June 14, 2016
arry V. Jaffa caused a stir at a 1974 political science conference with his talk (later published as an essay), “Equality as a Conservative Principle.” For many years previously, Jaffa had argued for the integral relationship between equality and liberty, usually in the context of his scholarship on Lincoln and the Declaration of Independence. But defining conservatism in terms of equality launched a great debate. In many subsequent writings, Jaffa elaborated and emphasized this thesis, taking delight in the controversy he stirred.
Jaffa’s death in 2015 took a great thinker and teacher from us. Though popular interest in the founding runs high—witness the success of the musical, Hamilton—our schools and universities seem unable, or unwilling, to explain our foundational ideas. In Rediscovering America: Liberty, Equality and the Crisis of Democracy John Agresto—former president of St. John’s College in Santa Fe and the American University in Iraq—argues for the need to understand 2016’s disputes in the light of the principles of 1776 and 1787. In so doing, he teaches a new generation of students a lesson worthy of Jaffa.
Agresto dedicates his book to Jaffa and the late Walter Berns. This might seem odd, given the long, contentious history between the two men. But in Professor Berns’s writings, one sees an all-consuming passion to explain the Constitution; in Professor Jaffa’s, an all-consuming passion to explain the Declaration of Independence. Together, these documents form the ceiling and the floor of our founding. “[A]t the deepest level,” Agresto argues, Berns and Jaffa are in agreement. Agresto attempts to “build on both,” and provide today’s students a “Founding fusionism.”
Rediscovering America begins with Lincoln’s Lyceum Address: “We find ourselves under the government of a system of political institutions conducing more essentially to the ends of civil and religious liberty than any of which the history of former times tells us.” What conservative could say that today? Having seen a whittling away of many freedoms (and the notion of freedom generally), attended by the growth of the progressive state, conservatives wish for nothing so much as more freedom when looking to their political institutions.
At the same time, no modern liberal considers the origins of our system of government better than any other, just as they never speak of civil and religious liberty, unless it includes the right to shout down, fire, and occupy the offices of those with whom they disagree. Liberal disdain for America partially explains the interest in, and support for, Donald Trump and his pledge to make America great again. He has tapped into a version, however rough, of what we have missed for so long—talk of American exceptionalism.
But this rough version does not suffice to explain why America is truly great. Rediscovering America offers a more refined understanding. In one of his last interviews, with the estimable Peter Robinson, Harry Jaffa outlined how exceptionalism ought to be understood:
There was nothing exclusive about the rights that the Americans claim[ed] for themselves. They were rights [that] they shared with all men everywhere. And this is not merely in the Declaration of Independence but in the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms. Almost exactly one year before the Declaration of Independence, the American Congress declared to the world that it was impossible to believe…that God made some part of the human race an exclusive property of another part of the human race.
Though there was nothing exclusive about the rights Americans claimed for themselves, no other country was founded on the basis of the equal rights shared by all men everywhere. Only by first recognizing each human being’s equality can the origin of rights and liberties be properly understood. It is this understanding that made America exceptional. As Agresto says, “[F]or Americans, everything hinges on this one idea…. The most dangerous threat to our liberties as Americans today stems from a flawed and erroneous understanding of equality.”
Though dedicated to Jaffa and Berns, Rediscovering America doesn’t simply rehash their arguments concerning equality and liberty, or include a medley of Lincoln and the Founders’ greatest hits. Those choices suit this book, which was written for those who need such teachings but haven’t been exposed to the fundamentals of American political history and thought—the touchstones great scholars once assumed all their students possessed.
According to a recent survey, a higher percentage of today’s college freshman identify with the Left than at any time since 1973—the height of college protests. Those protestors are now our elementary, secondary, and college teachers. Thus, the need for a new explanation of our foundational ideas of equality, justice, democracy, and liberty. Rediscovering America will have accomplished Agresto’s mission if the students who read it go on to discover the writings of the two great scholars to whom it is dedicated.