Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Tonsor: Introduction: Move to Ann Arbor I


The calendar flipped to Sunday, August 2, 1987. The thought that it might be my last Rocky Mountain sunrise, after 15 years of living on the Front Range, made a wave of grief well up in my throat. 

Sunrise, Rocky Mountain National Park, southwest of Fort Collins
A sweet intoxicant, these Colorado sunrises. The emerging light on the pinkish granite of the mountaintops recalled some verse composed by a Colorado College poet, Katharine Lee Bates. In 1893, in a bloomer, she ascended the pink summit of Pikes Peak. Though exhausted, she took in the view and was inspired to write, "Oh, beautiful, for spacious skies...."[1]

Oh beautiful indeed: What on earth was I thinking -- to trade the Rockies for the Rust Belt? To make matters worse, several of my newest neighbors in Fort Collins hailed from Michigan. They reported that the economic hardships there had given rise to a mordant assessment of the future: Would the last person out of Michigan please turn off the lights? 

No matter. I decided to swim against the current, betting that my future would be better if I continued my education not at a land grant school but at a public ivy. 

Colorado State University -- the Oval

Now, I do not want to convey the wrong impression. I had received an excellent education at Colorado State; my history, literature, and German professors had been first rate, and I think of many of them fondly to this day. But Michigan was ranked one of the top universities in the world and, given the difficult job market for new Ph.D.s in European intellectual history, I'd need the cache Michigan boasted. It was time to go.

The day before, a few family and friends helped me pack a 20-foot U-Haul for the long-awaited adventure. It struck me as funny to look at that truck and realize, once the cargo door was shut, that my entire material existence -- mostly books, too many books, as my sore arms attested -- could be squeezed into a few hundred cubic feet.

The sun was still hanging low over the High Plains when I climbed into the cab of the truck to begin the 1,244 mile journey from university housing at Colorado State to university housing at Michigan. The plan the first night was to lay over in Lincoln, Nebraska; the second night, in the south suburbs of Chicagoland; and the third, in my new home in Ann Arbor. I felt excited, nervous, and crazy all at once. I stood at the edge of my personal Rubicon -- it was Interstate 25. Once crossed, was there no turning back?


When my emotions are in a high boil, I try and settle by taking on an intellectual puzzle that focuses my mind on something besides limbic turmoil. For the three-day drive to Michigan I set myself the task of reading a troika of essays by Stephen Tonsor, the man who would soon become my graduate advisor. I picked three pieces that were published roughly a decade apart from one another -- 1964, 1975, 1985 -- to see what changed and what didn't in Tonsor's interests and insights. 

The night before setting out on the leg between Fort Collins and Lincoln, I read "The United States as a Revolutionary Society."[2] Somehow it just felt right to start with this essay. Tonsor's piece promised to deliver a first-rate intellectual puzzle. It was audacious for a conservative to argue in 1975, on the eve of America's bicentennial, that our nation renewed itself through periodic social revolutions. Such a line of thought was more likely to come from the typewriter of Tonsor's most famous student radical, Tom Hayden of SDS, than from a stick-in-the-mud right-winger. Why did he write it?

To get to Ann Arbor I had to go through a place called Lincoln. The 16th president's namesake on the Nebraska prairie made me wonder how social revolution might be linked to Lincoln's presidency. There was abundant material with which to work. Lincoln will forever be associated not only with the liberation of four million Blacks; not only with abolishing the institution of chattel slavery on American soil; not only with atonement for the Founders' sins; not only with the greatest uncompensated transfer of "property" in U.S. history; but also with the far-reaching alteration of the Constitution. Did Tonsor believe that the three great Civil War amendments were accelerants to the fiery social upheavals to come -- farmer unrest, labor unrest, anarchist terror, women's suffrage, the Civil Rights movement, and the Sixties' protests?

Was the first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln,
a key figure in furthering America's legacy of periodic social revolutions?

Juxtaposed to this last point was a counterpoint. My journey would take me through some of the most conservative parts of the fruited plain, the lonely vastness of the Great Plains as well as the rural Midwest straddling the 98th Meridian (more or less the line from Mitchell, SD, to Grand Island, NE, to Hutchinson, KS). Would Tonsor's intellectual history of America crash head-on into the reality of the historical geography I was traveling through?


As the serrated knife-edge of the Front Range faded in my rearview mirror, I needed to shake off the emotional detritus that had settled over my spirits like a High Plains dust storm. My questions about Tonsor's essay provided the needed distraction.

Tonsor wrote that his was a "rather daring thesis." Really? Daring to whom? Not to the historians in his department. At Michigan Tonsor was surrounded by Old Leftists, New Deal liberals, and New Leftists who would not view his thesis as daring at all. 

Edmund Burke's view of the American Founding appealed to
traditionalist conservatives. The Burkean view was that
it was "a revolution not made, but prevented."
Tonsor thought this a gross simplification of the Revolution.

Then it occurred to me: In Modern Age Tonsor was writing not to the typical academic historian but to his friends in the Philadelphia Society[3], about as conservative a professional audience as one could find. Most members of Philly Soc viewed the Founders as reluctant revolutionaries. Indeed, the Constitution they framed reinforced conservative practices and institutions in the new republic, including the most backward and ugly of them all -- chattel slavery -- so odious that the word "slaves" is not even mentioned in the document; instead the Framers made an oblique reference to "all other Persons." Tonsor, I realized, was writing a corrective to the conservative boilerplate he heard at Philadelphia Society meetings.

"It is important," averred Tonsor, pushing the point, "that we demonstrate clearly the truly revolutionary character of the events of 1776 and their continuing impact on American society." To back his testimony, Tonsor called two witnesses who were not usually brought in for a conservative's defense: Charles and Mary Beard. These prominent progressives believed that
Mary Ritter Beard (1876-1958)
"the American Revolution was more than a war on England. It was in truth an economic, social, and intellectual transformation of prime significance -- the first of those modern world-shaking reconstructions in which mankind has sought to cut and fashion the tough and stubborn web of fact to fit the pattern of its dreams."[4]
Even more startling was Tonsor's next assertion, aimed I think directly at his conservative friends who, he believed, did not have a sound grasp of our nation's historical DNA: 
"But even without the Beards' respected view we know that there was a genuine revolution because we live out its enduring consequences and its continuing ramifications. Indeed, one of our least admirable contemporary attitudes is our retreat from the novelty and the implications of our revolutionary heritage and our search (a vain one to be sure) into what we think to be the quiet reaches of the past for a golden age of tranquility. Surfeited on change we imagine that at some golden moment in some imagined American Camelot men were free of the necessity to choose and to change; the necessity that the original revolutionary transformation of our society has imposed on all of us. While the Left sees insufficient change ... the Right rejects those changes which necessarily follow from the principles of the revolution."[5]
The Right got it wrong, for the ability of American society to absorb revolutionary change, argued Tonsor, was written into America's very political institutions and charters: 
"in the final analysis, it is our basic institutions and the founding instruments of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution which have perpetuated our values and given our system its elasticity and its dynamism."[6]
Tonsor believed the Founders were reluctant rebels -- in fact, he conceded that "Few, if any, revolutions have been so conservative in their inspiration" -- but rebels they were:
"... [O]nce those liberties and historical rights were taken seriously, once they had become the central principle of a new polity, they changed and transformed the whole texture of American political and social life. It was, indeed, as though the American Revolution had salvaged the great vital principle that stood at the heart of the English historical experience and had given it new life and meaning....  
"Sometimes an act of conservatism is a truly revolutionary action. The concrete realization of specific liberties, no matter how partial or incomplete, was in the instance of the American Revolution the great device by which liberty permeated the totality of American life in the years that were to come. That process has not ended and I would like to remind you that success as well as failure exacts a price."[7]
That such passages flowed from the pen of a "conservative" historian vexed me. I wasn't sure how to square the essay with the reputation of its author. But as there was no internally logical flaw in the argument, I counted myself fortunate to have encountered the piece early in my graduate education. The Michigan professor was not just correcting some mistaken notions that conservatives held about American history; he was issuing a warning to those conservatives, a warning not reflexively to condemn the revolutionary tradition in our heritage.


Already from his essay I surmised three things about my new graduate advisor. First, Tonsor was going to call history exactly as he saw it. He wasn't afraid to cite the work of progressives when it had merit. He certainly was not going to worry about what his conservative friends would think if he did so. The scholar should have the courage to follow the evidence where it leads, regardless of the political stripe of the people supplying the evidence. Indeed, sifting through the merits of different perspectives is the only way to get closer to the truth.

Another thing that surprised me about Tonsor -- surprised me in light of what I expected a conservative to be -- was his unvarnished realism, his lack of sentimentality, when investigating the past. There was no golden age. Not even America's founding constituted a golden age. He loathed the conservative tendency to conjure one into existence in order to go off on all that has gone wrong in the present. I suspected that Tonsor was an Augustinian Christian -- i.e., he believed that human nature is a constant, always and everywhere subject to the same venal and mortal sins. So the good old days were not that good. The temptation to fall for a politics of nostalgia -- to create the myth of a golden age, no matter how understandable in a Time of Trouble -- is a perverse form of ignorance. It was more benighted even than the poor mass of humanity staring at the back wall of Plato's cave. 

Third, America was at least as revolutionary as it was conservative, and the two impulses were in dynamic tension with one another. It seemed Tonsor was saying that the dynamic tension was not such a bad thing. It beat traditionalism, which is the dead faith of the living, and it beat neophilia, which is the love of change for its own sake. Both traditionalism and neophilia lead to cultural despair. The truth about modernity reveals itself somewhere between these two extremes. Thus the historian should embrace the dynamic conservative-revolutionary tension that has shaped our institutions and worldview. It is the historic reality.

Again: In this essay there was no blanket dismissal of progressive scholars, no argument for some mythical golden age, no blind eye to the benefits of our nation's revolutionary heritage. The more I thought about it, the more I suspected that Tonsor was not just correcting conservatives in general, but rebutting Russell Kirk in particular. Kirk's Roots of American Order was also written in anticipation of America's bicentennial, having been published one year earlier, in 1974.[8] Without saying as much, Tonsor's essay amounted to an assault on Kirk's thesis.

Russell Kirk (1918-1994)
I must confess that the implicit attack on Kirk gave me mixed feelings. Tonsor had expressed deep admiration for Kirk in the 1950s. By the 1970s they had irreconcilable differences on the meaning of the American Revolution. 

I also had mixed feelings because The Roots was one of my favorite books, combing as it did the sands of ruins for the glories of Western civilization. It was the history of just that civilization that I wanted to teach. From my jejune perspective, Kirk's book was Whig history at its finest. Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, London -- all would have a salutary influence on the American founders. Kirk's world-historical view of America appealed to me. It was big. It was unapologetic. It was compellingly argued. And it was one of the reasons I wanted to pursue the formal study of history in a graduate school close to Russell Kirk. His home up in Mecosta, Michigan, was in the middle of the Lower Peninsula's stump country. After reading Tonsor's essay, Mecosta suddenly seemed a world apart from Ann Arbor. 

During the drive to Lincoln I did not get around to Tonsor's view of our sixteenth president and social revolution. There was not really enough material in the essay to answer that question. I did ponder the idea, expressed in a history seminar back at CSU, that the three Civil War amendments were both the cause and effect of significant changes in our way of thinking. The war started the process of transforming Americans' view of each other and their government. Thus serial social revolutions were not unthinkable after 1865.


By the time the U-Haul was rolling into the parking lot of a cheap motel on the west side of Lincoln, I was asking myself: Was Tonsor the conservative people made him out to be? It would not trouble me if he were not conservative; intellectual integrity eschews party lines. What I liked about "The United States as a Revolutionary Society" was that it showed Tonsor's determination to steer clear of ideology. His goal was not to defend an -ism but to practice good history. His conservative bona fides notwithstanding, he did not trim his sails to please his right-wing friends at National Review. That was important to me. Given my need to please people, I was fortunate to have the role model I thought I had found in Stephen Tonsor.

I climbed down from the truck's cab, noticeably stiff and cranky. Lincoln felt oppressively humid, closed in by gray. I had been watching a blanket of stratus clouds unroll over the landscape for several hours. But it didn't matter. I had grown too dull and hungry and exhausted to think anymore.


[1] Gleaves Whitney, Colorado Front Range: A Landscape Divided (Boulder: Johnson Books, 1983), p. 3.  

[2] Stephen J. Tonsor, "The United States as a Revolutionary Society," Modern Age (spring 1975): 136-45.

[3] Stephen Tonsor, along with Russell Kirk, was among the founders of the conservative Philadelphia Society, a professional association that formed during Republican nominee Barry Goldwater's star-crossed pursuit of the presidency in 1964. See Tonsor delivered the third lecture at the first organizational meeting of the society. Also see 

[4] Charles Beard and Mary Beard, Rise of American Civilization (p. 296); quoted by Tonsor, "Revolutionary Society," p. 137.

[5] Tonsor, "Revolutionary Society," p. 137; my emphasis in italics.

[6] Tonsor, "Revolutionary Society," p. 145.

[7] Ibid.

[8] See especially the two books by Russell Kirk with which I was familiar when I headed off to Ann Arbor in August 1987: The Roots of American Order (Malibu, CA: Pepperdine University Press, 1974); and The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, 7th ed. (Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway, 1986).

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