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The James Wilson Foundation on Natural Rights and the American Founding

Remembrances of Michael Uhlmann, JWI Senior Scholar

by James Wilson Institute on October 8, 2019
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In the days and weeks ahead, JWI will feature some remembrances of our dear friend Michael Uhlmann who passed away on October 8, 2019. We will update this page with remembrances as we receive them.

Everyone’s been asked the hypothetical question: if you could share dinner with three people living or dead, who would they be? Few can say they had that dinner, much less enjoyed it each year for a while. For me, sharing a private meal with Michael Uhlmann, my mentor and “boss” Hadley Arkes, and David Forte during our James Wilson Fellowship was an annual occasion to cherish. I was spoiled as party to these three men, rigorous thinkers at the top of their craft, whose shared intellects were only exceeded by their devotion to one another as friends. These dinners had a homecoming quality to them. They were a chance for each of them to interact with a bit more intimacy than during the Fellowship’s seminars. Their overlapping interests served as common fodder for endless discussion. Natural law, the Constitution, faith, and family construed broadly to include close friends as well as direct kin. No argument could get by any of them. Laughter and encouragement met each rejoinder. One could not help but bear witness to the deep affection and admiration they shared for one another.

In my six-year friendship with Michael, I appreciated his unique blend of warmth, wisdom, and wisecracks (he might smile at the attempt at alliteration). Like his good friend Justice Scalia, Michael could have been best compared to a couple of Shakespeare’s characters. Michael embodied the mirth of Falstaff with the providential guidance of Polonius. Michael’s avuncular demeanor could be felt when he would call to check on you but also to solicit your sense of whatever the political or legal issue of the day might be. I will miss his genuine concern and interest in how I might view a case or controversy, be it a well discussed item of news or a private nugget to noodle over. Most of all, I will miss his calming voice of reason, placing our earthly affairs in the perspective they deserve in the way he signed off his phone calls with a simple, “God bless.”

My mother noted, when my father passed, “A great light has gone out.” That is true with Michael, but only by half. Michael is survived, if you will, by the many students who will, in his absence, carry on the arguments he imparted to them. Thus, the inscription on the tomb of the great architect of modern London, Christopher Wren, applies to Michael: “If you seek his monument, look about you.”

Garrett Snedeker, Deputy Director, JWI

Whenever Michael Uhlmann entered a room, he brightened the place. His frame and his presence were large, but he never sought to draw the light to himself.  Instead, he illuminated others.  He gave them understanding; he opened up ideas.  What he did draw to himself were souls.  He was, we all saw, a man without vanity.  And of how many people can we say that? 

 Mike and I were long ago friends.  As we aged, our friendship deepened. We laughed harder at each other’s jests, listened more earnestly to each other’s thoughts. In the times between our meetings, he called me frequently from California, concerned about my health, while he quietly bore an implacable ailment that made every step he took feel like he was walking through fire.

He was a man of prayer, and his prayer had effect. That I know. To that I can attest. He was as good a friend as any man could wish for.

He claimed not to be a scholar, but he was.  He was as well a teacher that could reach the mind and the heart of his listener.  At our large seminars, I watched him during our discussions as he scanned each face around the table to detect expressions of understanding, or dismay, or confusion, so when his own presentation came, he could speak to all of us as one to one. His words flowed out from the depths of knowledge, of experience, and of passion. They came packaged in humor, into which he himself joined with his famous staccato laugh punctuated with a happy snort at the end.

Through it all, his face glowed with goodness.  He loved us deeply, and we him.  Withal, he was a man of Christ.

I so regret that at the end, I was not able to say goodbye to him. But I hope that someday—please God—I may again say hello to my friend.

Prof. David Forte, Cleveland State University, JWI Senior Scholar

“Many often err and accomplish little or nothing,” Thomas à Kempis’ observed in his 15th century devotional The Imitation of Christ, “because they try to become learned rather than to live well.” Though a brilliant scholar, such could never have been said of Michael Uhlmann; he was a man who lived well. He pursued truth and fought for justice with dear friends at his side, and he was moved at all times by a love of God and a love of God’s image bearers.

As a graduate student, I was first struck by Hadley’s beautiful dedication to Mike in the pages of Natural Rights and the Right to Choose. I did not know Mike at the time, but I am grateful that our paths have crossed many times since, often at the Claremont and James Wilson Institute seminars. He was, true to Hadley’s dedication, maddeningly self-effacing. Many of the things I have only studied and written about, Mike actually lived.

In Mike’s last words to me, just after I had finished leading a seminar discussion on natural theology, he said with a disarming smile: “You know, you should think about becoming a professor. You’re pretty good at this.” We laughed, acknowledging through the humor that there is not much choice in our vocations, that we are each called to a certain kind of work.

Mike’s calling brought him to the place where politics and philosophy meet in the study and practice of statesmanship. It was there that he poured himself out in service to others. His was a life well lived, and I am grateful for his example, encouragement, and friendship – and deeply saddened by the news of his death.

Prof. Justin Dyer, University of Missouri, JWI Affiliated Scholar

I was honored to have worked alongside Michael Uhlmann for three years as part of the James Wilson Institute Fellowship’s faculty. My first year on the faculty, I had the privilege of taking a long lunch with Michael Uhlmann and Hadley Arkes where we covered everything from politics to funny pet stories. We had known each other before then, but we became good friends that day. He was an intellectual giant and a great teacher. Though his greatest lesson was the way he kept good cheer, even when things seemed hopeless–a testament to his faith. Over those three years of teaching, Mike always lectured on euthanasia and the law. In that lecture, he would always touch on the importance of each human life and its worth. Those lectures now have taken on special meaning in light of losing him. His work, legacy, and words of encouragement remain, which greatly consoles me. What is no longer here is that great laugh of his, which I will greatly miss.  

Gunnar Gundersen, J.D., JWI Affiliated Scholar

It is hard to imagine adding to the tributes to Michael Uhlmann by his friends, students, and other admirers. I did not know him very well; I had the pleasure of meeting him on only a few brief occasions at James Wilson Institute events. At those events, gathered with his dearest associates, he had no reason to pay any attention to me, yet he did. He was twice my age and tenfold (maybe a hundredfold) what I am in wisdom, achievements, faithfulness, and especially charisma. So he could have been aloof, yet he was exceptionally kind. I remember sitting on the roof of a tall building in DC a few summers ago with Professor Uhlmann and a couple of his closest contemporaries, reveling in his famously good company and marveling that he cared to include me in the conversation. He was such a decent man, and it was an honor to be a witness to and beneficiary of his exceptional decency. I am so saddened by his passing. But I am so thankful that I got to learn from him and, hopefully, learn to be a little more like him.

Prof. Daniel Mark, Villanova University, JWI Affiliated Scholar

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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