In Memoriam: Harry Jaffa

Harry Jaffa, the Henry Salvatori Professor of Political Philosophy Emeritus at Claremont McKenna College, died Jan. 10 at the Pomona Valley Hospital at the age of 96. His ideological contributions to modern conservatism led National Review to hail him as “the most important conservative political theorist of his generation.”

One of the preeminent scholars on Abraham Lincoln, Jaffa helped establish CMC as a bastion of conservative thought in the 1960s. He also wrote prolifically. In addition to authoring 10 books, he contributed frequently to conservative publications.

“Harry had great influence on a generation of students of American Government by turning our attention back to the importance of the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the principles of Abraham Lincoln,” wrote Mark Blitz, the Fletcher Jones Professor of Political Philosophy at CMC, in an email to TSL.

Jaffa was responsible for penning one of the defining quotes of Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign, delivered during the 1964 Republican National Convention: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” The controversial quote contributed to Goldwater’s reputation as a conservative reactionary in the minds of the American public, and he ultimately lost the election by a landslide.

In a 2012 interview with New York Magazine, Jaffa recalled that he “thought of the Goldwater campaign as an attempt to educate the American people and the conservative movement itself, which I hoped to influence.”

He was regarded as a fierce political opponent and debater, even by his fellow conservatives.

According to National Review’s tribute to Jaffa, the professor “had a reputation as a master of the feud, particularly with people who mostly shared his views and commitments.”

But Karen Jaffa McGoldrick, Harry Jaffa’s daughter, recalled a different side of her father.

“As fierce as he has been characterized as a debater, he was an old softie as a Daddy,” she wrote in an email to TSL. “He wandered the house in his boxer shorts and striped socks (always [hand-knit] wool) with a book in hand, and stopped and made you listen to whatever it was he was reading. It could be P.G. Wodehouse, or Shakespeare or Thackery or Fielding as easily as Churchill or Lincoln. TV was considered an evil, and for a time I had to ask for the cord for our little portable black and white and make my case.”

McGoldrick also recalled being fascinated by her parents’ political conversations.

“They lived in 'interesting' times where the whole of civilization was at the brink of collapse more than once, and they persevered and flourished and managed to have adventures and loads of fun despite it all,” she wrote. “The changes they witnessed were monumental and the crowd they ran with were brilliant.”

Jaffa completed his undergraduate degree at Yale University in 1939. In 1951, he earned a doctorate at the New School for Social Research. He began teaching at CMC in 1964 and retired in 1989. Several of his students at CMC founded the Claremont Institute, a conservative think tank where he later became a distinguished fellow.

Jaffa is survived by his daughter, Karen McGoldrick, two sons, Donald and Philip, and three grandchildren.