In his youth in New York City, Harry V. Jaffa was a Golden Gloves boxer. His pugnacious ways didn’t stop there. When he died last Saturday, aged 96, his decades in the intellectual ring with fellow conservatives had reshaped modern American conservatism—although not enough, he always insisted. Even as his health failed, he was looking forward to the next round.
One of the political philosopher Leo Strauss’s first American students, Jaffa liked to quote his mentor’s favorite medieval aphorism, Solet Aristoteles quaerere pugnam, “Aristotle is accustomed to seeking a fight.” So was Harry, and the debates he launched, or joined, served not only to keep conservatives in fighting form but also to teach them what was worth fighting for and why.
Harry Jaffa’s First Big Political Bout
The first big political debate he took part in involved a couplet near the end of Barry Goldwater’s acceptance speech at the 1964 Republican National Convention: “I would remind you that extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” The lines came from Harry’s draft. Goldwater—whom Democrats and, more maliciously, liberal Republicans already had spent months denouncing as an extremist—loved them, and insisted they be included in the final text. Goldwater decided to own his so-called “extremism,” as Martin Luther King Jr. had done on behalf of the “extremism” of civil disobedience several months before in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
But in Goldwater’s case, all hell broke loose. American liberalism, then at the zenith of its power and self-confidence, thought it commanded the right side of history; the future belonged to it; and anyone who couldn’t see that was an idiot, a fanatic, or both. When Goldwater won only six states, liberalism seemed vindicated. But Harry was not persuaded.
He insisted that conservatism had to challenge liberalism at its premises, at the roots. Human beings are free, he argued, which means that the future cannot be determined; we cannot know if it will be better or worse than the present or the past. Nor have the truths of human nature, the rational standards by which to determine better or worse, been anachronized, as liberals presumed. Liberals still call any fundamental dissent from their precepts “extremist,” but Jaffa early on encouraged conservatives to stand up boldly for the truth and not to sell their principled inheritance for a bowl of progressive porridge. Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980 was the fruit of that “extremism,” and of his prudence in not repeating Goldwater’s line!
Defining Abraham Lincoln’s Effects on the Republic
The second fight Jaffa plunged into was against the conservative critics of Abraham Lincoln, especially that odd mixture of ultra-traditionalists and ultra-libertarians sometimes called neo-Confederates who regarded Lincoln as a tyrant or at best a big-government liberal. In the early days of the new Right, they had many sympathizers among mainstream conservatives, who remained at least skeptical of Lincoln. The debate Harry launched was about what respectable conservatives should think about Lincoln, although he regarded that political question as subordinate to the scholarly one of the truth about Lincoln.
Across several decades in National Review and other journals, Jaffa and his opponents, who included at various times Willmoore Kendall, Frank Meyer, and Mel Bradford, clashed repeatedly and, on the whole, courteously. The issue was whether Lincoln saved the American republic or ruined it by stressing “that all men are created equal,” that slavery was wrong, and that a civil war should be fought rather than tolerate the extension and legitimation of slavery and the breakup of the Union. Although he never quite believed it, Jaffa’s arguments in defense of Lincoln changed the conservative mind. Jack Kemp took them up publicly, as did Lewis Lehrman and many other Republican notables. Harry had great success among younger conservatives, who now dominate the intellectual and political movement.
According to Richard Brookhiser, a long-time senior editor at National Review, Jaffa’s arguments were instrumental in altering Bill Buckley’s opinion of Lincoln and the Declaration of Independence. Kendall had been Buckley’s mentor at Yale University, and his hostility to Lincoln and to Lincoln’s views on equality had rubbed off on Buckley, who brought Kendall to the magazine as a senior editor. As Buckley’s mind changed, so did the magazine, which is now so staunchly pro-Lincoln that two of its editors published excellent and laudatory books on Lincoln last year—Brookhiser’s “Founders’ Son” and Rich Lowry’s “Lincoln Unbound.”
But in this respect the magazine is a microcosm of the modern conservative movement, improved and reformed by Jaffa’s arguments, among other good influences.
Harry Jaffa Takes On Fellow Straussians and Supreme Court Judges
Jaffa’s third debate took place with ex-friends, mostly fellow students of Strauss like Martin Diamond and Walter Berns (who died on the same day as Harry) or neoconservatives influenced by Strauss, like Irving Kristol. These disputes were not so polite; family quarrels rarely are. Two questions stood at the center: the relation between theory and practice, that is, between philosophy and morality; and the status of America, whether it was, as his opponents (who came to be called East Coast Straussians) held, essentially a modern regime founded on “solid but low” principles, or, as Jaffa (and his allies, the West Coast Straussians) maintained, was something nobler, and meant by its founders to be nobler.
The controversy drove both sides to new research and deeper thinking, which benefited the whole conservative movement. Jaffa did not achieve the knockout he did against the neo-Confederates, but he won on points, at least in the eyes of this judge. One does not hear the argument that America is a thoroughly self-interested or Hobbesian enterprise so much any more, partly because both sides agree that “low” does not prove very “solid” in the long run, and partly because Harry forced everyone to consider a broader swath of evidence, ranging from the state constitutions, bills of rights, and statutes to the effects of Christianity on politics.
A spinoff of this debate turned into a fourth donnybrook between Jaffa and the judges William Rehnquist, Robert Bork, and Antonin Scalia, conservative stalwarts all, whom he criticized as legal positivists (i.e., relativists) or naked majoritarians, distrustful of the natural rights and natural law principles inherent in the Constitution. Bork and Scalia pled guilty as charged, essentially, but with the extenuating circumstance that as judges their commission was properly to keep to the positive law. This interesting debate continues in the Federalist Society and wherever conservative lawyers gather, and will affect the character of conservative jurisprudence long into the future.
Jaffa’s fifth big match was with himself. His two great books on Lincoln, “Crisis of the House Divided,” which appeared in 1959, and “A New Birth of Freedom,” published 40 years later, disagreed on Lincoln’s relation to the American founding. The first claimed that Lincoln “transforms and transcends” the original American understanding of justice, the second that Lincoln fulfills it. (The issue is intimately connected to those he raised with the neoconservatives.) All lovers of truth will want to ponder this disputed question. For that and other reasons, Harry V. Jaffa’s reformation of American conservatism has, in all likelihood, just begun.