The James Wilson Foundation on Natural Rights and the American Founding

Michael Martin Uhlmann: In Memoriam (1939-2019)

by James Wilson Institute on October 9, 2019

JWI Founder and Director Hadley Arkes writes on the passing of one of his dearest friends, JWI Senior Scholar Michael Uhlmann.

We come to our friends today with heart-breaking news, on the death of our beloved Michael Uhlmann yesterday in California. In my own case, I’ve lost one of my dearest, closest friends, and the country has lost one of its most gifted, wisest teachers and public servants. I told a good part of Mike’s story when I dedicated my book Natural Rights & the Right to Choose (2002) to Michael Martin Uhlmann. That dedication ran far longer than dedications usually ran, because Mike was always too modest to tell his own story. I made a point of that in the dedication, just as I insisted that the story had to be told.

We are posting that dedication below. And we will be running, in the days to come, recordings of Mike in various lectures and commentaries he has done. We may also be open to letters of recollection, or memories of Mike, that people might be moved to offer. Especially prized for us is the talk Mike had done every year, as part of our seminar with young lawyers, on the remarkable person and statecraft of John Marshall. That talk has become a classic, and we include a recording below. It was magnificent in part because of the love and breadth of learning that Mike brought to the subject, but in part also because of the way Mike managed to show how Marshall’s shaping of our jurisprudence must establish his standing as a truly preeminent figure in the work of the American Founding.

But right now we pray for Mike–and hold to his memory.

–Hadley Arkes, October, 9, 2019

Michael Uhlmann (right) shares a laugh with David Forte during the James Wilson Fellowship
Michael Uhlmann “The Statesmanship of John Marshall” (Recorded during our 2015 James Wilson Fellowship)

Prof. Arkes’s dedication of Natural Rights and the Right to Choose to Michael Uhlmann.

“The final word is for Michael Uhlmann. Man of letters, counsel without peer, raconteur with limitless range, sustainer of families, runner to the rescue, devoted son of the Church, maddeningly self-effacing. For matters of moral consequence, enduring alertness; for pretension, unremitting jest. And in friendship, untiring, with the touch of grace that lifts everything. I write here with a free hand, not holding back, because I fill in a story that the principal himself will ever be too modest to set down. He immersed himself in Elizabethan literature at Yale, then went back for a while to teach at his beloved Hill School. But then to the law, at the University of Virginia, with the same depth of engagement, this time in jurisprudence and philosophy. Following philosophy out of the clouds, he moved thence to political philosophy, to earn his doctorate, studying with Leo Strauss and Harry Jaffa in Claremont. His natural – or supernatural – gifts of teaching kept him for a while in the academy, until the academy turned upside down in the turmoil of the late 1960s. He had done a master work on the Electoral College, and he was drawn away to Washington, to Senator Hruska, to save the Electoral College, when it was subject again, in the 1970s, to another bootless campaign to end it. The recurring melodrama would play out once again: the affectation of shock that we should be governed in modern times by such an anachronistic device, followed by an awareness, slowly setting in, that every practical alternative was notably worse or unworkable. The passion for reform would usually exhaust itself before Michael could go on to show that this arrangement, devised by the likes of Gouverneur Morris, might actually have something to do with preserving constitutional government in a continental republic. Staying in Washington, Michael would join the staff of Senator James Buckley, where he wrote the first Human Life Amendment. He would be recruited to the Department of Justice under President Ford, where he would shepherd John Paul Stevens to confirmation at the Supreme Court, and eventually persuade a young Clarence Thomas that he could find his vocation in judging. With the advent of the Reagan administration, Michael became counselor to the president, where he argued compellingly, and dealt deftly, on matters freighted with a moral significance. He took an active lead in propelling the administration into action, in dealing with the Baby Doe cases that arose in the 1980s. In those cases, parents sought to withhold medical care from newborn infants afflicted with Down’s syndrome and spina bifida. If there was a federal presence, casting up alarms, standing against the trends, it was there mainly as a function of his own art.

“At one moment, he was persuaded by his friends to let himself be appointed to the federal court of appeals in the District of Columbia. But that was also the moment when the rigors of teenage years began to be felt keenly in a family of five children, and he came to the judgment that his energies and wit had to be absorbed more fully in the family at that moment than in the courthouse. For his friends it has been a lasting source of disappointment that he did not take that appointment – as it has been a source of pride among the same friends that he made the decision he did. But in public office, or in private practice, returning to teaching, or to the life of a private foundation, his counsel has been sought by people at every level in the country, from Attorneys General and presidents to kids in the shipping room. He continues to be, at every turn, the sustainer of everyone else. I have pleaded with him never more to write an essay or speech with the willingness to put, in place of his own name, the name of a figure in public office. In the judgment of his friends, he has been too inclined to efface himself, with rationales too public-spirited: namely, that the byline of a public figure will draw more attention to the argument, and the argument may be far more important than the name attached to it. With the same temper, he is apt to spend Thanksgiving Day working at a kitchen in the parish or painting walls for nuns. And on Christmas morning, his friends are likely to find gifts laid at the doorstep, from a messenger evidently sweeping past in a Mercury station wagon rather than a sleigh. When he returned to teaching, with a stint back in Claremont, one of his students wrote in a review that “Professor Uhlmann could read the telephone book and make it compelling.” He could also, no doubt, lead the students into its deeper implications and find, somewhere in that prosaic thing, the lurking premises of modernity.

“In the course of this book I describe the proposal I had shaped as the most modest first step of all on abortion: to preserve the life of the child who survived the abortion. When it appeared to be the moment to revive that proposal in 1998, Michael made the rounds with me on Capitol Hill, meeting with senators, congressmen, and their staffs. He would take himself out of any of his projects to join me, with a keen sense of what staffers on the Hill would find helpful. With the right blend of respect and familiarity, and with the authority of one who had been there before, he would make the case, and no one made it better. Along with Robert George, of Princeton, he knew the logic of that bill as well as the one who devised it. The sparest account of Michael, and the one most readily recognized, might well be that account, in All’s Well That Ends Well, of Bertram’s late father, a man legendary for his wisdom in council. Of him the poet writes that

… his honour
Clock to itself, knew the true minute when
Exception bade him speak, and at this time
His tongue obeyed his hand.

“Governed by that hand, this account would have ended far earlier. But I plead again for a certain license when the principal figure in the story will never broadcast it himself. Lincoln, as a young politician, in his taut style, defended his course and said, “If I falsify in this you can convict me. The witnesses live, and can tell.” In this account, I would invoke the same claim, and the venture is even more warranted here Because the chief witness would never tell or speak of what he has done. His friends know, and so they must tell. Judy Arkes and Susannah Patton would no doubt skip the embellishment, but they would confirm the judgment, and they would join me, with deep affection, in dedicating this book to Michael Martin Uhlmann.”



Law and liberty cannot rationally become the objects of our love, unless they first become the objects of our knowledge.
— James Wilson, Lectures on Law, 1790