Sam Francis came to Washington as one of the bright young minds of the New Right in the late 1970s, anxious to help the conservative movement defeat communism abroad and the far left at home. The work he produced over the next fifteen years — first as a policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation, then as a senatorial aide, and finally as a prize-winning editorialist for the Washington Times — was by turns celebrated and vilified. In the introduction to the recently published collection Shots Fired: Sam Francis on America’s Culture War, Patrick Buchanan writes, “If you took on Sam’s cherished beliefs, institutions, or icons, you’d best be prepared to defend your own. . . . Sam would always be there when one of his own was caught in the open. Like his Confederate forebears, Sam rode to the sound of the guns.”
But Francis was not a good soldier in the conservative movement. His personality and evolving ideological interests led him into direct conflict with the very movement that had nurtured his early career. He became the house intellectual of the Buchanan breakaway campaigns and the theoretician of the anti-Bob Dole, anti-George Bush paleoconservative movement. And, as he became estranged from mainstream conservatism, he veered into the “racial creepiness” racialism of journals like The Occidental Quarterly.
By the time he died in 2005, Sam Francis was a pariah from most conservative circles. In the Washington Examiner, former USA Today editorialist David Mastio wrote a widely noticed obituary: “Sam Francis was merely a racist and doesn’t deserve to be remembered as anything less. . . . America is a better place without him.” As a summary judgment, this may serve well enough, but it is possible and rewarding to look at Francis, his ideas, and the tragic arc of his career more charitably and, in the process, to salvage a number of genuine insights from the bitterness and noxious race-baiting Francis embraced in the last years of his life.
Samuel Todd Francis was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on April 29, 1947, to Todd Ware Francis and Julia Ford Francis. His sister Julie, then about six, says she was thrilled to have a little brother, the family’s first boy in a few generations on their mother’s side. Sam was born into an America that hardly exists anymore, a world of authority, tradition, and paternalistic race relations that would unravel during the Civil Rights movement. His family’s Southern roots were deep, and the “old times” memorialized in “Dixie” were not forgotten. The family often visited their grandmother’s childhood home in Niota, a brick house built in the 1820s. The bricks were made by the hands of slaves, and the floorboards had compartments to hide hams and chickens from Union soldiers. Sam’s parents and grandparents passed on horror stories about Reconstruction.
Sam and his sister grew up with black servants. One, Gertrude, had been with the family since their mother was a few months old. She rented a house from Sam’s grandfather, which he gave to her when age prevented her from working on the family property. When his mother would leave to do community work — sometimes for the Daughters of the American Revolution — the siblings were left in the care of Maggie, a black nursemaid.
Sam’s maternal grandfather, Samuel Houston Ford, was a successful trial lawyer in Tennessee, and Sam’s father, Todd Ware Francis, was related to Mary Todd Lincoln. After Sam’s funeral in 2005, mourners gathered at Julie’s house. A friend of Sam’s, Sam Dickson, noticed a picture on the wall and asked, “Is that a portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln?”
Dickson recalls Julie’s reply. “In her cultivated Southern accent she said, ‘Why yes it is. Sam’s middle name is Todd, and we are related to her. But the Todds were nice people. Her brothers fought for the Confederacy. And the Todd family was a very fine family. It’s true that Mary married Abraham Lincoln and went crazy, which is what you would expect if someone married Abraham Lincoln.'”
Sam distinguished himself intellectually at a young age. Julie recalls a family visit to the doctor’s when her brother was four years old. In the waiting room, Sam read aloud from a children’s book. “You must have that memorized,” the doctor said. Sam and Julie’s mother, Julia Ford Francis replied that no, Sam didn’t even own a copy. Rather, Sam had taught himself to read.
Later he attended Baylor, a prep school for boys in Chattanooga, overlooking the Tennessee River. In his senior year, he won a contest with his poem “Apostrophe to a Gardener.” Sam did his undergraduate work in history at Johns Hopkins and took graduate and doctoral degrees in British history at the University of North Carolina. During his college years he became active in the burgeoning conservative movement on college campuses, organizing a reading group around the recommendations of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.
It was at UNC that he first met lifelong friends and colleagues Clyde Wilson and Thomas Fleming. After college, in 1979, Fleming and Wilson founded the Southern Partisan Quarterly Review, which Fleming hoped would become a kind of New Yorker for the South. Around the same time, their friend Jim Thompson became ensconced at Chronicles of Culture, a publication of the Rockford Institute edited by enigmatic Polish immigrant Leopold Tyrmand. Thompson invited Fleming, Wilson, and Francis to publish in the magazine. Fleming eventually accepted the job of managing editor, then became editor after Tyrmand’s death in 1985. Despite serious disagreements with Fleming and Wilson over the years, Francis’s essays were featured regularly in Chronicles until his death.
When the New Right swept into Washington, Sam Francis came with it. Though trained as a British historian, he had an abiding interest in the history of political radicalism. At the Heritage Foundation in 1977, he worked as an expert on terrorism, rattling the cages of the far left with his contributions to “Mandate for Leadership,” a series of recommendations the Heritage gave to Reagan’s transition team. Francis called for greatly increased powers for the security agencies and the monitoring of extremist groups and their members.
But domestic surveillance and the excesses of the New Left would not come to dominate his thought. America’s great enemy was indeed within, according to Francis, but not among the protest-marching extremists in the street. Instead, it was from far more conventional barracks — campuses, corporate suites, and government offices — that the assault on freedom was being waged.
Francis was influenced profoundly by the works of Trotskyite-turned-National Review senior editor James Burnham. In 1984 Francis published Power and History, the first major study of Burnham, which he revised and expanded in 1999 as Thinkers of Our Time: James Burnham. Burnham, a New York University professor of literature, spent much of the 1930s writing for Trotskyite publications such as Partisan Review and the New International. He abandoned Marxism and Trotsky himself in a dispute over the nature of the Soviet Union. Trotsky had argued that the Soviet Union was a deformed workers’ state, but still it deserved the allegiance of socialists. Burnham argued that it was neither capitalist nor socialist but something new: a managerial state run by party apparatchiks and the Red Army.
Burnham developed his critique of the Soviet Union in 1941’s The Managerial Revolution, which later influenced George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The same process in which a politically influential elite gained disproportionate power over society had begun in Western society. In Burnham’s terms, the bourgeois class was retreating before a revolution by a managerial class whose economic power was exercised in increasingly bureaucratic corporate structures and whose political power was increasing in the United States along with the rapid expansion of the executive branch. The managerial class was not a self-conscious body of people, but rather a sociological cohort defined by an egalitarian ethic and a preference for technocratic solutions and political and economic centralization.
In his 1943 work, The Machievellians, Burnham refined his ideas and promoted the political theorists Gaetano Mosca, Georges Sorel, Robert Michels, and Vilfredo Pareto, who denounced “democracy” as a sham designed to gull the masses. Burnham argued that power is always controlled by elite minorities. These elites are not necessarily cabals, but more often groups of men with similar political, economic, and cultural interests. Francis found Burnham’s mode of analysis persuasive and adopted it as his own, considering himself for the rest of his career a Burnhamite. In Power and History, Francis presented his own version of Burnham’s synthesis.
Driven by insatiable appetites and irrational beliefs, men seek to dominate each other or to escape domination by others. This struggle inevitably results in a minority coming to power, monopolizing as much as possible political, economic, military, technical, and honorific resources and excluding and oppressing the majority. In this way there is formed an “elite” (Pareto), “ruling class”‘ (Mosca), or “oligarchy” (Michels) that rules the majority and exploits it for its own benefit through force and fraud . . . The record of this unending rise and fall of ruling minorities is human history.
According to Francis, every elite — and the groups and individuals composing or attached to it — protects itself from exploitation by use of the power it exerts against others. Conservatism as it had been understood since 1789 had been tasked with the defense of tradition and authority against revolutionaries and the eroding forces of modernity. Francis found this wanting. The managerial revolution had already occurred, and the elite that came to power with it were implacably hostile to everything Francis sought to conserve. In Francis’s analysis, Russell Kirk and the conservative movement had blundered. Instead of playing defense, those who wanted to conserve Western tradition and culture needed to become an insurgent political force. He wrote, “While we find much in the conservative tradition to teach us about the nature of what we want to conserve and why we should want to conserve it, we will find little in conservative theory to instruct us in the strategy and tactics of challenging dominant authorities.”
The question for Sam Francis was, How might a conservative elite rise up to challenge the managerial elite? Conservatives would have to attach themselves to a broad social base. In his 1982 essay, “Message from MARS: The Social Politics of the New Right,” Francis combined his Burnhamite analysis of elites with Donald Warren’s sociological work on “Middle American Radicals” or MARs. Who were these MARs? Francis wrote:
MARs form a class — not simply a middle class and not simply an economic category — that is in revolt against the dominant patterns and structures of American society. They are, in the broadest sense, a political class and they aspire, through the New Right, to become the dominant political class in the United States by displacing the current elite, dismantling its apparatus of power and discrediting its political ideology. . .
Modern liberalism was, in Francis’ analysis, the political ideology of the managerial elite. It was not rational or coherent but, like all ideologies, an expression of the interests of the elite that espoused it.
The ideology or formula of liberalism grows out of the structural interests of the elite that espouses it. Liberalism barely exists as an independent set of ideas and values. Virtually no significant thinker of this century has endorsed it. Internally, the doctrines of liberalism are so contrary to established fact, inconsistent with each other, and immersed in sentimentalism, resentment, egotism, and self-interest that they cannot be taken seriously as a body of ideas. Liberalism flourished almost entirely because it reflects the material and psychological interests of a privileged, power-holding, and power-seeking sector of American society.
The conservative movement, meanwhile, was trying to dismantle the Leviathan state because it had exceeded its constitutional limits, hemmed in traditional American liberties, and made men dependent on the state. Francis agreed with all this but primarily saw the Leviathan state and other centralized institutions of power as the throne from which a deracinated liberal elite exercised and expanded its power.
The strategic objective of the New Right must be the localization, privatization, and decentralization of the managerial apparatus of power. Concretely, this means a dismantling of the corporate, educational, labor, and media bureaucracies; a devolution to more modest-scale organizational units and a reorientation of federal rewards from mass-scale units and hierarchies to smaller and more local ones.
Francis’s primary target was not big government itself, but the managerial elite who occupied it.
In 1981 Francis left the Heritage Foundation to become a legislative aide to Senator John P. East of North Carolina. Senator East was so stalwart a conservative, members joked, that he made Jesse Helms “the liberal senator from the Tar Heel state.” During his time in the Senate, Francis played a small but key role in the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday debate. Senator East argued against the King holiday because it would elevate King “to the same level as the father of our country and above the many other Americans whose achievements approach Washington’s.”
Typically, Francis went further, documenting King’s links to Communists and Communist organizations in a long research paper distributed to several Senate offices. Sen. Helms read it into the Congressional Record on October 3, 1983. In Francis’s opinion, King’s persistent obfuscation regarding these associations was sufficient to dismiss the King holiday.
But Francis’s real concern was that a national holiday would legitimize King’s understanding of the Declaration of Independence as a promissory note: “not merely declarative of national independence but also imperative of social reconstruction in accordance with an egalitarian commandment.” A King holiday would provide the Left with a stick with which to beat Americans for not delivering on the full promise of King’s legacy and to cow them into accepting ever more radical measures in his name. The Left would not stop at expunging Confederate symbols and the playing of “Dixie,” but would set their sights on Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, whose statements on racial egalitarianism, Francis quipped, “make Jimmy the Greek sound like an ACLU lawyer.”
Senator East declined to run for reelection. Suffering from cancer, he took his own life in June 1986. Sam moved swiftly into the editorial offices of the Washington Times, the conservative daily newspaper owned by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon. Here he would win the Distinguished Writing Award from the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1989 and 1990. At the same time, his monthly Chronicles column, “Principalities and Powers,” helped attract the largest subscriber base the magazine had ever enjoyed.
Francis and the New Right were on a high, but he was increasingly dissatisfied with what he perceived as the continuing deformation of the conservative movement. He took aim at Irving Kristol and the neoconservatives, lamenting their growing influence, especially on Reagan administration appointments, the most well-known being that of Bill Bennett to the head of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Bennett was backed by Kristol, Edward Feulner, Michael Joyce and others, while the more established University of Dallas professor Melvin Bradford received the support of William F. Buckley, Russell Kirk, Jeffrey Hart, and several senators. Francis, who was as bitter about the outcome as anyone, called Bennett “totally unknown and laughably under-qualified.” Paleos like Francis allege Bennett received the nomination due to a smear campaign against Bradford. And yet, Francis usually derided neoconservatism as too innocuous, “the Harmless Persuasion” because the neos “retreat into elegant reprimands of the establishment rather than advance to a principled confrontation with it.”
Throughout his years at the Times, he made the normal rounds of cocktail parties and conservative gatherings, often standing in the back of the room and cracking wise about whoever was speaking. Although some friends, like Don Devine, vice chairman of the American Conservative Union, with whom Francis often ate dinner at such events, found his prickly personality charming, others felt ill at ease around him. Francis often seemed angry and was prone to feeling slighted. His hard-right politics, cutting barbs, and frequent jeremiads about the deficiencies of the conservative movement along with his appearance — unkempt, corpulent, and smokey from the Pall Malls he chainsmoked — made him a repulsive figure to many in the conservative movement. Here was a loser, the “angry white male” bogeyman the Left held up for
derision and scorn in the 1990s.
Complaining that the neocons had entrenched themselves as “the permissible right wing” of liberal political and cultural hegemony, Francis sought out political groups and factions outside the mainstream, including the Council of Conservative Citizens (CoCC), a hard right activist group with roots in the defunct White Citizens Council. New alliances were essential, he wrote, because “movement conservatism” had become the mirror image of what it ostensibly opposed: “For the last 20 years, the establishment right has increasingly cloistered itself in Washington and its suburbs periodically dispatching flying squadrons to raise money from the yokels back home by claiming to be ‘populists.'”
By 1994, Francis had given up on the conservative movement as it was constructed. His collection of essays published that year was entitled Beautiful Losers: Essays on the Failure of American Conservatism. He argued that despite its “sophisticated body of ideas” and “highly articulate spokesman,” there was no possibility the movement’s ideas would “creep up on the Left, slit their throats in the dark, and stage an intellectual and cultural coup d’état.” Conservative ideas were powerless because “there existed in American society no significant set of interests to which [they] could attach themselves.”
Francis was determined not to live in the past. In his Chronicles column, he articulated a strategy for dismantling the liberal cultural, economic, and political hegemony by riding on a train of MARs’ resentments and aspirations. The signs of Middle American discontent were everywhere: the Perot candidacy, the anti-NAFTA and anti-globalist movements, fear and loathing of federal police power after Waco and Ruby Ridge. Such resentment had a pathological side as well, Francis understood, evidenced in popular conspiracy theories (black helicopters) and the candidacies of David Duke. But the question Francis focused on was this: Could the MARs find a leadership to give voice and direction to their grievances? The man to unite the disaffected, he decided, was Pat Buchanan.
Francis became especially close to Buchanan in the early 1990s. They met often to discuss their political positions — on the Gulf war, on immigration, the 1991 Civil Rights Act, and trade policy. Francis wrote that the “issues that began to matter in [the 1992] election were economic digestion by foreign powers, the danger not only of crime but of outright anarchy, cultural disintegration under the impact of massive immigration and militantly antiwhite and anti-Western multiculturalist movements — have to do with whether the American nation, as a political unity and a cultural identity, will live or die.” Francis and Buchanan worked towards the formation of the nationalist and populist ideology that would animate Buchanan’s presidential campaigns in 1992, 1996, and 2000.
Francis advised Buchanan to break with the Republican party decisively and ditch the “conservative” label, which had accrued too many negative connotations among the voters Buchanan should attract. Conservatives wore bow-ties and loafers. They were eggheads, timeservers, and apparatchiks — or worse. But even as Francis continued to tout Buchanan as the spearhead of the Middle American revolution, he became increasingly frustrated with his campaigns. Francis concluded that Buchanan was doomed to fail because he persisted in playing by his enemies’ rules. Francis urged Buchanan to no longer police his ranks for the occasional racist or conspiracy theorist but instead to challenge the authority and legitimacy of the media and elites who demanded he do so. Francis’s strategy was a hard right version of “permanent offense.”
Buchanan viewed Francis as one of the most perceptive political watchers, but sought advice less on how to turn his campaign into a revolution than how to incorporate these Middle American Radicals into a conservative campaign against establishment Republicans George H.W. Bush and Robert Dole. Buchanan, gregarious in character and carrying a decades-long reputation as a good soldier in the conservative movement, survived his failed campaigns despite numerous attempts to read him out of the right. Francis, however, gradually became more radical, first experimenting with racialism and then embracing it.
Jared Taylor first met Sam Francis in 1990, the year Taylor founded American Renaissance, a literate but explicitly “white nationalist” monthly. Taylor is a slender, patrician figure who, it has been said, looks quite like William Buckley did in his younger years. And Taylor positions himself as an analogous figure to Buckley. What Buckley did for conservatism, Taylor is attempting to do for white nationalism. Though his only stated political goals are to end affirmative action and halt immigration, American Renaissance has a wider editorial berth and attacks nearly all racial taboos. Taylor has even bragged about bringing Nazis and Jewish supremacists into the same room for civil discussion.
It was Francis’s appearance at the first American Renaissance conference in 1994 that led to Francis’s forced resignation from the Washington Times. At the conference, Francis declared:
The civilization that we as whites created in Europe and America could not have developed apart from the genetic endowments of the creating people, nor is there any reason to believe that the civilization can be successfully transmitted to a different people.
Francis’s position at the Times was already precarious. He had written a column mocking the Southern Baptist convention for apologizing for slavery. Francis remarked, with more logic than common sense or decency, that no present-day Baptists had ever owned slaves. And, he added, neither Jesus Christ nor the Church Fathers had ever condemned slavery as a sin. For this the Times demoted him and reduced his salary by 25 percent.
As for the speech he’d given at the American Renaissance conference, Francis floated a copy to Thomas Fleming to see if Chronicles might publish it. Fleming refused, saying the speech would ruin Francis and adding that his career, his reputation, his friends, and his family were all suffering because of Francis’s turn to racialism.
Dinesh D’Souza, a former Dartmouth Review editor and Reagan administration senior adviser, attended the American Renaissance conference to write about it in The End of Racism, which argued provocatively that the civil rights establishment was doing more harm than good — a thesis with which Francis would have agreed. But D’Souza’s account of the conference was not at all sympathetic to Francis or the other attendees. And it contained some inaccuracies. Taylor and others speculate that it was written to inoculate D’Souza from charges of racism by presenting the scalps of the “real” racists. Taylor received galleys of the book before publication and after consulting tapes of the conference had a legal letter sent to its publisher. The first run was pulped, at a considerable cost to the Free Press, and D’Souza had to rewrite the chapter. Before all this, however, a portion of D’Souza’s original account appeared in the Washington Post. Immediately after Times editor Wes Pruden read what Francis had said about “genetic endowments,” Francis was out the door. D’Souza, whose reporting on Francis in the Washington Post was not rewritten for his book’s reprinting (and so was accurate to begin with), has insisted that he never intended for Francis to lose his position.
The loss of income was a great blow to Francis, but he still had his syndicated column and his spot in Chronicles. He found new work with American Renaissance and the Citizen’s Informer, a publication of the CoCC, and for Middle American News, a publication of nationalist conservatism. He came to see himself as a victim, just as surely as those Americans displaced by the New World Order.
Francis anticipated the stress globalization would put on the MARs.
Some Americans, especially the cosmo-conservatives in Manhattan and Washington, may fantasize that globalization will yield another “American Century,” with Yankee know-how tossing institutional and ideological candy-bars to fetching senioritas in the Third World. But blue-collar workers in Detroit and construction men in Texas probably have a better grip on the realities of globalization as they watch their own jobs disappear before Asian competition and illegal immigrants. Globalization doesn’t mean that America will prevail, but that it will vanish among the electrons and laser beams by which the planet is to be held together, just as Midwestern small businesses and Southern family farms vanished into the financial and industrial grids of the nineteenth century nationalists.
Thomas Fleming assesses Francis’s career by saying he was always one type of nationalist or another. Historically, of course, conservatives were the enemy of centralizing nationalism, which tends to weaken local and regional cultures.
But even the American nationalism Francis espoused was not the traditional type of the Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, or Theodore Roosevelt schools. His nationalism was to be rooted in something that transcended economic gain.
It also means a radical rejection of what historically has been the basis of American nationalism — the cult of economic growth, material acquisition, and universal ‘equality of opportunity’ — and its reformulation in a new myth of the nation as a distinctive cultural and political force that cannot be universalized for the rest of the planet or digested by the globalist regime . . .
Finding MARs unable to make a dent in the power of the managerial elite, finding nothing in the traditions of American nationalism to save America from the global elite, and effectively purged from a conservative movement he now detested, Francis made new friends among the racialist right and attended meetings and conferences organized by them. He acquired sponsors for his more radical work. Many of his new supporters embraced Francis, not for his work extending Burnhamite analysis of political phenomena to the domestic scene, but because he was despised by the same elite that held them in contempt. In circles this far out on the fringe, a person’s value is measured less by what they say that may be good or true, but by the hostility of the reactions they provoke from the mainstream.
One of these meetings led to the birth of the Occidental Quarterly, another “white nationalist” publication. Its Fall 2005 issue published Francis’s essay “The Return of the Repressed,” his racialist testament, if you will.
The truth is that whites deny themselves a racial identity, and one major reason they do is that many of them, especially in white elites, buy into or accept, consciously or unconsciously, premises that deny the reality and significance of race, as well as unquestioned beliefs about the evilness and worthlessness of whites themselves . . .
Whites need to form their racial consciousness in conformity not only with what we now know about the scientific reality of race but also with the moral and political traditions of Western Man-White Man. The purpose of white racial consciousness and identity is not simply to serve as a balance against the aggression and domination of other races but also to preserve, protect, and help revitalize the legacy of the civilization that our own ancestors created and handed down to us, for its own sake, because it is ours, and because, by the standard of the values and ideals we as a race and a civilization have articulated, it is better.
Francis was predisposed to explaining social phenomena through conflict. Thus did disagreements become occasions for great personal and group animosity. His own battered personal and professional experiences became, it seemed, emblematic of a larger white man’s persecution complex. But more than a rhetorical idiosyncrasy, it was the language and thinking of racial determinism that Francis employed, indulging a collection of ideas that conservatives have rightly rejected.
White supremacy was able to exist at all because only whites possessed a powerful racial consciousness, and non-whites did not. Today that situation is reversed-with ominous implications for the dwindling white population.
Even as he denied that racial consciousness condoned the repression of others, Francis’s own tone was not without a militant edge:
Whites even today, while they remain a majority are facing unprecedented political and physical threats that a strong common consciousness would halt and, only a few years ago, would have made impossible.
Meanwhile, the actual policy prescriptions Francis supports in this essay are widely supported by the conservative movement, and do not require race-mongering to promote:
the end of all ‘affirmative action’ programs … the repeal of all ‘hate crime’ laws and ‘Politically Correct’ policies and regulations . . . and the abolition of all multiculturalist curricula, ‘sensitivity training,’ and similar experiments in brainwashing in schools, universities, businesses, and government.”
It is exactly because Sam Francis made good ideas politically radioactive that he was cast out of polite discourse.
Happily for us, he saw little prospect for white racial consciousness to take hold in the foreseeable future, although he claimed credibly to see evidence of something like this in “patterns of school attendance, housing, church membership, marriage and even voting.” He could not help but observe bitterly that the value of his house in racially diverse Prince George County, Maryland, remained static even as the recent real estate boom enriched millions.
Still, even this radicalized Francis was capable of novel and arresting thought. Though his longtime friend and editor Thomas Fleming welcomed his contributions in Chronicles, explicit racial material was not allowed. This constraint kept Francis writing about subjects on which he had done his most valuable work. In his last essay for Chronicles, “Synthesizing Tyranny,” he expanded his theory of “anarcho-tyranny.” Therein, he posits that the modern West does not fail to punish criminals or enforce immigration laws because of “decadence” or a lack of will. The elite consciously neglects to enforce these laws, because to do so would threaten their base of power. The elite demonstrates limitless energy indoctrinating children in multiculturalist doctrine, in agitating for hate-crimes legislation, and harassing taxpayers and gun owners. For the elite, the law is not the ratified norms of a moral community or the basis of order, but rather it is for telling people who is in charge. The anarchic and tyrannical aspects of the regime work together to dispossess, humiliate, and suppress the Middle American core.
In the last year of his life, Sam sought to get control of his health, imposing the Atkins diet on himself with a fearsome discipline. He quickly dropped an enormous amount of weight from his obese frame. He joked tastelessly that he understood the position of slaves, being 3/5 of a man.
His social graces were uneven to say the least. Jared Taylor, founder of the racialist right’s flagship publication American Renaissance, once reprimanded him for never bringing flowers or wine to dinner at the Taylor house. After that, Sam never came empty-handed. Longtime friend Fran Griffin was shocked to discover that Sam was a more than competent ballroom dancer. While some complained of his tightness with a dollar, others, like Louis March, a former aide to Senator Helms, report that he was uncommonly generous. If a friend got fired from a Reagan administration post or lost a foundation sinecure, Sam would ask for his resumé and then circulate it. Longtime friend Peter Gemma recalls that Sam was never “mushy” about these kindnesses. Instead, he was often abrupt as he went out of his way to help others.
Friend and Chronicles colleague, Chilton Williamson says, “As a writer and a strategist, Sam was a lonely old eagle.” He adds that although Francis never married, he was no misogynist. “In fact, he liked, and was comfortable with, women, a number of whom were attracted to him in the course of his too short life.”
Francis’s non-political interests were seldom written about and often known only to a handful of friends. He had a lifelong fascination with science fiction and horror. H.P. Lovecraft’s accounts of the devolution of civilization into barbarism, blood-guilt, and an inescapable fate for its protagonists were particularly dear to him. He loved The X-Files for its subversively conservative sensibilities. And he was so fascinated by The Blair Witch Project that he drove to Burkittsville, Maryland, to tour the locations. Francis was never afraid to defend pop culture from what he considered ignorant attacks by the Christian Right. When Bob Dole condemned Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers and Tony Scott’s True Romance, Sam lashed out at Dole and condemned the cultural puerility of the conservative movement. Religious conservatives, he argued, were too concerned with sex and violence and not concerned enough with moral significance.
Francis’s religious views were a mystery to most of his readers. While his sister, Julie, maintains that Sam’s faith in Christ, taught to him as a child in the Presbyterian church, was constant, the story is actually more complicated. Francis was at ease among both the orthodox Catholic circle of Chronicles magazine and the scoffers, pagans, and atheists of the Nietzschean racialist right. The great question for Francis was whether Christianity was a fundamentally liberalizing or conservative force in history. His published writings never evinced an explicit religious conviction.
One snowy morning in January 2005 Francis awoke in great pain. He called a friend on his cell phone while he waited for medical attention. He thought he was dying. He did not trust that an ambulance could reach him quickly enough, and though he feared driving himself to an emergency ward, he surmised that this was his only option. The pain must have been excruciating, for he was suffering from an aortic aneurysm; his aorta had nearly ruptured by the time surgery was performed.
The surgery was successful, but the subsequent complications were dire. His aorta continued to bleed, and his doctor, Mohammed Naficy, at Prince George’s Hospital Center worked to stop it from hemorrhaging. Julie gave permission for every procedure the doctors thought might save him. Francis was immobilized for two weeks. His doctor feared that any movement would prove fatal. Business concerns forced Julie and her husband back to Chattanooga. Before they left, she was told that even if Sam recovered, he would be a “ticking time bomb.” Before Julia and her husband arrived home, Francis was moved. His aorta burst and he died.
During Sam’s last week, Christopher Check, vice president of the Rockford Institute (which publishes Chronicles), called his brother, a priest in Stamford, Connecticut. Father Paul Check had attended seminary with Father Paul Scalia, son of the Supreme Court justice and parochial vicar of St. Rita’s in Alexandria, Virginia. Fr. Scalia drove to Maryland to visit Francis and found him alone. He offered Francis a choice, a blessing from the Church or Last Rites. Francis indicated the latter. Although this could not be considered definitively a conversion, it gave great joy to his friends at Chronicles, and they began to express their hope that Sam Francis met his death as a Christian.
In this final respect, Francis again followed his hero James Burnham. In his final days, with the encouragement of his friends from National Review, Priscilla Buckley (William’s sister) and J.P. McFadden, Burnham accepted the solace of a Catholic priest and finally received Last Rites, thus returning to the Church in which he had been raised.
At the funeral, held at the First Presbyterian Church of Chattanooga, Julie Irwin was surprised by the number of people that came from all parts of the country to pay their respects: Pat Buchanan, Thomas Fleming, Jared Taylor, Peter Brimelow, American Conservative editor Scott McConnell, and a host of other friends and admirers. Many of those present were surprised that the others had known Francis, too. To the end, he had kept his professional and his personal lives in separate compartments.
Sam Francis’s legacy is a divided estate. His innovative applications of Burnham’s thought were prophetic in one important sense. Middle America remains enraged at the cultural and media elites. To Francis’s disappointment this anger has been effectively harnessed by the mainstream conservative movement to ends he never fully endorsed. Scott McConnell of the American Conservative asked Francis to write a piece for the magazine describing why the Middle American Revolution did not happen after all. The paleoconservative movement he helped shape has distanced itself from Francis’s most radical ideas. Though Chronicles and the American Conservative still decry our elites and advance some of the same positions Sam Francis promoted — immigration restriction, non-interventionism in foreign policy, the extrication of America from transnational institutions, and a revived American nationalism — these magazines do not pine for a Middle American Revolution. Paleoconservatives talk about race, but they do so in the way of Charles Murray or 1970s Commentary. Their writings do not emanate hostility or bitterness, as Francis’s often did, toward American blacks and Hispanics.
Though the paleos are correct and it is expedient for them to distance themselves from the substance and tone of Francis’s later work, there is room for thinkers to carry on his analysis of Middle American grievances. The managerial elite he and Burnham described still exists. Even the neoconservatives, whom Francis detested, have written critically about ‘the New Class’ that Burnham described. If there comes a time when neos and paleos can transcend their differences over foreign policy, the first thing they might discuss is the nature of the elite class and what is to be done about it. Can it be reformed? Is it possible to begin dismantling “the apparatus” of elite power? This idea is worth pulling from the ashes of Sam Francis’s reputation:
The desire to dethrone elite power, and to tear down the Leviathan state the elite built, can still animate the conservative movement, intellectually and politically. In the keynote speech for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s 50th Anniversary Gala (which Francis declined to attend), William F. Buckley Jr. invoked Francis by name, referring to him as “a spokesman for the castaways David Keene spoke about as having earned their exclusion from thoughtful conservative ranks.”
In an e-mail to friend and colleague Tom Piatak, Francis, ever defiant, remarked on William F. Buckley’s reputation for the “precise use of words and language.
“As I have mentioned before, a “castaway” is someone like Robinson Crusoe who managed to save himself after the ship on which he was traveling was wrecked . . . It is not someone cast out or away from a ship. That is called being marooned (Ben Gunn in Treasure Island is an example, as was Alexander Selkirk on whom Crusoe was based). The word “castaway” as applied to me by [Buckley] implies that the conservative movement was the ship in which I was traveling, that it wrecked and I survived.