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Walter Berns (1919-2015) and Harry Jaffa (1918-2015): A Canadian’s Appreciation

Two intellectual giants died within hours of each other on January 10. Walter Berns and Harry Jaffa, both students of Leo Strauss, wrote prolifically and influentially over very long careers and on a wide range of subjects. This appreciation of their work focuses on their common, lifelong study of American political thought and constitutionalism. I will have somewhat more to say about Walter Berns, one of my teachers and mentors, than about Harry Jaffa, who I met a couple of times but know chiefly through his work on Abraham Lincoln.

Making Patriots, one of Walter Berns’s many books, explores the American dilemma of patriotic devotion to the universal principles of the Declaration of Independence. “There is nothing peculiarly American about [those] principles,” wrote Berns, and other countries can (and have) come to live by them. “Why,” then, “except for reasons having to do with the climate,” should U.S. citizens “prefer America to liberally democratic Canada?” Indeed, if every country became a liberal democracy, why not dispense with particularist patriotism altogether and establish world government?

But for Berns, even the worldwide victory of liberal universalism would not render patriotism – and hence separate countries – obsolete. Liberal principles can be implemented in different ways, even dangerously illiberal ones, as the French revolution showed. Thus, despite the friendship and collaboration between Jefferson (chief author of the Declaration of Independence) and Lafayette (whom Jefferson helped with French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen), it was a good thing for the world that France and the United States existed as separate, independent regimes. Nor can we discount the persistent rejection of liberal universalism by either ethnic nationalism or competing universalisms (e.g., Marxism and Islamism). If existing liberal democracies must sometimes flirt with illiberal policies to deal with existential threats, a world government would have to do much more than flirt. Throughout his career, Berns insisted that world government would end up as a world tyranny.

It is true, of course, that smaller and more benign groupings – the European Union, for example – are not as dangerous as world government (at a minimum, one can escape to other places). Moreover, liberal democracies like Canada provide a congenial home to many Americans. Yet continued American patriotism remained important to Berns. The founders, for good reasons, designed a “commercial republic,” but even a regime devoted to the bourgeois pursuit of individual self-interest needed a degree of public spiritedness, especially if its commercial success helped make it a world superpower.

In fact, some degree of public-spirited virtue is necessary to any liberal democracy, not just to America as a world power. Immanuel Kant may have thought that institutional checks and balances can substitute for citizen character as the guarantee of decent liberal democratic politics, that it is enough to ensure that "the powers of each selfish inclination are so arranged in opposition that one moderates or destroys the ruinous effect of the other," but James Madison thought otherwise. While Kant believed a properly organized liberal democracy was possible "even for a race of devils, if only they are intelligent," Madison, the most famous exponent of self-interested checks and balances (of pitting ambition against ambition to remedy "the defect of better motives"), denied that republican government could survive  such a citizenry. “As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust,” wrote Madison in Federalist 55, “so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence.” Indeed, “republican [or liberal democratic] government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.”


Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousy of some among us faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; and that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.


Notice that although Madison considered the positive qualities of which he spoke to be rooted in nature, he did not rule out a role for nurture. Indeed, his claim that republican government requires a "higher degree" of these qualities implies that they are capable of different degrees of development. Berns agreed with Madison, and spent much of his career thinking about the difficulties of sustaining public spiritedness in liberal democracies. He wrote Making Patriots to explain why his own country, the United States, “deserves citizens who love and honor it, and are prepared to defend it” – presumably even if they chose (despite the climate) to live in Canada, as Berns himself did when he taught at the University of Toronto for ten years (1969-1979).

The story of how Berns came to Toronto – where I encountered him – says much about the man. From 1959 to 1969, Berns taught in the Department of Government at Cornell University. The last half of this period saw the escalation of student radicalism on U.S. campuses, culminating in the dramatic 1969 capitulation of the Cornell administration to the demands of gun-toting students. Berns recounts and analyzes those events at length in a chapter of Democracy and the Constitution. He is, to say the least, highly critical of Cornell’s administration. Here I will underline only what Berns neglects to mention in that chapter, namely, that when the university’s administration caved, he (along with Allan Bloom and Allan Sindler) “resigned on the spot.” These defenders of America’s commercial republic were prepared to risk their livelihoods for their principles. All three found new positions, of course, with Bloom and Berns coming to the University of Toronto. (Eventually they returned to the United States, Bloom to Chicago and Berns to the American Enterprise Institute and Georgetown University in Washington.)

At Toronto, Berns teamed up with Peter Russell to teach a comparative course on Canadian and American constitutionalism. These two accomplished teachers made a wonderful team, and helped stimulate the academic careers of many students, including me. They both taught that while constitutional case law was important, it needed to be understood in its broader political and theoretical context.

In 1963, Bern’s friend Ralph Lerner, another of Strauss’s students, wrote an important article entitled “The Supreme Court as Republican Schoolmaster,” arguing that the Court was understood at the outset (and was later seen by Tocqueville) as “an educator, molder, or guardian of those manners, morals, and beliefs that sustain republican government.” Berns, in many of his books and articles, regularly asked whether the Court was being a good republican schoolmaster, which implied standards of judgement outside of the Court’s own jurisprudence; for him, the Constitution was emphatically more than what the Supreme Court said it was. Berns sought his standards of judgement in the political thought of the founding, as well as in the thought of Abraham Lincoln, who saved and consolidated the founding, and who, as “patriotism’s poet,” was intensely aware of the need for public-spirited virtue.

Regarding the central importance of Lincoln, Berns agreed with Harry Jaffa, Lincoln’s great interpreter. Indeed, it was Berns who drew my attention to Jaffa’s magisterial 1959 book on the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Crisis of the House Divided (now available in a 50th Anniversary edition). Serendipitously, I read this book as I was investigating the political thought of Canada’s Wilfrid Laurier. I had learned that Laurier was a great admirer of Lincoln, and had carefully studied his words and deeds. Jaffa’s interpretation of Lincoln helped me to understand why.

Both Lincoln and Laurier confronted profound challenges to the liberal democratic principle of equality, understood as meaning not that people were equal in all respects but that no kind of superiority conferred on some a right to rule others. Such equality entailed two interrelated corollaries: 1) that legitimate government must be based on consent, and 2) that the purpose of government was not to impose the prescriptions of natural or divine “superiors,” but to protect the rights of equal individuals to pursue happiness as they understood it. For Laurier, these principles were challenged by religious claims to rule, especially by theocratic ultramontanism in Quebec. In the United States, the First Amendment of the Constitution made religious claims to rule unconstitutional, but illiberal inequality was present in the form of racial slavery. If theocratic religion was Laurier’s inegalitarian challenge, slavery was Lincoln’s.

American slavery dramatized the tension between equality and consent that occurs when a majority consents to inegalitarian principles of rule. For Lincoln, as Jaffa explains, such consent by the majority denies “the full and unequivocal recognition of that very equality which, alas, constitutes the title deeds of its own authority”; it is, in short, self-contradictory. Unfortunately, principled consistency is not a hallmark of public opinion, and in the pre-civil war period “a very considerable portion of the American people had turned its back on the truth upon which its own rights depended.” Needless to say, a “democratic” majority that consents to theocratic rule is similarly self-contradictory. So are some ethno-cultural majorities.

Jaffa’s account of Lincoln’s statesmanship shows how ticklish a business it can be to manage the tensions between equality and consent. The principles of equality and liberty must certainly be maintained, but pursuing them in a doctrinaire and absolutist fashion can be counterproductive, leading either to defeat at the hands of an inegalitarian majority or to the ironic imposition of equality against majoritarian consent. Better to take the path of compromise and incrementalism as long as progress can reasonably be made. Stronger measures, including war, might become necessary, as they did for Lincoln, but only if the abstract principle of equality is so completely denied as to make gradual progress impossible.

In Canada, the young Laurier, a doctrinaire “rouge,” matured into the “silver tongued” Laurier, whose masterful, and highly prudential, 1877 speech on “Political Liberalism” helped defuse theocratic ultramontanism in Quebec, and who later used “sunny ways” of compromise to deal with the religio-cultural issues of the Manitoba Schools question. I believe Lincoln was a source of inspiration for Laurier’s mature statesmanship. Laurier, I think, understood Lincoln much as Jaffa did.

Jaffa intended Crisis of the House Divided to be the first in “a two-part study of Lincoln’s political philosophy.” The second volume, A New Birth of Freedom, eventually appeared, but not until 41 years later (2000). In the intervening decades, Jaffa produced numerous other books and essays, often of a disputatious nature. He was a brilliant polemicist, who would pursue his disagreements with others intensely and relentlessly. Berns, too, was capable of sharp polemics, but it sometimes seemed that Jaffa made a career of them.

Even those who generally agreed with Jaffa would feel his polemical sting if he discerned some divergence. “If you think it’s hard to argue with Harry Jaffa,” said William F. Buckley, “try agreeing with him.” One of Jaffa’s feuds was with Walter Berns, which makes their almost simultaneous deaths highly ironic and has prompted comparisons to the similar fate of former presidents, and political adversaries, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.  This is not the place to recount and analyze the quarrel between Berns and Jaffa. I wish instead to underline what they had in common: a long life of profound writing and superb teaching about deeply important issues. On those issues, I think their agreements far outweigh their differences.

A word about their writing. The work of both Jaffa and Berns exhibits a distinct, often beautiful literary sensibility. In Jaffa’s case, this no doubt owes something to his undergraduate degree in English literature. As for Berns, he had aspirations in his youth – “illusions,” he called them –  of becoming a writer of fiction. His illusions were dispelled by Frieda Lawrence, wife of D.H., who pronounced that he lacked the necessary “zut” (see “Remembering Frieda Lawrence,” chapter 21 in Democracy and the Constitution).  Well, Frieda Lawrence may have been right about Berns’s capacity for fiction, but his political science writings have plenty of zut. There is a kind of poetry, for example, in his account of Lincoln as “patriotism’s poet.”

I last saw Walter Berns in Washington in February 2010. He was then still coming to his AEI office regularly, though he was getting ready to close it down. He would write no more books, he told me, but was chipping away at smaller projects. Jaffa, too, continued to write until very late in life. Both men, moreover, taught much longer than the average academic. Berns, for example, would offer seminars to AEI interns long after he had given up his teaching position at Georgetown University.

Walter Berns and Harry Jaffa can no longer write, but they will continue to teach – not in person, but through their books and essays, which will stand the test of time.