The liberal conservative must be discerning. For he believes in freedom as well as in order. He believes in individualism as well as in community. He believes in the equality of all men as well as in hierarchy, natural aristocracy, and excellence…

After the trip to Washington, DC, where I thrilled at seeing the U.S. Constitution in a bicentennial celebration at the National Archives, I returned to Ann Arbor intellectually stimulated by the experience and eager to resume my history apprenticeship. There was snap in the morning air when I set out to meet Stephen Tonsor during office hours. I spied him crossing the Diag in front of the Undergraduate Library (aptly called “the UGLI” because it looked like an IBM punch card). It was the first time I saw him wearing a hat. It looked reminiscent of a boater’s hat from a Winslow Homer painting—or the hat worn by the Paddington Bear. Yes, that student I’d met the first day of class had spoken perceptively: There was something ursine about Tonsor.

As our paths converged, I hailed my professor. He said hello in that expectant way of his, and then caught me up about the latest Trollope novel he was reading. When we reached the fourth floor of Haven Hall, there was a young man waiting outside his office; he was wearing a Red Wings cap. Tonsor greeted the undergraduate, showed him into the office, and put his hat down on the table. I remained standing outside the office, and what I saw next was unlike any interaction I’d ever witnessed between a professor and his student—or between any two people. The student sat down but did not remove his cap. Tonsor also sat down and, annoyed that the student did not have the manners to remove his cap, put his hat back on his head. It was a ridiculous scene: The professor sitting stock still with his boater’s hat on, staring down a hapless student whose felony was to keep his Red Wings cap on. Finally, the chastised student got the hint and took his cap off, at which point Tonsor took his hat back off, and the two began conversing as if nothing had happened. It was very strange. If my professor had lived in the Middle Ages, he no doubt would have been called Stephen the Irascible. When my turn came to go into his office, I made sure to remove my ivy cap before crossing the threshold!

“Come in, Mr. Whitney. You have not yet told me about your trip to Washington.”

“The organizers kept us busy,” I said, taking a seat where Red Wing boy had just been dressed down. “The highlight was seeing the Constitution on its 200th birthday, and the Declaration of Independence, too. Your lecture on liberalism was in my head as I walked around Washington, DC, taking in the sights of the ‘Imperial City.’ I also thought about something you said after the first class, when you referred to yourself as a ‘liberal conservative.'[1] I need help understanding what that means because it seems like an oxymoron.”

“This is true,” said Tonsor. “It’s an important question, and we don’t have time to do it justice before class starts. But consistent with the sound practice of intellectual history, we can at least start with definitions in their historical context. There is not one liberalism but many, and its American permutations differ in significant respects from the liberalisms found elsewhere, or that developed previously. So one has to qualify what one means by ‘liberal’ and ‘liberalism.’

“The same must be said of ‘conservative.’ There are many hyphenated conservatives nowadays—traditionalist, economic, anti-communist, evangelical, neocon. Moreover, the American permutations differ in significant particulars from conservative thought elsewhere, or that developed previously. One has to specify what one means by ‘conservative.’

“To define the term, ‘liberal conservative,’ I start with the observation that modern man lives with tensions, paradoxes, and contradictions—oppositions that arise from our civilization’s conflicting sources of intellectual and moral authority. In our shorthand way, we call those conflicting sources Christendom, the Enlightenment, and Romanticism. As you know from class, they have a complex and overlapping relationship to one another, something like that of a child to a parent. They are continually clashing, continually generating conflicting ideas and discourse in our public affairs. As a result, the liberal conservative must be discerning. For he believes in freedom as well as in order. He believes in individualism as well as in community. He believes in the equality of all men as well as in hierarchy, natural aristocracy, and excellence. He believes in private enterprise, competition, and the market mechanism as well as in those human, moral, and cultural values that cannot be defined by the competition of interests in the marketplace.[2] These contradictions bring to mind the Walt Whitman verse which I recited to your class: ‘Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large. I contain multitudes).'[3] No thriving society has ever existed that has not embraced the dynamic tensions that exist among opposing sets of values. Personally speaking, I will even say this: My behavior would be less honorable and my world more impoverished were I to abandon any one of these contradictory ideals.”[4]

My synapses were lighting up like the Las Vegas Strip. If I understood him correctly, then Tonsor was blowing up all my preconceived notions. Not only was he stretching my understanding of what a liberal and a conservative were; but he was also, unexpectedly, grafting the one onto the other the way a gardener creates a new subspecies. Often the result is a new plant that is stronger than the originals. Before I started reading his work and listening to his lectures, I had little idea that Tonsor’s liberal-conservative pairing could be so fresh, so undoctrinaire, so creative in approach—and I wondered how widely known this remarkable teaching was. I would later learn that Russell Kirk, in his influential The Conservative Mind (1953), would devote a section of his book to a prominent group of thinkers he called “liberal conservatives”—foremost among them Tocqueville—and the type would prove highly influential in Tonsor’s intellectual development.[5]

But to extend the biological metaphor, it seemed that Tonsor lived in an estuary of ambiguity; he was anchored neither to land nor to sea, but inhabited the richness that is found where salt water mixes with fresh, feasting in an ecosystem where nature most flourishes. It struck me how this strain of thought repositioned conservatism. It had nothing to do with the popular conception of stalwarts fighting a rearguard action to defend the status quo, or promoting a politics of nostalgia that would return Americans to some golden age. Not at all. Rather, at the true heart of the conservative body of thought was the willingness to embrace the tensions, paradoxes, and contradictions of the human experience—life as it really is experienced—and subject it to critical analysis in light of abiding principles.

Tonsor continued speaking and my neurons continued lighting up. “Going all the way back to Aristotle,” he said, “you see the development, in free societies, of the liberal-conservative pattern of thought. It was passed on, generation after generation, within a remnant. Then in the modern age, the liberal conservative emerged out of a powerful genealogy that includes Burke, John Adams, Tocqueville, John Stuart Mill, Lord Acton, and Jacob Burckhardt.

“Now, you may ask yourself: What is peculiarly conservative about the liberal conservative? Well, much of conservative thought is derived from the West’s religion, from Christendom. The conservative is a tough-minded realist who understands that human beings are imperfect and imperfectible; that they are usually self-interested and often irrational. He thus values the historic reality of those statesmen, charters, and institutions that act as a check on man’s libido dominandi which —”

Tonsor saw my brow furrow. “Libido dominandi comes from St. Augustine. It refers to man’s disordered love of overreaching power. The liberal conservative is conservative in his belief that freedom is not enough. Freedom is only viable if it is ordered—ordered by virtue. Virtue promotes order in the soul and order in the society. Although freedom and virtue are in inner tension, they complement each other. The more a man can govern himself by an interior law, the less he needs the government to impose an exterior law. Thus freedom thrives, paradoxically, when it grows out of a tolerable order. Let me be clear on this point: Freedom is not freedom if separated from order.

“You may also ask yourself: What is peculiarly liberal about the liberal conservative? Well, the liberal—at any rate, the classical nineteenth-century liberal—derives much of his thought from both the Enlightenment and Romanticism. Think of the French physiocrats, Adam Smith, Friedrich von Hayek, and Milton Friedman. This type, the classical liberal, appreciates the spirit of freedom in man’s nature, the restlessness to throw off oppression and improve his estate. Historically, the classical liberal often had to struggle against the ancien regime and thus was a bit more eager for social, economic, and political reform than is his conservative friend. As John Cardinal Newman acknowledged, ‘In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to aim for perfection is to have changed often.'[6]

“Newman’s words suggest that the liberal believes freedom itself is as much a part of human nature as it is of the divine economy. Said his sometime friend, Lord Acton, ‘Liberty is so holy a thing that God was forced to permit evil that it might exist.'[7] He understands that liberty is a worthy civilizational goal that has been hard won and easily lost. That’s why he celebrates the organic growth of ordered liberty through time-tested constitutions, institutions, and laws. And it is why he frowns on revolutionary fixes and the do-your-own-thing behavior that soon results in anarchy or licentiousness. It is a faux freedom that cannot last.

“To tie these definitions together with your recent visit to Washington, DC, I would say that the liberal conservative today climbs onto the shoulders of giants—of Aristotle, Burke, John Adams, Tocqueville, John Stuart Mill, Lord Acton, Jacob Burckhardt, Jacques Maritain, and John Courtney Murray—thinkers who were alive to politics as a form of conversation, of rational deliberation. Our American constitutions—both written and unwritten, and at the state and federal levels—seek to maintain a political order in which citizens can agree to disagree in a community of civil discourse, arguing and deliberating over the questions of how we shall order our lives together—without resorting to civil war.[8]

“The liberal conservative thus values the virtue of prudence. He supports the prudent statesmen who can keep our state and federal constitutions balanced on a tightrope. On the one side is a government strong enough to enforce the rule of law as well as smother any incitement to mob rule; on the other side is a government weak enough that it cannot become its own self-interested, devouring tyrant—because the governors will surely devour a people’s freedom if given opportunity to do so. This perennial challenge in the human condition is what the framers of the U.S. Constitution debated. Their success is without parallel in world history. Indeed, at risk of oversimplifying because they possessed an extraordinary range of views, the founders turned out to be a great generation of liberal conservatives.”

Tonsor slapped his knees to indicate that office hours were up—we had to walk across the Diag to our class in East Engineering. But I was dazzled by my professor’s lambent intellect. He had just given me the rudiments of an interpretive method by which to order a conservative political philosophy and the practice of intellectual history. I would eventually coin a term for Tonsor’s method: “the hermeneutic of dynamic tension.” He was teaching me about the unresolved opposites (in ideas, values, beliefs, institutions) that were nevertheless held together in the force fields of culture.

When we got settled in class, I noticed three words still on the blackboard: “Learn or die.”

This essay is also published on Dr. Whitney’s personal website and is part of a series of conversations with the late Stephen J. Tonsor, who was Professor of History at the University of Michigan.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


[1] Stephen J. Tonsor to Henry Regnery, August 17, 1987, p. 2; letter in GW’s private possession, courtesy of Alfred S. Regnery.

[2] Stephen J. Tonsor, “Why I Am a Republican and a Conservative,” in Equality, Decadence, and Modernity, ed. Gregory L. Schneider (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), p. 235.

[3] Stephen J. Tonsor, “The Conservative Search for Identity,” in Equality, Decadence, and Modernity, ed. Gregory L. Schneider (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), p. 247.

[4] Tonsor, “Why I Am a Republican and a Conservative,” in Equality, p. 235.

[5] Tonsor began adulthood as a war veteran and Truman Democrat. (See “Why I Am a Republican and a Conservative, in Equality, pp. 231-32; also my first of two interviews with his brother, Bernard Tonsor, July 1, 2014, in Jerseyville, IL.) So when did he begin defining himself as a “liberal conservative”? The seed was likely planted in high school when, thinking he was bound for the seminary, he was introduced to Aristotle’s Golden Mean through the synthesizing works of Thomas Aquinas. When he resumed undergraduate study after World War II, he took philosophy courses that confirmed him as an Aristotelian thinker for the rest of his life. (GW correspondence with Ann Tonsor Zeddies, January 26, 2015.) The seed was watered when his dissertation advisor, Joseph Ward Swain, encouraged Tonsor to read Lord Acton in the late 1940s or early 1950s. Acton was “at the center of [his] world.” (“Joseph Ward Swain,” Equality, p. 316.) The seed was no doubt fertilized when Gertrude Himmelfarb’s seminal study, Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics, was published in 1952 by the University of Chicago Press. But germination seems to have occurred when Tonsor encountered the work of Russell Kirk in 1953. He was employed by the U.S. Forest Service as a fire lookout in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho, and he describes the remarkable experience of discovering The Conservative Mind on a mountaintop. (See “Joseph Ward Swain,” Equality, p. 316; “Why I Too Am Not a Neoconservative,” Equality, p. 303; “Russell Kirk,” Equality, pp. 317-20; and “Conservative Pluralism: The Foundation and the Academy,” pp. 1-2, no date, typed lecture in GW’s possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery). Tonsor describes the effect The Conservative Mind had on him using a powerful figure of speech: “I dipped my hand in the holy-water fount of Russell Kirk and said, ‘Home at last!'” Tonsor tells us that it was when reading Kirk’s important book in 1953 that he discovered he was already a conservative: “The event,” he later reported, “was not a conversion experience, but a moment of self-revelation” (“Why I Too Am Not a Neoconservative,” Equality, p. 303). It is not a stretch to think that he already was defining himself as a “liberal conservative” around this same time. Further evidence is that in graduate school he was a great admirer of Tocqueville, who is explicitly treated by Kirk, in The Conservative Mind, as a liberal conservative. So the process of changing from a Truman Democrat to a liberal conservative probably occurred due to numerous influences between about 1949 and 1954. His later letters to Henry Regnery reveal that he continued to refer to himself as a liberal conservative as late as 1987 (Tonsor to Regnery, August 17, 1987, p. 2; letter in GW’s possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery).

[6] John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845), Chapter 1, Section 1, Part 7.

[7] Acton quoted in Tonsor, “The Conservative Search for Identity,” in Equality, p. 256.

[8] Matthew Rose, “The Liberalism of Richard John Neuhaus,” National Affairs, Issue No. 28 (Summer 2016).

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