Conservatism’s Unsung Hero

COMMENTARY Conservatism

Conservatism’s Unsung Hero

Mar 18, 2022 6 min read

Former Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought

Lee Edwards is a leading historian of American conservatism and the author or editor of 25 books.
Stan Evans was ahead of his time in perceiving the issues that dom­inate our nation today. Justin Tierney / EyeEm /j Getty Images

Key Takeaways

We are often told we “must” read this or that book, but M. Stanton Evans: Conservative Wit, Apostle of Freedom is truly a must-read.

Evans’s most important direct political action was his part in North Carolina’s presidential primary in 1976.

Steven Hayward makes a convincing case that M. Stanton Evans was as close to a “perfect” conservative as we are likely to see in this life.

Who wrote the Sharon State­ment, the conservative move­­ment’s most enduring state­ment of principle? Who founded the National Journalism Center, which has graduated more than 2,000 aspiring reporters, including such luminaries as Greg Gutfeld, Ann Coulter, John Fund, Timothy Carney, and William McGurn?

Who wrote a revisionist history on Senator Joe McCarthy proving he was wrong about the number of communists in the U.S. government—that he un­der­estimated their number? Who was the chairman of the first Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), which became the movement’s largest public gathering? Who appeared on more campuses starting in the 1950s and into the 2010s than almost any other conservative speaker? Who coined axioms such as “The trouble with con­servatives is that too many of them come to Washington thinking they are going to drain the swamp, only to discover that Washington is a hot tub” and “When ‘our people’ get to the point where they can do us some good, they stop being ‘our people’”?

One person accomplished all this and more—the wise and ever witty M. Stanton Evans, the subject of a marvelous biography by conservative his­torian Steven Hayward. We are often told we “must” read this or that book, but M. Stanton Evans: Conservative Wit, Apostle of Freedom is truly a must-read because it is the story of one of the most consequential but unsung heroes of the conservative movement.

The author grabs our attention in his introduction by describing Evans as “the perfect conservative,” who made a difference in the lives of countless con­servatives and affected the course of the movement for more than five decades. First, writes Hayward, Stan Evans was “a journalist of the first rank,” equally proficient as a reporter, editor, syndicated columnist, and historian. What made his journalism distinctive, Hayward writes, “was his disposition . . . to entertain the contrarian perspective,” and especially “not to accept liberal orthodoxy.”

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An Evans specialty was exposing the hypocrisies of the Left. He noted that the National Council of Churches was alarmed at the Pat Robertson phenom­enon of mixing religion and politics. (Robertson was a well-known TV Evan­gelical seeking political office.) “That’s a mistake [the Council] doesn’t make since it has nothing to do with religion.”

He aimed his wit at the pro-communist “scholar” Owen Lattimore, who portrayed the Soviet slave-labor camp in Kolyma as a kind of Siberian arts colony with “extensive greenhouses grow­ing tomatoes, cucumbers and melons.” Evans pointed out that the renowned historian Robert Conquest had described the Kolyma camp as one of the deadliest in the Gulag, killing about a third of its inmates each year. “Of course,” commented Evans, “without all the cucumbers and tomatoes, the death toll might have been even higher.”

Aside from his own example, Evans institutionalized his remedy for the ideo­logical bias of the mainstream media by starting the National Journalism Center in 1977. Its mission was to train a gen­eration of quality journalists through a hands-on internship program for college students and recent graduates interested in a journalistic career. Has it been successful? NJC alums have written some 50 books and received several Peabody and Emmy awards.

Second, Stan Evans was a political activist and leader starting in the 1960s, when the conservative movement was evolving from an intellectual into a po­litical movement. He was a unanimous choice to draft the Sharon Statement, explaining later that it “wasn’t the Declaration of Independence, it wasn’t the Gettysburg Address—it was a very commonsense statement, I think, of what American conservatives believed then and believe now.” This is a far too modest assessment, typical of Evans’s self-effacing character. In just 368 Lincoln­esque words, he presented the essential ideas held by conservatives, including the individual’s use of his God-given free will, the indivisibility of political and economic freedom, the central role of the U.S. Constitution in restraining government from the abuse of power, the market economy as the single economic system compatible with personal freedom and constitutional government, and the recognition that the forces of international communism were “the greatest single threat” to our liberties. In the 60 years since the Sharon Statement was adopted by Young Americans for Freedom at its founding, no one has written a more concise and elegant summary of conservative philosophy—although many have tried.

Arguably, Evans’s most important direct political action was his part in North Carolina’s presidential primary in 1976. Ronald Reagan was challenging President Gerald Ford for the GOP’s nomination but had lost six straight primaries. He was very close to being counted out, even by his own staff. But, in North Carolina, the last-minute com­bination of a determined Reagan, the formidable political machine of Senator Jesse Helms, and a $172,000 media buy by Evans’s American Conservative Union—which ran over 800 radio spots and took out large ads in 20 newspapers—produced an upset victory for Reagan, who went on to nearly capture the nomination at the Republican National Convention. When asked why the ACU had invested so much in the Reagan candidacy, Evans replied that it was “an inflection point in American political history.”

Third, Stan Evans was a first-rank thinker and theorist who read deeply in the conservative canon. He did not care for the term “fusionism,” but, as Hay­ward writes, he deserves consideration for “offering the most successful syn­thesis of the conflicting strains of conservatism.” Evans regarded the main strains of traditionalism and libertarianism not as conflictual but as reciprocal, each requiring the other for liberty and limited government to survive.

Although not a churchgoer, Evans was a “believing Christian” who argued in his book The Theme Is Freedom that Chris­tianity was central to the emergence of liberal democracy. He traced in the Old Testament a key concept that many had overlooked—the idea of equality and individual rights. Hayward writes that Evans aligned “himself with a Burkean outlook,” seeing such rights as coming from God. The widely respected historian Forrest McDonald called The Theme Is Freedom “a remarkable work that combines erudition with clear thinking” and noted how Evans had rescued the sig­nificant role of Christianity in political thought from the neglect of many his­torians.

Fourth, Stan Evans was ahead of his time in perceiving the issues that dom­inate our nation today—the extra­con­stitutional nature of the administrative state, the relentless conformity of our colleges and universities, the adversarial culture of elite institutions. In his first book, Revolt on the Campus, published in 1961, he described the origins of what we now call political correctness and cancel culture. While admitting that the ma­jority of students were liberals, Evans estimated that some 5 percent were “articu­late, forceful, and resourceful” conservatives. In 20 years, he predicted, they would be “the nation’s journalists, teachers, clergy, and leading businessmen.” In fact, he said fearlessly, the conservative movement in 15 or 25 years was “going to be taking possession of the seats of power in the United States.” Twenty years later, almost to the day, a proudly conservative Ronald Reagan was elected the 40th president of the United States.

Medford Stanton Evans was born in Kings­ville, Texas, on July 20, 1934, to strong­ly conservative and highly edu­cated parents. He graduated magna cum laude in 1955 from Yale, where he read One Is a Crowd, by the libertarian Frank Chodorov, who “opened up more intellectual perspectives for me than did the whole Yale curriculum.” Evans moved to New York City, where he became assistant editor of the Freeman and found time to do graduate work in economics at New York University under the famed free-market economist Ludwig von Mises.

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At 26, he was named editor of the Indianapolis News, making him the youngest editor of a major daily news­paper in America. In the years to come, he would write a syndicated newspaper column, shake up CBS Radio and Na­tional Public Radio with his conservative commentary, contribute to every journal on the right, and find time to lecture on dozens of campuses. He became the conservative movement’s favorite MC.

Evans enlivened many a gathering with his contrarian humor. Tobacco, he liked to say, was his “favorite leafy vege­table.” Another favorite vegetable was ketchup, preferably on top of French fries. He would come to a breakfast meeting, sit down amid the platters of eggs and bacon and steaming cups of coffee, and place a pack of cigarettes and a can of Coke in front of himself. “My mother always told me,” he would say in his baritone drawl, “that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.”

He was a full-fledged Cold Warrior but Old Right in his skepticism about U.S. intervention in far-off places. Once queried as to his politics, Evans replied: “I think my philosophy is pretty close to the farmer in Seymour, Indiana. He believes in God. He believes in the U.S. He believes in himself. This intuitive position is much closer to wisdom than the tormented theorems of some of our Oxford dons.” After all the speechifying, he liked to relax by dancing to rock and roll—especially the Beach Boys—and en­joying a brew or two.

In 2015, after his passing at 80, I wrote that somewhere in heaven Stan was telling a story about Saint Peter and the latest arrival, and all the angels assembled were laughing hard. Steven Hayward makes a convincing case that M. Stanton Evans was as close to a “perfect” conservative as we are likely to see in this life—a tireless, witty defender of faith and freedom.

This piece originally appeared in The National Review