Harry V. Jaffa (October 7, 1918–January 10, 2015) died at the beginning of the 150th anniversary year of the end of the Civil War. He was one of the great scholars, perhaps the greatest, on Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War, andthe American Founding. So there is something apposite in his passing at the ripe age of ninety-six during this anniversary year.
There have been and will be many tributes to Jaffa for the invaluable contributions he made to a sound understanding of the American Republic—to the extent that, if we prove capable of recovering from the degenerate state into which the Republic has fallen, it will be due in large measure to his powerful teachings. That will depend, of course, on how much attention his teachings are given.
Jaffa’s great project was the resuscitation of natural law through his explication of Lincoln’s thought and actions, going back to their roots in the Founding (and further to Aristotle). He knew that the “self-evident” truths of the Declaration were only intelligible in the natural-law context in which they were spoken and from which they arose. Lose that standard of rightness and all is lost. Jaffa knew exactly the game that is being played with the rhetoric of human rights. Today, he said, “individual rights become individual preferences.” He strove mightily against this tendency by always speaking of “natural rights subject to natural law.”
In the short space here, my purpose is to give a personal reminiscence of Jaffa and of what I learned from him. For four years in the mid-1970s, I was in Claremont, California as the Western director of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. During this time I also attended Claremont Graduate School. Jaffa generated considerable enthusiasm from his students because it was clear he was no ordinary teacher, but a political philosopher who was Socratically reaching for the truth and endeavoring to instill in his students the pursuit of the noble and the good.
Apparently, some East Coast Straussians thought that Jaffa was cheerleading for the American regime and that this was an unworthy endeavor. He was supposed to be making skeptical political philosophers, not loyal citizens. (In our relationship, I think one of the things that pleased Jaffa most was when I sent him one of my publications with an inscription thanking him for “teaching me how to love my country.”) Some Jaffa critics, who were supposedly searching for truth, but based upon an epistemology that made it impossible to find, were really dogmatic skeptics who considered the American regime worthy only to the extent that it maintained the conditions for them to pursue their skepticism.
Jaffa knew better. In his great book, A New Birth of Freedom, he wrote: “‘We hold these truths to be self-evident’ is an assertion at once of a necessity and of a freedom inherent in reason and nature. It implies a freedom in the mind to apprehend truth, and a necessity in nature, a necessity external to the mind, that determines what the truth is. In the last analysis, freedom is the ability to be determined by the truth.” To be determined by the truth, one must first know it.
Jaffa had something to fight for, and fight he did. Some of his students thought he was wasting his time with polemics. Time has proven otherwise. Jaffa was prescient in pointing out that the crisis of the West existed in American conservatism, as well. Decades ago, he observed that “the crisis of American constitutionalism—the crisis of the West—lies precisely in the denial that there are any such principles or truths [applicable to all men and all times]. It is no less a crisis in the heart of American conservatism than of American liberalism.” Without these principles Western nations could not “have a rational basis for the objective truth of their convictions instead of viewing them as arbitrary opinions or historical contingencies.”
A seemingly minor incident some twenty-five years ago proved Jaffa’s point, and neatly serves to illustrate what his dedication to principle allowed him to diagnose. He had a debate with constitutional super-lawyer Charles Cooper, a man who served in President Ronald Reagan’s Justice Department and who was lauded by The Wall Street Journal as having “a record of championing conservative causes, including preserving gun rights and limiting affirmative action and gay rights.” What makes this argument especially interesting is that Cooper was chosen years later as the pro-marriage counsel to defend Proposition 8 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California before Judge Vaughn Walker, and then before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Concerning the Constitution, Cooper vigorously ridiculed Jaffa’s views of natural law as the foundation of the United States. He objected that “[t]he American people are thus enslaved to the ‘moral and political philosophy’ of the founders, powerless to redefine their ‘legal and moral personality.’” But what if the moral and political philosophy of the Founders was true, as Jaffa said, and thus serves as the sure foundation of freedom? Might not the redefinition of that philosophy endanger the very freedom founded upon it? Cooper asserted that, because it fundamentally limits what can be changed, “Jaffa’s natural justice theory of constitutional interpretationis thus the very negation of the idea of self-government.” Very tellingly, Cooper was also critical of Jaffa’s view that it would be inherently contradictory to seek constitutional support and protection for “sexual orientation.”
Jaffa exposed Cooper as a legal positivist. No one paid attention—it was just Jaffa being irascible. But years later, when Cooper was selected as the standard bearer for the defense of marriage, his clear lack of the natural law grounding made him more than a weak advocate for the defense of marriage. He was at pains to portray the issue of homosexual marriage as one simply of states’ rights. In fact, he said “… if the tables were turned—if California’s voters had adopted gay marriage, as the voters of several states now have—I would be no less willing to defend their right to make that decision too.” As Jaffa could foretell, Cooper took the position of Stephen A. Douglas in the Lincoln/Douglas debates, about which Jaffa had written so powerfully. As there was nothing inherently right or wrong in slavery, popular sovereignty should reign. Cooper adopted an analogous position concerning homosexual marriage. This left him in a sure-to-lose position. Where was Lincoln when we needed him?
Jaffa saw all this coming. His debate with Cooper turns out not to have been a minor incident. It should have been a red-light warning. But conservatives paid no attention, illustrating the crisis at the heart of American conservatism that Jaffa identified. He may have upset many people by his diagnosis, but he was correct.
After leaving Claremont, I was only sporadically in touch with Dr. Jaffa. These past years, however, my relationship with him was renewed. Five years ago I made my first trip to Springfield, Illinois to visit Lincoln’s home. I was so deeply moved I had to call Dr. Jaffa. After that, even though his health was declining, we had periodic phone conversations, which, to my delight, he seemed to enjoy. I sent him an inscribed copy of my book. The type was too small for him to read. His reaction to the book’s subject, however, was: “This is just collateral damage from the triumph of History over Nature.” Anyone who has read Jaffa will know what those dire words mean. (Anyone who has not might start with The Crisis of the Strauss Divided, which he told me was the work in which he had distilled down to its essentials what he most wanted to say.)
In one of our last conversations, he said, “Bob, I don’t have much time left, but I want you to know that I believe in the God who made me.” “So do I, Dr. Jaffa,” I replied. May this great man rest in peace, and may his teachings endure.
Robert R. Reilly is chairman of the Committee for Western Civilization.
Reilly offers some personal reflections on his friendship with Harry Jaffa and what he learned from the great Lincoln scholar and political philosopher.