*Editor's Note: Harry V. Jaffa, 1918-2015, was a friend, mentor, and teacher to all of us at the Claremont Institute. He taught many generations of students at the Claremont Graduate School, Claremont McKenna College, and the Claremont Institute's Publius and Lincoln Fellowship Programs. With his passing on January 10, 2015, we solicited remarks from some of his students. These reflections and recollections are listed below. Readers can expect additions to this page, along with various memorial essays and articles in the Claremont Review of Books.
Keith Carlson, 2007 Lincoln Fellow
All Men Are Created Equal. They are equal in worth, yes; but in ability, no. Harry Jaffa not only reminded us of this fact, but proved it through his life and his life’s work.
In writing Crisis of the House Divided, Professor Jaffa added yet another book to an already long list of books on Abraham Lincoln. So how could another volume, published a century after its primary topic—the Lincoln-Douglas Debates—be so noteworthy?
Professor Jaffa uncovered the political philosophy of not just Abraham Lincoln, but of America and its founding. When an archaeologist discovers a buried ancient wonder, glory is due. Not for the creation of the wonder, but for rediscovering it, and showing others what he’s found.
For Jaffa, that glory is certainly due. His rediscovery was, and remains, of the highest importance for his students, and the entire country. Somehow, through careful study and his keen eye, he seemingly re-found the principles of the country’s founding. He reminded his country that all men are, indeed, created equal—and the ramifications of this truth. And in the process, he helped spark the modern Conservative movement. He recovered, restated, and repeated Lincoln’s belief that there are “rights and wrongs” in this life. Explaining Lincoln, Jaffa reminded us that the government’s actions are not right merely because enough people vote a certain way: “Lincoln, however, insisted that the case for popular government depended upon a standard of right and wrong independent of mere opinion and one which was not justified merely by the counting of heads.”
What is right, what is wrong, what is good, what is bad, what is beautiful, what is ugly; these truths are not polling results, they flow from nature and Nature’s God. And they point back to that God, and to a higher good for all men. Thus, being “for the people” must mean encouraging each person, and every government, to the moral purpose that all humans share. If all humans are equal, and if all have a moral purpose, government must not thwart our good—our happiness—but instead encourage it. And that, Jaffa explained, links the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution. The first stating the universal principles, our destination, the other providing the guardrails along the road to that haven.
Before Jaffa this link was lost. We had forgotten the Constitution’s purpose, to protect our rights, as proclaimed in the Declaration. Forgetting its purpose led to decades of misuse and neglect. Jaffa’s life’s work began the long and difficult process of undoing this neglect. These concepts, which Jaffa so remarkably reminded us of, are not always easy to grasp. Students have to be taught to think correctly about these things, and statesmen must be trained to discern how to handle circumstances to arrive at the greater good.
Happily, many of Jaffa’s students caught on. In fact, the Claremont Institute’s founding came from his students seeking a way to further his teachings. Through his students;through the Claremont Institute; and through its scholars, fellows, and its Claremont Review of Books, Jaffa has himself introduced a new birth (of discussing) freedom to our national dialogue. Few modern philosophers can claim such impact—and all from simply, yet profoundly, rediscovering concepts that run throughout Western Civilization’s history.
Neither can many walk you through the thoughts of Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Locke, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Shakespeare and explain the right thing to do on an upcoming Congressional vote. Jaffa could. That’s because he could find the common thread of truth in each. He studied and explained not just what great thinkers did, but what they thought—and why these thoughts were right. I once talked to him about a prominent Lincoln biography that I recently read. His response: “That book’s no good—it only talks about what Lincoln did, but sheds no light on Lincoln’s philosophy.” But after Jaffa, I’m not sure there are many that will try to refine that topic. Jaffa occupies the field completely.
So much so, that even now (55 years since its first publication) Amazon’s reader reviews provide only 5 star ratings for Crisis of the House Divided. In fairness, the 50th Anniversary edition does have one non-5 star—that reader gave it 3 stars—explaining the unusually low ranking thusly: “Got this book to challenge my foggy brain. Wow, am I challenged. Much more difficult than Bugs Bunny.”Having read Jaffa—and this reviewer’s post—I agree with all three sentences. One wonders, however, if Jaffa’s work deserved this lower ranking, or if it was better earned by the “foggy brain” in question. But, Jaffa wrote to lift the fog and challenge the brain. His challenge, his genius, engaged literature, philosophy, and politics; typically simultaneously.
You could not go far into a discussion on Lincoln’s philosophy without covering Shakespeare. In fact, Jaffa co-authored a wonderful book titled Shakespeare’s Politics with Allan Bloom and wrote on the plays in the Claremont Review of Books. Not confined to merely the latest political news, he seemingly saw the human drama playing out on countless stages. He found, and explained, the wisdom regarding human nature in literature and philosophy and connected it to the political realm—where human nature and a man’s virtues were most revealed. An example of his insight:
“Whose actions have the widest consequences and are most in need of virtue to direct them? The rulers’. Hence morality in all its dimensions can be best seen in the lives of rulers. …No one ever knows with certainty how virtuous—or vicious—a man might be until he holds office and has power. Only those in power reveal their real natures. For this reason all Shakespeare’s great plays are about rulers: kings and princes and dukes and military commanders…. Only in a political context can the nature of morality be thoroughly considered. (“Macbeth and the Moral Universe”, CRB, Winter 2007/08.)”
A reader wonders if he’s only writing about Shakespeare, or about current elected officials, or both. Carefully considering morality is the reason that both Lincoln and Jaffa studied Shakespeare. They knew the power, and true purpose, of government. They were not content to simply “count heads” to determine right from wrong. They knew of “the proneness of prosperity to breed tyrants.”
And it was to a prosperous country Jaffa wrote, and wrote for others. He penned Barry Goldwater’s famous line in accepting the nomination for President “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And…that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” This was confused as a line written by Cicero.
It is good to have your writings mistaken for Cicero; to have your works renew your nation’s interest in its founding principles; to link our culture’s greatest thinkers to our present condition; to have disciples to carry on your work when you leave the stage; and to fight for liberty. Harry Jaffa did all these things and will be missed as well as remembered.
His defense of liberty was extreme. And for that all who have learned from him can be thankful and wish him: Rest In Peace. (This piece was originally published at California Political Review here.)
Seth Leibsohn, 2011 Lincoln Fellow
It was 1989, I believe, and Harry Jaffa was giving a well-publicized and attended “retirement” lecture (everyone knew then, as they know now, Harry was never going to retire). The audience was filled with students, faculty, trustees, and all variety of VIPs from the conservative intellectual and financial constellation. I was a left-wing undergraduate editor of the Claremont Colleges’ newspaper. I recall how Charles Kesler introduced Harry that day, comparing him and his work to Abraham Lincoln, who Harry had studied and taught so well and for so long. Eerily, the date of that speech was the anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination. Charles ended his introduction by saying, “…of course the difference between Harry and Lincoln is that Harry would have shot back!”
The next day, from my leftist point of view, I wrote and published an editorial highly critical of Jaffa. Jaffa read it, called me, and asked me to stand by what I wrote by debating him publicly. I declined, saying something like, “Sir, there’s no way, I’m a junior in college and you’re a master of rhetoric and intellect.” He said, “Well how about I buy you a cup of coffee, then?” And so began the life-long learning and total change of intellectual pursuit to which I owe my whole worldview.
Harry took my hand, started introducing me to a line of thought and reason I never even knew existed, walked me through everything he could teach me, and never let go. I bought every book he ever wrote and took them with me everywhere I lived, only to re-read them again and again over the course of the last 25 or so years, always learning something new. He changed my whole life. Years and years of meetings, of calls, of questions I had for him; years and years of his unbelievable volumes of scholarship—I digested as much as I could and will never be able to thank him enough. Nor will there be enough room for others to tell the almost exact same kinds of stories of how he personally took them and instructed them to a life of learning they never knew possible.
As I think of the timing of his death today, I recall the statement of a well-placed Capitol Hill aid who had studied under both Walter Berns and Harry Jaffa: “Walter taught me an intellectual could actually love America, Harry taught me why.” God bless you, Harry; thank you, and may you rest in peace.
John-Clark Levin, 2013 Publius Fellow
The summer after my freshman year at CMC, in 2009, Ben Judge advised me to call Professor Jaffa and see if he'd consider taking me on as a student for an independent study. I hadn't met him yet, and knowing that he was already 90, didn't know quite what to expect. But I called to introduce myself, and found the voice on the other end warm, gracious, and remarkably lucid. He asked me what I wanted to study with him. I said Lincoln and Churchill. What about them? Their statesmanship during moments of supreme crises, I said. "I think that would be very interesting," he answered. "When can you come to my office?"
My friend Charles C. Johnson had similar interests, so we both made the short trip down Foothill Boulevard to the Claremont Institute each Wednesday to see Professor Jaffa. We read and discussed Lord Charnwood's masterful Lincoln biography, and William Manchester's stirring biography of Churchill's wilderness years. And many others. Professor Jaffa always pushed us to see subtle connections, and consider politics in light of history. He delighted in posing obscure questions and watching us squirm, but took even greater pleasure when we struck upon the answer he was looking for. The Professor's health began to decline the following year, and though he continued to enlighten and inspire those around him, he never again taught formally. I consider myself especially fortunate to share with Charles the distinction of being the last in the long line of Harry Jaffa's students. I will carry with me his final exhortation to my class of Publius Fellows: "Be apostles of the Truth."
Erik S. Root, Associate Professor, West Liberty University
The passing of Harry V. Jaffa came suddenly for me. By all reports, he was doing fairly well in the hospital. His passing flooded my mind with many fond memories. I was introduced to the Good Professor through reading his Crisis of the House Divided in a History of Rome class while I was pursuing my MA at the University of Montana. UM classics professor hayden Ausland wanted me to read two books. The other was Natural Right and History by Leo Strauss. As a young student who only knew of conservatism from a paleo perspective, I can only surmise Prof. Ausland knew I needed a more reasonable perspective.
When I read Crisis, I knew I wanted to study with Prof. Jaffa, the greatest mind on the American Founding of our time, and certainly of the 20th century. Attending the Claremont Graduate School to study with Professor Jaffa was the best decision I ever made.
In contrast to his more public battles, Jaffa was the consummate gentleman. Though he was a fiery intellect, he was so because of his love for the Idea of the Union and the truth that resided as a guiding principle of its creation. His love of country was only superseded by his love of his own family, and his wife in particular, whom he always cast the most loving glances. His personal relationship with everyone around him, was that of a gentle father. He had within him a sense of duty to his students, even those who disagreed with him. He was ever a gentle force of persuasion. While he never wavered from his position, he sought to persuade those who would engage him on the most important matters of life, especially the American Founding and the meaning of America. He was the most successful coincidence of political philosopher and Good citizen. He has the additional characteristic of being a Good man.
We lost the indispensable man. All honor to Jaffa for teaching us what it truly means to believe in the eternal idea “all men are created equal.”
Timothy Sandefur, 2002 Lincoln Fellow
When I was a junior in college, I sent Harry Jaffa a copy of a paper I’d written in a seminar on the American Revolution. I harshly criticized one of my school’s professors for his rejection of the principles of the Declaration of Independence—so harshly, in fact, that my professor marked me down half a grade for my tone. When I spoke to Jaffa about this on the phone, he was philosophical. “Tim, you and I are gadflies,” he said. “We need bigger and better gadflies.”
I had come to know Jaffa my senior year in high school, when I read his book Original Intent. I had fallen in love with the Constitution and the American founding some years before, and after devouring the writings of Thomas Jefferson and others, picked up a copy of Robert Bork’s Tempting of America. I was knocked backwards—genuinely mortified—that the man many considered the day’s chief conservative intellectual had managed to misunderstand, indeed, to consciously misrepresent, the principles of the American Constitution. When I saw Original Intent advertised as a rebuttal to Bork, I bought and devoured it, and wrote Jaffa a fan letter. He called—no, he had one of his grad students call; Jaffa never phoned or wrote—and invited me to attend a session of the Publius Fellows seminar, not far from my home. I showed up, nervous, in a suit and tie. Jaffa, I knew, was a famous and influential intellectual, author of Barry Goldwater’s famous line “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Jaffa sat at the head of the table in his shorts and polo shirt, before a table of equally timid listeners. I remember little of what followed except that I challenged him sharply on gay rights—one of the many subjects on which we never saw eye to eye.
Jaffa, after all, was not a libertarian. He was a Goldwater Conservative, which comprises a series of beliefs I consider incompatible, but which includes at least the virtue that Jaffa was relentless in defense of the principles of the Declaration of Independence. Like his hero, Abraham Lincoln, Jaffa insisted that we hold firm on these, as with a chain of steel. And he was relentless in their defense, most especially when he detected his allies betraying them.
They often did. Jaffa never ceased to be scandalized by such things as Irving Kristol’s statement that Jefferson never wrote a thing worth reading, or Chief Justice Rehnquist’s claim that the Constitution’s protections for liberty derive their value, not from truth, but merely from the fact that they’d been adopted into the Constitution. Jaffa was a deeply learned man, conversant in Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Shakespeare—if, as Nietzsche said, philology is the art of reading slowly, Jaffa believed the same was true of political philosophy, and he mined these works for the truths they had hidden in their pockets. He knew the abstruse academic debates about their authorship and styles. But he was a passionate man, too: passionate to get at the truth. And in this, he remained always a young man, even in old age. At 80, when I last saw him, he remained still the kind of man who no doubt would have, like a little-known Springfield lawyer, challenged a Senator so respected as to be titled “the little giant” to a series of debates on the meaning of the nation’s first principles. Like Lincoln, he would’ve won those debates, too.
The reason was that Jaffa was in love with the truth. He once quipped that as “philosophy” means “lover of wisdom,” a “professional philosopher” must be a professional lover, or a whore of the intellect. But in his own case, wisdom was not a profession; it was a calling. Thus Jaffa always pictured himself, I think, not as a Socraticgadfly—challenging the Athenians’ deepest beliefs—but as a Lincolnian gadfly, who challenged Americans to rediscover them.
I cannot speak to how tenably he connected all of this to his Straussianism. I have not read enough Strauss to say. But in his best work—his “Equality As A Conservative Principle,” his “False Prophets of American Conservatism,” and, of course, his Crisis of The House Divided—Jaffa came to the defense of the founders, not because they were the founders, but because they were right. “One would start with great confidence that he could convince any sane child that the simpler propositions of Euclid are true,” wrote Lincoln. “But, nevertheless, he would fail, utterly, with one who should deny the definitions and axioms. The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society. And yet they are denied and evaded, with no small show of success.” Those who deny—or ignore—the Declaration’s principles are, Lincoln warned, “the van-guard—the miners, and sappers—of returning despotism.” He was right, and Jaffa knew it. He wouldn’t stop till you knew it, too.
He was often criticized for the harshness of his writing; his opponents usually said this from the mat, while the referee counted down the remaining seconds. I recall one particularly severe, and entertaining, National Review exchange with Bork that ended with bitter accusations. But the reason for his intensity was that Jaffa was right, and about important matters. He was wrong sometimes, and there will be time to debate those things later. The most important thing here is what he was right about. Liberty, he insisted, really is the birthright of every person. The Declaration’s principle of equality really is the sheet anchor of American republicanism. The vindication of the union and the liberation of the slaves really was the destiny of the American nation. Calhoun and his modern admirers really were wrong about the sources of political obligation and the primacy of liberty. The intensity of his writing rose from the crucial importance of the task before him. How could one compromise on the central ideas of the American Constitution?—the central ideas of mankind? Yet many of his fellow conservatives were lightly tossing these ideas overboard in his lifetime. Such ideas, Jaffa thought, were not to be treated as mere academic exercises; they were the staff of life. He fought fiercely for them because he saw how much depended on them. Paine, of whom he was fond, said that we have it in our power to begin the world anew. That is worth more than tenderness to the feelings of misguided friends.
Thus to Jaffa, the ideas of the Gettysburg Address were as alive and as present now as they had been to those who fought over liberty and slavery only fifty years before his birth. The ideas of Paine, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Douglass, were timeless principles, applicable to all men and all times, and seemed to him to sit upon his shoulders as he wrote. He could not bear to see them slighted. He thought they were urgent—and on that, he was, and remains, and always will be, right.
Some years ago, I was on my way to speak at the University of Kansas. It was late, around midnight, and I was roaring down the interstate as the moon rose, huge before me. Somehow I felt around me all the powers of past ages, all the permanent truths that for Jaffa always remained so present. (This piece was originally published on Timothy Sandefur's blog, along with a poem written in honor of Professor Jaffa.)
Joshua Treviño, 2006 Lincoln Fellow
In summer 2006, I was a Claremont Lincoln Fellow, and I happened to arrive early at one of the evening salons: very early, in fact, so that the only persons present were myself and a distinguished-looked elderly gentleman. He asked about me and my education, and then inquired, "Have you read Xenophon?" I had not. "But you say you grasp Socrates?" Perhaps grasp is overstating things. "Have you read Strauss on interpreting him?" No, I haven't read that either. "Well, have you read—" a battery of ancient and modern philosophical tomes followed. No, no, no, and no. The old man sighed with a weariness suggesting his awareness that he was conversing with a symptom of the end of civilization. "What have you read?" he said after a painful silence. "I just finished a biography of Khrushchev!" I replied too brightly, relieved to have a positive answer.
The great Harry Jaffa, having sprung the bear trap of his crushing intellect upon me, and finding he had ensnared only a marmot, gazed back with pity.
The lesson learned: live a life that does not disappoint Harry Jaffa. It's the least you can do for America and liberty. It was a privilege to have been schooled by the man, and I mean that in all sincerity.
Tevi Troy, 1991 Publius Fellow
2015 may be less than a few weeks old, but already we have lost three of the most important intellectual figures in the modern conservative intellectual movement: Martin Anderson, Walter Berns, and Harry Jaffa. Many people, including Yuval Levin, Bill Kristol, Steve Hayward, and Ed Feulner have weighed in on their important ideas, but the three men also recognized the importance of bringing conservative ideas into the arena of government.
Anderson took this notion most seriously, working for multiple Republican administrations in his long career. Most prominently, he served as Ronald Reagan’s “one-man think tank” in Reagan’s campaigns for the presidency and in the White House. Anderson recognized the importance of both people and ideas in the conservative movement. As he himself once wrote, “ideas are the key to creating policy, but people are the key to implementing that policy.” Anderson recruited over 450 intellectuals to support Reagan’s 1980 effort. After Reagan’s victory, Anderson helped recruit many of those intellectuals to serve in the Reagan Administration.
Walter Berns was one of those intellectuals, serving as a consultant to the State Department and a member of the National Council of the Humanities during the Reagan years. He also understood the importance of ideas on a practical level from his time at Cornell, where he was one of the professors threatened by name during the infamous radical takeover of Willard Straight Hall. Along with Allan Bloom — another one of the threatened professors — Berns left Cornell in the aftermath of the incident, as did many other important figures in the conservative movement. Berns also famously feuded with Harry Jaffa, his former friend, and playfully referred to Jaffa’s work in a syllabus as “inciteful” rather than insightful.
Jaffa, like Berns, had many students who served in government. Jaffa was particularly proud of his influence on Clarence Thomas, who toasted Jaffa in 1999 “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.”
Jaffa’s interest in influencing those in power went back decades. Back in the 1970s, when Robert Goldwin served as Gerald Ford’s White House intellectual, Jaffa reached out to Goldwin, writing in a letter that he had heard “From Irving Kristol that you are in charge of moving intellectual ideas into the White House. I have lots of them. Should we get together?” To his credit, Goldwin responded with the only possible answer to this query: “Of course we should get together.”
Martin Anderson concluded his great memoir of his time in the White House, Revolution, by noting that Americans possess a great heritage, but “what we will do with that heritage is the great question of our lives.” All three of these men dedicated their lives to encouraging Americans to tend to and protect that precious heritage. They will be missed. (This piece was previously published at Ricochet.com.)
David Upham, 1999 Publius Fellow
At the University of Dallas, Professor Jaffa gave a lecture in which he explained the reason for his frequent arguments with conservatives in these terms: "The future of western civilization depends on the success of America. The success of America depends on the success of the Republican Party. The success of the Republican Party depends on the success of the conservative wing of the Republican Party." I frequently recall that remark in remembering how high the stakes are, how important it is for American conservatives to get it right. As Hamilton would say, "This idea will add the inducements of philanthropy to those of patriotism, to heighten the solicitude which all considerate and good men must feel," especially as we proceed to the 2016 elections.
At Claremont, when I still fancied I might be good at politics but was eager to pursue marriage and fatherhood, Professor Jaffa candidly and very helpfully personally advised me that good statesmanship was often incompatible with good fatherhood.
J. Eric Wise, 1991 Publius Fellow
Professor Jaffa would start with a text, event or idea and then as soon as you were one or two thoughts in he would relate it to other texts, events and abstract ideas. Three hours later you would have scaled several sheer faces of human understanding, with Professor Jaffa pausing here and there to express sharp opinions on this and that in contemporary politics and academia, maybe castigating Robert Bork for his legal positivism or ridiculing Bertrand Russell for having the morals of an alley cat, maybe sprinkling with Shakespeare's Lear, King John or MacBeth, praising any student who would argue with him, so long as they were arguing and not repeating the same unexamined opinions over and over, and tying a line to each thought back to the original idea with a "you see" (a verbal tic). At the end you were more puzzled and more curious than before about opinions the basic integrity of which you had taken for granted. Professor Jaffa was the most Socratic teacher because, of course, where the prevailing view was the absence of permanent truth it was the superficially dogmatic Harry Jaffa who dared to question the opinions of the city.