Book Review: Original Intent And The Framers Of The Constitution

Original Intent And the Framers of The Constitution:  A Disputed Question, by Harry Jaffa with Bruce Ledewitz, Robert L. Stone, and George Anastoplo

The most impressive aspect of this book is that it is a conversation between several people who are of two different mindsets.  On the one hand, Harry Jaffa has some serious criticisms to make of several figures who are viewed very highly in general within the world of conservative jurisprudence.  On the other hand, the other three contributors to this book wish to speak in defense of these conservative figures (including Judge Bork) and believe that Jaffa is reading too much into statements and dividing the conservatives with an insistence that original intent must include principles and not mainly compromises.  The egalitarian stance of Jaffa is in marked contrast to the vast majority of originalist thinking, which tends to view egalitarianism in a somewhat hostile fashion.  Yet Jaffa’s insistence on philosophical rigor, Straussian close reading and interpretation, and Madisonian egalitarian political thinking is a remarkable approach that manages to win over a great deal of readers and framing this as a conversation over multiple stages is a brilliant move in showing Jaffa’s confidence to let others have a word to question his thinking so that he can then provide a rejoinder to the cross-examination.

This book is five parts and 400 pages long.  It begins with part one, an essay on Jaffa, Lincoln, and original intent from Lewis Lehrman.  The second part of the book is an essay from Jaffa about the original intent of the founders with several appendices relating to Meese, to the self-evident principles of the Declaration of Independence, and Chief Justice Rehnquist’s views in particular.  The third part of the book then consists of critiques of Jaffa’s essay by Ledewitz, Stone, and Anastoplo, who all take issue with different aspects of Jaffa’s thinking and approach, questioning Jaffa’s understanding of the natural rights approach and how it relate to Taney, Rehnquist, Bork, etc, the prudential morality of exposing divides among Conservatives, and a list of questions from someone whose life story is deeply interesting as it relates to a refusal to play along with the popular mood.  The fourth part of the book then consists mostly of Jaffa’s replies to the critiques as well as a further back and forth with Anastoplo about Jaffa’s “old time religion,” which appears to be a bit of an inside reference in the world of political philosophy as it is something I have heard referred to other thinkers as well in the same circles.  The book then ends with four unanswered letters from Jaffa to Meese, who appears to have been totally unwilling to answer Jaffa’s concerns about his hostility to egalitarian thinking.

Throughout Jaffa’s work as a whole there is an impressive rhetorical array.  In Crisis Of A House Divided the reader is treated to a Thomist masterpiece concerning prudential morality in the antebellum period.  A New Birth Of Freedom, on the other hand, is a great commentary that focuses on the first half of Lincoln’s presidency (sadly, the second volume of this work was not able to be finished before Jaffa died).  This work is different from both of those, presenting a work that resembles the structure of the Lincoln-Douglas debates themselves, with Jaffa opening with a pointed and provocative essay on original intent and how that is not always a good thing, critical responses from three people who wish to present opposition to one or another aspect of Jaffa’s argument, sometimes posing questions to him or critiquing his own perspective, and then closed by Jaffa’s response to these criticisms and rejoinders with his own discussions.  The result is fascinating and accomplished, and something to respect.  It takes a thinker of considerable confidence and skill to do what Jaffa did in this book, and it is all the more impressive when one considers the limited nature of political conversation in the contemporary world.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Book Review: Original Intent And The Framers Of The Constitution

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

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