Category Archives: History

Book Review: Christopher Gehrz’s Religious Biography of Charles Lindbergh

Christopher Gehrz, Charles Lindbergh: A Religious Biography of America’s Most Infamous Pilot, Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2021, 265 pages.

Christopher Gehrz - Charles LindberghCharles Lindbergh is simultaneously the most fascinating and the most frustrating individual I have ever encountered. Since December 2019, I have been cataloging the Missouri Historical Society’s collection of over 2000 objects that Lindbergh donated following his May 1927 New York to Paris flight. The collection ranges from artifacts carried on that flight to the hundreds of medals and awards he received, personal effects, artwork, two aircraft, jewelry, and the random gifts people and governments sent him or gave him and his wife, Anne, on their travels. In studying the material culture owned by and given to Lindbergh, I have learned a lot about him. Perhaps I have learned too much.

I imagine Christopher Gehrz, professor of history at Bethel University in Lindbergh’s home state of Minnesota, might also say he has learned too much about Lindbergh in the course of writing the latest biography on the aviator. There have been many biographies written about Lindbergh since the pilot, outspoken isolationist, and conservationist died in 1974, with A. Scott Berg’s 1998 biography widely considered to be the standard text on Lindbergh’s life.

A lot has come out of the woodwork on Lindbergh since 1998, most prominently the discovery of his multiple extramarital affairs and the children he had with three German women. Over the past twenty years, historians have also unpacked Lindbergh’s legacy in light of his views on eugenics and race, as well as his anti-Semitic remarks made during his isolationist America First speeches in the run-up to World War II.

Despite the numerous books that have been written about Lindbergh over the years, one aspect of his life has been woefully overlooked, until now. Gehrz’s biography is the first to analyze Lindbergh’s life, writings, and actions through a religious lens. Perhaps you might not think religious or spiritual when you think of Charles Lindbergh (if you even think of him at all – increasing numbers of people I run across have never even heard of him). That would be fair, since Lindbergh was not an orthodox Christian. He did not believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, yet he was fascinated by Jesus and thought deeply about his own spirituality. Lindbergh’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1953 book The Spirit of St. Louis drips with religious imagery, as do some of his other later writings.

Gehrz’s biography investigates Lindbergh’s beliefs and writings on Jesus, religion, spirituality, the afterlife, and how Lindbergh’s beliefs influenced his actions. Through intense archival research and analysis of published works, Gehrz unpacks Lindbergh’s spiritual complexity. Since Lindbergh’s spirituality flourished in his later years (he was only 25 when he made his famous flight), the foundational part of Gehrz’s argument rests upon the period of Lindbergh’s life spanning the 1930s until his death. The book begins by looking at the religious elements in the lives of Lindbergh’s parents and grandparents, shining a light on the rather unorthodox beliefs in which he grew up.

This book is perhaps best suited for those who already know the fundamental stories of Lindbergh’s life: his 1927 flight, his marriage to Anne Morrow, the 1932 kidnapping and murder of their son, dubbed the “crime of the century,” and Lindbergh’s involvement in the isolationist America First committee from 1940-41. Gehrz touches on Lindbergh’s early life and the 1927 flight, but he does not dwell on those periods as that is not the point of the book. Instead he briefly tells those stories through a religious lens. It is quite the literary feat to pull this narrative style off. I am fascinated and impressed by Gehrz’s skills as a writer. He tells a familiar story in a brand new way.

Gehrz looks at his subject openly and honestly.  When I sat down to read this book, I honestly expected it to be a hate-fest, but it isn’t. He simply tells the story of Lindbergh’s spiritual side in a “matter-of-fact” way, which I believe is how history should be written. Gehrz also tells this story in a very readable way. The book flows very well, and it is exceptionally well written. The biography is very focused, which makes it digestible in a way a broader biography might not be. I actually found the book to be quite the page-turner.

One of my few complaints with this tale of Lindbergh’s spirituality is one omission: there is no discussion of Lindbergh’s involvement in freemasonry. Lindbergh was a 32nd degree freemason in the Scottish Rite. He attained that level in a masonic temple in St. Louis, Missouri, when he was working as an airmail pilot prior to his transatlantic flight. I have cataloged a few artifacts given to him by that masonic group as well as others across the nation. My frustration in researching those objects was how little I could find about Lindbergh’s masonic past. About all I could find were references to it in newspapers at the time. I assume Gehrz does not mention it because either he was not aware or because there is no additional information about that part of Lindbergh’s life. There appears to be little to no related primary sources, apart from the gold masonic gifts held in the Missouri Historical Society collection. (Shameless self promotion: a coworker and I wrote a blog post about objects in the collection connected to secret societies, including a few masonic pieces: https://mohistory.org/blog/secret-societies/.)

If Gehrz had come across information related to Lindbergh’s masonic involvement, he probably would have included it. It is possible that Lindbergh never had anything to do with freemasonry after he left St. Louis. Maybe we will never know.  

One of Gehrz’s best contributions to the Lindbergh story is his analysis of Lindbergh’s journal entries from the run-up to World War II. Lindbergh published these journals in an edited form in 1970, but Gehrz dug into the original journals housed at Yale. What Lindbergh omitted from their published form says a lot.

Perhaps the most offensive thing Gehrz uncovers in his book is a journal entry from November 5, 1940 where Lindbergh, in recounting a conversation he had with friends, questions the validity of universal franchise, specifically arguing that African Americans should not be allowed to vote. In the same entry, Lindbergh discussed “the Jewish problem,” hoping to solve that “problem” without resorting to the violent racism seen in Nazi Germany (page 135).

One cannot help but be disappointed and angry with Lindbergh at such statements. Many have accused Lindbergh of being a Nazi sympathizer, which I think goes a stretch too far and misses a lot of the nuance of Lindbergh’s actions in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Nevertheless, Lindbergh, at least at this point in his life, held racist views of other human beings who are created in the image of God. He never publicly repented of such beliefs.

Gehrz’s honesty with the reader is refreshing. Rather than a distant biographer, Gehrz reminds us of his presence without inserting himself needlessly. The following is my favorite paragraph of the whole book because it perfectly encapsulates how I have felt about Lindbergh over the past twenty months of studying him (page 138):

It can’t be you! If not as intensely as his youngest child, that’s still how most of us feel when we come to this chapter in the story of Charles Lindbergh. If we have any appreciation for his historic achievements, any admiration for his courage and modesty, any compassion for the tragedies he endured, or if we simply nod along with the honest questions he asked about God, science, and mortality, we don’t want to accept that he believed what he said about Jews.

Even so, it is hard not to be a little sympathetic towards Lindbergh. The man was treated as if he were the Messiah. Gehrz has a chapter entitled “The New Christ,” where he discusses the religious language used to embrace Lindbergh following his 1927 flight. An entire monograph could be written about the reasons why Americans and Europeans embraced Lindbergh with the enthusiasm they did. Gehrz argues that the media and public created a version of Lindbergh that fit what they wanted: “Lindy.” Gehrz writes,

For all the public scrutiny that would soon make Charles Lindbergh more protective of his privacy, no one was interested in uncovering the more complicated story of their hero’s upbringing, influences, and beliefs. Whether politicians or pastors, reporters or their readers, Americans wanted a type, not a person: Lindy, not Lindbergh. (page 64)  

The media pressure on Lindbergh was intense. How is any mortal man supposed to live up to the Messiah image the public created? Add to that the kidnapping and murder of his firstborn son a few years later, which he perhaps rightly blamed on press publicity. None of this excuses his racism and lack of compassion for those he deemed lesser than himself, but it is clear that America set Lindbergh up to fail. For that I cannot help but pity him, even if I find some of his beliefs to be offensive and sinful.

The saddest part of Lindbergh’s story, however, is how it ends. Based upon Gehrz’s research and narrative of Lindbergh’s final days, I see no evidence that Lindbergh ever let go of his arrogance and pride and acknowledged Jesus as Lord and Savior. Maybe he had some sort of deathbed conversion as he died of cancer at his home on Maui, but based upon the witness of those who spent those last days with him, it does not sound like it.

In that regard, let Charles Lindbergh be a warning to us all. Lindbergh knew that scientific achievement falls far short in its attempts to explain the meaning of life, but his example also shows us that unsanctified human reason also falls short. Christopher Gehrz’s biography does an excellent job of exploring that aspect of Lindbergh’s life.

Bryan Morey

https://www.eerdmans.com/Products/7621/charles-lindbergh.aspx

Reflections on Lord Acton

Introduction for Dan Hugger’s LORD ACTON: HISTORICAL AND MORAL ESSAYS (2017).

When scholars discuss the nineteenth century of western civilization, they automatically and reflexively conjure images of the three most profound and original minds of the period: Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, and Sigmund Freud.  Sometimes, depending on the scholar, one might list Friedrich Nietzsche as well.  This is obvious in the massive and tedious surveys of western civilization as well as in the remaining and lingering canons of Great Books.  None of this is false, of course, and the three (or four) men remembered certainly were among the greatest of minds to come into this world of sorrows.

One might, with equal accuracy and a bit more humanity and justice, create a different trinity.  What about John Henry Newman, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Lord Acton?  After all, as the great Russell Kirk once argued, “In every age, society has been relieved only by the endeavors of a few people moved by the grace of God.”  With the possible exception of Darwin, neither the taken-for granted trinity nor their followers were wont to taint the men or their ideas with the airy notion of the “grace of God.” 

With the newly-proposed trinity of nineteenth-century thinkers, though, the men and their followers would lovingly accept the grace of [g]od. 

Even among these proposed three, however, Lord Acton—the author of the essays you now hold in hands–remains the least known, the least studied, and the least understood.  True, every American with any education at all remembers his assertion that “power corrupts.”  Other than this, though, he’s largely forgotten or dismissed.  It’s as though his entire existence from 1843 through 1902 mattered only for that one sentence.  Truly, this is to both our discredit and our loss.  Thanks to the Acton Institute and Daniel Hugger, we can begin to rectify this massive error near the beginning of the twenty-first century.

A profound thinker and essayist, Acton argued in his seminal piece of 1862, “Nationality”: “Christianity rejoices at the mixture of races as Paganism, however, identifies itself with their differences, because truth is universal, errors various and particular.” The modern and rising nation-states, though, demand unity of thought, culture, and politics.  In essence, Acton believed, the world was re-paganizing, returning to its worship of the state as god.  After all, he wrote, “in the ancient world idolatry and nationality went together, and the same term is applied in Scripture to both.”

While this is just one of many profound arguments that Acton advanced during his writing career, it is critical to see him not only as important in his own day and age, but also as the critical link in the arguments about natural rights, liberty, and human dignity between Edmund Burke and Thomas Jefferson, a century earlier, and Friedrich Hayek and Christopher Dawson, a century later.

In his own day and age, though, Acton tapped into something rather deep in the currents and movements of the western tradition.  Imagine for a moment the influence the original trinity mentioned above had on the West and on the World.  When looking at the depth and intelligence and brilliance of their arguments, one can readily narrow down each to one fundamental element.  For Darwin, all things were biological and adaptive.  For Marx, they were economic.  For Freud, they were psychological.  As Acton would well understand, none of these things were untrue.  The problem with each was not falsity, but lack of context.  Man is biological, economic, and psychological, but not singularly.  Rather man is all of these plus a million other things.  As with Burke before and Dawson after, Acton knew that man’s greatness and his sin simultaneously resided in the immense complexity of each individual human person, made uniquely in the infinite image of God.  With Socrates as well as Hayek, Acton knew that we knew very little and that, through humility, we recognized our limitations of knowledge.

Thus, one can readily picture Acton writing “Christianity rejoices at the mixture of and mysteries of human complexities as Darwinism, however, “identifies itself with their biological adaptation.”  Or, as Marxism, however, “identifies itself with their economic base.” Or, as Freudianism, however, “identifies itself with their psychological urges.”  To which, each can be answer, “yes, but there’s more.”  Again, no matter how significant Darwin, Marx, and Freud were, Acton is more nuanced, broader, and, thus, in the long run, more accurate and insightful.  Unlike the three more famous men, Acton never demanded any gnostic sureties in this world or the next.  Faith is, after all, not fact.

Of course, this book you now are reading is much deeper than what I’ve just given.  Hugger has ably and, indeed, lovingly crafted a book of some of the best arguments Acton made in his life.  From a philosophy of history to the history of liberty, from specific personalities to the grand movement of ideas, Acton looked at all with a Catholic and classical wisdom so often lacking in his day.  We would do well to remember Acton.  In so doing, we remember not just the man, but the insight of one man into a much larger and unfathomably complicated world.  True, in choosing Acton over Darwin, Marx, and Freud, we choose an ignorance and humility that the world hates.  But, then, the world has generally hated what’s good for it.  Have your ideologies if you must, but I’ll take truth, beauty, and goodness anytime. 

Oh, and, by the way, power does corrupt.

Reflecting on Solzhenitsyn

“Shut your eyes, reader.  Do you hear the thundering of wheels?  Those are the Stolypin cars rolling on and on.  Those are the red cows rolling.  Every minute of the day.  And every day of the year.  And you can hear the water gurgling—those are prisoners’ barges moving on and on.  And the motors of the Black Marias roar.  They are arresting someone all the time, cramming him in somewhere, moving him about.  And what is that hum you hear?  The overcrowded cells of the transit prisons.  And that cry?  The complains of those who have been plundered, raped, beaten to with an inch of their lives.  We have reviewed and considered all the methods of delivering prisoners, and we have found that they are all. . . worse.  We have examined the transit prisons, but we have not found any that were good.  And even the last human hope that there is something better ahead, that it will be better in camp, is a false hope.  In camp it will be . . . worse.”—End of Volume 1 of the Gulag.

Solzhenitsyn knew of that which he wrote in his appropriately subtitled “An Experiment in Literary Investigation.”

“And where among all the preceding qualities was there any place left for kindheartedness?  How could one possibility preserve one’s kindness while pushing away the hands of those who were drowning?  Once you have been steeped in blood, you can only become more cruel,” Solzhenitsyn knew.  “And when you add that kindness was ridiculed, that pity was ridiculed, that mercy was ridiculed—you’d never be able to chain all those who were drunk on blood.”  

More than any other work, the Gulag forced western journalists and academics to confront the monstrous realities of the Soviet Union, not just under Stalin’s Cult of Personality dictatorship, but under the wretched evil that pervaded the entire system.  Indeed, the Soviet Union ran on the blood of those who deviated from its vision of harmony and perfection.  From the very beginning of the Soviet takeover of Russia, Solzhenitsyn noted, the revolutionaries established the ideologically-driven police, militia, army, courts, and jails.  Even the labor camps—the Gulag—began in embryo form only a month into the revolution. The parasitic Soviets craved blood from 1917 to 1991; such bloodletting was an inherent part of the system.  Solzhenitsyn claims that the Gulag state murdered 66 million just between 1917 and 1956.

The ideological system created distrust. “This universal mutual mistrust had the effect of deepening the mass-grave pit of slavery.  The moment someone began to speak up frankly, everyone stepped back and shunned him: ‘A provocation!’  And therefore anyone who burst out with a sincere protest was predestined to loneliness and alienation.”

It also, Solzhenitsyn understood, established a permanent lie.  “The permanent lie becomes the only safe form of existence, in the same way as betrayal.  Every wag of the tongue can be overheard by someone, every facial expression observed by someone.  Therefore every word, if it does not have to be a direct lie, is nonetheless obliged not to contradict the general, common lie.  There exists a collection of ready-made phrases, of labels, a selection of ready-made lies.”

Ultimately, those who died immediately had the best of it, the Russian prophet knew.  To survive meant not merely to lose the body at some point, but almost certainly the soul as well.

No mere anti-communist, Solzhenitsyn attacked not just the ideological regimes of Russia and its former communist allies in Eastern Europe, but he challenged all of modernity—in the East and the West.  Western consumerism, he warned, will destroy the West by mechanizing its citizens in a more efficient and attractive manner than communism could.  “Dragged along the whole of the Western bourgeois-industrial and Marxist path,” Solzhenitsyn stated,

A dozen maggots can’t go on and on gnawing the same apple forever; that if the earth is a finite object, then its expanses and resources are finite also, and the endless, infinite progress dinned into our heads by the dreamers of the Enlightenment cannot be accomplished on it . . . All that ‘endless progress’ turned out to be an insane, ill-considered, furious dash into a blind alley.  A civilization greedy for ‘perpetual progress’ has now choked and is on its last legs.

Only by embracing a transcendent order and the true Creator, Solzhenitsyn argued, can mankind save itself from the follies and murders of the ideologues.  In his 1983 Templeton address, he took his arguments against modernity even further.

Our life consists not in the pursuit of material success but in the quest of worthy spiritual growth.  Our entire earthly existence is but a transition stage in the movement toward something higher, and we must not stumble or fall, nor must be linger fruitless on one rung of the ladder . . . The laws of physics and physiology will never reveal the indisputable manner in which the Creator constantly, day in and day out, participates in the life of each of us, unfailingly granting us the energy of existence; when the assistance leaves us, we die.  In the life of our entire planet, the Divine Spirit moves with no less force: this we must grasp in our dark and terrible hour.

In his commentary on Solzhenitsyn’s address, Russell Kirk argued that the above passage “expressed with high feeling [ ] the conservative impulse.” Certainly, Kirk and Solzhenitsyn were kindred spirits. 

Importantly, one should never underestimate the importance of Solzhenitsyn’s moral imagination.  As one of the leading Solzhenitsyn scholars, Edward E. Ericson, Jr., has argued: “I would say that One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich put the first crack into the Berlin Wall and The Gulag Archipelago was an irresistible blow to the very foundations of the Soviet edifice.”

The prophet is dead.  The priest (John Paul II) and the king (Ronald Reagan) went before him. 

The Gray Eminence of Christopher Dawson

To put it simply (and perhaps a bit “simplistically”—but I prefer to think of it as putting it “with fervor”), Christopher Dawson was one of the greatest historians of the twentieth century, certainly one of its greatest men of letters, and perhaps one of the most respected Catholic scholars in the English speaking world.  I’ve have had the opportunity and privilege to argue this elsewhere, including here at the majestic The Imaginative Conservative.  I would even go so far as to claim that Dawson was THE historian of the past 100 years.

Without going deeply into Dawson’s thought—or any aspect of it—in this post, it is worthwhile cataloguing how many of his contemporaries claimed him important and his scholarship and ideas for their own.  This means, consequently, that while most Americans—Catholic or otherwise—no longer remember Christopher Dawson, they do often remember affectionately those he profoundly (one might even state indelibly) influenced.  The list includes well known personalities such as T.S. Eliot, Thomas Merton, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis. 

In the world of humane learning and scholarship in the twentieth century, Dawson was a sort of John Coltrane.  Just as few non musicians listen to Coltrane, but EVERY serious musician does, the same was essentially true of Dawson.  And, yet, as with Coltrane, Dawson did enjoy long periods of widespread popularity and support in his own lifetime.

“For Dawson is more like a movement than a man,” his publisher and friend, Frank Sheed, wrote of him in 1938. “His influence with the non-Catholic world is of a kind that no modern Catholic has yet had, both for the great number of fields in which it is felt and for the intellectual quality of those who feel it.”[1]  As evidence, Sheed could cite much.  By the early 1930s, while Dawson was still in his early 40s,  American Catholic colleges began teaching courses on his thought, tying him to the larger Catholic literary movement of the day.[2]  In 1933, the American Catholic journal Commonweal stated that “the writings of Christopher Dawson demand the thoughtful attention of all educated men.”[3]  Six years later, the Jesuit journal, The Month, claimed that to “commend Mr. Dawson’s work is unnecessary; nothing that he writes could be unimportant.”[4]  In 1949, Waldemar Gurian, a refugee from the Nazis and a professor at the University of Notre Dame, wrote, Dawson’s “very ability to make brilliant understatements and to display without pride, as something self-evident, his extraordinary broad knowledge make his synthesis particularly impressive.”[5]  In 1950, the English Dominican journal, Blackfriars, claimed “that Mr. Dawson is an educator; perhaps the greatest that Heaven has sent us English Catholics since Newman.”[6]

Maisie Ward, the famous biographer and co-founder of the Sheed and Ward publishing house, admitted to Dawson in 1961, “You were, as I said on Sunday, truly the spear-head of our publishing venture.”[7]  Ward put it into greater context in her autobiography, Unfinished Business.  “Looking back at the beginnings of such intellectual life as I have had, I feel indebted to three men of genius: Browning, Newman, and Chesterton,” she admitted.  “But in my middle age, while we owed much as publishers to many men and women, foreign and English, the most powerful influence on the thinking of both myself and my husband was certainly Christopher Dawson.”[8]  Even among the clergy, none held the reputation that Dawson did by the 1950s.  Again, as Ward noted rather bluntly in a letter to Dawson, “There is no question in my mind that no priest exists at the moment whose name carries anything like the weight in or outside the church that yours does.”[9]  This is an impressive claim, especially when one recalls the intellect and influence of a Martin D’Arcy, a John Courtney Murray, or a J. Fulton Sheen, all eminent priests.

Neo-Thomist historian and philosopher Etienne Gilson also acknowledged his profound admiration for Dawson in a 1950 letter to Frank Sheed.  Gilson especially appreciated Dawson’s Making of Europe (1932) and Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (1950).[10]  The latter “provided me with what I had needed during forty years without being able to find it anywhere: an intelligent and reliable background for a history of mediaeval philosophy,” Gilson admitted.  “Had I been fortunate in having such a book before writing my [Spirit of the Middle Ages,] my own work would have been other and better than it is.”[11]  High praise, indeed.

American Trappist Monk and author Thomas Merton claimed to have found his purpose in life while reading Dawson’s 1952 book, Understanding Europe.  “Whether or not [Dawson] came too late, who can say?” Merton worried.  “In any case I have a clear obligation to participate, as long as I can, and to the extent of my abilities, in every effort to help a spiritual and cultural renewal of our time.  This is the task  that has been given me, and hitherto I have not been clear about it, in all its aspects and dimensions.”[12]

As Eliot’s best biographer, Russell Kirk, wrote, “Of social thinkers in his own time, none influenced Eliot more than Dawson.”[13]  For three decades, Eliot was quite taken with Dawson’s views, and it would be difficult if not impossible to find a scholar who influenced Eliot more.  In the early 1930s, Eliot told an American audience that Dawson was the foremost thinker of his generation in England.[14]  He explicitly acknowledged his debt to Dawson in the introductions to his two most politically- and culturally-oriented books, The Idea of a Christian Society and Notes Towards the Definition of Culture.[15]  One can also find Dawson’s influence in two of Eliot’s most important writings of the moral imagination, “Murder in the Cathedral” and “The Four Quartets.”[16]  Eliot continued to acknowledge a debt to Dawson after World War II.  In a speech to the London Conservative Union in 1955, Eliot told his fellow conservatives that they should understand conservatism as Dawson does, not as political, but as ante-political and anti-ideological.  Only then, Eliot argued, could English conservatives truly and effectively shape society.[17]

One cannot imagine C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man without Dawson’s scholarship in his 1929 book, Progress and Religion.  The same is true of J.R.R. Tolkien’s best academic essay, “On Fairie-Stories,” delivered at the University of St. Andrews in 1939.  While the essay in its thought is purely Tolkienian, the English philologist and fantasist relies on the scholarship of Dawson very openly.  All three knew each other well, and Tolkien and Dawson even attended the same parish in Oxford.

There are so many lessons to be learned from all of this.  First, we should never take the influence of Christopher Dawson for granted.  Second, it should also give each person hope.  We should, of course, do our best in whatever we do.  What others do with it is beyond our will, but we put it out there, nonetheless, and we hope.  Dawson’s story—at least this aspect of it—makes us realize that we can play a vital role in the times, even if our own individual ego has not been soothed.


[1] F.J. Sheed, “Christopher Dawson,” The Sign (June 1938), 661.

[2] Arnold Sparr, To Promote, Defend, and Redeem: The Catholic Literary Revival and the Cultural Transformation of American Catholicism, 1920-1960 (New York: Greenwood Press, 1990), 24, 103

[3] T. Lawrason Riggs, “A Voice of Power,” Commonweal (August 4, 1933), 330.

[4] Thomas Corbishly, “Our Present Discontents,” The Month 173 (1939): 440.

[5] Waldemar Gurian, “Dawson’s Leitmotif,” Commonweal (June 3, 1949).

[6] Kenelm Foster, O.P., “Mr Dawson and Chistendom,” Blackfriars 31 (1950): 423.

[7] Maisie Ward, New York, to Dawson, Harvard, 1961, in the Christopher H. Dawson Collection, Box 11, Folder 25, “Frank Sheed 1960,” Department of Special Collections, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minnesota (hereafter UST/CDC)

[8] Maisie Ward, Unfinished Business (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1964), 117.

[9] Maisie Sheed, London, to Dawson, October 1953, Box 11, Folder 18, “Frank Sheed 1953” in UST/CDC.

[10] Sheed to Dawson, 1936, in Box 11 (Sheed and Ward Papers), Folder 2, “Frank Sheed, 1936”, in UST/CDC.

[11] Etienne Gilson to Frank Sheed, 22 August 1950, in Box 11, Folder 16 “Frank Sheed 1950”, in UST/CDC.

[12] Thomas Merton, journal entry for August 22, 1961, Turning Toward the World: The Pivotal Year, ed. by Victor A. Kramer (San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), 155.  See also Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (New York: Image Books, 1966), 55, 194-94; and Patrick Hart and Jonathan Montaldo, eds., The Intimate Merton: His Life from His Journals (San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999), 190.

[13] Russell Kirk, Eliot and His Age: T.S. Eliot’s Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century (Peru, Ill.: Sherwood Sugden, 1988), 300.  On Dawson’s influence on Eliot, see also Bernard Wall, “Giant Individualists and Orthodoxy,” Twentieth Century (January 1954): 59.

[14] Christina Scott, A Historian and His World, 210.

[15] The two have been republished together as T.S. Eliot, Christianity and Culture (San Diego, Calif.: Harvest, 1967).

[16] Kirk, Eliot and His Age, 231-2, 299-300; and Joseph Schwartz, “The Theology of History in T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets,” Logos 2 (Winter 1999): 34.

[17] T.S. Eliot, “The Literature of Politics,” Time and Tide (23 April 1955), 524.

The Gay-Conservative Conspiracy of the 1950s

Russell Amos Kirk, 1950s

That most overrated academic fop of the twentieth-century, Peter Gay, spent a considerable amount of time and vitriol in the 1950s taking swipes at Russell Kirk, believing the duke of Mecosta a superficial romantic, stuck in the past, fighting for the most worthless and transient of causes. In 1961, he finally wrote something of substance (if poorly argued) against Kirk, replacing the one liners of the previous decade. Taking the efforts of Kirk and his allies into account, Gay lamented. “But the prevailing mood in the historical profession, always timidly sensitive to the drift of the times, is conservative,” he wrote in the prestigious Yale Review, a journal for which a number of prominent conservatives wrote as well. 

“The decline of Whiggism and Marxism has been accompanied by the rise of Toryism and Cosmic Complaining. Consider the adulation and exploitation of Tocqueville, a conservative too important to be left in the hands of conservatives; consider the absurdly inflated reputation of Burke, whose shrewd guesses and useful insights are placed like a fig leaf before his malicious incomprehension, confused politics and unashamed ignorance.” So much for all of the work of Russell Kirk, Leo Strauss, and Robert Nisbet. 

“Hogwash” Gay might as well have cried in his obvious frustration. 

“Consider the brave new words on the lips of philosophical historians: ‘complexity,’ ‘the human condition,’ ‘the crisis of our time.’ A bill of these things suggest that the assault of Whig clichés has laid us open to an assault by counter-clichés.” It should be noted here that both Friedrich Hayek and Kirk understood well the word, “Whig,” and they employed it properly, in ways that Gay simply failed to understand. Others, such as Caroline Robbins Douglass Adair, though not allied with the Kirks and Hayeks of the world, would have understood it as had Kirk and Hayek. “In discarding the liberal view of history, we have not replaced falsehood with truth, but one inadequate scheme of explanation by another. Conservative ideologues have been much helped, of course, by the effects of the recent researches which have torn so many holes in the fabric of liberalism. But superior information, while never in itself a Bad Thing, does not insure superior wisdom.”

There are probably many proper critics that could be leveled at Kirk, but superficiality and lack of wisdom would not spring to the mind of any sane critic. Perhaps not too surprisingly, Kirk’s close friend, Peter Stanlis, wrote a letter of unadulterated glee and mischief after reading Gay’s piece in the Yale Review. They had successfully gotten under the Columbia’s historian’s skin. 

Yet, it is well worth considering Gay’s critique, no matter how false it was. Though Gay failed to articulate his position well, he clearly “felt” some kind of upheaval in the history profession. Not being a part of the cause of that upheaval, the priggish Gay chose to lash out at Kirk and his fellow conservatives in an anti-quasi conspiratorial way.

Had Gay lost his mind, or, in his muddled confusion, was he on to something vital in the conservative movement?

Kirk, Hayek, Nisbet, and Strauss—along with Eric Voegelin and Peter Stanlis and others—had changed the debate. They had each—though to varying degrees—understood how important Burke and Tocqueville were as symbols in a way to bolster the West’s understanding of itself as it had defeated German fascism and Japanese imperialism, but now confronted Soviet and Chinese communism. With much effort, the great non-leftist academics had spent the decade and a half after the conclusion of World War II doing everything possible to promote the newly discovered figures of Burke and Tocqueville as the quintessential thinkers of the modern era to combat modernity. Not only had they networked with one another in person, they had professionally and quietly encouraged this or that scholar to debate this or that opponent of Burke and Tocqueville, whether in mass media, or in journals or periodicals, or at conferences. Often the defenses and attacks were open and direct, but, just as often, the conservatives and libertarians promoting Burke and Tocqueville came from the side or even the rear. 

In one telling example, Kirk attacked the well-recognized and most important 20-century scholar of Samuel Johnson, Donald Greene, using his review of the man’s book to promote the excellence of brilliance of Leo Strauss. If only Greene would read Strauss, Kirk suggested, he might be able to overcome his “logical positivism” and “latter-day liberalism.” Indeed, Kirk suggested that readers should merely pity Greene for being so uneducated. Once he read Strauss, Kirk continued, Greene would not only see the errors of his ways, but he would become a member of the “Great Tradition” of the western great books, thus seeing Johnson and Burke properly.

Not long after Kirk’s death in 1994, Peter Stanlis revealed just how detailed and intimate their concerted plan of attack had been. Because of the rise of Strauss and Nisbet, the two men believed that the western world had come to a “Burkean moment.” As much as each man loved and respect Edmund Burke, they clearly loved him for real and actual self as much as they loved him as a symbol. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, St. John, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Petrarch, and Thomas More could each be found in the thought of Burke, thus allowing the Anglo-Irish statesman to become a stand-in for all of the greats of western civilization. “The philosophical roots of modern political conservatism extend back over many generations through Burke and the natural law to the Middle Ages and classical antiquity,” Stanlis revealed in his 1994 talk about his secret alliance with Kirk. With Burke, Kirk and Stanlis could promote not only a just and humane conservatism but, perhaps more importantly, a vibrant, living Christian Humanism. That is, they could not only critique what was liberal and progressive and wrong in the modern world, they could also, perhaps more importantly, defend something positive from the past, a conserving of the true, the good, and the beautiful. And, they could do so in a gay and willing pride.

Quoted: The Federalists and Anti-Federalists

During times of national crisis, turmoil, and dissatisfaction, we should always return to first principles and right reason.

Some of my favorite quotes from the Federalists and Anti-Federalists:

The Federalists

“We may define a republic to be, or at least may bestow that name on, a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people; and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure, for a limited period, or during good behaviour.  It is essential to such a government, that it be derived from the great body of the society, not from an inconsiderable proportion, or a favoured class of it; otherwise a handful of tyrannical nobles, exercising their oppressions by a delegation of their powers, might aspire to the rank of republicans, and claim for their government the honourable title of republic.” (Fed 39)

“A handful of tyrannical nobles” controlled the states, and the federal government could intervene to protect the rights of the citizens of those states.  And yet, Madison continued in Federalist 39, “federal” did not mean the same thing as “national,” for the ratification demanded the “assent and ratification of the several states, derived from the supreme authority in each state,” the citizens of the respective state.  In deciding whether or not to ratify the Constitution, each state “is considered as a sovereign body, independent of all others, and only to be bound by its own voluntary act.” (Fed 39)

“Justice is the end of government,” Madison stated bluntly in Federalist 51, following Plato and Aristotle.  “It is the end of civil society.”

In discussing the need for a strong executive branch in Federalist 70, Hamilton explained: “A feeble executive implies a feeble execution of the government.  A feeble execution is but another phrase for a bad execution: and a government ill executed, whatever it may be in theory, must be, in practice, a bad government.” Arguments for energy applied to more than just the executive branch. 

“Energy in government is essential to that security against external and internal danger, and to that prompt and salutary execution of the laws, which enter into the very definition of good government.  Stability in government is essential to national character, and to the advantages annexed to it, as well as to that repose and confidence in the minds of the people, which are among the chief blessings of civil society.” (Fed 37)

The Anti-Federalists

Though never the cohesive force the Federalists proved to be, the Anti-Federalists feared what they considered to be the objective of the Constitution: a consolidated, national government.  Such a desire, the Federal Farmer, a leading Anti-Federalist, argued, mostly likely came from “those who expect employments under the new constitution; as to those weak and ardent men who always expected to be gainers by revolutions, and whose lot it generally is to get out of one difficulty into another.” Federalists merely played on the fears of the people, promoting the notion that the current government is fully in a crisis.  The result, the Federal Farmer claimed, is predictable.  “Instead of being thirteen republics under a federal head, it is clearly designed to make us one consolidated government,” he wrote.  “This consolidation of the states has been the object of several men in this country for some time past.”

Another Anti-Federalist, Brutus, claimed the constitution would render the states obsolete through the “necessary and proper clause” of Article I, Section 8. Though the Federalists might write in placating tones regarding the status of states prior to the ratification of the Constitution, the tone would necessarily change once the Constitution was implemented.  “It will be found that the power retained by individual states, small as it is, will be a clog upon the wheels of the government of the United States,” Brutus wrote.  This will follow the law of nature, as “every body of men, invested with power, are ever disposed to increase it, and to acquire a superiority over every thing that stands in their way.”

Old Whig: “Before all this labyrinth can be traced to a conclusion, ages will revolve, and perhaps the great principles upon which our late glorious revolution was founded, will be totally forgotten.  If the principles of liberty are not firmly fixed and established in the present constitution, in vain may we hope for retrieving them hereafter.  People once possessed of power are always loth to part with it. . . . The legislatures of the states will be but forms and shadows, and it will be the height of arrogance and presumption in them, to turn their thoughts to such high subjects. . . . The great, and the wise, and the mighty will be in possession of places and offices; they will oppose all changes in favor of liberty, they will steadily pursue the acquisition of more and more power to themselves and their adherents.  The cause of liberty, if it be now forgotten, will be forgotten forever.” 

Old Whig: “But yet we find that men in all ages have abused power, and that it has been the study of patriots and virtuous legislators at all times to restrain power, so as to prevent the abuse of it.”

Brutus: “The nations around us, sir, are already enslaved, and have been enslaved by those very means; by means of their standing armies they have every one lost their liberties; it is indeed impossible that the liberties of the people in any country can be preserved where a numerous standing army is kept up.”