Triumph and the Quandary of American Conservatism

In the past few weeks, some very kind individual put all ten years’ worth of Triumph magazine online. For many reasons, this is an incredible breakthrough. In the decade of its existence (1966-1976), Triumph put out excellent work from some of the finest Catholic writers of the day — Fritz Wilhelmsen, Thomas Molnar, Erik von Kuenhelt-Leddihn, John Wisner, James Fitzpatrick, Warren Carroll, Mel Bradford, our very own Gary Potter, and a host of others. Co-founded by L. Brent Bozell, brother-in-law of William F. Buckley, it was a product of Bozell’s shift away from the views expressed in Buckley’s National Review. Specifically, Bozell’s distancing from Buckley’s brand of Conservatism began with an editorial of Bill’s called “Mater, si. Magistra, no!” This was a critique of John XXIII’s encyclical Mater et Magistra, and in essence maintained the individual Catholic’s right to dissent from Catholic Social Teaching. Nor was Buckley alone; there were other Catholics with similar problematic views on his board. Within a year, Bozell had resigned from the board, and began marshalling his forces, financial and human — the result was the appearance of Triumph.

Initially welcomed by Buckley and Co. as a “publication of the Church Militant,” the relationship broke down completely as Triumph’s editors and writers sought to become ever more Catholic — regardless of where that might put them on the American political spectrum. At the beginning the new magazine and the Catholic element of NR shared a loathing of Communism and a suspicion of the liturgical changes of the post-Vatican II era. They split over the election of 1968, when Bozell and his cohort refused to support Nixon. In time — when Roe v. Wade made abortion “the law of the land” — Triumph maintained that “If she is to protect herself and she is to abide by her divine mandate to teach all peoples, the Catholic Church in America must break the articles of peace, she must forthrightly acknowledge that a state of war exists between herself and the American political order.” For Buckley, this was only the latest bridge too far.

But the Triumph circle were only the latest group in either the Catholic or the Conservative milieux to discern what they saw as an unbridgeable gulf between Divine principles they treasured and the political order in which they dwelt and to which they believed — at least in the beginning — that they owed loyalty. Indeed, it is a quandary that goes back to the era before independence.

Unlike the French or Spanish colonies, which were settled by natives of countries to whose Catholic Monarchies they swore unquestioning obedience and from whose religious and political unity they did not dissent, the British brought the division in those very key topics from home when they arrived — and this dates back to the apparent crypto-Catholics who arrived in the ostensibly all Anglican Jamestown colony back in 1607. The Wars of the Three Kingdoms that pitted Charles I against the Puritans and Presbyterians of his realm also featured the reduction of Virginia and Maryland by Cromwell’s American followers — the very last battle of those wars was fought in Maryland at Severn Creek in 1652. So too with the so-called “Glorious Revolution” in 1688. Not only was James II overthrown in England, but his Dominion of New England was similarly dismantled in the colonies, and his Catholic governor of New York, Thomas Dongan, sent packing. It may be said that American Toryism went with him.

By the time the Revolution broke out in 1775, its Loyalist opponents — save for a few Jacobites and followers of Samuel Johnson — were forced to reply intellectually with arguments from the same Whig position that their opponents drew their ideology. Defeated, they either went to Canada and served as the foundation for that country’s version of Anglo-Conservatism, or they remained and adjusted to the new regime.

The Catholics who came in afterwards — and particularly those who went into the Democratic Party — were for the most part simply happy to be in America, and gave little thought to either evangelising their new country, or critiquing its institutions. The successive opposition parties that arose — Federalist, Whig, and at length Republican — had no real problem with the liberal order, just with who was administering it.

The Second Civil War (1861-1865) did produce a Conservatism of sorts in the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy. But this too saw itself as a more faithful following of the Founding Fathers — as evidenced by the Confederate National Seal depicting Washington on a horse — than upholders of transcendent principles which were not ever really applied in our country. Nevertheless, the spectacle of an entire way of life being overrun and a host of local polities destroyed or damaged gave the South a certain tragic vision of life and a love of the local not to be found elsewhere.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries did begin to see ethnic Catholics such as the organisers of the Catholic Central Verein of St. Louis, and newspapers such as the Wandererblatt, Le Travailleur, and La Sentinelle try to apply unvarnished Catholic Social Teaching to the contemporary American scene — but they were castigated as “foreign.” Boston and New York in the 1890s saw Britain’s Neo-Jacobite revival transplanted to these shores. But the unimpeachably American leader of the Order of the White Rose, Ralph Adams Cram, admitted that there was no hope of Cavalier and Jacobite principles being carried out in the political life of the United States — the best they could do was to work for “Hamiltonian Principles” — themselves considered very radical. This era saw also the birth and rise of “Americanism” amongst the Catholic hierarchy.

America’s entry into World War I signalled the entrance of Catholicism into the national mainstream. After the war, the hierarchy issued “The Bishops’ Programme for Social Reconstruction,” authored by Msgr. John Ryan. It was certainly based upon the work of Leo XIII, but it did not go far — not least because of the economic boom of the Roaring ‘20s. The Depression saw the emergence of The Catholic Worker and Fr. John Coughlin’s National Union for Social Justice — at first allies and then foes of FDR’s New Deal, alongside such pure Capitalism concerned outfits as the American Liberty League who opposed its economic tyranny, and the so-called Old Right, spearheaded by the redoubtable John Flynn. Seward Collins’ American Review attempted to bring together Catholic Distributists, Monarchists, Southern Agrarians, and Corporatists of varying shades. But all of these groups failed to gain any real traction, and World War II had the same effect on voices of dissent that the First War had.

The postwar era saw the efforts of such as Russell Kirk and Buckley to create a new American intellectual Conservatism, which attracted many Catholics (although a handful of these went into such ventures as Integrity Magazine — which in many ways resembled the later Triumph — and the Movement associated with such figures as J.F. Powers). Addressing the problems Cram had wrestled with decades earlier, Kirk deemed 1688 and 1776 as essentially “Conservative Revolutions.” This reading certainly allowed one to be comfortable with the Founding Fathers, and to form an alliance with the Libertarians. It was into this milieu that the founders of Triumph came, and against whose contradictions they revolted.

Triumph’s crew had their own set of internal contradictions. If a genuinely Conservative America was hard to envision, even more so was a genuinely Catholic one. Bozell and Wilhelmsen were Hispanicists (the former Francoist and the latter Carlist); Potter was a French Royalist; Bradford a Southern Agrarian; and so forth. As in earlier attempts we have looked at, this in the end was their Achilles Heel.

The “triumph” of National Review style Conservatism might well be said to have been Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980. But that apogee rapidly turned into its nadir, as post-1988 developments have shown the “Reagan Revolution” to have been a mere pause on the downward slope. In that sense, one might say National Review has been quite as much a failure — albeit longer-lived — as Triumph. But that would be a misreading.

The current disputes regarding “Integralism,” Post-Liberalism,” and that sort of thing show that the same issues are still with us. What is Conservatism, really? What is it, in this era, that we are trying to conserve — and how much of the liberal order that we have inherited is in itself responsible for where we are? What would a truly orthodox but really American Catholicism look like? In time, the Ordinariates may well help solve that question, but it is one whose answer is still far ahead of us. Ultimately, genuine, unreconstructed Catholicism shall be at the heart of any authentic American Catholicism — as it has been at the heart of all of the traditional European embodiments of the Faith.

But in the meantime, do yourself a favour. Go through the old issues of Triumph that are now so freely available. You will see some of the best minds that Catholic America (and some from elsewhere) ever produced. You’ll revisit old issues — some of which are as fresh as a Pharaoh’s Tomb, but others of which seem as though they address to-day’s issues. Many are inflammatory — and are meant to be. It was a feisty journal, and in the face of that hideous strength we oppose, all the more necessary for that.