News & Politics

The Most Influential Conservative Scholar You May Have Never Heard Of

Barry Goldwater may have lost the 1964 presidential election, but his speech at the Republican National Convention that year reinvigorated conservatism. One line particularly stood out: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” That line came from Harry V. Jaffa (1918-2015), a professor at Claremont McKenna College and a giant of the conservative movement who does not get the credit he deserves.

A new book, The Soul of Politics: Harry V. Jaffa and the Fight for America, seeks to correct that. In the book, Glenn Ellmers, a student of Jaffa’s, explains the scholar’s impact on American conservatism and delves deeply into Jaffa’s political philosophy.

According to Ellmers, Jaffa redirected conservatism away from a glorification of the old Confederacy and toward the ideals of the Founders, restored and ennobled by Abraham Lincoln’s statesmanship during the Civil War.

“Until the 1970s, Southern traditionalism was not quite the only form of self-conscious American conservatism, but it was the dominant strain,” Ellmers argues. “Thus, the disputes that Jaffa helped instigate had far-reaching effects. Of course, neither the movement nor the party went altogether in the direction Jaffa wanted. … After Jaffa encouraged [National Review founder William F.] Buckley to move away from his early sympathies with the Southern nostalgia wing, Jaffa mostly complained that conservatism was unprincipled rather than committed to bad principles. Without his efforts, however, the movement might have remained in thrall to the egregious loyalties of neo-Confederatism and the medieval confessional state.”

Jaffa championed the arguments of Leo Strauss (1899-1973), a giant of classical political philosophy who defended the idea of natural right — that human beings possess inherent natural rights. He opposed the idea that human thought is inherently conditioned by history and championed a classical approach to philosophy, an approach that undergirds the Founders’ conception of men being endowed by their Creator with “certain inalienable rights.”

Jaffa and other disciples of Strauss have referred to themselves as “Straussians,” and have competed to define what adherence to their master’s ideas truly looks like. Ellmers focuses on Jaffa’s ideas, best expressed in his books Crisis of the House Divided and A New Birth of Freedom. Jaffa’s books focused on the debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in the 1858 Senate race and the Gettysburg Address. The professor applied classical political philosophy to Lincoln’s statesmanship, championing Lincoln as a consummate statesman and rejecting the historicism of the Confederacy.

Jaffa helped renew an interest in Lincoln and in the Lincoln-Douglass debates, which many historians dismissed at the time. Throughout his career, Jaffa’s perspective on the Founders evolved. He first argued that Lincoln perfected the ideals of the Founding, but he later acknowledged the genius of the Founders.

Larry P. Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College and a former professor of mine, praises his own professor, Jaffa, in the foreword to Ellmers’ book.

“The central story of this book is in fact a grand drama involving the life and meaning of the greatest modern republic. Professor Jaffa loved the United States of America on a cosmic scale. He found its justification beyond it, in the heavens, where God or the idea of God influences human actions here below. He saw that the Declaration of Independence appeals to that very place in establishing the ground of our freedom and equality,” Arnn writes.

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Jaffa helped reinvigorate conservatives’ acceptance of the “ancient faith” expressed in the Declaration of Independence — a belief that human rights are inalienable, not a product of the whims of any government but an inherent aspect of justice. Without this faith, the idea of America disappears. Conservatives owe Jaffa a great debt of gratitude.