Walter Berns (1919-2015) and Harry Jaffa (1918-2015): A Canadian’s Appreciation

Rainer Knopff, University of Calgary School of Public Policy, January 15, 2015.


Two intellectual giants died within hours of each other on January 10. Walter Berns and Harry Jaffa, both students of Leo Strauss, wrote prolifically and influentially over very long careers and on a wide range of subjects. This appreciation of their work focuses on their common, lifelong study of American political thought and constitutionalism. I will have somewhat more to say about Walter Berns, one of my teachers and mentors, than about Harry Jaffa, who I met a couple of times but know chiefly through his work on Abraham Lincoln.

Making Patriots, one of Walter Berns’s many books, explores the American dilemma of patriotic devotion to the universal principles of the Declaration of Independence. “There is nothing peculiarly American about [those] principles,” wrote Berns, and other countries can (and have) come to live by them. “Why,” then, “except for reasons having to do with the climate,” should U.S. citizens “prefer America to liberally democratic Canada?” Indeed, if every country became a liberal democracy, why not dispense with particularist patriotism altogether and establish world government?

University of Calgary School of Public Policy