BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Walter Berns, where did you get the idea of writing a book called "Making Patriots"?
Professor WALTER BERNS (Author, "Making Patriots"): Where did I get
the idea? I suppose when I began to reflect on such things as
pa--parades in the city of Chicago when I was a youth and I began to
think that there are more patriots and--receiving a better patriotic
education when I was young than young people are today, and I began to
reflect on the--the absence of any kind of patriotic education in the
universities where I spent most of my life. That's an answer.
LAMB: How long were you in Chicago?
Prof. BERNS: Well, I was born in Chicago a long time ago. As I say
in the book, one of my earliest memories was watching patriotic
parades on Memorial Day on Michigan Avenue. And to give you an idea
how old I am, I can remember the survivors of the Indian army walking
down Michigan Avenue, struggling down Michigan Avenue with their
standards and the--the bands playing and so forth. That--that was,
you know, in--in the late 1920s. There were still soldiers alive at
LAMB: Where did you go to school? Where--what about your college?
Prof. BERNS: Right. The city of Chicago and I went to the
University of Iowa and then Reed College out in Portland, Oregon, for
one year, and then the London School of Economics and then back to the
University of Chicago for three or four, five years to get my PhD.
LAMB: Did you spend time in the service at all yourself?
Prof. BERNS: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. From the very beginning of the war
to the end of the war in the Navy. My father was in the Army in World
War I, and he saw to it that I went into the Navy in the Second War.
LAMB: Why--why--why do you think that either patriots or patriotism
is--is not as visible as it used to be?
Prof. BERNS: Well, it has a great deal to do with education and
what--what young people today are not taught. They're taught social
studies rather than American history. They have no knowledge, I
think, of the--the--of the--the founders of this country. They don't
read biographies. And some of the polls reflect or reveal a shocking
ignorance of historical events. One of them is something to the
effect that only half of the people in high school today can place the
Civil War within 10 years of its actual time. That's hard to believe,
isn't it? But the polls do this and say it and discovered it.
LAMB: Why is this happening?
Prof. BERNS: Why is it happening? Why didn't it happen in my day?
I may be--as a citizen of Chicago, Illinois, I may have been more
aware of Lincoln than people elsewhere, because Lincoln, of course,
was a citizen of the state of Illinois and very much a figure in--in
Illinois and, of course, a figure in my--in my education. We--we were
expected to memorize such things as the Gettysburg Address. And
that's just like a Shakespeare sonnet. That was part of the
education. And that doesn't happen now, at least I think.
And then as to the--our--our particular situation, now surely the
Vietnam War had something to do with our--our present condition. We
didn't have a Vietnam War when I was growing up. We had World War I
and then, of course, the Spanish-American War, which was not really
much of a war, and the Civil War. The Civil War was very much a--a
part of our--our life. I mentioned in the book the--the state song of
Illinois. Unlike most state songs, it really does focus on the Civil
War; again, perhaps because of Lincoln and Grant. After all, he came
from Galena, Illinois, and Logan. `And when the Southern hosts came
through, pitting gray against the blue, there were none more brave
than you, Illinois, Illinois.' We sang that. It was the state song.
We don't do that anymore, I guess.
LAMB: Do you have to have war to have patriotism?
Prof. BERNS: That was a question I hoped you wouldn't ask because,
of course, it reflects on our present situation. Do we need another
war in order to--to revive patriotism? I'll answer to this extent:
It sure helps if it's a good war, unlike the Vietnam War.
LAMB: So what happens to us if we don't have patriotism as a country?
Prof. BERNS: Well, of course, if we don't have patriotism, if we
don't have wars, we don't need patriotism--patriotism so much. On the
other hand, we still--we still need patriots who think of the country
and think of their fellow citizens and are willing to make sacrifices
for their fellow citizens, even if they're not in wartime. We need
public spiritedness and a war, of course, is a--a great way of
inculcating that. It's interesting that Lincoln understand that, too,
in that--that final paragraph of his first inaugural, most of which is
trying to persuade the Sou--Southern states not to secede from the
Union. He ends up by, `I'm loathe to close. We are not enemies, we
are friends. We are not enemies, we must not be enemies. Passion may
have strained, but must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic
cords of memory stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to
every living heart and hearts known all over--all over this broad land
will yet swell the course of the Union when it--when they are touched
as they will be touched by the better reaches of our nature.'
I'm--I--I quote that in this context because, of course, he says
memories of battlefields and patriots' graves ref--relying on them and
that--of course, that means wars. And, of course, what he did was to
use the, in Gettysburg, use the graves at Gettysburg to swell the
course of the Union.
LAMB: Where did you--or when did you memorize that?
Prof. BERNS: The Gettysburg Address I memorized when I was a
schoolboy. But this--this other one, I don't know that I have
memorized it. I--I've come close to it. And I've just--I'm just
struck by it. It's such a beautiful passage and it's such a--an
unlikely statement to be made by a president of the United States.
And only a Lincoln could do it and then only under c--under certain
circumstances. You know, the interesting thing about Lincoln is even
when he was 28 years of--old and--and made that speech to the Young
Men's Lyceum of Springfield--it was a speech entitled "The
Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions"--he knew that these
institutions were threatened and ma--might not be perpetuated. And he
set out to understand the threat and then to figure out how they might
be perpetuated. And as I--I do in the book, I put that speech, that
early speech, with this last paragraph of the first inaugural and then
the Gettysburg Address--it's--all of them, they fit together. You
know, the legend is that he--he scribbled the Gettysburg Address on
the back of an envelope on a train going to Gettysburg. That's--it
could be true, but he--he had been thinking about this, literally
thinking about it for years. And that didn't--the Gettysburg Address
simply didn't come out of the tip of his tongue at the last moment.
LAMB: How long have you been thinking about "Making Patriots"?
Prof. BERNS: This book, not so long.
LAMB: But what led up to it? The background and the information?
Prof. BERNS: I wrote, in a preface to a book that I published about
a dozen years ago, something to the following effect like Moilere
mis--What was his name? He had to be reminded that he was--Jerdan was
it? He had to be reminded he was speaking prose all his life? I had
come to realize finally I'd been--all my political career, been
writing a defense of liberal democracy and American liberal democracy.
So this book is merely a continuation of other books I've written.
And in a way, it's--it's--it's my career as a--as a university
LAMB: Where did you teach?
Prof. BERNS: Mostly Cornell. I ended up here at Georgetown as a
university professor, but Cornell is principally where I taught.
LAMB: And what did you teach at Cornell?
Prof. BERNS: The Constitution of the United States. Like other
colleagues in the department, w--each one of us had to teach an
introduction to American government, but then we went off in our
special ways, and my special way was the Constitution of the United
States. And I taught that and I taught courses on Abraham Lincoln.
Of course, it was on the founding of the United States, which I taught
twice at the University of Chicago when I went there, especially for
LAMB: One of the things I did when I read your book was write down
almost every name that you mentioned from Rousseau to Socrates, names
of people that had something to do with what our founders here had
read and all that get up to speak.
Prof. BERNS: Yeah.
LAMB: And I want to ask you about them. Rousseau comes up a lot.
Who was he and what impact has he had on what we are as a country?
Prof. BERNS: Little im--impact directly. In the first place, what
he--what he was was a political philosopher in the 18th century. And
he reflected on--on the--the modern thought; for example, the thought
of the enlightened Hobbes and Locke. And he had some misgivings about
the--their understanding of these things and wondered about whether it
would finally succeed. And among other things, he--he thought about
religion, thought about the--the difficulty that religion had posed,
and for example, especially in the 17th century England, the religious
wars, the civil wars there, and he concluded that what was needed was
a--a civiled religion, and--and in a way, a--a religion without
priests. And by civiled religion, he meant a religion that something
like the ancients. Athens and Sparta had their own gods and he--he
saw that as a kind of solution, too, where there would be no contest
between that which is God's and that which is the state's and then put
them together. And I quote him to that effect and use him for that
LAMB: Who followed him?
Prof. BERNS: Well, in--in a way, it's--I'd have to go back on what
preceded him--who preceded him. For our purposes, John Locke preceded
him. And John Locke was the principle political philosopher who
influenced the Declaration of Independence, for example, and certainly
influenced the--our thought on the division of church and state. He
wrote a very influential piece on toleration that Jefferson quoted,
and Jefferson wrote notes in the margin of it. And interesting
enough, his notes on the margin of Locke's letter on toleration are
still extant. We can--we can find them. And his reflections on
Locke's letter on toleration found their way into the famous Virginia
statute on religious freedom, which is a major--Bernard Bailyn thinks
it's the major historical document in our history, and there's much to
be said for that. I myself would say Declaration of Independence, but
a strong case could be made for this Virginia statute, because our
separation of church and state is--is surely a--a major aspect of
American principles. When we say, as we do on our every dollar bill,
novus ordo seclorum, a new order of the ages, what we really mean by
that, I think, is largely separation of church and state.
LAMB: Wh--John Locke lived when? Where did he come from?
Prof. BERNS: He was a 17th-century English political philosopher.
Wrote, for our purposes, something called the "Second Treatise of
Civil Government," which certain phrases from that treatise are to be
found in the Declaration of Independence. Americans quoted it time
and again. He, in a way, is a--the political philosopher underlying
our--our Constitution and--and the Declaration of Independence.
LAMB: Who else would Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and these
folks have read?
Prof. BERNS: Oh, well, they--they would have read Montesquieu. They
refer to him as a celebrated Montesquieu. He was--this is an
18th-century Frenchman, somewhat earlier than Rousseau. He wrote
"Spirit of the Laws" and a--in a certain section of it talked about
the separation of powers, and we reflected on that.
LAMB: Do you think, for instance, that James Madison read Montesquieu
Prof. BERNS: Oh, yes.
LAMB: Well, I mean, read him and said, `Yeah, that's the way I think'
and then just--you found his--Montesquieu's thesis right into the
Prof. BERNS: No. Well, tha--that's the way I think. That's hard to
say. But there's no question but that Montesquieu influenced him as
well as others--Hamilton, for example. Oh, sure, they--they read
these people and they reflected on them, took some things that they
wrote and discarded other things, I suppose. But largely, in terms of
principles, they accepted Locke's treatise, for example.
LAMB: What about Rousseau? Did--where did he live?
Prof. BERNS: Well, Rousseau died just before our Declaration of
Independence. So he didn't really figure that much. But he did
reflect on modern principles of political philosophy and, for example,
cast some doubt about the--the possibility of a decent government
being established on those principles. And he has a--a much more
influence on people today than I think he did at the beginning. He,
for example, coined the term bourgeois, as we understand it. And when
our academics speak contemptuously or our--our painters and writers
speak contemptuously of the bourgeoisie, then they're speaking in
Rousseau's terms. Rousseau understood the bourgeois. Of course, the
term itself is an--was an old term. But bourgeois--but Rousseau gave
it its modern meaning: A person who takes care of themself, thinks
only of his own business and doesn't take care of the public good.
And when we complain about our capitalists who sell things to China,
when we're concerned about selling secrets, defense secrets to China,
we, to some extent, rely on--on Rousseau, because he anticipated that
sort of thing. As--as Marx--Marx followed him, but in many ways, Marx
was influenced by Rousseau. I'll just leave it at that.
LAMB: Wh--what do you think of Karl Marx?
Prof. BERNS: Karl Marx was a--a major figure and a major thinker.
He was also wrong. He was, you know, seriously wrong when he thought
that nothing happens by chance in history and it was inevitable
that--just as it was inevitable that--that the--the Communist
revolution would supersede the feudalism, in due course--feudalism is
a thing of the past and then the--the--socialism would supersede
liberal democracy and capitalism, and in due course, the social state
would with--would wither away. And this was all laws of history.
Well, it didn't work out that way. I mean, the Soviet Union, which
was the--this--the socialist state par excellence, didn't wither away.
It just simply collapsed out of its own contradictions.
You--you know, what--what do I think of Karl Marx? It's not
sufficient simply to say that he--he was an evil man because, of
course, he wasn't an evil man. Lots of evil people picked him up and
used him, and Stalin was an evil man. But Marx wasn't. Marx was
a--was a major thinker. He was simply wrong in certain respects.
Besides, what I think about Marx doesn't make any difference.
LAMB: Why not?
Prof. BERNS: Well, it's irrelevant. Marx is now irrelevant.
Marxism is dead.
LAMB: But for how long was he relevant?
Prof. BERNS: Well, for a large part of the 19th century and--and
well into the 20th century, and we, of course, fought a Cold War and
the consequence of which was we put an end to Marxism.
LAMB: What would you like to have your students, who you--do you have
any idea how many students you've taught in your life?
Prof. BERNS: Thousands, if you count the people in the introductory
courses, for example, Government 101 at Cornell. There would be well
over 100. Well over 100. And I used to have a little over 100 in the
constitutional law at--at--at Cornell.
LAMB: How many years were you at Cornell?
Prof. BERNS: Ten. As a matter of fact, I had an interesting
experience. When Janet Reno was appointed attorney general of the
United States, she went back to Cornell. And I hadn't known that she
was a Cornell student. But she went back in Cornell and--and said
something about how much she was influenced, especially by two people:
one, a chap in literature; and me. And I never--I wasn't aware that I
had her in a--a con-law class. But I kept all my course records, in
part because I'm--for years was being asked to write letters of
recommendation for students. I simply kept them. And I looked back
in the--1959, there indeed was Janet Reno. She was a good student,
but I couldn't remember, which I found strange because the idea of a
6'2" inch woman, even in a large class of 100 students, I ought to
have remembered her. But I didn't. But there she was.
LAMB: What do--what would you want the students that you taught to
say about you?
Prof. BERNS: About me?
LAMB: About you and the way you taught.
Prof. BERNS: Oh, dear.
LAMB: What would make you the happiest?
Prof. BERNS: That I had given them reasons to love this country, I
LAMB: Why? Why is that the motivator for you?
Prof. BERNS: Well, I th--I--as I say in the book, the United
States--or America is the one essential country, and I quote Lincoln,
of course, as the last, best hope of Earth. And he thought that was
so, and I think it's so. And we are, as I say, the--the one essential
country. We had to defeat the fascists and the Nazis in World War II,
and it was largely our--our doing that that victory was won. Britain
could have done--could not have done it alone. And we were essential
in--in the Cold War.
And I think we're still essential in two respects: one, to--to serve
as a model of a liberal democracy; and then secondly, to defend
liberal demo--the liberal democracy around the world. And that, we
have to do. And we're constantly given examples of that, and it's
a--a constant battle. To what extent do we get involved in Kosovo and
so forth? And I can understand all the reasons why we might not want
to do so. Currently, the one is Macedonia with the Albanian and the
fights there. All kinds of reasons why we should not get involved in
that, and, of course, the argument is: W--to what extent is our
national interest involved in it? But, in a way, our national
interest is involved wherever liberal democracy exists and wherever
And it's interesting then--What?--12, 13 years ago, Tiananmen Square
and the Chinese thing, they--they built a Statue of Liberty modeled
after ours. And that's--and that's interesting, these Chinese
students. There was a--I gather there was a discussion as to whether
the--the--the human figure should be Chinese with exocanthic eyes or
Western eyes, and it was decided it really didn't make any difference.
And it didn't, of course. But I just find it interesting that--that
our influence there is reflected in this simple fact of the Statue of
LAMB: As you know, we got the Statue of Liberty from the French.
Prof. BERNS: Oh, yes, I know. And it was a repli...
LAMB: And you can s...
Prof. BERNS: It was a replica of an ascendent...
LAMB: Right--right now.
Prof. BERNS: ...of a smaller version--smaller version of it, yeah.
LAMB: And the reason I bring that up, do you think they have any--do
we have any more claim to democracy and freedom than the French do?
Prof. BERNS: Oh, sure. Oh, sure. There's an old joke involving an
American in Paris, well familiar with Paris, who has to go someplace,
and he goes to the head of the (French spoken) and opens the door and
says, `Gadanor'--or whatever, and--and the cab driver didn't want to
go there at that time of day. And he goes down the whole line, and no
cab driver will take him there. And he--at the last, he--he says,
`This is the sort of attitude that will put the end to the Third
Republic,' and the cab driver says, `There'll be a fourth.' Now to
bring it up to date, there'll be a sixth--or a fifth or a sixth.
If you--if you look at French history since their Revolution, which
more or less the same time of ours, we've had one great struggle, the
Civil War, of course, but one Constitution, really.
LAMB: You tell a story about going to Brazil back in--What?--1987?
Prof. BERNS: Yeah. Yeah. And it was interesting there.
LAMB: Wh--why were you there then?
Prof. BERNS: I'd been invited to lecture on constitutionalism at a
time when they had overthrown some military--military rulers, and they
were beginning to talk about a constitution, how to write a
constitution, what was essential in the writing of the constitution.
So I was there as someone coming from the United States. And--and in
this one place, the University of Recife, I had finished and somebody
got up and s--and denounced not me, but the chap who had invited me, a
local Brazilian. `Why did you invite an American?' he said. `They've
had only one Constitution. Why didn't you invite--invite a Bolivian?
They've had 100.' He said, you know, `They've had greater experience
in writing a constitution; therefore, get someone from that place.'
And I enjoy that story because, of course, the essential thing is to
concentrate on our success and whether our success might be a model
for the Brazilians. And we really have had only one Constitution.
LAMB: Why do you think that's the case?
Prof. BERNS: In part, because, A, it's a good Constitution; B, we
were--and Tocqueville makes this point, of course--we were not
surrounded by enemies--powerful enemies. And compare our geographical
situation with, say, Poland: Russians on one side and Germans on the
other. And throughout the greater part of our history, we--we simply
didn't have that--those kind of enemies on our borders.
Secondly--or thirdly, we had a great country, a great continent, which
was rich, and we could reap its rewar--rewards. But f--mostly, as
I--what I started with, it's a good Constitution. It was written by
people who understood politics, understood modern politics, understood
human beings, what moves them. And beyond that, of course, we're
lucky. Tocqueville made that point, too. He said, `You Americans are
lucky. You were born equal instead of having'--how does that go?
`You were born equal instead of becoming so,' comparing us with the
What he meant by that, the--and this really does answer your--your
qu--your first question having to do with the French Revolution.
The--the F--after the French Revolution, there were aristocrats, some
monarches, the sons of monarches and a whole body of aristocrats who
had been dispossessed of their place and their property and were
sullen and were anxious to come back and regain their place. And they
made that effort, for a large part, in the 19th century, whereas we
were born equal without becoming so. There were some aristocrats
here. They went back to England, some of them--some of the Tories.
Others went to Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, sort of
territory that was really made for them. But they were few in number,
relatively speaking, and they left. And the only people left were we
democrats, and that made a difference.
LAMB: If you're a black American watching this, you would say, `We
didn't get that deal.'
Prof. BERNS: That's true, and it took a long time. And that, of
course, is the--is the major aspect of our history. And I think it's
important for students to go back and understand that issue as it was
in the beginning, see the difficulties it caused and--and see how that
problem was overcome. The Constitution, you know, doesn't use
the--the word `slavery' doesn't appear in the Constitution until
the--the 13th Amendment abolishing it. Frederick Douglass understood
this very well and--and understood the difficulties of overcoming that
Originally, you know--there's no real--there's really no doubt about
this. Everybody, including the leading Southerners, were
anti-slavery. They understood the incompatibility of slavery and the
principles of the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson, for
example, understood this very well indeed. Unfortunately, Jefferson
really did nothing to overcome it. Washington freed his slaves. And
had it not been for the cotton gin and had it not been for the opening
up of the Western lands, making slavery possible, making cotton
possible there--but I--you know, I do think it's necessary for us to
go back and read that history and understand the incompatibility of
the principles and what happened and the difficulty of overcoming
For an example, how many of us appreciate the difficulty the Founders
had? People are--sometimes condemn the Founders for not abolishing
slavery or for accepting the Constitution without abolishing slavery.
Well, had they done what modern critics say, there would have been two
United States: one United States of Southern America, call it the
Confederate States of America, and then the United States. And what
would have been the consequences of that? Almost all the black people
in this country, at that time 90-some-odd percent of them, lived in
the South, and almost all of them were slaves there. What was hope
Hope consisted in the Union, and the--the Founders understood that and
Lincoln understood that, so that he sometimes is--are condemned for
saying that his first task was to preserve the Union and, secondly, to
emancipate slaves. He understood very well, and Frederick Douglass
understood this very well. The condition for emancipation was the
If the Confederate States of America, in 1860, had been allowed to go
the wrong way, as a Confederate States in 1787 had gone the wrong way,
the--the slavery would have been a part of that original Constitution,
and there was really little hope for emancipation under those
conditions. And, first, you preserve the Union--first, you get the
Union, in 1787, with the prospect that, in due course, slavery w--will
be abolished. And then in 1860, 1865, preserve the Union as a
condition of emancipating slaves. That was true.
LAMB: How much of what's happened in our country can the white person
take credit for vs. the black, like Frederick Douglass and many
others, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, up to Martin Luther King? I
mean, if the black hadn't agitated for their freedom, do you think the
whites would have ever given it to them?
Prof. BERNS: Probably no. But a condition of their agitation,
really, was that--the principles of the Declaration--you know,
it's--Martin Luther King Jr., for an example, it's not by chance that
he delivered his great speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
What--where--what other place in this country was it appropriate for
him to make that speech? There. And, of course, to think of Lincoln
is to think of the Declaration of Independence. He made a career of
that when he opens the--the--the--the Gettysburg Address with saying,
`Four score and seven years ago.' Well, he's speaking 1863; 1863 minus
four score and seven, 87, is 1776. Gets us back to 1776, those
It's those principles that--that they're anti-slavery principles, and
they were violated and forgotten in the beginning--or certainly
violated--and there was a prospect that they would be violated again,
especially in the 1850s when Stephen Douglas of Ill--of Illinois was
largely responsible for the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which opened up these
Western territories to slavery by--with--under the principle of
popular sovereignty. And Lincoln insisted, `If you say popular
sovereignty, which is to say you allow the people of the territories
to be free or a slave, that's a violation of the principle of the--of
the--the Declaration,' and he would not stand for it. And he
went--went back into politics because of it, and he fought--became
president because of it and he fought the Civil War because of it, and
he won the Civil War. And the result was the freedom we have.
Now you asked me would slavery have been abolished without the--the
agitation of the black people. I said probably not. On the other
hand, there were all kinds of people in this country who--who were
agitating to abolish slavery. Just think of the--those people in New
England, William Lloyd Garrison and the others who, beginning in the
1840s and culminating in the 1850s, were anti-slavery people. And
they played a major role in the--in the emancipation, and they
were--and they were white people.
LAMB: Go again to all your list of thinkers, and we haven't--you
know, Edmund Burke and Martin Luther and Horace Greeley. I've just
wri--written down everybody that's--that I could that you wrote about
from--you mentioned Alexander Hamilton and Jefferson Davis and Henry
Clay and Thomas Paine and Adam Smith, all these people.
Prof. BERNS: All these people, yeah.
LAMB: If--if you had to put your finger on one or two of them who
have had more impact on things like what got us to where it's a freer
country today than, say, it was 220 years ago, basic principles that
allow the Constitution...
Prof. BERNS: Yeah.
LAMB: ...to live, who would it be in history?
Prof. BERNS: Well, Madison, surely. He's--he's known rightly as the
father of the Constitution, and he's also the father of the Bill of
Rights. It was largely his doing that the Bill of Rights was adopted,
later on; Hamilton, because of his influence over economic matters.
You know, Ha--Hamilton is largely forgotten in this city. There's no
great monument to Hamilton. There's a statue of him outside the--the
Treasury Building. But other than that, there's no great monument,
whereas Jefferson's all over the place. But Hamilton was a great
soldier. He had a--played a major role in the de--defeat of the
British in the Battle of Yorktown, the last battle, and, of course, he
was a major figure in the first administration of George Washington,
setting down the terms of the Bri--the--the American economy, really.
And that's a--has a lot to do with our subsequent history,
our--our--our subsequent prosperity.
LAMB: But back up from that, though. I mean, James Madison--who's
the greatest influence on James Madison?
Prof. BERNS: Well, to some extend, Locke, surely. And...
LAMB: By the way, where'd Locke get it? Is it original with him?
Prof. BERNS: Well, certain things came from Hobbes, Thomas Hobbes.
LAMB: When did he live?
Prof. BERNS: Fifty years or so before Locke, and he wrote in the
early part of the 17th century. And he was--Hobbes really was an
originator. And, you know, it was--you know, it--it was Hobbes,
followed by Locke, who talked about the state of nature and the rights
that men enjoy, natural rights in the state of nature, how it's
necessary to leave the state of nature for civil society, which is
done by a contract. All that is American doctrine, but all of that
comes from--directly from--from--from Locke, but indirectly from
LAMB: Where did Hobbes live?
Prof. BERNS: Well, he lived--he was an Englishman.
LAMB: Are there others?
Prof. BERNS: Other Englishmen?
LAMB: Other anybodies that you think that--be--behind all these
Prof. BERNS: Well, to some extent, David Hume, a Scottsman, had a
great deal to do with commercial activities, as did Adam Smith. And
Adam Smith's great w--work, "The Wealth of Nations," was published the
same year as--1776, as our Const--as our Declaration of Independence,
and these people had read Smith and studied Smith.
LAMB: When did he live?
Prof. BERNS: Well, the latter part of the 18th century into the
early 19th century, another Scottsman.
LAMB: What about Thomas Paine? What do you think his role's been in
all of this?
Prof. BERNS: Well, he was a great, in a sense, journalist. John
Adams didn't like him. He was a propagandist, and there's no denying
that his book, "Common Sense," m--I--I--I--I mentioned it in--in my
book how many copies it--it sold, an exceedingly large number of
copies, over 100,000 copies, I think, which was a large number
of--of--it's only a little pamphlet, but i--it's a large number of
pamphlets to be sold in the United States of 1780s--1770s, '80s.
Yeah, Thomas Paine, a great propagandist and, in--in that way,
co--contributed to the--the beginning of the United States.
LAMB: Why do we see so often people like you mention Edmund Burke,
and who was he?
Prof. BERNS: Well, Edmund Burke was an Anglo-Irish statesman and
writer. He was a friend of the American Revolution; complained about
the fact that the Bri--the British tried to suppress the American
Revolution. And in addition to being--being a statesman, a member of
Parliament, he was a profound man who wrote serious political works.
And I don't know that any of his work had any influence on our
Founders, but certainly a lot of people since then have been writing
and being--had been influenced by Burke.
LAMB: Why do you...
Prof. BERNS: Con--conservatives refer to Burke as one of their
f--founders, in a sense, political, influential people.
LAMB: Why do you write about William McGuffey?
Prof. BERNS: Because he wrote a gr--he wrote books that
millions--literally millions of Americans were educated with. They
were schoolbooks, and millions of copies of these books were from the
17--from 1830s, and they were still being used in the 1920s.
LAMB: McGuffey's Reader.
Prof. BERNS: McGuffey's Readers, yeah.
LAMB: Have you ever seen them?
Prof. BERNS: Oh, sure. Oh, sure. When I was writing this book, I
had all of them and the various editions of them. Oh, sure.
LAMB: What'd they look like? What were they--why were they so
Prof. BERNS: Well, they were little primers, and they're easily
handled. A child could stand up and read them and was expected to
stand up in class and to read from them and hold them easily, not like
holding an encyclopedia. And they consisted of lessons, moral lessons
largely. The first edition were more forthrightly Christian, and the
last edition was less Christian and, in a way, moralistic. That was,
I suppose, inevitable because you got into trouble because not every
American was a Protestant. The Catholics had their own schools,
and--and so they were not in the public schools and had their own
LAMB: Was that a financial decision on his part, to sell more? I
mean, he took the Christian part of it out and...
Prof. BERNS: Someone suggested that might have something to do with
it, but I don't think so. He, himself, was a--a Methodist minister
and a professor. And I think the situation--the--you know, the--the
world changed; the American world changed, the schoolchildren changed
and you had to accommodate a greater variety of--of interests,
religious interests. It would--there would be Episcopalians and
Baptists and Presbyterians and so forth, and there might be some
quarrels about certain, you know, Christian doctrine.
LAMB: You write about Martin Luther. What impact did he have on us?
Prof. BERNS: Well, Martin Luther, of course, had very little direct
impact on us in the United States. He had a great impact on the
world, however, when he tacked his thesis on the wall and started
the--what we call the reformation.
LAMB: What about Nathan Hale?
Prof. BERNS: Ah, Nathan Hale. I called him the--the--the way of the
prototypical American patriot, who, in the very beginning, when on the
sc--the scaffold about to be hanged by the British in 1776 said
he--famously he regretted he had but one life to lose for his country.
And as I say in the book, his alma mater, Yale, erected a statue.
It's there in the old campus--there still. I don't know whether a
typical Yale student recognizes it nor pays obeisance to it, but at a
time, I suppose, they did.
LAMB: What about King George III?
Prof. BERNS: Well, King George III was the--was the enemy. We, in
the Declaration of Indence--Independence, attributed all kinds of
terrible things to him and--which gave us the justification for
revolting against him.
LAMB: You say that America has never gone to war against any other
Prof. BERNS: Yeah.
LAMB: Why'd you make that point?
Prof. BERNS: That, I think, is true. I'm not the one who
started--the originator of that. It was--it was understood from the
very beginning. In fact, Hamilton talks about it in--in The
Federalist papers, how commercial countries are not likely to be
warlike. He thought, nevertheless, they would be. But it was
understood from the beginning, and there's some truth to it, that
liberal democracies devoted to a commerce, as ours is, are likely to
trade more than go to war.
And Humes, for example, talked about commerce and the softening of
morals, and what he meant by that, among other things, for example,
rather than fight duels, we modern men are likely to go to court and
file for libel or slander rather than fight duels. And that's a
softening of our morals. We're not so likely to go to war or to fight
over certain things. That's true. And I do think it is true that
n--no two liberal democracies have ever gone to war against each
LAMB: You also say there's--we're the only country in the world that
would allow--our--our name, like there's no other place where you
would say--you say he's un-American. But you wouldn't say he's
un-French or he's un-Chinese.
Prof. BERNS: Yeah.
LAMB: Why is that? What does it mean to be un-American?
Prof. BERNS: Well, in the first place, as I say in the book, quoting
Martin Diamond, an old friend of mine--and then, of course, G.K.
Chesterton, an Englishman, too, made the same point before Martin
Diamond did--we speak of Americanization and un-American, and there
are no counterparts in other--any other language, and that's
not--that's simply is--not simply a question of phonetics. We speak
of Americanism, and--but the Swiss don't speak of Swissism, and that's
not simply because it's phonetically undesirable.
We are--we speak of these things because, as Chesterton said, we're
the only country that was founded on a creed, and that creed is in the
Declaration of Independence. When--when we started and said and
proclaimed at the beginning of this--that we were a new order of the
ages, among other things, we were the first country that was founded
on new principles that did not--that not turned to the rear, turned to
its past and re--re--reflect on its history when--at the time of the
founding. We were new, and these are new principles. And we were the
first country to deliberately found ourselves on those principles, and
that's what Chesterton meant when he said, `We're the only country
founded on a creed.' That's true, at the time. Soviet Union was
founded on a creed, too, but we were the first to--to found on a creed
in that sense.
LAMB: Have you done--have you had any political jobs in your life?
Prof. BERNS: I've never been p--elected to p--public office. I
have--I've served in Geneva as the US member to the Human Rights
Commission. I've been--I served on another special session of the
United Sta--United Nations Human Rights Commission, and I was a member
of the National Endowment for the Humanities for six years, but I've
never been elected to public office.
LAMB: What did--you know, trying to understand why the United States
got kicked off the Human Rights Commission...
Prof. BERNS: Uh-huh, yeah.
LAMB: ...and countries like Sudan and others got on.
Prof. BERNS: Yeah.
LAMB: Can you explain all that to us?
Prof. BERNS: Uh-huh. Yes, I wish I could.
LAMB: And does--is--is--the Human Rights Commission mean anything?
Prof. BERNS: Well, there are those who say it means a great deal. I
am not one of those. I don't think we ever did very much, in my
experience, when I was on it. We...
LAMB: When--when were you on it?
Prof. BERNS: In the '80s. Yeah. I forget exactly...
LAMB: Ronald Reagan appointment?
Prof. BERNS: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, although I think he had nothing to
do with it. He appointed me to the National Endowment for the
Humanities, but it was an assistant secretary of State actually who
appointed me to the Human Rights Commission. The Human Rights
Commission i--identifies offenses against human rights in particular
countries and issues reports and complains and so forth. I don't
think that it has much to do with directing those defenses.
LAMB: Does it spend much money?
Prof. BERNS: It spends some. It's not a--it's not a major drain on
our--on our economy.
LAMB: How big a staff do they have?
Prof. BERNS: Oh, well, like--I remember the--in New York, on a
special occasion, I--my first day there, I had lunch in the UN a--UN
cafeteria, and the prices must have been set in 1950 and they hadn't
been changed since. It was--someone is subsidizing those--those
prices, those lunches, and you--you know who. Yeah. The UN is, of
course, overstaffed, and it's a--work in Geneva is sort of plush.
Geneva is a--a very nice place to work, and the UN--the Human Rights
Commission works in the League of Nations Building there on the shores
of the lake.
LAMB: The National Endowment for the Humanities--what did you learn
about government or anything from being on the Humanities board for
Prof. BERNS: Well, the--the task of the--of the NEH, of course, is
to strengthen the teaching of the humanities, largely in the
universities, and it depends a great deal on who was chairman of the
LAMB: Who was there when you were there?
Prof. BERNS: Bill Bennett and then Lynne--Lynne Cheney. The
recent--in fact, he's still chairman, this man, Ferris, is more
interested in folklore than he is the humanities, properly understood
as I would understand it. I think it's very important for the
universities to teach the humanities, and f--folklore is not a part of
that curriculum, as I understand it.
LAMB: Let me ask you this. A lot of authors that sit where you're
sitting have had their books underwritten by the National Endowment
for the Humanities. Are we getting a fair deal on this, as a
Prof. BERNS: I'm only familiar with those works that were, in a way,
subsidized during my time on the NEH.
LAMB: How political was it when you were there?
Prof. BERNS: Not--not political at all, really. We tried--not
political in the sense of partisan. There--it was not--it was not--it
was not partisan.
LAMB: Is there a certain kind of history that's being funded vs.
others that are not being funded because of--for some reason?
Prof. BERNS: Well, we always had disagreements, and you're bound to
have disagreements as to the kind of history or who's an important
historian. There are complaints now today. I just got through
reading one in The New Republic by a Princeton historian complaining
about David McCullough's history and biography of John Adams. One
would think that that's a very popular work and a very good work, and
history--historians would not disagree. But they're--you know,
LAMB: But not funded by the NE--NEH.
Prof. BERNS: No, no, not funded by the NEH. I can't identify any
particular work that was funded by NEH during my time there, although,
as I said, I do think we'd funded good works, good books that deserve
to be funded.
LAMB: Do you think it's a good idea for the taxpayer to spend money
on the NEH, the National Endowment for the Humanities?
Prof. BERNS: In principle, it is, but I once testified before
Congress urging them to put an end to the NEH and the NEA, because
everything depends on the chairman--who's the chairman at the time.
And it's very easy to have a whole project corrupted and for the NEH
and the NEA, especially, to--to fund things that we ought not to be
funding. That's more readily discernible, I think, in the case of the
NEA and all its troubles. It's--it's had--its--its troubles have been
much more public a few years ago: you know, funding of these
performance artists, including one of them who covered herself with
chocolate. I can't remember her name, Karen something or other.
LAMB: Back to your book, with our remoming--remaining moments we
have, who would you say, in your lifetime and all the studying you've
done, is your favorite patriot?
Prof. BERNS: Oh, Lincoln.
LAMB: Without question?
Prof. BERNS: Without question.
Prof. BERNS: He was, by far, the greatest American, probably one of
the greatest men in history.
LAMB: Why do so many people, on all sides of the political fe--fence,
not necessarily agree exactly with that, but come pretty close to
agreeing with that?
Prof. BERNS: You know, Lincoln has his--has--he had his enemies
during his lifetime; fewer since then. The manner of his death, of
course, contributed to his status, really, among us; you know, he was
martyred. But I--I just think Lincoln was a genius, and I use that
word sparingly--an astonishing intellect. And with a--and he
understood his own capacities and tried to conceal them, of course,
telling bawdy stories and pretending to be just one of the boys.
But much more than that, much--as I say, he was our poet, you know,
and I--I--I mean that. His words inspire us. And as I say in the
book, one can see that in these monuments, comparing--I use the--in
the book, comparing the Jefferson Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial
and the reception people have. I go to the Lincoln Memorial with some
frequency, largely to be--to see what the--the response th--it has on
my--my fellow citizens, how they respond to it. It's different from
them--from the Jefferson. In the Lincoln memorial, they--they stand
there, and they somehow sense the awesomeness of the place. And there
on the walls, carved on the wall is the words of the second inaugural
and the Gettysburg Address, and they read those words and see the
seated Lincoln before them, and it moves them. And--and I've seen
ordinary American citizens have tears in their eyes when they--when
they stand in that place. That's the--the effect that he has on
LAMB: You said you taught at Cornell for 10 years. How long were you
Prof. BERNS: I guess 10 years all told, but I--I--I began at
Georgetown as an adjunct professor teaching one day a week or
something like that, and then went there and became a university
professor. And I was a university professor for five years or
something like that, which meant I--I could teach what I wanted to
teach and how often I wanted to teach and...
LAMB: What are you doing now full time?
Prof. BERNS: Nothing at Georgetown.
LAMB: But besides that, besides writing books, anything you're doing?
Prof. BERNS: Well, I've--I've--I've got a responsibility to write a
piece on constitutionalism for a conference at the University of
London in November. I'm not going to London because I refuse to
travel on an airplane, but I'll send the piece there. I've got
another piece that I have to finish. Oh, yeah, I'm--you know,
I'm--I'm--I still work.
LAMB: Our guest has been Walter Berns, and here's what the book looks
like, "Making Patriots." Thank you very much.
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