"Euclidean" is the adjective Harry V. Jaffa repeatedly applies to the arguments set forth by Abraham Lincoln. At one point, Jaffa caps a sequence of Lincoln's airtight reasoning with a "Q.E.D." The mathematician's boast "Quod Erat Demonstrandum" might well be added as the closing line of A New Birth of Freedom, for Jaffa as much as Lincoln is a master of demonstration and proof. In mid-life, the self-taught Lincoln honed his mind on Euclid's Elements; Jaffa in turn has studied the political geometry of Lincoln's speeches for the past half century. As writers, both have been disciplined to a relentless clarity of expression.
A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War is the promised sequel (a promise the faint of heart were starting to doubt) to Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates (1959). The earlier work, long an acknowledged classic, took as its proof text Lincoln's House Divided speech; the sequel, destined for similar status, revolves around Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Central to any commentary on the Gettysburg Address must be the founding proposition "that all men are created equal." That is the fixed point from which the radii of Jaffa's analysis extend. From that pivot he describes arc after widening arc, creating a richly structured work whose avowed purpose is to vindicate the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence, and particularly to establish the identity of equality and consent.
While this is undeniably a work of impressive scholarship, it is scholarship of a sort rarely seen. Not only has Jaffa self-consciously chosen antique models Crisis of the House Divided imitates a Scholastic disputation, while A New Birth of Freedom is loosely based on another Thomistic specialty, the commentary but he also subscribes to the distinctly unfashionable view that "the task of political philosophy [is] to articulate the principles of political right, and therefore to teach the teachers of legislators, of citizens, and of statesmen the principles in virtue of which political power becomes political authority." With no pretense of neutrality, Jaffa is a professor who is not afraid to make a profession of belief ("philosophically sound" belief, that is). Moreover, in both books, he confronts the university folk who have been the agents of sophistic disbelief. The revisionist historians James G. Randall and Carl Becker serve as the Thrasymachuses of the successive volumes, and the refutations of them are as punishing and humiliating as any meted out by Socrates. Jaffa has a reputation as an aggressive controversialist, but it is worth remembering that his polemics stem from his conviction that reason can shape the judgments that direct our life in common. He does not fight for the sake of fighting or out of vainglory. He fights, as Lincoln himself did, in the "faith that right makes might." Accordingly, in the Preface, Jaffa acknowledges his hope "to promote a climate of opinion in which the alienation from the principles of the Founding Fathers may be overcome, so that we may once again understand the true measure of Lincoln's greatness and through him repossess our inheritance of the genuine blessings of liberty." In conducting a serious study of Lincoln's past statesmanship, Jaffa understands himself to be performing an act of contemporary statesmanship.
The West's first historian, Thucydides, famously presented the Peloponnesian War as the "greatest motion" to date. Jaffa heightens and spiritualizes that claim; he presents the American Civil War as the greatest motion ever. It is the culminating event in the two-millennia conflict between the common right of humanity and the divine right of kings.
Of the latter, Lincoln explained:
It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, "You work and toil and earn bread, and I'll eat it." No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.
Yet, to understand the dramatic moment that had been reached, and all that was at stake in the contest, requires an "archeology." Jaffa takes the reader on a journey through the West's theological-political problem. He has to explain why the Gospel teaching of human equality which ought naturally to support republican political institutions did not achieve political realization until the American Revolution. Why did divine right monarchy dominate for so long? From Rome's Caesarism through the English civil wars (explored via Shakespeare's history plays), Jaffa accounts for the plausibility of divine right as a theory of political obligation. Beginning from the effects of the initial coincidence of monarchy and monotheism, he says:
Although Jesus declared that his kingdom was not of this world, once Christianity was established as the sole religion of the universal (catholic) empire, all the kingdoms of this world were seen as depending upon that other kingdom for their legitimacy. In fact, the dominant tradition within Western Christianity, which we find expressed in Aquinas, Dante, Shakespeare, and numerous others, held that the secular history of Rome reflected God's providential order no less than the sacred history of the Jews. It was necessary to the fulfillment of God's purposes that Caesar preside at the birth of a universal empire if mankind were to be offered salvation by a universal Savior. A world of many flourishing and independent cities with many gods, the world of Plato's Republic and Aristotle's Politics, could not have been a vessel for the reception of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Because of this, the authority of Caesar came to be seen as nearly, or more than nearly, sacramental in character.
The path from the metaphysical truth of equal creation to the political and moral truth of government founded on the consent of equal individuals was slow and circuitous. Jaffa speaks picturesquely of truth marching forward with a bodyguard of lies. He illustrates the paradox with periods in English history during which "the divine right of kings served the popular cause, while the doctrine of tyrannicide actually promoted tyranny." The peregrinations of true principle, whether overseen by divine providence or human prudence, have been curious indeed. Ultimately, Jaffa shows, "the solution to the problem of that relationship between emperor and pope, or of Caesar and Christ, was only discovered in the American Revolution and the American Founding, in the separation of church and state." In the archeological flashbacks of its first two chapters, A New Birth of Freedom offers a complex and comprehensive account of the history of the West.
Jaffa's reconstruction has the additional intriguing (and controversial) effect of lessening the theoretical distance between ancient and modern republicanism, by virtue of taking fuller account of the altered circumstances (the advent of Christian monarchy). It is Jaffa's contention that if one were to transpose Aristotle into a modern key, one would end up, essentially, with John Locke, that is to say, the political teaching of limited government originating from a social compact. Leaving aside Jaffa's speculations about a resurrected Aristotle, he does show that the Founders (whether out of hermeneutic naiveté or wisdom) read Locke in an Aristotelian rather than an Hobbesian light. Their new science of politics might be described as a Lockean updating of Aristotle or an Aristotelian application of Locke.
As Publius tells us, the ancient cities were "spectacles of turbulence and contention." The problems of faction and succession were no less in Christian monarchies, afflicted as they were by civil wars and wars of religion. Would the record of the United States, premised on the notion of free elections by the people, be any better? The early signs were impressive, particularly the bitterly contested but graciously concluded election of 1800. Of that event, Jaffa says "we know of no example before 1800 of a government in which the instruments of political power passed from one set of hands to those of their most uncompromisingly hostile political rivals and opponents because of a free vote." This departure from the world's previous practice set a precedent observed in America until the election of 1860, when the losers decided they couldn't abide the results. Against the rebel conviction that secession was legitimate, Lincoln insisted "that when ballots have fairly and constitutionally decided, there can be no successful appeal back to bullets; that there can be no successful appeal except to ballots themselves, at succeeding elections." It should not be necessary to add that Lincoln's prosecution of the war was not a violation but rather the vindication of this principle. Bullets were necessary to uphold the sanctity of the ballot. Of course, behind the ballot (the principle of free elections) was the Union (the doctrine of the social compact) and back of the Union was the original truth of human equality. The parallel Confederate trinity was composed of secession, state rights, and slavery.
The bulk of the work sketches the emergence, development, and dialectical confrontation of these two matrices of thought. With a precision brush, Jaffa details the various interpretations of the Constitution and Declaration. He inquires into the grounding of the right of revolution and how it differs from the claim to a constitutional right of nullification or secession. He reexamines the exact nature of the Union, as revealed in the movement from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution, and what it means for the "state rights" side. (Jaffa is not interested in knocking down straw men; he meets here what he regards as the strongest of the secession arguments.) He explores the proper (and delicate) balance between majority rule and minority rights, evaluating the extent to which various doctrines (Douglas's "popular sovereignty," Calhoun's "concurrent majority," and Lincoln's "standard maxim") approach the ideal articulated by Jefferson in his First Inaugural:
All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate which would be oppression.
Central to the assessment of each position is the status of natural rights within it, since, as Jaffa shows, majority rule can have no validity without the premise of equality.
What results is a portrait of "the divided American mind," both "the mind of the South" and, as the central chapter titles express it, "The Mind of Lincoln's Inaugural." In one of his many sweeping (but not unsubstantiated) pronouncements, Jaffa maintains that: "Perhaps there has never in political history been a time when the logic of events followed so closely the logic of argument." Thus, while A New Birth of Freedom contains a lot of insightful contextualizing (for instance, the dissection of the electoral map of 1860), the book is primarily a battery of analyses of speeches and written documents.
Although Jaffa shares Lincoln's views and embraces his logic, he does not adopt his brevity or pithiness. There are substantial treatments of Jefferson and Madison, along with fascinating tours through the fallacies of Jefferson Davis, James Buchanan, Alexander Stephens, Roger B. Taney, Stephen Douglas, and especially, John C. Calhoun (the man who began what Lincoln termed "an insidious debauching of the public mind"). Jaffa's long concluding chapter on the thought of Calhoun is definitive, including the pedigree that links him to Rousseau, Hegel, Darwin, and Marx. Given that the heirs of Calhoun are still legion (ideas defeated on the battlefield have curious powers of reincarnation), it doesn't hurt to be reminded of the perils of misguided brilliance. The received wisdom today is as likely to join with Calhoun in proclaiming the philosophy of natural rights a "self-evident lie" as it is to second Lincoln, who referred to the Declaration's truths as the "sheet anchor" of freedom.
Despite the gladdening title, A New Birth of Freedom can be a grim book. We learn that birthing freedom is often a bloody business. Moreover, the new birth depends on virtues in short supply, like a proper intellectual conception and the high resolve to see it through. Lincoln's "new birth of freedom" is not like those facile slogans of the 20th century: the New Deal, the New Frontier, and the Great Society. You can sense the difference even from the photo of Lincoln on the book's cover. In his discussion of the First Inaugural, Jaffa captures the tragic aspect of Lincoln.
Never since Socrates has philosophy so certainly descended from the heavens into the affairs of mortal men. . . . Ironically, the coincidence of philosophy and political power that Lincoln here represents only serves to underline the Platonic truth, which Lincoln learned from Shakespeare, that philosophy cannot cause the "evil in the cities" to cease and that politics is the realm of the tragic. In the presence of Lincoln's arguments, no sane person would have opted, as the South did, for secession, slavery, and war. Lincoln knew when he spoke these lines that they would have no effect upon the actions or passions of his antagonists. Were it possible for them to have been persuaded, tragedy might have been averted. But it was not possible, because slavery had engendered passions that were immune to reason. Lincoln knew this as well when he spoke as we do today.
I think this explains why I can hardly read a speech of Lincoln's anymore (or look on his visage) without the tears welling up. Lincoln may have understood "the Platonic truth," but he plunged into politics all the same (unlike Socrates, who stayed the hell away). The epigraph of the book "and the war came" acknowledges the limitations of reason, but its stubborn persistence as well. Lincoln, after all, was elected and reelected.
When Lincoln was yet a boy, there was a statesman who saw it all coming, both the tragedy and the triumph. John Quincy Adams, after a conversation with Calhoun in 1820, recorded in his diary his prophetic reflections.
If the dissolution of the Union should result from the slave question, it is as obvious as anything that can be foreseen of futurity that it must shortly afterwards by followed by the universal emancipation of the slaves. ... Slavery is the great and foul stain upon the North American Union, and it is a contemplation worthy of the most exalted soul whether its total abolition is or is not practicable; if practicable, by what it may be effected, and if a choice of means be within the scope of the object, what means would accomplish it at the smallest cost of human suffering. A dissolution, at least temporary, of the Union, as now constituted, would be certainly necessary, and the dissolution must be upon a point involving the question of slavery and no other. The Union might then be reorganized on the fundamental principle of emancipation. This object is vast in its compass, awful in its prospects, sublime and beautiful in its issue. A life devoted to it would be nobly spent or sacrificed.
America had such an exalted soul, who lived and died for her sake. As Walt Whitman marvelled in his essay, "The Death of Abraham Lincoln": "Why, if the old Greeks had had this man, what trilogies of plays what epics would have been made out of him!" Harry V. Jaffa promises us a third volume on the war years, so Lincoln may yet be the subject of an epic triptych. But whatever the fate of that final volume, in Crisis of the House Divided and A New Birth of Freedom, Jaffa has already delivered a fitting commemoration one designed, on the model of the Gettysburg Address, to deepen the nation's dedication to the founding proposition of human equality and its corollary, republican self-government.