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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 April 2008

School of American and Canadian Studies, University of Nottingham


My interest here is in the way Leo Strauss (1899–1973) and his followers, the Straussians, have dealt with race and rights, race and slavery in the history of the United States. I want, first, to assess Leo Strauss's rather ambivalent attitude toward America and explore the various ways that his followers have in turn analyzed the Lockean underpinnings of the American “regime,” sometimes in contradistinction to Strauss's views on the topic. With that established, I turn to the account, particularly that offered by Harry Jaffa, of how slavery and race comported—or did not—with the Straussian account of the political foundations of the new nation and how latter-day followers of Strauss have dealt with the persisting topic of race and racism in America. Overall, I want to make two large points. First, the Straussian commitment to superhistorical standards provides the Straussians with a moral perspective on slavery, race, and racism. Second, though race and slavery have been less than central among the concerns of most followers of Strauss, the contributions of Jaffa and others have significantly shaped the present American conservative position on race, including the idea of color-blindness.

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1 See Alan, Brinkley, “The Problem of American Conservatism”, American Historical Review 99 (April 1994), 409–29Google Scholar; while Straussian Charles Kesler, “All Against All,” The Claremont Institute, posted 10 April 2003 (, 1–5, tracks the shifts in types of conservatism over half a century. George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945 (Intercollegiate College Studies Institute, 1998, 1–5, tracks the shifts in types of conservatism over half a century. George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945 (Intercollegiate College Studies Institute, 1998) remains the classic intellectual history of American conservatism.

2 See Zuckert, Catherine and Zuckert, Michael, The Truth about Leo Strauss: Political Philosophy and American Democracy (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Smith, Steven B., Reading Leo Strauss: Politics, Philosophy and Judaism (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For an earlier version of this argument see McWilliams, Wilson Carey, “Leo Strauss and the Dignity of American Political Thought,” Review of Politics 60/2 (1998), 231–46CrossRefGoogle Scholar. But Eugene Sheppard, R., Leo Strauss and the Politics of Exile: The Making of a Political Philosopher (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England/Brandeis University Press, 2006)Google Scholar emphasizes the fundamentally conservative nature of Strauss's thought right from the beginning and his lifelong aversion to liberalism.

3 Lilla, Mark, “Leo Strauss: The European”, New York Review of Books, 21 Oct. 2004, 5860Google Scholar. See also Zuckert and Zuckert, The Truth about Leo Strauss, 197–226, for a longer discussion of the first generation of Straussian Americanists.

4 Strauss, Leo, Thoughts on Machiavelli (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 14Google Scholar.

5 Strauss, Leo, “The Three Waves of Modernity,” in idem, Political Philosophy: Six Essays, ed. Hilail, Gildin (Indianapolis, IN and New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1975), 8198Google Scholar. The further assumption behind this view is that Western thought and culture are superior to other world cultures and philosophies.

6 To the labels “West Coast” and “East Coast” Straussians, the Zuckerts’ recent work on Strauss adds “Midwestern” Straussians. See Zuckert and Zuckert, The Truth about Leo Strauss, chap. 7, 228–59.

7 King, Richard H., “The Burden of Inequality: Conservative Intellectuals in the Civil Rights Era, 1954–1975,” in Ownby, Ted, ed., The Role of Ideas in the Civil Rights South (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2002), 113–36Google Scholar; and Hart, Jeffrey, The Making of the American Conservative Mind: National Review and Its Time (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), 97108Google Scholar.

8 Strauss, Leo, Natural Right and History (Chicago, Il., University of Chicago Press, 1953), 3Google Scholar. In his Thoughts on Machiavelli Strauss notes that the United States was “the only country in the world which was founded in explicit opposition to Machiavellian principles” (13), though he also adds that Machiavelli would have noted the dubious morality of the Louisiana Purchase and the “fate of the Red Indians” (14).

9 Gunnell, John, “Political Theory and Politics: The Case of Leo Strauss,” Political Theory 13/3 (1985), 339–61CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 See Anastaplo, George, “Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago,” in Deutsch, Kenneth L. and Murley, John A., eds., Leo Strauss, the Straussians, and the American Regime (Lanham, MD.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999), 27Google Scholar. Hilail Gildin has noted “If he (Strauss) could have, he would have remained in England,” although “he was grateful to America for taking him in.” See also Leo Strauss, “German Nihilism” (1941), Interpretation 26/3 (1999), 372–3 for the identification of civilization with an English ethos.

11 See Primus, particularly Richard A., The American Language of Rights (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The four sorts of rights listed above are Primus's version of Wesley Hohfield's canonical categorization of rights.

12 Andrew, Edward, Shylock's Rights: A Grammar of Lockian Claims (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988), 6Google Scholar. Shadia Drury has suggested that Strauss avoided the term “natural law” because he did not want to suggest the existence of explicit moral commands or rules; natural right referred more to broad standards and goals. See Shadia Drury, “Leo Strauss's Classic Natural Right Teaching,” Political Theory 15/3 (1987), 309–10. Thanks to Tony Burns for sharing his thoughts on these matters.

13 See Primus, The American Language of Rights, chap. 5; along with Purcell, Edward A., The Crisis of Democratic Theory: Scientific Naturalism and the Problem of Value (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1973)Google Scholar. Purcell's work remains almost alone in its focus on the revival of natural-law thinking, but, like Primus, he pretty much ignores Strauss's work. Lippmann, Besides Walter, The Public Philosophy (New York: Mentor Books, 1956), 76, 88Google Scholar, see also Diggins, John Patrick, “From Pragmatism to Natural Law,” Political Theory 19/4 (1991), 519–38CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 As Primus notes, whether a right has ontological status, emerges from self-reflexive generalizations about empirical cases, or is defined by its usage in a particular historical context remains a matter for dispute. Clearly, for Strauss a right has an ontological status, while for Primus a right is defined in terms of its use in its particular historical context.

15 Andrew, Shylock's Rights, 9, 12.

16 Strauss, Natural Right and History, 134–5.

17 Gunnell, “Political Theory and Politics,” 354.

18 Michael Zuckert, “Refinding the Founding: Martin Diamond, Leo Strauss, and the American Regime”, in Deutsch and Murley, Leo Strauss, 235–51. It is not clear what Strauss's attitude was toward this American turn.

19 Strauss, Natural Right and History, 7; idem, The City and Man (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1962), 1.

20 Quoted in Hadley Arkes, “Strauss on our Minds,” in Deutsch and Murley, Leo Strauss, 76.

21 Strauss, Natural Right and History, 141–3.

22 Zuckert and Zuckert, The Truth about Leo Strauss, 58.

23 Besides the chapter in Natural Right and History, see Leo Strauss's essays “Locke's Doctrine of Natural Law” (1958) and “On the Basis of Hobbes’ Political Philosophy” (1954) in idem, What is Political Philosophy? and Other Studies (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1973), 170–96; 197–220; Pangle, Thomas, The Spirit of Modern Republicanism: The Moral Vision of the American Founders and the Philosophy of Locke (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 24Google Scholar; Zuckert, Michael, The Natural Rights Republic (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996), 67, 73–4, 240Google Scholar. See also Charles Kesler, “A New Birth of Freedom: Harry V. Jaffa and the Study of America,” in Deutsch and Murley, Leo Strauss, 265–82, for another discussion of the Hobbes–Locke relationship.

24 Pangle, The Spirit of Modern Republicanism, 2; Zuckert, The Natural Rights Republic, 6–7, 73–4, 240.

25 Wood, Gordon S., “The Fundamentalists and the Constitution,” New York Review of Books, 35/2 (18 Feb. 1988), 39Google Scholar. Wood also emphasizes that Straussians are confirmed rationalists.

26 Ibid., 33–40.

27 Jaffa, Harry V., Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln–Douglas Debate (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1982)Google Scholar, chap. 1, 410–11. In the course of Crisis, Jaffa too distinguishes between right and rights with his formulation that the “concept of what is right is the concept of an objective condition, a condition discernible by reason,” while a right, in Locke's thought, is a subjective, “indefeasible desire or passion,” e.g. the right to self-preservation (328–9).

28 Kesler, “A New Birth of Freedom,” 274.

29 Jaffa, Harry V., “Equality as a Conservative Principle,” in Buckley, William F. Jr., and Kesler, Charles R., eds., Keeping the Tablets: Modern Conservative Thought (New York: Perennial Library, 1988), 88Google Scholar; idem, “Crisis of the Strauss Divided,” Social Research 54/3 (1987), 596; Kesler, “A New Birth of Freedom,” 275.

30 Zuckert and Zuckert, The Truth about Leo Strauss, 221–2.

31 Kesler, “A New Birth of Freedom,” 275.

32 Jaffa, Harry V., A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000), 502Google Scholar, note 8; Zuckert and Zuckert, The Truth about Leo Strauss, 245. This slap at Garry Wills's Lincoln at Gettysburg (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992) resumes the fierce arguments between Wills's mentor Wilmoore Kendall and Jaffa over the relative importance of the Constitution or the Declaration in the American regime. Not surprisingly, Jaffa also objects to Wills's elevation of Scottish common-sense philosophy over Locke in explaining Jefferson's Declaration of Independence (New Birth, 502, note 7).

33 West, Thomas G., Vindicating the Founders: Race, Sex, Class, and Justice in the Origins of America (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001), 2Google Scholar.

34 Ibid. 18–35.

35 Jaffa, New Birth, 81.

36 Ibid., 78.

37 All this is clear and consistent enough, though clearly meant to offer the best possible case for the defense of Lincoln. But it is ironic to say the least that Jaffa staunchly defended principled political moderation in his treatment of Lincoln despite being one of the authors of Barry Goldwater's notorious speech at the 1964 Republican Convention where the Arizona Senator quoted Cicero to the effect that “Extremism in the defense of liberty is not a vice, and moderation in the pursuit of justice is not a virtue.” In his review of Jaffa's Equality and Liberty in Commentary (August 1965), 71–3, George Kateb wondered how the same Jaffa who wrote Goldwater's speech could have also written such an eloquent denunciation of slavery and defense of natural equality.

38 See Ceaser, James W., Reconstructing America: The Symbol of America in Modern Thought (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 1997)Google Scholar for a discussion of America as the symbol of modernity.

39 Jaffa, “Crisis of the Strauss Divided,” 590.

40 For discussions of Strauss's critique of Christianity see Batnitzsky, Leora, “Leo Strauss's Disenchantment with Secular Society,” New German Critique 94 (2005), 105–26Google Scholar; and Jainhong Chen, “What is Carl Schmitt's Political Theology?” Interpretation 33/2 (2006), 163–6.

41 Jaffa, New Birth of Freedom, 349, 367, 350.

42 Ibid, 85–6. Aside from Richard Hofstadter, who refers to Calhoun as the “Marx of the Master Class” in The American Political Tradition (New York, Vintage, 1948), Jaffa is perhaps the only person who has ever linked the two figures. An inconsistency should be noted here between the general Straussian objection to the fact–value distinction and Jaffa's insistence that the historical fact of slavery did not entail its moral justification.

43 Primus, The American Language of Rights, 135–6.

44 Ibid., 23.

45 See Condit, Celeste M. and Lucaites, John L., Crafting Equality: America's Anglo-African Word (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1993)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

46 Strauss, Natural Right and History, 135.

47 Jaffa, New Birth of Freedom, 290; Blanchard, Kenneth C. Jr., “Ethnicity and the Problem of Equality,” Interpretation 20/3 (1993), 311Google Scholar.

48 Jaffa, New Birth of Freedom, 290–91.

49 West, Vindicating the Founders, 159–62.

50 Ibid., 160–62.

51 Strauss, Natural Right and History, 131.

52 Blanchard, “Ethnicity and the Problem of Equality,” 321.

53 See Harry V. Jaffa, “The Logic of the Colorblind Constitution,” the Clarement Institute, posted 6 Dec. 2004,; and Thomas G. West, “Jaffa versus Mansfield: Does America have a Constitutional or a ‘Declaration of Independence’ Soul?”, the Claremont Institute, posted 29 Nov. 2002, 14–15,

54 Storing, Herbert J., “Slavery and the Moral Foundations of the American Republic” (1986), in Bessette, Joseph M., ed., Toward a More Perfect Union (Washington, DC: AEI Press, 1995), 131–50Google Scholar. There is reference in this essay to a source dated 1975. It is generally difficult to determine the exact publication date of Storing's essays on race. See Ceaser, Reconstructing America, for a more forthright discussion by a Straussian of the intellectual history of racism in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America, a point to which I will return.

55 This was the basic charge leveled by Oxford classicist M. F. Burnyeat against Leo Strauss in “Sphinx without a Riddle,” New York Review of Books 32/9 (30 May 1985), 30–36.

56 H. J. Storing, “The School of Slavery: A Reconsideration of Booker T. Washington,” in Bessette, Toward a More Perfect Union, 194.

57 Storing, “Slavery and the Moral Foundations,” 142–3.

58 Ibid, 145.

59 Ibid, 146.

60 H. J. Storing, “Frederick Douglass,” in Bessette, Toward a More Perfect Union, 170–71; idem, “The School of Slavery,” 204.

61 Storing, “The School of Slavery,” 189.

62 Ibid., 181. See vol. 1 of Orlando Patterson's Freedom: Freedom in the Making of Western Culture (London: I. B. Tauris, Basic Books, 1991) for the basic relationship between slavery and the concept of freedom.

63 H. J. Storing, “What Country Have I?”, in Bessette, Toward a More Perfect Union, 212. Contributors to this volume were by no means only, or even mostly, conservative African Americans.

64 H. J. Storing, “The Case against Civil Disobedience,” in Bessette, Toward a More Perfect Union, 257. For this, he cites Bayard Rustin, one of King's most important advisers, and his highly influential “From Protest to Politics” (1965) essay.

65 Storing, “The Case against Civil Disobedience,” 237.

66 Ibid., 241.

67 Ibid., 244.

68 Ibid., 237.

69 Ibid., 258. For a contrasting, émigré view on civil disobedience see Arendt, Hannah, “Civil Disobedience,” in idem, Crises of the Republic (New York: Harvest Books, 1972), 49102Google Scholar. The distinction between civil disobedience and conscientious objection is Arendt's.

70 Strauss, Natural Right and History, 35–80, 202–51. In his analysis in Natural Right and History of Max Weber's fact–value distinction, Leo Strauss addresses himself with considerable care to Weber's distortion of Calvin's theology, but neither there nor in his treatment of Locke does he take up the Christian “contribution” to modern individualism. See also James Ceaser's denial of alleged Straussian hostility or neglect of religion in Nature and History in American Political Development (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univeristy Press, 2006), 196–7.

71 Lerner, Ralph, The Thinking Revolutionary: Principles and Practice in the New Republic (Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press, 1987), 139Google Scholar. In their Introduction to their new translation of Democracy in America (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000), Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthorp devote only seven pages to Tocqueville's chapter on race. They are clearly not comfortable writing about race and slavery and their account adds nothing that is new, except an emphasis on the problem (and even virtue) of race pride.

72 Lerner, The Thinking Revolutionary, 157.

73 Ibid., 172.

74 Lerner, “The Complexion of Tocqueville's American”, in idem, The Thinking Revolutionary, 180–81.

75 Ibid, 189–91.

76 Ceaser, Reconstructing America, 11.

77 Ibid., 6–7; idem, Nature and History, 174. Ceaser uses the term “political science” to describe an approach that compares various political regimes and looks for ways to help political actors develop better “statecraft” and “soulcraft.”

78 Ceaser, Nature and History, 44–59. See also chap. 1 of that work.

79 Hannah Arendt was later to emphasize this murderous combination of biological and historical inevitability in The Origins of Totalitarianism (Cleveland, OH: Meridian Books, 1958).

80 Ceaser, Reconstructing America, 145–7, 153.

81 Ibid, 126.

82 See Kull, Alexander, The Color-Blind Constitution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992)Google Scholar for a full statement of the “color-blind” principle of jurisprudence; and also Richard H. King, “The Brown Decades,” Patterns of Prejudice 38/4 (2004), 333–53 for a discussion of the emerging emphasis on the color-blind standard in conservative thinking in opposition to race-sensitive principles in the “counter-majoritarian” or “race and rights” jurisprudence since 1954 primarily. I have also profited greatly from discussion of this matter with Daniel Rodgers.

83 James W. Ceaser, “Creed versus Culture: Alternative Foundations of American Conservatism,” Heritage Lectures, no. 926 (10 March 2006),, last accessed 28 Dec. 2007.

84 Harry V. Jaffa, “The Logic of the Colorblind Constitution,” the Claremont Institute, 1, posted 6 Dec. 2004,, last accessed 25 Nov. 2006. See also Kenneth Holland, “Equality and the Constitution: A Study in the Transformation of a Concept,” in Goldwin, Robert A. and Kaugman, Art, eds., Slavery and Its Consequences (Washington, DC: AEI for Public Policy Research, 1988), 93122Google Scholar.