side of the blackboard and wrote, in large chalk letters, "Learn or die." She coyly smiled at Tonsor, who was staring at her wide-eyed, then slipped out of the classroom. I had never seen anything like this display of audacity, certainly not before an old-school professor. We all wondered what would happen next as Tonsor walked to the end of the blackboard and scowled at her message. His face was red. "Yes," he growled, "learn or die." Just as he was about to rub out her words, he paused, put down the eraser, and said in a brighter register, "A wise one, she!"

We laughed. Her words would survive but she would not. Apparently she was dropping his class because we never saw her again. Tonsor returned to the lectern and resumed as if nothing had happened.

"You may have taken a survey course in Western civilization that has led you into error. If you were taught that the Enlightenment was a unified movement, then you have the wrong idea. Now, it is true: There were certain convictions that were found in virtually all the different manifestations of the Enlightenment -- in France, England, Scotland, Germany. Let us listen to the great intellectual historian and student of the Enlightenment, Sir Isaiah Berlin, tell us what elements the diverse strands had in common:
These were, in effect, the conviction that the world, or nature, was a single whole, subject to a single set of laws, in principle discoverable by the intelligence of man; that man was capable of improvement; that there existed certain objectively recognizable human goals which all men sought after, namely happiness, knowledge, justice, liberty, and virtue; that these goals were common to all men as such, were not unattainable, nor incompatible, and that human misery, vice, and folly were mainly due to ignorance either of what these goals consisted in or of the means of attaining them -- ignorance due in turn to insufficient knowledge of the laws of nature.
Moreover ... it was by and large believed that human nature was fundamentally the same in all times and places; local and historical variations were unimportant compared with the permanent central core in terms of which human beings could be defined as a single species.... Consequently the discovery of general laws that govern human behavior, their clear and logical integration into scientific systems -- of psychology, sociology, economics, political science, and the like [were central to the Enlightenment project].... [A]ll discoverable facts would, by replacing the chaotic amalgam of guesswork, tradition, superstition, prejudice, dogma, fantasy, and 'interested error' that hitherto did service as human knowledge and human wisdom (and of which by far the chief protector and instigator was the Church), create a new, sane, rational, happy, just, and self-perpetuating human society....   
This is the noble, optimistic, and rational doctrine and ideal of the great tradition of the Enlightenment from the Renaissance until the French Revolution, and indeed beyond it, until our own day.
"What interested Berlin even more than the conventional view of the Enlightenment that students get in survey classes were the many important divisions within the movement. I shall give you three. (1) On the question of human nature, not every French Encyclopedist or German rationalist believed that man is by nature good, ruined only by the follies and wickedness of priests and crippling institutions like the Church. Voltaire, for instance, believed that man was quite possibly cruel by nature. (2) When it came to religion, some of the philosophes were devout theists, while others were militant atheists. (3) And when it came to politics, some championed enlightened despotism, others democracy. So the first thing to keep in mind is that the Enlightenment is not one theological, philosophical, social, political, and economic program.

"When I ask you about the Enlightenment on, say, the midterm examination, don't give me the bumper sticker slogans you learned in AP history or college survey. You must specify which Enlightenment, which thinkers, you are referring to."

*     *     *

"Recall how in our first meeting I said that ideas have power; they have consequences when men seize on them and act with the conviction that they are true. If you see how liberalism informed the intellectual and institutional life of the modern West -- if you also see the fierce reaction against liberalism in the modern age -- then you will be well on the way to understanding the last three centuries.

"By liberalism, I do not here mean the politics of Ted Kennedy. I have plenty to say on the politics of Ted Kennedy and his family,[5] but there is not enough time in our class to chase that rabbit down the hole."

Tonsor looked up from his notes: "For you city slickers who do not know, rabbits burrow in holes, and the allusion is to an early scene in Alice in Wonderland."[6] The sarcasm!

"The term 'liberalism' came into existence in the nineteenth century. It serves as a convenient device that intellectual historians use to identify a pattern of behavior and a habit of mind that are historically significant. Note that 'liberalism' is an -ism; that is to say, it is an ideology. Simply defined, an 'ideology' is a system of integrated beliefs, theories, and aims that constitutes a sociopolitical program. Every ideology expresses some deep desire in man to realize a good. Yet in the process every ideology ends up isolating one or two elements of human nature at the expense of others. Marxism, for example, responds to man's envy and desire for equality with others. When such an ideology ossifies into a sociopolitical program, it may capture something essential to the moment. But it becomes just another period piece, it fails to be universally applicable, and it falls into Trotsky's proverbial ash heap of history. Note this paradox about every ideology, every -ism. Every ideology seeks to order the human condition but does so at the cost of disordering some aspect of our human nature."

Those last words struck me and I wrote the sentence down carefully. It was the meat of the nut. It was why the Enlightenment inevitably involved an "endarkenment." Tonsor, again: "Note this paradox about every ideology, every -ism. Every ideology seeks to order the human condition but does so at the cost of disordering some aspect of our human nature."

Tonsor punched his critique of modern ideologies and -isms -- liberalism included -- with lines of verse by the poet, Walt Whitman:

     Do I contradict myself?
     Very well then I contradict myself,
     (I am large, I contain multitudes).[7]

"Now, the modern ideology of liberalism seeks to order the human condition. It is the modern instantiation of an older spirit of liberty that resides deep in the constitution of man. The liberal spirit is ever on the lookout to free the individual -- free him from oppressive authority, outworn customs, arbitrary rules, unfair regulations, and tyrannical taboos. It is premised on man's free will. It rejects determinism. Above all, it recognizes the individual's freedom of conscience, his decision to choose between right and wrong, his freedom to order his life as he chooses within the framework of the historical options available to him. As we shall see, it can also refer to the many misguided things individuals do to liberate themselves from an otherwise reasonable order. In short, liberalism tries to account for the sum total of decisions individuals make when they elect to diminish the realm of necessity and to enlarge the realm of freedom. It is thus no artifice or windy abstraction. It is grounded in historical evidence that strongly suggests the human preference for freedom. Again and again we see the instantiation of freedom in very concrete actions. I shall give you examples.

"Some ten thousand years ago, man chose to quit the paleolithic lifestyle and instead adopt the neolithic lifestyle. Beginning in Asia Minor, he made the decision to stop hunting and gathering in a Hobbesian state of nature, and instead to focus his energies on growing crops. By doing so, he was electing not to get up every morning wondering where his next meal would come from. I emphasize that it was a choice because there was nothing inevitable about the Neolithic turn. Man chose to diminish the realm of necessity imposed by hunger, and to enlarge the realm of freedom made possible by storing surplus food in ceramic pots and granaries. Of course, it was not a linear development. The neolithic era arrived across the face of the earth in fits and starts. It experienced setbacks during droughts and shortages caused by war and pestilence. Yet the point stands: Men apparently calculated that the net result of their preference for the neolithic lifestyle would yield greater liberty. The anthropological evidence shows that once the choice was made, man never voluntarily went back, en mass, to hunting and gathering."

Tonsor paused: "The deer heads mounted in suburban houses suggest that middle-class men miss the call of the wild. Apparently so do the intrepid hunters who travel up to Canada to experience the wilderness by shooting wildlife from a helicopter!" A few of the outdoorsmen in the class laughed.

"Some five thousand years ago, man chose to quit the neolithic lifestyle and instead adopt civilization. Beginning along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, he decided to build walls and provision armies. He apparently did so to diminish the realm of necessity: He sought to buy time before his death and avoid being enslaved in the first organized wars. So he chose to enlarge the realm of freedom made possible by greater security. I again emphasize that it was a choice because there was nothing inevitable about this turning point. Yet civilization spread across the face of the earth, from Sumer to Egypt to India to China to Central and South America. It grew in fits and starts. It experienced setbacks when city walls were breached and when armies invaded, but man apparently calculated that the net result of his choice would be greater liberty. The historical evidence shows that once the choice was made, he never went back voluntarily, en mass, to the neolithic lifestyle.

Tonsor again paused: "I know a few flower children who tried to do so back in the sixties, without success. Today they are all on Wall Street."

The students laughed at Tonsor's display of sarcasm.

"What we call Europe -- the westernmost extension of the Eurasian land mass with its numerous peninsulas and isles -- was a locus of the spirit of liberty. We see it in the democracy of ancient Athens and in the republic of ancient Rome. We see it among the Saxons in the time of Hengist and Horsa (as Thomas Jefferson was at pains to point out). We see it in the interminable struggle between church and state, as well as in the emergence of the medieval commune.

"Beginning in the 1300s and 1400s -- and gathering momentum during the Enlightenment in the late 1600s and 1700s -- the liberal spirit expanded into sphere after sphere of human activity. Men began to see increasing opportunities to diminish the realm of necessity and to enlarge the realm of freedom. In economics, politics, and society -- slowly but surely -- oppressive authorities were overthrown. Dead customs were cast off. Restrictive laws were repealed. Marketplace regulations were lifted. Social taboos were relaxed. All these developments were intended to free the individual from anything that oppressed, anything that kept him down. That impulse to free the individual from arbitrary oppression would always be the true north of the liberal spirit.

"At the dawn of the modern age, in the Renaissance, artists, writers, and men of intellect seized on the opportunity to diminish the realm of necessity and enlarge the realm of freedom. Beginning in the fourteenth century, clerics did a radical thing. They embraced pagan classicism at the inevitable expense of Christian scholasticism. In doing so they inadvertently raised paganism to the point that it almost rivaled Christianity. Now, these men were not apostates -- they regarded themselves as good Catholics. But their love of the classics of ancient Greece and Rome started an intellectual revolution within Christendom, a revolution that would legitimate two sources of civilizational authority where only one had existed before. To the Renaissance mind, the Greco-Roman classics spoke almost as much to the human condition as did Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture. Because paganism was elevated, it rivaled Christianity as a source of authority. Men now had a choice in how they would mediate the two. This is the key to understanding how the Renaissance expanded freedom. Indeed, if Jacob Burckhardt's thesis is correct (as developed in his groundbreaking cultural study, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy), then it was this freedom that emerged hand-in-hand with a radical new concept: the individual. Now Renaissance Man could publicly laud both the pagan hero and the Christian saint. Each type presented a model of human excellence. Each type generated its own criteria of human flourishing. Renaissance Man accepted both these models of excellence and held them in a state of tension. All the while the Church went along with the development. There was no Albigensian crusade to stamp the pagan ideal out, and even the popes went along with the new pagan humanism. Never before had Christendom given this degree of license to intellectual, moral, and spiritual freedom. You can now see how the Renaissance, by embracing two different sources of authority in paganism and Christianity, and by lauding two different models of excellence in the hero and the saint, became a dress rehearsal of the Enlightenment.

"In the early modern age, men also saw the opportunity to diminish the realm of necessity and enlarge the realm of freedom when it came to shaping their fundamental worldview. Beginning in the fifteenth century, the Age of Exploration, the Europeans' encounter with new worlds opened men's eyes to the proliferating variety of human cultures. Believers lost their innocence. Now they were aware of the possibilities of other worldviews. Were some truer than others? The resulting pluralism opened the way to an a la carte skepticism, relativism, and subjectivism on a scale never before seen in world history. To understand what I mean, I would refer you to a book that is often assigned by my colleagues, The Cheese and the Worms (1980), by Carlos Ginsburg. It is the true story of Menocchio, a sixteenth-century Italian miller who was put on trial for his heretical musings. Contrast Menocchio's story to that of the more radical philosophes in the Enlightenment, men like Baron D'Holbach and Denis Diderot, who two centuries later could openly proclaim they did not believe in God. The taboo against atheism had been lifted. In the Enlightenment, freedom of conscience and of religion was dramatically expanding.

"In sphere after modern sphere, men willed themselves into greater states of freedom. The spread of freedom did not occur because of some abstract force of history. It was not Hegelian nonsense. Rather it was due to men making the choice, again and again, to be more free.

We see the spread of freedom in the new town charters, the new constitutions, the evolution of Parliament, and newly articulated rights. We see it in marketplace reforms and free labor contracts. We see it in the decline of arranged marriages as well as in the abolition of entail, primogeniture, and ultimogeniture. We see it in religious reforms and in many other concrete actions. To know this quest for freedom is to know the modern age in a major key. The Enlightenment was its spearpoint. None of this should surprise you -- we Americans know it well because the quest for liberty rallied the patriots of the American Revolution.

"Diminishing necessity, enlarging freedom -- these can be good things befitting the nature of man. 'Can be,' because when men enlarge freedom, they do not lose the need for order. Indeed, it is precisely when they enlarge freedom that they need to be attentive to order -- to what Tocqueville called the "habits of the heart." Such habits are formed by family life, religious communities, civil society, and participation in local politics. Think of these habits as part of a culture's unwritten constitution, which is the foundation of the written Constitution.

"Now, there can be too much of a good thing. Liberalism promoted freedom, but its individualism did not reinforce the moral and social restraints that are needed to sustain freedom.When man's freedom outruns his self-imposed restraints, when he has experienced the anxiety that arises from political anarchy and personal licentiousness, he feels the rage for order. Yes, the rage for order. Men will not tolerate chaos. It is not in our nature to tolerate chaos. Chaos has erupted in the modern age and this has provoked numerous reactions against liberty. We have seen chaos when men are uprooted from their traditional communities. We have seen it in the new industrial economy with its ant-heap societies. We have seen it in the wars of competing -isms, so many that fewer and fewer men knew what to believe. We have seen it in political revolutions, first in England, then in America, then in France -- and ultimately in the Soviet Union, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany. What is Nazi Germany but the rage for order after the mounting chaos of World War I, hyperinflation, depression, and confusion in the Weimar Republic?

"Any questions?"

Oh, yes, there were questions, but before anyone could raise a hand, Tonsor seemed to want to plow forward. "Let's next consider rationalism," he said, putting one set of notes into a folder and removing another set from a different folder. As he scanned yellow ruled pages of handwritten notes, he stuck his lower jaw out. His face projected a bulldog determination.


[1] Stephen J. Tonsor credited Friedrich Heer with the above-below struggle at the heart of "Europe's inner history"; see Tonsor's essay, "Gnostics, Romantics, and Conservatives," in Equality, Decadence, and Modernity (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), p. 263-64. If the West's "inner history" created the tension between classical, medieval Christianity and the modern Enlightenment, an additional tension came about in the 1960s when both classical medieval Christianity AND the modern Enlightenment were overthrown by postmodernism, which rejected both the norms of faith and reason. Adding to the tension was the simultaneous rejection of Western worldviews and the adoption of non-Western worldviews such as Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Zen, and other forms of Eastern thought. Today it is clear that our civilization's inner tensions arise from the fact that large parts of the population now recognize one of three authoritative sources. Nowadays there are Christians, scientists, and counter-cultural thinkers.
[2] Tonsor consistently emphasized how mental, moral, and spiritual changes preceded material changes. See his essay, "Gnostics, Romantics, and Conservatives," in Equality, pp. 266-67.
[3] My reconstruction of Tonsor's lectures is an amalgamation that combines (1) my notes taken during the lecture; (2) further research I undertook to prepare for his midterm and final examinations; and (3) later reading of Tonsor's essays, research in the archives at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and at the University of Minnesota, and interviews with those familiar with Tonsor's work.
[4] I am grateful to the intellectual historian Seth Bartee for this characterization of Stephen Tonsor as a "fierce intellect," conveyed in private correspondence, October 16, 2016.
[5] At the time Tonsor was giving this lecture, during the fall of 1987, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy was leading the campaign in the U.S. Senate against Justice Robert Bork, who had been nominated by President Ronald Reagan to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court. Conservatives like Tonsor went on record to charge Democrats, who held the majority in the Senate, with being so hostile to Bork that they could not give the nominee a fair confirmation hearing. In the heat of the battle, conservatives coined a new verb, "to bork." To bork means to engage in relentless personal and misleading professional attacks against a judicial nominee to prevent the nominee's advance. Tonsor's public view was expressed as a signatory to Sidney Hook's letter of support of Bork in the Congressional Record, October 22, 1987, and October 23, 1987.
[6] See URL, accessed October 18, 2016.
[7] Excerpt from Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself," 51, at URL, accessed October 24, 2016; quoted in Tonsor, "The Conservative Search for Identity," in Equality, p. 247.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Tonsor #9 -- Where Scholars Go to Die

I was having a beer with a couple of other graduate students. We were on a patio that looked onto William Street, enjoying the warm air and kibitzing about our classes during Week One at Michigan. The man across the table said, with apparent satisfaction, "There are no more conservative professors in Ann Arbor."

"Oh, that's not true," I shot back. "I had lunch with him."

Rackham Graduate School at U of M
That comeback may have gotten a laugh, but it pointed to a real problem: the anemic state of ideological diversity among academics in 1987. Not just at Michigan but across the nation during the Reagan era, faculty in the social sciences and humanities voted overwhelmingly Democratic. Political diversity was noticeably absent in Rackham Graduate School, the home unit of history graduate students at the university. Tonsor informed me that he knew of only one other professor in U of M's history department who voted Republican, and our history department was arguably the largest in the U.S.

I hasten to add that, although the other profs I would encounter at Michigan were liberal, my experience in Ann Arbor was not as horrid as what was being reported on many American campuses. Perhaps I chose my classes wisely and had a little luck, but my profs were fair. They never docked me on ideological or religious grounds, nor did I sense there was ever a political litmus test to win grants or earn good grades. David Hollinger, Raymond Grew, Elizabeth Eisenstein, Tom Tentler, David Bien, Kathleen Canning, Jim Turner, Victor Miesel, Linda Neagley -- I never saw them politicize history in their lectures, classrooms, or seminars. Indeed, it was they who taught me that academic rigor requires intellectual diversity.

*     *     *

The next morning, a Tuesday, I arrived at Tonsor's office in Haven Hall to tell him about an upcoming trip that would require me to miss one of his classes. He was not yet in for office hours, so I looked at the material he'd posted on his door. You can tell a lot about a person by what they post on their door. What caught my eye was a cartoon from the New Yorker. It showed a baseball scorecard of two teams, the Realists and Idealists. In each of the nine innings, the Realists had scored a run or two, while the Idealists had been shut out. Yet the final score was Realists 0, Idealists 2. It made a good laugh all the better knowing who posted the cartoon on his door.

"Hello, Mr. Whitney," said Tonsor as he neared his office. I was beginning to learn his tone of voice, that note of deliberation characteristic of his greeting. It was as though he awaited the unwrapping of a pearl. As he flopped his satchel down on the desk, I sat briefly to tell him about my upcoming trip to Washington, DC. I could tell that he was genuinely pleased for me, as I had won first place in a national essay contest on American foreign policy in the Middle East.

"Do not become corrupted by the Imperial City," he admonished me. "It's where scholars go to die. As for the conservative movement -- well, it died when it put on a blue suit and went to Washington."[1]

Now that -- that last sentence -- provides yet another illustration of how Tonsor tossed out seemingly effortless aperçus that left me vexed. I was under the impression that conservatives were enjoying their heyday with Ronald Reagan in the White House. Before I could ask for elaboration, he returned to the matter at hand, and said that we could arrange to discuss the material in History 416 that I'd miss. That was considerate of him -- not every professor was so accommodating.

On my way out the door, I remarked with a smirk that Cassirer's Philosophy of the Enlightenment was as tough as its billing.

With an arch smile and a waggle of the head, Tonsor replied, "Among intellectual histories of the Enlightenment, it's Moby Dick. There are easier whales to harpoon, but they wouldn't be as much fun to pursue."


[1] Even though he enjoyed access to the art and to the Library of Congress, Tonsor did not particularly care for Washington, DC. In one of his letters he wrote upon his return from a two-week stint in DC, "I am so pleased to be home. Washington is not my place ... however kind everyone was to me." Stephen J. Tonsor to Henry Regnery, June 16, 1980, p. 1; letter in GW's possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Tonsor #8 -- 1505 Morton Ave.

She was standing at the front door with a warm smile and an extended hand. Already at hello, it was apparent that Caroline Tonsor was diametrically different from her husband. In physical appearance they were not at all like the cartoon of the married couple that aged alongside each other until they looked exactly alike. Quite the contrary. He was stocky; she was slender. He had short gray-white hair; she, long dark brown hair. His eyes were lighter, impatient, and discerning;[1] her eyes, darker, approachable, and kind.

I would soon learn that their personalities were as different as their looks. Where he came off as forceful and judgmental, she was soft-spoken and accepting. Where he was the know-it-all, she asked questions. Where he liked to sprinkle his conversation with something that surprised, even outraged, she was happy with quiet displays of wit. The differences between the two is perhaps best summed up by the fact that students, among themselves, always referred to him as "Tonsor," to her as "Caroline."

What with her down-home likability, I soon cottoned to Caroline. She looked to be about the age my mother would have been had she been alive. And because my parents had divorced, I couldn't help but wonder if the Tonsors' marriage were like so many between two diametrically different people who nevertheless made the union work.

Their two-story house was modest, with a living room and dining room that seemed typical of a wood-frame dwelling built in the early twentieth century. Caroline playfully called it their "summer cottage."[2] Whatever the main floor lacked in size it made up in warmth, owing to three things that worked in concert to give the space an outsized coziness. First was the wingback chair to the left of the hearth. Great stacks of books and papers formed columns on either side of the chair. There was no question who sat upon that throne! Second was a Bach fugue playing in the background, which perfectly suited the home of a humanities professor. Third were the delightful sprays of flowers by the fireplace, at the front window, and on the dining room table. They spread sweet fragrance throughout the downstairs.

Caroline noticed me looking closely at a bouquet. "Gardening," she said, "is Stephen's magnificent obsession."

"No," Tonsor protested, "it's a maddening obsession. The weather quite literally almost killed us. It was an extraordinary summer of extreme heat and drought that did not break until mid August, when the blessed rains returned.[3] Up to that point we and the flowers were all wilting together."
Flowers filled the house.

Recalling the mention of grandchildren during the walk, I asked Caroline whether they got to see their children and grandchildren often. She told me that her oldest daughter had been visiting recently with her two children. One of them went to football camp; the other to band camp, at Interlochen.[4]

Tonsor added, "During the summer and on holidays our house is often full of children and grandchildren. They love the fireplace. I am certain that it creates part of the mystique of grandmother's house. Two things are my special province: the garden and the fireplace. To quote a line from Robert Louis Stevenson, 'Flowers in the summer, fires in the fall.'"[5]

Caroline, perhaps wanting me to feel at home, observed that it had long been Stephen's custom to invite students over for lunch.[6]

"Yes," said Tonsor. "Back in the sixties, Tom Hayden sat on that couch. He was improbably named, he told me, after St. Thomas Aquinas!" Tonsor waved off the living room as if he actually did not care one whit that Tom Hayden had sat on his couch.[7]

I followed Tonsor into the dining room. He moved a fat novel off the table to a nearby bookcase and motioned me to sit down. "I've been reading Trollope," he said. "His women are boring. He does an excellent job at depicting them but they are dull and trivial people. The only interesting ones, Lizzy Eustace and the Countess Neroni, are petty criminal types. Come to think of it, most of his men are dull and trivial, too."[8]

"Caroline, it looks as if you've cooked up a storm in the kitchen!" Tonsor exclaimed with much pleasure. We sat down to a hearty lunch, as he had promised: pot roast, potatoes, carrots. The surprise came when Tonsor poured me a glass of sherry. That was a first.

*     *     *

After our fill of lunch and spirited conversation, Tonsor and I walked back to campus mostly in silence. Although the clouds seemed to lift a little, the air remained warm and humid.

Retracing our steps through Burns Park, I reflected on the fast start of my academic career at Michigan. On this first day of classes, it was not yet 2 p.m., and already I'd had the privilege of spending four hours with my graduate advisor and meeting his gracious wife who welcomed me to their home. I was eager to report their hospitality to my circle of family and friends. But as an introvert with two glasses of sherry in me, I was starting to flag. It was time to retreat into the labyrinth of Harlan Hatcher Library, where I could jot down insights from my conversation with Tonsor, prepare for my other classes, and tackle Cassirer in light of everything I had learned that morning.

Once back on the Diag, Tonsor broke the spell of our self-enclosed hike. He made an observation that revealed more about who he was. "I have been reading a doctoral dissertation written by one of your colleagues, Mr. Winnie."[9]

I wondered if Tonsor had drunk too much sherry: Winnie? My name is Whit-ney.

He didn't pause, and I wasn't about to interrupt. "At first I did not want to read it. It's long, it's the sixth dissertation from this past year, and I was supposedly on leave. But I must say it is quite fascinating. It is a history of the Cochin family, one of the great French Catholic families of the high bourgeoisie. The dissertation is based on the family archives made available by the present Baron Cochin. They were liberal conservatives, and the historian Augustin Cochin, who died in World War I, could probably best be called a reactionary. They are my kind of people."[10] With that arresting thought, Tonsor faded into the reflections of Haven Hall's glass doors.

So Tonsor was a "liberal conservative" who was happy to be called a "reactionary."[11] Confused? So was I. I knew that I'd eventually have to sort it all out during my study at U of M. But that would come in due course. For now I enjoyed feeling the warmth of the lunch.


[1] One of Tonsor's former students, who later became a close friend, said that the unsettling effect of Tonsor's thick lenses was to make him peer at you with "the two glass eyes of a fish."
[2] Stephen J. Tonsor to Henry Regnery, June 16, 1980, p. 3; letter in GW's possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery.
[3] Stephen J. Tonsor to Henry Regnery, July 25, 1987, p. 1; Tonsor to Regnery, August 3, 1987, pp. 2-3; and Tonsor to Regnery, August 17, 1987, p. 1; all three letters are in GW's private possession, courtesy of Alfred S. Regnery.
[4] Tonsor to Regnery, August 17, 1987, p. 1.
[5] Tonsor to Regnery, November 17, 1980, p. 1; letter in GW's private possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery.
[6] During these same years, another great European intellectual historian was hosting weekly lunches for his graduate students. At Yale University, Frank M. Turner (1944-2010) took his teaching assistants to Yorkside Pizza near campus. See Frank M. Turner, European Intellectual History from Rousseau to Nietzsche, ed. Richard A. Lofthouse (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), Kindle edition, "Editor's Preface," loc. 132.
[7] Tom Hayden died just weeks after I composed this conversation. See URL, accessed October 24, 2016.
[8] Tonsor to Regnery, August 3, 1987, p. 3.
[9] Lawrence Hutchinson Winnie, "Aegis of the Bourgeoisie: The Cochin of Paris, 1750-1922," 2 vols., Ph.D. dissertation, University of Michigan, 1988.
[10] Tonsor to Regnery, August 17, 1987, p. 2.
[11] Gregory L. Schneider, "Tonsor, Stephen J.," American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, eds. Bruce Frohnen, Jeremy Beer, Jeffrey O. Nelson (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2006), p. 862.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Tonsor #7 -- The Rage for Order

My first class at Michigan had me churned up. Tonsor's introduction to Ernst Cassirer unloosed a Niagara of imponderables that were cascading through my brain. Had this bold humanist pulled off one of the most audacious philosophical projects of the twentieth century?

The iconic Erwin Panovsky
As Tonsor erased the board and stuffed his folders and books back into his satchel, I went to the front of the class and joined a few other students who had follow-up questions to put to the professor. I did not push myself forward but stayed a little back so that I could pick up additional insights from his answers. To one student he said something about Peter Gay being an American disciple of Cassirer's. To another he put Cassirer in the context of the so-called Hamburg School that included Aby Warburg and Erwin Panovsky. To yet another he quipped that the task of dethroning Aristotle proved more difficult than that of decapitating Charles I[1]. These little insights piqued my curiosity, but when my turn came I pursued a different line of questioning:

"Given the breakdown of the Enlightenment in the nineteenth century,
did Cassirer really think an age of reason could be resurrected in the twentieth? I mean, after trench warfare, Nazi concentration camps, and Soviet gulags -- didn't these catastrophes destroy the idea of progress and turn Enlightenment aspirations into an Endarkenment?" I had recently read an article with that sophomoric neologism, "Endarkenment," in the title and thought myself clever.[2]

"Sometimes all one can do is weep at the grave and hope for better things to come," said Tonsor with mock seriousness. "Mr. Whitney, do you have plans for lunch?"

"No, I don't. I'm free," I said with slightly too much enthusiasm; I wondered if I looked like a dog on point.

"Why don't you accompany me back to the house, where my wife Caroline will have prepared lunch, a hearty midday meal in the German style," he said grandly.

All I could think was, "Wow!"

Near Community News on South U and Forest
We walked out of East Engineering into a light drizzle and onto the noisy bustle of South U. A couple of blocks down was Community News, a claustrophobic shop where Tonsor liked to pick up his morning New York Times and Wall Street Journal. "In these pages I read about the strife of interests masquerading as principles," he quipped.

The newspapers securely tucked into his satchel, Tonsor set a moderately fast pace across the grid of leafy streets south of the main campus. Over the next twenty minutes we went through Burns Park, an older neighborhood with cozy, well-preserved houses. A gray sky enclosed us like Tupperware. Once we reached the quieter streets, I could hear Tonsor breathing but he was not too winded to talk.

The northern boundary of Burns Park is in the bottom right of this 1880 bird's eye view of Ann Arbor.
"After class you asked a good question that probes the limits of the Enlightenment. The fact is, it was self-limiting. Human nature is inclined to follow reason to a point, but no farther. Recall the passage in Boswell that describes Dr. Johnson kicking the stone: It was real and it was unmovable. Human nature is that stone -- real and unmovable.[3] For better or worse, human beings do not want to live by unaided reason alone, but also by passions and emotions, irrationality and violence, magic and mystery, spiritual insight and divine revelation.

"There is evidence going back 10,000 years of human beings revolting against rationality. Because it's a given of human nature, you can see the revolt all around us to this day. Look at the current proliferation of psychotic lifestyles!"[4]

The sarcastic way he said "psychotic lifestyles" made me laugh.

"It was a rare revolution that could base itself on rationality and mount a serious challenge to all the spiritual orders established in the Axial Age. The Enlightenment posed that challenge. It took root in the late seventeenth century when the exhausted soil of Christendom could nurture little else. Europe had depleted itself in savage wars of religion. These civil wars were fought in part over which Christian authority would prevail -- Catholic or Protestant, Lutheran or Calvinist, Trinitarian or Unitarian. With the spectacle of Christians turning Europe into one giant Roman Colosseum for their mutual slaughter, some thinkers opened their minds to new sources of authority that could win universal assent and put an end to the strife. With the rise of experimental science, certain men began to believe they had discovered a promising source of authority. It would not be long before the scholastics' Aristotelian-Thomistic synthesis would start to unravel. The medieval disputatio would no longer be regarded as a satisfactory way to mediate the world. A revolution was under way. Christendom would never be the same."

"Didn't the Enlightenment eventually prompt intellectuals to quit using the word 'Christendom' and start referring to our civilization as 'the West'?" I asked.

"Yes," Tonsor said with emphasis. "The evangelists of the Enlightenment were a confident lot. They believed reason and science came closer to commanding universal assent than any particular religion could. But the unintended consequences of a revolution are often more interesting than its intended ones. The hyper-rationality of the Enlightenment would spark a reaction. The romantic movement was the most obvious counter-Enlightenment, but to make that point does not take us very far. At a more primal level, there was an anomic reaction that undermined the Enlightenment from within. It is important to teach students about the long shadows cast by the Enlightenment itself across the eighteenth century. Otherwise they will never understand it."

Tonsor abruptly halted and leaned over. Since he was in his sixties, for an instant I wondered if it were his heart. To my relief he was only picking up a penny on the sidewalk. "For my grandchildren," he said, the pink skin of his face flushed from bending over. "I'll add it to their piggybank."

I registered this little kindness and asked how many grandchildren he had; it would be a good talking point to raise with his wife whom I was about to meet. But my mind was on the stretch. Since I was not sure what "anomic" meant, I sought clarification.

The 1897 source of the word "anomie"
"Anomie is one of the marks of modernity. It is as much a psychological condition as a social one. The French sociologist Emile Durkheim popularized the word in his study on suicide. 'Anomie' describes the psychological and social instability that results from the breakdown of values, beliefs, social norms, and social structures. In both individuals and institutions, you can detect symptoms of anomie in the loss of vision and purpose. People who lose their faith, who do not know the rules of the new order, or who have not discovered the role they should play in the new order, become disoriented and neurotic. That is to say, they become anomic."

"Like starting a game of checkers and suddenly finding yourself playing 3D chess?" I asked, seeking an adequate analogy.

"More like going from dominoes to football," said Tonsor, making the analogy even more outrageous. "Both are contact games but the similarity ends there!

"When people experience the loss of order, they manifest all the traits of Hell -- fear, anxiety, depression, guilt, boredom, and alienation. They cannot remain in such a state. The need for order will not be denied. When chaos eventually sparks a rage for order, the result, ironically, can be more disorder -- anything from bread riots to revolutions.

"If the scientific revolution and Enlightenment pushed people to question intellectual authority -- in the Catholic Church, Ptolemaic astronomy, and Aristotelian philosophy -- a mere nudge could get them to question political authority. Why have a king? Why have a pope? The many abuses in the Old Regime left France in dire need of reform by 1789. But the revolutionaries did not foresee the unintended consequences of their revolution. As Augustin Cochin,[5] Francois Furet, and others have pointed out, the great paradox of the French Revolution is that it started with the goal of ridding France of absolute monarchy ... and ended with the most absolutist ruler the nation ever had, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Anomie accompanied the upheaval every step of the way. Indeed, anomic mileposts line the chaotic road from the Enlightenment to Napoleon. This central paradox of the eighteenth century, barely mentioned in textbooks, would be a most interesting path for you to explore, Mr. Whitney."

I appreciated that he was suggesting a future paper that I might research and write. I had never before considered the anomic roots of modern revolution.

"Anomie is one way to approach the problem of modernity. Historians seek out its sources in the disorientation that comes from encountering strange lands; the discovery that we live in a vastly more pluralistic world than was previously imagined; the skepticism that arises from exploration and pluralism, Reformation and Counter-Reformation; the rise of the new public intellectuals who questioned all the old authorities; the decline of religious faith in the face of growing relativity; the overthrow of kings; the destruction of traditional life-ways; the breakdown of communities through war, enclosure, industrialization, and continuous economic innovation; the new technologies that destroyed craftsmanship and made workers redundant; the mass migrations into big cities; the lack of mediating institutions in the slums of those crowded cities; the new ant-heap societies. All of these developments contributed to the problem of modernity."

"Which is why you've devoted your career to understanding and confronting modernity?" I asked.

"Yes," he said with emphasis. "The problem of modernity in general is also the problem of the Enlightenment in particular. The philosophes drove long nails into the coffin of Christendom. They were revolutionaries in the most fundamental sense: They changed the way people think. Through their conversations and writings they reorganized discourse and attitudes about key questions -- about intellectual authority, about who has permission to tell civilization's story, about who gets to debate, about who can say what is real, about what is persuasive, about what is considered beyond the pale.

"The bolder thinkers of the Enlightenment put forward the silly idea that the human mind is a blank slate, a tabula rasa; that changing the environment can change the sense impressions that reach the mind; that human nature can thereby be perfected; and that a utopia can be achieved in this life. That concatenation of reasoning would result in modernity's endless social, political, and economic experiments. All these things make the Enlightenment one of the most significant transformations in world history. Because the Enlightenment changed the way people think, it anticipated as well as precipitated Europe's transition from the Renaissance and Reformation to the fully modern world.

Preoccupation with Decline and Fall during the Enlightenment
"In an upcoming lecture, I shall present abundant evidence of the contemporary reaction against the Enlightenment. Throughout the eighteenth century, the possibility of decline lurked behind the salons' sparkling conversations like a bad shadow. You can see the reaction in the luxury debates that explored how wealth leads to personal, familial, and societal decadence. You can see it in Piranesi's cult of ruins. You can see it in the manneristic-anomic style of painting which depicts nightmares and death. You can see it in the books that are preoccupied with the decay of the Roman Empire -- in Montesquieu's great work on the decadence of ancient Rome, and then Gibbon's magisterial Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. You can see it in the graveyard school of poets and especially in Thomas Gray's fascination with mortality in his melancholic poem, 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.' You can see it in Edmund Burke who identified terror's link to the sublime. The debates, the art, the histories, the poetry -- all give us abundant justification to unmask the so-called Enlightenment and to see its underlying darkness. Out the window goes the Age of Reason's self-congratulatory theory of progress -- a theory inadequate to explain the regress it brought about. For all these reasons, it is advisable to handle the so-called Enlightenment with tongs.[6]

"And now you see, Mr. Whitney, where Ernst Cassirer comes in. The Enlightenment project as originally conceived did not take adequate account of its own shadows. In the modern age, the more perceptive one was, the more one discerned the implications of a world unmoored from the old absolutes and devoid of meaning.[7] No one was happy to live in this theater of the absurd. Cassirer was among the European thinkers who revived the search for universally valid meaning. As a humanist he wanted to restore integration to knowledge as well as wholeness to the human condition."

When he paused I made a mental note to capture, later that day, Tonsor's key to the Enlightenment with this organizing image:

Light bulb (reason) > hard rock (human nature) > shadows (irrationality, etc.)
What you see in the shadows is perhaps more important than what you see in the light. 

This insight captured something much more profound than what could be read in the history surveys. It was why I came to the University of Michigan to study under Stephen Tonsor. The morning made me feel the giddy frisson of discovery.

Then I looked up and saw that we had arrived at 1505 Morton Avenue.


[1] Joseph Ward Swain, The Harper History of Civilization, vol. 1 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958), p. 791.
[2] R. F. Baum, "The Age of Endarkenment: Naturalism and Nihilism in Modern Thought," Intercollegiate Review (spring 1986), pp. 39-48.
[3] Stephen J. Tonsor, "Technology and the Conservative-Classical Liberal Debate," January 5, 1981, pp. 27-29; in Stephen J. Tonsor collection, box 41, file 1, Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford University.
[4] Ibid., p. 6.
[5] Later in the day I learned that the French historian Augustin Cochin had been on Tonsor's mind in the late summer of 1987. Cochin had been inspired by Durkheim, and the former's investigation of the sociological-anomic roots of the French Revolution was among the topics treated in a dissertation being completed by one of Tonsor's students, Lawrence Winnie. (Stephen J. Tonsor letter to Henry Regnery, August 17, 1987, p. 2, in GW's private possession, courtesy of Alfred S. Regnery.)
[6] Stephen J. Tonsor, "Gnostics, Romantics, and Conservatives," in Equality, Decadence, and Modernity, ed. Gregory L. Schneider (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), p. 267.
[7] Ibid.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Tonsor #6 -- Interlude: Who Was This Man?

As I think back to the lecture on Ernst Cassirer -- the first I heard Tonsor deliver -- I linger over it and ponder the melancholy it evokes -- not just about the course of European history but also about the career of Stephen John Tonsor. Who was this man, Stephen John Tonsor?

The question must be asked in the light of the most notorious speech Tonsor ever delivered -- The Drake Hotel Speech, as I call it. It was "witty, scathing, and highly controversial."[1] For it confirmed critics' suspicions that he harbored anti-Semitic feelings, at least when he edged into his traditionalist conservative mode, as opposed to his more liberal conservative mode (more about which in due course). Whatever the truth of his feelings, that one speech damaged his reputation with not a few movement conservatives and no doubt keeps him from being more appreciated to this day.

Recall that early in 1987 I had a conversation with Gregory Wolfe in which he told me about something controversial Tonsor had said at the Philadelphia Society meeting in Chicago the previous year.[2] Tonsor told the morning session that the true conservatives in America were invariably Roman Catholic or Anglo Catholic. And like a fresh boy looking for a cheap laugh, he couldn't resist adding something outrageous about the mostly Jewish neoconservatives who had joined the conservative movement of late:

"It is splendid when the town whore gets religion and joins the church. Now and then she makes a good choir director, but when she begins to tell the minister what he ought to say in his Sunday sermons, matters have been carried too far."[3]

A delayed, uncomfortable laugh rolled through the Drake Hotel ballroom. Tonsor's blast of anti-Semitism startled even his admirers. As for the Jewish neoconservatives in attendance, they were outraged. So: to Tonsor they were "the town whore"? An ugly throwback, this. In America. In a professional setting. In 1986.[4]

I later learned that both his wife Caroline Tonsor and his good friend Henry Regnery saw a draft of the remarks and urged Tonsor to strike the offending passage. The clever analogy wasn't worth it. But there was no stopping him. At 62 years of age, Tonsor would stand or fall on his own decisions.[5]

Following the Chicago meeting, there were heated letter exchanges, both in private and in the pages of National Review. Daniel Bell and other prominent neoconservatives took Tonsor to task for calling them second-class conservatives.[6] In private correspondence with Henry Regnery, Tonsor criticized Jeffrey Hart's coverage of the meeting in National Review. Hart's aim was merely to "butter up the neoconservatives."[7] In his public statements, Tonsor went into a defensive crouch. He struck the pose of one taking umbrage at being misunderstood. His explanation? He attacked the neocons not because they were Jewish, but because they were full-throated modernists and former Marxists who had abandoned their faith. Yet the more indignant he sounded, the less persuasive he became. It was hard to avoid the conclusion that his statement was inescapably anti-Semitic. According to his peck order (a concept he liked to use), there was no way lapsed Jewish neoconservatives could rise to the level of the true conservatives, the Catholic conservatives.

Of course, there is always a larger context to these disputes. By 1986 the conservative intellectual movement in America seemed to be unraveling. Compelling evidence comes to us from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which published Modern Age and The Intercollegiate Review, the chief outlets for Stephen Tonsor's cultural criticism in the 1980s. About the time of The Drake Hotel Speech, the spring 1986 number of IR ran a symposium titled "The State of Conservatism." The symposium had more than a little shock value. Its editor, Gregory Wolfe, observed that something wholly unexpected occurred as the essays started to come in. While it seemed "that conservatism in America was at its peak in influence and intellectual rigor" -- it was during Reagan's second term, after all -- "several distinguished conservative scholars characterized the movement as 'adrift' and 'in trouble,' suffering from 'attenuation,' 'apostasy,' and a sense of 'malaise.'" Furthermore, noted Wolfe, "The dangers that threaten the integrity of the conservative movement can be summarized in a single term: 'politicization.'" The cultural conservatives believed the neocons were the Trojan Horse in the movement, modernists who politicized the culture.[8]

There are also personal background stories to this particular dispute. Tonsor occasionally got into intellectual brawls with neocons and their Straussian allies and perhaps wanted to use the Philadelphia Society as a platform to settle scores. One academic who seemed especially to get under Tonsor's skin was Cornell University political philosopher Werner J. Dannhauser. This particular "town whore" was a nominal Jew, a modernist, a neocon, and a Straussian all wrapped in one -- thus a juicy target for a Catholic conservative spoiling for a fight.

It must be said that Roman- and Anglo-Catholic conservatives tended not to care for the works of Leo Strauss's students. Stephen Tonsor, Russell Kirk, M. E. Bradford, Peter Stanlis -- they had their reasons for criticizing much of the Straussian intellectual program. In the same way they were critical of anybody who downplayed or rejected the West's Christian stamp, they were critical of the Straussians for doing so. To Catholic conservatives, the typical Straussian in his philosophy was a thoroughgoing modernist and thus not friendly to traditionalist Christians. As a scholar the Straussian tended to privilege the pagan classics over the Christian classics. In his politics the Straussian looked like an embattled liberal democrat. And in his foreign policy, the Straussian made common cause with neoconservatives since the security of the state of Israel was among their highest priorities.[9]

None of the above makes Catholic conservatives inherently anti-Semitic. Indeed, Tonsor called one of Leo Strauss's greatest students, a Jewish scholar and former leftist named Martin Diamond, "my friend." He had great respect for Diamond's work on the American founding.[10] And yet. And yet.

A few months prior to The Drake Hotel Speech, Tonsor and Dannhauser had crossed swords in the pages of Commentary magazine over an article Dannhauser had written. Dannhauser charged conservatives with not dealing in an intellectually honest way with Nietzsche.[11] Is that article what set Tonsor off? The Jewish paleoconservative, Paul Gottfried, read the exchange and speculated that Tonsor took offense at how Dannhauser used Nietzsche's critique of religion "as a club to beat traditional Christians." In any case, Tonsor accused not just Dannhauser but a large contingent in the Commentary crowd -- Jews, neocons, Straussians -- of "recklessly modern tastes, including a passion for Nietzsche."[12] Remember: For Tonsor the task of the cultural conservative was to confront modernity, to sift and test it, not recklessly indulge it.

A second background story unfolded in March, just weeks before the meeting in Chicago. In a letter to Henry Regnery, Tonsor reported that the University of Michigan history department was interviewing applicants for a high-level appointment in German history. One scholar in particular earned Tonsor's favor. He was the distinguished historian, Hans Mommsen, from the University of Bochum, and in his lecture he talked about his work on Hitler's Final Solution. Mommsen apparently rankled some in the audience. "At his lecture," observed Tonsor, "two of my Jewish, Pro-Israeli colleagues behaved badly and it seems, because of this undercurrent of hostility, that Mommsen's appointment will be impossible." As if that disappointment were not enough, Tonsor enlarged his complaint, adding that "German guilt [for the Final Solution] is kept alive when Soviet and Japanese guilt is forgotten because it is useful ... to Israel. However, that string has about been played out. Pro-Israeli Holocaust propagandists are now convincing only themselves. There is wholesale reaction to this deluge of cynical propaganda -- and I say the more the better." Tonsor knew there was heat behind his report of Mommsen's visit to Ann Arbor. At the end of the letter he apologized to Regnery and closed with, "Oh! I have much more to say but I have already overstayed my leave." Tonsor's agitation with his "Jewish, pro-Israeli colleagues" and with "pro-Israeli Holocaust propagandists" was palpable and no doubt fed the decision to compare pro-Israel, Jewish neocons to the "town whore."[13]

I had the chance to talk to Tonsor about The Drake Hotel Speech on four separate occasions, and never once in our conversations did he repudiate or modify his remarks. So I can only assume that he wanted the analogy between the mostly modernist Jewish neocons and the "town whore" to stand. It sounds anti-Semitic, but did this mean that Tonsor was anti-Semitic?

The first time I asked Tonsor about The Drake Hotel Speech was in April 1988, when he sponsored me to attend my first Philadelphia Society meeting. Before departing for the meeting, I wanted to understand the controversy better so I asked him for a transcript of his remarks to see if his words varied from what had been reported in The New Republic and National Review. I confirmed that what was reported was accurate. When I talked to him, I had to be careful that my tone did not come across as prosecutorial but as merely intellectually curious. He held my professional fate in his hands, after all. Tonsor recounted the Philadelphia Society meeting without appearing defensive. In fact, he made a joke about how conservatives had a talent for circling their wagons -- then firing into each other. The main point, though, is that he said nothing remotely anti-Semitic in this conversation.

The second occasion was in mid December 1991. I served as his graduate teaching assistant at the time, and we were standing in front of his Western civ class in Angell Hall, proctoring the final examination and speaking quietly so as not to disturb the students writing in their blue books. We had considerable down time as we waited for the student exams to trickle in. In this conversation The Drake Hotel Speech came up, and he revealed what motivated him to speak out against the neocons. How was it, he asked, that the Reagan administration gave all the plum jobs to neocons and not to the traditionalist conservatives? The case of M. E. Bradford was indicative of the problem. In 1981 Bradford, who taught English at the University of Dallas, was cruising for the chairmanship of the National Endowment for the Humanities. He had estimable support.[14] But the neocons began to campaign against him, and he eventually lost out to William Bennett, who was the neocons' pick. Tonsor saw this incident as proof that the neocons were tribalistic and would stick together at the expense of traditionalists. Neocons now had the personal contacts, the institutional connections, the funding, and the power to advance their own. To Tonsor, the rejection of Bradford marked a depressing transition for conservatives in American public life. Henceforward, traditionalist conservatives were a setting sun, neocons a rising sun. This realization added fuel to the already burning embers of traditionalist resentment.

The third occasion we discussed the matter arose later that same month of December 1991. It was more than five years after the Philadelphia Society speech, and National Review allowed the charge of anti-Semitism against Tonsor to resurface in its pages. I pondered Tonsor's lecture on Ernst Cassirer as well as his regard for the Hebrews when he taught Western civ. Outside of the 1986 remarks, I'd never heard anything in his classroom teaching that struck me as anti-Semitic. I had never heard anything in conversation with him that struck me as anti-Semitic. To me the charge was unjust. So in 1991 I wrote a letter to the editor of National Review that defended my Doktorvater against the charge of anti-Semitism. The morning I wrote the letter, I drove to Tonsor's house and showed him what I wanted to say. I asked if there were anything in his lectures, publications, or communications (especially with Henry Regnery) that might point to anti-Semitism. He assured me that there was not. So I sent the letter off to National Review's editors in New York.[15] It was never published.

The fourth and final time we discussed The Drake Hotel Speech was in 2003, following the outbreak of the Iraq War on March 19-20 of that year. It was in a phone call to set up a time to meet with him. Stephen Tonsor's name had come up again in the pages of National Review, this time more ominously than ever. In an influential article whose purpose was to trace the origins and development of paleoconservatism, David Frum pointed to the significance of Tonsor's Philadelphia Society remarks in 1986: "I happen to have been in the room when 'paleoconservatism' first declared itself as a self-conscious political movement. It was in the spring of 1986, at a meeting of the Philadelphia Society, and Professor Stephen Tonsor of the University of Michigan read the birth announcement.... Tonsor startled the room by anathematizing the neocons and their works.... 'We are all delighted,' he said (I am quoting from memory), 'to see the town whore come to church -- even to sing in the choir -- but not to lead the service.' I wish I could say that Tonsor's outburst was motivated by a deep disagreement over important principles." Frum concluded, as many have, that it was not. Rather it was a display of pique that neoconservatives were getting jobs in the Reagan administration and traditionalist conservatives were not.[16]

No mistake about it: Frum's intention was to depict Stephen Tonsor as the father of the paleocons -- a new, self-conscious movement that veered from cultural conservatism in that it was openly anti-Semitic, racist, and white nationalist. He lumped Tonsor in with people who became notorious for the views they held. Today some would call them "alt-right": Paul Gottfried, Samuel Francis, Llewellyn Rockwell, Joseph Sobran, Patrick Buchanan, and others. As will become apparent in other conversations in this series, the characterization of Tonsor as a paleocon is highly inaccurate. He certainly shared some of the same preoccupations that paleocons had -- the fate of Western civilization chief among them. But that hardly put him in the paleocon camp. For one thing, Tonsor himself denied that he was a paleocon. He did not like it that Paul Gottfried claimed for him the label "paleoconservative."[17] As he said in our phone conversation in 2003, with resignation, "The neocons are still trying to make me out to be a paleocon." Chuckling he added: "I guess they don't realize I am besieged from all sides and have clashed as often with the paleocons as with the neocons!"[18]

Finally, years later, when I began doing research for this series and went through Tonsor's letters, I occasionally encountered the intensity of his pique when it came to conservatives who had converted from Marxism (read: neoconservatives). Their Marxist (and thus modernist) background really bothered him. Representative is a splenetic passage he wrote to his friend Henry Regnery in 1984: "I ... slaved away at a manuscript for the University of North Carolina Press.... The manuscript I am reading untangles the tangled skein of Marxist-Hegelian thought in some American Marxist converts to conservatism. I have waded around in Marxist sewers for so much of my life that I am thoroughly disgusted with the whole intellectual enterprise. Too bad the former Marxist and Marxist residents of the Hoover Institution can not all come down with cholera or at least some disabling disease which would prevent their writing another word.... we have had enough. It's time to forget Marxism and other intellectual errors and get on with the puzzles and difficulties of life. Nonetheless I have to read this damned book...."[19] Clearly in this passage it is not the Jewishness of the neoconservative converts -- however "Jewishness" is defined -- but their Marxist pedigree that Tonsor cannot abide.

In light of the evidence, what are we to make of The Drake Hotel Speech on that Saturday morning, April 18, 1986? That Tonsor was a tweedy anti-Semite and that his trademark sarcasm revealed as much? Yet if he were truly anti-Semitic, wouldn't there be a pattern of such utterances? I have searched the public record and his private correspondence, and I can find little else that Tonsor wrote or said that even approaches the anti-Semitic taint of the 1986 speech. It seemed to be a unique event. Still it must be explained since it cannot be excused.

The only way I can explain The Drake Hotel Speech is to look at Tonsor's entire way of thinking. As I have explained elsewhere, it was governed by the hermeneutic of accommodating opposites. This hermeneutic was presaged in the apostle Paul, who said that he would try to be all things to all people to win them over to the God of the Jews and Gentiles.[19] It is presaged in the Walt Whitman verse Tonsor liked to quote: "Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)"[20] Complexity is a familiar characteristic of intellectuals, seen in autobiographies as early as St. Augustine's Confessions and as recently as Wayne Booth's My Many Selves: The Quest for a Plausible Harmony.

The hermeneutic of accommodating opposites also applied to Tonsor's ways of being a conservative. Most of the time he expressed himself as a liberal conservative[21], sifting and testing modernity with his fierce intellect. As he once put it, "I have been a fortunate man because of my rejection of so much of the nonsense of modernity. I can stand outside it -- and I think above it -- and make my own independent judgments."[22] When Tonsor expressed himself as a liberal conservative in the manner of Tocqueville and Acton, he was at his best. Indeed, he was the liberal conservative's liberal conservative. He believed in the transcendent power of religious faith, he believed in the humanism that had been nurtured within Christendom, and he believed in the spirit of liberty that reached a higher level of development in the modern West than anywhere else on the planet. Neither his faith nor his humanism nor his defense of ordered liberty smacked of anti-Semitism, white nationalism, or any ugly prejudice.

But some of the time Tonsor expressed himself as an old traditionalist -- The Drake Hotel Speech being Exhibit "A." The old traditionalist could be tribal and Eurocentric. At such times Tonsor could fall into the ancient prejudices of the West. Even the Catholic Church has officially acknowledged the anti-Semitism that sometimes subtly and sometimes not so subtly infused Western society and old-school Catholic teaching.[23]

Apparently these two strains of conservatism -- the liberal and the old traditionalist -- were not always successfully reconciled in Tonsor's mind. But he would accept that very human shortcoming. His worldview, after all, was "large" and "contained multitudes."

It seems that a volatile combination of old traditionalist prejudice, professional resentment, personal conflict, and prickly stubbornness account for The Drake Hotel Speech. It was an unfortunate event in the life of Stephen J. Tonsor. He would never live it down.

In my first months at Michigan, I did not yet know the terrain well enough to measure the fallout of Tonsor's speech. In my oblivion, I thought it rather exciting to have such a formidable polemicist as my thesis advisor. But as time went by and I learned more about the backlash, my attitude changed. I would grow more vigilant. It was with a weather eye that I monitored people's relation and reaction to Tonsor. Would The Drake Hotel Speech isolate him further? Would The Speech diminish his status as an intellectual historian, cultural critic, mentor, and recommender?[24] Would being a new doctoral student of his make me guilty by association, and thus damaged goods in both the conservative movement and the history profession? Sometime during my second year of study at Michigan, I found myself worrying -- rather guiltily because such a thought seemed dishonorable and ungrateful -- about the effect Tonsor's words and behavior would have on this young historian-in-the-making. I had left Colorado and gambled all to pursue the Ph.D. under his direction. But would Stephen Tonsor prove to be a tar baby from which I could never extricate myself?

[1] Gregory L. Schneider, "Tonsor, Stephen J.," American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, eds. Bruce Frohnen, Jeremy Beer, Jeffrey O. Nelson (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2006), p. 862.
[2] The meeting program is available at URL
[3] For a transcript of the Philadelphia Society remarks, delivered on April 18, 1986, at the Drake Hotel in Chicago, see Stephen J. Tonsor, “Why I Too Am Not a Neoconservative,” in Equality, Decadence, and Modernity, ed. Gregory L. Schneider (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), pp. 303-08. The offending paragraph is found on p. 305.
[4] The Jewish neoconservative, David Frum, was in the audience. See his reaction and analysis in the article, "Unpatriotic Conservatives," National Review Online, March 25, 2003; at URL
[5] Caroline Tonsor to Gleaves Whitney, Chelsea, MI, July 2014.
[7] Stephen J. Tonsor to Henry Regnery, May 19, 1986, p. 2; letter in GW's possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery.
[8] "The State of Conservatism: A Symposium," ed. Gregory Wolfe, Intercollegiate Review (spring 1986), pp. 3-28. The contributors were M. E. Bradford, George Carey, Paul Gottfried, Russell Kirk, Gerhart Niemeyer, George A. Panichas, and Clyde Wilson. Note that Stephen Tonsor did not contribute an essay to the symposium.
[9] For a succinct discussion of the internecine conflicts between paleocons and neocons, see Bradley J. Birzer, Russell Kirk: American Conservative (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2015), pp. 345-56. See also Paul Gottfried, "Straussians Talk amongst Themselves -- in The New York Times," The American Conservative; at URL
[10] Stephen J. Tonsor, "Why Democratic Technocrats Need the Liberal Arts," Freedom, Order, and the University, ed. James R. Wilburn (Malibu, CA: Pepperdine University Press, 1982), p. 23.
[11] Werner J. Dannhauser, "Religion and the Conservatives," Commentary, December 1, 1985.
[12] Paul Gottfried, "The New York Jewish Intelligentsia," Modern Age (spring 1986), pp. 169, 170.
[13] Stephen J. Tonsor to Henry Regnery, March 16, 1986, pp. 4-5; letter in GW's possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery.
[14] URL
[15] In my letter to National Review, I pointed to Tonsor's first classroom lecture in 1987, his foundational lecture in modern intellectual history wherein he heaped praise on a Jewish humanist named Ernst Cassirer, the same Jewish humanist who had supervised Leo Strauss’s dissertation. Leo Strauss! – the North Star of the Straussian school and an inspiration to many a Jewish neocon. My mind also went back to Tonsor's teaching of the Western civilization survey at Michigan, in which he stressed the importance of the Hebrews to the development of so many of the values, attitudes, and beliefs that would characterize the West. How could such a teacher be anti-Semitic?
[16] Frum, "Unpatriotic Conservatives," National Review Online; at URL
[17] See, e.g., Paul Gottfried, "Paleoconservatism," American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, eds. Bruce Frohnen, Jeremy Beer, Jeffrey O. Nelson (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2006), p. 651.
[18] GW phone conversation with Stephen J. Tonsor, October 2003.
[19] Stephen J. Tonsor to Henry Regnery, August 18, 1984, pp. 2, 3-4; letter in GW's possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery.
[19] Paul, 1 Corinthians 9: 19-23.
[20] Whitman, "Song of Myself," quoted by Stephen J. Tonsor, "The Conservative Search for Identity," in Equality, Decadence, and Modernity, ed. Gregory L. Schneider (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), p. 248.
[21] Stephen J. Tonsor to Henry Regnery, August 17, 1987, p. 2; letter in GW's private possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery.
[22] Stephen J. Tonsor to Henry Regnery, May 18, 1985, p. 3; letter in GW's private possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery.
[23] Some years later, Pope John Paul II would apologize to the Jewish people for the anti-Semitism in the Catholic Church and its communities. See URL
[24] Almost two decades after I began studying under Tonsor, historian John Lukacs, in a review of Gregory L. Schneider's collection of Tonsor's essays, commented on Tonsor's obscurity without, however, linking it causally to The Drake Hotel Speech: "In the academic circles of professional historians Tonsor is hardly known, perhaps even not at all. This is regrettable, but perhaps right too, because of the nearly inevitable false and corrupting conditions of recognition, publicity, success in the world in which we now live." John Lukacs, "The Art of History," The American Conservative, September 12, 2005; at URL, accessed December 10, 2016.