Harry Jaffa And The Nobility Of The American Founding

Harry Jaffa And The Nobility Of The American Founding

Harry Jaffa’s writings show us the path he followed back to the founders’ greatness.
Thomas G. West
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Editor’s note: This article is modified version of a eulogy the author gave at Harry Jaffa’s funeral.

As a former student of Harry Jaffa, I am most grateful for his brilliant interpretation of America and his analysis of the problem of the best political order.

Jaffa’s intellectual point of departure was his encounter with Leo Strauss. I believe that in Jaffa’s mind, that was the most important thing that ever happened to him, with the exception of his marriage and family.

Strauss taught Jaffa two big things. First, political philosophy is possible. Contrary to the almost universal opinion of that day, there is a rational case for natural right—the idea that there is such a thing as justice that is true for all men and all times. Strauss convinced Jaffa that the best case for natural right is found in the classical philosophers. Thus his lifelong interest in Plato and Aristotle.

Second, Strauss convinced Jaffa that the American founding was defective. I’ll exaggerate for the sake of clarity by summarizing Strauss in this way: the founding was based on Locke, Locke was a follower of Hobbes, Hobbes followed Machiavelli, and Machiavelli grounded politics on low self-interest.

But Strauss left Jaffa with a problem: if the classics are the standard for us today, and if America was based on a rejection of the classics, then is there any way to defend America?

The Three Stages of Harry Jaffa’s Recovery of the Founding

Jaffa’s good friend Harry Neumann used the term “pre-Jaffa Jaffa” to characterize his scholarship up to 1975. Like other Straussians, Jaffa at first tried to defend America by looking for something in the regime that ennobled its supposedly low beginnings. Harvey Mansfield, for example, thought he had found it in the U.S. Constitution, which in his view created a “constitutional culture” that rescued America from the dangerous consequences of the “half-truth” that “all men are created equal.” The pre-Jaffa Jaffa also tried to find a nobler America in something outside the Declaration. In “Crisis of the House Divided,” Jaffa argued that Abraham Lincoln’s statesmanship transformed Thomas Jefferson’s Lockean “enlightened self-interest” into a lofty moral goal.

Jaffa’s revised approach meant that he no longer needed Lincoln to vindicate America. The founding could be defended on its own terms.

Sometime around 1975, Jaffa, as it were, became Jaffa. His long rethinking of the founding took place in three stages.

The first was exemplified by his book “How to Think about the American Revolution” (1978). Various conservative intellectuals—Willmoore Kendall, George Carey, and M. E. Bradford, among others—had denied that the founding was based on Lockean natural rights. Martin Diamond had claimed that the Declaration of Independence provides almost no guidance regarding the structure of government. Jaffa easily proved them wrong. More important, he showed how the founding principles of equality and liberty were—if understood as the founders and Lincoln did—conservative principles. He meant that these principles once were, and could again become, the basis of a good society.

Jaffa’s revised approach meant that he no longer needed Lincoln to vindicate America. The founding could be defended on its own terms.

More recent conservatives often seem to share the reservations of those with whom Jaffa tangled in the 1970s. In several of the Jaffa obituaries from conservatives, such as Yuval Levin’s and Richard Brookhiser’s for National Review Online, or Harvey Mansfield’s at The Weekly Standard, Jaffa’s “Crisis” is highly praised, while his post-1975 writings are either not mentioned at all or passed by with minimal remark. Most conservatives, to say nothing of liberals, have their doubts about the founders’ political theory of natural rights.

The Nobility of The Founding

The second stage of Jaffa’s reassessment occurred in the Reagan years, when liberal attacks on the family and on the Christian Right grew more and more strident. Jaffa became increasingly interested in the fact that the founders were pro-morality, pro-religion, and pro-heterosexual marriage. Some scholars were arguing that the founding was an incoherent amalgam of non-Lockean moral and religious traditions with Lockean natural rights. Jaffa disagreed, insisting that the founders’ understanding was perfectly coherent. Without citizen virtue, the founders maintained, government cannot secure the people’s natural rights. Some of Jaffa’s writings from this period appear in his 1984 book, “American Conservatism and the American Founding.”

For conservative intellectuals like Allan Bloom and Robert Bork, the principles of the founding were ultimately destructive of everything good and decent in America—a time bomb the founders themselves unwittingly planted.

For conservative intellectuals like Allan Bloom and Robert Bork, the principles of the founding were ultimately destructive of everything good and decent in America—a time bomb the founders themselves unwittingly planted. The radicals of the 1960s, Bloom wrote in his 1987 bestseller, “The Closing of the American Mind,” “absolutized and radicalized” the ideas of equality and freedom that were “inherent in our regime.” Jaffa was able to refute that claim because he had rediscovered the moral dimension of the natural-rights doctrine.

The third and final stage of Jaffa’s understanding was reached in the late 1980s. In “Equality, Liberty, Wisdom, Morality and Consent in the Idea of Political Freedom,” published in 1987 in the journal Interpretation, not only is the founding defensible, not only is it moral, but now it is the founding itself which is the standard of noble politics in the modern world. The full expression of his mature understanding of America (and not merely of Lincoln) appears in what I regard as his most insightful book, “A New Birth of Freedom.”

The American regime, far from opposing the classical understanding of politics, is required by the classical approach—in the conditions of the modern world. Jaffa argued that the classical political teaching of Aristotle, which lacked a natural-law basis of political legitimacy, had to be modified after the rise of Christianity. The new religion had severed the old connection between the political community and its local gods. In a world dominated by a universalistic religion, a new ground for political obligation had to be found that was not tied to religious authority. That was the law of nature and nature’s God.

The founders’ doctrine of toleration eliminates salvation of the soul as an end of politics. Paradoxically, this elevates political life, by removing from it a leading source of its degradation—namely, persecution arising from the conviction of one’s own sanctity. The founders’ doctrine also elevates politics by announcing a sacred cause, the cause of liberty, which elicits the noble virtues of statesmanship and citizenship. The social compact theory challenges men to live up to its moral demands, which require concern for others (respecting their rights) and self-restraint (the virtues of parents and citizens).

The Founding and the Good Life

Those who complain that the founders reduced life to mere self-preservation neglect what the founders actually said. The purpose of politics, as the Declaration proclaims, is “safety and happiness.” These, Jaffa writes in “A New Birth of Freedom,” “are the alpha and omega of political life.” That is, “liberty and property come to sight as means to the preservation of life, but their enduring worth is in the service, not of mere life, but of the good or happy life…. [I]t is the natural order of these wants, directed toward their corresponding natural ends, that constitute the architectonic principles of a society arising out of compact, properly understood.”

The soul of a true American has a higher destiny than mere preservation or acquisition, though there is a place in America for these, too.

Here, Jaffa brings the political theory of the founding back around to the classical concern with philosophy as the best life. The soul of a true American has a higher destiny than mere preservation or acquisition, though there is a place in America for these, too.

So ended my eulogy. I would add here that, in my view, Jaffa could have made his argument more convincing if he had lavished on Locke the same revisionist assiduity and insight that he gave to Lincoln and the founders. But Jaffa left the task of reassessing Locke to others. Michael Zuckert correctly identified this lacuna in “The Truth about Leo Strauss” and wondered why Jaffa had never addressed it. My own response to Zuckert’s challenge is this: Strauss grossly distorted Locke for justifiable pedagogical reasons in several widely known anti-Lockean statements. Strauss’s ultimate assessment of Locke was much more sympathetic: see chapter eight of “What Is Political Philosophy?” and chapter two of “Liberalism.” Locke was not an Aristotelian, but his thought was far more attentive to the moral and religious prerequisites of constitutionalism than one would gather from a superficial reading of Strauss. I have discussed these points in various publications, so there is no need to say anything more here.

Jaffa’s post-1975 writings provide a wonderful point of entry into the American mind as it was shaped by the founders’ political thought. Although it is far from perfect, I still regard his “New Birth of Freedom” as the best book ever written on America.

Thomas G. West is Paul and Dawn Potter Professor of Politics at Hillsdale College and a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute. He is the author of "Jaffa versus Mansfield: Does America Have a Constitutional or a ‘Declaration of Independence’ Soul?” and “Jaffa's Lincolnian Defense of the Founding.”

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