Buckley: William F. Buckley Jr. and the Rise of American Conservatismby Carl T. Bogus
A groundbreaking biography of the man who created the formula for modern conservatism, and the story of how he built the political movement that reshaped America.See more details below
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A groundbreaking biography of the man who created the formula for modern conservatism, and the story of how he built the political movement that reshaped America.
- Bloomsbury USA
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BuckleyWilliam F. Buckley Jr. and the Rise of American Conservatism
By Carl T. Bogus
bloomsbury pressCopyright © 2011 Carl T. Bogus
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Making of the Man Who Remade Conservatism
William F. Buckley Jr.'s ideology was not the product of study and reflection. It was practically inherited. Bill and nine siblings were brought up by powerful and opinionated parents. Their father had made a small fortune in the oil business, and until high school they lived in a velvet cocoon. Except for one year in an English boarding school, Bill, and his siblings, were home schooled by professional tutors and coaches at the family estate, Great Elm, in the bucolic town of Sharon, Connecticut. When the children reached adulthood, they discovered, somewhat to own their surprise, that they all held a common and distinct political philosophy. There wasn't an ideological black sheep among them.
Much has been written about the family dinner table, at which the children supposedly were expected to present their views about current events and defend them under rigorous questioning from their father. The children, we are led to believe, underwent an almost deliberate program of political indoctrination. In private interviews, however, two of the children – Priscilla and James, the third and fourth oldest of the ten siblings – assure me that the portrayals of political science seminars at the family dinner table are grossly exaggerated if not downright fallacious. There was, in fact, not especially much discussion about politics within the Buckley household, at least not overtly. That does not mean there was no conversation about politics. The children knew, for example, that their parents subscribed to the America First doctrine, which held that America should not become embroiled in the Second World War, and that they considered Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal socialistic. But that was about as far as the expressly political talk went in the Buckley household.
How then did Bill and his siblings acquire their distinctive political philosophy? Something more powerful than dinner table political science seminars was going on in the Buckley household: a father was telling his children evocative stories about his experiences in Mexico. William Frank Buckley, Sr., "Will," as he was called, lived in Mexico during his own politically formative years. Will was in Mexico from ages twenty-seven to forty, when the president of Mexico expelled him for conspiring to overthrow the government. These were also the years that shaped modern Mexico, the period of the Mexican revolution. The stories Will told his children were focused more on his own adventures than on the philosophical differences among the factions fighting for control of Mexico. When the children became older, they wondered whether their father's stories had been exaggerated – for their father was a dramatic storyteller, and he knew how to make a tale more colorful for children. But whether Will's stories were entirely true is beside the point. Bill and his siblings believed them, at least while they were children.
Will's stories may not have to be overtly political, but they reflected a particular way of looking at the world that was forged during his experiences in Mexico. He assimilated his children into that worldview just as other parents assimilate their children into their particular realities: by describing the world and explaining events against a backdrop of particular assumptions. Will's children themselves recognize that their father's years in Mexico molded both his perception of the world and their own. Reid Buckley, the third youngest of the ten siblings, writes that his father's "experiences in Mexico stamped our father's character and beliefs ever after, in turn indelibly stamping the assumptions, attitudes, perspectives, and political inclinations of his children."
To understand Bill's political philosophy, therefore, we have to understand his father's worldview, and to do that, we must understand Will's time in Mexico. As ironic as it may seem, the seminal influences of the new conservatism flow from Will Buckley's experiences during the Mexican Revolution.
Will Buckley was born in 1881 into a family of Irish immigrants living in San Diego, Texas. Most of the residents in this town of 2,000 in southern Texas were Hispanic origin. While English was used in the public schools, Spanish was spoken more often in town generally, and Will was bilingual from an early age. Will's father was, in turns, an insurance salesman, the elected sheriff of Duval County, and a sheep rancher. Will's mother was a devout Catholic, and the children were tutored in Latin and Catholicism by Father John Peter Bard, a parish priest from the Basque region in Spain who is described in a book published privately for the Buckley family as "a scholar and linguist" and a man of "rugged individualism." Father Bard had a strong influence on Will. The relationship was so strong, in fact, that Will continued as altar boy for Father Bard for more than fifteen years, returning to San Diego to assist his mentor during college vacations even after the Buckley family had moved to away. One of the undercurrent themes in the Buckley family book is that even as a young boy in Texas, Will learned to distrust both the people and the government. The book states, for example, that during his childhood in San Diego, Will "knew firsthand of armed rising and rebellions, and of the ruthlessness of the Texas rangers."
In the fall of 1900, Will entered the University of Texas at Austin, which was then, as it is now, the premier state university in Texas. By majoring in Spanish, in which he was already fluent, Will was able to earn eight course credits by simply taking the final examinations and quickly leap ahead to advanced courses in Spanish literature. His proficiency in Spanish also allowed him to earn money by coaching other students in Spanish and working as a translator in the University's land office. He joined a fraternity and was elected editor-in-chief of Cactus, the University yearbook. While Will was in college, his father died, and the family moved to Austin. Will's sister Priscilla took a position as a school teacher, helping to put Will, brothers Claude and Edmund, and sister Eleanor through the University of Texas.
A story about Will's undergraduate days is revealing. At a basketball game between the University of Texas and St. Edwards College (now St. Edwards University), a Catholic school in Austin, played on the latter's home court, tempers were running high when a priest serving as referee made a call in favor of St. Edwards. A Texas student in the audience yelled, "That damn priest is lying." Will immediately flattened him with a powerful punch.
After earning their bachelor's degrees, Will and his brothers continued on to law school at the University of Texas. In 1908, Will, a newly minted lawyer, decided to seek his fortune in Tampico, Mexico. Tampico, a seaport on the Gulf of Mexico, is in the heart of Mexico's oil producing region. For two years, Will worked for another lawyer whom he described in a letter to a friend as "a crook." He quit working for this man, and for a period of about a year – without resources or friends to fall back upon – had no source of income. Will did not give up however. He opened his own law office, in which he was joined by his brother Claude and later brother Edmund as well. The Buckley boys gambled all they had – and more – on developing a practice that would represent the large oil companies. They took a large loan and sunk it into fitting out a handsome office and hiring top-notch staff. They persuaded a local judge to leave the bench and join the firm. To cultivate their image as lawyers for big companies, they took the bold step of turning down small business clients, though they surely could have used the revenue. Their gamble paid off: the Buckley brothers won over the big companies – they represented the likes of Standard Oil, British Petroleum, and Companie Française – and their practice became extremely profitable.
Will, however, was soon bored by legal practice, and he increasingly turned to business. He invested profits from his law practice in real estate. He leased or purchased land from peasants and in turn leased those lands to oil companies. By 1914, he owned land valued at more than $100,000 (the equivalent of more than two million dollars today). In that same year, he founded the Pantepic Corporation of Mexico, the first of a series of oil exploration companies that eventually would make him rich.
When Will arrived in Mexico, Porfirio Díaz was the nation's president. Díaz had come to power thirty-two years earlier through an armed revolution against a former dictator under the slogan "effective suffrage and no reelection." Once in power, however, Díaz himself became a permanent, absolute ruler. He justified his rule in two ways. First, he maintained cosmetic constitutionality: when the constitution became an impediment to remaining in office, he amended it to permit him to run for reelection or extend his term, maintaining the fiction that his dictatorship was lawful and sanctioned by the people. Second, Díaz and a powerful group of supporters and advisers known as the científicos, maintained that because the population was largely illiterate, Mexico was not ready for true democracy. What the nation needed first, they argued, was a sustained period of stability, a Porfiriato, to bring to Mexico capitalism, industrialization, education of the masses, and development of a middle class.
On several fronts, Díaz and the científicos made progress. They built infrastructure: roads, ports, factories, electric plants, and especially railroads. When Díaz came to power, Mexico had four hundred miles of railroad track; by the time Will arrived in Mexico, there were twelve thousand miles of track. Díaz and the científicos built new schools to train teachers, and they tripled primary school enrollment. Literary increased. By the time Will arrived in Mexico, a majority of people in the Federal District of Mexico City could read and write, and national literary rates had increased from less than fifteen percent in the pre-Díaz era to nearly twenty percent. During the first two decades of Díaz's rule, Mexico's gross national product increased by eight percent per year.
Progress, however, came at a price. The científicos believed that people of pure Spanish or other European descent were racially superior to the Mexico's indigenous peoples or to the mestizos, that is, the people of mixed European and native Indian ancestry. The white population, which constituted less than twenty percent of the country, was largely concentrated in central plateau, especially in Mexico City and Guadalajara. Within these areas, a professional class developed that was loyal to Díaz, but it was small and racially restricted. Throughout the rest of Mexico, the Díaz government allowed the rich white elite to become superrich by acquiring enormous tracts of land. Seventeen families came to own twenty percent of the entire country; half of Mexico's land was held by three thousand families. They took these lands by hook and by crook – sometimes through outright force, sometimes by concocting fraudulent deeds that corrupt government courts said were valid. Community landholding fell from twenty-five percent to just two percent of the nation's land.vii Moreover, little of the growth in GNP trickled down to the lower and middle classes. According to historians Robert M. Buffington and William E. French, the economic growth "only exacerbated the traditional incongruities in Mexico's economic and social structures. Not surprisingly, the rich got richer and spent much of their new wealth on imported luxuries."
The Díaz government encouraged U.S. and European entrepreneurs to develop businesses in Mexico. The científicos argued that this was the most efficient means for bringing the ethos of capitalism and economic development to Mexico. But a sort of conspiracy of thieves took hold. The government protected foreign entrepreneurs with favorable tariffs and with courts that – when presented with disputes between native Mexicans and foreign enterprises – routinely ruled in favor of the foreigners. In return, the foreign entrepreneurs enriched the government officials and Mexican elites though both legitimate business arrangements and outright graft.
What the científicos portrayed as foreign investment that was valuable to Mexico, others saw as rank exploitation. Foreign firms built and operated textile mills and other factories. Foreigners owned 90% of the incorporated value of these industries, with Americans owning 70%. Foreign enterprises engaged in extensive mining operations in the north, extracting silver, gold, lead, copper, and zinc. United States companies controlled 75% of the mines. Along the Gulf of Mexico, foreign firms – with local headquarters in Tampico – drilled for oil. During Will Buckley's time there, Mexico was the world's second largest oil producing nation. U.S. firms controlled 38% of that business; British and other European firms were also heavily represented.
What about the Catholic Church? Mexico was a devoutly Catholic nation. Did the Church not stand up for her people? Díaz's predecessor had sought to weaken the Church through anticlerical Laws of Reform, aimed in part at reducing the Church's large landowning. Díaz, however, devised a more nuanced approach. In a secret pact with the Archbishop of Mexico, Díaz agreed not to enforce the Laws of Reform, although he slyly kept them on the books as sort of a hanging sword of Damocles. In return, the Archbishop agreed to give Díaz veto power over all ecclesiastical appointments, and to encourage parish priests to preach fidelity to the government.
For the most part, Díaz was able to maintain his rule through collaborations with elites, foreign entrepreneurs, and the Church, as well as through savvy manipulation of the press. He paid handsome subsidies to newspaper publishers and editors as long as he liked what they printed, and he permitted "opposition" newspapers as long as their criticisms were carefully circumscribed. When faced with protests, Díaz quashed them with dramatic cruelty. When native Indians in the Mexican state of Hidalgo rebelled at having their ancestral lands stolen, Díaz's rurales – a quasi-military state police force – buried the protestors up to their necks and then trampled them to death on galloping horseback. As aspirations slowly rose, disenchantment rose. Workers in the textile and mining operations began to unionize, and violence flared between strikers and an American employer in the mining region in the north.
The series of events leading to the Mexican revolution began in 1910, two years after Will Buckley arrived in Mexico. An unlikely man – Francisco Madero, the 37 year-old scion of Mexico's fifth richest family – wrote a book condemning the dictatorship in blistering terms. He accused Díaz of "patriarchal politics" that was causing a "corruption of the spirit, disinterest in public life, disdain for law and the tendency towards deception, toward cynicism, towards fear." "We are sleeping under the cool but harmful shade of a poisonous tree," Madero warned. He demanded a return to the Constitution of 1857, with a president selected through a genuine democratic vote and barred from reelection. Madero sold much of his property, used the money to form a new political party, and set out on a nationwide speaking tour during which he was drawing crowds in the tens of thousands. Díaz had Madero arrested on trumped up charges of plotting armed insurrection. This persuaded Madero that armed revolution was in fact the only route to reform. Madero escaped from jail and called for an armed national uprising, which (probably because he believed in the occult and for mystical reasons considered the time propitious) he declared would begin about seven weeks hence, at precisely at 6:00 PM on Sunday, November 20, 1910.
Excerpted from Buckley by Carl T. Bogus Copyright © 2011 by Carl T. Bogus. Excerpted by permission of bloomsbury press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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