The Soul of Politics: Harry V. Jaffa and the Fight for America
By Glenn Ellmers. Encounter Books. 2021. 416 pages
“I am writing to you, spirited moral gentlemen, America’s natural aristoi, because the crisis of our country is also the crisis of Western civilization, of civilization itself,” pleads political scientist Glenn Ellmers in his new book. In The Soul of Politics: Harry V. Jaffa and the Fight for America, Ellmers plumbs the thought of one of America’s greatest political theorists in order to provide intellectual and spiritual resources for overcoming the West’s current upheavals.
The West’s Cold War victory has demonstrated that “triumph in arms is not necessarily triumph in minds,” Ellmers notes. “Though the armies of the Confederacy, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union were each vanquished in due course, the ideologies of racial politics and Marxism lived on, perhaps stronger than ever.” Yet “despair is both a moral failing and an intellectual error,” he adds, and the “cause for hope, and resolution, may be found in nature, particularly human nature, which supplies a permanent ground on which we can orient our thoughts and actions.”
Ellmers has found a suitable hero in the pugnacious Harry Jaffa (1918-2015), who grew up in New York City as the son of Jewish immigrants. He “cheerfully joined the boxing team when he matriculated at Yale in 1935, where one of his coaches was a man named Gerald Ford,” Ellmers observes of the later president. Intellectual sparring also came naturally, for “Jaffa took quite literally the Socratic dictum that to have one’s errors exposed was a great benefit and that anyone who loved truth should be grateful for correction.”
Like the ancient Greek philosophers, Jaffa sought transcendence in America, for he “identifies the United States as a kind of theological and political culmination of Western civilization,” Ellmers writes. Jaffa’s “friend William F. Buckley once wrote that Jaffa would have devoted himself to the political history of Lithuania if he thought that’s where the truth was to be found”. But “Jaffa believed he saw something in America that exposed and clarified the deepest questions of political philosophy.”
In Jaffa’s lifelong studies, Ellmers notes:
Jaffa traces an arc through political theory and practice in ancient Rome; the rationalism of the Bible; European Christendom, with all its complexities and challenges; the English monarchy seen through Shakespeare’s history plays; and the Glorious Revolution of 1688; arriving finally in eighteenth-century Philadelphia.
Central to Jaffa’s oeuvre was Abraham Lincoln. “Lincoln, as Jaffa portrayed him, was a messianic figure sent by Providence to guide the American people through their trial by fire, a sacrifice in blood to expunge the sin of slavery. Ultimately, Jaffa seems to share with Lincoln a belief in a divine or cosmic purpose at work in the United States.”
In the great debates over slavery, Lincoln and other Americans had to confront that the United States Constitution’s “somewhat obscure clauses … protecting slavery obviously conflict with those guaranteeing liberty”. Yet “equal natural rights” expressed in the Declaration of Independence at the United States’ founding, he adds,
alone legitimized the founding’s social compact theory. The attempt to deny any rights to black slaves meant there could be no ultimate security for the rights of free whites. The Constitution could not be understood apart from the Declaration.
Correspondingly, “Jaffa thought the Constitution was not fully coherent without reference to the natural law principles underlying it”. “Given that the Constitution does not define ‘property,’ ‘person,’ ‘life,’ ‘liberty’ or even ‘law,’ judges must ground the meaning of the text in something.” Following the Founding Fathers’ understanding, the US Code also includes the Declaration as the first of the ‘organic laws’ of the United States.
Jaffa believed that the “universal truths of the Declaration are true always and everywhere,” Ellmers notes, but Jaffa was no sentimental idealist:
government based on equal natural rights is not feasible in all times and places. Paleoconservatives and traditionalists—and sceptics of ‘spreading democracy’—are correct that some cultures are not prepared for self-government. (The Declaration of Independence affirms this by referring to ‘merciless savages’ and ‘barbarous ages.’)
Domestically, realism also marked the approach to religion of the Declaration of Independence’s author, Thomas Jefferson. As Ellmers elucidates:
Jefferson’s defence of religious liberty constitutes a great barrier to utopianism. Separation of church and state means that government is divested of both the power to arbitrate theological disputes as well as the purpose of fulfilling our deepest spiritual longings. Heaven may or may not await us in a life to come, but according to the American founders, it will not be found in this one.
Meanwhile in this world the Founding Fathers had a practical interest in Biblical religion in instilling self-discipline. As Ellmers elaborates:
The moral realism of the founding includes the rather stringent ethical requirements necessary for a regime of equal natural rights. Before individuals can participate in governing society, they must be capable of governing themselves.
By contrast, the “modern assault on the integrity of the family that began in the 1960s and 70s, and especially the moral arguments for ‘sexual liberation,’ concerned Jaffa greatly,” Ellmers cautions. Jaffa particularly “warned, in the face of tremendous vituperation, that there was no logical (or decent) limit to the aims of the radical gay rights movement,” Ellmers adds. Some “thought Jaffa was too gleeful in deploying the word ‘sodomite,’ yet his serious argument about the consequences of denying nature as the standard of morality have certainly been born out.”
In such an era of confused relativism, Ellmers provides a detailed, deep dive down to the solid moral and philosophical grounds of free societies through the life of Jaffa. Ellmers gives compelling reasons for why Jaffa’s hero Lincoln once famously referred to the United States as the “last best hope of Earth.” Those who want to preserve this hope should review Ellmers’ biography of Jaffa.