Harry V. Jaffa
Crisis of the House Divided (1959)

Michael M. Uhlmann

Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 101 (March 2000): 58-59.

Harry V. Jaffa has few peers as a student of the American Founding and none as the expositor of the Declaration of Independence and the statesmanship of Abraham Lincoln. He first established these credentials forty–one years ago with the publication of Crisis of the House Divided, which is, simply stated, the best commentary on American politics written in this century—indeed, since the death of Lincoln himself. Dismissed by the left as irredeemably unenlightened, and criticized by many on the right as suspiciously egalitarian, Jaffa has responded to both by arguing that the case for constitutional government cannot be understood or sustained without affirming the truths set forth in the preamble to the Declaration. The only alternative, he contends with eloquence and at times passionate intensity, is tyranny, whether of the few or the many.

The immediate purpose of Crisis was to refute diverse revisionists who asserted that Lincoln led the nation into an unnecessary civil war. Jaffa identified these scholars’ unexamined historicist premises, by virtue of which they either refused to take seriously Lincoln’s arguments concerning the Declaration’s principles or rejected outright the truths it proclaimed. Jaffa countered with an elegant philosophical and historical exegesis of Lincoln’s thought, beginning with the Lyceum Speech of 1838 and culminating in the celebrated debates with Stephen A. Douglas during the Illinois senatorial campaign of 1858.

A negotiated settlement of the slavery controversy, Jaffa argued, was no longer possible in the 1850s—not because Lincoln’s rhetoric had removed the ground of compromise, but because proslavery advocates had begun to insist on the rightness of slavery, whence it would follow that Congress had not only the right but the duty to protect their interests. Chief Justice Taney’s error in Dred Scott, Jaffa contended, lay not in recognizing that the Constitution had made certain practical compromises with slavery, which it certainly had, but in insisting that blacks possessed no rights that the white man was bound to respect. Once that proposition got itself embedded in constitutional understanding, the principles of the Declaration would become a nullity, marking the end of the American experiment in self–government. Lincoln merely articulated what was already implicit in the logic of the 1850s: the American people would have to affirm or deny the truth that all men are created equal, but they could not affirm that truth and at the same time agree with Douglas that majority will was the summum bonum of the Constitution.

By refocusing attention on the importance of natural rights in Lincoln’s thought, Jaffa at once corrected the historical record and sought to reestablish the centrality of the Declaration in the American constitutional order. The Declaration, in Jaffa’s view, is neither an abstract philosophical treatise nor a rhetorical set piece designed to mask or elevate baser motives. It is rather a living testament of political faith—one that in articulating the moral ground for government by consent also limited the powers of governments thereby created. It ratified not only the prescriptive rights of English subjects, but the sovereign right of all men everywhere to secure through government their divinely endowed rights. The Declaration was the summary document par excellence of the Founders’ political teaching, but was hardly unique in its sentiment; its antecedents and echoes are to be found in numerous contemporaneous American charters, pamphlets, sermons, and legal commentaries. Redolent of biblical understanding as well as natural theolo gy, the Declaration provides the ordering principle by which the American people became "We the Peo ple" of the Constitution.

In Crisis and in a series of books and articles written in the years since its publication, Jaffa has argued that the crisis of late–twentieth–century America, although lacking the immediate intensity of the slavery controversy, is morally analogous to it. Common to both is the rejection of natural rights. Douglas’ statement that he didn’t care whether slavery was voted up or down in the territories, but only whether the sense of the majority was free to work its will, is philosophically indistinguishable, says Jaffa, from arguments advanced today on both the right (e.g., by Robert Bork, William Rehnquist, and Antonin Scalia) and the left (e.g., by defenders of abortion). Jaffa rejects the jurisprudence of the so–called "living Constitution," but he understands, in ways that Bork, Rehnquist, and Scalia apparently do not, that simple majoritarianism is no cure for the vice of judicial usurpation.

In this, he stands as one with John Paul II, who has affirmed that the principles of the Declaration, rightly understood, embody the distilled wisdom of both reason and Revelation on the moral rationale for human government. Once positive law is separated from the moral argument of the Declaration, both men have said, one not only invites tyranny but severs the connection to the divine.

Michael M. Uhlmann is Vice–President for Public Policy Research at the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.