George Carey arrived at Georgetown University in 1961, the same year that I did. He was a young professor teaching courses on American government when I was a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences, where he taught. My first experience with him as a student was notably unpleasant. Taking his first exam, I went completely blank. I then visited Professor Carey, hat in hand, and asked him if I could do anything to make up for my failure. He graciously allowed me to write a paper to compensate for that embarrassing performance.

My grade for the semester was salvaged, and I never had a problem with any of Professor Carey’s exams thereafter. After a few months of his lectures on the American Founding, he also turned me into a lifelong admirer of his work. Then, and in the decades to follow, he convincingly made the case for the constitutional morality of the founding, as embodied in its political bible, The Federalist Papers.

After Carey’s death in 2012, The American Conservative’s editorial staff paid him tribute, offering a “Farewell to a Constitutional Conservative.” At that time, Bruce Bartlett, one of the architects of Reaganomics, observed: 

A true conservatism…the conservatism of people like George Carey will come back to life someday… because it is rooted in the nature of society and human nature itself. Someday the fever will break and the knaves and the fools who speak for conservatism today will retire, never to be heard from again. When that day comes, the work of George Carey will still be there to lead conservatives to a proper appreciation of the philosophy he spent a lifetime studying and extolling.

The tributes from others who knew Carey refer to his “gentle demeanor,” “intellectual humility,” “kindness to others,” and his “intellectual courage.” Political theorist Kenneth Grasso remarked insightfully upon Carey’s “willingness to follow the truth where it leads,” and upon his refusal to kneel before “the shrines of the various orthodoxies that dominated academic life.”

Unfortunately, this American political philosopher, a leading authority on The Federalist Papers and venerated by his former students and colleagues, is no longer widely known to the political scientists who dominate our policy institutes and who teach courses in American political philosophy. Students who seek a deeper understanding of the origins of the American Constitution are rarely, if ever, referred to Carey’s books. And yet he left behind a significant body of scholarship.

Carey’s studies include Freedom and Virtue: The Conservative/Libertarian Debate (1984), In Defense of the Constitution (1989), The Federalist: Design for a Constitutional Republic (1989), and A Student’s Guide to American Political Thought (2004). With Charles Hyneman, he also coauthored in 1967 A Second Federalist: Congress Creates a Government, which highlights the early congressional debates on the nature of the American constitutional system. 

Carey is best known for his collaboration with Willmoore Kendall, one of the most provocative and insightful American political theorists of the 20th century. Kendall and Carey coauthored Liberalism vs. Conservatism: The Continuing Debate in American Government (1966) and, more importantly, The Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition (1970). 

Basic Symbols had an unusual beginning. In 1964, Kendall gave a series of five lectures at Vanderbilt University on the American political tradition. After his death in 1967, his widow asked Carey to edit and expand the lectures to turn them into a book. The result, at 150 pages, was relatively short, but clearly reflects the thinking of both Carey and Kendall about the American founding and the shared beliefs of the American people.

Basic Symbols traces our political tradition from its beginning with the Mayflower Compact to its culmination in the Constitution and its rationale in The Federalist Papers for what Carey called the “original design.” According to Carey, one must read the Constitution and The Federalist Papers together if one is to comprehend our “constitutional morality.” As he says, this approach makes available “a way of looking at and interpreting the provisions of the Constitution so as to render it a viable instrument capable of fulfilling the purposes stated in the Preamble.” 

As Kendall put it in his first lecture at Vanderbilt:

Underlying our traditional way of doing things politically was a traditional set of political principles or political beliefs that Americans back over the decades had cherished both because they were correct political principles, that is, principles that Americans ought to cherish, and because they were ours, bequeathed to us by our forefathers.

Among those principles that Carey and Kendall believed Americans ought to cherish were those of “good order” and “just and equal laws,” which are not necessarily synonymous with equal rights. That is what Kendall and Carey meant when they referred to constitutional morality: the American political culture that ought to be and once was.

Basic Symbols stirred up a hornet’s nest within the academic community. Objections to its thesis came not only from the left but also from ostensible allies on the right. In fact, the most passionate attacks were issued from Harry Jaffa, a political philosopher in the West Coast Straussian tradition and a longtime Claremont University professor.

In his book Crisis of the House Divided (1959) and in his lectures, Jaffa had maintained that the “morality” of the American founding could be found chiefly in the Declaration’s emphasis on equality. The best interpreter of the founding, according to Jaffa, was President Abraham Lincoln (after, as some wags have said, Harry Jaffa himself). According to Jaffa, no man “saw as deeply into the meanings of the American principles as Abraham Lincoln.” For Jaffa and Lincoln, that meant the doctrine of equality was the key to the Declaration and the telos of the Founders.

In Basic Symbols, Kendall and Carey challenged Jaffa’s  assertion head-on, accusing Lincoln of having derailed the American political tradition. While Jaffa applauded Lincoln’s appeal to equality, Kendall and Carey bemoaned his distortion of the founding. Lincoln gave the Declaration an unwarranted constitutional status and wrongly believed that the new nation of the United States of America was established with the signing of the Declaration. He misled Americans by directing them to understand their origins and political experience based on the Declaration’s equality clauses.

By contrast, Carey and Kendall emphasized the American founding’s Christian and biblical roots. The second chapter of Basic Symbols, which is focused on the Mayflower Compact, notes that the first words of that political document came in the form of a traditional Christian invocation: “In the name of God, Amen.” They also identified  in the compact the chief “symbol” of the American experience—that is, the idea of the “common good,” understood within a Judeo-Christian context.

Jaffa took exception to seeing our tradition in such a sectarian way and preferred to view it as an outgrowth of the Enlightenment belief in democratic equality. He and his devotees read their preferred principle retroactively into the Hebrew, classical, and Christian traditions. In other words, they “discovered” the Enlightenment concept of equality embedded within those traditions. But Enlightenment notions of equality were founded in an abstract individualism severed from any overriding understanding of the “common good.” Such individualism was not part of the vision of the Founding Fathers.

No wonder Jaffa vigorously attacked Basic Symbols, which was alien to everything he taught. He and his allies did so with significant success. Jaffa’s Lincolnian persuasion came to define the conventional view of the American founding, which prevailed among ambitious conservative scholars and pundits in the 1960s and ’70s, and prepared the way for “Conservatism Inc.” in the ’80s and beyond. 

Although a number of reputable scholars came together to pay tribute to my mentor’s ideas in 2012, it is doubtful that the present conservative establishment would be open to those ideas now or in the near future. Still, we may reasonably hope that his teachings will resonate again, as future generations rediscover the deeper political principles of the American founding.