I’ve known of George Carey for as long as I have been a practicing conservative, more than 40 years. I knew him slightly when I was a student at Georgetown in the 1970s, but did not study with him—I was in history, he was in government. But the fact that he taught at Georgetown was one of the attractions of going there for me.
Not being a political philosopher, I can’t say that I am in any way a scholar of Carey’s work. But as the term “conservative” has become more and more debased by its co-option by anarchists and nihilists masquerading as “Tea Party patriots,” he was a living remnant of an older, gentler, more scholarly conservatism that was once represented by Russell Kirk, Michael Oakeshott, Peter Viereck, Robert Nisbet, and others whose names are unknown to the vast bulk of those who call themselves conservatives today.
These scholars understood that there was far more to being a conservative than hating government; today, that is the sum total of what conservatism stands for. The conservatism of people like George Carey was the appreciation for the “permanent things,” as Russell Kirk always called them. These are the institutions of society that are like the sinews that hold together the various parts of the human body. They include community, church, family, and, importantly, government as well.
I would like to take this opportunity to express my deep appreciation for Carey’s review of my book, Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy. This book caused me to be banished from polite conservative company, where memorizing the Republican Party’s talking points of the day is the most highly prized skill. But George clearly saw the rot and intellectual corruption that Bush the lesser had introduced to conservatism and that has only become worse by the year since my book was published.
Writing in the Summer 2006 issue of Modern Age, Carey said that Bush had managed to render “conservative and conservatism dirty words.” I can only imagine what he thought the Tea Party had done to the philosophy he devoted his life to.
George Carey is a man who lived a long and fruitful life; there is no tragedy in his death. The tragedy is the death of his vision of conservatism. I’m not sure when it died, but judging by what passes for conservative thought in the principal organs of conservatism today—Fox News, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, National Review, not to mention right-wing kook publications on the Internet and the juvenile entertainment called talk radio—it’s been dead for some time.
A true conservatism, a sane conservatism, the conservatism of people like George Carey will come back to life some day, however, because it is rooted in the nature of society and human nature itself. Someday the fever will break and the knaves and 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.
Bruce Bartlett is the author of The Benefit and the Burden: Tax Reform—Why We Need It and What It Will Take.
From 2005-2012, I had the pleasure and honor of being a colleague to George Carey on the faculty of the Department of Government at Georgetown University. His passing is an enormous loss to Georgetown, but beyond that campus, a profound loss to all who value liberal learning, and particularly its traditional, if fading, emphasis upon self-rule based in self-limitation, responsibility, and morality.
I had known of George Carey for many years, having encountered his work as a graduate student during the 1980s. He was a figure who loomed large in my profession of political philosophy, particularly American political thought, having in many ways pioneered the study of the American Constitution as a philosophical document. Some 15 years after I first read his work, I looked forward to meeting him after I’d accepted a position at Georgetown University.
I met him during the Fall semester of 2005 in the commons area of the Department, near the copying machine, and I was surprised by everything about him. He was a figure of pronounced intellectual stature in my mind, and that translated in my imagination to what I expected to be a towering presence in person. I almost didn’t believe his words when he introduced himself: “Patrick, it’s a pleasure to meet you; I’m George Carey.” He was slight of build, not much taller than my rather short self, and his voice was not booming but quiet and even tremulous. He seemed altogether modest and a bit shy. He said little at that initial meeting and not much more over the years when I would encounter him in the hallways—at least before my last semester at Georgetown.
Oddly, I came to know George best, initially, through mutual students. I regularly gave an assignment in which I asked students to interview another professor. Almost invariably, someone would interview Professor Carey. Thankfully, the fruit of one of those assignments is saved for posterity, conducted and published by the talented Stephen Wu, class of C’13.
From his first book—The Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition, coauthored with Willmoore Kendall—to his last essays (some appearing on the pages of The American Conservative), George consistently held that the Constitution had been written and promulgated in the expectation of a certain kind of morality—what he called “constitutional morality.” That morality entrusted a high degree of political self-rule to the citizenry and in turn demanded self-limitation, responsibility, and morality. While affording extensive powers to legislative authority, “constitutional morality” stressed not only what should be legislated but also demanded respect for extensive areas of life in which the legislature should entrust self-rule to families and communities. “Constitutional morality,” in effect, rested on a deeper wellspring of moral and communal authority that the Constitution assumed, lying most fundamentally in the Judeo-Christian tradition of the West.
Basic Symbols was an effort to confront tendencies in modern American politics arising from a rejection of this founding philosophy. Carey and Kendall saw “constitutional morality” being displaced by a philosophy drawn from the Enlightenment—especially the rights-based, egalitarian philosophy of Locke and Mill—a process accomplished by forging a link between the philosophy of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution while ignoring the Constitution’s roots in the British common-law tradition. The American tradition was being re-defined as radically liberal, giving primacy to individual rights and increasingly egalitarian outcomes.
George Carey’s understanding of the Constitution put him at odds with contemporary liberals and “conservatives”—i.e., neoconservatives—alike. He spent much of his life debating the ascendant voices of both parties, and for this reason was often an unheard voice amid the contemporary political din. He belonged to no party and refused to vote, seeing in both sides a will to power that the Constitution had been designed to limit.
Among my fondest memories of my time at Georgetown was the night of April 9, 2010, when the Tocqueville Forum—a program I had founded and directed—bestowed the third annual “James V. Schall Prize” on George Carey, conferred for excellence in teaching and letters. It was a delight to have those two men together on the platform that evening—they were, for me and for generations of students, the essence of Georgetown. On that evening, George delivered a lecture that captivated the audience, a pithy, serious, but accessible recapitulation of his view of constitutional morality and the crisis it was undergoing. At the time we conferred the award, I commented to someone that in all likelihood this would effectively be George’s farewell lecture to Georgetown, as I didn’t believe he would ever retire. Happily, that lecture is preserved for posterity.
I came to know George best during my last semester at Georgetown—on the service elevator. We would meet twice a week on the top floor of the Intercultural Center and together descend to its bowels, where we were teaching classes at the same time. George and I disagreed about the nature of the Constitution and the American regime—I have written at length that America is now, and has always been, at least “officially” a liberal nation, and the Constitution is a deep expression of that philosophy. Over the course of that semester, twice a week, we would take the elevator down four stories and discuss our differences. We had carried on this dialogue through our students for several years. Now, for the first time, we had a succession of discussions, each for some five minutes—it was an otherwise painfully slow elevator!—about our different understandings of the American regime.
What we discovered, of course, is that we agreed about the essential things—the lamentable trajectory of America, driven by will, appetite, disregard of the forms, and an insistence upon instant gratification to the neglect of posterity. We spoke on those short descents (though a kind of ascent) of some of our favorite authors, especially Robert Nisbet and Bertrand de Jouvenel. I would enter my class in a kind of daze, having to return to the subject at hand after the mini-seminar of each elevator ride.
The last day of my last semester at Georgetown, on our last descent together, George said to me: “I understand why you are leaving Georgetown. I’m not a Catholic. But if I were, I wouldn’t be able to stay here either.” This was a sad admission by a man who had devoted his life to that college on the Hilltop, the nation’s first and oldest Catholic university. He had given me his blessing to depart, much as Fr. John Carroll, S.J., Georgetown’s founder, had blessed the mission journey of Fr. Stephen Badin, who would eventually acquire and donate the land where the University of Notre Dame would be founded. It was a blessing that at once heartened and saddened me, knowing how painful it was for him to give. At the end of his life, he couldn’t deny how far the rot had extended, how little his warnings had been heeded, how much his soft but insistent voice had been ignored.
But we can be strengthened in hope: we have, among other things, the writings and the many students—many now professors—of George Carey with us still. He was not a large man. His words and sentences were sometimes halting. But he was not quiet about his beliefs, not shy about denouncing the errors of his age, and not diminutive about his confidence that constitutional morality could be rediscovered and embraced by future generations. I will always treasure my memories of George Carey, and more, I hope he was right after all.
Patrick J. Deneen is David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame.
George Carey was our most insightful interpreter of the American political tradition. For over half a century, he studied, thought, and wrote on the nature and purpose of our Constitution, especially as explicated by its most important interpreter, Publius, author of The Federalist. Alone and with several collaborators (most famously the conservative firebrand Willmoore Kendall), he delved into the inherently conflicted nature of self-government, the inescapability of tradition, and the nature of conservatism—a disposition and mode of thought rooted in respect for both the intrinsic order of existence and the normative authority of historical practice.
Carey was a tireless defender of our republic who openly refused to participate in what he considered the sham of voting in a corrupt, plebiscitary democracy. He believed our tradition requires the sort of institutions and character that leaders of both parties openly oppose. He argued, in his quiet, gentlemanly way, for renewed understanding and commitment to the particular, American tradition that produced the institutions and promoted the character necessary for ordered liberty. His scholarship showed that our Constitution is neither empty verbiage, to be twisted to meet the needs of ideological “progress,” nor a mere mechanism for Enlightenment-influenced abstract and ahistorical rights springing from the mind of some philosopher or statesman. Rather, it was the culmination of centuries of historical development, particularly among Puritan settlers, whose religious convictions and practices combined with experience in a new world to forge an understanding of ordered liberty and its requirements emphasizing formal structures, recognition of diverse human motivations, and the necessity of virtue in both the people and the governors.
A man of duty and decorum, Carey was appalled at the selfish, unprincipled nature of public (and private) life in the United States. He maintained his own dignity and work ethic to the end, as well as his love and dedication to his own family and friends. Perhaps his greatest contribution to political thought—the notion of “constitutional morality”—remains among his lesser known. But that idea, that those in positions of political power have a moral duty to uphold, abide by, and seek to enforce the limits on power embodied in the forms and structures of our constitution, is essential to understanding how the ideology of “progress” has undermined our tradition and sapped the life out of the local institutions in which Americans once learned to be virtuous people capable of self-government.
I fear this superficial sketch, along with the entirely reasonable pessimism which was for many years an inescapable part of Carey’s work, may obscure the gentle humor of the man and overshadow the intrinsic worth of his achievement. It is important to keep in mind, however, that George worked well into his final illness (for example, collaborating with me on an almost-completed book dealing with constitutional morality and the rule of law), seeking always to explain key concepts necessary for those who would understand the nature of our republic and its travails. I and many others have lost a rare, kind, and generous friend. Our republic has lost a brave champion. We are the poorer for the loss, but the richer, and the wiser, for whatever contact we may have had with George and his work.
Bruce Frohnen is associate professor of law at Ohio Northern University College of Law and co-editor, with Kenneth L. Grasso, of Defending the Republic: Constitutional Morality in a Time of Crisis; Essays in Honor of George W. Carey.
It would be hard to exaggerate the influence that George Carey exercised on my thinking about American constitutional history. His collections of essays, The Basic Symbols of the American Tradition, In Defense of the Constitution and The Federalist: Design for a Constitutional Republic, all had a powerful impact on me as I worked to understand this country’s foundational document. As I sat there poring over George’s close readings of the Federalist Papers, I would think of a joke that one of his colleagues used to make about his constitutional erudition: “He knows by heart every word in that text as well as in the Constitution, and what he doesn’t remember probably shouldn’t be there.” I still recall the times when George would invite me to lecture in his classes at Georgetown on contemporary political movements. The lectures were learning experiences for me as well as for the students because of the probing questions that my host would ask. Clearly he could have given my lectures at least as well as I did.
This tribute would be incomplete unless it mentioned George’s place as one of the professorial pillars of traditional American conservatism. His defense of limited constitutional government, his awareness of the religious and cultural dimensions of early American political and legal history, and his profound skepticism about liberal internationalism as the only American foreign policy all marked him off as a champion of what is sometimes called the Old Right. Although only ten years older than the rest of us in his camp, George always seemed a vital link to an earlier generation of conservative scholars, including his teacher and later collaborator Willmoore Kendall.
Despite his gentle demeanor, George was one of the few figures identified with the Right who expressed defiant opposition to the neoconservatives when they rose to power in the conservative movement. People with his rectitude and learning have become exceedingly rare in what today passes for the Right. Because of his sterling character, unassuming manner, and knowledge of the American past, George Carey was a source of inspiration to those of us who knew him.
Paul Gottfried is the author of Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America: A Critical Appraisal.
Kenneth L. Grasso
Beyond any question, the body of work produced by George W. Carey over the course of his long and distinguished career establishes him as one of the preeminent interpreters not merely of American conservatism but of the thought of the American Founders and of the nature and history of the American experiment in self-government and ordered liberty. His writings on the Founding, the “Madisonian” model of democracy, and the evolution of the American republic make indispensible contributions to our understanding of the American political tradition, and his volume The Federalist: Design for a Constitutional Republic is quite simply—and by a considerable margin—the best study of the political theory of that work ever written.
His achievements as a scholar are a testament not only to his vast learning—his mastery of the far-ranging materials bearing on the founding and development of the American democratic experiment—but to his intellectual humility and courage. Indeed, these qualities are among the keys to understanding to scholarly accomplishments.
This intellectual humility found expression in a meticulous attention to both text and context; in a willingness to “enter” into—to get “inside,” as it were—the intellectual universe he was engaging; in a commitment to allowing the thinkers he interpreted to speak for themselves rather than insisting on seeing them through the prism of some framework of his own devising; in a refusal to believe he had discovered some type of universal hermeneutical key that that provides the secret to understanding all thinkers; and in an openness to the insights of a wide array of scholars and intellectual traditions.
His intellectual courage manifested itself in a willingness to follow the truth where it leads, and in a steadfast refusal to embrace the various fads—and intellectual and political orthodoxies—that have dominated scholarship on the American political tradition at various points during his career. Whether the orthodoxy in question has been the revisionist interpretation of the Founding championed by progressivist historians and political scientists, the Lockean reading of the Founding espoused by the proponents of what he called “the official literature,” the “classical republicanism” school, or Straussianism (in both its East Coast and West Coast forms), Carey has resisted them for the simple reason that he believes that they distort our understanding of the American political tradition. Throughout his long and fruitful career, Carey simply refused to worship at the shrines of the various orthodoxies that dominated academic life.
It is perhaps worth noting in this context that Carey believed that “the most interesting, informative and heuristic accounts of the foundations of our political tradition … are to be found in works outside” the schools of thought that dominate contemporary academic discourse, in “works whose approaches are far more eclectic.”
More than just an exemplary scholar, George Carey was a true gentleman: he combined intellectual humility and courage with kindness, courtesy, fairness, and integrity. He will be sorely missed. In this case, the cliché is true: sadly, we shan’t see his like again.
Kenneth L. Grasso is professor of political science and director of the Project on American Constitutionalism at Southwest Texas State University and co-editor, with Bruce Frohnen, of Defending the Republic: Constitutional Morality in a Time of Crisis; Essays in Honor of George W. Carey.
When drafting a small tribute for a large-souled man, it is appropriate to include a sampling of his virtues and interesting characteristics, without implying that these fully constitute the man. George Carey was too sui generis for any canned attempt at definition.
Teaching and Friendship: In many ways, George was an anachronism, for he pursued his professorial work at Georgetown according to the older mentor-model of higher education, which is sadly lacking amidst the hustle of today’s research universities. George invested significant time advising, coaching, befriending, and joking with his students. He would mysteriously sign his emails TME, and I very belatedly learned that George was referring to himself as The Most Enlightened. He taught with comedic examples that could rarely be forgotten. George once explained that the Federal government’s immense legal code was akin to his former commanding military officer’s “junk on the bunk” test (an impossible regimen for laying out supplies on one’s military bed). Just as his commanding officer could find a minor flaw in any layout (and, hence, had a pretense to punish out-of-favor subordinates), so can the federal government arbitrarily distribute punishments, due to the impossibility of fully complying with its code.
Pursuing Truth in an Ideological Age: Although many will remember George for his involvement in the conservative movement, it is important to emphasize that this did not preclude him from independently pursuing truth. He was not trapped within an ideology. George developed several views that did not fit well with the movement or with today’s Republican Party. He appropriately challenged naïve neoconservative students (like myself at one time) about the problems with a blind commitment to the state of Israel, especially in light of the injustices suffered by Palestinians within its borders. He also saw the grave limitations with imperial-minded hawks on the right. At the outbreak of overreaction to 9/11, then the Iraq War, Carey explained with prophetic insight why all this would end badly.
With that said, the seeds of his traditionalist skepticism toward Internationalism probably took root long ago. He once shared how, when attending the 1952 Republican Convention, the young George Carey booed from his seat in the high bleachers when Eisenhower was announced as the nominee rather than Taft. Now, that was worthwhile convention protest.
Final Wisdom: I am struck by George’s wisdom during his final years. He realized that there was an inherent problem with intellectual-political movements: they tend to betray their intellectual commitments at the whims of trending political masters. George, however, handled instances of this with great sagacity; rather than raging against those who hurt his friends and the institutions he helped create, George gradually withdrew from public life to spend time with the family he loved. He took his stand and maintained his principles, but he did not let this hinder the satisfaction of his final years.
Praying for our friend: It is always wise to pray for the souls of beloved friends whom we have lost, and I encourage those reading this to do so for George. I will be praying for his repose with the Lord, for strength in his new journey, and for the opportunity one day to experience heavenly beatitude with my friend. In that perfect world, we will better know facets of reality that were less clear while we saw “through the glass, darkly.”
Peter Haworth is the editor of Anamnesis: A Journal for the Study of Tradition, Place, and ‘Things Divine.’
Like thousands of Georgetown undergrads through his five-decade career there, I knew George Carey first of all as a teacher.
My freshman year began a few months before the Berlin Wall came down, and that first semester, a couple of my dorm buddies and I regularly made the trek across campus to join 70 or so other students for American Government with Professor Carey.
He held our attention effortlessly. We were 18 or 19 years old; Professor Carey would have been 55, but we thought he was cool—cool in the way that only someone who’d smirk at that description can be. He was entirely self-possessed, cheerfully curmudgeonly, and eccentric without affectation. Was he having us on with those repeated deadpan references to “the Great Coolidge”? And what was this “George W. Carey (TME)” business on the syllabus? We eventually ferreted out that the initials stood for “The Most Enlightened,” a self-designation that would have seemed pompous coming from anyone else, but one he offered with a twinkle in his eye.
Like all good teachers, Carey was tough. A couple of his syllabi over the years featured a Flannery O’Connor quote: “And if the student find this is not to his taste, well, that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed.”
My second year, in an intensive, small-group seminar, I had what I suppose was a sophomoric reaction to Burke’s Reflections. When you’ve just slipped the parental chains, sentiments like, “we ought to see what it will please [men] to do [with their liberties], before we risk congratulations” don’t go down as easily as Keystone Light. Firmly but fairly, Professor Carey convinced me I was wrong. My memories of that seminar, “The Individual and the Modern State,” have a weird glow about them: I was 20 years old and I’d just found something I wanted to do forever.
We kept in touch after I graduated, but our correspondence dropped off for a few years around the turn of the century, during my soul-numbing detour into big-firm law practice. When we reconnected in the mid-2000s, I briefly wondered whether 9/11 might have moved my favorite professor in a nationalist direction, as it did so many others on the Right.
I quickly found out how much the Bush years had radicalized him. I remember his words better than the place—I think it was over burgers at the Tombs, surrounded by World War I propaganda posters—where he said to me: “I want—and I’m very serious about this—I want to see Bush and Cheney impeached, removed from office, then put on trial as war criminals.” To hear this from someone as genial, gentlemanly, and temperamentally conservative as George Carey was electrifying—like hearing Jimmy Stewart curse a righteous blue streak.
A few years later, on short notice as I struggled to finish my book, The Cult of the Presidency, Professor Carey gave me incisive and indispensably valuable comments, signing off with the encouragement/command “KEEP WORKING.” That someone I admired so much—without whom it never would have been written—actually liked the thing, made the sore back and countless all-nighters worth it in the end.
Looking through our correspondence, I came across a May 2011 email from Professor Carey to Larry Stratton—our regular partner at the Tombs—and me, subject line “Yikes”:
Gentlemen: Just think about this: “(A) smaller military, no matter how superb, will be able to go fewer places and do fewer things.” (Gates) Mind boggling.
Disgusted as he was with what American government had become, George Carey never lost his air of bemused good cheer. He was a gentleman, a scholar, an inspiration, and a mensch—and I feel very lucky to have known him.
Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and the author of The Cult of the Presidency.
I was George Carey’s last doctoral student. In the spring of 2009, I asked TME if he would be willing to chair my dissertation committee. Married folks can understand that a solemn and lasting bond must have a beginning, and so it is with doctoral students and advisors. I had been reading all winter (and reporting back to him) on a topic—American exceptionalism—that seemed both to have cachet and be absent in the political-theory literature, at least in the manner he and I found most compelling. So I proposed. And though I expected him to accept, I didn’t expect him to accept with a caveat. His answer hit me with a thud: “Sure I’ll do it, if you can finish up in [looking at his watch] fourteen months.”
Now, if you don’t know, this was an usually truncated timeline for a doctoral thesis. The heavy implication here was: I’m retiring and it’s for real this time. I had the feeling I was getting in just under the wire. He, along with my loving wife, made sure that I defended at month 13—weeks ahead of schedule.
Fast forward to last week, June 2013: TME still had yet to retire. He would not, could not, leave the classroom. He could not, would not, leave the work that he loved. As one who benefitted from both his teaching and friendship, I will be ever grateful. As one who followed in his footsteps, I know I will always fall short of his high example.
I want to add a larger point to my colleague Greg Weiner’s reflections, all of which I endorse. (Remarkably for the both of us, I penned a very similar note the night before I saw Greg’s.) George W. Carey, like his longtime Georgetown University brother-in-arms, Fr. James Schall, S.J., was more a steward than a scholar. If that seems like a slight to either man, I feel confident that each would reject the dignity that so many professors today heap upon themselves: that of being producers of knowledge. TME did not produce knowledge, but tried to get out of its way. The work of a professor is real, and the work that George Carey did is invaluable, but he wasn’t concerned to offer a “fresh” reading of anything. He corrected the record and participated in egg-headed debates mainly because the record stood in need of correction. The “freshest” readings of the American political tradition and Western civilization, he might have said, are the ones that ring true because they draw upon principles that do not change from place to place or from one time to another. The best accounts of reality are the ones that correspond to reality, that are in tune with “what is”—to use a favorite phrase of Schall’s that might have been too abstract for TME, even if he’d agree with its content and meaning.
Justin Litke is assistant professor in the Department of Government and Political Philosophy at Belmont Abbey College.
If I had known George Carey better, I would have called him a mentor. He was certainly an inspiration and model of what a conservative and scholar should be. I first met him in 2000, at a scholarly colloquium in Savannah, Georgia. Its theme was “Freedom and Virtue,” after the volume of libertarian-traditionalist debates that Carey had edited. (Still the best and least frustrating introduction to that subject.) Carey, a traditionalist, and M. Stanton Evans, a libertarian, led discussions with a dozen or so students.
Stan Evans was—and is, despite failing health—larger than life. At dinner one evening, as he was stepping outside to smoke, he came over to the table next to mine and said, apropos of his habit, “Use the drugs, kids, don’t let the drug use you!” He’s renowned in conservative circles for, among other things, saying, “Too many conservatives come to Washington thinking that it is a cesspool and wind up thinking it is a hot tub.”
Carey, by contrast, was genteel, almost sedate. His work on The Federalist and the Constitution emphasizes the deliberative, far-sighted character of those documents, and he embodied the very ethos he described. Carey wasn’t like the men who made the Constitution, exactly—he was more like the kind of man for whom the Constitution was made, those who could live up to its expectations of large-mindedness, disinterestedness, and aversion to factional strife.
What’s remarkable is that Carey could personify such a spirit while being intensely passionate about the damage the national-security state (even more than the left) had inflicted on the republic. When I joined ISI Books as a senior editor in 2007, I was surprised to learn that we were bringing Justin Raimondo’s urgent polemic Reclaiming the American Right back into print. The first edition had been almost self-published, by the small Center for Libertarian Studies, but Carey, who was on ISI’s board, recognized it as an invaluable work and used it as a textbook for courses on American conservatism.
This most temperamentally and philosophically conservative of scholars was also a radical in the best sense. A former student of his tells me he became an avid reader of Glenn Greenwald, and I knew he supported The American Conservative. (He even invited me to give a talk to one of his classes in 2009, an honor I hardly deserved.) When in 2010 I asked him to do a piece distinguishing the Cold War from the War on Terror—showing why support for the one didn’t have to entail acceptance of the other—he surprised me with an essay that called the Cold War itself into question. This came from a man who had served in the Marines. He understood the military, he understood republicanism, and he knew just how antithetical ideological crusading was to self-government.
He was a loyal friend: not only did he collaborate with Willmoore Kendall on the latter’s final book, The Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition, but he edited a volume of correspondence between Kendall and his father, and told me he thought Kendall had been terribly disserved by those who emphasized his fractious personality. He told me as well that Kendall’s classic essay “The Two Majorities” had been inspired by James Burnham’s Congress and the American Tradition—Burnham’s best book, Carey felt.
George Carey was, in his uncombative way, a living refutation of everything that had gone wrong with the right in the last 30 years. I looked up to him, and still do.
Daniel McCarthy is the editor of The American Conservative. Follow him on Twitter.
I first encountered George Carey in what would be his final years at Georgetown. For a man in his mid-seventies, he seemed as energetic and determined as he must have been on the day he began teaching on the Hilltop, when JFK was still down the road in the White House. I was shocked when at every class meeting the septuagenarian professor stood up and held the front of the room for the entire period—in a graduate course, almost two hours. We all wanted to beg him to sit down. Yet teaching about the roots of the republic required an upright posture, literally as well as morally.
He had a dignified bearing, but Carey was not posturing in the macho sense. He was in fact a man of humility and self-effacement, qualities that made students five decades his junior able to interact with him without fear. He was easy to engage because even after he’d been teaching for nearly half a century, he was always ready to approach a text or problem anew, with a vigor that motivated one to search further and deeper.
This ability to fuse serious scholarly inquiry with teaching in one vocation, a quality increasingly rare on campus, makes his passing a true loss—but also a life to celebrate for the example it set for countless students and colleagues. May George Carey continue to be a lodestar to all those who remember his noble and inspiring presence.
Lewis McCrary is managing editor of The National Interest.
Mark T. Mitchell
I first met Dr. Carey (I could never bring myself to call him George) when I visited Georgetown after having been accepted to the graduate program. I had been put in touch with Dr. Carey by one of my professors, and after exchanging a couple of letters, he offered me an Earhart Fellowship. During that visit, he tried to dissuade me from attending graduate school because of the uncertain job prospects for graduates. But despite the seriousness of his warning, there was something else as well—a kindness, a dryness to his wit, a quick, slightly mischievous laugh—that made me want to study with him. So I disregarded the first bit of advice he gave me.
When I arrived on campus, I went to his office because I didn’t know where else to go. I was astonished when he handed me a key to his office, pointed at a cleared shelf in his bookcase, and told me I could put my books there. For the next three years his office served as my home base on campus.
Dr. Carey was always generous with his time, and what I recall most about his demeanor is his gentleness. He could correct without demeaning, direct without forcing, and although he was an accomplished scholar with a broad understanding of American political theory, he would listen attentively to the half-baked musings of a graduate student and offer encouragement and advice just when they were needed.
Dr. Carey was a mentor in the best sense of the word. And his mentorship was not merely academic but professional as well. He generously introduced me to people and organizations that have shaped my mind and career. In many respects, I have tried to model my teaching and my interaction with students after the example he set.
To be a student of George Carey means something, and I’m always gratified by the response I receive when I say that I am a Carey student. He was an exemplary scholar, mentor, and man. TME, you will be missed.
Mark T. Mitchell is professor of government at Patrick Henry College.
George H. Nash
I first became acquainted with George Carey in the 1970s. We shared a professional interest in the history of American conservatism, and especially in the thought of Willmoore Kendall, with whom Professor Carey had collaborated on several projects. Our acquaintance quickly evolved into friendship. Over the years our paths crossed now and then, sometimes in Washington, sometimes at ISI events, mostly by telephone and email—and always agreeably.
George Carey will be remembered for his learned and provocative writings on American political theory and constitutionalism, including In Defense of the Constitution, The Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition, and his elegant edition (co-edited with James McClellan) of The Federalist. His dedication to the academic life was both notable and fruitful. For many who had the privilege of knowing him, something more must be recorded in his honor. Put simply: he was a scholar and a gentleman.
George H. Nash is a historian of American conservatism and author of seven books.
George Carey was my professor at Georgetown University, where he taught American Government and American Political Theory. He introduced me to the founding principles of American Conservatism and to a great love of the Federalist, the Bible of American political theory.
The late Willmoore Kendall was his mentor and colleague, and together Willmoore and George were a fearsome duo in making the case for an authentic American conservatism. George was an unsung hero of our movement. A serious scholar, he remained steadfast over the decades in his principles. He was a constitutionalist, and a fierce critic of the phony conservatives who exercise so much influence over our movement these days. Yet his belief in what constitutes authentic conservatism is beginning to gain ground among grassroots conservatives who are re-discovering the American Constitution.
George was a great friend to me. Without his teachings, guidance, and encouragement, I would not have been able to write two books that attempt to sort out what went wrong in America and what we need to do to bring America home to its founding principles. I owe him a great deal. May his soul rest in peace.
Tom Pauken is the author of Bringing America Home: How America Lost Her Way and How We Can Find Our Way Back.
I cannot honestly write that I knew George in the same way that his students, his colleagues, or his collaborators did. However, when I was a Fellow at the Liberty Fund, I did see George on a monthly basis and frequently shared lunch with him following our regular board meetings. Moreover, after I returned to academia, George and I shared some correspondence about U.S. foreign policy. Indeed, our interactions at Liberty Fund and later were almost always on that subject, and it was one of the things that brought George (a traditional conservative) and me (a virtue libertarian) onto common ground. Thus I will largely confine my remarks to this topic.
For those who may not have had the opportunity to chat with George about foreign policy, or to read his “In From the Cold” piece here in the American Conservative, he was vociferously opposed to the direction of American foreign policy in the post-9/11 era. Indeed, this may not adequately describe the depths of his feeling and thoughts on it! He was also concerned about the threat to the republic posed by the long-running growth of presidential power—and naturally saw the links between an aggressive foreign policy, executive dominance, and the erosion of liberty. George laid much of the fault for our problems at the feet of a pernicious elite, largely disconnected from “ordinary citizens” who still had a “basic good sense”—from whom he drew some hope in the midst of his late-life pessimism. Fortunately, George was the type of political scientist who not only knew his tribe’s theories but also had a solid grasp of history as well. Thus, his concerns and criticisms stood on two solid legs.
As for our correspondence, none was as unforgettable as the email he wrote to me on the occasion of my military deployment to Afghanistan. In that, George playfully reminded me how he used to “kid” me about the possibility of getting sent to war by the interventionists and neocons (for whom he had great disdain) in Washington, and here it was! Then, more seriously, George cautioned me that I was headed to the “graveyard of empires.” Indeed, George was worried I might get sent three or four times given his prescient pessimism about the mission. In a later note following the 2008 election, he expressed concern about what Obama’s desire to “change the world” would mean for our country and reiterated a concern of his that we would get “bogged down” in Afghanistan as we had in Iraq. It is hard to argue that George didn’t see things clearly on these matters.
Being in my experience a gentleman, and someone who himself had served in the military (the Marine Corps, at that), George was careful to note in yet another email that he didn’t want to “dampen” my “morale or anything” by sending a pessimistic article to me that I may not have seen and that he thought would be valuable for me to read. And indeed, I was always happy to see or hear from him, even when we disagreed.
Others can speak more about his substantive work as a political scientist. But I think our admittedly infrequent interactions provide a small window into what drove George in his later years. And I have little doubt that George would want those of us who share his concerns about the modern presidency, the fate of the republic, and the Constitution to continue his efforts to articulate a critique of the reigning but misguided ideas of our age. RIP.
William Ruger is the author of Milton Friedman.
Claes G. Ryn
Scholars, like other human beings, tend to be opportunists and panderers and to shrink from challenging the powers that be. Even intellectuals said to be courageous truth-tellers typically achieve that reputation by aligning themselves with some part of the existing order. George W. Carey was more truly independent. A man of great moral and intellectual integrity, he would not be diverted or co-opted by the powers that be, with their promises of fame and fortune. To be sure, he did not seek controversy or confrontation; his personal demeanor was gentle rather than combative. His way of writing and teaching and interacting with others was scholarly, quiet, almost understated. Yet he was intellectually tough, not in the sense of single-mindedly pushing a line of argument but in the sense that the truth mattered deeply to him. In his central scholarly endeavor—the explication and defense of the work of the American Founders—he was deeply committed to accurately rendering their historical circumstances and frame of mind. Following his own path during his entire academic career, he immeasurably enriched the field of American political thought.
George W. Carey was destined to oppose the dominant trends in his own discipline. He resisted the reductionism of methodological positivism and “scientific value relativism,” which put large, central questions of humane significance outside the bounds of scholarly inquiry. One result of this new political “science” was to impoverish and ideologically bias the study of the American political tradition and to undermine further the ability of scholars to understand American constitutionalism, with its origins in Christian, Roman, and British culture. Whether political scientists and historians of the new kind were driven by outright hostility to this heritage or were just biased by the positivistic conception of scholarship, they proffered warped interpretations of the Constitution. Even many supposed defenders of the work of the Framers willfully steered attention away from America’s real origins, portraying the Constitution as based on certain ahistorical, abstract “principles” of their own devising. But in an era of ideological passion, intellectual frivolity, and trendiness George Carey stood his ground, presenting ever more scholarly evidence for his historically and philosophically informed view of the Constitution. He instilled in numerous students—many of them at the doctoral level—and in his readers a vivid sense of how the Framers of the Constitution really thought and what they intended. Those who have benefited from his scholarly achievement and have been inspired by his personal example are already busy helping to recover a sense of the American heritage, a cause to which he contributed enormously and to which he was committed to the end.
During the last few years of his life, I thought I detected in George a deepening disappointment in the failure of his countrymen, especially scholars and intellectuals, to understand and appreciate the constitutional heritage that had been bestowed upon them by great forebears. Americans were abandoning the best in their own traditions and succumbing to a creeping tyranny. He dreaded the spread of arbitrary power. He much feared the progressive unleashing of the executive and the failure of the Congress to exercise its constitutional responsibilities, not least in foreign policy. He viewed with dismay how a moralistic ideology of American empire, which was partly a cover for undeclared foreign-policy designs, boosted, hardened, and extended hawkish foreign-policy attitudes formed during the Cold War. Even as he avoided public clashes with those setting the tone in so-called conservatism, he bemoaned the transformation of an earlier conservatism into a narrow, activist ideology and a kind of entrepreneurial scheme.
Has America passed the point of no return? Nobody can say. Even if America’s decline should continue, the work of George W. Carey will stand as a reminder of what America at one time was and might have become. And, if ever there is a broad and genuine revival of interest in the thinking behind the Constitution and a new stirring of the spirit of constitutionalism, his work will stand tall among Americans seeking to understand their own past.
Claes G. Ryn is professor of politics at Catholic University and chairman of the National Humanities Institute.
Gerald J. Russello
George Carey was an abiding presence at Georgetown, where he taught and where I studied as an undergraduate. He provided important intellectual ballast to the institution and, in a different way, to the undergraduate journal espousing conservative principles a few of us had put together. His critical studies of the Constitution, and his famous work with Willmoore Kendall, should form the foundation of anyone seeking to understand the Republic and its constitutional foundations. RIP.
Gerald J. Russello is editor of The University Bookman.
James V. Schall, S.J.
A very nice photo of George Carey and myself was taken in Gaston Hall at Georgetown University the evening (December 7, 2012) I gave my “last lecture.” At the time, it was Schall who was leaving, but the Lord was soon to take George, who had been looking progressively weaker in recent months.
George Carey was one of the few men who had been on campus for longer than I. He was a gentleman in every way, including an academic way. In his quiet manner, he knew more about the American founding than anyone. My fondest intellectual memory of him was an essay he wrote in the University of Tulsa Law Review several years ago. He wrote that today no branch of the American government considers itself bound by the Constitution. In a Tocqueville lecture at Georgetown, he added that the Constitution presupposed a morality, a basis of virtue that we have now lost. We are free to be anything but what we ought to be.
George Carey was a beloved professor. When asked—even when not asked—I advised students: “Do not leave Georgetown without taking Carey.” The sane ones took my advice and thanked me for it. Carey stood for something. I call it the truth, for that is what it was.
Carey held that the Constitution, not the Declaration, was America. The world vision of the Declaration, he held, corrupted what American was intended to be. He thought George W. Bush probably destroyed the Republican Party and eventually the country by the embrace of neocon principles. He was not a “fortress America” advocate, but he doubted that saving the rest of the world from itself was really possible or what our country was about, especially if it meant stretching the Constitution and Federalist out of shape.
The only liberal genes that ever showed up in Carey, which I frequently pointed out to him, were his annual pre-season prediction that the Redskins would win the Superbowl and the Georgetown Hoyas the NCAA basketball tournament. No amount of experience ever deterred him in these rash ideas.
Carey worried over the decline of liberal arts in the university. He was not impressed with specialization, however careful he himself was with the facts. His founding the Political Science Reviewer always seemed to me to be one of his greatest contributions. His idea was valid. To know how a book looks on publication is one thing. What the reviewers say then is passing. What is more insightful is what is said 40, 50, or 70 years after the book was published. Has it stood up? Or was it a passing thing, however widely read?
The classroom I taught in for the past 20 years was dedicated to George Carey. The shades in the room never worked. I kept complaining to George. He explained to me that it was not the task of a university professor to fix the shades. George Carey did not have time to be a handyman. He was too busy explaining to us the Socratic principle that unless our souls were in order, our polity would probably likewise be disordered.
James V. Schall, S.J., taught political science at Georgetown University for many years and is the author of Remembering Belloc.
Professor Carey—I could never bring myself to call him George—made an outsized impact on my intellectual life. His extraordinary work on the American Founding, especially the Federalist, charmed and provoked, causing me to reconsider what I thought I knew about the Constitution. It’s not just that he offered distinctive answers to standard interpretive quandaries, but rather that he made me ask different questions entirely about the roots of American order. It was a privilege to sit in a Carey seminar and listen as he meticulously, often line-by-line, guided you through the arguments of “Publius.” His distinctive terminology—“MDI” (multiplicity and diversity of interests) or “the filter problem”—remain a part of how I think about our political system. In a private seminar, he introduced me to the thought of Michael Oakeshott, a figure whose books changed my life. And in our long discussions about the conservative intellectual movement, he offered me an education of its own kind.
Most of all, though, Professor Carey showed me generosity and kindness when, as a young doctoral student, I needed it the most. His office door always was open, and I spent many afternoons talking with him about every topic imaginable. For two years I served as his teaching assistant, an enviable position given how much of the work he took on himself, and which offered me the chance to learn from him even more. In particular, he told me story after story about a brilliant political theorist I had become fascinated by, Willmoore Kendall (“he was the most difficult man I ever met”), who Professor Carey collaborated with on a number of brilliant articles and a seminal book, Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition. One day, as I was sitting across from him, Professor Carey handed me a yellowing, mimeographed document. When I asked him what it was, he said it was an unpublished manuscript of Kendall’s, The Long Farewell to Majority Rule. Professor Carey indicated only a few copies were in existence, and he wanted me to have one.
Students of Professor Carey know he signed his email and syllabi with the abbreviation, “TME.” For months after first meeting him I wondered what this meant, until, eventually, I worked up the courage to ask. When I did, he leaned back in his chair, smiling, and told me it stood for “the most enlightened.” What made this so amusing was that Professor Carey was perhaps the least pretentious academic I have known. His main complaint about my papers was that I didn’t disagree with him enough. Professor Carey could be curmudgeonly, but never unkind. He was one of the most decent men I have known. He was a gentleman and a scholar, and despite the accolades and renown that came with the latter, it is the way he embodied the former that now, after his passing, I find myself remembering the most.
Matthew Sitman is literary editor of The Dish.
George Carey set a model for distinguished teaching and scholarship.
He always kept the original “Philadelphia Constitution” at the forefront of his thought and knew the Federalist, which he edited, by heart. Because of his deep Madisonian structural commitment to the Constitution’s checks and balances, he would criticize executive branch overreach by Republican and Democratic administrations as strongly as he critiqued the Warren Court’s judicial excesses in his many articles and books. Conversations with George, which spanned over two decades—usually at Georgetown’s Tombs with other Georgetown alumni such as Gene Healy, Tom Jenney, and Scott Shuda—were always stimulating. Whether I was writing about the Equal Protection Clause and affirmative action, plea bargaining and the Fifth Amendment, Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments” and the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, or John Locke and majority rule, George was always an email or phone call away with a pithy “Publius” answer to any question before me.
This semester I used his “Students Guide to American Political Thought” and his Liberty Fund edition of the Federalist while teaching my seminar on American Political Thought at Waynesburg University. I had looked forward to discussing insights I gained from the course with him later this summer. That conversation will have to wait. I will deeply miss him. Thankfully Professor Carey’s wisdom will endure in his writings, as America and global civilization have lost a great hero of freedom. My prayers are with his wife Claire—“the other Dr. Carey”—and his family.
Lawrence M. Stratton is Director of the Stover Center for Constitutional Studies and Moral Leadership and assistant professor of ethics and constitutional law at Waynesburg University in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania.
I met George Carey 15 years ago as an undergraduate at Georgetown when I took his American Political Theory course, then a prerequisite in the Government Department. He was in his 37th year of teaching and would continue for 15 more, including this last semester prior to his death. Unbeknownst to my peers and I when classes began, he was widely recognized as one of the country’s leading constitutional scholars and an expert on America’s Founding. He was also considered a major thought leader in the post-World War II conservative intellectual movement, though one wouldn’t have thought he was any of these things based on his humble and pleasant demeanor. Indeed, it was only once a student became more involved in studying constitutional theory or the history of conservatism that he or she discovered what a giant the man was, for Carey would never have told you.
Yet it wasn’t his scholarship or stature that caused my fellow Hoyas and I to hold him in such high regard. Rather, it was his passion for teaching and the responsibility he felt to mold and guide students into becoming not just better scholars, but better human beings.
Unlike too many professors, Carey knew the faculty existed for the benefit of the students and not the other way around. It was Carey the man who drew our loyalty. A bit like Socrates, he was the one professor I ever met who would regularly have groups of students hanging out in his office for hours at a time, just to listen to him speak, only leaving because he had to go teach another class.
In possession of a wry sense of humor (one didn’t leave his office without learning something new and sharing a few laughs), Carey exuded an appreciation for life that made spending time with him such a treat. Patient and kind, he didn’t mind explaining for the third or fourth time the differences between East and West Coast Straussians, why neoconservatives were bad for America, or the Founders’ intentions behind a particular clause in the Constitution and how liberals and big-government types had over the years distorted it. More importantly for a young person trying to find his way in the world, he was willing to tell you when he thought you were wrong, whether it had to do with academics or your personal life. His students quickly became his friends, and to those who became his friends, he was like an older brother you could rely on for all manner advice and support.
For over a decade he had been saying he would retire, and invariably each year would find a new Ph.D. candidate or group of undergrads to mentor and to whom he felt a responsibility, and so would postpone yet again a well-deserved break. He died having served as a mentor to generations of conservative students at Georgetown, for whom he was the go-to faculty member, and who this week will mourn his passing as steward of America’s constitutional order and what was best about our alma mater.
Robert Swope writes from Uganda.