American Conservatism • Center for American Greatness • Conservatives • Declaration of Independence • Harry Jaffa • Post

Nationalism Is Not Enough

President Trump’s furious admonition to four extreme leftist members of Congress to educate themselves in the miseries of their ancestral homelands was met with spiteful indignation. In the media version, innocent ingenues defended their honor and their rights against a predatory, racist president.

In truth this fight is about American nationalism or patriotism versus Third World nationalism or identity politics. In brief remarks at the recent conference on National Conservatism, I asserted that a key book for understanding the issue of identity politics is The Rediscovery of America: Essays by Harry V Jaffa on the New Birth of Politics, which I co-edited with Edward J. Erler. In the words of a recent, insightful book about the late Claremont Institute political philosopher, Steven Hayward argues that Jaffa’s conservative worldview might be summarized as “patriotism is not enough. 

But that necessary condition for successful politics—patriotism—requires in addition the sufficient condition for national greatness, the most interesting part of Jaffa’s thought, that America was founded as the best possible political order, as foreshadowed in the Declaration of Independence. As Erler puts it, “Jaffa never tired of repeating, the theology of the Declaration was one of reason and revelation.”

But Jaffa was not advocating blind worship of anything. The centrality of the inquisitiveness of both philosophy and religion as key elements of this sufficient condition are presented in a thoughtful review of Rediscovery of America by David Tucker, a Jaffa student and a colleague of mine at Ashland University’s Ashbrook Center. His argument about Jaffa both complements and clashes with Erler’s and mine and is, with David Bahr’s review, a welcome addition to figuring out both the major themes and subtleties of Jaffa’s teaching.

For Tucker, the question to ask about this extraordinary thinker is “Why did Harry Jaffa change his mind?” This is no splenetic academic food-fight. At stake is how we understand our patriotism and our nationalism, and our minds and hearts.

Here’s the problem: Jaffa’s earlier book on Lincoln, Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates (1959) was hailed by leading Civil War historians and political theorists as a dazzling achievement of scholarship and analysis. This was followed, over 40 years later, by the long-promised A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War, a book that was hailed by many scholars but with less enthusiasm than the first one. 

Tucker summarizes the gap between the two books: Jaffa’s earlier Lincoln “gave the nation a new birth of freedom by creatively interpreting the claim that all men are created equal as a noble, transcendent idea of justice . . . . Whereas Crisis presented Lincoln as overcoming Jefferson, New Birth presented Lincoln as Jefferson’s greatest student.” The “transcendent morality” and, in Lincoln’s words, “sacred principle” of the Declaration of Independence made free self-government possible. The great strength of Tucker’s review is his clear explanation of this change in Jaffa’s thinking. I will, however, emphasize certain points.

In Jaffa’s later view, Lincoln was not fighting Jefferson’s modernity—that is, his political reliance on low self-interest—but rather he was preserving the “noble, transcendent,” original understanding of Jefferson and the other founders.

Here I need to dissent from Tucker’s further characterization of our collection. Contrary to what Jaffa himself wrote, Tucker argues that his last book, Crisis of the Strauss Divided: Essays on Leo Strauss and Straussianism, East and West “provides his own explanation” of his change. This book of quirky and self-referential title emphasizes the theme of reason and revelation in the thought of his teacher Leo Strauss and Jaffa’s disputes with other students of Strauss. Along with his other two books it is indispensable for understanding Jaffa. In brief, Jaffa wanted to prevent the American Founding from being mischaracterized as an anticipation of radical modernity—Madison giving way to Rousseau, Franklin to Nietzsche, and so on. Whatever shortcomings some of their abstract arguments may have had, their superior prudence or political judgment makes them our heroes today.

Jaffa’s observation from the first essay in Rediscovery shows how he dealt with Tucker’s objection: “That the Founding, which Lincoln inherited, was dominated by an Aristotelian Locke—or a Lockean Aristotle—has been a conspicuous theme of my writing since 1987.”

Our book includes major Jaffa essays that focus on this “conspicuous theme.” The Declaration itself speaks of “‘Safety and happiness,’ the alpha and omega of political life in Aristotle’s Politics.” Happiness was not some happy hour of pleasure but the pursuit of virtue. The American founding, in essence, was Aristotelian, not Hobbesian or “modern.” Its aims were those of the classical best regime and, moreover, took into account the radical change brought about by Christianity.

Thus, “Law for an ancient city and for a modern state . . . must of necessity be very different. It must be very different as to the ways and means by which it is formed, yet altogether the same for the human ends it must serve.” The prevention of tyranny (and the preservation of freedom) required recognition of the change from the gods of the ancient city to Christian monotheism: “Each individual is a citizen, actual or potential, of the City of God, before being a citizen of his own particular country.”

Oddly, Tucker finds an anti-Jefferson spirit in even the cover of the book “which features the faces of Lincoln and Washington” but also, he neglects to mention, the beginning of the Declaration, which is central and foundational. Americans, after all, are right to embrace Jefferson’s Declaration while at the same time being more selective about some of his modern philosophical tendencies, on display in his Notes on the State of Virginia, subject of a careful exposition by Tucker.

Jaffa could argue, Tucker summarizes, that “America was the best regime because for the first time in western civilization a political order did equal justice to the ‘two irrefutable and irreducible principles of human life,’ reason and revelation,” philosophy and biblical religion. Tucker’s own description rings true: “When he wrote Crisis, he was under the spell of his great books education acquired with Strauss but had not studied politics enough . . . . Jaffa thus escaped the Strauss school, while others did not. This explains Jaffa’s criticism of mere book learning and his remark to [Harvey] Mansfield that he (Mansfield) had to attend to political thought not just the history of philosophy.” Here, Tucker refers to a previously unpublished exchange in 1996 between Jaffa and Harvard’s Harvey Mansfield, a 120-page section titled “The Decline and Fall of the American Idea: Reflections on the Failure of American Conservatism.”

This failure could be seen in the political trajectory of what initially appeared to be an affirmation of Jaffa’s early Crisis of the House Divided argument for equality in the civil rights revolution.

The Civil Rights Movement’s plea for equality of rights soon turned against its natural rights foundation. And it became clear that the feminism that appropriated the civil rights revolution overthrew the authority of the Declaration, in the following way: “if public opinion no longer held that gender (sic) differences were natural, then it could no longer hold that any distinctions were natural.” This also explains why “Jaffa stoutly resisted such arguments [e.g., “for the acceptance of homosexuality”], referring to homosexuals as sodomites.” Thus, he saw that a moral revolution he initially favored and advanced as an affirmation of “equality” actually rejected equality as the foundation for political legitimacy and instead came to undermine “the authority of both reason and revelation, eroding the ground of civic friendship.”

This realization explains why Jaffa came to treat old friends and benefactors as enemies. In New Birth of Freedom, the opponents are conservative thinkers and jurists, not only the liberal historian villains of Crisis of the House Divided. Tucker incisively explains:

Jaffa came to see that Strauss’s thinking was turning into a school. This meant that political philosophy, rediscovered by Strauss, might disappear again. To preserve both the country and political philosophy, Jaffa returned to the beginning, reinterpreting the founding to emphasize its Biblical but, he now argued, no less rational morality.

Jaffa’s great purposes were patriotic, philosophic, and pious—he wanted it all. He wanted to be a good human being, which meant he also had to be a good citizen in the best regime, even as its founder in speech. He was a true friend of America, offering it unity in the bonds of mutual affection for the highest purposes.

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American Conservatism • Conservatives • Harry Jaffa • Post

What Mona Charen Will Never Know

A few years ago while living at the homeless shelter and working next door at Jimmy John’s, I got an email from this development VP at my alma mater, Claremont McKenna College in California. She was swinging through Atlanta raising money and asked if I wanted to meet. I didn’t. Obviously. But she persisted, so I thought, “Why not? At least this will be amusing.” So we met.

At the end of a very unprofitable lunch (she paid for her sandwich, mine was comped by my manager) and after patiently sitting through my long story of struggle and hopeful redemption—“So yeah, at three months, I’m praying this time . . . recovery will stick”—she smiled at me and said, “You’re so Claremont.”

It was probably the kindest thing anyone had said to me in years. It brought me to tears hours later during my shift. That even as I worked a minimum-wage shift . . . at Jimmy John’s . . . at 38 . . . in suburban Atlanta . . . while living in a homeless shelter . . . with just three months distance from a crazy sad, 10-year battle over alcohol and meth . . . she could still see it. In me. The Claremont.

I see it in Jack Posobiec.

See, Claremont isn’t Stanford, and it’s definitely not Harvard or Yale. The school where the Claremont Institute’s founders studied in the 1970s was founded, ad hoc and jerry rigged, to give returning GI’s a solid education after World War II. And it succeeded. Wildly. But differently than the New England Gothic of the Ivy League. The men, then men and women, didn’t go there for pedigree. We came to Claremont because Claremont was the California Dream.

The hustle.

In the best way. A hustle that launched Goldwater and then Reagan. A hustle that built what became the modern Conservative movement. “So what if we smash religious freaks, the Orange County industrialist, and these Jewish intellectuals into one party?”

Harry Jaffa himself was a hustler. He, too, was widely scorned by the elites of his day—which is why he found himself at Claremont. And this is why his students had to start the Claremont Institute. In Claremont. They didn’t bitch and moan about who was being allowed in the building. They built their own and hoped it would be popular. It was a very good hustle. It was very Claremont.

Mona Charen doesn’t know Claremont. She’s not a hustler. She can’t see the value of the hustle. She doesn’t even know the history of the hustle that enabled her own career as a pundit. And what has Mona built? Where has she failed and tried and failed and tried and failed and tried and failed? A paint-by-the-numbers “conservative,” her career is respectable, well-received in the appropriate circles and utterly useless. Derivative. Of long ago hustles she can’t see. She can’t imagine. She has no idea.

But Jack does. Hustle. A lot. The guy is always in motion. Moving the ball forward in a dozen different ways. He writes, he performs, he talks to a lot of people, he moves around the country meeting even more people. He builds relationships and produces the content that Gen Z and Boomers want. He shifts opinion. He creates. He forges uncomfortable bridges with unconventional allies. He’s a traditionalist but not nostalgic. He does stuff beyond the endless talk-talk of yesterday’s Right. He doesn’t just look at the camera to opine on the way things ought to be.

His hustle doesn’t always pan out. But he doesn’t moan. He does not bitch. He’s excited because conservatism is exciting, not a brittle little tragedy. Which makes him the right here, right now of the Right. He’s the good guy.

And Jack is so Claremont.

Center for American Greatness • Conservatives • Harry Jaffa • Law and Order • Post • The Constitution

Making Constitutional Law Great Again

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Claremont-trained political philosophers represent some of the strongest voices in conservative intellectual circles, but many of them share a flawed view of the Constitution, expressed vigorously—and sometimes splenetically—by the late Harry V. Jaffa. Edward Erler’s recent essay, “Don’t Read the Constitution the Way Robert Bork Did,” channels both Jaffa’s truculent spirit and the doctrinaire position of West Coast Straussians, complete with familiar—albeit irrelevant—references to Abraham Lincoln and the Declaration of Independence.

Unfortunately, Erler’s essay illustrates why the Left’s conception of constitutional law is ascendant while conservatives continue to dither: Unlike progressives, discordant conservatives have been largely ineffective in articulating—let alone advancing—a coherent vision of constitutional law.

As I explained at greater length elsewhere, conservatives are all over the map when it comes to constitutional interpretation, and spend as much time in internecine feuds as they do in battle with liberal activists. Jaffa notoriously picked fights with respected conservative legal figures such as Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia, and espoused fanciful theories that have never been embraced by mainstream originalists (and almost certainly will never be adopted by a majority of Supreme Court justices).

Not surprisingly, therefore, the Left has made consistent advances, while fractious conservatives often chase their tails. Erler persists in this futile gambit, repeating discredited nostrums and making numerous errors. Rather than advance a workable theory of constitutional law, he finds common cause with libertarians who would have unelected judges divine new “rights” in séance fashion with unwritten “natural law” serving as the ersatz crystal ball. Erler concedes that Justice Kennedy’s risible “mystery passage” from the Casey case is an inevitable consequence of this approach.

Erler’s response to my articles rests on a number of false premises. He contends that the states did not exist as separate sovereign entities prior to the Constitution (and, thus, the Constitution cannot be a compact among the states); the Declaration automatically formed the United States as a single national entity; the Declaration is central to the Constitution; and “natural law” lurks invisibly in the Constitution, waiting to be “discovered” by discerning judges. None of these contentions withstands scrutiny. For that reason, his entire analysis fails.

The Declaration served an important but limited role in the Founding. The Declaration was merely a proclamation of secession of the 13 colonies from Great Britain. As Matthew Franck pointed out in Against the Imperial Judiciary (1996), the Declaration was not a charter of government. (Scalia agreed in A Matter of Interpretation (1997), describing the Declaration as reflecting philosophical “aspirations.”) The Declaration cannot possibly be regarded as a social compact—let alone a “quintessential statement of social compact”—because it was never ratified by the states (or the people). It simply declared that the colonies would henceforth be “Free and Independent States.” The purpose of declaring independence was not to live in an anarchic “state of nature,” but to permit the former colonists to institute governments (plural) “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” in order to secure their natural rights. In a civil society, positive law (statutes and constitutions) serve that purpose. The U.S. Constitution was drafted 11 years after the Declaration was signed, and fully ratified some 14 years after.

The Articles of Confederation officially created “the United States of America.The Articles of Confederation, approved by the Second Continental Congress on November 15, 1777 and ratified by all 13 states on March 1, 1781, comprised a loose federation of the states, which continued until the Constitution was drafted in 1787 and ratified by the requisite number of states (nine) in 1788. The Articles referred to the confederation as “The United States of America” but expressly stated that “each state retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence.” The Constitution was drafted because the individual states realized that the confederation created by the Articles was too weak to be effective. The states clearly existed prior to and independent of the Constitution. It is absurd to contend otherwise.

The Constitution is a “compact of the states.” The Constitution became effective, by its own terms, upon the ratification of nine states in 1788, representing three-quarters of the then-existing states. The last state to ratify the Constitution, Rhode Island, did so in 1790. In Federalist 39, Madison referred to ratification by “the distinct and independent states.” Each state, he explained, was “a sovereign body independent of all others.”

In Federalist 45, Madison assured readers that “the states will retain under the proposed Constitution a very extensive portion of active sovereignty.” Madison described the government to be formed by the proposed Constitution as dual sovereignty, constituting a “federal” rather than a “national” government. The Constitution took effect, and the federal government began to operate on behalf of the participating states, upon the ratification of the first nine states. The remaining four states joined the United States and became subject to the Constitution upon their ratification. The Bill of Rights—and in particular the 10th Amendment—was added to protect the sovereignty of the states. This is the essence of federalism—a concept that Jaffa’s disciples apparently can’t fathom.

State constitutions predated the Constitution (and in some cases the Declaration itself). Despite what the 16th president may have said, possibly for self-serving reasons, historians agree that four colonies adopted constitutions even before the Declaration was signed on July 4, 1776, and the remaining states either drafted constitutions or revised their colonial charters during the Founding period. This is confirmed by references to existing state constitutions throughout The Federalist Papers, especially the discussion in numbers 47 and 48. Denying the existence of antecedent state constitutions is bogus history, worthy of Howard Zinn, not a Claremont Institute senior fellow.

The Declaration is not central to the Constitution. The Declaration is never mentioned in the Constitution, in the 14th Amendment or otherwise, and is scarcely mentioned in The Federalist Papers. The Declaration’s author, Thomas Jefferson, was absent from Philadelphia—indeed, in Paris, serving as minister to France—during the constitutional convention. True, the Constitution was enabled by the Declaration, but inapt Biblical imagery of golden apples and silver pictures cannot alter the Constitution’s status as our ultimate positive law. Slavery was eradicated, not by treacly sentiment or pious philosophizing, but by a Civil War and constitutional amendments.

Natural law does not infuse the Constitution. If the Framers believed that “natural law” (whatever that is) was sufficient to govern their affairs, what was the point of drafting the Articles or the Constitution? Scalia described the Constitution as “a practical and pragmatic charter of government,” and so it is. Like all written laws, it is a text, the moral authority of which—the consent of the governed—depends on government officials honestly enforcing its express terms. In a system based on popular sovereignty (“we the people”), there is no room for unelected judges to impose their will in the form of imagined or desired provisions—a ruse that Erler feebly attempts to dignify with the oxymoronic labels “substantive due process and substantive equal protection rights.” Jaffa had a long-running debate over natural law with Walter Berns. Berns made the better case; natural rights exist only in nature, and are not self-enforcing. Thus, man enters into civil society and seeks the protection of laws.

Among modern legal scholars, Michael McConnell is regarded as the most meticulous and reliable student of constitutional history. He concludes that the Ninth Amendment does not serve as a font of natural rights, and that, in any event, at the time of the Founding natural rights were not understood to override positive (or written) law. If “natural law” connotes deeply-held moral sentiment, aren’t the people, or their elected representatives, the best arbiters of such matters? Unelected judges are the least reliable barometers of the community’s “conscience.”

Tellingly, Erler has nothing whatever to say about Obergefell, and lamely asserts—without explanation—that abortion rights fall outside the amorphous “ambit of the rights of conscience” that he believes lurk invisibly within the Constitution. The problem with pretending to discern such unwritten rights is that they are totally subjective, indeterminate, and susceptible to infinite manipulation and distortion—as we have frequently experienced at the hands of activist judges in recent decades. The Framers, practical men skeptical of human nature, put no stock in such dubious notions.

Due to space constraints, I refer the reader elsewhere for an explanation of why Bork, whom Erler unfairly maligns, is the most important legal thinker in the second half of the 20th century. President Reagan agreed with this assessment, which is why he wanted Bork to join Scalia—one of the greatest jurists in our nation’s history—on the High Court. Likewise, I will not repeat here the arguments (made in American Greatness and elsewhere) debunking the libertarian theory of “judicial engagement,” which Erler (like Jaffa) unwittingly mimics. I displayed no “animus” toward Justice Thomas, whom I compared to Homer and referred to as “normally exemplary.”

Finally, Erler cites Raoul Berger, author of the magisterial treatise Government by Judiciary (1977), as favoring a “reanimation” of the “privileges or immunities” clause of the 14th Amendment, but that grossly overstates Berger’s position. Erler contends that the 14th Amendment effected a “radical change” or “revolution” of the federal relationship, heralding the incorporation of the Bill of Rights and opening a Pandora’s Box of unenumerated rights. Berger disagreed, concluding that the 39th Congress meant only to assure that the recently freed slaves were accorded the basic legal rights generally available to white citizens—to validate the provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1866. The right to vote had to be guaranteed separately, and Berger is emphatic that the “limited purposes” of the 14th Amendment did not include encroaching on state sovereignty. Once again, Erler is totally off base.

In sum, no one on the Right questions the ultimate source of our rights: They were endowed to us by our Creator. The question is, in a constitutional republic, how do we protect those rights?

The Framers looked to representative self-government, tempered by federalism, filtered popular rule, the separation of powers, and the delineation of certain rights beyond the reach of majoritarian interference—all preserved in written constitutions at the state and federal level. Judges review the constitutionality of laws in the deliberate manner envisioned by Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 78—firmly tethered to the constitutional text. If the people want to protect additional rights, they can amend their state or federal constitutions to do so. This is the essence of sound constitutionalism and the rule of law, not Lincoln idolatry, utopian resort to Platonic Guardians, or parroting the eccentric—nay, silly—rhetoric of cantankerous ideologues.

How can we make constitutional law great again? To paraphrase the title of Erler’s article, don’t misread the Constitution the way Jaffa did.

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America • American Conservatism • Americanism • Center for American Greatness • Conservatives • Cultural Marxism • Declaration of Independence • Harry Jaffa • Leo Strauss • political philosophy • Post

The Causes of Steve King’s Moral Relativism

In the course of their public responsibilities and acting on concrete political problems, Congressmen should know better than to ask abstract questions—particularly when in the company of New York Times reporters with no inclination to give them the benefit of the doubt. At best, this from Steve King, seemed another provocation: “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization—how did that language become offensive?” Steve King, once again, just could not help himself.

The jumbling together of white nationalism and Western civilization seemed appropriate for many a leftist critic of Western civilization, but not a purported defender of it, as King is. (While I don’t know King, I do know some of his former staffers, all of whom display both intelligence and good character.) Thus, a similar utterance from a Democratic member of Congress might well have gone unnoticed or even produced solicitation for an op-ed for the leading establishment press.

But why, it must be asked, would anyone throw together three such unrelated terms in defense of Western civilization? This is the form some intelligence tests take—which of the following items doesn’t belong? King’s defense has been that he meant to disassociate the first two terms from the last and the Times erred in its punctuation of his quote. The bipartisan answer to his explanation has been to disregard it and proclaim that Steve King doesn’t belong in Congress.

But the more revealing fact about the reaction to King’s statement, reported without any context, was how it displays the creeping moral relativism that infects all our political discourse—on both the right and left.

Fortunately, a just-published book correctly diagnoses this modern disease—Harry V. Jaffa’s, The Rediscovery of America (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019). The 10 chapters—including long sections which have never been published—come from the writings of the late professor from the Claremont Colleges. Written between the late 1980s and 2010, the essays are striking for their insight into our times and current crises, because Jaffa had his eye on eternity and how the present might be illuminated by it.

Because of modern skepticism’s “passionate rejection of all ‘absolutes’” the educated, especially, are prone to make passionate instead of rational judgments about alternatives—turning the university into a “seminary of intolerance” rather than a place to grapple with the eternal questions.

The Left might rely on racial or “gender”-inspired passions, the Right—as apparently it did in King’s case—on the emotive catchwords of the day that they fear will blow back and taint them. Thus, moral relativism produces moral fanaticism, because reason, especially among the young or immature of any age, has little power. Jaffa illuminated this well in his essay provocatively titled “The Reichstag is Still Burning,” which takes on the student radicals and weak administrators of his day and recently has been the subject of a forum over at the Claremont Institute’s The American Mind.

Whatever his immediate subject, Jaffa’s “rediscovery of America” calls for the “sophisticated” to return to their citizen roots. But is it too late for such sentiments to move Americans who have become the kind of self-centered beings our universities seek to produce? Jaffa’s patriotism, indeed his nationalism, is based on the Declaration of Independence’s appeal to reason. Significantly, we Americans celebrate not the political act of our independence (which took place on July 2, 1776) but rather the declaring of that independence. In other words, we celebrate the reasoned argument for it.

Jaffa’s chapter “The End of History Means the End of Freedom” in The Rediscovery of America demonstrates how he proceeds against the relativists and nihilists, with an emphasis on those on the political right. (Earlier in his career he had emphasized his difference with scholars and politicians of the left.) Jaffa’s sobering point is that both the left and the right share in the moral relativism that many Americans sense and dread. The elites do not respect the most profound voices of the American political tradition, preferring instead the intellectuals who flatter each other.

As he does in his review of Allan Bloom’s best-selling The Closing of the American Mind, Jaffa argues that American political documents, in particular, the Declaration of Independence and Abraham Lincoln’s speeches, provide the philosophic grounding and moral teaching to guide Americans today. Francis Fukuyama, his teacher Bloom, Irving Kristol, and virtually all the heads of our universities could never agree with Jaffa on this point and offered only more versions of the same relativism.

In this way, Jaffa takes on one of the most commonly cited works of political science in the last 30 years, Fukuyama’s “end of history” argument, whose jarring 1989 article was expanded into a book. By “the end of history,” the now-Stanford professor and former member of the George H.W. Bush State Department, means not that events cease to happen but that the fundamental human choices have been made—liberal democracy and capitalism have won—and that all subsequent choices will be subsets of those. Perhaps a great man or political movement (like Islam?) might upset this consensus.

Jaffa poses this objection: “If, as Fukuyama … contends, philosophy ends with the ending of history then politics also ends. Politics can subsist only so long as it is thought reasonable for men to differ as to what they ought to pursue.” But if the quest for wisdom ends in the Wisdom of History, then philosophy as skeptical inquiry is no longer honorable or necessary.

And the same holds for faith in God. For those who seek to live by “an eternal and unchangeable order . . . recognize that democratic politics, philosophy, and religion all stand or fall together.” To believe in the end of history is to renounce all three and thereby pull down the heights of Western civilization and yoke them to one’s will. Once again relativism (historically conditioned knowledge) produces a dogmatism (the end of history) that justifies extremism (the claim of Wisdom and thereby tyranny).

All this is a mere warm-up for the most intriguing chapter of the book, an exchange of about 120 pages involving the distinguished Harvard political theorist and conservative, Harvey Mansfield, Jr., titled “The Decline and Fall of the American Idea: Reflections on the Failure of American Conservatism.” The Rediscovery of America signals the rediscovery both of philosophy and politics and thereby the refutation of relativism and its evil brother, fanaticism. At the heart of this endeavor is a recovery of the spiritedness essential for both love of country and love of wisdom.

This absence of this kind of spiritedness among so-called “conservative” intellectuals is what explains their horror at attempts to reinvigorate our politics. They should recall that without such politics, philosophy, and morality will suffer a similar decline.

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Administrative State • America • Americanism • Center for American Greatness • civic culture/friendship • Declaration of Independence • Democrats • Elections • GOPe • Harry Jaffa • History • Lincoln • Post • Republicans • self-government

The Crisis of the Republicans Divided

To understand the Republican Party today, in all its cluelessness, one needs to know what it was when it was founded. One needs to know what went into the making of “the party of Lincoln”—less the details of the history than the great crisis of America that was involved.

I would argue that the Slave Power that Lincoln confronted in the 1850s and ’60s bears frightening similarity to the slave power we see today in the administrative state and its manifestations among those in academia, the media, and the corporate and political elite, where political correctness reigns.

Fortunately, a striking opportunity to rediscover this America is a marvelous recent history of republicanism in America, From Oligarchy to Republicanism: The Great Task of Reconstruction, by an emerging scholar, Forrest Nabors. Nabors views America from the time of the Founding through the Civil War and Reconstruction not only in terms of slavery, race, and section but in actual political terms—oligarchy (the rule of the few) and republicanism (democratic self-government). He carefully notes the difference between Northern and Southern lives illustrated by such measures as education, political representation, and land ownership. In this endeavor he supplements the principles supplied by his and my teacher, the preeminent Lincoln scholar Harry V. Jaffa (1918-2015).

The data lead him to the inevitable conclusion that both blacks and working class whites were under the rule of slave-holding oligarchs. Thus, the institution of slavery defined not just the despotic relationship between white master and black slaves but rather the whole society where the few ruled the many. Keep in mind that in 1860 no one in a Southern, slave-holding state could vote for Lincoln; his name did not appear on their ballots.

In responding to my friendly critique of his argument, Nabors presented a brief summary of leading themes of his book. But to be of maximum benefit to his readers, which I hope are many, his essay needs some correction, in the form of how his thesis relates to today’s political crisis.

In sum, Nabors’s response overemphasizes majority rule as the crucial principle of American republicanism. He is completely silent on its bedrock principle of natural rights. Majority rule is derivative from the central truth of natural rights, as we know from Jefferson as well as The Federalist Papers. Attempting to advocate majority rule without natural rights is the error for which Jaffa excoriated conservative legal stars such as Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice Scalia.

Fortunately, Nabors’ book is not silent on natural rights. For example, he points out that the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution of the Kansas Territory declared slavery to be established by “the law of nature.” But that’s not the natural right teaching of the Founders. (Recall that Lincoln and Charles Darwin shared the same birthdate, February 12, 1809.)

In Crisis of the House Divided (1959) Jaffa attacked liberal historians in the name of Lincolnian equality, while in A New Birth of Freedom (2000) he attacked former friends, neoconservative and conservative academics and pundits in the name of the social contract. In both books he sought to destroy the credibility of both types of elites, who ignored or misunderstood the natural rights at the heart of the Declaration of Independence. Jaffa advocated natural right in its forms over the historical progress or evolution (historicism) of his opponents. While government by historical evolution is unlimited, the government by natural rights is limited to protecting individual freedoms and human happiness.

But natural right is also ever the cause of revolution and civil war. Therefore, its critics advocated historical evolution as a scientifically grounded theory. The historically advancing consensus John C. Calhoun offered in his political theory (originally as a protection of slavery), returned as a replacement for natural rights. Recall that Calhoun denounced the Declaration of Independence for its “self-evident lie” of human equality.

Calhoun and Woodrow Wilson, despite their differing defamation of the Founders, are on the side of historical progress. (FDR tried to steal the Declaration too, by embracing it and falsely interpreting it.) Liberals and their intellectual establishment embrace the departure from the Founding, easing the way to the odious Howard Zinn and his America-hating history and the rule of political correctness. Nabors himself seems not to object to the banishment of Confederate monuments, a policy that scarcely advances the Founders’ advocacy of natural rights and undermines the public appreciation of martial virtues of ancestors.

So how do Americans restore natural right today, when it becomes scandalous to point out the natural differences between boys and girls? Are we not on the verge of another civil war over natural right? Or might there be another birth of freedom?

Harry V. Jaffa, in some of these collected essays, defended nature in his denunciation of deference to “gay rights.” But he declined to pursue this angle in his later writing.

One step involves the taming of the Darwinian conception of nature, in favor of one that allows for the rationality of final causes, that is, a hierarchy of purposes in human life, as part of the science of man. This science does not necessarily involve a Creator or God, though it would not only not rule one out, it would make that possibility a core of its endeavor.

The next, related step might be to rehabilitate the American founders’ conception of property rights as natural rights, or derivative from natural rights. As Madison contended, “as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.”

I am delighted to report that both steps, as well as others, toward a “scholarship of the politics of freedom” are being taken by students of Harry V. Jaffa.

Center for American Greatness • Democrats • feminists • Harry Jaffa • Identity Politics • Post

Harry Jaffa on Kavanaugh and the Crisis of America Divided

The centenary of Harry V. Jaffa’s birth was October 7. He passed away on January 10, 2015 after a career of scholarship and teaching that got people to see the philosophic foundations for understanding America. In seeking to understand one’s own country, one philosophized. In his major books, Crisis of the House Divided and A New Birth of Freedom, he continued the Western line of political philosophy from Socrates on, adding to zetetic questioning, the depth that Sacred Scripture gives to life.

Politics is not some low, degrading enterprise. For America, politics is a source for the highest human aspirations, as Jaffa pointed out, in Lincoln and the Founders such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.

But rather than reflecting on Jaffa as political philosopher or teacher, let me recollect what he said about Supreme Court justices.

While praising Kavanaugh’s attacks on the administrative state, Jaffa likely would see him as more like Robert Bork, Antonin Scalia, and William Rehnquist than Clarence Thomas. The former he denounced as legal positivists and historicists—bound by the positive law, however problematic, and bowing to “tradition,” however irrational it may be and however much it undermines natural law (such as the long-standing practice of slavery).

Jaffa devoted two books to criticism of these conservative icons, Original Intent and the Framers of the Constitution and Storm Over the Constitution. A letter in the Claremont Review of Books succinctly makes his case for Thomas and against Scalia. “Positivists like Justice Scalia who look only to the ‘text and tradition’ of the Constitution, but not to its moral principles, are ultimately no match for the liberal critics of original intent jurisprudence,” he wrote.

Patriotism is not enough, Jaffa was fond of saying, when defending his attacks on reliable conservatives. Jaffa not only argued that the Declaration of Independence necessarily must inform American political deliberations and rhetoric but legal reasoning as well. As long as Americans fail to do so, the core of the court’s opinion in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), with its repudiation of the Declaration, would remain untouched, despite constitutional amendments and civil rights laws. Any such good efforts would be grotesquely misinterpreted—through racial quotas, for example—without the Declaration.

In 1991, Jaffa expressed disappointment at what seemed like Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearing repudiation of his pre-judicial embrace of natural law—that is, the principles of the Declaration of Independence—for understanding American politics. Under questioning from Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph Biden (D-Del.), Thomas maintained that his pre-judicial writings about the Declaration, natural law, and the higher law behind the Constitution (in which Thomas cited Jaffa’s arguments) would not be the basis for his deciding cases. Rather, he would resort to the traditional tools of legal analysis.

Biden was receptive to the right type of natural law (one that would permit abortion rights) and not the wrong type, which he suspected Jaffa of imbibing.

Jaffa, among others, regarded this disavowal—though obviously one prudent course of action to take—as a fatal compromise. If no one on the court could understand its worst decision in Dred Scott, how could the court reject bad reasoning and knowingly adopt sound reasoning? Thomas went along with his handlers’ “outhouse strategy,” focusing on Thomas’s rise from poverty and a broken home and avoiding the issue of whether natural law demanded an end to abortions and a long parade of horribles, violations of the “right to privacy” and all that is good, decent, and progressive.

Thomas’s about-face concerning his natural law musings (to which I contributed, as a special assistant during his time as chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) was bypassed as an issue with the injection of Anita Hill’s sexual harassment allegations.

Jaffa, who had contented himself with attacking what he regarded as inept defenders of Thomas, now pleaded for Thomas (through me, as a long-time student) to fight for his life by shedding his nice Negro image. There was never any question for me he would do this, and the rest is high-tech history. What remains unappreciated is that Thomas’s denunciation of the Senate (which far exceeded in fury anything Kavanaugh said to his tormentors) was ultimately rooted in natural right, above all the natural right to self-defense in that part of the state of nature known as a confirmation hearing.

Jaffa doubtless would have applied to Kavanaugh the same critique he made of other conservative jurists—legal positivists with no appreciation of natural right. But there are some affinities, which the professor would have delighted in expanding on: They are both Yale graduates. Jaffa would have been taken with Kavanaugh’s love of sports and his study of history. (Did he study at Yale with Edmund Morgan? Donald Kagan? Steven Smith in political science?) Finally, Jaffa would have made much of Kavanaugh’s February 12, 1965 birthday. (Is there another justice who shared Lincoln’s birthday?) That coincidence would have afforded him frequent occasions for lessons in Lincoln.

I am confident that Jaffa would have denounced in greater than Trumpian terms, the charges of Christine Blasey Ford and others against now-Justice Kavanaugh. He would recognize this as a Stalinist tactic, developed by a party operating under essentially Leninist principles: Identify a public enemy and defame and destroy that evil one.

Jaffa showed his mettle when a psychology professor at Claremont McKenna College claimed her car had been vandalized by racist and anti-Semitic slogans. I heard him immediately denounce the charge as a hoax. The allegation was, of course, universally accepted and created an uproar in the Claremont Colleges, with a mass rally against racism and anti-Semitism. It soon turned out that the vandalism was indeed created by the professor herself. Following her exposure and condemnation as a fraud, the disturbed instructor was sentenced to a year in prison.

Ford, who also happens to be a psychology professor, and Kavanaugh’s other would-be assassins will, alas, apparently escape that fate and likely enjoy glory of a sort.

With his study of Lincoln, Shakespeare, and ancient and modern political philosophy, Jaffa teaches us how to understand human souls better than any “psychologist.” Today’s struggles are ignorant armies clashing by night without the guidance of ancient wisdom. The satisfaction of one’s knowing might lead to both satisfaction and discontent. Jaffa’s own struggle for self-knowledge and how it illuminates America can be seen in a new collection of Jaffa essays Edward Erler and I have edited, The Rediscovery of America: Harry V. Jaffa on the New Birth of Politics.

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Photo Credit: Iris Schneider/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

America • Americanism • Center for American Greatness • civic culture/friendship • Donald Trump • Education • Harry Jaffa • political philosophy • Post • statesmanship • the Presidency

Who Knows America Best? Politicians Can Teach Professors

In January I was invited to address the City Tavern Club on the occasion of the club’s annual Reagan Dinner. This year it was a particular honor because it was the 30th anniversary of President Ronald Reagan’s last full year in office. We remember Reagan as an inspirational, optimistic figure who oversaw great changes in attitude among Americans and between America and the rest of the world. But that view of Reagan today is not what we might have had back in 1988.

In late January of 1988, the Superbowl Champion Washington Redskins were honored in at a White House ceremony. Some may recall that President Reagan, in honoring them, was also able to hit the Redskins wide receiver, Ricky Sanders with a perfect pass (view at 10:30).  We have yet to see President Trump hitting Press Secretary Sarah Sanders with a golf ball.

Politically, however, January 1988 appeared to mark the beginning of a lame-duck year, with Democratic majorities in Congress. The Iran-Contra investigation (the second attempt to assassinate him) and the defeat of Judge Robert Bork for the Supreme Court showed the decline of his once-feared powers. A brutal, unhinged thrashing by Senator Ted Kennedy and the general Reagan Administration haplessness had magnified Bork’s own fumbles.

A year later, in January of 1989, the President assessed his eight years of achievements. His Farewell Address first recalled the wild accusations of his critics when he ran for president: that his “views on foreign affairs would cause war. Our plans for the economy would … bring about economic collapse…. The fact is, what they called ‘radical’ was really ‘right.’ What they called ‘dangerous’ was just ‘desperately needed.’”

The “Reagan Revolution” was “more like the great rediscovery … of our values and our common sense.” In that rediscovering, America “changed the world.”

In the spirit of both Washington’s Farewell Address and Lincoln’s Perpetuation Address, Reagan voiced the need for an “informed patriotism” to accompany “the resurgence of national pride that [he] called the new patriotism … grounded in thoughtfulness and knowledge.”

Reagan emphasized, “Those of us who are over 35 or so years of age [today over 65] grew up in a different America. We were taught, very directly, what it means to be an American. And we absorbed, almost in the air, a love of country and an appreciation of its institutions.” One could learn patriotism from family, neighbors, veterans, or even school. “And if all else failed, you could get a sense of patriotism from the popular culture. The movies celebrated democratic values and implicitly reinforced the idea that America was special. TV was like that, too, through the mid-sixties.”

With this let us recall the television shows we saw back in the late 1980s: LA Law, Dallas. Miami Vice. Hill Street Blues’ , “Let’s do it to them before they do it to us.” We see Reagan’s point even more today.

“But now, he lamented, “we’re about to enter the nineties, and some things have changed.… Our spirit is back, but we haven’t reinstitutionalized it.” “Reinstitutionalized?” Reagan’s maladroit word choice, so atypical of him, highlights the daunting difficulty of this project.

But harsh criticism of Reagan’s (or any other President’s) inability to “reinstitutionalize” the American spirit or, for that matter, find a better word to describe the project overlooks a contemporaneous and amazing book that shook the intellectual world: Allan D. Bloom’s 1987 best-seller The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. Bloom, a University of Chicago political theorist highly distinguished for his scholarship on ancient and modern political philosophy and on Shakespeare, inspired a generation of brilliant students, who became leading scholars, teachers, and government officials. Might Bloom’s denunciation of the soft nihilism of contemporary intellectual life answer Reagan’s challenge of creating a “new” and “informed patriotism?”

As it turns out, no.

Bloom trenchantly exposed the insipid character of the contemporary university, wrapped up as it was (and still is) in German philosophy: “The self-understanding of hippies, yippies, yuppies, panthers, prelates, and presidents has unconsciously been formed by German thought of a half-century earlier….” Juxtaposing John Locke and Woody Allen, Bloom asserted the insight of Rousseau over both. Even when combined with democracy, capitalism with all its benefits is not enough. To paraphrase the title of the French edition of the book (L’âme désarmée), the human soul has unfulfilled longings. Bloom showed how the serious study of great literature and philosophy might address these age-old elements of the human soul. That is where what he calls “authentic liberation” can be found.

If “reinstitutionalize” is an awkward construction of what America needed to restore herself, Bloom’s prescription offers temptations but is wanting.

And this is where a political critique of Bloom’s view is called for. Harry V. Jaffa, a co-author with Bloom of Shakespeare’s Politics and a formidable political philosopher points out that “Bloom cannot form or accept an opinion about the United States that has not come to him from a European source.” In contrast to Bloom’s world formed by books, Jaffa presents The American book of books, … the story of America itself, as the story of the secular redemption of mankind.”

Thus, to seriously address Bloom (and Reagan’s) concern, “The solution is not accomplished without books but it is more than books and ideas. It is about strength of soul that brings purpose and will.” For Jaffa, the story of America is one that centers on the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence. And those are accessible to all who are open to them, from the common citizen to the scholar, not just those who studied the political philosophy that informed their assertion.

Needless to say, one cannot settle such issues in a brief essay, but the consequences are not merely literary. Having been unjustly rejected for the Supreme Court, Robert Bork wrote books attacking American legal and political culture. In his second book, Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline (1996), Bork speculates that the Declaration of Independence is the fountainhead of contemporary nihilism, with its talk of equality, rights, and the pursuit of happiness.

Thus, among other astounding speculations, he proposes that “the street predator of the underclass may be the natural outcome of the mistake the founders of liberalism made.” Bork would draw a straight line from the anti-tyrannical Lockean elements of the Declaration (“the pursuit of happiness”) to contemporary moral nihilism. He cannot see the decisive distinction between Jefferson, Madison, and Washington, on the one hand, and the street thug and his academic apologists, on the other. We can see from our brief reflections here that Bork came to this astounding conclusion because he was blinded by Bloom and his students to have this low view of America.

The man alleged by his opponents to be a dunce, Ronald Reagan, saw political and moral education more clearly than most of the intellectuals of his day, even the conservative ones: “Winston Churchill said that ‘the destiny of man is not measured by material computation. When great forces are on the move in the world, we learn we are spirits—not animals.’” Consider the penetrating insight in that about the human condition—learned through observation of lived experience, perhaps even through watching and performing in films, not through dogged study of philosophical treatises.

Would it be too much to hope for that movies such as Darkest Hour  and Dunkirk might signal an openness to a coming conversion of the American consciousness?

Or might we turn for lessons to the author of another best-selling book of 1987, written by no intellectual but instead by a man of action. A shrewd and intellectual observer at the time wrote that its author “believes that excess can be a virtue, [he] is as American as Manhattan’s skyline, which expresses the Republic’s erupting energies. He says the skyscraper is necessary because it is unnecessary.” This observer is none other than George Will, as quoted in Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal.  

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America • American Conservatism • Americanism • Declaration of Independence • Greatness Agenda • Harry Jaffa • Michael Anton • Post • Republicans • The Constitution • The Culture • The Left

How to Win Our (Un)Civil War

Ken Masugi, whom I have known and respected since we met while studying under the late Harry Jaffa during President Reagan’s first term, thinks my recent articles betray a lack of understanding of the current crisis. In “The Rescue of Flight 93,” Masugi contends America is at an existential moment, what Jaffa would have called “a crisis of the regime,” wherein its very existence as a genuinely liberal democracy is under assault. The only principled and spirited response, he says, is to fight. He supports Donald Trump primarily because Trump is a fighter and opposes, or at least seems to oppose, those who seek to destroy American values. He fears that my recent writings for American Greatness do not convey a similar understanding of what is at stake.

I think Masugi misunderstands my argument. I did not take issue with his assessment of the moment we are in. Recognizing the seriousness of that moment, however, should also entail a serious examination of the nature of existential conflicts and crafting a serious plan for victory. My pieces were meant to draw attention to both issues.

Existential conflicts always involve a choice between uncompromisable alternatives. To use the Civil War conflict as an example, slavery was either wrong, and thus inconsistent with an American regime founded upon the idea that all men are created equal, or it was right, and hence the idea of human equality was not an essential feature of America. The smartest warriors in this battle, Lincoln and Calhoun, understood this and argued in those terms.

This argument could be settled only by the elimination of the other within the context of democratic argumentation. Calhoun’s ablest descendant, Stephen Douglas, sought to do this by making democratic choice—”popular sovereignty”—the lodestar of the regime. By making choice a higher principle than equality, Douglas thought he could gain sufficient public support in the North to place abolitionist sentiment on the course of ultimate extinction, thereby preserving the Union and maintaining slavery. Lincoln sought to deny this, contending that democratic choice could only be right if understood against the backdrop of human equality, a belief which meant that slavery must be considered to be immoral.

Lincoln sought to avoid war, in part, by tolerating and even sometimes speaking to what is now considered to be race prejudice, seeming to agree that there was something intolerable, for example, in miscegenation—particularly when his audience was of the sort that was vocal about such racial prejudice. He also sought to assuage the South by reminding them that the Constitution prevented a democratic majority from abolishing slavery where it existed without a constitutional amendment. Given the fact that amendments require ratification by three-fourths of the states, that effectively meant that it could only be abolished with the South’s own consent. But once the expansion of slavery was halted by a popular majority, it would be clear that slavery had been placed on the course of ultimate extinction and hence increasingly ambitious politicians from the South would cease to make slavery agitation a part of their political platforms

I believe that supporters of the Flight 93, “we are at war” narrative have failed to grasp the logical consequences of that stance. War means war, and victory in war means one’s opponents can no longer contest the field of battle. To win in a democratic sense, as Lincoln and Douglas sought to do, one must define one’s argument in such a way so that the victory one achieves is both total and lasting. That in turn means creating a coalition broader than those who already agree with all, or even most, of your own principles. Lincoln and Douglas both sought to do that. I do not see advocates of the Flight 93 position always arguing in ways that demonstrate they are cognizant of that fact.

Both Lincoln and Douglas strove to attract the votes of men who did not see the existential nature of the conflict and sought, instead, to avoid it. Similarly, there are many Americans who do not see our politics as a fight between good and evil. Their votes will determine which side, progressives or conservatives, wins the conflict. If we are in a Flight 93 moment, if we do need to fight to preserve American ideals, then it behooves conservatives to try to attract those people’s votes rather than to denigrate them as “squishes” or as other sorts of undesirables whose company we deign to keep. That requires more than shouting our own principles more loudly and more clearly. It means speaking in such a way that can appeal to these voters and invite them to be a part of our coalition.

That does not mean abandoning principle. It does mean understanding how to talk with and attract people who do not necessarily share your core premises. That in turn requires some degree of toleration, some degree of kindness, some degree of inclusion. Is your neighbor who thinks abortion ought to be legal in the first trimester but not thereafter, your enemy or a potential ally? Is your co-worker who thinks everyone should have decent health coverage but doesn’t think the government should run the health care system a squish or a potential convert? These are the questions I want us to ask and answer, as I think these are the questions that answering can help determine victory or defeat.

The alternative is more frightening. A political minority (and ours is a minority) can win an existential battle, but only by recourse to legal means to suppress one’s opponents’ basic rights. That is the specter I sought to raise in my essay The Flight 93 Decade. If you do not want to win by creating a new democratic supermajority, then political victory will require eliminating one’s opponents’ ability to politically organize. That in turn means the proscription of certain types of speech, the removal of certain political disputes from the political process, and, when challenged, the arrest of people who defy these edicts. This is what happens in cities and in nations who cannot resolve existential disputes peacefully. One cannot avoid this conclusion if one is serious about waging a war over existential questions.

The Civil War’s aftermath shows us how this transpires. The South’s decision to secede and Lincoln’s decision to go to war to maintain the Union meant America’s existential question would be settled on the battlefield, with bullets and not with ballots. The South’s defeat was followed by Reconstruction, which prevented white Southern majorities from re-entering the Union with full political rights until they had sworn fealty to the new political order. The three Reconstruction Era amendments permanently removed the question of slavery from political debate. The North won the existential conflict by forcibly destroying the ability of its foes to contest the field of democratic battle.

I do not think that Masugi or most advocates of the Flight 93 viewpoint want to do this and most understand that the battles, if they are to be won, will be won through through democratic politics. This will require the skill of a Lincoln not just to mobilize the 30 percent of Americans who do see conservative and American values under assault, but to add to them another 25 to 30 percent who may not see this conflict clearly but can see their values more clearly upheld by a conservative supermajority than by a progressive one.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt remade America by doing exactly this. He cunningly crafted a public New Deal that told conservative Democrats and once-Republican working-class voters that he was simply restoring the republic they always had supported. They believed him and gave him sweeping landslides in the 1932 and 1936 elections. After those elections, every ambitious politician knew that to relitigate the question of federal power was to court political annihilation. To this day even the most conservative politicians, such as Texas Senator Ted Cruz, will deny they seek to undermine the core regulatory and spending programs that the New Deal and its aftermath ushered into existence. That’s how you win an existential conflict through democratic means: even opponents who in their hearts might seek to overturn your order cannot say so openly.

I am an American and a conservative. I believe that all men, meaning all human beings, are created equal. I believe that this means all people ought to be able to live lives of their own choice, subject to the requirements that they do so of their own effort so far as possible and so long as they do not deny the rights of others so empowered and so limited to do likewise. I believe that the freedoms of the first amendment—the freedom to speak what you believe, to print what you believe, to worship God according to the dictates of your conscience, to organize politically to advance your views, and the right to petition your elected representatives to enact laws based on such views—are fundamental to a regime dedicated to freedom and human equality. I stand ready to fight to preserve that regime and those ideals for so long as I live. Everything I write should be understood against these fundamental beliefs.

Aristotle begins his classic work the Nicomachean Ethics by noting that every act aims at some good, and that the aim of strategy is victory. I hope by my writings to help Americans and conservatives to craft a strategy that not only aims at victory but achieves it. And I view Ken Masugi as I hope he views me, an ally in that battle.

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America • American Conservatism • Center for American Greatness • Conservatives • Declaration of Independence • Elections • Harry Jaffa • Lincoln • political philosophy • Post • Republicans

Be Better Than Evan McMullin

Making failed presidential candidate and radical NeverTrumper Evan McMullin look like the smart guy in the room is quite a trick. But commentators on one of McMullin’s recent tweets have done just that.

Defending his pal Jennifer Rubin, McMullin offered his definition of conservatism:

There is a lot to criticize here—a general imprecision in language and the promotion of principles unconnected to present realities are all fair game. But in their zeal to reject McMullin’s epic levels of pomposity and ignorance, some of his critics have gone too far.

The conservative site Twitchy pounced on McMullin’s tweet, arguing that he has mistaken America’s Founding principles with those of Revolutionary France. How so? Because McMullin mentions “equality” and “liberty,” which are supposedly alien to the American political tradition.

Here are some of the critiques:

“Liberté, égalité, fraternité” after all was the motto of Robespierre and the Jacobin revolutionaries, right?

In fact, this is a complete misreading of the American Founding. Equality and liberty and the relationship between those two principles are central to understanding America—before, during, and after the American Revolution. Rejecting these principles because some people have misunderstood or misapplied them is exactly the wrong thing to do. Why cede such noble ideas to the likes of Evan McMullin?

Just take a look at the Declaration of Independence, whose first “self-evident” truth is that “all men are created equal.” In fact, eight state constitutions at the time of the founding featured similar language on equality. It is impossible to make sense of our revolution without grappling with the importance of this idea.

The Founders understood that whatever our particular differences may be—race, talents, religion, intellectual potential—all human beings, by virtue of the fact that they are human beings, are equal in that sense of being like creatures. It is unequal to the dignity of adult human beings that they should be ruled without their consent, so their equality demands government by consent.

As Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter shortly before he died: “The mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.” The divine right of kings and rule by an unaccountable administrative state are both affronts to our natural equality.

Reconciling Equality and Liberty
Once we understand equality in this light, we cannot escape the importance of liberty in the philosophical and moral architecture of the American Founding. After all, the central “unalienable” natural right listed in the Declaration is “liberty.”

The Founders’ conception of liberty, as Thomas G. West has argued, was bound “within the moral limits of the law of nature”—a law that man cannot transgress without penalties that will be meted out by his Creator in the next world.

Modern sexual ethics based on a radically autonomous view of human action and the idea that we have the “freedom” to do whatever we wish as long we don’t harm anyone else—the “no harm” principle that is a cornerstone of libertarianism—are equally rejections of the Founders’ teachings. The difference between liberty and license is a difference in kind, not in degree.

Compare this to the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. While the French Declaration also deals in universal principles, in contrast to the American Declaration of Independence, those principles are largely unconnected to man as he actually lives. They are not drawn from observations about the nature of things as they are.

The French Declaration casts aside prudence (asserting that “ignorance, neglect, or contempt of the rights of man are the sole cause of public calamities and of the corruption of governments”), seeks to obliterate all of the people’s traditions, bases the authority of law on “general will” rather than seeking to draw out the enlightened consent of the governed, and rejects liberty rightly understood (“every citizen summoned or apprehended in pursuance of the law must obey immediately; he renders himself culpable by resistance”).

It’s no wonder that the American Founders were generally skeptical of the French Revolution. Even Jefferson began to have doubts as the guillotines continued to fall without any sign of stopping.

Abandoning—and Recovering—First Principles 
However much traditionalists, paleoconservatives, Southern Agrarians, and other types of conservatives continue to argue that appeals to natural rights are 
the great evil to be avoided, these principles are not the problem. They do not account for the rise of our current crisis of liberalism or for the wrong turns our nation has taken.

Instead, our problems arise from a failure to defend equality and liberty as our Founders understood them. Our problem is that we have permitted the invoking of incoherent notions of rights that make no room for prudence. In this general thoughtlessness, we come dangerously close to demanding principles that resemble those of the French Revolution.

Human beings cannot function barring appeals to universals. Think of the miracle of the common noun, for instance. What does it mean to say one is sitting in a “chair” if there is no such thing in the abstract as “chairness”? We only understand each other because of observed reality and the necessity for a universal concept of chairs upon which humans can sit. Chairs may come in many shapes and sizes and varieties of luxury, but in their essential nature, they all share the purpose for which they were created.    

The Evan McMullins of the world are not wrong on the face of it in their appeals to liberty and equality. They are wrong about what those principles are and what they mean for us today.

Supposing that a caricatured version of the 1980 Republican Party platform filtered through John Rawls’ teachings is the embodiment of these central American principles is an embarrassing failure to grapple seriously with American ideas. To toss a favorite phrase of theirs back at them, “It’s not who we are.”  It has never been.

To defend the principles of the American Founding, we must first know what they are and then connect them to policies that speak to the circumstances we are facing today. Evan McMullin decidedly does not. Sadly, neither do many of his critics. We have to be better than both.

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America • American Conservatism • Harry Jaffa • political philosophy • Post • Religion and Society • self-government

Making Sense of the American Founding with Thomas G. West

What makes American freedom unique in the world? What have Americans forgotten in the 21st century that America’s Founders knew and took for granted? How can such a forgetful nation remain a free country? What will it take to recover the principles of the American Founding today? American Greatness Publisher Chris Buskirk discusses these questions with Thomas G. West, professor of politics at Hillsdale College and author of The Political Theory of the American Founding: Natural Rights, Public Policy and the Moral Conditions of Freedom. 

Seth Leibsohn: Welcome back to the Seth and Chris show. Chris and I were privileged to have a professor of political philosophy in Claremont named Tom West who’s now at Hillsdale, and Chris did a long interview with him about his brand new book, The Political Theory of the American Founding: Natural Rights, Public Policy and the Moral Conditions of Freedom and I thought it would be particularly good to air it now, in light and wake of Constitution Day.

Chris Buskirk: Tom West, San Francisco, APSA. Tom, in the acknowledgments to your book, The Political Theory of the American Founding, you talked about . . . the different versions, I guess, with the different iterations or evolutions of your thinking about the founding. You were a student of [Leo] Strauss and [Harry] Jaffa but you’ve also had a lifetime to think about these things. Can you talk about how your understanding of the founding has evolved within the context of the Claremont view of the world, maybe explain what the Claremont project is and how your understanding of the American founding has evolved over time?

Thomas G. West

Tom West: . . . I think the continuity in the Claremont project is, going all the way back to the founding of the Institute in the late ’70s, was, well the American Founding seems to have been pretty good, and maybe we should try to restore it, just try to restore those principles in American life. Seems like America is pretty far from that in many ways. Let’s try to get back and let’s try to understand what those principles were, too. Let’s try to understand the meaning of that.

And I guess I’d have to say though that in the original Claremont Institute, it was probably more interested in Lincoln than the Founders, because Jaffa back in those years—and that was the guy we all looked up to—had himself had started with Lincoln was the go-to statesman in the American tradition who really understood the way to think about natural rights and American government and, you know, this is how you understand justice through Lincoln, the eyes of Lincoln.

And the early Jaffa held the view that Lincoln had changed the Founding in some important respects. So you go back to Jaffa’s 1959 book, Crisis of the House Divided. He made the argument in that book, Lincoln had a noble understanding of the idea of equality but the Founders had a more debased understanding because, for the Founders, equality really meant the equal right to be passionate in your own self-interest.

Lincoln had to take that equality idea from the Founding and turn it into something noble, turn it into a goal—a goal of justice for all Americans, black as well as white. That’s how he viewed the whole—that’s how Jaffa viewed the relationship between Lincoln and the Founders. and then people like me, students of that, who came out of Claremont at that time held something like that view.

And that view was consistent with the view that was being taught by Leo Strauss or at least appeared to be taught by Strauss. And Strauss was one of Jaffa’s major teachers, and was one of my minor teachers. Strauss was at Claremont briefly while I was there as a student. And Strauss doctrine on modernity and on Locke in particular was Locke and other modern thinkers really tried to take virtue out of politics. There’s some formulations of Strauss in various places about how Locke thought you could substitute interest for virtue, and thereby make government concern for virtue no longer necessary. Strauss’s argument was that was characteristic of a number of writers in the early modern traditional political thought, especially the English writers. People like Locke and Hobbes.

So that was my initial understanding of all this and I have to say as a graduate student I didn’t spend much time on any of this. I was a Plato guy. And I was also more of a Harry Neumann student and he was very interested in Plato but also very interested in Thucydides and Nietzsche and Heidegger and Thomas More, and all kinds of people. I mean, Neumann was a great books guy, and that was more the way I was back then. I was much less interested in politics in the ordinary sense, and more interested in books written by major thinkers of the past. So I didn’t even look into this question very much until the ’80s—so 10 years after I had finished with graduate school.

Buskirk: Interesting sidebar, because I didn’t realize you were a Neumann student. I had one class with Harry Neumann, it was the class that the Harrys thought—you know, Jaffa and Neumann together, and they were the dynamic duo. But I always thought that we could have used more Neumann, and that he was a great foil for Jaffa. Maybe because of that, maybe because Jaffa was always so focused on certain issues and Harry Neumann brought this other—just brought a different perspective because of his particular interest in Heidegger.

West: Well, the thing about Neumann was, when I was there as a student in the late ’60s, Neumann was really—he was a great books guy. He was a guy who really was interested in major thinkers and trying to figure out what their ideas were. He was very interested in the interpretation of major texts. And by 10 or 15 years later, maybe 20 years later, Neumann had largely given that up, and he had adopted this sort of position of, “Well, I’m a nihilist,” and . . .

Buskirk: That was the era when I was there.

West: Yeah, and that became his constant theme and . . . from then on he began to use great books more as a source for quotes about topics that he was interested in; he was less interested in what those thinkers were saying on their own.

And so I feel like I was there at a time when Neumann’s teaching was probably more useful to students than it was at a later time, when maybe when you were there, when he just got on that one topic and wouldn’t get off it.

Buskirk: Yeah when I was there he really acted . . . Unless you took the time and he was in the mood to speak to with you separately, he really was just always there to be an interlocutor with Jaffa. And was good at it. They played very well together.

So . . . Jaffa’s argument in Crisis of the House Divided, his view of the Founding evolved over time, too, by the time he wrote A New Birth of Freedom 40 years later.

West: Right.

Buskirk: Does your thinking of the Founding evolve on a similar path? Or is there a point at which you diverge?

West: Well I think what happened with Jaffa—well, I would say, broadly speaking, yes, we were on a somewhat similar path, but we did diverge at a certain point, which I’ll get to in a minute. But I think what happened to me in the ’80s was that I . . . It was kind of an accident. I was invited to a series of conferences by Liberty Fund, and the particular series that I was being invited to was run by Bill Allen, who was also a fellow student of mine at the time. We were both at Claremont. And Allen was putting together these conferences for Liberty Fund and he . . . invited me to do a paper on the Founders and the classics. This was in ’83, I believe.

And I said, “Bill, I don’t know anything about the Founders and the classics. I can do something on the classics but I’m not really a founders guy.” And he said, “Well, you need to find out about it then. I want you to write this paper because I think you are in a good position to do a good job with it, but you need to do the work.” And I did, that’s when I first really immersed myself in thinking of the people at the time of the Founding beyond just famous documents of you know the Federalist Papers and the Constitution, and so forth. The Declaration.

Buskirk: So here you are, it’s 1983, you’re just starting to think seriously it sounds like about the founders.

West: Right.

Buskirk: So I guess for somebody who came to Claremont later, how did you get through graduate school at Claremont without thinking about the Founders? Where was your focus and did that change in the graduate school, I guess where was it when you were there and how did it get to where it is or was in the ’80s, ’90s, it is today, where it’s very focused on the Founding and on a particular understanding of the Founding?

West: I don’t remember any of the professors during the time, I was in graduate school there being much interested in the founding. Including Jaffa. He was interested in Lincoln, he had recently finished that book on Lincoln.

He was interested to some degree in Jefferson. I remember a talk a gave once on Jefferson. So yeah he was somewhat interested and I was somewhat interested too. I remember one of my dissertation topics that never got written was Jefferson on education. So I knew kind of this is something I need to know more about but I never did it and it’s because at that time my primary interest was interpretation of major writings in the tradition.

And so my … Another dissertation topic that I didn’t write was Heidegger on Plato. I was going to write about Heidegger’s essay on Plato’s cave which is short and therefore would be something you could maybe do in a dissertation.

I gave up on that when I realized it’s just going to take me too long to learn what I need to know of Heidegger to make this work and I ended up writing on Plato’s Apology of Socrates. Plato being an author I had spent a lot of time on, both in graduate school and also both in formal classes and also informally.

I spent a lot of time reading Plato in Greek as a way of learning Greek and also because I was interested and I wanted to learn about it so that was … Tom West of the 70s was really a Plato, Nietzsche, Heidegger, great books guy. And I had an interest in the founding and I knew a little bit about it but I didn’t really pursue it very much, very far.

Buskirk: Is it the case that Jaffa sort of led Claremont to the Founding through Lincoln? Is that sort of how that happened? In other words, he was interested in Lincoln, and via Lincoln had to learn about the Founding, had to address and interact with the founding . . .

West: Yeah, I think that’s right I think that he was doing that kind of work. I actually don’t remember all that much about what Jaffa was teaching after I left Claremont. I might have finished my coursework there maybe around ’71. So after that, I don’t know what he was doing. But I think so, from what I’ve heard from other students who came along later. It sounds like he was more interested in the actual political thought of the Founding that developed.

I should also mention—I didn’t mention this before—but I was also a student of Martin Diamond, back in the late ’60s. He was at Claremont for a year, my first year there and then he left and went off to Northern Illinois and I cannot remember.

By the time … I took a year off to go to the Army, a year and a half off, and by the time I got back, Diamond was gone. So I was only there for one year while he was there. And he was a guy very interested in the Federalist Papers, Tocqueville, Willmoore Kendall on the Founders, the  Declaration and the Constitution. The constitutional convention—I mean he had a lot of interests like that, and I got a little bit interested in it. I took some of those courses that he had, that one year I was there with him. So it wasn’t like I didn’t know anything at all, but it was not anything that I pursued at that time any more deeply than doing those courses.

Buskirk: So you come back to the Founding in the ’80s, years later. How influential was Diamond in the way you thought about the Founding then, and has that changed over time?

West: In the ’60s, Diamond was famous for his thesis that the Founders didn’t care about virtue. He had an article about democracy and the Federalist, and it was all about, the Founders’ idea was, “Let’s unleash private interest from private acquisitiveness. That’s the best way to solve a political problem. Let’s just forget about virtue and let’s instead get self-interest unleashed.”

That was a version of that “Straussian” interpretation of early modern political thought. That’s the argument that he was making in the ’60s and that was what I heard. When I went back to the Founding in the ’80s, that was the Diamond that I remembered. Now turned out, as I learned, he actually had some other views that he had been developing right before he died. In fact, he sent me a very memorable letter, very . . . almost right before he died, about how we need to get over the idea that the moderns are a bunch of pigs wallowing in the mire and the ancients are all sweetness and light. He said that isn’t true, and he says “I have an idea of giving a lecture someday called “The Bad Guys versus the Sissies, or Ancients and Moderns.” And his point was, “I’m going to show that neither one of those positions is true.”

The ancients weren’t all dreamy and idealistic and believed in virtue and education, they had their realist side and their tough side and neither were the moderns all blind self-interest.

That side of Diamond, I never experienced as a student. I got a taste of it from that letter he sent me, which I always remembered and kept over the years. And then that late article he wrote on “Ethics and Politics: the American Way” and there you can see he’s seeing, “Yeah, my earlier approach to this wasn’t good enough. I need to recognize the Founders actually did care about the character of citizen, the citizen’s character, and talked about it.” And so Martin Diamond did say, yeah, that’s something I need to get up to speed on.

Then he died right around that time, or shortly after that.

Buskirk: That’s a view, I take it, that you largely agree with.

West: I do agree with it, and that’s why Larry Arnhart accuses me of being a Diamond or a Midwest Straussian. Where I disagreed with Diamond, even the late Diamond, was that Diamond never saw the ways in which the Founders not only believed virtue was important, but also did something about it. They actually had a pretty wide array of policies that they pursued to shape citizen character.

Diamond didn’t know about that, he didn’t write about that, he didn’t really get into that. I don’t think he knew about it.

Buskirk: Right. The Founders were not content to develop “a city in speech.” They had practical political concerns which is why I think for most people that makes them more interesting and more . . . And what they did more . . . of more educational value, practical value, too . . .

West: Yeah I think that’s right and so that’s where … So I wouldn’t say Diamond was much of an influence on me other than just that, something I was aware of. To me, one I got into the ’80s, then that was me, I was just reading these Founding-era documents that Bill Allen and I were just putting together for these Liberty Fund conferences and I got this sort of second graduate education, you might say.

I mean those conferences were great. They would bring together 15 people, have them read 200 or 300 pages worth of documents from the Founding, and sit around the table and talk about what they all meant. There would always be 15 really smart, highly educated, top scholars.

That was amazing. And I have to say that was a very valuable part of my educational experience in my career, which wasn’t like graduate school but it was kind of in its way a second graduate education.

Buskirk: Well I agree, they’re still doing them.

West: I haven’t been for a long time.

Buskirk: I just did one in April and my experience was the same. It was uniquely valuable and …

West: It depends on how it’s done, but the ones that I was in on, they were wonderful for me.

Buskirk: Very, very good, good people, good topics.

West: Particularly for helping to introduce me to the just really massive amount of literature that exists both in the Founding and on the Founding. That took me a long time to really get deeply acquainted with that. That’s when I got started on it.

Buskirk: So just a bit of sort of institutional history. So we’ve for Claremont in the late ’60s and ’70s which is very focused on Strauss’s project and . . .

West: Wait, let’s go back to the stages, let’s finish that up, I’ll do it very quickly.

Buskirk: Yeah, go ahead.

West: So in the ’80s, my view was the Founders actually did care about—they were not hostile towards religion, they were not against virtue, they actually thought that was important, and they also believed in natural rights.

So there was that blend of those two seemingly different positions, which they didn’t see as different. So that was my position in the ’80s was that: they took a kind of version of Lockeanism that wasn’t really Locke, because I still took for granted that Strauss had figured Locke out. That he was the bad guy who didn’t care about virtue. And I thought well, OK, so the Founders took Locke and then they read him in their own way.

That was my view in the ’80s and ’90s. That really was the view that Jaffa carried with him to the end of his career. Jaffa wrote a late article in the Claremont Review about how the Founders were Lockean Aristotelians or Aristotelian Lockeans. In other words, they were neither Aristotle nor Locke.

That was my view in the ’80s but that I gave that view up when I really got into my research on the founders on virtue and formation of character, but also I got much more into Locke myself.  I engaged in the study of Locke starting around 2000 that led me to change my mind about Locke.

Buskirk: Meaning you think Locke is more interested in civic virtue than . . .

West: Way more interested.

Buskirk: Than Jaffa ever gave him credit for?

West: Way more interested than Jaffa realized. Exactly.

Buskirk: What changed your mind about that?

West: I just started reading more of Locke than the Second Treatise. The thing about Straussians is they tend to read a few things by major thinkers and that’s it. So if you read Locke’s book on education, if you read Locke’s essay on human understanding, if you read Locke’s writings on Christianity, The Reasonableness of Christianity, and the commentaries on St. Paul, he turns out to be a far more rich and interesting writer with a much wider range of concerns than you would expect from just the Second Treatise, which sounds like it’s just property rights and the right to life, liberty, and property, and that’s it.

But the other writings really bring out this other dimension of Locke which tends to be neglected by many scholars. Not all. I mean people who are experts on Locke know all about what I’m talking about. But people who understand Locke as part of a larger tradition, that they’re not really experts on that, sometimes are misled by the fact that Locke emphasizes certain themes in certain books . . . and then leaves out some themes that are present in other writing.

So it’s just one of those things where you have to look at the whole purpose and see how it all fits together. And then you also have to notice things. There’s some passages in Locke’s letter on toleration for example where Locke said, “Well of course government has to be interested in forming morals, that’s the most obvious thing in the world—because morality’s going to have a good deal to do with the preservation of the state.” That’s something that many scholars seem to be not aware that Locke ever wrote.

I remember I was at a conference one time talking about this and Robert Goldwin was in the audience—he was the author of the Locke chapter in the Strauss-Cropsey History of Political Philosophy. He stands up and he says, “I’d like you to tell me one place where Locke shows that he cares about government forming morality.” And I quoted these passages from the Letter on Toleration, which he acted like he never noticed before. I think he really hadn’t noticed them.

So there was that side and some of the . . . people involved in early Straussianism, you know, they were too quick to sort of take Strauss’s statements made in certain writings and just run with those, as opposed to following Strauss’s lead and then delving into the authors and really trying to understand them, not just in terms of the way Strauss did, but also on their own terms.

Buskirk: Yeah, right, which is what Strauss would have advocated, I believe.

West: Which is what he was always advocating, right? Don’t just follow my view of it, look into it for yourself.

Buskirk: Yeah.

West: Anyway so that’s how I . . . That’s how my views changed over time.

Buskirk: So what role, I guess, you can answer this—via Locke or via Tom West? What role can government have in forming the moral character of its citizens? What are within its capabilities and what’s outside of the capabilities of government?

West: Well, OK, so in my discussion of this in part two of The Political Theory of the American Founding, my new book, I talk about how from the point of view of the Founders, there are four sources of moral law.

One is divine revelation. One is the law of nature, which is reason. The third is government, which tells you what justice is and punishes you if you don’t go along with their view. And fourth is opinion, the opinion of the people around you. Those are the four sources of moral law that you find discussed in the Founding.

And I found letters and discussions of this in John Adams and Thomas Jefferson; it was scattered around in other writers, too. But that’s your choices. There’s only four places you can go. And so the Founders thought . . . what can government do to support all four of these?

So insofar as government was supportive of the prevailing Protestant Christianity—which they were through kind of broad consensus that was thought in public speeches, it was taught in schools and so on—that was a way of them helping to get people to take seriously the notion of divine law. God wants you to do these things and there will be rewards and punishments in this life or in some other life.

Secondly the natural law. The Founders were okay let’s get everybody to understand what the natural law is as much as possible so they . . . if you look at some of the early college curricula, they’re always having the students read books that talk about the natural law. They wanted the leaders of society to understand that reason can get you to the notion of moral obligation and moral duties.

So they had them reading writers like William Paley, Vatel, mostly they weren’t reading Locke anymore by the time you get into the 1790s and early 1800s, but they were reading you know some of these later 18th century writers who had natural law teachings. And those would be conveyed in schools too. Regular ordinary schools would be talking about, OK these are the principals of the founding, they’re all … Those are based, these are rooted in nature, there are laws of nature. There’s right and wrong by nature, known by reason, so there’s a second source of morality.

Third is government. Government criminalizes violations of natural rights. In my book, I said the purpose of government is to enforce the moral law according to the founders by which I meant the purpose of government is to enforce the moral law of the law of nature meaning don’t harm other people’s life, liberty, and property, and that’s what criminal law is about. That’s what civil law is partly about so the right to sue somebody who harms your person or your property lets say car accident caused by negligence. you get to sue them.

That’s a moral law. You’re negligent in a way that makes you morally culpable. Government’s going to give the person who was victimized a chance for compensation. Or criminal law, where somebody gets put in prison for a theft. That’s a violation of a moral law, which is you’re not supposed to take other people’s property. That’s how the Founders viewed this. These were moral laws, not just about rights but about morality.

And the fourth and final kind of moral law is public opinion, or the opinion of the people around you. That’s why talk, speeches, songs, monuments, statues, medals honors, public honors given to the leading generals—that’s why all that was so important too in the Founding. That’s why people were running around giving orations about George Washington as a model for all of us. How do you shape the opinion? The mind of the next generation of Americans was a thought always in their minds. Music, I mean two of the Founders composed songs to help … To generate the sentiments …

Buskirk: Which two?

West: It was Dickinson and James Warren, who died at Bunker Hill, I think. I talk about this in my book on how government helps to shape public opinion, in that chapter.

So those are four ways and I have a long discussion of all this in my book because it’s kind of a complicated thing where there are lots of ways in which each of these four kinds of moral law can be supported and advocated and promoted.

Buskirk: And they interact with each other right?

West: They all interact, yes. Ideally, they’re all teaching the same thing, that’s what you want. What you don’t want is when public opinion is saying one thing, and government is saying the opposite.

So let’s say the 1960s. Public opinion was saying smoke dope and be happy. You know public lead opinion was saying that. Government was saying we’ll arrest you. OK, there’s conflict of moral law. So the moral law of government is, we’re coming after you. The moral law taught by your friends and acquaintances in the elite class is this is the coolest thing ever, to be doing drugs.

Buskirk: And eventually government will reflect the opinion . . .

West: Exactly. That’s why government can’t simply sit back and say well we’ll just sort of wait for public opinion to be formed. If government can take a role in helping to form that opinion, it can and should. Assuming government actually has a sensible view of what people should think about morality.

Of course, the thing about the time of the Founding was there was a real consensus about what the moral law is. The moral law or the natural law. What that was widely accepted and understood to be a set of things that were agreed upon.

Buskirk: Do you think it’s fair to say that the view at the time of the Founding was effectively a view that arose out of biblical religion?

West: No, it wasn’t just that. That’s one out of the four sources of moral law for the founders, is religion. One out of the four. But you have to also think about the fact that religion doesn’t necessarily have to take the form that it did in the Founding.

Buskirk: What are those . . .

West: So, for example, take the case of the version of Catholicism that prevailed in Canada in the 17th century. I read about this … There’s a historian named Francis Parkman, who’s got interesting things to say about this. Basically, the people believed in Canada, in the areas that were … You know the various wars between English and France where sometimes an area would be transferred to English governance.

And there you’d have a situation where the priests were telling their parishioners that it would be sinful for you to obey the British government. And so you had … You had one moral low coming from the priest, which is you’re sinning if you obey the government, then you had the government laying down its moral law, which is these are the things you have to do to stay out of trouble. That can happen.

Now by the time you get to the American Founding, Christians in America, in the American colonies—and I think both Protestant and Catholics—agreed that’s the wrong understanding of Christianity. Christianity doesn’t teach you to be a bad citizen. That’s a misunderstanding. That’s what they would have said, say, in the 1740s, ’50s, ’60s, ’70s. Christians were saying things like that in their sermons, in America, in the colonies.

Buskirk: They were saying that, but there was also a school of thought—you know, there was Protestant resistance theory that was developed in the same period of time, which explained that there were times in which that Christian was obligated to disobey government and that civil disobedience, even rebellion . . .

West: Absolutely right, just as the natural law view was the same. Natural law also authorizes rebellion under certain circumstances. The question is, what circumstances? Is it the same, or not?

So if you look at the typical sermon of the Founding era—I’m thinking of some of the Massachusetts sermons that are in that Hyneman and Lutz collection, it’s a wonderful collection. Some of those sermons, you know, their argument is well if you’re a good Christian, you’ll understand that what God wants you to do is follow the natural law, and if you look at the New Testament, you’ll see that the teachings of Jesus is parallel to the teaching of the natural law. So from either point of view, that’s what you should be following, which does mean under certain circumstances, there’s a right of resistance.

And so that’s what these Protestants of that time, say, in the ’60s and ’70s—1760s and ’70s—they were trying to explain to their fellow American Christians under what circumstances should a Christian be willing to rebel. At the same, of course—and the arguments that were being made were meant to be parallel to the arguments that were also being made on a secular basis by other Americans at that time, who were not drawing on Christianity as a source of their understanding of that topic.

Buskirk: So in the way you explain it here, are government and public opinion sources of morality in the same way that religion or the natural law are? Or are they mediators of reason and revelation?

West: They can be. What do you do about a situation like the Soviet Union? The government there was the enemy of revelation. I mean, they set themselves to destroy the Orthodox Church in Russia. Succeeded pretty well for awhile. And they also set themselves against any kind of rational understanding of the moral law by their adoption of Marxism and with its justification of, you know, of torture and murder and treating people according to their class, as opposed to actual things they’d done. So there you have a situation where government doesn’t mediate either reason or revelation, it sets itself against it and is able to do that. One of the things is, government has is a lot of power. They can harm you. They can kill you.

So ideally government is channeling what’s true and what’s right and it’s trying to promote that but it doesn’t have to and in fact, historically, many governments don’t. So, yeah, government’s a source of moral law, but that can be a good or a bad source depending on who’s in the government, sure.

Buskirk: Is it . . .

West: Same with public opinion. I mean, you can be shaped by a public opinion that’s essentially teaching you to be a really bad person.

Buskirk: Right.

West: We see a lot of that in our time.

Buskirk: From the Founders’ perspective, how did they interact with religion? What was their view of the proper relationship between good government, between a good regime, and between revealed religion? And I don’t specifically mean the idea of separation of church and state, but how do they work together to perpetuate a just regime?

West: Well when I teach this in class I like to do two topics. I like to do a day on government’s view of religion and I like to do another day on religion’s view of government. Because they’re both equally important.

So, if it’s a government based on the natural law and the way the founders understood that, government’s view of religion is going to be very simple. They’re going to be very interested in supporting any religion that is pro-natural law and they’re going to be wanting to discourage people from following any religion that’s anti-natural law.

In general in the Founding, the attitude was we’re going to have toleration, but there was always the understanding that you can only tolerate religions that are themselves willing to be basically on board with following the principles of the natural law and being willing to obey the government.

Buskirk: So in that view, is it fair to say that the contemporary understanding of the separation of church and state is being just that, nothing more, is insufficient because it requires a toleration of religions that would be destructive of the regime itself?

West: Yeah, I think that’s … I think we have forgotten the grounds of religious toleration. Toleration was always conditional in the time of the Founding.

Essentially, you could be tolerated if you were willing—if you put it in terms of the social compact, you could be tolerated as long as you were willing to obey the terms of the social compact. Meaning, follow the laws passed by government and give to government whatever appropriate support it is that government asks of you—the same as it asks of any other citizen—and be willing to respect other religions as much as they respect you. So, in other words, you don’t have the right to use private violence, let’s say, against religions you disagree with. So, yeah, religious toleration or religious liberty was always understood in that light, of being conditional on whether you’re willing to obey the terms of the compact.

When Washington wrote his letter to the Quakers, he wrote … You know, Washington, when he became president, wrote letters to all of leading denominations. Most of them were, you know, “Thank you so much for this kind letter you sent me, and I really admire your denomination for the following reasons, and, you know…” he sent this really nice letter to the Jews and a really nice letter to the Presbyterians and another one to the Catholics and all of those similar.

Then he sent a letter to the Quakers and he said, well, you know I really admire you Quakers in many ways except for one. Your unwillingness to give to government, to serve government when it comes to national defense. I don’t remember the exact terms he used, but, basically, you’re really good citizens except in this one really important way and you’re bad citizens. Put more politely than I just did.

Then he concludes the letter by saying, it is my wish and it is my hope that the government will find a way to accommodate your unwillingness to serve but only as long as it does not in any way threaten the national defense.

So, in other words, he was saying, alright I think we can make an exception in your case, even though you’re in principle a bad citizen in that one way, because you’re such good citizens in other ways. But that accommodation, he’s saying, is not a matter of right; that’s a matter of a gift from government. If we choose to give you that, and allow you to not be good citizens in that way, that’ll be . . . simply an accommodation and not something that is by nature, by natural right.

Buskirk: It’s an accommodation for those citizens because everybody else is willing to do their part.

West: Yeah, and of course, if you had a whole society of Quakers then you run into the problem that Franklin ran into in Pennsylvania, is they had trouble getting the government to pay for the militia to defend the state against the French and Indians.

But, anyway, so to go back . . . I’m saying one point of view is what’s the view of government towards religion the other question is what’s the view of religion towards government?

And you can have both: you can have a religious position that is pro-government or anti-government, depending on what the religion is and what the government is.

So you have people I mean I’ve seen interviews with Muslims where they’ll say well you know in principal no we don’t believe we have any obligations whatsoever to obey American government and really we ought to have Shariah law here and not the constitution.

Now again, what Washington would say to that is, well, in that way you’re not a good citizen but, you know, if it’s not really dangerous to the nation, we can maybe accommodate that but don’t think you have a right to advocate that position to the point where it’s going to make it dangerous for us to survive as a free country.

Buskirk: That position is quite a bit different from the position of the Quakers, right? The Quakers had the single exception. They were otherwise good citizens they have a single exception.

What you just described is people saying, well, we live here but we’re not . . . We really aren’t under your authority. It’s a much more sweeping thing.

West: Yeah, much more sweeping, and therefore potentially much more dangerous. But if it’s only a tiny amount of people, fine. The problem would arise if those people with those views are being brought in in large numbers, and that’s the question I think government always have to face.

So the religious attitude towards government then, I think it became—I don’t think we could have had a successful American Revolution had it not been for the internal transformation of Protestant theology that took place over the century and a half from the time that the Puritans and Anglicans first came over in the early 1600s to the time of the Revolution, because there really was a change in the theological understanding of things that made Christians much more likely and much more willing to support something like what the Founders wanted to do.

Buskirk: You mean because they were all . . . they did not feel that it established religion, was a requirement in fact what they felt, they came to believe that they were undermined, not just the government but the church, too.

West: Well, established religion is too vague a term, because an establishment can mean lots of things. But the specific thing that was a problem on the pre-revolutionary period was especially if you go back to the early Puritans, you couldn’t even be a citizen unless you were a member of a Puritan church. And you just weren’t even a member of society officially you were just a hanger-on. In the South, you had people who were, if they had wrong religious views, they would actually be deprived of specific rights of citizenship in some cases. Same in New York. I mean, there were cases where Catholics in some cases were told well you cannot own this or you cannot do that. So there were, you know—they were way beyond just, say, taxpayers’ support of religion. It was actually limitation of citizen rights that was going on there.

Buskirk: At what point did that begin to change, in the colonies?

West: Well it really began to change early on. I have a long article on this that I published a few years ago on the transformation of Protestant theology but really almost from the very beginning. I went through that—you know, it was interesting how fast … how rapidly the sort of Protestant self-understanding in America began to evolve and develop partly in response to the very difficult conditions in the new world and partly I think due to the influence of some European ideas that came in starting in the early 18th century.

But, yeah, those are some of the things that happened.

Buskirk: You said the government should encourage religion because it supports justice as it’s understood by the natural law. Is that a fair characterization?

West: If the religion does support that then, yeah. From the point of view of the Founders, yeah, government should support religion if religion is willing to support government—that is, support the natural law teaching that government wants to enforce through its legal enactments.

Buskirk: As a practical matter, in your understanding, is it possible for there to be a regime based upon reason only, without having a religious citizenry? In other words, reason can provide the why to be good, consider these things are good for you, don’t do these things they’re bad for you.

But it cannot … The government, it can’t provide the stick that religion can in the sense of West: Right. It’s that extra, moral law that’s the divine law that government can’t do, you’re right. I’ll say this, at the time of the Founding, the overwhelming consensus was no you cannot have a free society without being a religious society. That was the view and even Jefferson signed on to that view in his famous passage in the Notes on the State of Virginia. If the people ever stop believing that liberty is the gift of God, we will no longer be able to preserve liberty.

I’m sure there were a few outlying founders here and there, maybe Madison in his private thoughts but you know most people in the founding held that view. And similarly, if you look at an author like Locke, it looks like he holds that view as well. He certainly says he holds that view in one of his books.

And in fact going back throughout the whole tradition, all the way back to Plato, I mean, you can everybody, all the philosophers, in one way or other seem to have something like that view.

Buskirk: Right and I can’t . . . There’s no example, historical example that stands out of an irreligious people that was free. That governed themselves.

West: Right we don’t have an example of that. Maybe it’s possible, we don’t know I mean not everything has been tried perhaps. But, no, we haven’t seen that.

Buskirk: Yeah.

West: That’s right. They tried it in the French Revolution, they tried it in the Russian Revolution, results weren’t so good.

Buskirk: No. Deadly is usually the way that turns out.


America • American Conservatism • Editor Picks • Harry Jaffa • Leo Strauss • Lincoln

Crisis of A Strauss Divided

Steve Hayward has been a friend for more years than we’d like to count and his new book, Patriotism Is Not Enough, is a tour de force. He writes the history of one of the most important debates in post-war American conservatism in a way that is lively, readable, and intellectually satisfying even for people who know the debate and the participants well. Tod Lindberg writes an equally interesting review which begins:

“Steven F. Hayward’s Patriotism Is Not Enough is a loose intellectual portrait of the life and thought of Harry V. Jaffa and his circle of close friends and even closer enemies. Jaffa, who died two years ago at the age of 96, was a prominent student of Leo Strauss’s who held forth and shaped a generation of students of his own at Claremont McKenna College and its associated graduate school and institute in California. Jaffa was the author, most famously, of the classic study of Abraham Lincoln, Crisis of the House Divided, a book that sought to establish Lincoln not only as a statesman of the first rank but also as a profound political thinker in his own right.

Jaffa was also among the most quarrelsome men of letters ever to reside in the groves of academe, and it is this fact that gave Hayward’s book its impetus and provides its propulsion throughout. Hayward begins with a juxtaposition of Jaffa and Walter Berns, another prominent student of Strauss’s, with whom Jaffa quarreled incessantly throughout their adult lives. Jaffa and Berns, born six months apart, died on the very same day in 2015. This quirk of mortality set Hayward, a tremendous admirer of both men, on his way, and it informs the book’s personal style, which will painlessly acquaint newcomers with some pivotal moments and issues in recent intellectual history, even as it keeps those who already know the subject entertained.

Jaffa had a uniquely high regard for the American “regime” (if we may indulge the vocabulary of the Straussian school). And it was Lincoln, in Jaffa’s view, who played the pivotal role in its true establishment. The framers of the U.S. Constitution had done admirable work. But coping as they had to with a grave political problem—how to create a union of both slaveholding states and states where the practice was forbidden—they lost their grip on what Jaffa takes as the true founding document of the United States: the Declaration of Independence. In dissolving their ties with England and establishing a nation of their own, the Americans claimed they were acting in accordance with “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Lindberg’s entire review does justice to one of the best books of the year. Read the rest at Commentary.


2016 Election • Administrative State • America • American Conservatism • Americanism • Center for American Greatness • Conservatives • Cultural Marxism • Declaration of Independence • Deep State • Defense of the West • Democrats • Donald Trump • Greatness Agenda • Harry Jaffa • Identity Politics • Michael Anton • Political Parties • political philosophy • Republicans • The Left • The Resistance (Snicker)

Romancing Reactionaries: Andrew Sullivan, the Left, and Not Getting It

“Donald Trump is not being reasonable…. But, then, man does not live by reason alone, fortunately. Trump, who believes that excess can be a virtue, is as American as Manhattan’s skyline, which expresses the Republic’s erupting energies. He says the skyscraper is necessary because it is unnecessary. He believes architectural exuberance is good for us [and] he may have a point. Brashness, zest and elan are part of this country’s character.” George Will, as quoted in Donald Trump, The Art of the Deal, 1987 (2015), p. 341.

Trump prefaced that quotation with this observation: “My favorite reaction to the world’s tallest building came from columnist George Will. I’ve always liked Will, in part because he’s not afraid to challenge fashion.”

2016 saw political fashions overthrown not by the likes of George Will but instead by Donald J. Trump. The collateral damage included regard for conservative punditry as fostered by Will and other conservative intellectuals over the course of decades. In their place arose pro-Trump upstarts such as the short-lived but hugely influential Journal of American Greatness and its intellectual successors American Greatness and the journal American Affairs.

Recent commentary on this transformation comes from venerable pundit Andrew Sullivan, the former editor of The New Republic who is now writing at New York magazine. With a Ph.D. in government from Harvard (his dissertation was on conservative political theorist Michael Oakeshott) he is also a  prominent gay rights advocate. Unlike many other critics of Trump, Sullivan finds much to praise in recent pro-Trump writing, finding in their authors what the younger George Will appreciated as the “[b]rashness, zest and elan [that] are part of this country’s character.”

In “The Reactionary Temptation,” Sullivan focuses on three pro-Trump intellectuals, Charles Kesler, the editor of the Claremont Review of Books; Michael Anton, “the most interesting intellectual behind Trumpism”; and blogger Curtis Yarvin (a.k.a. Mencius Moldbug).

Rather than repeat his summary of their pro-Trump views, I will focus on the most interesting/provocative parts of his lengthy essay and in particular what he says about Kesler and Anton, whose work I have long admired and know better than that of Yarvin. In a review more about style or aesthetics than logos, Sullivan praises his subjects in the following manner,

I met Charles Kesler in March on an idyllic sunny day in Pasadena, California, where he lives. He’s a soft-spoken, thoughtful figure, with a shock of white hair and a bemused smile on his face.

What on earth was a professor like Kesler doing backing a man who has barely read a book in his life, seems to think Frederick Douglass is still alive, and who’d last less than a few seconds in a Kesler seminar? He smiled a little defensively….

Sullivan praises Kesler as one of a few “serious reactionary writers,” rooted in the ideas of Leo Strauss, who “are much more in tune with the current global mood than today’s conservatives, liberals, and progressives.”

The Claremont consensus (to put a name on this strain of thought) holds that beneath the veneer of constitutional democracy, we are actually governed by a soft despotism of permanent experts, bureaucrats, pundits, and academics who ignore the majority of the American people. This elite has encouraged a divisive social transformation of the country, has led us into disastrous wars, and has created a deepening economic crisis for the middle class. Anyone—anyone—who could challenge this elite’s power was therefore a godsend.

Sullivan here attempts to summarize the administrative state, apparently missing that it now practices hard as well as soft despotism, as we see today in targeting of conservatives by the IRS, heavy financial penalties for florists, bakers, and wedding planners with orthodox beliefs, and now severe consequences for supporters of Donald Trump (or even those who allow supposed supporters to gather and be heard).

Contrast this respect for the sober, talented Kesler, a “classic reactionary,” with Sullivan’s apparent eros for Kesler’s former graduate student Anton:

Anton is the most interesting intellectual behind Trumpism, today’s American version of reactionism. He’s the suave, credentialed foil to Steve Bannon’s rumpled autodidact, a Trump official who just published a paper on Machiavelli [and one on Xenophon, too] in an academic journal. I recently met him for dinner near the White House. An immensely tall man, of piercing intelligence and meticulous attire, Anton is a product of post-hippie California….

Sullivan sees daylight between Anton and his mentor Kesler: “The Claremont critique of the administrative state and the liberal elite does not appear to be enough for Anton. His aim is at what he calls, rather wickedly, “the Party of Davos,” or the “Davoisie.” This is the administrative state gone global.”

Anton is author of “The Flight 93 Election,” the single most important pro-Trump publication of 2016. Rush Limbaugh read the entire September 9 essay on his radio show. “Charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees. Except one: if you don’t try, death is certain.” This denunciation of Hillary Clinton and all she stands for is scarcely a positive case for Trump, but Anton has made positive arguments as well, as Sullivan notes:

The Davoisie were too busy lifting foreigners out of poverty and celebrating the latest disruptive tech invention to cast a glance toward, say, the beleaguered inhabitants of Kansas or Michigan. Anton admired Trump, he wrote last year, largely because “he’s single-handedly revived talking about government serving its own citizens first.”

Anton under the pseudonym Decius was also a major contributor to “a now-defunct group blog the Journal of American Greatness. The blog had a madcap feel to it, bristling with almost tongue-in-cheek assaults on the modern world, on stuffy career conservatives, and risible “social justice warriors.””

With a keen eye, Sullivan appreciates the surface. But he exaggerates in order to make his point, and he apparently ignores a lot of what he sees as he reports. As Sullivan’s own portrait reveals, Kesler is scarcely a pro-Trump enthusiast. In fact, the print issue of the Claremont Review of Books has never published what might be called a pro-Trump essay or review; notwithstanding Kesler’s valuable contributions to understanding Trump, they are at most anti-anti-Trump―with the laudable exception of Christopher Caldwell’s recent and brilliant “Sanctimony Cities.”

The most significant Claremont essay favorable to Trump was by John Marini, finally published in July 2016 on the Claremont Review’s less publicized (and somewhat difficult to access) website. While Marini is scarcely a famous public intellectual, he has had enormous influence in creating the “Claremont consensus” against the administrative state. Last year Justice Clarence Thomas described him (and me) as early mentors of his thinking on the American founding and political principles.

Anton as well has often acknowledged his influence. Among other writings, Marini followed up this article with an illuminating Hillsdale College-sponsored Constitution Day lecture/debate on the 2016 campaign.

Even by consulting only these sources (but there are others for the more ambitious student), one can draw from Marini a few points against Sullivan’s take on intellectual Trumpism.  Marini notes the left’s embrace of “identity politics”—thus privileging ethnic, racial, and gender identity groups (a criticism with which Sullivan might well be sympathetic). But Marini goes further than Sullivan seems to realize, expanding this criticism to cover the whole intellectual class as an interest group or faction. The media is the most visible face of the intelligentsia, but its roots are ultimately in the academy, the source of right as well as left intellectuals. Even more seriously, Marini observes that identity politics, by definition, cannot produce a common good; the partial goods are everything. The administrative state wants to will such a monster into being.

While there are differences among different academics or opinion journals, they are united in their opposition to Trump. Trump’s plain talk (or even crudity) and his rejection of political correctness encourages his supporters even as it condemns him in the eyes of intellectuals, including Sullivan.

One doesn’t need an elite education to appreciate Orwell’s saying about ideas so stupid that only an intellectual could believe them. Thus, the established right as well as the established left denounce as racist his support for a temporary Muslim immigration ban, his criticism of the Khans at the Democratic Convention, or his charge of bias against a “Mexican” judge. The elite cannot see this Trump as a supporter of the common good. They see someone ignoring their concerns and advice and instead impetuously defining political success in radically different terms than those that make them comfortable. Trump speaks as a builder and doer, not as a talker. He is a man who expects to see results, not ponderous statements of subtle complexity.  But truth to tell, haven’t intellectuals’ influence in politics—with some noble exceptions—been the cause of our major ills in foreign and domestic policy?

These Marini arguments are not ones Sullivan wants to confront. Needless to say, he would not spend any time on Marini’s wardrobe.

Instead, turning on “neo-reactionary” Kesler and Anton, Sullivan flees to the familiar last refuge of a leftist scoundrel: “Isn’t all this just code for white nationalism?” Long, long before leftist pundits seized on Claremont as the font of intellectual Trumpism it was really the font for the revival of the Declaration of Independence, led by the scholarship of Harry V. Jaffa.

Sullivan builds up intellectual Trumpism (the only kind of building he can do?) for the cat-like purpose of knocking it down, even quoting at length from Lincoln’s Temperance Address (to Jaffa students!) in frustration.

Only in a media world which reports on “Saturday Night Live sketches” can such fantasy be taken seriously.

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America • American Conservatism • Americanism • Conservatives • Declaration of Independence • Greatness Agenda • Harry Jaffa • History • political philosophy • self-government • The Constitution • The Media

Is Rush Limbaugh Right About the Declaration of Independence?

Rush Limbaugh has always had a keen talent for rooting out liberal assumptions. A gadfly to the ruling class, the broadcasting powerhouse has the unique (and almost philosophic) talent of angering the Beltway literati while at the same time edifying his audience.

On his radio show last week, Limbaugh sensed he had happened upon yet another opportunity to show the depths to which liberal premises have taken over the American mind. He commented on the recent discovery of a copy of the Declaration of Independence, which he claimed was appropriated by liberals to subtly teach Americans that the founders wanted a massive centralized government.

[T]he historical record shows clearly that the Declaration’s authority rested on “one people” rather than a compact between the states. Further, there is no necessary connection between the idea of a national union and the unlimited government we have today.

The rare parchment copy of the Declaration was found by Danielle Allen and Emily Sneff of Harvard University in a records office in Chichester, a town on the southern coast of England. It was certainly providential that Allen would make this discovery. After all, she is a scholar of the Declaration and the author of a recent book that is a word-by-word exegesis of its text. The copy may have originally been commissioned by James Wilson, a signer of both the Declaration and Constitution and also one of the first members of the Supreme Court. It is believed that Wilson had it sent to the Duke of Richmond, who was one of a handful of supporters of the American Revolution in the House of Lords.

What drew Rush’s ire was Allen’s conclusion that unlike virtually all the other copies of the Declaration, this one “scrambles the names so they are no longer grouped by state.” In fact, “It is the only version of the Declaration that does that, with the exception of an engraving from 1836 that derives from it. This is really a symbolic way of saying we are all one people, or ‘one community,’ to quote James Wilson.”

 Rush quickly pounced:

The Harvard researcher is suggesting the second copy blows to hell the whole premise of federalism and establishes an all-powerful command-and-control one unitary central governing authority. And the states, to hell with ’em, all because in this copy the signers did not group themselves by state nor are the states from which they hail mentioned.

As he is always quick to point out, when liberals aren’t attacking the founders as deplorable for their supposed racism, sexism, and bigotry, they read them as the progenitors of modern liberalism. But in this case, he missed the mark.

Though I can’t speak to Allen’s intentions, the historical record shows clearly that the Declaration’s authority rested on “one people” rather than a compact between the states. Further, there is no necessary connection between the idea of a national union and the unlimited government we have today. In fact, the state compact view of the union was articulated largely by pro-slavery politicians, who wanted to preserve that awful institution for future generations.


The Nature of the Union

The Declaration tells us that its authority rests upon the “one people” whose representatives “mutually pledged” their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor for the cause of self-government. The one people who inhabited America in 1776 were then already defined by certain characteristics and a common purpose. Abraham Lincoln examined the origins of this union in his Special Message to Congress on July 4, 1861:

The Union is older than any of the States; and, in fact, it created them as States. Originally, some dependent colonies made the Union; and, in turn, the Union threw off their old dependence, for them, and made them States, such as they are. Not one of them ever had a State constitution, independent of the Union. Of course, it is not forgotten that all the new States framed their constitutions, before they entered the Union; nevertheless, dependent upon, and preparatory to, coming into the Union.

More specifically, Lincoln argued in his First Inaugural that the union “was formed in fact, by the Articles of Association in 1774” and was then “matured and continued by the Declaration of Independence.” The Articles were produced by the First Continental Congress, which formed in response to the Intolerable Acts—a set of harsh trade restrictions the British levied on Americans in the wake of the Boston Massacre. The passage of the Articles marked the first time Americans asserted themselves as a distinct people on the world stage.  

Lincoln then expanded on his claim regarding the Declaration of Independence:

Therein the “United Colonies” were declared to be “Free and Independent States”; but, even then, the object plainly was not to declare their independence of one another, or of the Union; but directly the contrary, as their mutual pledge, and their mutual action, before, at the time, and afterwards, abundantly show. 

Lincoln’s argument is backed with copious evidence. As Harry V. Jaffa has posited, the “resolutions adopted by the Revolutionary colonial assemblies” authorized “union as well as independence.” For example, Connecticut’s resolution for independence on June 14, 1776 called for “a regular and permanent plan of union and confederation of the colonies.” New Jersey’s resolution argued that the state was “entering a confederation for union and common defense.” (Note that union was the necessary foundation for defending the nation from British tyranny.) Even more clearly connecting independence and union, the people of New Hampshire stated their intention “to join with the other colonies in declaring the thirteen colonies a free and independent state.”

Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson drafting the Declaration of Independence.

James Madison and Thomas Jefferson confirmed this reading decades later. After naming the Declaration among “the best guides” on “the distinctive principles” of the United States, Madison noted that “the Declaration of Independence” should be understood “as the fundamental act of union of these states.”

Americans must recognize, then, that though the federal and state governments are sovereign within their respective spheres, the source of their authority resides with the people themselves. As James Madison once wrote, “The people, not the government, possess the absolute sovereignty.” Since the people are ultimately sovereign, they have the final authority over the meaning of the Constitution, which was created in order to secure their interests alone.


The Problem with State Compact Theory

The claim that the union was formed by a compact between the states qua states actually served as the foundation of the pro-slavery argument. In this bit of historical revisionism, the state legislatures are said to be the ultimate sovereigns and retain the right to order their internal affairs however they choose—no matter whether their purposes are consistent with the principles of republican government. Ironically, this misbegotten idea of the union has a much greater potential to unleash unlimited government than the partly federal, partly national union America’s Founders actually created.

According to this argument, if the “rights” of a state are contravened, that state has the right to lawfully secede from the union and to form a new political entity. But the Declaration clearly speaks of the rights of individuals—not those of the states. Properly speaking,“states’ rights” do not exist. States have powers; only individuals have rights, which were granted to them by their Creator. The job of every legitimate government is to protect those rights and safeguard the sovereignty of the people.

It is clear that this alternate view of the union is inconsistent with the union as the Founders and Lincoln understood it. The states do not possess a greater authority than that of the people whose interests they were created to help secure. The states, which are currently little more than administrative sub-units of the federal government, are not the political equivalent of the Holy of Holies as some conservatives seem to suggest. Only the people themselves, in Thomas Paine’s words, “have it in [their] power to begin the world over again.”


The Framers as Defenders of Big Government?

Rush also falls into another trap in describing founder James Wilson as “a huge advocate for nationalist government.” Alexander Hamilton is typically the founder targeted for his supposed love of big government, which is what I take Rush to mean by using the term “nationalist.”

But in labeling Wilson in this way, Limbaugh takes for granted that Progressives such as Theodore Roosevelt and Herbert Croly were correct in their appropriation of the Founders for their own political purposes. In campaign speeches and books, early Progressives routinely linked their politics to Founders with a more energetic view of government as a way to claim that their project was simply a continuation—and not a rejection—of the Founders’ regime.

Founders such as Wilson and Hamilton who favored a more extensive use of government powers nonetheless still saw the need for limits on that power. The Constitution in their minds only granted the federal government certain enumerated powers and the implied powers that were essential to carry them out. In fact, Wilson was so concerned about the government contravening its limited purposes that he was against the addition of a bill of rights to the Constitution because he feared it would be taken to mean that “everything that is not enumerated is presumed to be given.”

Wilson had perhaps the deepest understanding of the Constitution next only to James Madison, the Father of the Constitution himself. And he always took the written text of the Constitution and the natural law and natural rights principles of the Declaration as his lodestar and compass. There is no doubt that Wilson would be aghast at the unlimited government we have today, which regularly violates the Constitution for the self-serving purpose of aggrandizing the various clients of the administrative state.

Getting right with the Founders is imperative. Understanding the nature of the regime they put in place is necessary to re-establish a politics based on the consent of the governed. Though the Founders certainly cannot provide direct answers to solving today’s challenges, knowing that sovereignty resides ultimately with the people is a crucial first step to recovering republican self-government.


America • American Conservatism • Americanism • Declaration of Independence • Defense of the West • Harry Jaffa • Leo Strauss • Lincoln • Michael Anton • political philosophy • Section 1 • The Constitution • The Culture

Rod Dreher, Meet Leo Strauss and Friends

Leo Strauss

Rod Dreher has discovered an exotic tribe known as the Straussians.

Dreher, in case you’re not aware, is a blogger at The American Conservative and is the author of several books, including his newest and much-hyped The Benedict Option. Prior to landing his own blog at TAC, he worked at National Review, was an editor and columnist at The Dallas Morning News, and then worked at the John Templeton Foundation outside of Philadelphia as its publications director.

Dreher’s discovery, and a sudden onset of severe Straussophobia, occurred after a recent talk at Benedictine College where he encountered a student of the late Harry Jaffa, Susan Traffas. (Traffas wrote her PhD dissertation under Jaffa’s tutelage, which was later published as Jerusalem and Athens: Reason and Revelation in the Works of Leo Strauss.) Professor Traffas, says Dreher, was very critical of the Benedict Option concept and described herself as “a die-hard Straussian.” Dreher copped to not “know[ing] a lot about political theory,” and to therefore being unfamiliar with Straussians. But, never fear. He did some digging. After apparently taking a whole fifteen minutes to read through an essay on a website of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute about how different groups of conservatives view the American Founding, he came up with this sweeping claim:

Assuming that this is an accurate characterization of the Straussian view, it explains in part why so many politically oriented conservatives (not only those who affirmatively identify as Straussian) react strongly against the Benedict Option. America is not a state so much as it is a religion. To give up on the liberalism that created this creedal nation is, to use New Testament language about the Church, to allow the gates of Hell to prevail against America. It would invalidate their political religion. Therefore, they cannot admit the possibility that the American experiment might be failing, or can fail.

There is so much to be said about these and so many other casual assertions that Dreher makes in this piece, I am not sure where to begin.

East vs. West Revisited

First, Dreher misses a crucial distinction apparent even in the ISI essay he claims to have studied. It is West Coast Straussians, and not necessarily Straussians in general, who tend to view the American Founding as a high achievement both politically and philosophically. But before delving into particulars, we must back up a bit to get a larger view of the Straussian genealogy.

As a quick primer, the term “Straussian” refers to students and admirers of Leo Strauss, the German émigré who revived the teaching of political philosophy in the twentieth century. Whatever their differences, Straussians see that the study of political philosophy is still possible because great questions such as “Who rules?” and “What is the purpose of a just regime?” are always relevant to political life. The lessons of the great texts of philosophy such as Aristotle’s Ethics or John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government are always available to us because the truth of an idea does not hinge upon when or where or by whom it was first articulated. This is because truth, right and wrong, just and unjust, exist by nature—which Strauss opposed to the reigning orthodoxies of his day: historicism, positivism, and nihilism (hence the title of his most famous work, Natural Right And History).

A split emerged between Strauss’s students in the 1970s specifically over how the American Founding should be viewed, which stems from a more general disagreement about how to understand the relationship between politics and philosophy. The camps were dubbed East and West since they mostly broke down geographically, with West Coasters based mainly in California and East Coasters based in metropolises like New York, Washington, D.C., and Toronto. Today, the monikers East and West are less helpful since many East Coasters reside on the West Coast and vice-versa. As Charles Kesler once remarked in National Review, the “distinction is more a state of mind than of geography.”

West Coast Straussians are students of Harry Jaffa, his students, or his students’ students and can be found at places like the Claremont Institute and Hillsdale College. To generalize for the sake of clarity, West Coasters believe that America is a high and noble regime (Jaffa argued that it was the best regime in the history of Western civilization) because it is concerned ultimately with securing the highest ends of political life, the safety and happiness of its citizens. The American Founders combined the best elements of classical and early modern philosophy, along with biblical revelation, to form a coherent political theory that served the cause of liberty. The cornerstone of the American regime for West Coasters is the Declaration of Independence—especially the principle that “all men are created equal.” Though they see the principles of the Founding as theoretically sound, the Founding in practice was incomplete until the conclusion of the Civil War because of the stain of chattel slavery, which was in clear contradiction with the principle of natural human equality.

In contrast, East Coast Straussians tend to see the American Founding as, in Leo Strauss’s words (quoting Winston Churchill), “low but solid.” Some of the more famous East Coasters are Harvey C. Mansfield, Thomas Pangle, and the late Allan Bloom. America, in their view, is a modern commercial republic that is based upon the utilitarian virtue of acquiring wealth and property rather than more noble virtues or caring for the souls of its citizens. It is a country born of the modern mind of John Locke, whose philosophy was primarily founded upon sheer self-interest and a doctrine of individual rights that lowers the importance of the duties one owes to one’s family, country, and religion. Though lower in its aims, and perhaps even in spite of them, America became a great and prosperous country. Since natural rights are a dubious foundation for the perpetuation of a republic over the span of generations, the touchstone for East Coasters is the Constitution and the institutional constraints it imposes, which act as a stabilizing force against the rights revolution the Founders helped unleash in 1776.

Thomas G. West’s essay on the West-East division, “Jaffa vs. Mansfield,” is essential reading for those interested in a more detailed examination of the fault lines between these groups.

It’s also important to note that ISI is a traditionalist conservative organization that is far more amenable to the views of the East Coasters than West Coasters. Before branding them as heretics, Dreher should check out the Claremont Institute and American Greatness (especially the essays of Michael Anton “Decius”) and get a clear understanding of how West Coast Straussians understand themselves.

Deifying the State?

Dreher intimates that “Straussians” (he means West Coast Straussians) have an “idolatrous faith in the American ideal.” “America,” in the eyes of the West Coasters supposedly, “is not a state so much as it is a religion.”

What counts as “idolatrous” in Dreher’s mind you may ask? According to the section of the ISI website he quotes, it seems to be the idea that “the Declaration is the statement of the fundamental principles on which the regime is founded.” Furthermore, it’s the “special emphasis” West Coasters put “on the second paragraph in which Jefferson declares that ‘all men are created equal.’”

But if looking favorably upon the Declaration and the principle of equality is a sin against God, then America has been corrupt in the worldly sense from the very beginning. Many Americans apart from those who inhabit the fairly small circle of West Coast Straussians have considered the Declaration and the ideas it espouses—especially that of equality—as the bedrock foundation of the American political tradition.

To get clear on terms, equality in the Founders’ sense means simply this: Unlike a colony of bees in which a queen rules her drones by nature, there are no natural rulers of men. As it is expressed in the Declaration, the principle of equality recognizes that regardless of race, sex, ethnicity, or religion, human beings are free to order their lives as they see fit.

Abraham Lincoln described the place of equality in the American mind this way:

Public opinion, on any subject, always has a “central idea,” from which all its minor thoughts radiate. That “central idea” in our political public opinion, at the beginning was, and until recently has continued to be, “the equality of men.”

In the Founding era, the importance of the Declaration and equality rightly understood is found virtually at every turn. Eight state constitutions written and ratified in the 1770s and 80s feature language that paraphrase “all men are created equal.” For example, the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, which was written by future president John Adams, states in Article I, “All men are born free and equal.” Similarly, the Constitution of Virginia of 1776 contends that “all men are by nature equally free and independent.”

Jefferson, writing to George Washington in 1784, argued that “the foundation on which all [the state constitutions] are built is the natural equality of man.” In a letter to Elbridge Gerry, a signer of the Declaration who would later serve as James Madison’s Vice President, John Adams called equality “our first principle.”

Regarding the importance of the Declaration, at the top of a list of foundational core documents for the curriculum of a proposed law school, James Madison named the Declaration of Independence as among the “best guides” on the “distinctive principles of the Government of [Virginia], and that of the United States.” Frederick Douglass called the Declaration the “ring-bolt to the chain of [the] nation’s destiny” and argued that the “principles contained in that instrument are saving principles.” President Calvin Coolidge noted in his speech on the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration that it laid out “immortal truths” which would “liberate America” and “ennoble humanity.”

It’s difficult to understand how seeing the Declaration as the cornerstone of the American regime and its pronouncement of natural human equality as important to the meaning of America is somehow beyond the bounds of proper patriotism. Dreher, admittedly, isn’t too familiar with the Founders’ political theory (in his 2006 book Crunchy Cons, he butchers the Founders on religion and mangles a John Adams quote all in the span of two pages) so perhaps it’s not surprising he thinks along these lines.

Rod Dreher, Meet Decius

Dreher’s argument that West Coast Straussians would be aghast at conceding “that the American experiment might be failing, or can fail” is quite frankly absurd.

The irony in Dreher’s blind broadside against West Coasters in this instance is that West Coast-influenced places such as The Journal of American Greatness, American Greatness, and the newly established journal American Affairs all share a clear-eyed view of the current degraded state of our regime. In fact, it’s the very concern that “the American experiment might be failing” that served as the foundation of many West Coasters’ arguments for why Americans should elect Donald Trump.

If Dreher had read the writings of Michael Anton with care—especially his famous “Flight 93” essay (which I know Dreher read because he offered a critique of it)—he would know that they are replete with sober acknowledgements of how far we have descended from the Founders’ regime.

Here are some examples from Anton’s many writings that prove this point beyond a shadow of a doubt:

  • The Flight 93 Election” – “If conservatives are right about the importance of virtue, morality, religious faith, stability, character and so on in the individual; if they are right about sexual morality or what came to be termed ‘family values’; if they are right about the importance of education to inculcate good character and to teach the fundamentals that have defined knowledge in the West for millennia; if they are right about societal norms and public order; if they are right about the centrality of initiative, enterprise, industry, and thrift to a sound economy and a healthy society; if they are right about the soul-sapping effects of paternalistic Big Government and its cannibalization of civil society and religious institutions; if they are right about the necessity of a strong defense and prudent statesmanship in the international sphere—if they are right about the importance of all this to national health and even survival, then they must believe—mustn’t they?—that we are headed off a cliff.”
  • Restatement on Flight 93” – “I would also be overjoyed to be persuaded that the country into which I was born, which I have always loved instinctively, and which I was taught to love at the deepest theoretical level, is not in grave peril. Or if it is, that it can be saved even after eight more years of ‘fundamental transformation’—which means administrative state consolidation and managerial class entrenchment.”
  • Not ‘Reactionary’ But Right” – “I believe these are corrupt times and that America is on the downslope of the cycle. I don’t think the situation is yet irredeemable. But it soon may be.”
  • The Telos Crisis” – “My point here is not that we should cease to love America, our home, but simply that the sickness that has overtaken our country, a sickness that has stolen our sense of common national purpose, is quite possibly a sickness unto death.”

Actually, the last point was from a recent blog post written by none other than Rod Dreher. They sound remarkably similar, don’t they?

In fact just last September, Dreher argued that he wasn’t “remotely persuaded by [“The Flight 93 Election”] either, except in its contention that we are at a critical moment in the life of the Republic.” Why Dreher now thinks that West Coast Straussians would never admit that our country is balancing precariously on a precipice is a mystery that would take Sherlock Holmes to solve.

An Argument Between Citizens

Lastly, Dreher’s deeply immoderate rhetorical strategy seems to be to make hasty generalizations based on one-sided information and immediately hurl accusations rather than take part in reasoned reflection and dialogue. To paraphrase his arguments, “I’ve barely ever heard of Leo Strauss, and I hardly have any idea of who West Coast Straussians are, but they are committing heresy against God by deifying the state until someone proves otherwise” is probably not the best way to engage an audience who might actually sympathize with your arguments. This inquisitorial tactic is better at home with the modern approach of launching all-out rhetorical war against one’s political opponents, whereby individuals are said to be “DESTROYED” by the sniping of late night talk show hosts (yet, somehow, the individuals “annihilated” remain on earth to be targeted for future utterances that violate the ruling class’s god of political correctness).

Differences of opinion are, of course, welcome, and one need not accept the positions of West Coast Straussians in order to be counted among the learned. But, to quote Lincoln one last time, marking your opponent to be “shunned and despised” will cause him to “retreat within himself” and “close all the avenues to his head and his heart.” For not even “Herculean force and precision” will “be able to pierce him;” it would be akin to “penetrat[ing] the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw.”
Instead of immediately launching accusations that wither under the most cursory of examinations, Dreher should take some time to familiarize himself with the writings of Harry Jaffa, John Marini, Charles Kesler, William Voegeli, Thomas West, Ronald Pestritto, and others from which he would benefit greatly, even if he may ultimately disagree with their arguments. His regular readers would likely find such a dialogue to be very much worth their while. And those among the Straussian orbit would certainly find his opinions more compelling.