Harry Jaffa and the Nobility of the American Founding

Thomas G. West, The Federalist, February 19, 2015.


Jaffa’s intellectual point of departure was his encounter with Leo Strauss. I believe that in Jaffa’s mind, that was the most important thing that ever happened to him, with the exception of his marriage and family.

Strauss taught Jaffa two big things. First, political philosophy is possible. Contrary to the almost universal opinion of that day, there is a rational case for natural right—the idea that there is such a thing as justice that is true for all men and all times. Strauss convinced Jaffa that the best case for natural right is found in the classical philosophers. Thus his lifelong interest in Plato and Aristotle.

Second, Strauss convinced Jaffa that the American founding was defective. I’ll exaggerate for the sake of clarity by summarizing Strauss in this way: the founding was based on Locke, Locke was a follower of Hobbes, Hobbes followed Machiavelli, and Machiavelli grounded politics on low self-interest.

But Strauss left Jaffa with a problem: if the classics are the standard for us today, and if America was based on a rejection of the classics, then is there any way to defend America?

The Federalist