This review appears in the Winter 2022 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe to the journal, click here.

M. Stanton Evans: Conservative Wit, Apostle of Freedom
By Steven F. Hayward
(Encounter, 2021)

Steven F. Hayward’s wonderful new book gets Stan Evans just right. Stan was a journalist of the top rank, a political activist at the highest level (including access to Ronald Reagan), far-seeing about our declining social order, and a “first-rank thinker and theorist.” He was also the most amusingly thoughtful speaker ever.

Your reviewer knew him very well in all these roles and will focus here on what was most important to me about him, his thought rather than his activities. Hayward covers all of those activities well, however. As a former student in Evans’s journalism school, Hayward opens up this not very well known part of Evans’s life, the training of a generation of reporters and opinion writers to respect truth rather than conforming to the zeitgeist. By the end, Evans had taught 1,600 journalism students.

Evans was a dominant figure in the modern conservative movement from the 1950s to his death in 2015. A lifelong advocate of limited government, he paradoxically grew up in Washington’s Maryland suburbs, home of the bureaucracy he devoted his life to containing. His father Medford actually worked at the Atomic Energy Commission. But his father became an early critic of how the government’s incompetence (and worse) allowed its atomic secrets to fall into the hands of its Soviet enemy. This failure led to a long Cold War that became a focus for his son, too—indeed it became the subject for Stan Evans’s final two books, Blacklisted by History (on Sen. Joe McCarthy) and Stalin’s Secret Agents.

Evans entered Yale University in 1951 immediately following William F. Buckley Jr.’s time there, beginning a lifelong personal, ideological, and business relationship with the man who basically started the modern conservative movement. Evans even allied with Buckley at the founding of its leading publication, National Review, in 1955. Evans first came to conservatism by picking up a copy of the old magazine The Freeman while in college and later came under the influence its editor, Frank Chodorov, who led Evans to religious individualism, the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists organization (now the Intercollegiate Studies Institute), and later still to major conservative thinkers like the more traditionalist Richard Weaver and the more libertarian Leonard Reed. For a short time, he was a graduate student under Ludwig von Mises, and he was a contributor to Modern Age.

Evans was an early and late editor of Human Events, a conservative publication that preceded National Review, beginning in 1956. In 1959 a very young Stan became an editorial writer at the Indianapolis Star, and then its editor-in-chief in 1960. There he wrote a column whose title, “Skeptic’s Corner,” fit him well. The paper was politically and philosophically right-of-center. As editor Evans was hard-hitting, but his duties were more managerial and local-oriented, and he emphasized sound, fair-minded reporting. As a Midwestern editor he supported Richard Nixon, but later Evans opposed him strongly, even running a candidate against his re-election as president in 1972. Evans’s love for journalism extended to teaching it at Troy University between 1980 and 2012.

His political activism was legendary, as I saw first-hand as a fellow participant. He wrote the manifesto for the first mass-membership conservative youth organization, Young Americans for Freedom. It was called the Sharon Statement for being composed at Buckley’s home in Sharon, Connecticut. Evans was an early and long-serving chairman of one of the first major adult organizations, too, the American Conservative Union. He participated in Republican Party activities, including conventions, and began CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference. He was especially important in using those roles to keep Ronald Reagan alive as a presidential prospect, especially in the North Carolina primary in 1976, thereby making him viable for 1980. Reagan never forgot, often making himself available to Stan throughout his presidency. But ever-principled, Evans felt his role was to criticize Reagan while he was in power, to keep him faithful to his conservative beliefs.

Hayward does an excellent job of fleshing out these and other accomplishments—including Evans’s most popular jokes, which are alone worth the price of the book. I will leave all that to the book itself, however, and focus instead upon Evans’s thought, beginning with his 1960 Sharon Statement, which is printed in full within this volume. Hayward notes that while Evans did many things well, his center was scholarly. Evans’s first book explained what its title referred to as the new Revolt on Campus in 1961; he wrote a 1975 book exposing the failures of bureaucracy (Clear and Present Danger); and he was always a featured lecturer about ideas.

While Buckley provided the charisma for the new conservative movement and his literary editor at National Review, Frank S. Meyer, supplied the philosophy, Evans did both—and also offered a moral call to arms. In a dozen short paragraphs, the Sharon Statement perfectly summarized the “transcendent” and political values that represented the ideals of the new movement, as well as the challenges facing it. His brand of conservatism was called fusionism, although he (like most of us) disliked the term itself as determinist-sounding. But the name stuck, and Hayward properly identifies Evans with fusionism throughout the book.

Evans’s conservativism “fused” conservative values in Sharon, but not in the sense of forcing them together. Rather it was a synthesis—of freedom and tradition, of transcendent and pragmatic, of markets and federalism, all in a harmony of liberty and order. The critical term was tension, with all these values practiced in the good political order but balanced against each other in making practical decisions. In this sense, fusionism is both traditionalist and libertarian. Evans was wise enough to keep the list of Sharon beliefs short while still covering the field in a manner to stand the test of time. His sagacity is today clear when considering that only one item was listed as merely “at present” a threat, rather than of transcendent importance. The reference was to communism: even back in 1960 Evans could recognize communism’s ephemeral nature.

Hayward correctly calls Evans’s 1994 book The Theme is Freedom the “intellectual background” for Sharon, though it was published over 30 years later. Searching for the roots of American freedom, in that book Evans finds them in a tradition: in Genesis, Samuel, Israel, and Christendom. He especially rejects moderns who place freedom’s roots in ancient Greece or in the secular Enlightenment. He shows how science, philosophy, politics, and universities matured in the much-abused Middle Ages, providing the roots for Western civilization and America’s Founding. He minimizes the West’s dependence even upon Aristotle, although as Hayward notes Evans relies heavily on Thomas Aquinas, who did rely on Aristotle in turn.

Evans traces freedom, and even the right to consent, as not only prior to Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence but even dating to before John Locke, stressing the Magna Carta and Europe’s centuries of prohibiting slavery before the Age of Discovery. It was checks and balances of church and state, of principalities and king, of law and power that allowed freedom to develop in the interstices between the dominant institutions. All of this was possible because the West believed that rights and freedom came from God, not nature, as both Locke’s and the Founders’ explicit reliance upon a Creator demonstrated. The state was by nature authoritarian and historically was not separated from law anywhere until rendering to Caesar was separated from rendering to God.

The fundamental principle of the Western civilization that Evans sees emerging from this was based upon a Creator providing a supreme principle, but one difficult to comprehend except for providing a general support for the two secondary principles consisting of a freedom even to disobey Him and a tradition attempting to understand and follow His ordering principles. The essence of Evan’s fusionist philosophy was two principles that must be resolved when coming into conflict with each other and then, as Frank Meyer put it, bringing them into coordination using the logical principle of grasping the bull by both horns. While freedom becomes the criterion in politics, other traditions and values can modify it to meet different specific circumstances.

This distinction between principle and practical decisions might be illustrated by the reviewer’s longtime relationship with Stan. We were very close friends and agreed fully on the principles but often disagreed on how to apply them. Concerning theory, we were almost always in agreement, as comparing his The Theme Is Freedom with my earlier Does Freedom Work? from 1978 or my 2021 The Enduring Tension will confirm. But we often disagreed on practical matters of politics and policies, some very important ones. In general, Stan was more combative and I more pragmatic—I served in the Reagan Administration and was supportive of the president, while Stan was determined to keep pressure on Reagan from the right, which I quietly admired.

Stan once told me that he really liked it when I was civil service chief and we eliminated 100,000 non-defense bureaucratic slots. But his punchline was, “You did not cut nearly enough.” Who could not love the guy? Read the book about the whole man, and see if you don’t agree.

Donald J. Devine is senior scholar at The Fund for American Studies and the author of The Enduring Tension: Capitalism and the Moral Order.