A principal figure in the post–World War II conservative movement, Willmoore Kendall was a political scientist noted for his views on the meaning and nature of the American political tradition.
Kendall grew up in Oklahoma the son of a blind Methodist minister. His father carefully supervised his primary and secondary education so that Kendall advanced rapidly through the grades. At the age of thirteen, he entered Northwestern University, the youngest college student of that era, eventually receiving his B.A. from the University of Oklahoma in 1927. At the age of nineteen, he received an M.A. in romance languages from Northwestern University. Subsequently, he accepted a fellowship from the University of Illinois’ department of romance languages, but he left this program in 1932 when he was awarded a Rhodes scholarship. He studied at Oxford (Pembroke College) from 1932 to 1935, a period during which he embraced communism. After working briefly in the Madrid office of United Press, he returned to the United States in 1936 and began studies at the University of Illinois toward a doctorate in political science. He received his Ph.D. in 1940, and his dissertation, John Locke and the Doctrine of Majority Rule, was published by the University of Illinois Press in 1941.
Prior to World War II, Kendall taught at Louisiana State University (1937–40) and Hobart College (1940–41). In 1942 he resigned his position as assistant professor at the University of Richmond to work in the offices of Inter-American Affairs in Washington, D.C. During and after the war he continued to devote his attention to Latin America, finally being appointed chief, Inter-American Division, Office of Reports and Estimates, for the Central Intelligence Agency. In 1948, he resigned this position to accept an appointment as associate professor of political science at Yale University.
His tenure at Yale (1948–61) was marked by considerable controversy and turmoil, much of which was spurred by the conservative convictions he had acquired sometime in the 1940s. He took frequent leaves of absence, never teaching two consecutive years during his stay. During this period, he met William F. Buckley Jr. and, in 1955, became one of the founding editors of National Review, for which he wrote a regular column for approximately five years. In 1961, he reached an agreement with Yale whereby he would be paid five times his salary (which had been frozen since 1948) to resign his professorship. Subsequently, in a visiting capacity, he taught one semester at Georgetown and a year at Los Angeles State College before assuming the chairmanship of the politics department at the University of Dallas in 1963. At the time of his death in June 1967, he was developing a graduate program that would combine the study of politics and literature.
Kendall first made his mark in political science with his work on John Locke and majority rule. In the early stages of his postwar career, he gained a reputation as the foremost advocate of unlimited majority rule. Over the years, though he never abandoned the majority rule principle, he refined his views considerably in light of the American political system. He held that the founding fathers had placed a premium on achieving consensus rather than simply counting heads. He argued persuasively that the framers intended Congress to articulate the popular will through consensual processes, but that, over the decades, liberals had staked out a claim for the president as the most authentic representative of the people’s values and aspirations. Thus, he saw a tension within the American system, a tension he described in terms of “two majorities”: the congressional, which collects the sense of structured communities in terms of the hierarchical values and interests of those communities, and the presidential (necessarily cast in terms of lofty principle), which speaks for the people as an undifferentiated mass. According to his analysis, Congress was, as an institution, inherently more conservative than the presidency.
Kendall used a battlefield metaphor to depict the contours of the struggle between liberals and conservatives in the United States. In this metaphor the conservative forces were strung out in small, isolated outposts over a wide front that the liberals could easily overrun one at a time because they possessed a general staff to concentrate and coordinate their forces for attack. Only when these conservative outposts united in the recognition of their common enemy would conservatism prevail.
This battle, as Kendall saw it, was of critical importance, involving no less than the destiny of the United States. Liberals, as he perceived the central issue, sought an “open” society of equals. A fair portion of his writings is devoted to refuting the liberals’ interpretation of “equality” as it is found in the Declaration of Independence and to countering their claim that our commitment as a nation is to making the unequal equal. He insisted that to place the Declaration of Independence in its proper perspective and to comprehend its meaning, one must take into account those fundamental documents that both preceded and followed it. He thought it significant, for example, that equality was not among the ends of government set forth in the preamble to the Constitution.