Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

“Kendall and Carey’s Basic Symbols and the Problem of Equality,” By Bruce P. Frohnen

This essay was authored by Bruce P. Frohnen for Nomocracy in Politics. Professor Frohnen is a Nomocracy in Politics Contributor. 

“All men are equal, as they were in the saloon of the Mayflower, to give or withhold their consent.”

So observe Willmoore Kendall and George Carey in their classic work of American conservatism, The Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition. Rooted in the work of Eric Voegelin, Kendall and Carey’s book (first published in 1970) describes the American political tradition in terms of “symbols.” That is, it sets forth the means by which Americans have interpreted their experience so as to find their place in the constitution of existence, their role in history, and their relationship to the transcendent truth of the soul and of society.

The central, fundamental cluster of symbols of the American political tradition is, or has been, that of self-government by a virtuous people deliberating under God. This is no simple slogan, no mere sound bite, or flag to be waved in calling forth the troops. It is, rather, an imaginative encapsulation of self-understanding that, as developed over many years, explains, motivates, and makes sense of the way Americans have done things in the public sphere. Best captured in the notion of an “American way,” the cluster of symbols of self-government by a virtuous people deliberating under God was forged by acts of word and deed, but most especially by public documents such as the Constitution. These words and deeds shaped a tradition that flourished for centuries and was not seriously questioned among the people until the 1960s.

Our tradition’s centuries-long time frame may seem unnaturally lengthy, given the youth of the American nation. But Kendall and Carey remind us that our people did not spring forth from the Constitution in 1787, let alone from the pen of Thomas Jefferson in 1776. Indeed, a fundamental reason for the War for Independence was that Americans had, by the 1770s, governed themselves for 150 years and were not willing to accept an end to that self-government.

Thus, it is to the Mayflower Compact, entered into by Puritan settlers aboard the ship taking them to the new world, which Kendall and Carey look for the genesis of the American political tradition. It was in the Mayflower Compact that the Puritan settlers established the form and content that would characterize the American way. The signatories identified themselves (as a religious people). They set forth the purposes of the Compact (to glorify God, advance the Christian faith, gain honor for King and country, and establish good order among themselves). They promised, or covenanted, to form a civil body politic. And they clarified their obligations (to “enact, constitute, and frame” such laws as should be found needful).

These four symbols—of corporate identification, statement of purpose, oath taking, and clarification of obligations—would shape and characterize public documents in America through the founding of the American republic and beyond. There would be significant development of these symbols over time. In terms of self-identification, not all would count themselves Christian by the time of the Constitution, though all might accept the Mayflower Compact’s opening phrase, “in the name of God, Amen.” And definitions of good order and conceptions of how best to achieve it would be subject to conflict and deliberation, in the end limiting the reach of religious vision within the political sphere. But the aggregate symbol of self-government by a virtuous people deliberating under God would develop early and order public debate and conduct well into the twentieth century.

The decline of this symbol was, in fact, the occasion for the writing of Basic Symbols. Our “way of doing things” in politics came into question during the Progressive era and, by the time of the disturbances of the 1960s, had been forgotten by intellectuals. Our historic symbols were replaced among intellectuals, who in any event rejected the normative status of tradition, by a story of origins rooted in individual freedom and equality. But the actual facts on the ground—the thought as well as the practices of America’s settlers and the framers of the Constitution itself—belied this story. Thus, the American tradition had become a “problem” requiring an act of recovery.

The bulk of the relatively brief Basic Symbols is an explication of basic foundational documents, framed in time by the Mayflower Compact and the Bill of Rights. The consistent message, emanating from close exegesis of these texts, is of the importance of the same cluster of symbols, self-government by a virtuous people deliberating under God. Now, for conservatives this would not be a terribly surprising, let alone controversial, understanding of the American political tradition. An independent people, made up of persons of public spirit engaging in political debate aimed at consensus rather than mere, willful majority rule, and dedicated to acting in accordance with the divine order of creation would, for conservatives if no longer for all Americans, seem to describe who we are, or have been, and who we ought to be.

Such a symbol, and tradition, would have its critics, to be sure. The Progressive historians had dismissed our central, aggregate symbol as too religious, too limited in its calls for governmental action, and too bound to deliberation and consensus rather than to decisive reordering of society in furtherance of equality and individual rights. Progressives sought different myths in our founding, as their followers do to this day.

But no criticism of Basic Symbols, or of Kendall in particular, can match that of Harry Jaffa for its length, breadth, and depth, not to say ferocity. Now 94, Jaffa continues (in his latest book, Crisis of the Strauss Divided) to refer to Kendall as “that old confederate.” The epithet would sound odd to an actual confederate, or even to an old federalist, given Kendall’s repeated rejection of the philosophy of Calhoun and his consistent emphasis on the limits of federalism as a structural check on the national government. Indeed, one need not be a “confederate” to note that Basic Symbols is somewhat northern-centric. The colonial documents discussed are from New England and, while the traditions on which the book builds are very real, they are largely literary. Moreover, despite the emphasis on “the American way,” there is little regarding customs and folkways, particularly from the South (here one might reference David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed as a subsequent and highly enlightening study of the very different regional origins and folkways among America’s settlers).

Basic Symbols is a federalist, not an anti-federalist let alone a “confederate” work. This is not to say that the work is truly or fully nationalist—that it dismisses the importance of specifically local self-government. The aggregate symbol of self-government by a virtuous people deliberating under God may be seen in local as well as national terms. That is, one can see in America many self-governing communities joining one another in looser federations as the concern and geographic focus become wider—and the linkages more limited and artificial. In the years after publication of Basic Symbols, Carey developed a nuanced theory of constitutional morality rooted in the institutions and traditions of local life as the primary bulwark against an encroaching federal state. But he, and especially Kendall, maintained that the primary support for federalism, like the separation of powers, was political and normative; that is, they saw Congress as the branch responsible for maintaining adherence to Constitutional structure, thus emphasizing the specifically political nature of constitutional morality.

Jaffa’s mischaracterization of Kendall, and of Basic Symbols, rests, not on any structural issue, but on the rejection by each of the centrality of an ideological commitment to equality within the American political tradition. One always should hesitate before engaging Jaffa’s fixation upon equality. For, like all ideologies, it constitutes its own universe of language and values, requiring that one translate everything one says into its terms, or surrender any chance at comprehension. Moreover, many who call themselves “Straussians,” that is, followers of the late, important student of political philosophy, Leo Strauss, have conservative leanings and ideas. Yet, it is worth revisiting the debate over equality in Basic Symbols now that conservatives have lost any significant political voice, and now that we have lost George Carey, that great traditionalist conservative himself, so that we might better assess where conservatives find themselves in intellectual terms.

On first publication, Basic Symbols received a scathing review from Jaffa, speaking for “we conservatives,” in the Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review. Here Jaffa criticized the failure of Kendall and Carey to write a different book—one in keeping with Jaffa’s own attachment to a vision of equality as the centerpiece of American revolutionary ideology and, from that, American conservative politics.

This is not to say that equality does not make an appearance in Basic Symbols. It is essential to republican government, government in which a self-governing people deliberate, that “all men are equal, as they were in the saloon of the Mayflower, to give or withhold their consent.” But this statement of abstract principle is important only as instantiated in a tradition, as in the American way; it is important only as an element within a broader and deeper symbol. And it is simply wrong to argue, as Jaffa does, “that a people become a people only by virtue of the principle of Equality.” (The capitalization is Jaffa’s.) A people becomes a people by living together. Over generations, families living in close proximity to one another, sharing in a common religion or cult, developing a mutual dependence of trade and social intercourse, come to see themselves as one in the important sense that they have a common public destiny. This may happen naturally over a very long time, or more quickly due to the exigencies of war or other disasters and potential disasters. But the process is a matter of development, not abstract ratiocination. We may argue over whether a people can be governed well or justly if they are not governed in accordance with the principle of equality, but peoples are not always governed well, or even by consent, even if all men are equal in their capacity to give or withhold that consent.

Of course, as with all things Jaffa, the argument comes down to Abraham Lincoln and his reading of the Declaration of Independence. Indeed, Jaffa attempts to make “Lincoln himself the very most ‘basic symbol’ within the American political tradition of personal self-reliance, of bootstrap individualism.” It is difficult to imagine a worse misinterpretation of what Kendall and Carey (and Voegelin) are about than to reduce the imaginative self-understanding of a people to a single man, however virtuous, let alone to reduce the American way to “bootstrap individualism.” Such simplifications reject the institutions, beliefs, and practices in which actual people must, by nature, live. They obscure the higher, non-political goals of peoples as they ignore the interdependence that is community. And they turn people into idols—the dangerous opposite of symbols—courting the very Caesarism against which Lincoln himself warned.

It is true, of course, that Kendall and Carey do not spend a great deal of time in Basic Symbols discussing equality. But then, as they point out, very little was said about equality in the public documents they discuss. It figures prominently in the Declaration of Independence in that section establishing the right to revolution and its basis in consent. But, as Kendall and Carey point out, equality is mentioned in neither the Constitution nor the Bill of Rights and “disappears from our political vocabulary, disappears as the ink dries on the Declaration of Independence, and is not heard of again, to all intents and purposes, until Abraham Lincoln reminds his contemporaries of the language of the Declaration and begins to insist that America has failed to live up to one of its deepest commitments.”

Equality figured in the abolitionist cause. But that cause, alas, was the cause of a distinct minority. The moral enormity of slavery rested on an evil idea, namely, that some people are not fully human. But we would do well to focus on the denial of humanity—the fog of self-interest and moral ignorance that allows one to look a person in the face and deny his humanity—if we are to avoid the problems of ideology and of inhumanity itself. Equality becomes the center of public life only by translating deeper, more abiding concerns into its ideological terms. Thus it is more to the point to question Lincoln’s insistence that the American people held the principle of equality, not as one guide toward a good life, among many, but as “one of its deepest commitments.”

For Lincoln, equality was a “proposition” to which the nation was by nature “dedicated.” And this, not the sins of slavery or the requirements for consent, was the problem with Lincoln, according to Kendall and Carey, for the American political tradition. All peoples have failed to include everyone in the group capable of consent. Not just people of African descent, but non-property holders, the illiterate, women, children, and felons have been denied this right. The list is one over which we can and should have debates (I, for one, have a problem with voting by children and felons), but which speaks not just to equality, but also to prudence and tradition.

The problem with Lincoln, for Kendall and Carey, is that he dedicated the United States to a principle. And dedication to any principle would be a problem for the American way. Certainly a case can be made for a certain definition of equality as a good thing. But any principle is a dangerous thing for any tradition to take as its common, collective goal. Traditions, societies, peoples, are not dedicated to principles. Ideologies are dedicated to principles. And ideologies are the motive force for armies and for campaigns to punish heretics and enforce a uniformity of life that spells death for human variety and living tradition. It was rational concern over such a drive for national uniformity that led Americans, over time, to recognize that even godliness is dangerous as a political principle, opting instead for the method of deliberation, combined with the requirement that deliberation be engaged in by a virtuous people under God. That is, in recognizing that a government cannot be free if it also is “propositional,” Americans came to see that the government’s job was/is to protect the more fundamental institutions that keep people virtuous and keep us working toward consensus rather than simple majority will.

Still, we argue over what equality means. Jaffa, of course, insists that Lincoln “never sought, or believed in, an equality of condition. What he did believe in was an equality of rights. In his introduction to the 1995 edition of Basic Symbols, Carey explodes this contention, noting Lincoln’s call, in the Gettysburg Address, for government to “afford all an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.” But the specific understanding is not the point. More important is Lincoln’s view that equality “is both universal and a seemingly transcendent goal whose realization is constantly to be striven for.” Such a view is hostile to the nomocratic nature of the American aggregate symbol of self-government by a virtuous people deliberating under God.

Even the night-watchman state, committed to equality of rights, will become tyrannical if its rules are extended throughout society. Can a father be “unequal” within his family and still live up to the doctrine? Can a priest? What shall the government do when a member of a particular, private association is “denied equal rights” within that organization? What if that organization “receives public funds?” Telocratic government, government dedicated to a proposition, must reorder society in accordance with its abstract principle, at the cost of tradition and of the institutions of civil society in which actual people actually live.

Of course, as shown in his review of Basic Symbols, Jaffa is no believer in the importance of a multiplicity of authorities. His supposedly Lockean reading of the founding and of social compacts in general requires a simplistic, unitary vision of sovereignty and governance. According to Jaffa, the Founders dissolved an old social compact, dedicated to old, monarchic principles, then set up a new one dedicated to the new principle of equality. But our tradition has within itself many compacts. The Puritans came to America with a deep tradition of covenantal relationships, having entered into numerous church covenants in England and entering into numerous new ones in America, along with numerous more civil compacts. Republicanism had, in fact, been the tradition in America for many, many years before the break with Britain, being practiced within colonies that paid homage and lip service to a distant monarchy while governing themselves in most things. Our is a tradition of variety, of many communities and communities within communities, dedicated to consensus rather than will, even if that will be guided by an abstract principle.

Toward the end of Basic Symbols, Kendall and Carey describe the forms of derailment to which traditions are prone. The cutting off of the people from God; the taking of one symbol and using it as a substitute for the cluster of symbols of the tradition; the false belief that a people can construct the Promised Land here on earth, such that we must join to pursue its construction; and the belief that we can remake human nature to achieve our goals. All these derailments can cause people to reject the genuine cluster of symbols ordering their lives.

All of these derailments can be seen in ideologies like that of equality, however conceived. A society dedicated to consensus cannot survive a unitary drive to mold man and community in accordance with an abstract principle—be it equality, or anything else.

Basic Symbols remains, as when it was written, an act of recovery. It reminds its readers that the American way once was a vital, ordering set of symbols in which we could find public meaning. It also reminds us that the very limits of that public meaning are necessary if we are to have ordered liberty and, with it, the means to pursue higher meanings in our social and religious life. The American political tradition never was everything to Americans, though it helped define them as a people. A political tradition orders public life. And a public order dedicated to consensus, rather than the will, is ill suited for the pursuit of ideological goals. It is, however, well suited to the pursuit of a humane life of virtue, provided the lure of ideology does not lead us to abandon its nomocratic nature.

5 Responses to ““Kendall and Carey’s Basic Symbols and the Problem of Equality,” By Bruce P. Frohnen”

  1. gabe

    Peter / Bruce:

    Can i ask you fellows something? While I agree with you that Jaffa has been known to go over the top in both his criticism of other writers and in his “near religious” prose regarding the Declaration, etc, but what am I missing when reading Jaffa, Strauss, et al?
    Always, i come back to the cautionary qualifiers that Jaffa makes regarding equality and the limits imposed upon equality and human / governmental action by reason and prudence. Admittedly, I have not read everything that he has written, rather a good representative sample, so it may be in some of his other works or commentary. I have read his critiques of Kendall, Diamond, etc – and yeah, he can be a bit acerbic – but nowhere do i see the expansiveness of the equality doctrine that you folks ascribe to him and that i would place at the feet of the progressives.
    Teleology, yes – but a somewhat circumscribed one.
    A vigorous fight against relativism, yes!
    A perhaps too lightly weighted importance of positive law, yes, indeed.
    A complete disregard for other strains of thought in American political tradition, no.
    Perhaps, I am looking at this the wrong way. I was told that Crisis is not a book of history but one of political philosophy and thus i may be viewing both his approach and arguments in that light.

    Any thoughts.

    BTW, the above is a rather well executed piece. Keep ’em coming!

    take care

      • gabe


        indeed I have, but perhaps not quite thoroughly enough. Interesting you should mention this because I actually forgot to incorporate into my comments on Prof. shain’s essay a footnote from my old professor Ken Masugi’s review of Jaffa’s Crisis & New Birth. In fact, I asked Ken about it as it did give a Jaffa quote that would tend to support the assertions made by Bruce. My bad!
        That being said, having been away from serious study for 35 years, I am somewhat at a loss as to how much weight one should give to conflicting commentaries from the same author and at what point do I change my reading of the argument.
        Maybe, it is just my own synthesis – don’t know yet.

        Anyway, thanks again
        take care

      • Peter Haworth


        At some point via the appropriate communication-venue, I would enjoy learning more about your biography. I am intrigued to learn that Masugi was your former teacher.


  2. gabe

    Why anyone would be interested in an old knucklehead such as I is beyond me but doesn’t this website have my e-mail address. If not, I can send it via the e-mail section for the site.

    take care


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