Walter Berns, Teacher and Patriot by Leon Kass

Leon R. Kass, The American, September 27, 2011.


It is absolutely fitting and proper to honor Walter Berns in connection with Constitution Day. The U.S. Constitution, and the underlying ideas and ideals of “constitutionalism,” have been the central focus of Walter’s intellectual life. In his teaching and writings, he has expounded their foundational and enduring significance for the American polity, and he has defended their wisdom against the depredations of famous law professors and Supreme Court Justices.

Right from the start, Walter showed his capacity and courage for swimming against the stream in the cause of the right and the good. The guiding spirit of his career was heralded already in his first academic publication, in 1953, in which this untenured assistant professor, in the name of justice and due process of law, offered a rigorous and spirited critique of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s Supreme Court’s opinion in Buck v. Bell, upholding involuntary eugenic sterilization of the mentally retarded and celebrated in Holmes’s smug dictum, “Three generations of imbeciles is enough.”

As his writings over a lifetime make plain, Walter’s devotion to constitutionalism goes deeper than the written document and the institutions it created, and his appreciation of the Constitution itself is richer than that of jurists who must interpret it and lawyers who look to it as the bedrock law of the American polity. Like his friends and remarkable fellow teachers of American constitutionalism, Robert Goldwin, Herbert Storing, and Martin Diamond—all fellow students of Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago during its golden age—Walter’s work has always been informed by lifelong study of political philosophy and, therefore, also by a sensitivity to and a concern for certain extra-Constitutional yet constitutive conditions, cultural and spiritual, for the flourishing of the American constitutional order: civic virtuelove of country, and the education of the young. Time permits but the briefest glance at some of Walter’s writings on each of these crucial subjects.

American Enterprise Institute