Amidst the changes following a bitter, disputed election, Americans must wonder whether there is any truth besides cynical truth in politics. Partisans will claim change for good or ill; charges will be hurled; symbols will be appropriated; personalities, not principles, will be the focus of the Hollywood-style coverage of politics.
Fortunately, this Lincoln's birthday we have a means of assessing all the partisan claims in light of our greatest political figure. Harry V. Jaffa's long-awaited A New Birth of Freedom (Rowman & Littlefield) enables us to separate superficialities from the substance and rediscover who we are as Americans. His study of Lincoln and his opponents enables us to assess what is enduring and marvelous about America. It uncovers the origins of our greatest partisan divide, the Civil War, and what ultimately makes us all part of one nation.
Forty years in the research and writing, A New Birth of Freedom is the sequel to Jaffa's 1959 Crisis of the House Divided, recently described by award-winning Lincoln scholar Allen Guelzo as "incontestably the greatest Lincoln book of the century."
Lincoln enables us to view our current strife in light of our greatest division, the Civil War. A nation conceived and dedicated to liberty and self-government cannot last if its principles are compromised. But at the same time government must proceed by the consent of the governed, which means that widespread sentiments, however repugnant or unenlightened, cannot be ignored. These tensions, the commitment to principle and to consent, make self-government an arduous task, scarcely congenial to the temper of our impatient times.
Jaffa's reading of Lincoln puts us in touch with the eternal, in a way our contemporary politics is too often contemptuous of. In his First Inaugural Address, Jaffa explains that Lincoln "is delivering a lecture to all men and all times on the essentials of free government."
The speech, delivered as the South seceded from the Union, explains why constitutional democracy is the only alternative to anarchy or despotism. At the time Lincoln's argument could not be taken for granted, as we do today. Though some today may complain of having been "disenfranchised," losing an election is not like losing one's citizenship. But for the South the choice was that stark. And for Lincoln the unchallenged anarchist or tyrannical self-assertion of the South would doom the cause of constitutional democracy forever. Thus the Civil War was a war over slavery in two senses of the term, not just over the black slaves.
After all, "the central idea of secession" involved a rejection of the eternal higher law of the Declaration of Independence, "the laws of nature and of nature's God" and the equality of rights that underlies the Constitution. Thus, the Civil War is not a struggle between state rights and national supremacy. It is rather, as Jaffa patiently explains, a conflict "between two different conceptions of state rights and two different conceptions of what constituted the nation."
As Lincoln declared:
Unanimity is impossible; the rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement is wholly inadmissible." Only a constitutional majority, restrained by checks and limitations, "and always changing easily, with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments," is the only true sovereign of a free people.
Thus, the forms of "state rights" and "federal power" are empty conceits unless they both support the fundamental natural rights of the Declaration of Independence. Properly understood, both are congruent means of protecting the same fundamental rights and enabling self-government to flourish. Both secessionist and abolitionist would abandon the restraints of the Constitution when convenient.
Lincoln elevated these themes to the level of cosmic poetry in his Gettysburg Address. With its majestic beginning of "Four score and seven years ago," he recalls the King James translation of the 90th Psalm, which placed the lifespan of a man at three score and ten, with four score being the outer limit, as a man's life became "labor and sorrow." In the midst of the Civil War, Lincoln compares the nation's life with the biblical lifespan. Can a nation last longer than any individual within it? Can free men rightly serve a temporal cause greater than themselves? That was Lincoln's challenge, and remains ours today.
These most fundamental challenges persist, so in a sense the Civil War is still being fought. The true heirs of the Confederacy no longer wear gray — unless in a suit — but they share the Confederates' rejection of a moral truth transcending historical evolution. These latter-day rebels now dominate our universities, foundation boards, and other unelected positions of power. For these post-modern elites the very idea of constitutional government is an unwanted encumbrance on their appetites. It is plain from Jaffa's New Birth of Freedom that today's most prominent representative of the abiding message of the Confederacy is not some Civil War re-enactor and certainly not Attorney General John Ashcroft but rather the sort who dispute "what the meaning of 'is' is."