The University Bookman


Winter 2015

Walter Berns, RIP

William Gould

Walter Berns, the great constitutional scholar and political theorist, passed away on Saturday, January 10, 2015 at the age of 95.

Throughout his long and distinguished career as a scholar and pubic intellectual, a career that included teaching posts at Cornell, Yale, Toronto, and Georgetown, the principal focus of Berns’s work was the defense of the principles and institutions of the American republic, particularly the Constitution. Indeed, in the preface to his book In Defense of Liberal Democracy (1984)—the title is revealing—Berns writes that “throughout my academic and professional career . . . I had been doing nothing so much as defending liberal democracy and the institutions embodying it here in the United States.”

Such a defense was needed, Berns believed, because democratic government is a great but fragile achievement that requires not only well-crafted institutions but also a virtuous citizenry if it is to be sustained. In this connection, he saw certain aspects of America’s Lockean founding as problematic. For while Berns greatly admired what the Founders accomplished, he believed that the Lockean emphasis on freedom and individual rights, if not tempered by a prominent role for virtue, could lead to excessive individualism and disregard for the common good. And he thought this was precisely what was happening in American society at the time, as exemplified by Supreme Court decisions that protected virtually any form of expression from pornography to flag burning as freedom of speech and mandated an exaggerated degree of separation of between church and state.

In a series of works from his classic Freedom, Virtue, and the First Amendment (1957) to Making Patriots (2001), Berns made his case for a sounder understanding of democratic government. In doing so, he drew heavily upon the insights of classical political philosophy, whose strong emphasis on the importance of virtue and character formation served as a corrective to the modern overemphasis on rights. He also drew upon Tocqueville, who placed so much stress on civic engagement and the importance of religion to society’s well being, as well as Abraham Lincoln—“patriotism’s poet” as he called him—whose magnificent oratory rooted in scripture furnished our republic with powerful themes of solidarity and sacrifice.

Walter Berns was not only a great scholar, but also a great teacher. I remember vividly from my days as a graduate student at Georgetown what an extraordinary presence he was in the classroom. His course on Tocqueville was a formative, even transformative experience that profoundly shaped my subsequent thinking about the nature of democracy and the role of religion in public life. He was also a very kind man. I remember one time he came up to me to tell me that he “admired”—that was the word he used—something I had recently published. I was so honored (and surprised) that this eminent figure whom I so much admired would go out of his way to compliment me, a lowly graduate student. It was very kind and very characteristic of him.

The American republic has lost one of its greatest interpreters and defenders, but his great achievement as an interpreter of that republic will long endure. RIP.  

William Gould is an assistant dean at Fordham University.

Posted: January 14, 2015 in Essays.

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