Walter Berns, a prominent constitutional scholar who served on the faculty of TFAS’s first overseas institute, died on Jan. 10, 2015 at the age of 95. Berns was a professor emeritus at Georgetown University and a resident scholar emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute.
In 1993, when TFAS launched its Prague-based American Institute on Political and Economic Systems (AIPES), Berns lectured on political philosophy and the U.S. Constitution. It was fitting that this great scholar of philosophy and constitutional law would present the universal ideas of liberty to students from countries who had just gained freedom from communism. Georgetown Professor Michael Collins remarked, “It was a privilege to work with him in Prague that first year and to listen to his lectures on the Constitution. I admired him and was happy to have his friendship.”
Tony Mecia (ICPES 92), a TFAS alumnus and program assistant during that first program in Prague, commented, “Professor Berns was a giant, but he was very approachable. I remember one very engaging back-and-forth on the merits of the Electoral College, which was not necessarily a popular opinion. His explanation of the moderating influences of the Electoral College still sticks with me every time I hear someone say it’s an anachronism and we should go to popular election of presidents.”
A legendary professor who taught at seven different universities, Berns helped imbue his love of the United States and the U.S. Constitution in the minds of his students. Berns believed America was special because its Constitution is based on the universal principles of liberty; he lamented that “there are now professors who doubt that a nation founded on those principles is entitled to affection.”
Quin Hilyer, Georgetown alumnus and newspaper columnist, observed, “James Madison, in particular, leapt from Berns’ lectures in full intellectual color, a still-living paragon of wisdom, decency, practicality, and principle.” National Review’s Jonah Goldberg, said, “He had the soul of a teacher.” TFAS President Roger Ream recalled how Berns walked students through the Federalist Papers. “The students in Prague came from countries just coming out from under communism. Walter was skilled at presenting issues the American founders grappled with in a way that connected them directly to problems faced in the newly emerging democracies of Europe.”
Berns authored numerous books on democracy, the Constitution and patriotism, including “Freedom, Virtue and the First Amendment” (1957), “Taking the Constitution Seriously” (1987), “Making Patriots” (2001) and “Democracy and the Constitution” (2006). President Bush awarded him the National Humanities Medal in 2005.