The remarkable career of a scholar still at work
When Harry V. Jaffa learned of the Boston Marathon bombing on April 15, he phoned a 36-year-old high-school teacher in Ashland, Ohio, named Sara Whitis. “I just want to be sure you’re okay,” he said in a voice mail. Whitis listened to the message when she arrived home from work. “It stirred me to tears,” she says. Two years earlier, Whitis had completed a master’s thesis about Jaffa’s scholarship on Abraham Lincoln and the politics of freedom. The paper had come to the attention of the 94-year-old professor, who liked it so much that he reached out to Whitis and took a grandfatherly interest in her career. He also knew that Whitis was a marathoner who had raced in Boston seven times — and was relieved to learn, when Whitis called back, that she was safely at home.
Jaffa is one of the most famously cantankerous intellectuals in America — and when he takes a special interest in a person, it doesn’t always remain as amiable as it did with Whitis. This is especially true for fellow conservatives. “If you think Harry Jaffa is hard to argue with, try agreeing with him,” quipped William F. Buckley Jr. in the foreword to one of Jaffa’s books. “He studies the fine print in any agreement as if it were a trap, or a treaty with the Soviet Union.” At various times, Jaffa has lit into such right-of-center heavyweights as Willmoore Kendall, Irving Kristol, and George Will. The more they had in common, the more contentious the disputes seemed to run. “I do not mean to be gentle with you,” Jaffa once wrote in an open letter to Walter Berns, another conservative scholar. “In your present state of mind, nothing less than a metaphysical two-by-four across the frontal bone would capture your attention.” An annoyed Berns later retorted: “Who will rid us of this pest of a priest?”
Yet Jaffa has kept on pestering. Even at his advanced age, with four score and fourteen years behind him, he tries to remain engaged. When I first called Jaffa in April, he was working on a response to Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism, an 814-page book by John Burt just published by Harvard University Press. (“There are brilliant passages, but also lots of bad writing and bad thinking,” he says of it. “I’d like to write something that will make us partners rather than adversaries.”) He also says he enjoyed Steven Spielberg’s recent film Lincoln, though he was quick to point out a few mistakes and thinks the Thirteenth Amendment “is not a good subject for a movie.”
Jaffa may be the most important conservative political theorist of his generation. He is the founding father of the Claremont School of conservatism, a set of ideas connected to Claremont McKenna College and Claremont Graduate University, which are located in suburban Los Angeles. Some call it “West Coast Straussianism,” in reference to Leo Strauss, the political philosopher who was Jaffa’s main influence. In brief, the Claremont School believes in the moral truth of natural right as well as American exceptionalism, with a special appreciation for the statesmanship of the Revolutionary generation and Abraham Lincoln. Its disciples — i.e., students of Jaffa as well as the students of his students — may be found at some of the most high-minded perches within the conservative movement, from the Heritage Foundation to Hillsdale College (where I teach), plus, of course, the Claremont Institute and its Claremont Review of Books. Modern conservatism’s focus on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution — never absent, but increasingly prevalent in these tea-party times — owes much to Jaffa and his circle.
Harry V. Jaffa was born in 1918, a few weeks before the armistice agreement that ended the First World War. “Harry” is his given name — it’s not short for “Henry” or “Harold” — and the “V” stands for “Victor,” in honor of the Allied victory. He grew up primarily on Long Island, where his high-school classmates included two other men who would make their mark in political theory: Francis Canavan, who went on to the priesthood and developed an expertise in Edmund Burke, and Joseph Cropsey, a fellow Straussian whom Jaffa first met at Hebrew school. Jaffa and Cropsey became fast friends. As adults, during breaks at academic conferences, they would still haul out their baseball gloves and play catch. Jaffa’s relationship with Canavan had to wait. “Back in those days, there were barriers between Catholics and Jewish people,” he says. “We grew close later on.”
As an undergraduate at Yale, Jaffa majored in English and dreamed of a life in the academy. “Reading books and talking about them was the only thing that interested me,” he says. “My greatest ambition at the time was to write a history of Elizabethan drama.” Yet his advising professor, Harvey Mansfield Sr. — the father of the well-known professor of government at Harvard — warned him away from graduate school. “He told me it wasn’t an option because colleges wouldn’t hire Jews as professors,” says Jaffa. So after Yale, Jaffa went into the federal civil service. He met his wife in Washington, D.C., but otherwise was miserable. “I learned all about bureaucracy — and hated it,” he says. “It reinforced my desire to go to graduate school.”
In 1944, he enrolled at the New School for Social Research, in New York City — and that’s when Harry met Leo. The German-born Leo Strauss was teaching a course on Rousseau. “I didn’t know who Strauss was,” says Jaffa. “Nobody knew.” Strauss didn’t make much of an impression on Jaffa until the next semester, in a course on Aristotle and Kant. “His discussion of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics just blew me away. It was like the Gospel for a Baptist preacher. All my life had been a preparation for that moment.” Under Strauss’s tutelage, Jaffa began his life’s work — first a dissertation on Aristotle and Aquinas, and then his pioneering scholarship on Lincoln.
Jaffa’s fascination with the 16th president now seems like a rendezvous with destiny. When he was a boy, his mother had hung a silhouette of Lincoln on his bedroom wall. It bore a quote: “Stand with anybody that stands right. Stand with him while he is right and part with him when he goes wrong.” The words came from an 1854 speech in Peoria. “I paid no attention to it whatsoever,” says Jaffa, though he admits that it may have had “an influence on my subconscious.”
In 1946, as an emerging Straussian, Jaffa wandered into a used-book store in Greenwich Village — and what happened there, he says, provides “irrefutable proof of the role of divine providence in human affairs.” He came across a copy of the Lincoln–Douglas debates and started to read it. “I didn’t have time for the whole book, but I was interested enough to come back the next day and read more,” he says. These were his “impecunious grad-school days,” when money was too tight to blow much of it on books. Yet this one captivated him. “I came up with $5 and bought it,” he says. Today, this volume — an 1895 edition, printed in Cleveland — sits on a shelf in his office at the Claremont Institute, crumbling to pieces and obviously cherished.
Jaffa’s innovation was to treat the 1858 senatorial debates between Lincoln and Stephen Douglas as a Socratic dialogue. Up to this point, historians had tended to see Lincoln and Douglas the way today’s pundits view the candidates in an ordinary Senate race — as a pair of political hacks prepared to say just about anything to win election. Jaffa, however, had been studying Plato’s Republic with Strauss. He observed that the dispute between Lincoln and Douglas was fundamentally the same as the argument between Socrates and Thrasymachus. On the question of slavery, Lincoln claimed that all men are created equal and Douglas called for popular sovereignty in the territories. Jaffa looked at the Lincoln–Douglas showdown in a new way, and saw something very old: a classic contest of right against might, in a dispute that has engaged and troubled Western civilization from its earliest moments.
He worked on this approach through the 1950s. He also found a job. As war veterans funded by the GI Bill flooded the nation’s campuses, colleges and universities needed to hire more professors and the barriers to Jewish academics melted away. Mansfield, relocated to Ohio State, contacted Jaffa and hired him to teach in Columbus. Woody Hayes became the school’s football coach around the same time. Hayes and Jaffa often ate dinner together in a cafeteria — two of the most irascible men in their fields. In 1957, Jaffa aired his main ideas about Lincoln and Douglas in the pages of The Anchor Review, a journal sponsored by Doubleday, in an issue that also carried the first American excerpts from Lolita, the provocative novel by Vladimir Nabokov.
Two years later came the publication of Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln–Douglas Debates. Jaffa portrayed Lincoln as an American philosopher-in-chief whose devotion to the Declaration of Independence made him a statesman of timeless principle. This proved controversial, as it collided with a variety of anti-Lincoln prejudices, ranging from mainstream historians who saw the Civil War as a clash of large social forces rather than individuals and ideas to southern scholars in the grip of regional loyalties. Amid all of this, Jaffa proposed equality as a conservative principle — not as a rival to freedom, but as the very foundation upon which freedom may flourish. Although many conservatives view “equality” as a code word for egalitarianism, Jaffa’s view gained an important following. At a 1999 dinner, Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas toasted Jaffa and his influence: “We owe a debt of immeasurable gratitude to Harry Jaffa for recovering for us the true Lincoln and for helping us remember our sacred heritage: our nation’s founding devotion to the truth of human equality and liberty, a truth applicable to all men at all times.”
Crisis is a difficult book, written for academics rather than lay readers. Much of it proceeds through critique, as Jaffa points out the deficiencies of earlier writers rather than laying out his own views in a clear and positive fashion. Scholars, however, frequently call Crisis the most important book ever written about Lincoln. In February, the New York Times’ reviewer of Burt’s book described Crisis as “the first and still best effort to advance a philosophical reading of Lincoln.” Yet Jaffa never meant for it to stand alone. The preface to Crisis announced a companion volume, to be titled “A New Birth of Freedom.” Readers in 1959 who assumed that Jaffa would produce it quickly were disappointed: The sequel wasn’t published until 2000.
There were plenty of reasons for the four-decade delay — Jaffa got into politics, for one. In 1964 he became involved with Barry Goldwater’s campaign for president. Jaffa had voted for Democratic presidential candidates Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy, but switched parties following the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961. “It was a terrible betrayal of the anti-Communists,” he says. Goldwater’s team swooped in and recruited him to help add heft to the GOP nominee’s rhetoric. Jaffa eventually drafted Goldwater’s acceptance speech, including its legendary line: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. . . . Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
Academic distractions also interrupted Jaffa’s follow-up work. He moved from Ohio State to Claremont in 1964, and conservative graduate students flocked to study with him. “It took only about ten minutes to realize that you were in the presence of a great mind,” says Michael Uhlmann, a former Reagan-administration official who now teaches at Claremont. Students commonly recall moments of brilliance — times when Jaffa had the effect on them that Strauss had exerted on Jaffa. They also learned to deal with their teacher’s quirks. “I discovered that getting the most out of Jaffa required disagreeing with him, just to see how he’d come back at me,” says Ken Masugi, who was a student of Jaffa’s as an undergraduate and later introduced his teacher’s ideas to Clarence Thomas when he worked for Thomas at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Jaffa also began to write about other topics, such as Shakespeare, demonstrating a range that few political-science professors can match. “Strauss taught us to read Platonic dialogues as Shakespearean drama,” says Jaffa. “I discovered that we could read Shakespeare as a Platonic dialogue.” He collaborated on that topic with Allan Bloom, a fellow Straussian, who later wrote The Closing of the American Mind. Today, Jaffa thinks his work on the Bard is just as important as his work on Lincoln, though probably few would agree. “His memory is incredible,” says Edward J. Erler, a former student who lives a few blocks from Jaffa and visits regularly. “A few weeks ago, he gave me an hour-long lecture on The Merry Wives of Windsor. He said he hadn’t read it in 50 years — he was just thinking about it.”
These private lectures are familiar to Jaffa students. “He loves to call people and talk about what’s on his mind,” says Steven Hayward, another former student, who will become the University of Colorado’s first Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy this fall.
Yet disagreements with Jaffa can turn into alarming ruptures, as Jaffa never hesitates to point out what he regards as wrong thinking. “Philosophers must prefer truth to friendship,” he insists. Many of those who became locked in disputes with Jaffa recoiled at his aggression. “A true friend may be grateful for correction, but not necessarily to be condemned in public as a nihilist,” says a former student. The fiercest attacks are often aimed at figures who appeared to be his closest ideological allies. Jaffa savaged conservative judicial champions such as Robert Bork, William Rehnquist, and Antonin Scalia for refusing to look outside the text of the Constitution and acknowledge the animating spirit of the Declaration of Independence in their jurisprudence.
Jaffa clearly enjoyed the give and take, perhaps even to the point of distraction. The biggest cause of the delay in his writing of A New Birth of Freedom, however, was something else: “I changed my mind,” he explains, though he says that it was a refinement rather than a reversal. Instead of thinking Lincoln had saved the Union by extending the vision of the Founders, as he had argued in Crisis, Jaffa decided that Lincoln had preserved the Union by remaining true to the Founders’ original vision. “I was not sufficiently in the tank with the Founding as Lincoln was,” he says. “I came to understand that most of the virtue I attributed to Lincoln was there in the Founding itself.”
Conservatives never have agreed on whether Lincoln’s reverence for the Declaration makes him a hero for the ages or merely a crypto-liberal. Is equality a “self-evident truth,” as the Declaration proclaims and Jaffa believes, or is it a “self-evident half-truth,” as Harvey Mansfield Jr., a leader of “East Coast Straussianism,” has put it? These deep questions operate at the tectonic level of conservative thought, far removed from the everyday worries of a movement that struggles with budgets and elections. Yet Jaffa defends their importance: “Sound principles will generate sound policy.” Anybody who wants to know what he thinks of President Obama, Jaffa says, should read I Am the Change, the 2012 book by Charles R. Kesler on why today’s liberals are at odds with America’s founding traditions. He adds that many Republicans share Obama’s progressive affliction and that everyone would be better off trying to think and act more like Lincoln.
Amazingly, Jaffa says he has much more work to do. The preface of New Birth makes a promise he probably won’t keep: “The present work will be followed by a concluding volume on the triumph and tragedy of the war years.” If it takes as long to write the next one as the last one, however, the unnamed final volume won’t come out until 2041, when Jaffa is 123. He has kept fit his whole life — he attributes much of his longevity to exercise, especially cycling — but the scholar understands the actuarial realities. Does he really expect to complete the trilogy? “I’m almost 95 — you make your own judgment about that.” Yet he won’t abandon the notion completely: “I may write a series of essays that will not fulfill the prescription but set the stage.”
The teacher may be offering a great task to a smart young scholar — an assignment to finish the work that Jaffa so nobly advanced.