Friends of liberty began this new year in sorrow over the sudden death of Tom Silver, president and cofounder of the Claremont Institute and champion of the principles and practice of liberty. He died suddenly of an aggressive brain tumor that was only discovered days earlier, but what we will remember is a life devoted to the service of God, liberty, country, family and friends. Men like Tom Silver make liberty possible, and the privilege of having them as fellow citizens is a great part of what makes liberty so sweet.
Silver was perhaps best known for his scholarly restoration of one of the great Declarationists of our century, President Calvin Coolidge. After decades of condescending dismissal of Coolidge by "intellectuals" who needed villains and foils to contrast with the deified FDR, Silver set things right in his "Coolidge and the Historians," reportedly one of President Reagan's favorite books.
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In restoring our national memory of Coolidge, Silver was following faithfully in the footsteps of his teacher, Professor Harry Jaffa, who performed a similar service as well for the memory of the wisdom and statesmanship of Abraham Lincoln. All praise to the men who help us remember who we are!
It is difficult enough for a democratic republic to put great men in high office. Once we do so, we should certainly strive to honor their memory and understand their importance. After decades of misquotation and misrepresentation of Coolidge's entirely accurate empirical observation that the "chief" business of America is business, it was indeed good to be pointed instead to Coolidge's speech on the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, which contains the deepest reflections on American life and liberty since Lincoln. Coolidge dared to govern in simple acknowledgment of the Declaration and Constitution – is it any wonder that for 50 years American liberals failed to understand him?
Silver and Professor Jaffa are two of the many dedicated citizen scholars who have made the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy such a success in the 20 years since its founding. Like its younger sister institution, the Declaration Foundation, the Claremont Institute is dedicated to "restoring the principles of the American founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life."
The Claremont Institute embodies a virtue that is crucial to American life, and yet so easy to overlook – the willingness of men of learning to serve the common good of our community by speaking the truth. In Plato's "Republic," Socrates argues that for philosophers, concern with the affairs of the city – with politics – is a distraction from the exalted visions of eternal truth and goodness which philosophy unmasks for a privileged few. In consequence, no community can be well governed that does not force its wise men to pay attention to the burdens of government. For why, Socrates asks, would a philosopher be willing to undertake such a task, if not forced?
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The American Founding has been rightly called at least a partial fulfillment of the dream that Socrates himself may have judged to be impossible – the formation of a city governed by the eternal forms themselves, by justice and truth, brought down to earth by the philosophers whose care it is to know and love them.
The lives of Silver and Jaffa – and of Coolidge and Lincoln, and of Washington, and Jefferson – all bear witness to the remarkable success of the American people in inspiring its noblest members to come down out of the clouds, and concern themselves with the application of the eternal truths of justice and human equality to the government of this nation. More remarkable still is our heritage of leaders and thinkers who concern themselves not merely with governing us, but with teaching us to govern ourselves.
Of course, American politics was a messy business at the beginning, and it is a messier business now. The eternal forms of justice and truth are often much obscured, and discerning them as the living spirit of American public life can often require a good deal of faith, sacrifice and persistent energy.
That is precisely why we owe such a debt of gratitude to the wise men who have loved both the truth and the people enough to spend their lives teaching us, by word and deed, the eternal principles that really do animate our common life.
All praise indeed to the men who first founded America with one eye on heaven, and another on earth. And all praise to the humble servants of that founding, men like Tom Silver, who help us fulfill Coolidge's eloquent injunction to remember the Founders: "We must follow the spiritual and moral leadership which they showed. We must keep replenished, that they may glow with a more compelling flame, the altar fires before which they worshipped."