Ted McAllister was a popular speaker at Russell Kirk Center Seminars. Standing: Lynn Robinson, Vigen Guroian, Jeff Nelson, Ryan Streeter Seated: Bill McClay, Annette Kirk, Ted McAllister, Ian Crowe

By Bruce P. Frohnen.

Ted V. McAllister died on January 27 after a long, hard-fought battle with cancer. A native Oklahoman, he spent most of his career living in Moorpark (culturally quite distant from Los Angeles) while teaching at the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy. Among the earliest faculty at that school, he was instrumental in establishing and maintaining its integration of the humanities into the professional curriculum. He was also a cherished and encouraging friend of the Russell Kirk Center family, the publisher of this journal. 

A scholar of the American polity, combining a deep understanding of history with a concern to explore the effects of ideas on human conduct and character, McAllister was an important figure in traditional conservative circles. He was a powerful orator, beloved teacher, and master of the written word. He devoted his life and work to his people and the constitutional order that once helped them sustain right order and meaningful communities.

Ted will, of course, be remembered most for his scholarship. But it is a testament to the right order of his soul that he lived in a manner that prioritized his faith, his family, and his primary vocation as a teacher over worldly success. He saw his relationship with God as the source of spiritual being, from which all good things must flow. His duties to family, and his love for them, were with him always and influenced professional as well as personal choices. And teaching? His students, formal and informal, saw him as a guide to life, and to knowledge of our personhood and the character of our people. Toward the end of Ted’s life, I was privileged to step in for him in teaching a class. The students were unfailingly polite and, more than this, kind, seeking to make the class the best it could possibly be. Their attitude, and their frequent references to Ted, were not just signs of their good character, but also a profound compliment to him; the class remained his class, with me an ally in students’ attempt to make our semester together worthy of him.

Ted and I rarely met in person but became, for my part, brothers over the span of a few years as we wrote two books together. He was the guiding force for Coming Home: Reclaiming America’s Conservative Soul, which began as a proposal for a series of conferences at the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. Though already ill, he was a full partner in conceiving and writing Character in the American Experience: An Unruly People. Both books evince his understanding that a people’s character—its virtues, customs, and ways of living—are the source of social order and must be fostered and maintained if culture, constitution, and the people itself are to endure. And such character, being the result of intimate relationships and the interlocking institutions, beliefs, and practices of those with whom we live, can be shaped and maintained only at the local level, which broader national and international structures may protect or undermine, but never improve. 

Ted’s love of the particular never blinded him to the importance of universal truths, nor to the inescapable influence of ideas. As he put it in one of his many brilliant essays, “ideas not material conditions drive history.” Opposed to all the simplifiers who would pulverize reality’s complexities so that they might remake it according to their own fancies, Ted focused on the relationship between ideas and character, or how the relationships and institutions within which we live are either nurtured or undermined by broader conceptions of justice, virtue, and the makings of a good life. For a historian to write a path-breaking book in political thought may not seem strange for readers of The University Bookman; the history of ideas was among Russell Kirk’s central concerns. But it has been highly unusual in the academy for some decades. And Revolt Against Modernity: Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, and the Search for a Post-Liberal Order is a remarkable book. In it, Ted used a dispassionate analysis of Strauss, Voegelin, and their influence on modern conservatism. In the process he showed how individualism and materialism have become the core of modern liberalism, undermining our ability to forge constitutive relationships. The idea of the “free” individual who could be whoever and whatever he wanted—a “citizen of the world” unconstrained by history or place—spawned contemporary globalism and undermined the communities in which we must live if we are to be fully human. 

The desire to be “free” from constraint and, more fatally, to “free” others from their communities, whether they like it or not, is tyrannical. It places the “liberator” in the place of God, and the mere human in the place of some lesser creature whose history and social relations are to be cast aside, leaving him alone and unguided, easy prey to ideologues and their grand, inhuman plans. In an important volume, Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America, edited with Wilfred McClay, Ted argued that “the modern liberation of the individual from the constraints of place constitutes as much a limitation as an emancipation. To put the claim bluntly, place constrains but it also empowers, and a radical emancipation from place does not lead to creative freedom but to boredom, emotional and spiritual fragmentation, and tyranny.” Only when we are fully engaged in our communities, be it by teaching in our church or simply enjoying a gin and tonic with friends and colleagues, are we fully human, developing our capacities and virtues.

Ted’s romance with the car—and he loved cars—was rooted in his understanding that the whole person lives in community, but is not merely the sum of his connections. He recognized the car as an important means by which we have kept some of our independence in this time of increasing hierarchy and bureaucracy. Independence, rather than mere individualism, is an important aspect of Americans’ restlessness. We settled the frontiers and kept our communities vital in part out of sheer unruliness, a desire to be left alone by wider, more impersonal forces so that we and our families might join others in forging lives and communities. In our present age of mass culture and regimentation the “rebel without a cause” seeking the open road has become a symbol of spiritedness in the face of conformity. Small wonder, then, that the car, like the gas stove and all other creature comforts that defy the convenient narrative of worldwide crises, has come in for such hatred. The hypocritical elites who would have us eating bugs in our dormitories as we wait for the bus, the government check, or the euthanizer want what is “best” for us as mere creatures of material forces. So long as we are free to engage in perverse acts of self-indulgence, whether regarding sex, substance abuse, or social media, (or the occasional riot), we are to accept that we are “free” while our betters rule. And so we are ushered into a new world of personal constraints that divorce us from spiritual, historical, and social reality, softened by the anesthesia of selfishness.

Ted would not go (as he did not go) without a fight. He remained to the end fully engaged in his communities, especially at his university, where he struggled to keep alive a conservative understanding of education and a Christian practice of stewardship. He also ran into the wall of mainstream censorship more than once in his publishing endeavors. But he was a true master of that all-but-lost art of the learned essay, dozens of which remain available on the internet. A central theme of these writings is the complex nature of social purpose. In one review essay he criticized the notion of America’s constitutional era as a grand “project” in human liberty:

We can be thankful that America was not founded as a project (which is to say on an ideology), since the roots of the American order are deep, solid, and principled, and they provided the Founders with the English habit of relying on experience to guide innovation. Each of the key principled themes in the U.S. Constitution has a long pedigree: the idea of a limited government; the consent of the people; a “balanced” government that checks powers within; and the importance of citizen participation. These, along with the English common law tradition (the significance of which is hard to exaggerate), were long part of the English heritage in both practice and thought.

Ted knew, and constantly reminded us, that the common good of our nation is the flourishing of our wild diversity of communities, in our families, churches, townships, vocations, and regions. We can only serve the broader good by living fully within our particular goods. A restless people by nature, we must continue to wander, to pursue vocations and goals that might take us away from familiar surroundings. But we must always remember to return home, where our true nature and meaning reside. Ted has finally gone home, which is sad for those of us left behind, though we hope to be with him in that final home our hearts desire.

Bruce P. Frohnen is a Professor of Law at Ohio Northern University’s College of Law and a Senior Fellow at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal.

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