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Arnn Tribute to Harry Jaffa

Following the death of Distinguished Member Harry Jaffa on Saturday, January 10, 2015, Larry Arnn, Second Vice President of The Philadelphia Society, President of Hillsdale College, and a student of Professor Jaffa, kindly provided the following biographical notes and personal remembrance:

Harry Victor Jaffa was born in New York City on October 18, 1918 to Arthur and Frances Landau Jaffa. He attended Yale University, where he graduated with a degree in English in 1939. After Yale, Jaffa entered the Federal Service, in Washington, D.C., a position which he found “infinitely boring.” Yet, by the hand of Providence, he met “the most beautiful and wonderful girl he had ever seen” on his first day of work as a federal employee in July of 1941. A year later, on April 25, 1942, Harry Jaffa married Marjorie Butler. They had celebrated 68 years of marriage before Marjorie passed in 2010 and raised three children together: Donald, Philip, and Karen.

In 1944, Jaffa enrolled at the New School for Social Research in New York City. Much of the Graduate Faculty in Political and Social Science were exiles from Hitler’s Germany. One in particular, Leo Strauss, became Jaffa’s great teacher and mentor. It was Strauss who helped to launch Jaffa’s career in academics by helping him secure a position at the University of Chicago, after he had accepted his own position teaching at the school. In 1950, the University of Chicago published his dissertation and first book, Thomism and Aristotelianism.

After two years at the University of Chicago, Jaffa accepted a tenure track appointment at Ohio State University. It was here that he completed his master-work, Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, first published in 1959. While at graduate school Jaffa came upon a copy of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates at a used book-store. He soon discovered two things: that these debates had not been seriously studied before, and that the debate between Lincoln and Douglas mirrored the one between Socrates and Thrasymachus in Book I of the Republic. These discoveries and his subsequent work on the subject resulted in the greatest book ever written on Abraham Lincoln and served as the foundation of an important study of the founding of America.

In 1964, Jaffa served as an advisor for Barry Goldwater campaign. It was a cause that lost, but not a lost cause. Jaffa is the one who penned the famous line in Goldwater’s acceptance speech that “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice, moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.” That was how he was.

That same year Jaffa left Ohio State for California, where he taught at Claremont McKenna College and the Claremont Graduate School for twenty-five years. While at Claremont he published numerous books and articles on Aristotle, Shakespeare, the American Founding, and Lincoln. His last major work, A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War (2000), served as a sequel to Crisis of the House Divided.

Most importantly, Professor Jaffa was a master teacher of the highest things. I learned from him and loved him for decades. I could tell for longer than I can live of his stubbornness, pugnacity, clarity and beauty of thought. He used to order me about back in Claremont, less here at the college. I would not do what he said. He took to referring to himself as “the Queen”: ministers must talk with the Queen, even if they may do as they please. It always was valuable to talk with him, even when I thought his advice wrong. He knew Aristotle, and Lincoln, and St. Thomas like the back of his hand, and he could explain them as simply as someone giving directions to the corner shop. He would always talk about those.

His students owe him a great debt. This is a loss not to be made up.

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