January 14, 2001
Who was the greatest modern statesman? Washington wasn’t democratic enough (among other things, he harshly condemned Shays’ Rebellion) or intelligent enough. Jefferson certainly was both but was perhaps a little too cool and rational to inspire supreme devotion. Gladstone was a giant but in a placid age. Churchill saved his country but didn’t have much sympathy for the lesser breeds. After reading Harry Jaffa’s A New Birth of Freedom,” along with his earlier Crisis of the House Divided (1959), I’m convinced it was Lincoln. No one else has borne so painful and important a burden, virtually alone, with so much humility, humor, and fortitude. Perhaps other political leaders have displayed as much wisdom or energy. But only Lincoln attained spiritual grandeur.
A New Birth of Freedom,” like its predecessor, is not a portrait of Lincoln; it is a study of his ideas. Jaffa (the author of Barry Goldwater’s ill-fated speech to the 1964 Republican national convention) is a political philosopher, intent on recasting the pre-Civil War debates in the language of the classical “natural rights” tradition descended from Aristotle, Aquinas, and Locke. Despite a certain amount of pedantry, he brings these debates alive so fully and vividly that Lincoln emerges a more impressive figure than in any history or biography I know.
To a classically-minded philosopher, the writing of Civil War history has – like all other intellectual activity in this heretical modern age – been tainted by materialism, skepticism, and relativism. Some historians have suggested that Stephen Douglas, rather than Lincoln, was right in their famous 1858 debates over legislating slavery in the territories. Others have argued that the Southern or “states’ rights” view of the Constitution was correct and that secession was therefore justified. Some have even claimed that philosophy is bunk and that allegedly timeless principles are merely rationalizations of very temporal and material interests. Carl Becker, for example, in his influential book The Declaration of Independence (1922), concluded: "To ask whether the natural rights philosophy of the Declaration is true or false is essentially a meaningless question.” Charles and Mary Beard, in their even more influential The Rise of American Civilization (1927), reached the same conclusion about the lofty and impassioned debates on the nature of the Union: “The roots of the controversy … lay in social groupings founded on differences in climate, soil, industries, and labor systems, in divergent social forces, rather than varying degrees of righteousness and wisdom.”
To Jaffa, all such opinions are anathema. He scorns our modern suspicion of categorical moral judgments, our reflexive invocation of moral complexity, uncertainty, shades of gray. Lincoln was not devious and high-handed as well as decent; no, he was “the greatest of all exemplars of Socratic statesmanship.” The victory of the North was not the triumph of industrialism over agrarianism; it was “first and foremost … the defeat of the Unjust Speech by the Just Speech, or the victory of philosophy over sophistry.” And what is true philosophy? In a nutshell: “Right and wrong have an objective existence [and] are knowable by human reason.” Natural law is founded on human nature, which is abstract and unvarying. Explanatory appeals to history, culture, or evolution are mere “sophistry.” This single-mindedness is the book’s strength or weakness; it will seem forceful or tedious depending on whether or not one accepts Jaffa’s “natural rights” perspective.
The central argument of Crisis of the House Divided was that, during the 1858 Illinois Senate campaign, Lincoln’s position on allowing slavery in the territories was right and Douglas’s was wrong. Lincoln was not an abolitionist; he was an “extinctionist.” He hated slavery and believed fervently in the Declaration of Independence, but he recognized that the Constitution had fudged the issue. He held, however, that the Founding Fathers had assumed and intended that slavery would gradually become extinct. Congress therefore had a moral and legal right to outlaw it in the territories, which would hasten its extinction. Douglas did not want slavery in the territories either, but argued that the people living there, rather than Congress, should decide. The Supreme Court, in the Dred Scott decision the previous year, seemed to agree. Jaffa sorts out these and other moral, political, and constitutional issues in masterly fashion, maintaining a high level of drama and intellectual tension.
His touch in New Birth of Freedom is less sure, perhaps because the delicate balance between historical narrative and philosophical argument tips in the latter direction. This time the central claim is that Lincoln’s view of secession was right and the South’s was wrong. According to Lincoln, no part of the United States could lawfully separate from the rest and set up an independent government, even if a large majority of its citizens wanted to, unless the other states agreed. The South argued that the Constitution was a compact between sovereign entities, the states, from which any of them could withdraw at will.
Here Jaffa has his work cut out for him, explaining why “the consent of the governed” does not justify secession, as it plainly seems to. He goes at it with a will, producing lengthy commentaries on the writings of John Calhoun, Alexander Stephens, and Jefferson Davis, the South’s principal spokesmen, and a chapter-length exegesis of Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address. This strenuous exercise of analysis and erudition nevertheless left me unconvinced. It’s not that the Civil War was unjustified. But it was unjustified in the terms Lincoln restricted himself to: as a police action to put down a treasonable uprising against a legitimate government. The (white) people of the South had democratically withdrawn their allegiance from the Union; it was no longer their legitimate government.
But though the Confederacy was a legitimate state, it was also an inhumane one, enforcing slavery and hoping to expand that evil institution into Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, and even South America. To prevent this, a humanitarian war of conquest and liberation was justified. Such a war, however, could not be fought. Only the abolitionists, a tiny minority, would support it. So Lincoln stubbornly maintained that the Union was indissoluble and fought the war on that basis.
In Murder in the Cathedral T. S. Eliot wrote: “The last temptation is the greatest treason:/To do the right thing for the wrong reason.” Perhaps not. Lincoln did, and we honor him.