Sixty years ago this month, William F. Buckley Jr.’s first book, God and Man at Yale, was published. What was so special about God and Man at Yale, and how does it stand the test of time?
It was 1976. God and Man at Yale needed a new introduction, and I had dinner with WFB the night he wrote it. It was after an NR editorial day; after much conviviality, Bill returned to the office, where he wrote a several-thousand-word essay, revisiting his first book in a style as feisty as the original. (He suggested that Yale give itself to the State of Connecticut: Connecticut could pay its bills, and modern Yale could not say why it should remain private, though Bill added that he could.)
One aspect of God and Man at Yale
’s original impact has vanished. Yale in 1951 still pretended to be a bastion of capitalism and Christianity; Bill told the world this was a con, to keep alums sending their sons and their money to New Haven. Yale now stands openly for critical thought, detached from any larger community. That stance may be more congenial to the life of the mind, if it were pursued rigorously, though what it means in practice is a tilt to the left.
What remains vital today in God and Man at Yale is Bill’s impudence. He was the conservative as enfant terrible — but this role reversal was justified by liberalism’s own adoption of all the defenses of orthodoxy. In power, the heralds of the new age became as stuffy as the reactionaries they had displaced. The eruption of the New Left in the Sixties simply displaced them with new reactionaries, further left.
God and Man at Yale is a standing invitation to get under their skin, and an example of how a bright kid once did it.
— Richard Brookhiser, a National Review senior editor, is author of the new book James Madison.
The publication of God and Man at Yale marked the birth of the modern American conservative movement.
To paraphrase George Will, before there was the Tea Party there was Newt Gingrich, and before there was Newt Gingrich there was Ronald Reagan, and before there was Ronald Reagan there was Barry Goldwater, and before there was Barry Goldwater there was National Review, and before there was National Review there was God and Man at Yale.
God and Man at Yale was not just a book — it was a political act. How else can you characterize a book that called parents, alumni, and trustees to action against a university administration? That urged the conservative majority to rise up and overthrow the liberal elite?
God and Man at Yale declared that there was a conservative tradition — not only at Yale, but in the nation founded on a belief in God, a trust in free enterprise, and a reliance on the individual.
God and Man at Yale stirred up not only the Yale administration but also conservatives looking for direction and leadership.
God and Man at Yale is provocative and witty, conservative and libertarian, elitist and populist, capitalist and anti-Communist — a true reflection of William F. Buckley Jr., who by reason of his wealth and upbringing and free spirit could have been the playboy of the Western world but chose instead to be the Saint Paul of the modern American conservative movement.
His first public sermon was titled “God and Man at Yale.”
— Lee Edwards is author of William F. Buckley: The Maker of a Movement, among other books.