Copyright (c) 2001 First Things 111 (March 2001): 45-47.
A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War. By Harry V. Jaffa. Rowman & Littlefield. 549 pp. $35.
Reviewed by George McKenna
In the preface to Crisis of the House Divided, his 1959 work on the Lincoln–Douglas debates of 1858, Harry Jaffa, who had just turned forty, announced that the book was to be “the first part of a two–part study of Lincoln’s political philosophy.” He already had in mind the title of the new, unwritten work: A New Birth of Freedom.
In 2000, forty–one years later, A New Birth of Freedom finally appeared, and the author seems more ambitious than ever. He promises still a third volume, “on the triumph and tragedy of the war years.” Jaffa offers no direct explanation about what took him so long to complete the second volume beyond noting that the gap “corresponds closely to the distance in time that separated Plato’s Republic from his Laws.”
The correspondence may be more exact than Jaffa intends. Plato’s Laws is a labored work, full of interesting observations but lacking the compressed energy of the Republic, which Plato had written decades earlier. Something of the same comparison can be made between Jaffa’s two volumes. Crisis of the House Divided was tightly focused. Jaffa intended the work as a definitive reply to the then–revisionist argument that in 1858 there was no substantial difference between the positions of Lincoln and Senator Stephen A. Douglas, and that therefore Lincoln’s “house divided” speech unnecessarily stirred passions culminating in an unnecessary war. Systematically and efficiently, Jaffa demolished the thesis, showing how Lincoln’s rhetorical strategy prevented Douglas from compromising what Lincoln called the “ancient faith” of the Founders.
The focus of the present work is less clear. In 1959 the author envisaged it as a continuation of his study of Lincoln’s life and work that would culminate in a reflection on the Gettysburg Address. There is something of that here, but quite a bit more is piled on top. In the Preface he explains that “a commentary on the Gettysburg Address is a commentary on the speeches and deeds that constituted the historic process during the fourscore and seven years preceding it, no less than on the conflict of the war itself.” Historically, then, the book ranges far and wide—back to the presidential election of 1800, forward to 1860, back again to the Declaration of Independence, forward to the Gettysburg Address, then back once more to the antebellum period. Along the way, Jaffa settles a number of scores with historians and philosophers he has disagreed with over the years, and even gets a shot in at Chief Justice William Rehnquist, whom he accuses of “nihilism.” The Gettysburg Address, which is supposed to be the main focus of the book, has to share a chapter with the Declaration of Independence, while Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address gets two chapters of its own, and the book finishes up with a long, two–part critique of John C. Calhoun.
Despite its eccentric organization, Jaffa’s new book has the same solid core that his earlier book possessed. I will try to summarize it in a few words: There are certain unchanging truths about human nature and the human condition that were made the principles of the Republic in 1776 but were in danger of being compromised in Lincoln’s time. By reasoned argument and by force of arms, Lincoln prevented that from occurring; indeed, he enlarged and expanded the scope of those principles. In the modern age they are once again under fire, and their abandonment today would be no less grave a threat to the Republic than the one Lincoln faced and overcame in his time.
The principles he refers to are those of the Declaration of Independence: that all men are created equal and endowed with natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Those principles were under threat in Lincoln’s day because they were a stumbling block to the ambitions of the Southern slavocracy and of those Northern politicians who thought they could remain in charge of a nation “half slave and half free.” The principles are endangered today, Jaffa believes, by intellectuals and jurists who reject natural law in favor of relativism, historicism, and positivism. (The last charge, after a few pages ratcheted up to “nihilism,” he ascribes to Rehnquist.) Jaffa’s core philosophy—his lifetime project—has been to challenge those forces in modern culture that would destroy the roots of freedom. Those who would enlist in that cause may be energized by his peroration: “We must then take up the weapons of truth and go forth to battle once again for the cause of Father Abraham, of Union, and of Freedom, as in the olden time.”
The problem is the order of battle. There are so many artillery–pieces, cavalry, and infantry divisions, arrayed in so many complicated formations in this book, that a sustained thrust at the enemy never quite gets underway. It is a very substantial, rich book, but it is ponderous, McClellenesque.
To be more specific, Jaffa tries to cram together too many thinkers and philosophies on both sides of the divide between natural law and relativism–historicism–positivism. In the first category he includes Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Jefferson, Madison, and Lincoln; their opponents are John C. Calhoun, Alexander Stephens, Stephen Douglas, and a variety of modern jurists and historians. What is needed, I think, is a more careful sorting out of what goes with what. Take Locke, for example. Surprisingly, for such a noted student of Leo Strauss, Jaffa seems to assume that Locke fits smoothly into the natural law tradition of Western thought. But in Natural Right and History Strauss made a convincing case that Locke’s “state of nature” represented a radical break with the tradition and brought him closer to Thomas Hobbes, author of the leviathan state. (Jaffa acknowledges the similarity between the two but says that Locke “transformed” Hobbes, and he compares Hobbes’ state of nature favorably to Calhoun’s on the grounds that Hobbes’ was at least egalitarian.) Aristotle, whom Jaffa often uses to bolster his arguments, would be puzzled by the suggestion that man once lived without government and, as Locke put it, was “free, equal, and independent.”
Jefferson, of course, fits well with Locke, but Jefferson had little use for the classical Greeks. He called Plato a “foggy” thinker and considered Aristotle quite out of date because he never anticipated the idea of representative government. Jefferson was self–consciously modern and “scientific” in his thought; his intellectual heroes were Locke, Newton, and Bacon. Sometimes his scientism was benign. In the last year of his life he claimed that “the light of science” was already proving that “the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs” and a favored few ready to ride them. But it also had a dark side. What most horrifies Jaffa about Alexander Stephens and John C. Calhoun is their attempt to justify slavery on the “scientific” grounds that blacks are biologically suited for nothing else. (Stephens’ race–theorizing “resembles nothing so much as Hitler’s prophesies of the Thousand–Year Reich.”) But Jefferson also dabbled in race theories. In his Notes on Virginia he speculated that differences “fixed in nature” made blacks naturally ugly, deficient in reason, childish, lustful, and possessed of “a very strong and disagreeable odor.” On the upside, blacks are more tolerant of heat and need less sleep than whites; plus—a big bonus—“their griefs are transient.” Jefferson was more hesitant and ambivalent about his race–theorizing, but he pioneered in the same crackpot scientism, the same methodology for treating some people as less than fully human, that Jaffa rightly deplores in Calhoun and Stephens.
So, just as the connection between Jefferson, Locke, and the natural law tradition may not be as seamless as Jaffa assumes, so the opposition between Jefferson and the antebellum slavery apologists may not be as complete as he contends. And, alas, Aristotle, so often invoked in this work as a friendly source, could well end up on the other side of the fight, not only because of his own defense of slavery but because Calhoun’s view that “man is so constituted as to be a social being” seems more in accord with Aristotle’s definition of man as zoon politikon than anything Jefferson ever wrote.
If Jaffa’s chosen allies seem ill–assorted and less than reliable, he seems to have largely ignored one source that Lincoln unhesitatingly turned to in a critical time: the Judeo–Christian tradition. As Lincoln expounded it, the Declaration of Independence was America’s “an cient faith.” He transformed its author from an Enlightenment figure who scorned all ancient faiths into a venerable Founder whose creed should be “revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence.” Jefferson, who thought that there were new truths for every generation, would have protested against all this reverence, but Lincoln knew that human equality needed to be anchored in something more stable than the ever–changing “light of science.” Though not a believer himself, Lincoln used the symbols and narratives of biblical Christianity—all quite familiar to a generation raised in the aftermath of the Second Great Awakening—to drive home his message of national fraternity.
There is some acknowledgment of religion in this book, but on the whole Jaffa’s Lincoln is a severely rationalist thinker, making his case, as Jaffa says of one of Lincoln’s arguments, “with mathematical certainty.” Another of Lincoln’s arguments, he says, was so powerful that it is difficult “to imagine Euclid proving more conclusively that one geometrical figure was equal or unequal to another.” Lincoln was “the greatest of all exemplars of Socratic statesmanship.” “Never since Socrates has philosophy so certainly descended from the heavens into the affairs of mortal men.”
Well, now. It is true that Lincoln was capable of rigorous logic. He was a tough railroad lawyer, especially skillful at hog–tying his opponents with their own premises; and his speeches are models of clarity and precision. But the Lincoln who guided the nation through its worst trial and left us a legacy of responsible nationalism was more than a Socratic reasoner. Especially in his later career, he demonstrated his profound sympathy with Americans who sensed that the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are not, as Jefferson said, “self–evident,” but are deeply rooted in our religious beliefs. The language that he learned to speak with them was not Euclidean but something quite different. Something, perhaps, that might be worth exploring in what—one hopes—will be the third volume of Jaffa’s Lincoln trilogy.
George McKenna is Professor of Political
Science at City College of New York and author of The Drama of Democracy.