Last weekend, I had the privilege of attending the Fall regional meeting of The Philadelphia Society in Memphis, Tennessee. I traveled with several other friends who had also received scholarships to attend this prestigious, though selective, conference. Together we represented college conservatives from Freed-Hardeman University, Union University, Vanderbilt, and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and we were grateful to be joined by a couple hundred other classical thinkers.
This meeting, which convened at the famous Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis, was no typical political conference. Neither was it a regurgitation of partisan talking points nor a hate-on-Obama campaign rally. It was more like an intellectual boot-camp for the curious mind.
The Philadelphia Society was founded in 1964. Founding and prominent members included Russell Kirk, Milton Freidman, Freidrick Von Hayek, and Mel Bradfford. Today, the society remains a collection of the country’s sharpest intellects and most influential conservative activists. Most members are involved with numerous other conservative organizations, lobbying groups, think-tanks, and universities. I met the president of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, the president of the Heritage Foundation, as well as members from the Goldwater Institute, The Philanthropic Enterprise, Ethics and Public Policy Center, and dozens of interns as young as myself who worked for other various groups. Almost 40 attendees were under the age of 29 years old.
The theme of this particular conference was The Restoration of Federalism. On the first evening, after the opening ceremonies had concluded and the banquet had been served, Edwin Meese III -former U.S. Attorney General and Chief Policy Advisor to President Ronald Reagan- offered his thoughts on the legal restoration of federalism in light of his extensive judicial experience. The next day a host of various speakers lectured on the different aspects of federalism, including its spiritual, moral and political foundations; its practical application in the arenas of health, education, and welfare; and its use in defending against the mass federal regulatory take-over. Finally, the last panel discussion of the conference, chaired by my own friend and mentor Kevin Kookogey, included a conversation concerning how the younger generation can restore federalism.
The speakers were nothing short of spectacular. The conference itself was taxing on both the mind and body (lasting from 8:30am-5:30pm on Saturday), but the intellectual exercise was nothing that several cups of coffee could not cure. Needless to say, I learned a lot about federalism. I learned to see all types of issues, which I had previously never considered to be related to federalism, through a different lens. Federalism, to me, was brought to life. It is no longer a boring vocabulary word meant to be memorized for a social studies test or a concept needed to answer a multiple choice question. It was, is, and ought to be an idea that permeates our entire conception of the American order. The necessity of horizontal and vertical division of power strikes at the very root of our flawed human condition. We are creatures of control and our ceaseless craving for political and moral domination must be restrained. So far, the U.S. Constitution has proved the most competent device in keeping our insatiable hunger for power in check. No other nation has devised a more brilliant method of achieving practical stability in public and private life.
Ultimately, I have concluded that the greatest part of my experience at The Philadelphia Society was not listening to lectures on federalism, but truly experiencing the intellectual exchange and getting a behind-the-scenes look at the direction of the conservative movement. The beloved phrase of the Left -“solidarity”- was far from the halls of the Peabody Hotel that weekend. The society, as I quickly learned, was a collection of free-thinkers rather than ideological clones or mindless partisan zombies. These people were individuals with a diversity of thought and a variety of feelings on the issues of our day. Members self-identify as conservatives, libertarians, classical liberals, etc. Inevitably, there was disagreement and dispute, which when vocalized became quite interesting and entertaining for quiet observers such as myself. Despite the differences on minute matters of intellectual insignificance, however, the leaders of The Philadelphia Society -the present and future leaders of the conservative movement- united under the common cause of freedom. This testifies to the fact that the conservatism now being molded in the fires of change will necessarily be remade into a cast even stronger than before- one of principles, faith, and unbreakable resolve.
My experience at The Philadelphia Society proved this: Intellectual conservatism is not dead; it is being reborn. As a member of the rising generation, what an awesome thought! We have the opportunity to stand up to the powers of this age, to rise against the secular-progressive establishment, and resurrect a new intellectual conservatism that, while still rich with the old tastes for tradition, history, and morality, is spiced by our own youthful flavor and revitalized by our fresh passion for political and spiritual unity. There is, indeed, hope for the future.