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Historical context, for members of the Straussian school, is “historicism,” a form of moral relativism that believes that there are no fixed truths, only ideas appropriate for their historical moment…

Patriotism Is Not Enough: Harry Jaffa, Walter Berns, and the Arguments That Redefined American Conservatism by Steven Hayward (263 pages, Encounter Books, 2016)

Dr. Steven Hayward is a respected teacher and political theorist. That may be seen in the series of teaching appointments he has held: Thomas Smith Distinguished Fellow at the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University in Ohio, “Conservatism” professor at Colorado University-Boulder (before that program was co-opted by CU’s Liberal Professoriate), Ronald Reagan Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University, and now visiting scholar at the Institute for Governmental Studies at the University of California-Berkeley.

How Professor Hayward strings together these appointments is a testament to his reputation as a lecturer, author, and advocate of conservative ideas, but after a while, it must get really tiring. Not only must he obtain an appointment, but then he must enter the obnoxious world of Liberal Academia and be nice to members of the Faculty who despise what he believes and him personally.

But let me get to my interest in Dr. Hayward’s title, which asserts that Straussian political philosophers—Harry Jaffa and Walter Berns in particular—”redefined American conservatism.”

That is one heck of a claim.

Harry Jaffa and Walter Berns, for readers who are not familiar with the work of Leo Strauss, were prominent members of a major “school” of political theory called “Straussianism.” The Straussian School is rooted in the careful study of Plato and Aristotle, criticism of the value-neutrality of modern political science, and examination of the central ideas of modern political thinkers from Machiavelli to Rousseau.

The interest of Straussians is not merely academic, however. Straussians are interested in power and important members of the Neoconservative movement are influenced by Leo Strauss and Straussian thinkers. Dr. Hayward exhibits no such lust for power and control, but he has written an encomium to the character, influence, and importance of the Straussians. They are, he writes, “the most interesting people working in political science today”[1] (xiii) and as a class “punch above their weight class” (33). That phrase is representative of Dr. Hayward’s command of the vernacular and the thing that makes him a very attractive writer.

All that is to the good, but Dr. Hayward’s obsession with “equality,” which he shares with his teacher, Harry Jaffa, is painful for traditional conservatives to absorb as is his, and Jaffa’s, adulation of Abraham Lincoln.

About Lincoln, American conservatives are divided. Those who, like Dr. Hayward, follow Harry Jaffa believe that Abraham Lincoln was a defender of “natural rights” enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. And that is important because Dr. Hayward believes the Constitution is not enough; it must be informed by the Declaration.

Lest I get too deep into the weeds on this assertion, the reader should understand that traditional conservative thinkers (Russell Kirk, Willmoore Kendall, Melvin Bradford, Ellis Sandoz, and students of Eric Voegelin) look at the claims of equality and natural rights in the Declaration of Independence quite differently. And that explains the animosity Dr. Hayward and other Straussians express toward Russell Kirk. Russell Kirk made “Conservatism” popular by publishing in 1953 his landmark The Conservative Mind, which traces a conservative disposition of mind in Anglo-American leaders including Edmund Burke, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Fisher Ames, John Randolph of Roanoke, Joseph de Maistre, Benjamin Disraeli, and Arthur Balfour.

Dr. Hayward complains that Kirk’s rendering of their ideas is “apolitical or antipolitical” (29). But what really bugs Dr. Hayward, I suspect, is Kirk’s dismissal of Abraham Lincoln, something that Harry Jaffa and Walter Berns would never do.

Dr. Hayward’s book gives a lengthy discussion of the focus of Harry Jaffa and Walter Berns on the relationship of the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution. Though Jaffa and Berns disagreed strongly between themselves largely due to Jaffa’s aggressive attacks on Berns (was Jaffa bi-polar?), their writings were similar and centered on their understanding that Abraham Lincoln’s interpretation of the American regime at Gettysburg was formative. Dr. Hayward’s focus on Jaffa and Berns—though understandable in terms of their personal influence on his professional development—has unfortunate consequences.

Nowhere does Dr. Hayward mention scholarship of critics of American millennialism such as Ernest Lee Tuveson’s Redeemer Nation[2] and especially historian Richard Gamble’s analysis of the Gettysburg Address[3] and the Battle Hymn of the Republic.[4] There is also no mention of the role of Transcendentalism that imported a form of German idealism to America and that influenced Lincoln’s views on slavery.

Instead, we are given a very long examination of Harry Jaffa’s belief that “equality” is a conservative principle. Why is that so attractive?

American conservatives who identify with the Republican Party have had to deal with the use of “equality” as a weapon by Democratic Party leaders, who brazenly imply that those who don’t agree with them are “racist.” Poor George Herbert Walker Bush voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and made the remainder of his political life a mea culpa.

Harry Jaffa didn’t have that problem. Jaffa truly did redefine conservatism as part of the Enlightenment project by asserting that “equality” and “natural rights” are conservative principles. Dr. Hayward cites other conservatives who followed him, including Richard Brookhiser, Andrew Ferguson, and Rich Lowry, who published books on Abraham Lincoln, and testifies that Jaffa changed National Review, which he called “a reactionary journal,” (190) into one more accepting of Jaffa’s own interpretation of Lincoln.

If you make the Declaration of Independence the source of the principles of our constitutionalism, however, you skew the meaning of the American regime into the Enlightenment box of the Social Contract thinkers, especially John Locke. The Straussians may be divided on which is the real John Locke (is he the advocate of majority rule or of executive prerogatives?), but what we do not find is any examination of the historical context of their ideas.

Historical context, for members of the Straussian school, is “historicism,” a form of moral relativism that believes that there are no fixed truths, only ideas appropriate for their historical moment. For that reason, there is no reference to the three versions of the Declaration of Independence: a) Jefferson’s draft; b) the edits by the Committee on Style and c) the Engrossed copy. There is no reference to David Hackett Fisher’s exposition in Albion’s Seed[5] of four “folkways” that led to the Founding and subsequent American history. And what of Madison’s Notes of the Federal Convention? If Dr. Hayward mentions Madison’s Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 or any of the detailed discussions of the Constitution of the United States that took place in Philadelphia that year, I missed it.

What must I conclude from this?

First, Dr. Hayward is a loyal son of Harry Jaffa and one of many descendants of Leo Strauss who was an important influence on those who took his courses at the University of Chicago.[6]

Second, Dr. Hayward represents a point of view about conservatism that is shared only by Straussians and not by most of the Faculty of two of the last three institutions where he has most recently made an appearance. Ashbrook Center at Ashland University is a Straussian outpost where the insights of Straussians are honored.

At Pepperdine University, however, his path would have crossed with Gordon Lloyd, a student of Strauss and most recently an expositor of the Anti-Federalists.[7] I found it strange that Dr. Hayward makes no mention of Gordon Lloyd.

At CU-Boulder, Dr. Hayward was brought in for a one-year appointment as a “Conservatism Professor”—a sop to alumni and donors concerned that CU’s faculty lacks intellectual diversity. And what Dr. Hayward is doing at University of California-Berkeley is beyond comprehension.

Third, Dr. Hayward gives too little attention to five real problems of political science and addresses them only after his very lengthy discussion of Harry Jaffa and Walter Berns. When he does address them, 1) the centralized powers of the Administrative State, 2) Statesmanship, 3) the nature of Progressivism, 4) the decline of the West and even his topic 5) Patriotism, his book becomes exciting.

I look forward to Steven Hayward’s next book, where we may hope he addresses problems in political science and not the topics that dominate the Straussian school of political theory. Lest I seem too harsh, I should add that students of Eric Voegelin are much too dedicated to examining what Voegelin said and not enough interested in actual problems in science.[8]

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[1] All pages cited in the body of this review are from Steven F. Hayward, Patriotism Is Not Enough: Harry Jaffa, Walter Berns, and the Arguments That Redefined American Conservatism (New York: Encounter Books, 2016).

[2] Ernest Lee Tuveson, Redeemer Nation. The Idea of America’s Millennial Role (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968).

[3] Richard Gamble, “Gettysburg Gospel. How Lincoln Forged a Civil Religion of American Nationalism,” The American Conservative, November 14, 2013.

[4] Richard Gamble, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic and American Civil Religion,” Modern Age, Fall 2014, Vol. 56, No. 4.

[5] David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (Oxford University Press, 1989).

[6] See my essay, “Leo Strauss and the American Political Religion.” Modern Age, Fall 2014, Vol. 56, No. 4, pp. 7-18, where I compare Strauss unfavorably to Hannah Arendt and Albert Camus for his development of “topics” as opposed to examination of “problems in science.”

[7] Gordon Lloyd, “Why Keep the Antifederalists Alive?” Philadelphia Society address, October 19, 2007, Louisville, Kentucky.

[8] See my online essay, “Conservatism and Spiritual Recovery,” Anamesis, October 28, 2016.

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3 replies to this post
  1. Great essay. Jaffa is a gnostic in Voegelin’s sense of the word, and the “conservative” movement (such as it was) ceased to be so once they adopted that ill-informed man as their magus.

  2. Two thoughts. First, Steve Hayward is an exceedingly intelligent and fine man, full of integrity and energy. Second, what on God’s green earth do you mean by stating that the CU-Boulder program was co-opted by campus liberals? I see no such evidence of this.

  3. Having read this piece several times, I must also make two additional comments. First, you criticize Hayward for being a student of Jaffa, glossing over that which should not be glossed over. But, where is your argument? From what I see, there are several assertions, but no real argument. You seem to be glossing over as well.

    Second, when did Kirk dismiss Lincoln? Kirk idealized Lincoln, considering him one of the greatest men of western civilization, an exemplar of statesmanship. What am I missing here?

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