Since Thomas B. Silver left off writing The Liberal Century, back at the beginning of the 21st century, the Claremont Institute, of which he was then president, has become well-known nationally for the analysis of liberalism or progressivism advanced by its fellows and affiliated scholars. The “Claremont School” generally holds that “modern liberalism, beginning with early 20th century Progressives, succeeded in overthrowing the political philosophy on which the Founders built American constitutional government.”

To continue the conversation about the meaning of America that Dr. Silver wanted to stimulate, we offer responses to his analysis and more generally to the “Claremont criticism” of progressivism.


Thomas Silver’s The Liberal Century, Harry Jaffa, and the Claremont School

by Jason Jividen, Saint Vincent College

In The Liberal Century, Thomas Silver argues that American progressivism and modern liberalism won the battle of ideas in twentieth-century American politics. That battle, according to Silver, is fundamentally a dispute between those who appeal to nature as the ultimate theoretical and moral foundation of political reasoning, and those who appeal to history as that foundation.   In explaining the idea of nature that progressivism displaced, Silver turns to the Declaration of Independence. If the idea of nature is worth recovering in our politics, rediscovering the principles of the Declaration might be one avenue in that pursuit. Silver appears to point us toward that approach.

Nevertheless, there is also a serious ambiguity in Silver’s analysis, one that some might think is characteristic of the Claremont, or West Coast Straussian school of American political thought, of which Silver was a very active and prominent member.[1] While Silver praises the political theory of the Declaration as superior to the historicism of American progressivism, he nevertheless critiques the modern political philosophy and Lockean liberalism supposedly fundamental to the Founders’ political science. At times, Silver argues that the origins of progressivism might be written into the DNA of modern political philosophy. He also appears to suggest that the Founders are moderns, at least in part, and especially Lockeans. We are thus left with a question: If the Founders are moderns, and modern political thought is partly responsible for the rejection of nature, why or how ought we to turn to the Founders’ thought to recover the concept of nature? If this is not a problem for Silver’s argument, it is at least something of a puzzle, and one that Silver never adequately explains in The Liberal Century. In what follows, I’ll very briefly explain this ambiguity in Silver’s argument, how a similar problem was addressed by his teacher and progenitor of the Claremont school, Harry Jaffa, and how Silver might have been headed in a similar direction.

Nature, History, and The Liberal Century

On Silver’s telling, the limited government constitutionalism of the American Founding was aimed at securing inherent, pre-political, and inalienable rights rooted in an imperfect, but fixed and universal human nature. According to this mode of thought, human reason can discern natural standards of right by which we might evaluate the choice-worthiness of political behavior, institutions, and regimes. Such thinking is especially evident in the political theory of the Declaration of Independence, though Silver reminds us that the “prototype” for such language can be found in John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government.[2] The political thinking of the Declaration suggests that all men are created equal, i.e., that all human beings are naturally and equally endowed with the same inalienable rights, including a natural right to liberty. There is no natural difference between two human beings great enough to justify one human being ruling another without that other’s consent. Deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, governments are instituted among men to secure these natural rights. This is the moral, theoretical basis for popular government and majority rule. Theory and prudence both suggest that healthy popular government is also limited government. In theory, since some rights are by definition inalienable, some powers cannot be rightfully given to government. In addition, from reflecting on our imperfect human nature, we know that political power is prone to be abused, and prudence dictates that this power ought to be constitutionally balanced and limited if we are to reliably secure our rights. All these conclusions were thought to be applicable to all men, everywhere and always, as inferences from the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.

American progressivism fundamentally challenged such reasoning. For many progressives, the natural rights principles of the Founding had been proven wrong by history. Insofar as there were such things as “rights,” they were the product of history or convention. They change and evolve, coming into being and passing away according to circumstances. Rational, progressive History with a capital “H” had demonstrated that even truth itself progressively evolves in light of circumstances. To base our understanding of politics on supposedly trans-historical truths was therefore a fool’s errand. As such, constitutional arrangements providing for limited and balanced government were also on the wrong side of history. If human nature can evolve, then the persistent problems of politics—particularly the problems of majority faction and abuse of power—can be transcended through political leadership, education, social planning, and administrative science, all exercised in light of progressive history.

Silver’s account thus outlines a fundamental shift in Americans’ self-understanding. Our preconceptions about human nature and the ends of government necessarily influence our ideas about the scope and means of government. After the rise of modern industry, economic specialization, urbanization, and the closing of the frontier, progressives no longer believed men capable of material and spiritual fulfillment without allowing the people more direct control over their governments, and their governments more regulatory control over the economy. Limited government based on securing natural rights, including a supposed natural right to property, merely frustrated attempts to deal with the challenges of American economic life in the early twentieth century.

According to Silver, at the turn of the twentieth century, progressivism was ascendant. By the end of the century, it was dominant. While progressivism and modern liberalism have their detractors on the right, according to Silver, these critics cannot successfully respond to the progressive orthodoxy because very few of them really accept the idea of nature articulated in the Declaration. Conservative critics of progressivism are thus left with a choice, Silver argues: they must either rediscover the idea of nature, or they must come to terms with the fact that modern science and pragmatist philosophy seem to have rendered the idea of nature obsolete.[3]   On the heels of such statements, Silver turns immediately to a brief section on the political thought of Harry Jaffa, in a chapter entitled “Natural Right and History: A Preview.” In fact, Silver’s analysis clearly owes much to Leo Strauss’s arguments in Natural Right and History as well as Jaffa’s books, Crisis of the House Divided and How to Think about the American Revolution.[4] Yet, in this turn to Strauss and Jaffa, one discovers the ambiguity in Silver’s argument.

Silver, Strauss, and Modernity

In Natural Right and History, Strauss had wondered whether Americans still believe in the principles of the Declaration of Independence.[5] Strauss described a moral and intellectual crisis in which we seem to have lost confidence in the ideas of nature and reason as reliable guides for political life.   Strauss saw the root of that crisis in the political thought of early modern thinkers like Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke, as opposed to the thought of the ancient, Socratic political philosophers. According to Strauss, the early moderns were materialists, and they aimed at securing comfortable self-preservation and the satisfaction of individual desires by conquering nature through science, technology, and political institutions. For the Socratics, nature was not to be conquered, but reflected upon in order to help human beings understand how to acquire virtue and order the soul, wherein reason would rule the desires. But the moderns relegated reason to a subordinate and merely instrumental scout and spy for the desires, and the very notion of “rights” was a gentler shorthand for the strongest of desires, detached from any reciprocal moral or political duties. For Strauss, the historicism, positivism, and nihilism of late modern life was the fruit of the early moderns’ rejection of the Socratic understanding of nature and reason. Insofar as the American Founders were influenced by modern political thought, and perhaps Lockean liberalism in particular, then they were complicit in undermining nature as a foundational concept for politics. For Strauss, as an alternative to collectivism and fascism, and as the regime most tolerant of political philosophy, liberal democracy was perhaps the most choice-worthy of regimes in twentieth-century circumstances. As a friend of American democracy, Strauss asked whether Americans still believed in the principles of the Declaration, but he pointed toward the possibility that these principles might contain the seeds of their own destruction.[6]

The Liberal Century bears the stamp of Strauss’s ancients/moderns distinction, and Silver sometimes seems to argue that modern political philosophy was ripe for the crisis of natural right.   For example, Silver suggests that some twentieth-century liberals, such as William Allen White and FDR, saw the 1920’s as the “culmination of the principles of the [American] regime taken to their logical conclusion” and the “product of modern Enlightenment political philosophy, in particular the political philosophy of Hobbes and Locke.”[7] According to that philosophy, men were naturally and radically selfish, individualistic, materialistic, and bourgeois. For FDR, such Lockean thinking had to be overcome through a commitment to new economic rights and the administrative state. However, Silver’s explanation of this position sometimes sounds more like Strauss than FDR or White. Silver suggests:

In the Lockean scheme, selfishness replaces virtue or piety as the ordering principle of the human soul, or rather, the meaning of virtue is transformed…Virtue, whether moral or intellectual, becomes instrumental…If virtue is no longer the ordering principle of the soul, neither is it the ordering principle of society. The parts being prior to the whole, justice, or the common good, is merely the serendipitous by-product of individual self-seeking, or the benevolent dispensation of an invisible hand…Calvin Coolidge, the man who exalted the bourgeois virtues and pronounced that the business of America is business, represents the epitome of America’s Lockean principles.[8]

Echoing Strauss, Silver sums up the progressive-modern liberal view thusly: “Coolidge—and America in the twenties—was the reductio ad absurdum of Locke’s joyless quest for joy.”[9]

Silver also argues that the contemporary liberalism that emerges with the Great Society and the New Left follows from the political thinking of Hobbes and Locke. Again following Strauss, Silver claims that, for Hobbes and Locke, reason is merely instrumental in conquering nature and satisfying the desires. In this manner of thinking, “progress” does not reside in fulfilling the requirements of human nature, but in our ability to endlessly accumulate power to attain the ends of our own choosing. [10] Without a natural standard of judgment, we should add that all ends or desires are morally equal, and thus the central defining characteristic for politics is reduced to nothing more than power. Silver calls this an egalitarianism built upon Nietzschean principles, a democratization of will to power. Silver thus seems to endorse the Straussian claim that Lockean liberalism was erected on a vulnerable foundation. And we should remember that he also says the American Founding was built, at least in part, upon Lockean principles.[11]

Yet, elsewhere, Silver suggests that the old liberalism of Locke and the Founders must be distinguished from the Nietzschean liberalism of the latter twentieth century. While the old liberalism posited a natural equality of inalienable rights, and equality of opportunity under the rule of law, contemporary liberalism demands an equality of results in pursuit of desires and interests. According to Silver, while the old liberalism understood that nature furnishes a hierarchy of human ends by which to choose our actions, contemporary liberalism seeks to overcome that nature in the service of creative individuality.[12]

Thus, Silver claims that we might recover the idea of nature as articulated by the supposedly modern, Lockean, American Founders, but he also appears to suggest several times that Locke and modern political philosophy are at least partly responsible for the eventual rejection of the idea of nature. Again, if this is not a problem for his argument, it is at least a puzzle that Silver never explains in The Liberal Century. However, over a long career, a similar if not identical problem was examined more explicitly by Silver’s teacher, Harry Jaffa, and that examination is partly responsible for the birth of the Claremont school.

Jaffa and the Claremont School

Harry Jaffa was responsible for the Claremont, or West Coast Straussian, school of American political thought. More so than their ostensibly more philosophic, politically ambivalent East Coast Straussian counterparts, the Claremont school is particularly interested in the relationship between the principles of the Founding, the statesmanship of Lincoln, and how these things help illuminate contemporary, practical American politics. The Claremont school came about, in part, as the result of a problem Jaffa encountered in thinking through Lincoln’s relationship to the political theory of the Declaration of Independence. That problem was not too dissimilar from the ambiguity in Silver’s manuscript described above.[13]

In Crisis of the House Divided, Jaffa offered an interpretation of the Lincoln-Douglas debates that was particularly indebted to Strauss’s account of modern political philosophy and the crisis of natural right. As a response to the problem of slavery expansion, Stephen Douglas’s doctrine of popular sovereignty posited that the people of the western territories ought to be able to vote slavery up or down via unlimited majority rule. Lincoln, however, suggested that Douglas’s policy violated the principle of natural equality that undergirds majority rule. Lincoln’s appeal to a standard of natural right as the ground of political authority was thus pitted against a modern iteration of the idea that justice is nothing more than the advantage of the stronger. But Jaffa saw Lincoln as nevertheless improving upon the principles of the Founding. Jaffa followed Strauss’s claim that Locke was a closet Hobbesian who elevated the desire for self-preservation above all other human motivations, substituting a thinly veiled materialism, possessive individualism, and “rights,” for the ancient concepts of nature, virtue, and justice.   Jaffa argued that, whether they knew it or not, the Founders built on unsteady ground when they embraced Lockean principles. Lincoln was forced to transform the Declaration’s principle of equality from a negative, rights-based condition of equality in the state of nature from which we escape, to a positive condition toward which we should strive in civil society.[14] By creating this moral imperative, Jaffa’s Lincoln “transcended” the Founding, improving on its Lockean principles by seeing in natural equality something akin to an ancient conception of justice, and an objective ground for political obligation.[15]

Over time, however, Jaffa would revise his position. That revision came about, in part, as a reaction to traditionalist conservatives like Willmoore Kendall and Mel Bradford, and East Coast Straussians influenced by the political thought of Allan Bloom.[16] Traditionalists sometimes seized on Jaffa’s claim that Lincoln “transcended” the Founding, and they asserted that Lincoln helped to usher the maladies of progressivism, consolidation, leveling egalitarianism, and the imperial, plebiscitary presidency into twentieth-century American politics. Kendall, for example, claimed that Lincoln “derailed” the American political tradition by elevating the equality principle above all other political goods. Against such arguments, Jaffa would begin to back off the “transcendence” thesis. He began to rehabilitate the Founders’ political thought, fitting it to a mold more congruent with Lincoln’s thought and statesmanship, and defended equality as an eminently conservative principle.[17]

However, for Jaffa and his students, this approach would also occasion disagreements with some East Coast Straussians like Bloom, who continued to critique the Lockean ground of American political thought. While never quite dismissing Strauss’s account of Locke, Jaffa claimed that he had mistakenly assumed in Crisis that the Founders understood Locke as Strauss had understood him.[18] Contra Bloom, Jaffa and his students now argued that the Founders routinely disavowed Hobbesianism, that they saw no difficulty in taking Locke at his word, nor in believing that man’s natural rights existed alongside man’s duties under the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God. There is in fact something unique about America, something that sees natural rights thinking as closely tied to the rule of law, Christian religion, public morality, and room for the practice of public and private virtue under American institutions. Jaffa had once appeared to suggest that we ought to take Lincoln’s advice and reclaim the principles of the Declaration, while simultaneously arguing that those same principles were somehow defective and required Lincoln’s reinterpretation. Now, Jaffa claimed that Lincoln didn’t tweak the Founding principles at all. Rather, Lincoln had the Founding right all along.[19] For Jaffa and the emerging Claremont school, the real American derailment was not an unfolding of Lockeanism or the Founders’ political thought, but the result of American progressivism, which rejected the natural rights principles of the Declaration in favor of historicism, pragmatism, Darwinism, positivism, modern egalitarianism, and all the attendant threats to the idea of nature in twentieth-century American politics.

Silver’s Final Chapter

Unfortunately, Silver’s manuscript was left unfinished, with its concluding chapter unwritten. Around the same time, however, Jaffa would publish his long-awaited second volume on Lincoln and American political thought, A New Birth of Freedom. In his later career, Jaffa came to argue that the American regime successfully synthesized Aristotelian, Christian, and Lockean ideas, and he claimed that the Founders had established the best regime, at least in its principles. Following Strauss, he argued that the vitality of Western civilization was located in the “confluence” of the classical rationalism of Athens, and the biblical faith of Jerusalem. But Jaffa went further and claimed that, in its unprecedented embrace of religious liberty, the American Founding disallowed government the authority to resolve disputes between reason and revelation over the meaning of the highest life, thereby allowing reason and revelation to coexist peacefully. For Jaffa, had Aristotle been alive in the Christian age, where political and religious obligation were no longer identical, Aristotle would have recognized equality and the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God as the new ground of political obligation and he would have endorsed American liberal democracy as most likely to leave room for human excellence and the pursuit of the good life under modern conditions.[20]

Silver’s The Liberal Century appears to fit firmly within the Claremont approach, but the manuscript wades into an ambiguity that it never quite explains or resolves, and one wonders just how Silver might have addressed this. Not unlike Jaffa’s early arguments in Crisis, for Silver, there seems to be something amiss just under the surface of the Founding. Nevertheless, returning to the Founding might somehow lead the way out of our current predicament. Jaffa undertook to deal with a similar problem in his own work, first settling on Lincoln as a political savior who improved upon the Founding, and later arguing that Lincoln had it right all along. For Jaffa, Lincoln championed the natural rights principles of the American regime as the best regime, and as capable of cultivating and preserving much more than the joyless quest for joy. Silver relies on Strauss, as well as Jaffa’s Crisis and How to Think about the American Revolution, but he does not discuss the tensions between these works, or how the emerging shifts in Jaffa’s thought might inform his own argument. Certainly not without controversy—and perhaps not without problems—Jaffa’s changing take on the Founding and Lincoln nevertheless attempts to deal with the kind of ambiguity Silver encounters in the Liberal Century.[21] We should note in closing that, although his concluding chapter was never written, Silver gave it a proposed title: “America as the Best Regime.” Although it’s difficult to say, one wonders whether Silver was ultimately on an intellectual path very similar to the one blazed by his teacher.

[1] Silver received his Ph.D. from the Claremont Graduate School in 1980, under the tutelage of Harry Jaffa, served as President of the Claremont institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy, and Publisher of The Claremont Review of Books.

[2] Thomas B. Silver, The Liberal Century: How Progressivism Transformed America, 26-27.

[3] See the introduction to Silver, The Liberal Century, esp. 9, 18, 22-23.

[4] Silver, The Liberal Century, 24-32. See Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1950); Harry V. Jaffa, Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959); Harry V. Jaffa, How to Think about the American Revolution: A Bicentennial Cerebration (Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 1978).

[5] Strauss, Natural Right and History, 1.

[6] In addition to Natural Right and History, see, for example, Leo Strauss, What is Political Philosophy? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959); Leo Strauss, An Introduction to Political Philosophy: Ten Essays by Leo Strauss (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989); Leo Strauss, Liberalism Ancient and Modern (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968).

[7] Silver, The Liberal Century, 62-63.

[8] Silver, The Liberal Century, 63. Compare a strikingly similar characterization of modern political thought in Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987). See esp. 163-167.

[9] Silver, The Liberal Century, 63. See Strauss, Natural Right and History, 251.

[10] Silver, The Liberal Century, 94, 110-111, 133n163, 176-77.

[11] Silver, The Liberal Century, 153-54, 26-27.

[12] Silver, The Liberal Century, 100, 154. For a more a developed argument on rights in the old and new liberalisms, see Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr., “Responsibility versus Self-Expression,” in Old Rights and New, ed. Robert A. Licht (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute Press, 1993), 96-111.

[13] On “Straussian Geography” see Catherine and Michael Zuckert, The Truth about Leo Strauss: Political Philosophy and American Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), chapters 2, 6 and 7; Mark C. Henrie, “Straussianism,” First Principles, ISI Web Journal (May 5, 2011) (

[14] Jaffa, Crisis of the House Divided, 308-29.

[15] Charles R. Kesler, “A New Birth of Freedom: Harry V. Jaffa and the Study of America,” in Leo Strauss, the Straussians and the American Regime, ed. Kenneth L. Deutsch and John A. Murley (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999), 275.

[16] Zuckert and Zuckert, The Truth about Leo Strauss, 227, 245.

[17] See, for example, Willmoore Kendall, The Conservative Affirmation (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1963); Willmoore Kendall and George W. Carey. The Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1970); M.E. Bradford, “The Heresy of Equality: Bradford Replies to Jaffa,” Modern Age 20:1 (1976): 62-77. Compare Jaffa, How to Think about the American Revolution.

[18] See Harry V. Jaffa, “Aristotle and Locke in the American Founding,” Claremont Review of Books (February, 2001) (

[19] See Kesler, “A New Birth of Freedom,” 277; Zuckert and Zuckert, 247. Consider Harry V. Jaffa, The Conditions of Freedom: Essays in Political Philosophy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975), 3-8, 149-60; Jaffa, How to Think About the American Revolution, 13-48; Harry V. Jaffa, A New Birth of  Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000), esp. Chapter 2, 73-152; Harry V. Jaffa, “Humanizing Certitudes and Impoverishing Doubts: A Critique of The Closing of the American Mind”; Thomas G. West, “Allan Bloom and America”; and Charles R. Kesler, “The Closing of Allan Bloom’s Mind: An Instant Classic Reconsidered,” all in Essays on The Closing of the America Mind, ed. Robert L. Stone (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 1989), 129-53, 166-73, 174-80.

[20] Jaffa, “The American Founding as the Best Regime,” Claremont Review of Books (May, 2002)( Also see Jaffa, New Birth of Freedom; Jaffa, “Aristotle and Locke in the American Founding.”

[21] For a solid account of some of the difficulties in Jaffa’s changing arguments here, see Zuckert and Zuckert, The Truth about Leo Strauss, 224-227, 248-52.


Read The Liberal Century by Thomas B. Silver:

Table of Contents & Introduction

Chapter 1: Natural Right and History, A Preview

Chapter 2: 1936

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