In Defense of Political Philosophy: Two Letters to Walter Berns

In Harry Jaffa, American Conservatism and the American Founding (Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 1984)


IN HIS ‘REPLY TO Harry Jaffa” (National Review, January 22, 1982), Walter Berns writes:

There is no substance to Harry Jaffa’s criticism of me. In 1972, he wrote that the Declaration of Independence displays an “openness or vagueness” as to forms of government, so much so that “the people are not even obliged [by the Declaration] to set up popular governments” (The Conditions of Freedom, p. 158). I agree with this now and I have always agreed with it. Therefore, one must look elsewhere for the source of Jaffa’s dispute with me.

Walter Berns contributed an essay to a volume entitled How Democratic Is the Constitution? This volume is the first in what is intended to be a series observing the bicentennial of the Constitution, sponsored and published by the American Enterprise Institute. Berm was not an editor, but the editors were fellow Residents of the American Enterprise Institute. Hence I associated with him the editors’ assertion that, in seeking answers to the question posed in their title, they had sought out “spokesmen as authoritative, thoughtful, and instructive as could be found.” I pointed to the presence in the volume of a noted academic Marxist, who gave an unequivocally–indeed brutally–Marxist answer to the question. And I pointed out that there was no representative in the volume of that contemporary of Karl Marx, whom Marx himself so greatly admired–Abraham Lincoln. Yet there was and is no more direct answer to the question “how democratic is the Constitution?” than that given in the Gettysburg Address. There, as in countless other pronouncements, Lincoln identified this nation as dedicated to the proposition “that all men are created equal,” and by virtue of that dedication, devoted to the cause of “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” It was astonishing to me that both the editors of the volume, and Walter Berns, might raise this question for consideration, in connection with the Constitution’s bicentennial, while utterly ignoring the name and argument of Abraham Lincoln. Whether Lincoln was right or wrong ought not to be taken for granted, but that his opinion should be passed over as not being among those deemed “authoritative, thoughtful and instructive,” was almost beyond belief.

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