The man who made the Constitution relevant again
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The man who made the Constitution relevant again


Walter Berns was at once a scholar and a patriot.
And that, unfortunately, in the contemporary world, in the contemporary America, is kind
of rare. Patriotism is not natural, but has to be taught
or somehow acquired. And the question was then, and I suppose still is: how was this
new patriotism to be taught or somehow acquired by later generations of citizens? On the one hand, he loved the country. He
thought that people had to be encouraged to love it for reasons that had been stated by
Walter’s great hero, Abraham Lincoln, especially in a free country. It can’t be taken for
granted that people will simply love the country and do the things that are needed to protect
it. This was not simply the ra-ra patriotism of
a war hero, which he was. Walter was a veteran of World War II. He had
served from the absolute beginning in the Navy; he’d seen action. He used to like to
tell my children, he had taken North Africa single-handedly when they were still young
enough to believe that. And so he had a very powerful sense of what the country had been
through. Walter, in particular, had a sort of Odyssey
after World War II, but eventually he pitched up in Taos, New Mexico where a writers-artist
colony had been founded. He was going to be the great American novelist,
but then eventually he burned the manuscript. He just decided that that wasn’t him and wound
up going to the University of Chicago. And someone told him, “You have to take a course
with this fellow, Leo Strauss,” and Walter said, “Nah, I’ll do it next semester.” And
finally, he did. He was very greatly influenced by Leo Strauss,
and Leo Strauss said, “We should go back and read Aristotle. We should go back and read
old books because we can still learn things from old books.” And it’s not enough to say,
“I don’t completely agree.” All right, you don’t completely agree. What is it you think
is right? And if you start by saying, “Well, no one is right” or “there is no right,”
you’re just going to go through life chortling and chuckling and being frivolous and silly,
and that isn’t the life Walter Berns was going to lead. Walter believed that true patriotism for an
American includes an appreciation of self-criticism. We are not expected to love our country simply
because it is our country. Love can be blind. And love of country like love of wife, or
husband, or lover can be blind too. But ours is not supposed to be a blind patriotism. But he always insisted that our criticism
of the Constitution be fully informed. That criticism had to be based upon a full understanding
and it was that fuller understanding that he spent a good deal of his life in reviving. Walter Berns was one of a very small group
of scholars who made the founding relevant again and really fundamental to our understanding
of ourselves. We take it for granted now that, well of course, if you study America you have
to read the Federalist Papers, and you have to think about the Constitution and the Constitutional
Convention and John Marshall, not just the latest Supreme Court cases. And you have to
read Lincoln. That was not the case when Walter Berns began writing on these topics in the
1950s and into the 1960s. And he and a small group of friends and colleagues of his really
revived the study of the founders, showed why you couldn’t understand America without
understanding the founders. I think part of what happened to Walter and
to a lot of other people is that the left changed out from under them and came to really
reject the vision of the Constitution. To be a partisan of the Constitution, which is
if Walter was any kind of partisan, I think that was his party, meant by late in his life
that he was conservative by default. But I don’t think he was a conservative in the way
that the conservative movement understands that term. I can see how Walter would be uncomfortable
with the term, and a lot of people of his generation were. But the fact is he and they
transformed conservatism in a way that made it more like them. And I think what today’s
young conservatives mean by thinking of Walter as a conservative is purely a compliment.
It means that they see themselves shaped by his teachings. Walter Berns was at AEI when I came here in
1986 and he was here for all of my tenure as President. Up until his 90th birthday,
he was in the office every day. Right up to the end, he was the complete intellectual
and the archetype of what AEI has always tried to promote and insinuate into larger political
debate. When Lincoln was a young man, he gave a speech
about the Founding Fathers in which he called them a forest of giant oaks. And I thought
Walter very much represented that image. These were people in the founding whom Lincoln felt
had greater challenges than his own generation. Walter Berns was one of the giant oaks Lincoln
spoke about, and he’s left an extraordinary legacy for those of us who are still here
at AEI—his scholarship and his great strengths as a colleague and friend to many here.

5 Comments

  • AwoudeX

    patriotism is the love of one's country. Make the country loveable and patriotism will follow naturally. Create a country that aspires to become better and takes pragmatic steps towards that goal. Create a country which holds certain good standards to itself and others alike etc. etc. etc. When citizens see all these things that they can be proud of, patriotism follows naturally.
    With all the big governments, corruption, ineficciency, counterproductivity, bad representation, bad decisions etc. etc. etc. love for a country by it's citizens erodes.
    patriotism should not be indoctrinated by pledges to a flag or something like that, it should come naturally because of the country being so darn good.

  • DK Kempion

    When patriotism morphs into nationalism it becomes a liability not an asset.
    At times, being a patriot means going against the establishment (but not bigotry against equal rights) as well. Therefore, loyalty to the establishment is not a prerequisite of patriotism.

  • dks13827

    Crazy. None of this is taught. Too complicated for mush skulls. Oh, it should be taught. And one more thing, love is not natural because people are ungrateful. Ask any ghetto folks. They are never given enough, ever. They want more free stuff.

  • fkujakedmyname

    the1% is the group with no patriotism or love for this country and their libertarian neo liberal nazi traitor sheep we call republicunts now sense after Nixon turned the republican party into abunch of neo nazi traitors

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