When I was a junior in college, I sent Harry Jaffa a copy of a paper I’d written in a seminar on the American Revolution. I harshly criticized one of my school’s professors for his rejection of the principles of the Declaration of Independence—so harshly, in fact, that my professor marked me down half a grade for my tone. When I spoke to Jaffa about this on the phone, he was philosophical. “Tim, you and I are gadflies,” he said. “We need bigger and better gadflies.”
I had come to know Jaffa my senior year in high school, when I read his book Original Intent. I had fallen in love with the Constitution and the American founding some years before, and after devouring the writings of Thomas Jefferson and others, picked up a copy of Robert Bork’s Tempting of America. I was knocked backwards—genuinely mortified—that the man many considered the day’s chief conservative intellectual had managed to misunderstand, indeed, to consciously misrepresent, the principles of the American Constitution. When I saw Original Intent advertised as a rebuttal to Bork, I bought and devoured it, and wrote Jaffa a fan letter. He called—no, he had one of his grad students call; Jaffa never phoned or wrote—and invited me to attend a session of the Publius Fellows seminar, not far from my home. I showed up, nervous, in a suit and tie. Jaffa, I knew, was a famous and influential intellectual, author of Barry Goldwater’s famous line “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Jaffa sat at the head of the table in his shorts and polo shirt, before a table of equally timid listeners. I remember little of what followed except that I challenged him sharply on gay rights—one of the many subjects on which we never saw eye to eye.
Jaffa, after all, was not a libertarian. He was a Goldwater Conservative, which comprises a series of beliefs I consider incompatible, but which includes at least the virtue that Jaffa was relentless in defense of the principles of the Declaration of Independence. Like his hero, Abraham Lincoln, Jaffa insisted that we hold firm on these, as with a chain of steel. And he was relentless in their defense, most especially when he detected his allies betraying them.
They often did. Jaffa never ceased to be scandalized by such things as Irving Kristol’s statement that Jefferson never wrote a thing worth reading, or Chief Justice Rehnquist’s claim that the Constitution’s protections for liberty derive their value, not from truth, but merely from the fact that they’d been adopted into the Constitution. Jaffa was a deeply learned man, conversant in Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Shakespeare—if, as Nietzsche said, philology is the art of reading slowly, Jaffa believed the same was true of political philosophy, and he mined these works for the truths they had hidden in their pockets. He knew the abstruse academic debates about their authorship and styles. But he was a passionate man, too: passionate to get at the truth. And in this, he remained always a young man, even in old age. At 80, when I last saw him, he remained still the kind of man who no doubt would have, like a little-known Springfield lawyer, challenged a Senator so respected as to be titled “the little giant” to a series of debates on the meaning of the nation’s first principles. Like Lincoln, he would’ve won those debates, too.
The reason was that Jaffa was in love with the truth. He once quipped that as “philosophy” means “lover of wisdom,” a “professional philosopher” must be a professional lover, or a whore of the intellect. But in his own case, wisdom was not a profession; it was a calling. Thus Jaffa always pictured himself, I think, not as a Socratic gadfly—challenging the Athenians’ deepest beliefs—but as a Lincolnian gadfly, who challenged Americans to rediscover them.
I cannot speak to how tenably he connected all of this to his Straussianism. I have not read enough Strauss to say. But in his best work—his “Equality As A Conservative Principle,” his “False Prophets of American Conservatism,” and, of course, his Crisis of The House Divided—Jaffa came to the defense of the founders, not because they were the founders, but because they were right. “One would start with great confidence that he could convince any sane child that the simpler propositions of Euclid are true,” wrote Lincoln. “But, nevertheless, he would fail, utterly, with one who should deny the definitions and axioms. The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society. And yet they are denied and evaded, with no small show of success.” Those who deny—or ignore—the Declaration’s principles are, Lincoln warned, “the van-guard—the miners, and sappers—of returning despotism.” He was right, and Jaffa knew it. He wouldn’t stop till you knew it, too.
He was often criticized for the harshness of his writing; his opponents usually said this from the mat, while the referee counted down the remaining seconds. I recall one particularly severe, and entertaining, National Review exchange with Bork that ended with bitter accusations. But the reason for his intensity was that Jaffa was right, and about important matters. He was wrong sometimes, and there will be time to debate those things later. The most important thing here is what he was right about. Liberty, he insisted, really is the birthright of every person. The Declaration’s principle of equality really is the sheet anchor of American republicanism. The vindication of the union and the liberation of the slaves really was the destiny of the American nation. Calhoun and his modern admirers really were wrong about the sources of political obligation and the primacy of liberty. The intensity of his writing rose from the crucial importance of the task before him. How could one compromise on the central ideas of the American Constitution?—the central ideas of mankind? Yet many of his fellow conservatives were lightly tossing these ideas overboard in his lifetime. Such ideas, Jaffa thought, were not to be treated as mere academic exercises; they were the staff of life. He fought fiercely for them because he saw how much depended on them. Paine, of whom he was fond, said that we have it in our power to begin the world anew. That is worth more than tenderness to the feelings of misguided friends.
Thus to Jaffa, the ideas of the Gettysburg Address were as alive and as present now as they had been to those who fought over liberty and slavery only fifty years before his birth. The ideas of Paine, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Douglass, were timeless principles, applicable to all men and all times, and seemed to him to sit upon his shoulders as he wrote. He could not bear to see them slighted. He thought they were urgent—and on that, he was, and remains, and always will be, right.
Some years ago, I was on my way to speak at the University of Kansas. It was late, around midnight, and I was roaring down the interstate as the moon rose, huge before me. Somehow I felt around me all the powers of past ages, all the permanent truths that for Jaffa always remained so present. That led me to compose a poem I would like to dedicate to him:
The Valley of Siddim
An Indian Summer night, plunging down I-70,
the countryside near Lawrence
a smear in pale beams,
I felt the time beginning to unwind,
and saw the Moon, all wreathed in red like magma,
uprise as though to pour a fire on the land
of silent prairie grasses
and the layered dermis of sediments
here and there incised,
that flaked the centuries patiently to dust
while I raced by.
Oh, the majesty of that crimson!
It seemed less like light than judgment.
It glared from mists in starlessness,
in static air, where all was still
—except a shock of white
when predatory wings
snapped and with a muffled shriek
vanished again in stealth.
Meanwhile, trees dropped ragged leaves,
revealing skinny claws;
Others, scarlet-stained, only shivered in a wind
that converged from all around
toward the unrelenting light
that once stared down on Quantrill,
on Beecher’s men, and Brown;
that haloed roaring prophets,
and shone in lithic eyes
aiming over rifle stocks.
Suddenly the blackness swallowed up that moon,
and I knew that I was going back,
back through testaments of ancient blood,
past Zoar, past Admah, past Zeboiim,
and as I searched the dismal sky,
I heard from veiny, tangled creeks
that loomed beside the road,
the groaning ghosts of millions,
all their destinies flaring up
to some unheard-of crossroads,
then flying past in blackness;
my wheels now were of caissons
careening over hillsides toward the burning cities
obscured on the horizon.
I thought of wrath unpent,
of unsanctified defiance,
of the verdict deserved, foretold,
and disbelieved. And then I thought
of Abraham, who asked,
“Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?”