As the United States marked its 243rd birthday this year, its citizens would be forgiven for worrying that the union might not reach its 250th.
Patriotism Is Not Enough is an enlightening exploration of the contest between Harry Jaffa and Walter Berns for how best to defend the American constitutional tradition. While debating each other, at times bitterly, they also agreed that they had to repel the constant onslaught of progressive and post-modern attempts to either reject the principles of the American Founding or, what is more of the same, to reduce our country to the sum of its past errors. Beyond the Jaffa-Berns contretemps, what makes this book so refreshing is that author Steven Hayward details with gratitude the ways that both men deeply influenced him, and how both might have finally agreed with each other even if they never really acknowledged it. Jaffa and Berns “teach us the nature of the American Founding and a robust basis for patriotism.” These men “filled you with courage.” Hayward observes, that “Thinking of them reminds me of something once said of Churchill: “Nobody left his presence without feeling a braver man.” Now that is high praise.
Other presences loom in Hayward’s text. Leo Strauss, teacher of both Jaffa and Berns, is one. Another presence is Willmoore Kendall. After considering the Jaffa-Berns debate, I will argue that Kendall’s voice is now the most pressing for addressing the grievances of our contemporary republican order, and that he fills gaps in the arguments of Jaffa and Berns.
Jaffa was Hayward’s graduate mentor in the Claremont Graduate University and was obviously deeply influential in Hayward’s intellectual development. Hayward, later in his career, worked with Berns at the American Enterprise Institute. Hayward reports that he learned from the senior scholar the significance of how a moral community is formed, and of how surpassingly difficult it is for America to instill the substance of patriotism into each generation. As time passed, Berns sensed that Hayward, although a student of his rival, approached political phenomena from much the same position as himself. Both understood the need at certain moments for vigorous executive power in a republican constitutional order.
Jaffa v. Berns
Jaffa and Berns shared similarities as well as having their differences. Both were students of Leo Strauss, and, as such, engaged in political philosophy in the manner outlined by Strauss of studying the great theorists of the discipline, but also its practitioners, men like Washington, Lincoln, and Churchill. They understood that the political object for the American Left was simply to move America forward into a deeper egalitarian and emancipated future. To do that required a wearing down of memory and the dedication it inspires in each generation for America’s principles and history. As scholars and robust political commentators, both knew that this style of politics would be reversed not through the abstracted modeling of outcomes or in value neutral theorizing of modern political science, but through studies and arguments about the meaning of American constitutionalism, statesmanship, and patriotism. Proving the Left wrong required teaching the truths of the American founding, and, maybe more for Berns than Jaffa, the memories, battles, and events that joined us together as a people.
Here, both men disagreed with one another over those ideas and principles. Jaffa thought the fate of America would turn on the proper understanding of natural rights best taught by Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln-Douglas debates and in his presidential statesmanship and rhetoric. Berns went in a somewhat different direction, never quite insisting upon the philosophical connection between the Declaration and the Constitution as the sine qua non of American republican identity. Hayward insists that Berns in time moved closer to Jaffa’s position on the Declaration as the soul of the Constitution. Still, Berns never quite made this linkage as explicitly as Jaffa did, nor, in the manner of Jaffa, was he willing to make of the Declaration a purity test applied against any scholar or thinker’s arguments about the American founding. Berns’ focus was on patriotism, which he argues, must be taught repeatedly to Americans. He notes in his final book, Making Patriots (2002), that “the making of patriots could not be left to chance.” And this concrete work did not distill into a lesson on the first two paragraphs of the Declaration.
The disagreement between these two men may have been more personal, Hayward seemingly urges, than one based on principles, however much they might have insisted to the contrary. One telling anecdote is that when an opening came available to head the Claremont Graduate School, Leonard Levy, Chairman of the History department, appealed to Berns to take the position. Berns’ response is instructive:
Thank you for thinking of me, but I must decline the invitation. At the present time, 3,000 miles separate me from Harry Jaffa, and I’m not interested in diminishing that distance by a single inch.
Responding to Jaffa’s penchant for picking fights with nearly everyone, Berns said to Jaffa:
[Y]ou could have become the great historian and poet of the American regime. Are you pleased with what you have done instead? Even after 22 years, the promised second Lincoln volume, The New Birth of Freedom, has not appeared, and, because you fritter away your great gifts on petty, vain, and vindictive projects, will never appear. And that is a terrible loss to your friends and to the country.
Harvey Mansfield once told Jaffa, that he stood behind his enemies and friends and then fired, but he didn’t pay attention to whom he hit. These spirited letters aside, Hayward downplays their disagreements to note how these Straussian trained scholars grappled with progressive political thought’s challenge to the country they loved.
Jaffa’s Second Sailing
One notable aspect of Jaffa’s writings is how he modified his thinking to reconcile the American founding with problems that Berns, Strauss, and Willmoore Kendall pointed to regarding America and liberalism, more generally. Berns, sensibly in my judgment, knew that America owed a certain debt to liberalism and to Hobbes, but this was also a problem. How big was the debt? Strauss famously located in Hobbes and John Locke the slow working nihilism he thought was in liberal individualist thought.
Jaffa’s earlier writing did not disagree with this reading of Locke and its import for the Founding era. He argues in Crisis of the House Divided (1959) that the Declaration was an imperfect document, marred by Lockean self-interest, which separates citizens from a proper concern for justice. The American Republic was established to protect interests that, once secured, provided minimal conditions for government’s maintenance and terminated that government when it no longer protected these interests. Lockean rights were really passions for things (interests) and were incapable of being “interrogated” or appealed to on the basis of what is right, Jaffa argues. Lincoln’s fundamental contribution is to make the Declaration into a goal of equality as the guidepost of the American polity as opposed to a Lockean contract that can collapse because of oppressive conditions. Lincoln connects the founding to the ground of justice by appealing to right as what is true and lifting it above the low ground of self-interest.
In Jaffa’s “second-sailing” he changed his position on Locke, Lincoln, and the American Founding. Lincoln was no longer an innovative thinker who improved the Founding’s “low but solid ground” framework for the republic, but recalls to us what had always been present in the Founding, a proper understanding of human equality, which is the bedrock conservative principle, Jaffa insists. America was Lincolnian from the beginning.
Hayward further highlights Jaffa’s related shift to what has been referred to as “Locke-istotle” or the need to read Aristotle into Locke and the American Founding. This makes America a regime worthy of classical political excellence. As Jaffa argues, if Aristotle had been commenting on modern constitutions and thus taking into account the rise of Christianity and the dignity of the human conscience that it revealed, he would have written something similar to Locke’s Second Treatise.
Jaffa’s need to synthesize classical and modern political virtue in a coherent political argument is really a devotional to political equality, one that is difficult to maintain on the rational terms of the second paragraph of the Declaration. Peter Lawler argues in “Jaffa as Neo-Puritan” that the natural right “principles of the Declaration of Independence stood in constant need of unironic or un-exoteric political defense,” as far as Jaffa was concerned. That defense had to be authentically rational and authentically spirited. Jaffa’s devotion to the Declaration’s natural rights can only really be defended, though, and understood on the basis of our Puritan Biblicist heritage, which deposits in the American mind the equally created status of the human person. In the end, Jaffa’s political philosophy, Lawler observes, “is vulnerable to the same objection that Lincoln himself may have had to the Founders, who, in all honesty, failed to give his moral dedication an adequate foundation.” But Jaffa’s need for a more robust accounting of human equality as the ground of our republican government, recalls not only Berns’ criticism of Jaffa’s over-reliance on natural rights, but also Willmoore Kendall’s case for republican self-government.
The Return of Willmoore Kendall
Hayward observes in a 2015 post on the Powerline blog that “Jaffa’s real adversary was not so much Berns…but Willmoore Kendall.” But for Kendall’s premature death in 1967, this political theorist, with his own irascible streak, likely would have been Jaffa’s most significant interlocutor. Kendall, did not believe that the idea of natural right can be reduced to the equality clause of the Declaration of Independence, and he noted that Jaffa potentially made a dangerous move in enthroning Lincoln as national savior.
Might there be more Lincolns and more movements that help us transcend ourselves, and make a better, more egalitarian America? This was Kendall’s great fear. What constitutional limits would constrain them? Of course, Jaffa and his students have articulated in divers ways that Lincoln’s standard of equality does not share in any of the qualities of social democratic egalitarianism. However, what Kendall knew is that equality is a difficult beast to confine. The insistence that it be the high symbol of American constitutionalism is filled with numerous potentialities for political reforms. Lincoln may have sensed this when he noted in 1857 that the Declaration’s appeal to human equality is
a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.
The tradition being lost, according to Kendall, by the insistence that the natural rights of the Declaration were “the fundamental truth of the American political tradition” is that it would reduce self-government to the claims of equality and rights, claims to be made most likely by courts and aggressively enforced by federal bureaucrats.
Kendall convincingly argues in a series of essays that the orthodox American tradition was self-government in the constitutionally supreme branch of Congress, as disclosed to us in the Philadelphia Convention, the Federalist Papers, and Article I of the Constitution. There was also the consequential matter of one hundred and fifty years of the self-governing histories in the thirteen colonies, a point posthumously argued by Kendall, along with his co-author George Carey, in Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition (1970).
Jaffa articulates the need for statesmanship that would preserve a natural rights constitution. Kendall looks instead to the tradition of deliberative self-government that he traced back to the Mayflower Compact and that the colonists adapted and carried forward to the Constitution of 1787. Equality meant that each man’s consent counted equally in establishing the government and consenting to its laws, but in a social and political order where inequalities would axiomatically arise in a republic of laws. More importantly, Kendall stresses, that tradition of reaching the “cool and deliberate sense of the community” found its direction in the virtuous people: civility, Christian anthropology, and a higher moral law, were to guide the people deliberating in the public assembly.
A constitutional republic of self-governing citizens turns on the people and their virtue as the preventive limit to majority rule gone amok. Kendall’s essay on “How to Read The Federalist with Richard Weaver” instructs that there is a missing Federalist paper. What? Yes, they never told us how to keep the people virtuous, but this work must maintain the republican government the Federalist is explicating. The burden, Kendall says, falls on the teachers or those who must preserve and proclaim America’s collective memory, the record of its triumphs and political excellences. Should the people not keep this memory, proclaim and recite it, then “in ignorance…, they forget, like madmen, what and who they are.”
More directly to our situation, when surveying our elite institutions of government, law, academia, media, business, we do not see the possibilities for the recovery of the American political tradition that Jaffa, Berns, and Kendall would have sought, even amid their differences. But it is Kendall, I think, whose soundness is not only the best account of who we are as a constitutional people, but whose teaching is most apt today to a recovery of sound constitutional principles of limited government and the rule of law. We have been living with a very powerful executive branch whose challenge to the rule of law is ongoing and a judiciary composed of judges who have not hesitated to read their progressive ideology into the Constitution. The opportunity for the successful challenge to this imbalance is for a politics that channels the discontents of those in flyover country, tells them the sources of their confusion, and broadens the conservative alliance. This work must not tear down what our elites have damaged but defend and mend what is so good about our country and its institutions. It is the American republican heritage, rule by the deliberated will of the people that must resurrect our Constitutional tradition. The teacher for this intergenerational lesson is Willmoore Kendall.