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William F. Buckley Jr. and
America’s “Engines of Concern”
It is difficult to watch Bill Buckley debate James Baldwin at Cambridge Union
in 1965 without becoming engrossed by his performance. Buckley the famed
debater lost badly to Baldwin that day. His arguments were scattered in a way
that makes them hard to imagine as collectively compelling, even to a crowd
that appreciated a provocative case. While generally advancing a “meliorist”
account of American race relations, Buckley jumped disjointedly about from
point to point and from example to example.
Indeed, any careful viewing of the debate suggests that Buckley had lost his
bearings. He appeared “in great transition” (Allitt 2015), “at a crux” (Hogeland
2015), and “anxiously dislocated” (McWilliams 2015). All three accurately describe Buckley during the debate. Yet something else underlay Buckley’s condition. At that particular moment in 1965, Buckley looked lost. He seemed to be
searching for any port in a storm as he careened through his attempt to persuade
the Cambridge Union to reject the powerful indictment Baldwin had delivered
minutes earlier.
And the fact is that Buckley was lost in 1965: intellectually, professionally,
and personally lost. He had been unable to work through some fundamental
contradictions in his political thought—and had abandoned a book project on
the topic. He was distanced from the day-to-day work of National Review. He
had been in public spats with the Vatican over Pope John’s approach to Catholic doctrine—which must have been difficult for him, given his personal devotion. And he had weathered a contentious relationship with the Goldwater
campaign, during which he had been heartbroken by the death of his sister
Maureen (Judis 2001).
Will Barndt is associate professor of political studies, Pitzer College (
American Political Thought: A Journal of Ideas, Institutions, and Culture, vol. 6 (Fall 2017).
2161-1580/2017/0604-0009$10.00. © 2017 by The Jack Miller Center. All rights reserved.
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Buckley and America’s “Engines of Concern”
Having been tossed around by recent life, Buckley seemed adrift in the debate, albeit adrift in his own peculiarly frenetic way. This is, I believe, how
Buckley’s erratic performance ought to be understood: it was the performance
of a man so buffeted by life that it was hard for him to know exactly where he
was. It was the performance of a lost man.
Yet Buckley did say something revealing that day, something that can provide
insight into his own thought—and into the place of that thought in genealogies
of American politics. Partway through his remarks, Buckley claimed, “The engines of concern in the United States are working” (BBC 1965). It is a curious
phrase, “the engines of concern.” What did Buckley mean?
Context within the debate is important. Buckley dropped the phrase about
halfway through his talk, immediately after arguing that what Americans must
first do in addressing Baldwin’s concerns is to “care about them.” In this call
to care, Buckley suggested that racism in the United States could be ameliorated through increased concern for the sorrows and inequities that plague
black Americans. Had Buckley continued this line of thought, his response
to Baldwin might well have become grounded in his own Catholicism, in a
Christian understanding of the centrality of love and fellowship to amelioration (Buckley 1997). But Buckley chose not to pursue this thread.
Instead, right after claiming that “the engines of concern in the United States”
were working, Buckley turned sarcastic: he dryly suggested to his British audience that perhaps they, unlike Americans, had recently become so “morally enlightened” that they would care more if they were “governing the United States”
(BBC 1965). He then moved to a typical broadside on universities (see, e.g., Buckley 1951), declaring, “You cannot go to a university in the United States in which
practically all other problems of public policy are [not] preempted by the primary
policy of concern for the Negro” (BBC 1965; emphasis mine). And he “challenged” his audience to name another time and place where the status of a minority group was “as much a subject of dramatic concern as it is in the United States”
(BBC 1965; emphasis mine). He lamented, in other words, that American “engines of concern” “for the Negro” were running full steam—blinding Americans
to other pressing problems.
It is an odd moment in the debate. Buckley quickly pivoted from a seemingly
heartfelt call for Americans to care more to chiding Americans for caring too
dramatically. It is as if at this point in the debate he could not decide whether
American “care for the Negro” represented a viable part of the solution for
which he was calling or those “engines of concern” had made pernicious the
care he thought could be important.
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American Political Thought
Fall 2017
Lost though Buckley was, his exasperation with America’s “engines of concern” gives us a clear heading. It points us toward what he tried to say, and toward how we ought to interpret his performance in 1965. As it turns out, this
reference to engines was more than some offhand remark. Buckley wrote—and
thought—about engines all the time.
Here are some typical usages from the Buckley corpus:
• “Harvard, like so many other great universities, has become an engine
for the imposition of secular and collectivist values” (Buckley 2001,
• “John Maynard Keynes was the enthusiastic ideological engine of the
New Economics” (Buckley 1994, 66).
• “The Soviet Union is, really, the principal engine of international terrorism” (Buckley 1993, 158).
• “It was confidently predicted a century ago that the engines of scientific
achievement were closing the gates on the Christian faith” (Buckley
2001, 113).
• “Johnson . . . would assert a federal right to seek out discrimination in
every quarter of Southern life and to harness the dormant engines of
the federal government to fight such discrimination” (Buckley 2008a,
Harvard, Keynes, the Soviet Union, secularism, Lyndon Johnson, and the federal government—these were, of course, forces Buckley committed himself to
thwart. I do not think it is coincidental that all were, for Buckley, understandable in their own way as engines.
Buckley’s use of engines as a metaphor extends still further than this. Consider two more claims:
• “The regular, reliable engines of competition” failed to contain stagfla-
tion under Carter (Buckley 2008b, 147–48).
• They “thought they were struggling all those months in the Sierra Ma-
dre for freedom only to find that . . . arrangements were being made to
use their hunger for freedom and reform as the engine to create a slave
state” (Buckley 2001, 53).
Competition, freedom fighters—these were what Buckley believed in, forces to
which he devoted his life. Yet even they sometimes went awry, and when they
did, Buckley described them, too, as engines.
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Buckley and America’s “Engines of Concern”
It is perhaps unsurprising that as prolific a writer as Buckley should have
regularly used the metaphor of engines in his work. More surprising is that he
so often used the metaphor pejoratively.1 Buckley usually understood “engines”
as driving precisely the kinds of political outcomes he opposed. When he said in
1965 that “the engines of concern were working” in America, he was not paying
a compliment to his countrymen.
The origins of engines as a political metaphor for Buckley are not immediately clear. At first glance, a plausible source is Buckley’s friend Whitaker
Chambers. Judis (2001, 171) suggests that the Quaker ex-Communist Chambers used the metaphor of the machine to explain how capitalism shaped
“the masses.” Imitating but misapprehending Chambers, Buckley might have
adopted technological language to describe how history was charting a baleful course. Technology was, after all, an understandable bugbear for many
twentieth-century conservatives (e.g., Berry 1977). Buckley’s rhetorical distaste
for engines might thus run through Chambers—so much else in midcentury
American conservative thought did.
Yet Buckley was not a technophobe. To the contrary, he reveled in new
technologies (despite his well-known call for conservatives to “stand athwart
history yelling stop”; Buckley 1955). As a writer, Buckley extolled personal
computers, electronic dictionaries, Dictaphones, and word processors (see,
e.g., Buckley 1983). So Buckley did not mistrust engines simply because he
opposed industrial or postindustrial technologies. His was not the claim of a
nostalgic pastoral conservatism. We must search elsewhere for the roots of his
In fact, Buckley’s complicated relationship with engines arose from a quite different source: his love of sailing. He was a competitive sailor from practically
the time he could walk, he wrote four books on sailing, a large part of his “literary autobiography” is about sailing, and sailing metaphors permeate his writing and speaking (see, e.g., Buckley 1992, 144). In composing a memoir of his
parents, Christopher Buckley (2009) devoted a full chapter to “his old man
and the sea,” in which he described in detail the exuberance with which his
father approached sailing. In short, Bill Buckley sailed all the time. We often
forget this when writing about the political Buckley, and we nearly always ignore its importance to his self-understanding.
1. To date I have found one instance of Buckley clearly using the metaphor of engines to
describe a political process he supported. In a 1978 debate about the Panama Canal, he said
that “the United States was, and should continue to be, the principal engine by which to oppose world history” (Buckley 1994, 365). That said, as discussed at length below, Buckley
was not implacably opposed to engines.
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American Political Thought
Fall 2017
If one listens closely, one can hear the language of sailing peppered throughout Buckley’s presentation in 1965. Here are some examples (emphases mine):
• his call to change the “warp and woof of moral thought in society”;
• his discussion of the “course of their ordeal”;
• his concern that Baldwin and his supporters will “jettison” civilization;
• and, of course, those “engines of concern” (BBC 1965).
Yet this is not just about a handful of words. Buckley, intentionally or not,
wove the language of sailing into the debate in other ways as well. At one
point, for instance, he lamented “the white person who acts . . . to protect their
own vested interest . . . which tends always to convert every contingency in
such a way as to maximize their own power” (BBC 1965; emphasis mine).
This is, if one is looking for it, a sailing metaphor: a description of minimizing
drag and converting wind into speed. At other points, Buckley seems to be
talking about black and white Americans as if they were in some sort of regatta. He speaks, to give just one example, of the “slipping behind” of the
“Negro race” (BBC 1965). Behind the confused debater of 1965, one glimpses
the mind of a once-confident sailor.
Most importantly for our purposes, Buckley the sailor had a complicated
relationship with engines. Consider the following two excerpts from his corpus on sailing:
1. “The rules [for racing a boat] are explicit: Under no circumstances do
you turn on your engine, except to save a drowning man” (Buckley
1994, 135).2 Here Buckley asserts that when propelling oneself, when
trying to make oneself move, engines should be a last resort. This is, he
suggests, especially true in competitive contexts, where what matters
most is the ability to demonstrate your own capacities.
2. “What celestial navigation does is reaffirm in another medium what
sailing is all about, namely, the unaggressive exploitation of nature.
No sensible cruising sailboat disdains an engine, but no sailor would
want to go to sea if, were his engine to fail, he’d thereupon be powerless” (Buckley 1994, 171). Sailing, for Buckley, is about knowing
that one is capable of moving on one’s own. It is about the capacities that come along with understanding how to move unaided by
engines, “manipulating craftily the carefree endowments of nature”
2. The quote concludes with “preferably a member of the Race Committee.”
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Buckley and America’s “Engines of Concern”
Indeed, Buckley prided himself on navigating by the stars: combining his
own knowledge, the technologies of sailing, and nature to move himself and
his crews across oceans (Buckley 1982, 102; Buckley 1992, 69). And he passed
this expertise on to future generations, despite his conviction that it was becoming an “antiquarian exercise” (Buckley 1992, 285). As his son, Christopher, describes, “He taught me on that [transatlantic sailing] trip how to navigate by the sun and stars with a sextant. It’s a skill that today, in the age of
satellite navigation, fewer fathers impart to their sons. As I look back, it seems
to me one of the most fundamental skills a father can teach a son: finding out
where you are, using the tools of our ancestors” (Buckley 2009, 127). This is a
“faith in (and of) our fathers,” indeed (McWilliams 2015).
Yet Buckley the sailor—like Buckley the writer—was in no way a technophobe. He recognized the ways in which engines could be valuable, and he often used them to overcome doldrums when sailing. In his sailing books (Buckley 1976, 1982, 1987, 1992) he time and time again recounted when and why
he chose to turn on his ships’ engines. Buckley’s claim is not that engines are
inherently pernicious, but rather that they can be used wisely only by the man
who knows how to function in their absence. In truth, he wrote, only when
engines were turned off did he feel that his transatlantic voyages really began
(Buckley 1992, 139).
Buckley thus saw himself as a sailor who could be trusted with engines,
but he was often frustrated with his compatriots’ indiscriminate use of engine
power. Describing his experiences on others’ boats, he complained bitterly
about the noise associated with the constant running of engines and lamented
the profligacy of a captain who used thousands of gallons of fuel to run engines that added only minimal gains in distance traveled (Buckley 1982). Engines can be useful to the sailor, Buckley agreed, yet they are only useful to the
sailor who knows when to turn them off.3
As we should know how to move without engines in sailing, Buckley believed, so should we know how to move without engines in politics. This claim
was on full display in the 1965 debate, veiled though it was by his erratic delivery. As Balfour (2015) and Lowndes (2015) note, a typical claim of both
Buckley and the post-Buckley Right was that black Americans needed to embrace so-called personal responsibility and self-help. Note how neatly this claim
flows out of Buckley’s understanding of how engines ought (not) to be used in
sailing. When Buckley in the debate pleads with “American negroes” to “ani3. Buckley sometimes described his life in terms of engines, if ambivalently. For example,
his Overdrive (1983) chronicled a week in his schedule. The epigraph in that book defined
the word “overdrive”: “an automotive transition gear which transmits to the propeller shaft
a speed greater than engine speed.” Buckley could shift himself into overdrive, he believed,
because he knew he could function even if his engine quit.
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Fall 2017
mate” and “exert” themselves (BBC 1965), he is suggesting that they have not
learned to sail, that they are too dependent on engine power, and that America’s engines of concern will be insufficient to take them to port.
Buckley’s frustration, both in and beyond 1965, was that so few others understood the pernicious ends to which engines could—and would—be put by
the indiscriminate. To Buckley, “concern for the Negro” in American universities exemplified this lack of discernment. In his meliorist vision, black Americans were not drowning. It was impolitic to shift the country’s engines of concern into overdrive.
Buckley believed he had special personal knowledge of the intersection of sailing and politics. This is nowhere clearer than in his descriptions of transoceanic voyaging: “It is an experience, above all else, of living, at such very close
quarters, with the same people for a whole month. You test the bonds of companionship, stretch them sometimes until tight, but they don’t snap, and it reassures to know how wonderfully strong fraternity can be. Always you are
aware that it doesn’t necessarily work. There can be tragedy, for which nature
or dereliction can be responsible. And there can be what amounts to tragedy, for which human nature is responsible” (Buckley 1994, 239). Given this
knowledge, Buckley took quite seriously the task of finding his crew, of enlisting fellow Americans in celestial navigation. And for good reason: to set sail
across the ocean with one’s crew is to constitute political society in order to
engage in frightening mobility.
This seems a particularly salient point given that Buckley, at the end of the
debate, just before he threatens a race war, recommends “mobility” to Baldwin (BBC 1965; see also McWilliams 2015). He says, “The best chances for
the Negro people are in a mobile society, and the most mobile society in the
world today, my friends, is the United States of America, and it is precisely
that mobility which will give opportunities to the Negros, which they must
be encouraged to take” (BBC 1965). Drawing on his lifetime of experience
on the water, Buckley recommended that black Americans set sail together on
a collective political journey he believed would be liberating.
Yet this recommendation confirms Balfour’s (2015) insight that Buckley
simply did not hear Baldwin.4 Baldwin insisted that American generational ex4. Buckley did seem to have prepared some of his comments in advance—which may, as the
editor of this journal has rightly pointed out, have given Baldwin an advantage in the debate.
Because he spoke first, Baldwin is not held responsible for “hearing” Buckley. That said, the fact
that Buckley, a skilled debater, could not respond clearly to Baldwin’s central claims demands
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Buckley and America’s “Engines of Concern”
perience must be understood as contemporaneous and collapsed (McWilliams
2015). In this spirit, Baldwin declared that he himself “built” America’s “railroads,” as well as its “harbors” and “ports.”5 If this is the case, then Buckley’s
claim to an exclusive knowledge of political sailing, of course, cannot be true.6
Had Buckley listened, he would have heard Baldwin say that they both
set sail across the Atlantic, long before either was born. Buckley’s greatgrandparents came to the Americas from Cork in the 1840s. Baldwin’s ancestors also crossed the sea, some under rather different conditions than the
Buckleys. Yet this was not some racial regatta. Baldwin reminds us that both
he and Buckley, and all of us, sailed on both ships.7
But Buckley did not hear him. Perhaps, in the end, this is why Buckley was
so lost.
Allitt, Patrick. 2015. “William Buckley and the Decline of American Conservative Racism: 1955–95.” Lecture delivered at Symposium on James Baldwin, William F.
Buckley Jr., and the American Dream, Linfield College, May 2015. Frederick Douglass
Forum Lecture Series. Video File.
Balfour, Lawrie. 2015. “‘Hideously Loaded’: James Baldwin’s History of the American
Dream.” Lecture delivered at Symposium on James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr.,
and the American Dream, Linfield College, May 2015. Frederick Douglass Forum
Lecture Series. Video File.
BBC. 1965. James Baldwin debates William F. Buckley on the question: “Is the American Dream at the Expense of the American Negro?” Cambridge Union, Cambridge,
UK. YouTube video from a 1965 BBC recording, posted on Riverbends Channel,
October 27, 2012.
Berry, Wendell. 1977. The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. San Francisco: Sierra Club.
Buckley, Christopher. 2009. Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir. New York: Twelve
Buckley, William F., Jr. 1951. God and Man at Yale. Chicago: Regnery.
———. 1955. “Our Mission Statement.” National Review.
———. 1976. Airborne: A Sentimental Journey. New York: Scribner’s.
———. 1982. Atlantic High: A Celebration. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
———. 1983. Overdrive: A Personal Documentary. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
———. 1987. Racing through Paradise: A Pacific Passage. New York: Random House.
———. 1992. Windfall: The End of the Affair. New York: Random House.
———. 1993. Happy Days Were Here Again: Reflections of a Libertarian Journalist.
New York: Random House.
5. For a contrary, literal reading, see Allitt (2015).
6. Sailing metaphors have, of course, long permeated American political thought (Thompson 2001; Calvert 2012).
7. Zaborowska (2009) is excellent on this point.
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Fall 2017
———. 1994. Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography. Washington, DC: Regnery.
———. 1997. Nearer My God: An Autobiography of Faith. New York: Doubleday.
———. 2001. Let Us Talk of Many Things: The Collected Speeches. New York: Crown.
———. 2008a. Flying High: Remembering Barry Goldwater. New York: Basic.
———. 2008b. The Reagan I Knew. New York: Basic.
Calvert, Jane. 2012. Quaker Constitutionalism and the Political Thought of John Dickinson. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Hogeland, William. 2015. “On the Beaches, in the Hills, in the Mountains: William
Buckley’s Legacy in the Politics of Denial.” Lecture delivered at Symposium on
James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the American Dream, Linfield College,
May 2015. Frederick Douglass Forum Lecture Series. Video File. http://digitalcommons
Judis, John B. 2001. William F. Buckley, Jr.: Patron Saint of the Conservatives. New
York: Simon & Schuster.
Lowndes, Joseph. 2015. “Buckley’s Political Romance with Racism.” Lecture delivered
at Symposium on James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the American Dream,
Linfield College, May 2015. Frederick Douglass Forum Lecture Series. Video File.
McWilliams, Susan. 2015. “On the Faiths of (and in) Our Fathers.” Lecture delivered at
Symposium on James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the American Dream,
Linfield College, May 2015. Frederick Douglass Forum Lecture Series. Video File.
Thompson, Norman. 2001. Ship of State: Statecraft and Politics from Ancient Greece
to Democratic America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Zaborowska, Magdalena J. 2009. “In the Same Boat: James Baldwin and the Other Atlantic.” In Historical Guide to James Baldwin, ed. Douglas F. Field, 177–211. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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