Joseph R.


December 7, 1999

Felix Morley:
An Old-fashioned Republican

FELIX MORLEY (1894-1981)

Felix Morley served the cause we now call the Old Right for many years. His thought was a well-wrought synthesis of classical republicanism and classical liberalism. This led people to see him as a "conservative" – but let's not argue labels just now. Born in Pennsylvania in 1894 to English parents, Morley was an essayist, editor of the Washington Post (those were the days!), President of Haverford College (1940-45), radio commentator, and writer of books on politics and foreign policy.

Morley was educated at Haverford College, Haverford, Pa., a Quaker institution, where his father was a professor. He studied briefly at Oxford University. With the coming of World War I, he volunteered for the Red Cross in the British sector of the western front. Returning to America, he joined the Army as an officer candidate, but was asked to leave – with an honorable discharge – because he expressed too freely his views about the war. (Free speech had mysteriously dropped off the roster of freedoms: perhaps that was what was "new" about Woodrow's New Freedom.) After the war, he was returned to Oxford for further study. Having already had a taste of journalism, he went into reporting, working at the Baltimore Sun , where he became acquainted with H. L. Mencken, the paper's most famous writer. Journalism took him to China, where he had a firsthand look at the looming Chinese Revolution and the possibility of war between the US and Japan, both of which insisted on economic empire in the Pacific. In 1933, Morley was asked to become editor of the Washington Post. He worked there until 1940, when he took up the presidency of his alma mater, Haverford College. He left the college in August 1945 to pursue his writing.

Like Herbert Hoover and Robert Taft, both of whom he came to know well, Morley believed that another major global bloodbath like World War I would only work to the benefit of communist movements, which would promise deliverance to societies disrupted by modern war. It was therefore imperative to preserve the peace and, failing that, for the United States to avoid war if at all possible. Thus by the late 1930s, Morley, who had been an enthusiast for the League of Nations, found himself consulting with such anti-interventionists as Senator William E. Borah of Idaho, Taft , and Hoover.1


Morley recounts that a boyhood attempt of his to start a supper-time debate over the War Between the States gave rise to an argument between his Anglican mother and Quaker father over the Puritan Revolution. He remained impressed with the continuity of the Anglo-American political tradition, seeing the direct connection between Cromwell's Instrument of Government and John Milton's Areopagita and the American Revolution and constitution. His synthesis of liberal republicanism and the Quaker ethic of self-restraint are on display in his The Power in the People (1949) and Freedom and Federalism (1981 [1959]). In the former book, Morley made the important point that foreign "social contract" theorists had somehow managed to neglect American history, which was littered with actual social contracts, signed by real people.2


This brings us rather quickly to foreign affairs. Already in World War I, Morley had noted the way in which modern war centralizes power in the state and promotes socialism, whatever the flag under which it sailed. In February 1944, Morley and Frank Hanighen launched a weekly newsletter, Human Events, to provide comment on the news. In the fourth issue he discussed Interior Secretary Harold Icke's scheme to build, at public expense, an Arabian oil pipeline, lest we run out of known oil reserves by 1958 (as we obviously did). The project was "as remote from the interior" of the US as possible, was "strongly imperialistic," and would get us "permanently involved in the perils of [the] Middle East…."

Morley soon turned to the Administration's newly acquired habit of bullying foreign neutrals. In an address to the American Society of International Law in April 1944, he branded Secretary of State Cordell Hull's attitude as "antagonistic to the orderly development of international law." "[A]n assertive American imperialism" might result from this posture of might makes right. We should remember that "the glory that was Greece can easily pass over into the far more ephemeral grandeur that was Rome." Morley – who had enjoyed a classical education of which we can now only dream – recalled the encounter between the Athenian empire and the sinfully nonaligned island of Melos. Seeing Athenian forces massed against them, the Melians said, "We see you are come to be judges in your own cause." To this, the Athenians – sounding like polite versions of Albright, Berger, and Talbot – replied, "You will not think it dishonorable to submit to the greatest city in Hellas, when it makes you the moderate offer of becoming its tributary ally, without ceasing to enjoy the country that belongs to you."

Morley soon saw how much the newfangled American "idealist" leadership sought to be judges in their own cause. Unconditional Surrender was one example that drew his ire. He saw attempts to justify the atomic bombing of Japan – in our day ritually defended by "conservatives" every August like clockwork – as "the miserable farce put on by those who try to reconcile mass murder of 'enemy children' with lip service to the doctrine that God created all men in his image." The atomic bomb was appropriate to a totalitarian order with no fixed moral standards. In Thomistic terms it was "the return to nothingness."


Like Hoover and Taft, Morley feared communism. But these old right figures had never had any great illusions about our heroic Soviet ally and were, therefore, not thrown into interventionist hysteria when World War II ended in a civilizational train-wreck. They had expected it. Keeping their balance, they made out a critique of the emerging cold war.

In December 1944, Morley asked how the British could prove "to a large number of Greeks that while they were 'patriots' to resist a German puppet government they become 'gangsters' if they oppose a British puppet government." In March 1947, when President Truman proposed that the United States take over the British role in Greece, Morley wrote that "[i]t is a reality attested by all history that if a republic assumes imperial functions it will not remain a republic." Inflation, conscription, higher taxes lay down that road. We would see "our Federal Republic" become "a strongly-centralized empire."

A year later, Morley stated that "the so-called isolationists were essentially right. They knew that American can run its own affairs reasonably well. They knew that in pontifically declaiming on the world stage we would be likely to prove ourselves blundering fools." Our system rested on "foregoing the path of empire, on developing those private ventures in which the American genius is brilliant…." Of Truman, he said: "It is not unnatural for a ward politician to be President of the United States. But it becomes grotesque when a man of parochial outlook, inferior training and deficient ability attempts to push a reluctant people down the dangerous road of imperial rule." It was a bitter thing to realize that "during the past few years, [America] has led the world in smashing the fabric of civilization"; we had dismantled German factories but also "the whole structure of American ideals."


In a speech before the Conservative Society of Yale Law School in November 1954, Morley developed several themes. For the American constitution to function properly, we must shrink back from an activist foreign policy, which necessarily strengthened executive power. Charles Pinckney of South Carolina had told the constitutional convention that "[c]onquest or superiority among Powers is not, or ought not to be, the object of republican systems." Morley doubted we could disprove Pinckney's assertion by somehow running "an Empire under Republican forms." If we made the attempt, our institutions – the constitution, federalism, the 10th amendment – would yield to the logic of centralized power. Post-constitutional agencies were already working "in the deepest secrecy" and Congress seemed happy to be "more and more of a rubber stamp for undisclosed executive policy."

In summer 1957, sounding like new left sociologist C. Wright Mills, Morley wrote that "we have a vested interest in preparation for war." Whole sectors of industry were massively dependent on maintaining cold war levels of defense spending and "if we stopped preparing for war the effect on the economy would be disastrous." One result was a lack of willingness to undertake serious negotiations with our international opponents. Another result of permanent mobilization – war-in-peace – was the rise of "a self-perpetuating managerial elite." The logical result of centralizing most decision-making in Washington was that "we are losing the substance of self-government."

In 1959, Morley again noted continuing US hostility to other nations' neutrality. With this came a tendency "to dilate in grandiose terms about [the empire's] blessings for mankind." At the same time, it was widely held that "there should be no political debate over foreign policy."3


Morley's conservative classical liberalism and republicanism sprang from his membership in a genuine American elite. It was "bourgeois" but cherished classical education and civilized values which gave a larger context to the market economy. It had, as one of its selection mechanisms, "little colleges" like Haverford. It was – of course – white, Anglo-Saxon, and largely Protestant. This utterly horrifying set of facts puts many post-moderns on edge. I suppose they can rent a time machine and go back and sue someone. I'm sorry, I guess they already have.

My point is that the vanishing bourgeois elite justified its existence precisely by producing people like Felix Morley who understood the old republic, the constitution, peace, and free markets, as well as their opposites, empire, lawless rule, war, and generalized statism. Of course it was other members of that same elite who pursued the Open Door and set us on the path of empire. If Morley's analyses hold true, it was these clever fellows who began, however unintentionally, the unraveling or deconstruction of authentic American life. Their descendants pursue the good work intentionally. You can't have everything. Yet one shudders at the prospect of being ruled, even for a week, by the sort of "elite" which current US "education" might produce. We shall not be in suspense for long. If there are bulbs dimmer than those in the present administration, the Republicans will find them and nominate them for high office.

Through it all, Morley – an educated man who knew how to educate others – could see the centrality of real education. He once shocked the dean of a journalism school by recommending that the students study mathematics and the classics: "The Dean came hotfoot to Washington to see if I were crazy…. He talked a lot about… 'relevance' in education and didn't like it when I said that what he meant was vocational training, which will never maintain a threatened culture."4 Morley's observations on education remind one of Russell Kirk at his best.

Morley's life reminds us of a better America. In that America, as he put it, "[n]ot one member of the class of 1915, at Haverford, was planning to enter government service, national, state or local."5 Still writing in his eighties, he noted that "[t]here has been a direct and causal connection between the increasing exaltation of the state and the increasing demoralization of society." I sure hope the sociologists will look into it. I know the feds will look into it and will doubtless solve it by giving us "villages" to live in, as an outreach program of US imperialism. The villages will probably be compulsory. Morley – unlike the gang of new right conservatives – understood one of the most important "causal connections": "Total war, arriving in our lifetime, is the perfected means for building the totalitarian state."6


Let us grant that the Seattle protesters are doubly wrong about the WTO: they think that free trade is the source of the world's ills and they think that the WTO has something to do with free trade. On the other hand, they are probably right to raise the issue of national sovereignty. They have noticed that "international" bodies – whether mainly controlled by the US elite or not – are centers of irresponsible power. This is an important problem in republican theory. So far so good.

What does any of that have to do with the recent events in Seattle? Goggle-eyed Tom Brokaw went on at length that a handful of hooded so-called "anarchists" were causing major property damage and disruption. Quite possibly. If so, were those fellows ever arrested or even inconvenienced? Preliminary reports suggest that the police spent most of their efforts on gassing and shooting rubber bullets at the peaceful demonstrators. The whole thing seems a bit orchestrated, which might be wrong but such suspicions come naturally after years of noticing how governments conduct themselves in this "fair land of freedom." Does the conduct of the police reflect the militarization problem to which I recently referred? Have we been misinformed about the police's choice of targets, or do we have here a domestic analogue of the US military's preference for "soft targets" overseas? I frankly don't know but I hope we find something out soon.


Today's Miami Herald has a front-page story which calls the situation in Columbia "The Kosovo Next Door." Oh, good. We were needing one of those. As Joseph Schumpeter used to say, "cui bono" – who stands to benefit?

[1] See Felix Morley, For the Record (Southbend: Regnery/Gateway, 1979), a very entertaining autobiography.
[2] See Leonard P. Liggio, "Felix Morley and the Commonwealthman Tradition: The Country Party, Centalization and the American Empire," Journal of Libertarian Studies, 2, 3 (Fall 1978), p. 280.
[3] The quotations in these three sections can be found in Joseph R. Stromberg, "Felix Morley: An Old Fashioned Republican Critic of Statism and Interventionism," Journal of Libertarian Studies, 2,3 (Fall 1978), pp. 269-277
[4] Morley, For the Record, p. 37 (my emphasis).
[5] Ibid., p. 44.
[6] Felix Morley, "State and Society" in Kenneth S. Templeton, Jr., ed., The Politicization of Society (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1979), p. 68 (my emphasis) and p. 77.

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Joseph R. Stromberg has been writing for libertarian publications since 1973, including The Individualist, Reason, the Journal of Libertarian Studies, Libertarian Review, and the Agorist Quarterly, and is completing a set of essays on America's wars. He is a part-time lecturer in History at the college level. You can read his recent essay, "The Cold War," on the Ludwig von Mises Institute Website. His column, "The Old Cause," appears each Tuesday on

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