The Jaffa-Berns Feud Revisited

When Harry Jaffa and Walter Berns died on the same day back in January, I wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal about how despite their bitter feud, they both deserve credit and praise for reviving some essential aspects of the American Founding. Their shared contributions were overshadowed by the rancor of their feud that spilled out from private letters into public forums. “In your present state of mind,” Jaffa wrote in one public letter to Berns, “nothing less than a metaphysical two-by-four across the frontal bone would capture your attention.” One of Berns’s retorts began: “Who will rid us of this pest of a priest?”

Hadley Arkes and moi, preparing for battle

Hadley Arkes and moi, preparing for battle

Last week at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association our friends at the Claremont Institute put on a panel on the two giants, featuring me, Hadley Arkes, James Ceaser, and Jeremy Rabkin. A few people who couldn’t attend asked me to post a version of my remarks, which will not be of interest to many Power Line readers, so feel free to skip over this long post. But for those interested in academic political science and intellectual history, here it is:

My favorite recollection of the Jaffa-Berns feud was the time, around 1985 or 1986, when the chairman of the Government department at Claremont Graduate School, George Blair, announced his retirement, and the left swooped in to try to take over the department. One of our allies was Leonard Levy, the chairman of the History department, and although Levy was an old New Deal liberal, he was on our side in wanting to preserve the conservative character of the department. He sent a note to Walter Berns asking if Walter might be interested in becoming chairman of the department.

Walter’s reply was succinct:

Dear Leonard:

Thank you for thinking of me, but I must decline the invitation. At the present time, 3,000 miles separate me from Harry Jaffa, and I’m not interested in diminishing that distance by a single inch.

If the pointed barbs Jaffa included in his writing about Berns and other targets of his criticism were all you had to go on, you’d likely think Jaffa a nasty, unpleasant, and unforgiving person. The personal Jaffa was completely the opposite: with students he was endlessly patient, generous, and cheerful, always gently correcting your errors and misunderstandings no matter how persistent or thick-headed, and he was always quick with praise for work he thought was good.

Walter Berns

Walter Berns

Likewise, if all you had to go on were Walter Berns’s baritone growl and imposing scowl, you’d understand why John Agresto said of Berns that “underneath that rough and gruff exterior beats a heart of stone.” Again, nothing could be further from the truth. A kinder man seldom graced the hallways of Washington DC. When something delighted or amused Walter, his entire face changed countenance: his eyes would sparkle first, and then a grin would start on one corner of his mouth, and quickly spread into a full grin followed by a knowing chuckle.

Legend about the famous Hatfield-McCoy feud has it that after a few generations the two families forgot what the feud was all about, but they carried on anyway, because that’s just what you did. Of all of the fights Harry Jaffa picked, the one with Walter Berns is the most regrettable. The fights Jaffa picked with other conservatives after his feud with Berns played out, such as with Robert Bork and Justices Rehnquist and Scalia, were more substantial and important for us today.

Harry V. Jaffa

Harry V. Jaffa

My interest in trying to sort out how to think about the Jaffa-Berns feud and the larger issues it involved relates to a current book project of mine, which involves in part mapping the geography of postwar political science, and especially the role played by the various students of Leo Strauss—Jaffa in particular. It is not as easy a story to tell as the role and impact of the libertarian economists such as Hayek and Friedman and the Mont Pelerin Society. For one thing, there is no “Lincoln Curve” you can draw on a napkin akin to the Laffer Curve.

There were some important points of disagreement still worth arguing today, but in reviewing the decade during which Jaffa repeatedly provoked Berns, it seems to me at least that the main argument Jaffa pressed—on Berns’s supposed deficiency with regard to the connection between the Declaration and the Constitution (which was in turn a proxy fight with the late Martin Diamond)—was a somewhat tertiary point.

Alice Roosevelt Longworth said that Theodore Roosevelt disliked the young Winston Churchill the one and only time they ever met because they were so much alike. Having spent a lot of time with both Jaffa and Berns, their similarities and agreements—substantive and stylistic—seem much larger than their differences and disagreements.

Consider for example this passage:

[C]ontrary to what is implied by the internal organization of our universities, constitutional law and philosophy or political theory are not isolated from one another, and emphatically not in the United States. The law in question derives from a constitution that is related to the Declaration of Independence as effect is related to cause, and the Declaration, the cause, is a political statement of a philosophical teaching concerning the nature of man, Providence, and nature itself. In it we learn that nature’s God endows all men with the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that government is instituted to secure these rights. That the Constitution was understood by its framers to have as its purpose the establishment of such a government there can be little doubt. Thus, if he is to do his job properly, the professor of constitutional law must be thoroughly familiar with the political philosophy that informs the Constitution.

That sounds like something from the pen of Jaffa, but in fact these are the words of Walter Berns, written in 1986. Jaffa could hardly find fault with it, and indeed Jaffa used to offer high praise for many parts of Berns’s body of work—especially his famous article on the inherent defects of world government and his work on the First Amendment and capital punishment. A few years ago I was lucky enough to see Walter’s final lecture, on Lincoln, delivered before a standing-room-only audience at AEI. It was absolutely riveting, but moreover it struck me as entirely sound from Jaffa’s point of view. I doubt Jaffa could have detected a single point to dispute.

I suppose it is useful or necessary to go back briefly to the fountainhead of the wider controversy: Leo Strauss. The Straussian outlook usually reduced to three axes: ancients versus moderns; the tension between reason and revelation; and the interpretation of esoteric writing. And the Hatfield-McCoy-style feud between East and West Coast factions is said to reduce chiefly to a dispute about how to understand John Locke, America, and the relation of philosophy or the philosophic life to politics or political life. From these theoretical differences arise differences in opinion about the nature or character of the American regime, and the basis for patriotism. Berns inclined toward a Hobbesian reading of Locke while Jaffa worked out an Aristotelian reading of Locke. Jaffa thought America the best regime, in the classical sense. Though he never declared himself directly on the question as Jaffa did, Berns probably thought so too, but for reason best captured in the old joke that an optimist thinks this is the best of all worlds, while the pessimist knows it is. Berns was more pessimistic about the nation’s course, and who can blame him. Jaffa, in one of his last interviews, said he was neither pessimistic nor optimistic—he saw grounds for both.

While this schematic is generally accurate, I think there’s a different and better way to understand the east-west split that casts the Jaffa-Berns feud in a different light, and it concerns the attitude or disposition toward politics and political life.

Harvey Mansfield remarked in his recent video interview with Bill Kristol that West Coast Straussians think politics can be understood philosophically. (As often is the case, it’s not clear whether or to what extent Mansfield disapproves of this disposition.) Or perhaps a better formula is Michael Zuckert’s division between Platonic Straussians and Aristotelian Straussians. In any case, Strauss’s famous criticism of social science—that it fiddles while Rome burns—could apply just as well to Platonic Straussians.

Either way, Jaffa and Berns stand out for their political engagement, and I’m willing to risk the wrath of certain esteemed bastions (as well as some of my own friends) in bestowing honorary West Coast Straussian membership on Berns. I recall Jaffa once remarking that when Berns and Allan Bloom left Cornell in protest of the administration’s capitulation to the black radicals in 1969 and went to Toronto, this expatriation didn’t matter so much for Bloom because Toronto was roughly the same distance from Paris as Ithaca, but that it wouldn’t do at all for Berns, who needed to return to America.

Jaffa’s political engagement, most notably his drafting of Barry Goldwater’s famous “Extremism in defense of liberty” line, is legendary, and a large number of his students eschewed conventional academic careers in favor of careers closer to everyday political life.

But Berns was politically oriented in much the same way as Jaffa, and unlike Allan Bloom, Seth Bernedete and others, who kept their distance from most contemporary political controversies. Many of Berns’s students also went on to prominent non-academic careers. (Fairness requires noting that a large number of Bloom’s and Mansfield’s students have as well, which may say something about the effect of the Straussian approach to studying political philosophy that militates against pure philosophical detachment from the imperatives of citizenship.)

One can speculate on the sources of Jaffa’s pugilistic proclivities (he had been a boxer as a youth growing up in Brooklyn), and Berns’s equally strong sense of propriety and spiritedness.

Of course, Jaffa’s real adversary was not so much Berns or Martin Diamond or Allan Bloom or Bob Goldwyn or Irving Kristol, but Willmoore Kendall. But Kendall had died by the time Jaffa turned his attention to the way Kendall’s ideas were creeping into conservative thought, where they are still very much alive today.

I have Walter’s last private letter to Jaffa, from late 1981, where between expressions of indignation and outrage you can make out Walter’s deep respect for Jaffa’s capacities and brilliance. Berns says the breach between them is a cause for “sadness,” and his language approaches the tragic:

In the current atmosphere of this country, you could have become the great historian and poet of the American regime. Are you pleased with what you have done instead? Even after 22 years, the promised second Lincoln volume, The New Birth of Freedom, has not appeared, and, because you fritter away your great gifts on petty, vain, and vindictive projects, will never appear. And that is a terrible loss to your friends and to the country.

Berns was in the end wrong about this last point. Jaffa did finally publish A New Birth of Freedom in 2000, and a close consideration will show how ultimately productive these feuds were for the evolution of Jaffa’s thought in the 40 years between Crisis of the House Divided and New Birth of Freedom. For all that might be regretted about the ill-will that accompanied the Jaffa-Berns feud, it helped bequeath a body of work that will instruct us all for a long time to come.

[For more on Jaffa and Berns, be sure to check out and bookmark the new ContemporaryThinkers website, which is a one-stop shopping treasure trove on most of the leading thinkers of the last two generations. 

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