Some observations about Stephen Tonsor, an interview with Gleaves Whitney

Gleaves Whitney is a former student of Professor Tonsor, as well as speechwriter and historian for former Governor John Engler. Currently, Professor Whitney directs the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies at Grand Valley State University.

What contributions did Professor Tonsor make to Michigan’s History Department?

Back in the 1980s, when I told a friend that I was doing graduate work in history at Michigan, he looked surprised: “But you are conservative, and there aren’t any conservatives on the faculty in Ann Arbor.” “Oh, that’s not true,” I shot back, “I had lunch with him.”

Academic rigor requires intellectual diversity, and Stephen Tonsor contributed prodigiously to both the rigor and diversity of a Michigan education. During his career, the history department was in the vanguard of social history, which was decidedly progressive, so Tonsor’s brand of intellectual history made him an outlier. Yet his reputation going back to the ‘fifties was legendary. I cannot tell you how many people I’ve come across who, decades later, vividly remember their class with Professor Tonsor. His insights were brilliant; his humor, biting; his turns of phrase, beautiful. 

What was his legacy regarding the conservative movement in America?

Tonsor was a self-described paleoconservative – a devout Catholic and traditionalist – who exercised limited leadership in conservative institutions but who was never afraid to exercise intellectual leadership within the broader conservative movement. He is most remembered for thrusting a spear at the heart of neoconservatives at a 1986 gathering of prominent conservatives in Chicago. It was during the Reagan presidency, and many of the neocons in attendance had ties to the 40th president’s administration. Tonsor told a cautionary tale that culminated in this bombshell: “It has always struck me as odd, even perverse, that former Marxists have been permitted, yes invited, to play such a leading role in the conservative movement of the twentieth century. It is splendid when the town whore gets religion and joins the church. Now and then she makes a good choir director, but when she begins to tell the minister what he ought to say in his Sunday sermons, matters have been carried too far.” That image – classic Tonsor – signaled the end of playing nice between the two camps. It brought the tensions within the conservative movement to the surface, and there has been open suspicion between paleocons and neocons ever since. 

As a former student of his, what is the most important lesson you learned from him?

I once asked Tonsor what was the most important quality the historian should possess. Without hesitation he said, “Imagination.” The past is a different country. Historians who follow their intellectual curiosity must be able to distance themselves from the tyranny of the present and be able to enter the past with an open, alert mind.

Tonsor also placed a premium on intellectual integrity. Historians must not reconstruct the past out of an ideological commitment but be open to wherever the evidence leads, no matter who might be offended. The honest treatment of the evidence might alienate the more politically correct among us, but that is the price the historian must be willing to pay to produce good work.

Tonsor also put a premium on excellent writing. If it is worth saying, it is worth saying well (as he himself demonstrated in his own essays, articles, and books).

What’s do you think current students should know about Prof Tonsor?

Tonsor had the reputation for being intellectually tough and personally gruff – he could be hard on his students. But he also reached out to connect more deeply with them. After class he liked to invite students home to have lunch and a glass of sherry with him and his wife, Caroline. The trek to 1505 Morton (in Burns Park) often involved a stop at Ulrich’s to pick up the latest Wall Street Journal (for editorials) and New York Times (for reporting, art, and book reviews). It was on that twenty-minute walk that Tonsor, given his encyclopedic mind, could hold forth on just about anything you wanted to talk about. Nor was he shy about expressing his prejudices. I well recall his judgments concerning the horrid sentimentality of English choral music, the excesses of Romantic poetry, the best moraines to hike in, the damage squirrels do to gardens, the inadvisability of buying Japanese imports, and the zigs and zags of the modern Catholic Church. If the discussion turned political, he would express impatience with statists. If the conversation turned academic, his anger would flare at the rise of identity politics. In his view, radicalized academics were turning university departments into theme parks and freak shows. This is not to say that he could not also enjoy more lighthearted conversation. He had a bevy of humorous stories from his personal life, especially his childhood spent in a German Catholic home in southern Illinois.

Despite the prickly exterior, Tonsor had a sweet side, especially when it came to children. One warm Halloween he invited my son and other children to trick-or-treat out of his home in Burns Park. And if ever he saw a penny on the ground, he would pick it up for his grandchildren’s piggybank.

Tonsor was also a faithful correspondent with friends and former students. He wrote striking longhand letters – some of the most beautiful that I have ever received. And I would be remiss if I neglected to reveal, on a personal note, that he became my godfather when I was received into the Catholic Church.

What could students best take away (or learn) from his life and scholarship? 

There were so many things Stephen Tonsor taught those who came into his orbit. Among the most important lessons, he believed the good life – the life worth living – is inseparable from truth, goodness, and beauty. He argued that culture trumps politics, so you shouldn’t become enamored with Washington, DC. He cautioned that while books are faithful friends, you should not become so overeducated that you forsake common sense or neglect the sublime and beautiful around you.

Stephen Tonsor was sui generis. There will never be another. May he rest in peace.

The Michigan Review thanks Professor Whitney for his time and effort in telling us about his time with Professor Tonsor.

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