Tribute to Stephen Tonsor
Regional Meeting in Pittsburgh
October 14, 2006
A few years ago rummaging through the vast collection of conservative manuscripts at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, I came across what struck me then—and still strikes me today—as perhaps the most literate and conservative correspondence I had ever had the pleasure to read. The letters of Henry Regnery and Stephen Tonsor, both deserving of the distinguished membership in this society which we bequeath on Stephen this evening, spoke of weightier concerns than what was passing for conservatism in America in those days.
The correspondence between the two men—stretching almost forty years and involving one (sometimes two or more) letters per week—was literate in the nature of topics discussed and arguments broached: German literature, conservatism, philosophy, Chicago culture, wine, classical music, gardening, ideas—especially ideas—and family. These were the concerns of the two men, expressed in beautifully written prose, Tonsor’s always written in ink pen in a bold and self-assured script.
The correspondence was conservative in truest sense of the term, concerned about the struggle of man to preserve tradition in the face of modernity, of the continuities in what historians had once referred to as “the great chain of being.” It was concerned with how change and progress could be harnessed to conservative ends. It was not reactionary—even though Tonsor identified himself by such a term--but it was counter-revolutionary, especially since the counter-revolution the two men were waging was shaped by Edmund Burke’s response to French philosophes, and Tonsor’s to the philosophes’ heirs on the post-modern and Marxist university campus.
Towards the end of his career Tonsor reflected on this lifelong battle with such people, writing Regnery: “I have been depressed lately. The history department at Michigan is simply disintegrating. The Marxists and Feminists. . .have taken over. . . .I am very fearful of a collapse of the Humanities on a national scale. It is as though there were some intellectual equivalent of the AIDs virus which has got inside the minds of administrators and faculty under age 50.” This was written in 1990; I can report that sixteen years later the damage on campus is worse and there are fewer colleagues one can find to stem the tide. It is indeed a depressing prospect to be on a college campus. Yet one must not despair for despair is a sin. As Irving Babbitt once said, “fighting against a whole generation is not always a happy task.”
“The essential function of the teacher is the transmission of tradition,” Tonsor once wrote in honor of his mentor, the University of Illinois historian Joseph Ward Swain. “The values he or she conveys to the next generation are values of content and method. In the case of the historian, the transmission of the knowledge of the past, those human experiences which are the ground of present-day existence, is the content of the historian’s science.”
Tonsor achieved this through his long teaching career at the University of Michigan, inculcating in the minds of his students—those adept enough to pay attention—some of the key principles and values of the western tradition. He took his duties seriously and never wasted time. He treated his students as a professor should, as a mentor, one who was concerned with their intellectual development. He was friendly but professorially distant, inviting students to his home for seminars and discussion yet never getting involved in their day-to-day problems. He was consistently warm and kind-hearted beneath a gruff exterior.
Tonsor—who owed much to his mentor Swain—sought to develop in his own students an appreciation for history and an appreciation for the political, cultural and spiritual inheritance of the western world. Swain had introduced the young Tonsor to conservatism, sending him a lengthy review of Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind in 1953, “[having] no idea how revolutionary that book would become nor any idea of its influence on me,” Tonsor wrote. “It is one of the mysteries associated with the great teacher that he is usually unaware of the movements of the Spirit he excites in his students.”
It may surprise you (and it may equally surprise Stephen) but I conclude that Tonsor was a futurist. The term is not meant in the manner of the technology-worship of Newt Gingrich, Al Gore, or Alvin Toffler. Rather, Tonsor was a futurist in the manner that Edmund Burke was a futurist, and thus any conservative is a futurist. John Henry Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine argued “that the past in its fullness can only be known in future time.” Future time was sacralized time; the work of those of us in the present was to defend tradition, so as to preserve its precious links between the “living, the dead and the yet to be born.” Tonsor lived and worked in future time.
He knew to do otherwise was to have a flawed understanding of the nature of humanity. Tonsor wrote often on the Romantics and the futility of humanitarianism. He distrusted their claims of liberation and distrusted their worship of technology. He had first hand experience on campus during the 1960s with the new Romanticism of the Left and the counterculture and was familiar with its sturm und drang. When he told me of his inclination to invite students to his home, he mentioned that Tom Hayden had once visited while an undergraduate student. He made certain to tell me he didn’t think much of him even then.
He once referred to the Sixties culture as a “tidal wave of filth” which challenged the traditional onus of the university. The path taken by many of the Romantics and the technology-worshippers of that decade led to decadence. For many in that generation it led to the decadence of secularization which always focused on “newness.” As Tonsor wrote, “the secularization of time’s regeneration usually takes the form of the institution of a new political order, the inauguration of a new era in human history, and the renovation and rejuvenation of mankind.” Wasn’t the Nazi quest for a “thousand year” Reich and the Soviet “new man” products of such beliefs? So were the liberationist “year zeros” propagated by many Sixties radicals, including the aforementioned Hayden who spent some of his time living in a Kim Il-sung collective in California.
One need not have met Tonsor to have been inspired by his clear understanding of the nature of history and of the condition of humanity within that history. I was one so inspired, reading his sharp arguments and pointed polemics as an undergraduate and then later growing to appreciate him even more as I embarked on my own career chronicling conservative history. I have met him only once and was never a Tonsor student. We have developed our own correspondence over the years and I am fortunate to count him as a friend. The great teachers of modern conservatism have passed—Kirk, Regnery, Meyer. I am fortunate to have a relationship with Stephen, his mind and thought still more active and lively at eighty-three years of age than mine at forty-one. He still teaches and still inspires.
Where I became most familiar with Stephen was at the annual meetings of this society where I saw him speak on numerous occasions. He loves the Philadelphia Society and it is my belief that he always saved his best essays and most controversial pieces for the edification and entertainment of its members. I was always entertained when he spoke and always inspired by something he said, his wit and fearless diatribes always striking like laser beams at some perceived problem in the conservative force. We all are familiar with his allusion to neoconservatives as “town whores,” a label for which he suffered at the hands of equally caustic neoconservative critics who labeled his remarks as anti-Semitic. Nothing could be further from the truth. Its is sad when arguments devolve into name-calling. Tonsor’s views hardened as he aged and he later replied, in probably one of his last speeches before this society, that he was increasingly “paleo” and that old conservatives like Regnery (and himself) were getting “lost in the klaxon-din of those who call themselves neoconservatives.” It is fitting that by recognizing him this evening we prove that he is not yet lost in the klaxon-din.
Regardless of how his speeches were interpreted, Tonsor always had something to say. If he may have delivered his talks in, as Jeffrey Hart once described it, “a pit bull fury” (it would have been preferable for Hart to have described Stephen as a Doberman or rottweiler rather than a pit bull) the listener would always profit from what he had to say.
Part of what makes Stephen the conservative he is, insistent on order, defensive of community and protective of the tradition of the past is reflected in his upbringing in the soil of the Midwest, in a German Catholic Illinois community from which he inherited his own sense of place, his weltanschauung and his love for church and country. His wife Caroline, who many of you know, helped him develop this as a good spouse does; she indeed is the bedrock upon which Stephen still stands. Those who have been fortunate enough to be welcomed by Tonsor hospitality—thousands over the fifty years they have lived in their modest Ann Arbor home—know this intimately.
Few men in the history of the Philadelphia Society have moved so many and have embroiled so much controversy as Stephen has with remarkable insights delivered at these meetings. As I have written elsewhere, Stephen deserves wider recognition as a conservative intellectual of the first order and it is fitting that in bestowing this honor upon him tonight he is gaining such recognition alongside conservatives he admired and worked with over the years. He is, I am certain, as humbled by that recognition as I am to be the one to introduce him tonight.