This Week in the History of the Conservative Movement


Our archive of NRI weekly emails on the Buckley Legacy and the history of the American Conservative Movement

 

The core mission of National Review Institute is to both maintain the legacy of our founder, William F. Buckley Jr., and educate the broader public about conservative principles and history. NRI sends weekly emails to our community to update them on various events throughout the country from Regional Seminars to debates and salon dinners in select cities. We also use these emails as an opportunity to write about important figures, moments, and events in conservatism—not just the life of Buckley, but the greater modern American conservative movement and the history of National Review as an institution. On this page, you can read all of the weekly updates from this year and learn about figures like Ronald Reagan, Edmund Burke, Winston Churchill, James L. Buckley, and Johann Sebastian Bach. You can also find the archive of last year’s emails here. Sign up to receive our emails here

Full Text of the Emails:

Subj.: “Remembering ‘the American Cicero’ Thirty Years Passed,” May 3, 2024

Dear Friend,

Thirty years ago, on April 29, 1994, the eminent conservative philosopher, thinker, poet, and best-selling novelist Russell Kirk, dubbed by M. E. Bradford the “American Cicero,” died. In the pages of National Review in 1985, the great conservative historian Forrest McDonald summed up Kirk’s immense contributions to American conservatism: “His founding of Modern Age and of The University Bookman, his long-running ‘From the Academy’ column in NR, his syndicated column, his foundation activities, his private philanthropies, his personal University of Mecosta, and, above all, his books have been justly celebrated.”

Kirk changed the landscape with his publication of The Conservative Mind in 1953, an anthology of conservative statesmen and thinkers in America and Europe meant to canvas the conservative sentiments and disposition—a body of conventional wisdom, as Kirk described it—while rejecting ideology. His conservatism was based in a belief in a transcendent moral order, social continuity, the principle of prescription, prudential and natural change over abstract theoretical systems, the rejection of “belligerent individuals which subordinated all continuity and tradition,” and the imperfectability of man against the liberal view of human nature.

One reader taken by Kirk’s mind and pen was a young William F. Buckley Jr., who at 28 traveled to Michigan to persuade Kirk to write for his new magazine, National Review. As Buckley recalled: “I was so elated by his spontaneous and generous willingness to associate his august name with that of a wizened ex-schoolboy known mostly for an iconoclastic screed directed at his alma mater.”

At the magazine, Kirk frequently battled against the rising “fusionist” philosophy of Frank Meyer and continued to argue in favor of the traditional conservatism of his philosophical heroes, namely Edmund Burke. He continued to publish notable conservative tomes, including Roots of American Order and The American Cause in 1974 and The Politics of Prudence . The conservative statesmen and thinkers he admired ran the gamut from ancients like Cicero, to Southern agrarian conservatives like John Randolph and Richard Weaver, to men of letters like Samuel Johnson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and T. S. Eliot.

When Kirk introduced Buckley at the first Acton Institute dinner in 1992, Kirk described plainly how much he valued NR: “Which has done more to defend the permanent things in American politics and society than any other publication in the history of this country.” Upon his death, Buckley concluded that Kirk embodied that fundamental conservative virtue of gratitude: “Few have repaid their debt to their family, their country, and their faith so extravagantly.”

Last year, our weekly email discussed Kirk’s Acton speech in more depth, particularly his illustration of how his and Buckley’s lives were parallel.

Read Matthew Continetti’s NR magazine article, “Russell Kirk, a Conservative Guide for Our Times,” here

Read Matthew Continetti on “Kirk at 100,” here

Read James Matthew Wilson’s 2019 magazine article, “For Russell Kirk,” here

Read Jack Butler’s, “Ghost Stories with Russell Kirk,” here

Read friend of NRI, Modern Age editor Daniel McCarthy, here

Watch CSPAN’s video of the 2018 event pairing NRI and the Kirk Center, “Russell Kirk and the Future of Conservatism,” here

Subj.: “A Towering Figure, A Generous Friendship,” April 26, 2024

Dear Friend,

Eighteen years ago, John Kenneth Galbraith, the six-foot-eight socialist Harvard economist, ambassador to India, and expert skier, passed away. A man of the left, he was one of our founder William F. Buckley Jr.’s greatest friends.

Galbraith and Buckley first met in 1966 at Truman Capote’s masked ball, with Buckley asking Galbraith to explain why he had admonished a colleague to not publish in National Review. Galbraith, whom as Buckley recalled in his literary biography Miles Gone By was “The Enemy, professional and personal,” responded, “I regret that.” Two weeks later, Galbraith invited Buckley to ski with him in Gstaad, Switzerland, the beginning of a life-long friendship.

Galbraith made a total of 11 appearances on Firing Line , demonstrating both his budding friendship with Buckley and his own wit. Buckley was more than willing to be a critic of Galbraith’s political ventures and his support of redistributionist policies, writing of Galbraith’s role as economic advisor to the George McGovern campaign he helped launch in 1972: “Galbraith, as I say, is probably the principal intellectual patron of the McGovern Convention. He has given his enormous prestige to popularizing the kind of populism that George McGovern has ridden in on. Where else, except in Galbraith, can you find someone who is at once president of the American Economics Association, past president of the Americans for Democratic Action, author of the best-known economic treatises since John Maynard Keynes’, and principal dispenser of the kind of snake oil they have been drinking here in Miami Beach?”

In celebration of Galbraith’s 90th birthday in 1998 at the Kennedy Center, Buckley remarked that, “Ever since I had the good fortune to meet Professor Galbraith, which is to be distinguished from the jolt some of us get from reading the things he writes, I have found him an omnipresence.” He also put it simply: Galbraith was a beloved personal friend.

Upon his death, Buckley reflected that it pleased him that Galbraith “knew the value I placed on his friendship.” Buckley did not forget their differences on economic freedom and policy, but he ultimately wanted to focus on Galbraith’s private life and his capacity for generous friendship. As Buckley put it, “Forget the whole thing, the getting and spending, and the Nobel Prize nominations, and the economists’ tributes. What cannot be forgotten by those exposed to it is the amiable, generous, witty interventions of this man, with his singular wife and three remarkable sons, and that is why there are among his friends those who weep that he is now gone.”

Watch Buckley at Galbraith’s funeral service in 2006 here.

Watch Buckley and Galbraith’s team debate ‘That Free Market Competitiveness is Best for America” on Firing Line in 1989 here.

Watch Buckley interview Galbraith on his life in economics and policy in 1981 here.

Subj.: “On the Weakest of Men, and the Strongest,” April 19, 2024

Dear Friend,

30 years ago, President Richard Milhouse Nixon, the enigmatic, controversial, and impactful 37th president, died. Nixon was a complex and difficult figure for conservatives to wrestle with, but he also left a legacy of strong anti-Communism and the success of the modern American conservative movement leading to his election in 1968.

Upon his death, William F. Buckley Jr. wrote about Clare Booth Luce’s remark that all public figures would come to be associated with a single achievement and Buckley felt Nixon’s would be negative—the only American president in history to be kicked out of office. Yet, he was a “dominant political figure” who had taken “very large strides in history,” winning reelection with a runaway majority before his inglorious departure from the Oval Office.

Buckley summed up the career of Nixon, a man whose prestige “did not derive exclusively from the office of president” given his invaluable feeling for the American political scene. Nixon first gained the respect and admiration of conservatives when he was the young freshman Congressman who believed Whittaker Chambers and disbelieved Alger Hiss.

As president, he was the man who, in the eyes of Buckley and National Review, lost the Vietnam War, pulled out of Bretton Woods, declared wage and price controls, and opened diplomatic relations with China by charming the detestable Communist dictator Mao Zedong. Buckley would, despite the rocky relationship with the Nixon administration, serve as a delegate to the United States in 1973 and accompany Nixon to China in 1972. When the FBI asked whether or not Buckley had done anything since 1969 to embarrass the administration, NR publisher William Rusher quipped, “No, but the Nixon administration has done a great deal to embarrass Mr. Buckley.”

Watergate was a watershed moment for conservatives. Jeffrey Hart writes that NR responded to the scandal “with condemnation for the violation of constitutional norms mixed with a great deal of disgust.” Bill’s older brother, Senator James L. Buckley, was the first to call for Nixon’s resignation in March 1974. Bill reflected in a speech that October about the costs of Nixon’s “grave deceptions” and the pain his brother felt upon being “roundly denounced” for his “reasoned, compassionate, and prescient call on Mr. Nixon to step down for the good of the country.”

For Buckley, Nixon was ultimately a contradictory figure emblematic of fallen humanity—a man who was “at once the weakest of men, and the strongest; a master of self-abuse, and of self-recovery. Stained by worldliness, and driven by the hunger to serve.” At NRI, as part of honoring the Buckley Legacy, we aim to educate on conservative first principles and an accounting of our history which encounters our past conservative figures as they were—full, complex humans.

Subj.: “The Architect of Fusionism,” April 5, 2024

Dear Friend,

Frank Meyer, the architect of “fusionism” and the longtime “Books, Arts & Manners” editor for National Review, died 52 years ago this week.

Like other founders and early luminaries of  National Review, such as James Burnham and Whittaker Chambers, Meyer was an ex-Communist widely read in the classics with keen insights about the totalitarian threat of collectivism. Meyer recruited a great variety of talents, many of whom disagreed sharply with him, to turn the “Books, Arts & Manners” section or the “back of the book” into one of the strengths of the magazine. He recruited not only Kenner, but also Guy Davenport and Francis Russell alongside discovering Joan Didion.

Meyer’s more libertarian conservatism came to clash with other National Review  founders, most prominently Russell Kirk and L. Brent Bozell. Kirk and Meyer disagreed over a 1956 column Kirk wrote condemning one of Meyer’s heroes, John Stuart Mills, for his commitment to “abstract appeal to free discussion, sweet reasonable, and solitary simple principle.” Meyer’s rejoinder was to assert the “right of individual freedom not on the grounds of utility but on the grounds of the very nature of man” and the freedom of individuals against “the collective instrumentalities of state and society.”

Meyer’s philosophy, as Bozell would term it critically “fusionism,” was meant to be a bridging of libertarianism and traditionalism. His 1962 book, In Defense of Freedom , aimed to defend the primacy of the individual against the incursions of the bureaucratic state. Meyer’s conviction, as he wrote in 1964, was that “as against the prevalent Liberalism of the first six decades of the century, contemporary American conservative thought shares a common set of values; and that these values are derived in their essentials from the values held in common by the Founding Fathers.”

Alongside William F. Buckley Jr., Meyer did much to help organize and build up the modern American conservative movement. He spoke all over the country and was an organizer for the Young Americans for Freedom, the New York Conservative Party, and the Goldwater for President campaign.

Meyer died mere hours before Easter, having been baptized into the Catholic Church just two days earlier. Buckley was with Meyer in his final days, weeping with him and hearing him complain in physical agony that “the only remaining intellectual obstacle to his conversion was the collectivist implications lurking in the formulation ‘the communion of saints’ in the Apostles’ Creed.”

As part of a vital component of Buckley’s legacy of making cultural commentary a critical part of the magazine’s mission, National Review Institute today proudly sponsors  the “Books, Arts and Manners” section.

Subj. “Nearer My God: Celebrating Holy Week,” March 29, 2024

Dear Friend,

As part of the celebration of Holy Week as a institution founder by the lifetime faithful Catholic, William F. Buckley Jr., we are sharing a few brief thoughts about the significance of Lent and Easter from Buckley and his sage friend, Whittaker Chambers.

In a March 1948 essay for Time magazine, Whittaker Chambers, the celebrated anti-Communist who would become close friends with William F. Buckley Jr. and a National Review editor, wrote about “Faith For a Lenten Age.” In it, Chambers discussed the “devolutionary theopantheism” of the modern age in which God had become a “rather unfairly furtive presence, a lurking luminosity, a cozy thought.” He put this crisis squarely on the shoulders of progressivism and liberalism:

“Under the bland influence of the idea of progress, man, supposing himself more & more to be the measure of all things, achieved a singularly easy conscience and an almost hermetically smug optimism. The idea that man is sinful and needs redemption was subtly changed into the idea that man is by nature good and hence capable of indefinite perfectibility. This perfectibility is being achieved through technology, science, politics, social reform, education. Man is essentially good, says 20th Century liberalism, because he is rational, and his rationality is divine, or at least benign.”

In a 1987 column, William F. Buckley Jr. reflected that the abiding lesson of Christianity is that, “Man is a sinner. Man can repent. God will forgive. That is so very different from the fashionable secular complement, which is: What is sin?”

At the heart of the season of Lent is not just man’s duty and relationship to God, but the meaning of suffering and God’s sharing of that immeasurably human experience on Calvary Hill. In remembrance of Malcolm Muggeridge, the great journalist and late Catholic convert, Buckley recalled the words of Muggeridge’s wife, Kitty, who told Buckley that, “As an old man, Bill, looking back on one’s life, it’s one of the things that strikes you most forcibly–that the only thing that’s taught one anything is suffering.”

In Nearer, My God, Buckley’s autobiography of faith, he put the argument for the truth of the miracles at the heart of Christianity and Easter succinctly: “If a movement that would absorb the Western world was launched by a few dozen men and women all of whom thought themselves witnesses to miracles, isn’t the burden of disbelief harder?’

Subj: “God cleared his throat,” March 21, 2024

Dear Friend,

339 years ago, the great German composer Johann Sebastian Bach was born. Our founder William F. Buckley Jr. wrote upon his 300th in 1985 that Bach’s birth was “as though God had decided to clear his throat to remind the world of his existence.”

Buckley’s celebration of Bach was a reflection of both his conservative reverence for the Western canon and his endearing Catholic faith. He often connected the two, saying that Bach had “the impact of a testimonial to God’s providence not because he wrote the most searingly beautiful church music ever, but because he wrote the most beautiful music ever written.” Just as a sunset showed the presence of the Divine, so too did the sound of one of Bach’s toccatas and fugues in a darkened chapel.

Bach was the musical equivalent of Shakespeare in Buckley’s estimation and thus, one could throw away his three hundred cantatas, hundred-or-so preludes and even the Mass and still the “other half would sustain Bach as a creature whose afflatus is inexplicable, for some of us, in the absence of a belief in God.”

Buckley likewise connected Bach’s genius to the glory of freedom itself, saying if a human being existed who “is unmoved by the B minor Mass it should not be surprise that human beings exist who are unmoved by democracy, or freedom, or peace. They have eyes but they do not see, ears but they do not hear.” To appreciate Bach was to follow the conservative virtue of gratitude, a recognition, in Buckley’s words, of “how much we have received by the great wellsprings of human talent and concern.”

Viewers of Firing Line would have understood intimately Buckley’s love of Bach through the opening theme. As NRI fellow Richard Brookhiser recalled, “the first thing you heard was the trumpet in the Brandenburg Concerto—a high-pitched reveille, as startling as it was bright, because the baroque trumpet had been obsolete for more than 200 years.”

In 1989, Buckley joined the Phoenix Symphony for his first public performance of Bach, playing the F Minor Concerto on the harpsichord and sharing it on Firing Line. It required two years of preparation, including practice on a Yamato keyboard aboard his yacht. Buckley said that it was “fun finding out that a lapsed amateur can, if he is willing to spend lots and lots of time on the problem, manage to draw on a lifetime of a devotion to a composer and play creditably for eight and one-half minutes one of (Bach’s) beautiful concertos.”

As Buckley put it in the original mission statement, National Review is “on the side of excellence (rather than ‘newness’).” The publication was founded in 1955 as a magazine of both politics and culture. As a man of artistic, cultural, and literary pursuits, Buckley had a deep understanding of the essential role they play in realizing a life well lived. National Review Institute has embraced this aspect of Buckley’s legacy by sponsoring the magazine’s popular Books, Arts & Manners section—an explicitly nonpolitical section of the magazine—to fulfill the National Review mission.

Subj: “How Buckley Took on the ‘Anti-McCarthy Myth’ and Communism,” March 15, 2024

Dear Friend,

70 years ago, in March 1954, William F. Buckley Jr. and his brother-in-law and Yale classmate L. Brent Bozell published McCarthy and His Enemies: The Record and Its Meaning. In it, the two examined the nine public cases Senator Joseph McCarthy had made of Communist infiltration of the State Department to set upon a “responsible judgment.”

The book required eighteen months of research and writing—what Buckley recalled in 1961 as “a long enough time to spend seeking out an eighth allegory in Dante’s Inferno.” It was meant to be a “serious book” studying the “shifting coordinates of power within the federal government and the dilemma posed for the open society by the unassimilable political minority; a study of the question of conformity in a democratic society engaged in a Cold War.”

Buckley and Bozell wrote the book to deal with American “indecision” on Communism at home—we were “undecided [about] how to cope with the new menace, we lacked even the will to find a solution. Our confusion and our purposelessness was crippling.” Importantly, the book was meant to be a careful analysis of the fact, not a defense of McCarthy personally, as in total, the book included 66 criticisms of McCarthy.

Buckley and Bozell concluded that McCarthy’s critics, having misread history and the democratic process, failed to understand that the “determination of the American people to curb Communism cannot be dismissed as a capricious, ignorant, or impetuous decision.” McCarthyism, thus, was a weapon of war available to Americans who had given Communism a fair hearing and rejected it.

Buckley’s final word on McCarthy was his 1999 book, The Redhunter: A Novel Based on the Life of Senator Joe McCarthy. Buckley biographer Lee Edwards writes that in it, Buckley “rejects the liberal view that McCarthy spawned a ‘reign of terror’ that gripped” both elite and common Americans, but also offered a “candid portrait of a man who will distort the truth to make a point and blacken the reputation of an opponent without apology.” As Buckley conceded to Charlie Rose in 1997 , it was “impossible to defend McCarthy” and it was “super-impossible to defend his critics.”

Ultimately, Buckley retained the view that while McCarthy’s style was problematic, he understood that the function of any vital democratic society was to reject “unassimilable ideas” like Communism. National Review Institute aims to continue the Buckley legacy both of reasoned judgment and the rejection of Communism as antithetical to American ideals.

Subj: “A Time to Remember James Buckley,” March 9, 2024

Dear Friend,

101 years ago, James Buckley, older brother to William F. Buckley Jr. and one of the great American statesmen of the past century, was born. We remember him as his brother saw him, a man with no enemies who was the embodiment of the virtuous conservative statesmanship which National Review stands for. While continuously championing constitutional limits, James Buckley accomplished that rare trifecta in American politics: He was a member of all three branches of the federal government, beginning as a U.S. Senator, next as an Undersecretary of State and the head of Radio Free Europe during the Reagan Administration, and finally as a Federal Judge on the DC Circuit.

Incredibly, on his second try, Buckley won the 1970 New York Senatorial Contest as a third party nominee of the New York Conservative Party, which he and Bill helped create in 1962. As a U.S. Senator, James Buckley demonstrated his deep moral principles alongside his characteristic judicious and prudential nature. Examples range from Buckley being the first Senator to call for President Nixon’s resignation—an act of great political courage which may have cost him re-election—to his fight for campaign finance reform. He was also a firm advocate for the pro-life cause.

After the Roe v. Wade decision, on May 31, 1973, Senator Buckley introduced the Human Life Amendment, which would apply the 14th amendment’s protection of life and “persons” to all human beings at every stage of life, to the Senate Floor in what National Review’s editors called “an extraordinary speech” and a “model of conservative exposition on moral, philosophical and constitutional issues.” No finer succinct summary of James Buckley’s extraordinary life could be given.

Bill Buckley called his brother Jim “The Man I Trust” and once said that he was “the only person I have ever known who has no enemies” because he had “always persuaded everyone with whom he has contact that his fairness is, in a sense, a tribute even to those who are the immediate victims of that fairness.”

Jim Buckley died last August at the age of 100, but not before honoring National Review Institute by letting us attach his name to the James L. Buckley Lecture in Principled Leadership at the biennial Ideas Summit. Our inaugural James L. Buckley Lecture was given last spring by the Honorable Michael Mukasey.

Let us remember him by his own words in his final address in from his 2020 Prize Dinner Award remarks, in which he warned us that we had become a nation of “constitutional illiterates,” with few Americans having “any understanding of the degree to which the Constitution’s safeguards are being whittled away.” Our ongoing regional seminars, including this past Wednesday in New York City, are doing that all-important work James Buckley asked of us to restore those constitutional guardrails and pillars which have been whittled down but can be built back up by a constitutionally literate citizenry.

For more about the profound legacy of James L. Buckley:

Subj: “Keeping His Fire Alive,” February 27, 2024

Dear Friend,

Sixteen years ago, on the morning of February 27, 2008, still busy as ever writing at his desk, the great William F. Buckley Jr. died. He was 82 years old. At his funeral, close friend Henry Kissinger succinctly placed Buckley among the greatest Americans of his time: “Bill Buckley inspired a political movement that changed American politics . . . He wrote as Mozart composed, by inspiration; he never needed a second draft.” And as his son Christopher noted in his eulogy, Bill Buckley’s writings comprised a “prodigal output,” with some estimating showing Bill to have “written more letters than any other American in history.”

Upon his death, National Review’s editors ably summed up the impact of Buckley upon the modern conservative movement:

“If ever an institution has been the lengthened shadow of one man, this publication is his. So we hope not to be thought immodest for saying that Buckley has had a greater impact on the political life of this country—and a better one—than some of our presidents. He created modern conservatism as an intellectual movement and then a political one. He kept it from drifting into the fever swamps. And he gave it a wit, style, and intelligence that earned the respect and friendship even of his adversaries.”

The impact of Buckley on a generation of conservatives was apparent on the Hill. Former Senator Jim Talent said, “Next to Ronald Reagan, Bill Buckley was more responsible for the rise of conservatism in this country than anyone else—and that’s a very considered statement.” Representative Tom Feeney reflected that like many conservatives in Congress, he “started reading National Review when I was twelve years old” and that “There was a myriad of different ways that National Review affected us, and Bill Buckley in particular.”

Buckley’s death also brought out the deep respect he had cultivated on the other side of the aisle. The New York Times headline referred to him as the “Sesquipedalian Spark of Right,” with their obituary portraying him as the man of “polysyllabic exuberance” and a “refined, perspicacious mind to elevate conservatism to the center of American political discourse.”

In the March 2018 issue of National Review that marked the tenth anniversary of Buckley’s passing, NRI fellow Richard Brookhiser reminded that Bill was both a “celebrity pugilist and institution builder,” writing that, “Bill was more than a curator of current ideas; he wanted his to prevail, and he would use almost any weapon—logic, jokes, or the occasional fast one—to ensure that they did. If his pistol misfired he could, like Dr. Johnson, strike you with the butt end of it.”

As NRI’s Buckley Legacy Project aims to remind the next generation and conservatives writ large, Buckley believed in fair play—he wanted to go up against the best and win. The crucial mission NRI and the Buckley Legacy Project aims to carry out is to ensure that conservatives do not forget the world Bill Buckley forged and that we not only maintain our gratitude for all Buckley accomplished but endeavor to keep his fire alive.

Subj: “Celebrating the Statesmen Devoted to Our Founding Principles,” February 19, 2024

Dear Friend,

On this Presidents Day, let us consider how the legacies of our greatest presidents help us to honor and uphold the constitutional foundations of our country.

Presidents Day has over time come to combine the celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on February 12 with the historic celebration of George Washington’s on February 22. Lincoln himself, as President-elect on his way to Washington in February 1861, gave one of his most significant and fiery speeches at Independence Hall in Philadelphia in which reflected upon the threat the newly formed Confederacy brought to the principles of Washington and the founders. Lincoln said:

“I am filled with deep emotion at finding myself standing here, in this place, where were collected together the wisdom, the patriotism, the devotion to principle, from which sprang the institutions under which we live…I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence. I have often pondered over the dangers which were incurred by the men who assembled here, and framed and adopted that Declaration of Independence… Now, my friends, can this country be saved upon that basis [of the Declaration]? If it can, I will consider myself one of the happiest men in the world, if I can help to save it. If it cannot be saved upon that principle, it will be truly awful. But if this country cannot be saved without giving up that principle, I was about to say I would rather be assassinated on this spot than surrender it.”

Presidents Day should be a day to combine the essential conservative virtue of gratitude, which our founder William F. Buckley Jr. held so dearly, with a firm reverence and honor for the greatest American statesmen who understood how precious the principles of the American founding are.

As President Ronald Reagan put it on the 250th anniversary of Washington’s birth, “Pursuit of liberty and justice under God is still the most inspiring, the most successful, the most revolutionary idea the world has ever known. Words alone cannot express how much we revere this giant for freedom.”

National Review Institute is holding Regional Seminars all over the country this year which are celebrating and teaching the importance of America’s Constitutional pillars as our “Foundations of Freedom.” See below for a list of cities remaining on our tour.

Subj: “Remembering Justice Scalia,” February 13, 2024

Dear Friend,

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died unexpectedly eight years ago, on February 13, 2016. A gregarious intellectual giant of constitutional conservatism, Scalia’s three decades on the Supreme Court changed the institution; in the words of Justice Elena Kagan, Scalia’s influence meant “we are all originalists now.”

Upon his death, National Review’s editors wrote that he was “by far the most eloquent and effective writer of judicial opinions in the past 60 years of Supreme Court history” and that, “With his brilliance, his tenacity, and his devastating wit, Justice Scalia transformed the terms of debate in American constitutional law. Under his commanding intellectual influence, constitutional discourse both on and off the Court took an originalist turn.”

Upon his nomination to the Supreme Court in 1986, leftist critics warned that “Scalia is a William F. Buckley conservative rather than a New Right conservative” who had “a remarkably consistent record of conservatism.” Once confirmed 98-0 to the bench, Scalia proved to be exactly that.

Justice Scalia did more than just give a jovial, thoughtful, and convincing public face to the originalist movement. He was a key institutional figure on a Court long in need of reform. In the pages of NR in 1996, Professor David Forte wrote of the “effrontery” of Scalia to “expose the oligarchic agenda of his brethren . . . a consistently pursued agenda by a privileged elite to impose its moral views . . . [whose] political and social objectives are corrupting the constitutional enterprise itself.”

Justice Scalia himself was published in the pages of the magazine, writing an article in 1997 entitled “Vigilante Justices” which argued that, “Historically, and particularly in the past 35 years, the ‘evolving’ Constitution has imposed a vast array of new constraints—new inflexibilities—upon administrative, judicial, and legislative action.” Scalia’s condemnation of these “constitutional evolutionists’ ‘ was perfectly in line with NR’s criticism of the Warren Court, as Scalia reminded us that such a court impairs good democratic governance without expanding individual freedom nor the social order with which all freedom must be balanced.

In appreciation for the Constitution which Scalia ably upheld, National Review Institute is holding regional seminars all over the country this year to celebrate and teach the importance of America’s Constitutional pillars as our “Foundations of Freedom.” See below for a list of cities remaining on our tour.

Subj.: “When Character Counted,” February 6, 2024

Dear Friend,

President Ronald Reagan, who died in 2004, would have celebrated his 113th birthday today. As esteemed conservative historian Paul Johnson put it, Reagan’s presidency was “a turning point both in the fortunes of his own country and in the history of the world—and the two were closely connected.”

From humble beginnings in small-town Illinois, Reagan’s life story and career were described in the special NR memorial issue as being “like Lincoln’s, mythogenic beginning to end.” William F. Buckley Jr. first encountered the former actor in 1961 and learned of Reagan’s fondness for his book, Up from Liberalism. Reagan was a charter NR subscriber whose efforts in supporting the candidacy of Barry Goldwater in 1964 led him to two terms as California’s Governor beginning in 1966—a victory his opponents understood as the triumph of Buckley conservatism over liberal Republicans.

His greatness as a conservative leader is ably summed up by Johnson: “First, he had a few simple, strongly held, and tenaciously pursued convictions, which also happened to be right and popular. Second, he knew how to present them in plain terms that all could grasp. Third, on the issues he cared about most, he exercised a formidable will, which, though courteous, brooked no opposition till what he wanted was done. Fourth, he had style.”

Buckley gave a speech to honor Reagan’s 88th birthday in 1999, entitled “When Character Counted: The Importance of Ronald Reagan.” He called Reagan’s era “brief, but he did indeed put his stamp on it: and he did so in part because he was scornful of the claims of omnipotent government, in part because he felt, and expressed, the buoyancy of the American Republic.”

The imprint of Reagan was the rejection of Communism, collectivism, and the omnipotent state in favor of ordered liberty and the potential of the American people for good—a mission that National Review Institute happily carries on in the Buckley-Reagan tradition.

Read NR contributor Matthew Continetti on Reagan’s inaugural address as California Governor in 1967 here.

Read Joseph Locente on Reagan’s 1982 speech pleading to send the Soviet Union to the “ashbin of history” here.

Read conservative historian biographer and historian Alvin Felzenberg on Reagan’s Cold War strategy and victory here.

Subj: “Celebrating a Monumental Conservative Achievement,” February 1, 2024

Dear Friend,

On February 1, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln signed the 13th amendment after Congress passed it the previous day. On December 6th, the 27th state, Georgia, ratified the amendment and the end of slavery became permanently enshrined in the Constitution.

Lincoln’s—and the Republican Party’s—fight against slavery is a monumental conservative achievement because it was based first and foremost on the recognition, stated in the Declaration, that all were created equal in the eyes of God. As NRI fellow and 13th amendment lawyer Dan McLaughlin puts it, by banning all slavery—including private restrictions of the right to leave one’s job— the amendment incorporated the “free-labor ideology of the early Republicans who adopted Jefferson’s wording [in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787].”

Lincoln’s push for a constitutional amendment to permanently abolish and end slavery was integrally connected to the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863. As Lincoln historian and NR friend Allen Guelzo states, once he issued the emancipation, Lincoln was adamant that he “should be damned in time & in eternity” if he should abandon the free slaves, even promising to resign should Congress or the People demand emancipation be revoked. Lincoln worried that the measure could be struck down by the courts, especially Chief Justice Roger Taney, and that should the war end, it would become a dead letter.

In signing the amendment, Lincoln called it a “King’s cure for all the evils” because it finally put emancipation beyond the reach of judicial review and the control of the states, making the end of slavery permanent. It was a victory for what the eminent historian James Oakes calls the anti-slavery reading of the Constitution and the belief that the Declaration of Independence and founding were “flatly incompatible with slavery.” And it was a political victory which required the support of a third of the House Democrats acquired by Lincoln and his administration’s lobbying efforts.

Today, all of this history should be a reminder of our most timeless principles and what we have achieved by the model of our conservative Revolution, our nation’s founding documents, and the Constitution’s promise of a more perfect Union.

For more, read Dan McLaughlin’s 2021 National Review magazine article on the “Party of Lincoln.”

Subj.: “The Lion of the British Empire,” January 24, 2024

Dear Friend,

Winston Churchill, the “lion” of the British Empire, died on January 24, 1965.

Daniel Mahoney, former NRI board member and architect of our Burke to Buckley Fellowship Program curriculum, summarizes the greatness of Churchill in a way that echoes today: “Churchill saw what was at stake in the totalitarian assault on liberal and Christian civilization like few people before or after. Among twentieth-century statesmen, only de Gaulle shared this admirable lucidity and the determination to resist the inhuman totalitarian temptation on the intellectual, military, political, and spiritual fronts.”

Mahoney could have been recalling Churchill’s warning to his countrymen in June 1945: “Here can be no doubt that socialism is inseparably interwoven with totalitarianism and the abject worship of the state. It is not alone that property, in all its forms, is struck at, but that liberty, in all its forms, is challenged by the fundamental conception of socialism.”

William F. Buckley Jr. was a great admirer of Churchill and while a student at Yale in 1949 saw Churchill speak at MIT about the Cold War. Buckley recalled “the hypnotizing voice” of this genius who united the “affinities of the heart and of the mind, the total fusion of animal and spiritual energy.”

Buckley upon Churchill’s death wrote that it was Churchill alone who “stirred the world’s imagination…at that critical point in world history, to press for the final goal the war was fought to achieve—the elimination of the source of aggressive evil that find us today.”

Today, we must follow the example of Churchill in caring to save Western Civilization because it alone has, in the words of Mahoney, “fully valorized the dignity of human beings who are souls as well as bodies, persons imbued with dignity and not playthings of ideological despotisms that in decisive respects were ‘beyond good and evil.’”

Subj.: “Remembering the Faith and Virtues of MLK,” January 16, 2024

Dear Friend,

This week, we celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day, giving us an opportunity to reflect with gratitude upon a man who, while not a political conservative, took up his Cross and bore it with reverent faith. As King put it in his sermon at the Ebenezer Baptist Church a mere three months before he was killed, “If I can do my duty as a Christian ought, then my living will not be in vain.”

Friend of National Review Institute Dr. William Allen, the former chair of the US Civil Rights Commission, reminds us that King was no conservative, as he jettisoned claims of freedom and self-government as sufficient for black Americans to achieve integration into American society. King was interested in a “radical restructuring of the architecture of American society” and, in Allen’s analysis, felt American racism “could be negated ultimately only by the negation of the moral soil from which it sprouted”—the pursuit of a conservative good of equality under God by radical means.

Yet, conservatives must keep this political and cultural legacy in mind alongside the most conservative aspect of King’s life: his abiding faith. William F. Buckley Jr. in 1999 noted the “bizarre paradox in the new secular order in the celebration of Dr. King’s birthday” as a national holiday—meant to embody a new “articulated idealism in race relations,” to be “conscientiously observed in our schools,” but with “scant thought given to Dr. King’s own faith.” King’s most famous speech, “I Have a Dream” ends with the invocation that, “And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” Likewise, in his final sermon, King reminded his audience that he had no fear because he was doing God’s Will and “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

Conservatives can reckon with King’s more radical notions while understanding that the virtues he most cherished, particularly dignity as Robert Woodson reminds us, are ones we defend against the vast government programs like affirmative action which deny it and upend the mediating institutions which support it.

Read more from NRI fellow Jay Nordlinger on admiring King’s quest for equality for all.

Subj.: “Prudence and the Virtues that Make Conservatism,” January 12, 2024

Dear Friend,

On January 12, 1729, the pre-eminent philosopher of conservatism Edmund Burke was born in Dublin, Ireland. It was the publication of his Reflections on the Revolution in France in 1790 that has become an indispensable volume of wisdom to conservatives today wishing to preserve our most treasured traditions and liberties against the threat of revolutionary destruction.

Burke’s model of a statesman was one who combines a disposition to preserve with an ability to reform. Russell Kirk noted that Burke knew that “justice resides in the tension between authority and liberty, the claims of both recognized and reconciled,” and the prudential balancing of personal freedom and just authority.

Prudence, according to Burke, was the “queen of political virtues.” It was supported by the virtues of discipline, humility, charity, and gratitude. As Burke put it in his Reflections, the evil of the Revolutions was that “a spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views. People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors.”

Among William F. Buckley’s favorite Burke words from Reflections were those concerning tolerance: “We know that we have made no discoveries, and we think that no discoveries are to be made, in morality; nor many in the great principles of government, nor in the idea of liberty, which were understood long before we were born, altogether as well as they will be after the grave has heaped its mould upon our presumption, and the silent tomb shall have imposed its law on our pert loquacity.”

National Review Institute’s Burke to Buckley Program, which is currently putting out its last call to applicants for our Spring Fellowships in Miami, New York City, and Philadelphia, is modeled on what Kirk observed about Burke: that “students learn from Burke not only the first principles of civil social order, but the prudential maxims for the governance of men.”