Bench Memos

Walter Berns and Harry Jaffa, Immovable Object and Irresistible Force

I began the formal study of American political thought 38 years ago, in the spring semester of my freshman year, and have spent all of those years grateful for the contributions of Walter Berns and Harry Jaffa to our understanding of the subject.  My professor in a class on American democracy, a student of Jaffa’s, assigned a book called American Political Thought as one of our texts, and both Jaffa (on Abraham Lincoln) and Berns (on Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.) were contributors to the book, which was edited by two men under whom I would later study, Morton Frisch and Richard Stevens.  (An expanded third edition is still in print.)

The editors and all the contributors but one were students of Leo Strauss (and the exception was profoundly influenced by him)—the remainder being Harvey Mansfield, Martin Diamond, Herbert Storing, Robert Faulkner, Ralph Lerner, and Harry Clor.  It was quite a challenging book for a freshman, and the impression on me was a lasting one—that the history of American politics was a history of statesmanship, a realm where thought meets action and profound questions of justice are at stake.  Not all the figures treated in the book were heroic.  Jaffa’s Lincoln certainly was, but Berns’s Holmes was decidedly not.  From teachers like these, one could really learn to think.

I never knew either Berns or Jaffa well, though I met them both and had some interesting encounters with them that said much about their characters.  I’ll keep those memories for our many mutual friends.  Mostly I have known them through their books and other writings, which are must reading for students of the American Constitution.  Probably their best are (from Jaffa) Crisis of the House Divided and A New Birth of Freedom, and (from Berns) The First Amendment and the Future of American Democracy and Taking the Constitution Seriously.  I did not always agree with everything they argued—I once published a severely negative review of one of Jaffa’s books, and risked his ire—but they were both scholars from whom I invariably learned something. 

As Rick Brookhiser remarks, the famously irascible Jaffa was prone to start guerrilla wars with his fellow conservatives over “cheese parings,” and Berns was often the immovable object against which Jaffa’s irresistible force crashed.  In this respect they were like the Adams and Jefferson to which their deaths on the same day have invited comparison.  Rather too bad, for one-time colleagues and students of a common teacher.  For what I will treasure in remembering Berns and Jaffa, as I continue to learn from their scholarship, is that they exemplified the best combination of the spirit of philosophical inquiry with the love of country.  As many have recalled, one of Berns’s last books was Making Patriots.  On the necessity for our country’s future of exactly that task, he and Jaffa surely agreed. 

For some, the label “Straussian” is an epithet, and a suggestion of an elitist, anti-democratic school of philosophy that harbors a deep-down disdain for America, and a belief that the liberal principles of the American founding should be publicly praised and privately undermined by “neocon” Nietzscheans.  No one could read the writings, and observe the very public careers, of Harry Jaffa and Walter Berns, and continue to believe such nonsense.  May they both rest in peace, having served the truth and their country well.



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