The Soul of Politics: Harry V. Jaffa and the Fight for America
by Glenn Ellmers
408 pp., $31.99
Glenn Ellmers, a former student of Harry V. Jaffa associated with the conservative Claremont school of thought, has produced an exhaustive study of his mentor. Ellmers has pored over Jaffa’s available writings, including a dozen or so published books, numerous articles and newspaper columns, and boxes of unpublished correspondence stored at Hillsdale College and in the Claremont Institute. I am calling attention to this biographical achievement not because Jaffa and his doctrines represent what I would consider a genuine theoretical right, but because one is required to explain rather than merely dismiss success.
The Soul of Politics shows that the triumph of Jaffa and his adherents rests in their providing a narrative about America’s past—albeit one that is still clinging to what conservative thinker Sam Francis characterized as the “leftist gestalt.” At the center of this narrative is an attempt to frame equality as a conservative principle. Thus Jaffa and the Claremont School view American history as the working out of the overarching moral ideal of equality, which Jaffa argued was already inherent in the country’s founding.
Ellmers holds a Ph.D. in political science from Claremont Graduate University, where he studied with Jaffa. He went on to become an activist for the ideas represented by his teacher. His devotion to Jaffa was far from unique. Jaffa became the premier political theorist for what styles itself as the American intellectual right, a status he achieved long before he died, steeped in honors, in 2015 at the age of 96.
Jaffa did not achieve this prominence for himself and his followers only in recent years. Quite to the contrary—William Buckley and National Review, as Ellmers correctly reminds us, were celebrating Jaffa and his writing on Lincoln 50 years ago. In 1964, Jaffa wrote Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater’s acceptance speech, in which he famously declared “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” and “moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
above: Harry Victor Jaffa, 1958 (Wikimedia Commons)
Jaffa also claimed, without being disingenuous, to uphold “the Tradition” that stretches from the Bible and classical philosophy down to the American republic and its foundation of natural rights. As a disciple of Leo Strauss, he broke from Strauss’s East Coast adherents by treating the American founding and Lincoln’s redemptive mission not as a “modern” enterprise but as the flowering of classical, Hebrew, and Christian teachings all combined. This created the distinction between what are now the West and East Coast Straussian factions.
While both schools of Strauss’s followers extol John Locke as America’s political-moral inspiration, Jaffa and his followers regard this English philosopher as a Christian thinker. Locke’s defense of individual rights is an integral part of Jaffa’s understanding of the Tradition and belongs to his picture of the founding.
Jaffa first published in 1952 a book that began as a dissertation under Strauss at the New School for Social Research, Thomism and Aristotelianism: A Study of the Commentary by Thomas Aquinas on the Nicomachean Ethics. It was, as philosopher Alasdair McIntyre observed, a luminous exercise in intellectual history. Much of his subsequent work seems driven by his commitment to his view of the American founding and Lincoln’s redemptive role in purifying this process.
Jaffa’s lifelong commitment to this idea seems to have been genuine, and there is nothing in Ellmers’ staggeringly detailed biography that suggests Jaffa desired material aggrandizement. Unlike Republican media celebrities and the heads of conservative establishment think tanks, Jaffa spent his life in spartan simplicity, pouring those grants he received directly into his institute. His daily routine was filled with teaching, letter writing, and interacting with his family. Indeed, though Jaffa had his critics among paleoconservative scholars, they both lived in very much the same manner, throwbacks to an earlier, less ostentatious, and less strident version of the American right.
Ellmers describes his mentor’s lifelong interest in Shakespeare’s play “Coriolanus,” a tragedy about a prideful Roman aristocrat and commander, from whom Jaffa extracted lessons about leadership and heroism that he passed on to his students. Ellmers also tells us about his mentor’s attraction to Aristotle, Lincoln, Churchill, and the American founders as examples of “democratic statesmanship,” and finally, his thoughts about the relationship between politics and religion. The biography then delves penetratingly into Jaffa’s well-publicized disputes with his debating opponents: East Coast Straussians, neoconservatives, “legal positivists,” and paleoconservatives.
Eastern Straussians, Ellmers writes, “defend with great erudition and subtlety the philosophical discovery of natural right.” But such learned exegesis, for them, was about “abstract theorizing and ‘textual analysis.’” As Jaffa himself put it, they think that “moral virtue is for fools” and that “the purpose of philosophy is to enable them to look down with contempt on both politics and morality.” Further widening the coastal divide was Jaffa’s insistence that the study of sound political thought should inculcate political virtue. In the American case, the study of the founding was also intended to provide a rational argument for patriotism.
More problematic for me were Jaffa’s comments about “establishment conservatives” who “differ mainly [from Jaffa] in that they regard the conventions of morality to which they are attached (which might include slavery or Jim Crow or blaming Jews) as sufficiently justified merely because they prefer them.” According to Jaffa, “these reactionaries detest the idea of a rational standard by which their prejudices might be judged.”
Today, it is almost impossible to relate the term “establishment conservative,” as Jaffa used it, to what has been the conservative establishment over the last 30 to 40 years. That establishment has moved strategically leftward, particularly on social issues, and it has certainly not defended organic communities, which paleoconservatives always have. As Ellmers makes clear, Jaffa’s major theoretical battles were with paleoconservatives and their defense of custom and settled communities. Given that Jaffa’s paleoconservative opponents were soon “canceled” from public discussion, it may strike some readers as strange that such a battle over the future of the right ever occurred.
Although some paleoconservatives arguably may have overlooked certain unseemly prejudices, the gloom they felt about the country’s direction is understandable. They found the glorification of equality found in Jaffa’s formula to be a dangerously unconservative attitude. They thought, rightly, that the civil rights revolution would have radical consequences. Therefore, they invoked hierarchical, communitarian traditions as an alternative to what Willmoore Kendall described as Jaffa’s “new standards for application of the equality principle.”
Indeed, perhaps the most incisive and cogent critique of Jaffa’s hymn to Lincoln was published by Kendall in an earlier incarnation of National Review. Kendall’s Nov. 7, 1959, review of Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates (1959) ends with these unforgettable lines that have been etched in my memory since I first read them:
His readers will, therefore, be well-advised to keep a sharp lookout for those limits [of the principle of equality], lest Jaffa launch them, and with them the nation, upon a political future the very thought of which is hair-raising: a future made up of an endless series of Abraham Lincolns, each persuaded that he is superior in wisdom and virtue to the Fathers, each prepared to insist that those who oppose this or that new application of the equality standard are denying the possibility of self-government, each ultimately willing to plunge America into Civil War rather than concede his point—and off at the end, of course, the cooperative commonwealth of men who will be so equal that no one will be able to tell them apart.
Ironically, as American political culture moved further leftward, it was the West Coast Straussians, as Ellmers documents with quotations from Salon and other leftist publications, who were pummeled with the same abuse that once befell paleoconservatives and the traditional right. These days, East Coast Straussians have rallied to the GOP establishment or Joe Biden, while their West Coast counterparts have moved toward the populist right, where they are a dominant force.
This move, as Ellmers makes clear, was not taken just to continue their sporadic opposition to the “other Straussians.” It is also congruent with the democratic ideology and glorification of “democratic leadership” that pervade Jaffa’s political statements. The mystique of “democratic statesmanship” has been transferred from Lincoln and Churchill to “The Donald,” on whom the Jaffaites conferredadvisers Stephen Miller and Michael Anton. As a reward, President Trump gave a National Humanities Medal to Claremont in 2019.
Jaffa’s intellectual descendents have political clout in the current moment not because of dumb luck or merely for being in sync with the Trumpian Zeitgeist. It is the result of internal unity, the cultivation of sponsors, and the building of contacts. Dissidents on the traditional right would do well to learn from their achievements.