Book Review of Harry Jaffa’s A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War

Mackubin T. Owens

December 1, 2000

A New Birth of Freedom is Harry V. Jaffa’s long awaited sequel to
his acclaimed study of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Crisis of the House
Divided, first published in 1958. Prof. Jaffa’s long and distinguished
career (he is the Henry Salvatori Professor of Political Philosophy Emeritus
at Claremont McKenna College and Claremont Graduate University) has been
devoted to the intellectual articulation, clarification, and defense of the
principles of the American Founding and their perpetuation by the words and
deeds of Abraham Lincoln. Indeed, Prof. Jaffa’s work has played a major role
in bringing about the rebirth of natural rights and natural law reasoning in
American politics and law in the second half of the twentieth century

No mere review can do justice to this remarkable book. Suffice it to say
that A New Birth of Freedom is a stunning work of scholarship and erudition
that vindicates Lincoln against both his contemporary adversaries and those
who in our own time would diminish him and the principles of the American
founding that he sought to perpetuate.

A New Birth of Freedom is a projected two-volume commentary on the
Gettysburg Address. The current volume focuses on Lincoln’s First Inaugural
Address and his July 4, 1861 address to Congress in Special Session.

One might ask what these two speeches have to do with the Gettysburg
Address. Prof. Jaffa provides an answer in his brief introduction. The
Gettysburg Address is not a self-contained work but “a speech within a
drama. It can no more be interpreted apart from that drama than, let us say,
a speech by Hamlet or MacBeth can be interpreted apart from Hamlet or
MacBeth. The Gettysburg Address is a speech within the tragedy of the Civil
War, even as Lincoln is its tragic hero. The Civil War is itself an outcome
of tragic flaws–birthmarks, so to speak–of the infant nation.” As such, a
commentary on the Gettysburg Address must deal with the speeches and deeds
that constituted the historical process in the years leading to the war.

Jaffa’s Lincoln believed that America’s “ancient faith” was the “central
idea” of equality as articulated by the common sense reading of the
Declaration of Independence. He believed that Jefferson meant what he said
when he wrote “all men are created equal,” and that this meant simply that
no person has the right to rule over another without the latter’s consent.

Taking issue with the secularists of our time, Prof. Jaffa presents the
Declaration of Independence and Lincoln’s understanding of it as the
fulfillment of the promise of both classical philosophy and biblical
revelation. Prof. Jaffa maintains that it was Lincoln’s conviction that the
Declaration of Independence reflected the divine government of the universe,
which therefore set the pattern for the moral and legal order of
constitutional government.

If, as Lincoln believed, equality is the basis of republican
government, then slavery is an affront to republican government. But how is
it possible to reconcile the words of the Declaration with the practice of
slavery among some of the Founders themselves. Lincoln argued persuasively
that the Founders compromised on slavery out of necessity, not because they
thought it right or even because they were hypocrites. Indeed, there is
ample evidence that the founders understood clearly the conflict between
slavery and the principles upon which the US was created.

Lincoln contended the Founders believed that they had placed the
institution of slavery on the road to extinction. But Lincoln had to deal
with the growing, if not prevalent rejection of the common-sense meaning of
equality. For example, John C. Calhoun contended that the proposition that
all men are created equal “has become the most false and dangerous of all
political errors” Alexander H. Stephens claimed that the Confederate
constitution, the “cornerstone” of which was the “great truth” of slavery
and inequality, would correct the fatal error enshrined in the Declaration
of Independence.

Others did not go quite so far, but the effect was the same. In his
Dred Scott decision, Chief Justice Roger Taney held that the Founders could
not have meant to include blacks in the Declaration. As a result, the black
man, whether freedman or slave, had no rights that the white man was bound
to respect. According to Stephen Douglas’s doctrine of “popular
sovereignty,” slavery was an issue that should be left to the vote of the
white people of a state or territory.

Lincoln understood the critical importance of public sentiment in a
democracy. “Our government rests in public opinion….Whoever can change
public opinion, can change the government, practically just so much.”
Lincoln was concerned that individuals like Taney and Douglas were preparing
public sentiment to accept the transformation of the slavery question from
one of “hostility to the PRINCIPLE, and toleration, ONLY BY NECESSITY” where
the Founders had place it, to slavery as a “sacred right.” Lincoln knew that
if public sentiment in support of equality was undermined, the “moral
lights” that supported our “ancient faith” would be extinguished and the
possibility of free government would be lost.

Lincoln’s task was not only to restore this “ancient faith,” but
also to save the Union from those who would destroy it. The “new birth of
liberty” promised by the Gettysburg Address could not have occurred if the
Union had been split asunder. Thus Lincoln had to confront the argument of
John C. Calhoun both with republican rhetoric and force of arms. Lincoln’s
First Inaugural is an instance of the former; the speech of July 4, 1861 to
Congress in Special Session lays out the justification for the latter.

It is an understatement to say that Prof. Jaffa leaves the case for
secession in ruins. First he shows that Calhoun’s theory of equality was
radically different than that of the Founders. According to Calhoun, insofar
as equality existed it was a prescriptive attribute of the states, not a
natural right of human persons as the Declaration holds. Calhoun maintained
that citizens derive their equality and the dignity of that equality, not
from their sovereignty as individual human persons under “the laws of nature
and nature’s God,” but from the constitutional equality of the states within
the Union.

Second, Prof. Jaffa demonstrates that slavery and “states rights”
were far more intertwined than the post-war apologists for secession
admitted. All this prescriptive equality meant in practice was the
constitutional right of any citizen of a slave state to carry his slave
property into any US territory, then require that the federal government
provide all necessary protection of that property.

Third, he points out that the real cause of the breakup of the Union had
nothing to do with states’ rights, but resulted from a demand for
unprecedented expansion of federal power to protect the alleged
constitutional right to hold slave property. The slave power did not get its
demand for federal protection of slavery in the territories. At the
Democratic Convention in Charleston, held in April 1860, the majority
refused such a federal guarantee. The delegates from the deep South then
walked out, splitting the Democratic Party and ensuring that Lincoln would
be elected by a plurality of votes.

Prof. Jaffa points out the ironies here. To begin with, “secession” really
began when the South abandoned the national Democratic Party. The resulting
split was instrumental in bringing about the election of Lincoln, which the
South then used as the excuse for smashing the Union. Thus, the South’s
demand at Charleston, far from having anything to do with states’ rights,
was instead a call for an unprecedented expansion of federal power.

And finally, Prof. Jaffa makes the case that secession was nothing
but a form of blackmail, the disruption of republican government by a
minority that did not get its way at the polls. For the Founders, the
purpose of government was to protect the equal natural rights of all. They
understood these rights to be antecedent to the creation of political
society and government. The just powers of government are derived from the
consent of the governed who possess the equal natural rights that republican
government is supposed to protect. While the people never relinquish their
right to revolution, in practice, this natural right is replaced by free
elections, the outcome of which are determined by majority rule. When the
States ratified the Constitution of 1787, they pledged that they would
accept the results of elections conducted according to its rules. In
violation of this pledge, the Southern States seceded because they did not
like the outcome of the election of 1860.

Mr. Jaffa argues that like Calhoun’s doctrine, political science today
dismisses the political thought of the American Founders based on equal
natural rights as “false and dangerous.” “Calhoun’s heirs have dominated the
academy and by a shallow and permissive historicism and relativism have
subjected ’the laws of nature and of nature’s God’ to scorn and contempt.
They have done so by propaganda appealing to the basest passion, and reason
has been in retreat.”

But he makes a strong case that academic political science is mistaken.
Thanks to the founders and Lincoln, America’s great power status can be
justified on the basis of something beyond mere necessity. Because of
Lincoln’s uncompromising commitment to equality as America’s “central idea,”
the Union was not only saved, but saved so “as to make, and to keep it,
forever worthy of the saving….”

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the War College, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.