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How to Think About the Lincoln Bicentennial

On Principle, Winter 2009

February 2009

by Harry V. Jaffa

Many of the essayists in this edition of On Principle trace their understanding of Lincoln’s principles and purposes to Professor Jaffa’s ground-breaking 1959 study of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Crisis of the House Divided. The book will be reissued this April by the University of Chicago Press, with a new introduction written by him.

I have been asked to write a brief introduction to a 2009 Lincoln bicentennial celebration. I hope however tomake it an appropriate introduction to any and all such celebrations. Frommy perspective, this would be possible only if Lincoln’s 200th anniversary is also marked by the 50th anniversary of Crisis of the House Divided. Such an assertion may seem presumptuous on my part—my self-interest is perfectly transparent, to use a phrase popular with our new president—but the truth is that Crisis was the first book, or scholarly work of any kind, on the Lincoln-Douglas debates. No understanding of Lincoln is possible apart from an understanding of the events that took place in Illinois in the summer and fall of 1858. In fact, the presidential election of 1860 was really decided in Illinois two years earlier, although no one at the time could have known this.

The initiative for these debates, and for the Senate campaign of which they formed a part, came from Lincoln’s House Divided speech, in which he said that the nation could not remain permanently half slave and half free. Either it would become all of one thing or all of the other. Lincoln’s critics, among them Stephen A. Douglas, said that this was an invitation to civil war, as indeed it proved to be. This was the flash point of the crisis leading to secession and civil war. It also marks the point of the resolve not to permit the nation to become all slave. It was also the point at which Lincoln himself would either sink into oblivion or rise to inexpressible glory.

Lincoln historical writing in the later 19th and early 20th century has been dominated by the Progressive belief that slavery was a dying institution, and that the impersonal forces of progress would have ended it without either Lincoln or civil war. According to this opinion the vehicle of true progress would have been Douglas’s doctrine of popular sovereignty, because it would have allowed the slavery question to be peacefully settled in the territories—as it had been hitherto in the states—by a vote of the local inhabitants, without pitting the whole nation against itself. Whatever the theoretical shortcomings of the doctrine of popular sovereignty (e.g., who voted to decide who was to vote to decide?), Douglas offered antislavery voters a way to defeat slavery without a moral confrontation in the arena of national politics. In the winter and spring of 1857-1858, Douglas had led the Republicans in Congress to victory over the proslavery Lecompton constitution for Kansas, on the ground that it was not an honest expression of the will of the people of Kansas. In doing so he had earned a high place in the ranks of the free soilers, and many of them, particularly on the east coast, wanted the Illinois Republicans to support Douglas for re-election to the Senate in 1858. Douglas, in effect, offered a way which seemed effective and easy.

Lincoln, on the other hand, insisted upon amoral condemnation of slavery as the only sufficient ground to oppose it and place it on a path leading to its “ultimate extinction.” It was as the attraction of the easy way that Douglas appealed to free soil opinion—Lincoln’s own followers—making the challenge of Douglas the hardest challenge of Lincoln’s career.

During the Civil War Lincoln made the defense of the Union primary, and he could invite the support of those who cared little or nothing for the rights of slaves. But in 1858 the question of Union was not, or at least did not appear to be, at issue. Lincoln had to fight the 1858 campaign on behalf of the natural rights of the slaves, when there was nothing for which the voters of Illinois cared less than the natural rights of the slaves. Unless one realizes this, one does not measure the greatness of Lincoln’s accomplishment.

The predominant view in the historical profession in the 1940s and ‘50s was all on the side of Douglas. The academic view of Lincoln, led by the Dean of all Civil War scholarship, James Garfield Randall—the mentor of David Donald—regarded raising the morality of slavery as a political issue to be the “axis of evil” of antebellum politics. Paradoxical as it may seem, a concern with morality has been charged by these celebrated Lincoln scholars with being the source of immorality. It was, and is today, a widely held belief in the academic community that the moral differences concerning slavery—like all moral differences—could not be decided by reason, and that it was irresponsible to agitate the question. Yet the leading politicians of the day, they say, North and South, whipped popular feelings to the boiling point, because it was the road to their advancement. And none of these politicians profited more from this agitation than Abraham Lincoln.

It is in this context that my work on Lincoln may be viewed. I was however inspired by Leo Strauss’s method of reading the great books. It was necessary, he said, to understand each author as he understood himself, before attempting to understand him differently or better. It was, Strauss pointed out, an impossibility to understand an author better than he understood himself, without first understanding himas he understood himself. It seemed to me, moreover, that this principle applied not only to the reading of great books, but no less to political speeches, and in fact to the past altogether. To understand the past a priori as it understood itself seemed to me to be the axiomatic premise of all historical understanding. The assumption of the historical “revisionists” (as the followers of Randall called themselves) was that their understanding of the slavery question, and indeed of politics generally, was in every respect superior to Lincoln’s.

The three names in the archives followed by the greatest number of titles are Jesus Christ, William Shakespeare, and Abraham Lincoln. In recent years Lincoln has surged ahead of the other two! If I recollect rightly, there are some 17,000 titles after his name. Some years ago, someone observed that the three subjects that commanded the largest market among book buyers were Lincoln, doctors, and dogs. The perfect title for a book, it was said, was Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog. Of the 17,000, all but a mere handful have the substantive interest of a good dog book. Many were written out of a genuine love of Lincoln, and of course a Lincoln lover (like a dog lover) is always gratified by the presence of another votary at his shrine. But those who love Lincoln and those who hate Lincoln—and the passions of the Lincoln haters exceed any other passions in American history—are almost equally distant from the passion, or reason, of Lincoln himself. Not too long ago I had a letter from someone who each year celebrated the birthday of John Wilkes Booth. For him, Lincoln was a tyrant, and Booth a martyr. In a world dominated by the moral relativism that dominates our universities today, there is no objective basis for distinguishing tyrants from martyrs, or right from wrong. All moral judgments are said to be “value judgments,” and to prefer Lincoln to Booth is no less subjective than to prefer Booth to Lincoln. Both the pro and anti Lincoln literature have been grounded in unexamined assumptions as to who is the hero and who the villain.

Lincoln said that he had never had “a political feeling” that did not spring from the principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence. The book which has, consciously or unconsciously, dominated Lincoln and Civil War historiography is Carl Becker’s 1922 book on the Declaration of Independence. In it he wrote that, “To ask whether the natural rights philosophy of the Declaration of Independence is true or false is essentially a meaningless question.” To Lincoln, this would have been the most meaningful of all possible questions. He could not for a moment have asked the Union soldiers to make the sacrifices that they did make if he had had the slightest doubt that “the last full measure” of their devotion had been given for a cause of God’s own truth.

How does one begin to understand Lincoln as he understood himself? In 1856, Lincoln wrote that the central idea of the Founding, from which all its minor thoughts radiated, was the equality of man. In 1859, in a letter celebrating Jefferson’s birthday, Lincoln wrote:

All honor to Jefferson—to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.

At Gettysburg Lincoln said that the nation, at its birth, had been dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Clearly, the abstract truth applicable to all men and all times is the proposition that all men are created equal. How many historians, whether Lincoln scholars or not, have taken seriously the idea that there are abstract truths, whether this or any other, applicable to all men and all times?

What is the evidence, whether abstract or empirical, for human equality? First of all, it is not a denial of individual differences within the human family. It is an assertion of the nature shared equally by all members of the human species. It is an assertion that there is nothing in their common nature that makes one the ruler and the other the ruled. Accordingly, there is no difference between one human being and any other human being, such as there is between any human being and any member of an inferior species, that affords a rational justification for one being the ruler and the other the ruled. It is according to the natural order, inherent in the Great Chain of Being, that the human rider be the ruler and the horse the servant. Man is indeed, as the Bible says, the lord of creation. But there is nothing to justify the subordination of one human being to another as there is to justify the rule of man over beast.

That one human being is more intelligent than another, or more virtuous, is not a ground of subordination, or superordination. Such ground appears, however, when human beings form political communities. They do so in virtue of a social contract transforming them into fellow citizens of a common government, in which the strength of all is pledged to the defense of each, and the strength of each is pledged to the defense of all. In organizing their government, lawful offices are commissioned requiring the obedience of citizens. If the citizens are to find safety from enemies, foreign and domestic, there must be a command structure, there must be rulers and ruled. The deference that citizens give to officers of their community is not personal to the officers. It is a recognition rather that these offices are useful for the protection of the equal rights for whose sake they entered into the contract that gave life to the government. It is the pledge of each to all and of all to each. In fulfilling that pledge it is the interest of each and of all that superior intelligence and superior virtue be recognized and deployed. Each of us has, in the last analysis, an ultimate interest in being governed not by our equal but by our superior. We seek to be governed medically, not by ourselves or by our equal, but by a highly trained physician. But we want to be able to choose that physician, and to have assurances that he will govern us for our good, and not for any private advantage of his own. In general, we seek to be governed by the wise. But we want to have assurance that their wisdom will be for our advantage, and not for any selfish ends of their own. How the rule of the many may, through the consent of the governed, be transformed into the rule of the wise—how equality of opportunity properly understood transforms democracy into aristocracy—completes the tale of Lincoln and the Declaration of Independence.

Harry V. Jaffa is Professor Emeritus of Government at Claremont McKenna College and Senior Fellow at the Claremont Institute.

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