How To Think About The American Revolution: A Bicentennial Celebration, by Harry V. Jaffa
For me, at least, the beauty of Harry Jaffa’s political philosophy consisted both in an appreciate of his technique as a subtle and profound reader of the layers of text and their biblical and political and philosophical implications as well as his firm commitment in the value of equality as a conservative principal. It is by no means difficult to find a great many people whose view of conservatism is based on a mistaken thought that it merely celebrates elites who wish to dominate over others and who deny the equality of humanity on which republican virtue depends. Yet while Jaffa always had to deal with trouble from the right from those who claimed to be conservative but who were hostile towards a belief in the vital importance of equality of opportunity in legitimizing the American political experiment, he similarly had to deal in his career with problems from those on the left whose characteristic error was to seek equality of results apart from a recognition of the natural inequalities of gifts and labor that lead to unequal results. By and large we may see that Jaffa’s thinking is profoundly timocratic, and that is something that shines through here as well as in his more familiar works.
This book is less than 200 pages and consists of several parts. The introduction of the book discusses the importance of the American founding and the threats to its proper understanding thanks to the misguided and mistaken dismissal of history that has taken place in American academia over the last few decades. After that the author defends equality as a conservative principle by pointing out that our much-vaunted freedoms and right depend upon an understanding of human equality that allows us to respect authority because we recognize those in authority as our equals and recognize the authority that is inherent in us as beings created in the imagine and likeness of God and given dominion over the earth. About 100 pages of the book or so are spent in a detailed discussion of the Founding of the American Republic and its continued relevance for us today. After that the author returns to the thesis of defending the value of equality for conservatives by commenting against one of his anti-egalitarian critics from the right. The last part of the book is then an entertaining and critical look at the Strauss award and how it would fall short of recognizing the sort of political thinking that Leo Strauss would have both praised or practiced, after which the book closes with an index.
What this book does for the reader is providing a way that someone can think about the American Revolution in a way that vindicates the Founders as a generation whose thinking and practice must be taken seriously and not simply disregarded as obsolete while also profoundly retaining the tragic understanding of American history that points to the flaws of the Founders in failing to live up to their ideals in ways that have become problematic. Jaffa does not minimize the horrors of slavery or the ways in which the American practice of slavery violated the intensely held and proudly proclaimed universalist doctrines of the American Revolution. Yet in not seeking to resolve the dilemma of the American founding by either dismissing the equality of mankind in the eyes of God as a self-evident lie nor by dismissing the Founding Fathers themselves as being hypocrites who are entirely unworthy of our respect and regard, Jaffa forces the reader to reflect upon the contradictions that exist between a firm commitment to human equality, moral virtue, and the consent of the governed, contradictions which continue in our own day no less than in the founding of our republic.