James R. Rogers contended in his piece, “Americans No Longer Believe in the ‘Consent of the Governed,’” that as a people we no longer believe in the consent of the governed, nor in the foundations of government noted in the Declaration of Independence.
The last general election seem to contradict those claims.
Last week, I had the pleasure of participating in the Tradition Project run by Mark Movsesian and Marc DeGirolami of St. John’s Law School. The subject of this year’s conference was tradition in law and politics. One of the high points for me was the opportunity to read Harry Jaffa. He turned out to be a very interesting thinker. But I found that his famous claim that the Declaration of Independence has a constitutional status weakly defended. In particular, he fails to distinguish between positive constitutional law and constitutive traditions—a distinction that I think central to political life in a constitutional republic.
The Declaration of Independence is not positive law. It is instead a declaration of the reasons that the colonies were breaking with Great Britain. Courts do not enforce it as law. While other officials reference the Declaration on occasion, they do not generally do so in a way that suggests that it represents a binding legal obligation. It would be hard to make it so, because while the Declaration announces general truths of politics, it does not impose specific legal norms. And, unlike the Constitution, it was not ratified by the people and is not the product of a process that Mike Rappaport and I have described elsewhere as conducive to good constitutions.
While it does not create positive law, the Declaration of Independence is an important source—the most importance source— of our constitutive traditions.
American political science has lost a significant contributor with the demise of Harry V. Jaffa (1918-2015). We mourn the death of Professor Jaffa, and acknowledge that there will be many celebrations of his life and scholarly achievements to appear, especially from his epigones. Important contributions from Ken Masugi and Peter Lawler have already appeared in this space. As a mentor, Jaffa inspired a large number of graduate students who have assumed posts in the academy and government. We call many of these scholars our friends, and continue to appreciate their interpretative approaches and defense of the American political tradition.
He should also be remembered by those of us who disagreed with him.
In the days since Harry Jaffa and Walter Berns passed away, the former’s angry disputes with his fellow Straussians have received a lot of commentary. There are those who say it was all quite childish. And you know, a lot of it was, precisely because the differences so often seemed small or, when examined closely, not really differences at all. Still, some of the differences are real enough to merit our close attention.
On the more general issue of which student of Strauss is more faithful to the true and complete teaching of Leo Strauss, the most obvious response is that the capable students of any great teacher always grab on to part of what he (or she) taught and confuse it with the whole. Marx and Hegel. Alexandre Kojève and Hegel. Maybe even Aristotle and Plato.
Harry V. Jaffa, who died January 10, at 96, may well be American conservatism’s most consequential thinker, for having attempted to re-found conservatism on the basis of its most philosophic principles and most revered figures. He was also one of the most dismissed, berated, and scorned of scholars, earning derision from former friends and those who knew him only from his writing, much of which had become acerbic.
A seemingly esoteric academic debate bursts forth in the Book Review of the Sunday New York Times that ought to turn us to the most significant political books of our times. The war between the West and East Coast Straussians, academics (and political players such as Bill Kristol) who have been influenced by the political philosopher Leo Strauss, involves no mere battle of the books but bears political consequences as well. His books and their interpretation and application are required reading for their wisdom about free and civilized societies. Strauss’s work encompasses grand themes of the West, including ancients and moderns, reason and revelation, natural right and history, and philosophy and poetry (in its root sense of creation). But in all this was saving the West Strauss’s intention? Was he instead a Machiavellian? A Nietzschean?[i]