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Remembering Harry Jaffa: Truth, Justice, And The American Way


In the weeks since Harry Jaffa’s death, many tributes have been made, and yet I am not sure we have quite gotten to the heart of his project. And in the wake of his death, it is fitting first to describe what he was up to before we endeavor to argue or criticize.

If we wish to summarize Professor Jaffa’s life and works in a few words, we could do worse, and perhaps could not do better, than to turn to Superman’s slogan. Jaffa fought for truth, justice, and the American way.

Truth Before Sentimentality

His devotion to truth was legendary. Many obituaries and reminiscences have quoted William F. Buckley’s line, “If you think Harry Jaffa is hard to argue with, try agreeing with him. It is nearly impossible.” Only a few have quoted Buckley’s next line: “He studies the fine print in any agreement as if it were a trap, or a treaty with the Soviet Union.” I have yet to see anyone quote Buckley’s further explications: “He understands that the American political tradition has been compromised, time and again, by an adulterated consensus about such problematic terms as freedom, equality, democracy, and consensus itself.” Moreover, Buckley noted, “as Aristotle (another Jaffa hero) remarked, Plato is dear, but truth is dearer. And beyond that, the errors of excellent men are at once more instructive and more seductive than those of fools. So the relentless Jaffa logic pries at apparently trifling differences until they open like chasms. What is more, he is able to convey the full gravity of these differences.”

That it might be possible to demonstrate the truth of a political or moral proposition was fundamental to Jaffa’s life’s work.

In light of Jaffa’s reputation for contentiousness, it’s worth noting that when seeking truth tone is logically irrelevant. Truth is truth, whether expressed boldly or indirectly. When seeking truth, he seems to have concluded, speaking boldly was better, for it drew arguments clearly, rendering discussion more open. Finally, Buckley noted, “most American conservatives naturally revere the American political tradition, since it is, after all, their tradition, and they are, after all, reverent men. Harry Jaffa has a somewhat different reason for cherishing it: he believes it to be true, as one might believe the theorems of Euclid to be true. He has devoted his career to vindicating its truth on rational grounds.” Devotion to truth was, for him, inseparable from devotion to the American way.

That it might be possible to demonstrate the truth of a political or moral proposition was fundamental to Jaffa’s life’s work. He was weaned upon the instruction of his teacher, Leo Strauss, about the crisis of the modern West. In that crisis, nihilism threatened to debase and destroy all that had been good, noble, and true in the Western tradition. “Before I met Strauss,” Jaffa wrote, “I too thought it obligatory to preface every assertion about things good and bad, right and wrong, with the disclaimer that it was a ‘value judgment.’ To maintain, for example, that the difference between just and unjust (and, in particular between tyrannical and non-tyrannical) regimes, was a matter of reason and experience, and not of liking and disliking, was taken to imply a return to the ages of superstition. For such critics, to believe that there was any ground for belief other than unsupported preference was to be deluded.” That opinion having become the prevailing one in Europe and America, the West was in crisis, and in desperate need of rescue.

In the first part of his career, Jaffa held that America had faced a similar crisis, but that Abraham Lincoln had saved the republic. Further study led him to conclude that the American founding was better than he had thought. There was reason and morality in the American regime from the start. Many scholars failed to see that, and, worse, most modern politicians and intellectuals followed their lead. Given the premises upon which most scholarship was based, no other conclusion was likely to be reached. As a proof text, he was fond of quoting Carl Becker’s comment that “to ask whether the natural rights philosophy of the Declaration of Independence is true or false, is essentially a meaningless question.” When the leading scholar of the Declaration thinks like that, America needs saving. Or, as Jaffa was known to say: the fate of the West depends upon America; the fate of America depends upon the Republican Party; the fate of the Republican Party depends upon the conservative movement; and the fate of the conservative movement depends upon it rededicating itself to the truths of 1776.

The Justice of the American Regime

Jaffa’s devotion to America was not based simply upon the truth of the propositions upon with the nation is founded, but also upon the conviction that that truth was inseparable from the justice of the American regime. Indeed, Jaffa was known to say that the United States of America was “the best regime.” By that, I take it, he meant not that the United States was, or that it was in the process of becoming a place where nothing bad ever happened, and no injustice was ever done. On the contrary, it was the best that could be achieved among men, given the kind of beings that men are.

To expect perfection would contradict the principles of the founding. If all men are created equal, and if, as John Adams put it, “It is weakness rather than wickedness, which renders men unfit to be trusted with unlimited power,” then it is unreasonable to expect human beings to create a world in which no one does wrong. More broadly, tragedy cannot be purged from human life. Jaffa recognized, in other words, that a fine line separated idealism from misanthropy, for the desire to transform the world often reflects hatred of mankind as he is. Crossing that line has led to many of the crimes that have beset the modern world. America had a more reasonable founding. In other words, Jaffa believed that the United States, at its best, was the best possible regime in which man qua man could live. It is the regime in which men can reach their highest potential in light of the reality that they are not angels.

America as the City on a Hill

That brings us to the American Way. We have groups that call themselves “People for the American Way” although they, in fact, support no such thing. On the contrary, such groups seek to transform America into something that would be unrecognizable to our Founders. Jaffa thought it was his duty as a man and as an American citizen to expose these false-flag operations, and to fight them. Hence he became a politically engaged scholar, participating actively in American political life, most famously in his work on Barry Goldwater’s campaign, as the principal author of his great convention speech. The most famous lines of the speech are about defending the justice of the American regime: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

The natural language nowadays is to embrace ‘moderation’ and to resist ‘extremism,’ rather than to defend what is right and to attack what is wrong.

The context of these famous words is about restoring and strengthening the American regime. Just before, Goldwater declared that “today, as then [in the crisis of the 1850s], but more urgently and more broadly than then, the task of preserving and enlarging freedom at home and safeguarding it from the forces of tyranny abroad is great enough to challenge all our resources and to require all our strength.” Just after, he proclaimed, “The beauty of the very system we Republicans are pledged to restore and revitalize, the beauty of this Federal system of ours is in its reconciliation of diversity with unity. . . . Our Republican cause is not to level out the world or make its people conform in computer-regimented sameness. Our Republican cause is to free our people and light the way for liberty throughout the world.”

As I understood Jaffa’s Americanism, his was more of a “promised land” Americanism than a “crusader state” version. This “almost chosen people,” to use Lincoln’s words, could light the way for liberty throughout the world by showing, at home, just what it means to be a free nation, a nation dedicated to the proposition that ‘all men are created equal” and are “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” Although the principles of 1776, rightly understood, are the basis of a fierce and patriotic Americanism, one worthy of defending abroad when necessary, they are not principles that justify foreign adventurism.

In modern America, perhaps post-modern America too, our leadership class has embraced the philosophy known as “pragmatism.” Under the tutelage of that philosophy, the natural language is to embrace “moderation” and to resist “extremism,” rather than to defend what is right and to attack what is wrong. Pragmatism stipulates the question of truth. Instead, it embraces what it regards as the truths of today—truth happens to an idea or a practice, and what is fitting for society evolves under time.

That is, Jaffa noted, merely an historical version of might makes right, “for Modernity culminates in the claims of Science, to have replaced God, and of History, to have replaced Philosophy.” But, Jaffa noted, Strauss had proved that “neither Science nor History had vindicated its claims.” Hence, “the power and dignity both of Reason and Revelation, as guides to human life, were inherently untouched by Modernity.” A political morality whose fundamental work is to distinguish “extremism” from “moderation” produces an amoral politics. To be sure there might be a great deal of moralizing in that politics, but it cannot give a rational account of that morality.

If truth happens to an idea or a practice, and what is fitting for society evolves under time, then once again might makes right.

Jaffa would not have denied that as circumstances change, our practices must. But that change, to be good, must be managed in light of what is true simply, and what is just simply, and what is best simply—what is right for man qua man. As others have noted, when defending “extremism,” Jaffa was alluding to Martin Luther King Jr.’s reflections on moderation and extremism in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” The fundamental questions are right or wrong; true or false; good or bad. The fundamental political question is not moderate or extreme.

As Jaffa was willing to take seriously such primary terms as truth and falsehood, good and evil, justice and injustice, so, too was he willing to speak of heroes and villains. He was not ashamed to have heroes. His heroes, men like Strauss, Lincoln, and Winston Churchill, were men who understood that politics is an inescapably moral endeavor. Following them, with faith in the right, as God gave him to see the right, Jaffa dedicated his life to the pursuit of and defense of truth, justice, and the American way.

The depth of the crisis we face was revealed a few years ago when Superman renounced his American citizenship. In a world in which our elites and intellectuals, and even those who pen our comic books, are unwilling to defend the American way, America is very much in need of rescue. Harry Jaffa will be missed.