Harry V. Jaffa. A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000.

In Harry Jaffa's brilliant book, historical truth—the events and ideas of an age as experienced at the time—meets philosophical truth—ideas that are true by the tests of logic and faith. It is a work in which the past is mined to reveal philosophical truths espoused by historical figures—especially the greatest American thinker of the time, Abraham Lincoln. At times, many times, Jaffa gets history just right, but the main purpose of the book is higher—to redeem the present by utilizing the eternal truths espoused by Lincoln (xiii) to ground law and politics in natural rights, the most fundamental being that "all men are created equal."

Jaffa thus brings Lincoln into the modern arena to challenge Jaffa's hated "premises of historicism, positivism, relativism and nihilism—premises that have become the conventional wisdom of our time." In the past, certain historical villains (the word doesn't seem too strong given Jaffa's tone) like Stephen Douglas and John C. Calhoun stood for these ideals. By contrast "Lincoln's acceptance of the idiom of natural rights and natural law—above all his acceptance of the idea of nature not merely as a record of cause and effect but as a source of moral principles—has become alien to us" (xiii). This book attempts to restore these ideals to our age.

Harry Jaffa has gotten more things right with considerably greater depth than most people writing about Lincoln. He takes Lincoln's words seriously and analyzes them at length. No point has been clearer to him than one he made in his 1959 classic on the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Crisis of the House Divided: Lincoln stood for the equality principle in the Declaration—the fundamental principle of American nationality and ideals. Douglas stood for a lesser principle from the same document—that government rested on the consent of the governed. But Douglas thought too shallowly, for the idea of consent rests on the idea of equality. One can't believe Page  [End Page 61] in a government of consent without believing in the equality of the citizens who give their consent. Lincoln understood the nation and its basic principles because he understood that interconnection.

A New Birth of Freedom is a successor to that earlier work—a sequel long in the making. It is well worth waiting for. Even though Jaffa's point was made in 1959, now we gain an elaboration of the idea that stretches back to Jefferson. We also gain a brilliant and extensive dissection of the arguments of Lincoln's Democratic opponents, especially those of John C. Calhoun.

Believing that Lincoln and Jefferson are intellectual kinsmen, Jaffa sets off Calhoun against Jefferson especially. Jaffa claims that Calhoun's chief sin lay in dividing Jefferson's integration of state rights and equality. Calhoun changed equality from a right of people to a right of states. The South Carolinian thus repudiates human equality in that in his world, whiteness, a condition of birth ennobled by state law, gives authority. In Jefferson's world, worth, determined by God, gives authority (283). At Gettysburg, Lincoln too spoke of the natural equality of all men.

Arguing that "The compact theory and the doctrine of human equality are identical," Jaffa suggests that fighting to maintain the Union, a union created by compact, required a commitment to equality. This is in stark contrast to the proposition of Calhoun that a compact of states did not have to rest on the idea that all men are created equal, but could stand firmly on a states rights principles based in tradition, self preservation, and law. Calhoun thus denied "any constitutional standing to the principles of the Declaration of Independence" (xiii).

Jaffa describes this book as "a commentary on the Gettysburg Address," but sees that address as "a speech within a drama," and so he sets forth his commentary on "the historical process during the fourscore and seven years proceeding it, no less than on the conflict itself" (xi). Actually Jaffa's commentary is on the speeches of the period; little attention is paid to the history or to the work of historians on the antebellum years. Jaffa's goal is to comment on Lincoln's words as Lincoln might have commented on them, and he sees those words as following a "logographic necessity"—a logic and argument that is coherent, consistent, and seldom if ever contradictory.

Jaffa reads carefully, looking at what is left unsaid as well as what Lincoln said. When Lincoln says that he "is not and never has been" in favor of bringing about a "perfect" equality between blacks and whites, Jaffa does not see a racial bias that Lincoln will Page  [End Page 62] overcome. He notes quickly that Lincoln leaves unsaid that in the future he won't favor just that (xii). Jaffa takes the most egalitarian position for Lincoln that can be found, for in his view Lincoln is the nation's greatest egalitarian.

Jaffa is aware that by analyzing thought more than exploring history, he will be accused of confusing poetry with history but replies, "as Lincoln in effect did reply," that history may require a poet for a people who can describe their "failings and sufferings [as] intrinsic to the uniqueness of their role as a chosen people" (xii).

Here the first criticism must intrude. While it is true that historical circumstances call forth high poets, readers—especially historian readers—may have some doubts that we can take that poetry out of history, treating it as abiding truth rather than as a text that sometimes reflects the blindness of the poet as well as of the people he prophecies for. Sometimes Homer nods. Sometimes by treating Lincoln's words as immortal truths, Jaffa stumbles, missing the historical environment and the limitations it imposes on its actors.

But it is precisely this historicism that Jaffa most deplores. For to Jaffa, Lincoln's truth is not a product only of the man's century. He stands for a truth for all time. His thought stands not only against slavery but also against Nazis and Communists and assorted heretics of the centuries (Rousseau, Kant, and Nietzsche are faulted here too). The cosmic nature of the struggle breeds Jaffa's boundless admiration for Lincoln: "Never since Socrates has philosophy so certainly descended from the heavens into the affairs of mortal men," Jaffa says of Lincoln's First Inaugural (280). And the philosophical stakes of Lincoln's thought are high: "Unifying the North to preserve the Union involved the most complex task of political leadership the world has ever witnessed" (260).

The stakes are transcendent—Lincoln must be right for all time, not only in his own time. "[N]o historian who has written about the Civil War has seriously asked whether Lincoln's belief in the truth of the Declaration can be accepted, not merely as emotionally evocative and persuasive, but as philosophically sound," Jaffa writes on page 75. That is the task he sets for himself and that this book answers in the affirmative. It is important to answer this question because without a positive answer, then the war itself and Lincoln's life and death "was an illusion." Lincoln has to be philosophically right or "the conviction upon which Lincoln defended his policy of preserving the Union and justified his entire life (not to mention his death and the deaths of 600,000 other Americans) was a delusion" (76). Page  [End Page 63]

Thus Jaffa's modern goal goes beyond simply providing historical information and interpretation, or even proclaiming Lincoln's genius. His Lincoln offers an antidote to modern heresies. Lincoln's natural rights and natural law refute "the premises of historicism, positivism, relativism and nihilism ... the conventional wisdom of our time" (xiii). Jaffa thus challenges a modern world where "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" (470–71). No more!

Jaffa is a political philosopher much more than he is a historian. He accuses historians of missing some points and ignoring others. At times his philosophical insights brilliantly illuminate the arguments of the past. But this philosopher has not read much recent scholarship on Lincoln. All historians have not asserted that Lincoln should have spoken more boldly in the winter of 1860–61 to avert the secession crisis. He asserts, contrary to several historians of the South, that "the lower classes of Southern white society were the most fanatical in the defense of slavery" (284). His assertion that no historian has tried to "understand the connection between the beginning and the ending of the Gettysburg Address" is not exactly true.[1] As we shall see, Jaffa's admiration for Jefferson might have been moderated by, or at least should have confronted, Joseph Ellis's criticism of Jefferson's Summary View in American Sphinx.

But this is Lincoln scholarship from the inside out—searching for logical coherence and consistency—not from the outside in—seeking the context that shaped Lincoln's ideas. Given this approach Jaffa's Lincoln seldom grows, seldom changes his mind, seldom matures—his mind is of one piece, and has been so throughout his adult life. As Jaffa puts it on page 251, "a careful reading of his words will prove that, however much the circumstances in which he was compelled to act had changed, his every action flowed from adherence to an unchanging commitment to unchanging principles."

But while this book is a polemic, it is hardly simple. One reads Page  [End Page 64] this work pencil (erasered pencil at that) in hand, thinking, challenging. This is not easy historical narrative with Lincoln dropped in to say great things. This is a picture of the mind in action shaping thought, creating arguments, rebutting objections. "Mind, all conquering, mind," in Lincoln's phrase, is at work.

Or rather two minds are at work, for Jaffa does far more than just repeat what Lincoln says. He unpacks Lincoln's thought, and we naturally begin to wonder where Lincoln ends and Jaffa begins. That is not always an easy question to unravel. This exercise of close textual reading sometimes finds Jaffa becoming Lincoln—filling in gaps that must be what Lincoln intended to say even though Lincoln never said it. Jaffa's discussion of what Lincoln "said" about state police powers shows Jaffa's mind at work (264). But how can we be sure that Jaffa's praise of Lincoln arises from the essential quality of Lincoln's thought and not from Jaffa's admiring elaboration of what Lincoln must have intended to say? While a positive aspect of this interpretive style opens up new views of Lincoln, it may be that Jaffa is showing the vitality of Lincoln's way of thinking beyond where even Lincoln actually took it.

That is a flaw that opens doors. But others shut them. Inspired by his admiration for Lincoln, Jaffa almost never credits the thought of Lincoln's opponents. To argue against Lincoln in Jaffa's view is to have a lot of explaining to do, and it is ultimately futile. Roger Taney, John Calhoun, Alexander Stephens, and James Buchanan are all taken up to be vivisected and buried. Jaffa batters Taney and Calhoun and Democrats of the age generally for not following the equality principles of the Declaration. That equality rests, Jaffa says, on the fact of natural law that everyone who can speak and reason is equally a human being. Since anyone could see that blacks could speak and reason, Lincoln's enemies denied, contrary to all reason, an obvious equality.

This is certainly clear to us; probably it became clear to Lincoln. But the Declaration only guarantees full equality for people who are created equal, and it is not necessarily true that because people can speak and reason that they are equal or deserve equal treatment (290–1). Taney and Calhoun and company simply determined that, while blacks were at some level human, they could neither reason nor speak at the level of white human beings. They were not equal human beings. Hence slaves deserved compassion, better treatment than animals, but not the right to be free. Slaves were not capable of acting like responsible free people; they had not been created equal. Page  [End Page 65]

Jaffa shows that Taney believed that slavery was an evil yet enslaved Dred Scott. Jaffa uses that to brand the judge as a hypocrite. But the flaw in Taney's thinking was more likely that he believed in levels of equality, as well as in a proslavery constitution. It is possible that Taney's failure was that he made the price of black inequality to be disproportionate to their actual inequality. Blacks might deserve the rights to decent treatment and still not deserve full freedom. Furthermore, Taney's constitution might have denied a federal judge the right to make distinctions that a modern judge would make. No sensible person today would adopt Taney and Calhoun's reasoning, but their age did not find many modern ideas obvious. Taney spoke of blacks being seen as inferior "in the scale of created human beings" (294). Jaffa needs to judge his villains against their standards as well as ours. Lincoln is a more coherent thinker if one accepts Jaffa's premises, but Taney, Calhoun, and company didn't. Lincoln still makes more sense, but they, for all their evil deeds and arguments, were not stupid. And of course weakening Lincoln's adversaries diminishes the extent of Lincoln's intellectual achievements.

Jaffa's wide range at times leads to historical missteps. Since Lincoln refers often to the intentions of the founders of the nation, Jaffa goes back to the founders' age to affirm Lincoln's vision that they wanted to end slavery. He insists (unnecessarily for his argument, I think) that the people of the Revolution were fighting for natural rights, not to defend their historical rights as Englishmen. Jaffa is not willing to concede that they were fighting for both and that their argument evolved more toward natural rights once the English denied their historical claims. At that point it was time to part and to appeal to the "opinions of mankind."

Jaffa insists that colonists always claimed natural rights rather than traditional English liberties. His foundation for this statement is Jefferson's argument in a Summary View that Americans had always been separate people from the English. What Jaffa doesn't note is that almost no one in the American Revolutionary generation thought that Jefferson's argument held water, or that it explained what they were doing. Joseph Ellis calls Jefferson's view "utterly groundless" and "elaborate and largely mythological."[2] Furthermore, Jaffa gets other facts of the founding wrong. When in Summary View Jefferson claims that "The abolition of domestic slavery is the great object of desire" of the colonies, Jaffa seems to believe him—an act that requires ignoring, for openers, Edmund Page  [End Page 66] Morgan's classic American Slavery, American Freedom. Jefferson may have wanted that, but most in the colonies had other agendas. But Jaffa supports Jefferson's claim, predominantly because it sustains his assertion that the American Revolution, unlike the Confederate revolution, rested on natural rights. Jaffa is so taken with Jefferson that he even insists that Jefferson's equality ideal encompassed all races and genders (21).

But whatever Jefferson might have argued theoretically, his world refuted him on the equality question—most people of his age did not act like they believed in equality for blacks or women as their "great object." The truth of Jefferson's idea was not clear to his world, or clear enough for them to act upon it. Of course Jefferson didn't act on it either, as his 180–plus slaves could testify. So a revolution in an environment where a million black people were slaves and women had at best marginal equality thus becomes one that can be cheered in the twenty-first century, because its "great object of desire" is to end slavery. Why this is necessary is never clear. Perhaps it is necessary for us to highlight the better angles of our nature, to know that our heritage demonstrates that we are capable of the best ideals as well as the worst. But our history clearly challenges an abiding devotion to equality—even from our most admired egalitarians.

Jaffa has many historian adversaries. He dislikes Carl Becker's claim that the truth or falseness of the ideal of equality is "an essentially meaningless question." Jaffa is so annoyed at that proposition that he changes it into a claim by Becker that "all men are created equal" is "false" (80). He attacks the revisionists like James G. Randall who spoke of a "needless war" with neither side having a better claim to victory than the other. He even challenges the modern abolitionist historians who admire emancipation but fail to appreciate Lincoln's views on the constitutional union and its legal limits. They don't understand that "[Lincoln's] reasons for abiding by those constitutional limits and the reasons for his moral condemnation of slavery were ultimately the same" (78). The form of government extolled in the last part of the Gettysburg Address was necessary to achieve the ideal of equality mentioned in the first part. [3] Page  [End Page 67]

Jaffa errs (at least in emphasis) also in his discussion of the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. As part of his argument that both constitutional government and equal rights rest on the equality principle, Jaffa is at pains to separate Jefferson and Madison from Calhoun and company (40). Jaffa denies that the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions actually rested on a pure state sovereignty, state rights argument. Their foundation was a compact theory that posited equal individuals in a state of nature who then formed states resting on that equality. Human equality and state rights were thus united and inseparable for Madison and Jefferson. By contrast Calhoun separated human rights from state rights.

But what Jaffa doesn't note is how little human equality was part of the Sedition Crisis equation. Fundamentally what Madison and Jefferson were trying to do, Jefferson mostly, was protect people in the states from an oppressive national government, not trying to protect equal rights, such as those of speaking freely. As Jaffa's former colleague Leonard Levy has demonstrated, Jefferson was quite happy to silence anti-Republican speech at the state level. In 1804 Jefferson told Abigail Adams, "While we deny that Congress have a right to control the freedom of the press, we have ever asserted the right of the states, and their exclusive right to do so." In fact the states were free to enact the Inquisition, so far as Jefferson was concerned.[4] Jefferson and especially Madison may mention compact government when they mention equality, but they hardly emphasize it.

But for Jaffa mentioning seems to be enough. In making philosophical claims it may be enough—one drop of truth purifies the pool—but in making historical judgments we need the preponderance of evidence to establish a claim. The preponderance of evidence doesn't dress Jefferson in his egalitarian colors in 1798–99.

Jaffa's admiration for Lincoln leads him astray in the debate over the Dred Scott case. Overall, Lincoln has the best of the argument here as Don Fehrenbacher showed some time ago.[5] But I think both Fehrenbacher and Jaffa, and therefore Lincoln, err at one point. Jaffa buys Lincoln's charge against Dred Scott that if slavery couldn't be excluded from the territories it couldn't be barred from free states. But the Supreme Court had foreclosed that argument in 1833 in Barron v. Baltimore when John Marshall pointed out that the bill of Page  [End Page 68] rights stopped the national government, but not the states, from denying property rights. Taney's judgment that the Fifth Amendment protected slave owners' property in the territories from Congressional threat said nothing about the rights of states to make whatever determination they wanted about slavery within their own borders. Illinois was safe from slavery so long as the people of Illinois opposed slavery. No federal court that respected the Barron precedent, or that was sensitive to public outcry after the Dred Scott opinion, would be likely to deny that. Dred Scott left state rights essentially untouched. [6]

As with Taney, Jaffa gives no quarter to Lincoln's other adversaries. When President Buchanan urges states to repeal all laws that inhibit the execution of the fugitive slave law, Jaffa snaps that "This was a perfectly gratuitous aggravation of sectional antagonism. Lincoln and the Republican Party in Congress had no authority over free state legislatures, and Buchanan's demand was one that he knew could not possibly be met" (181). Several points need making here. Buchanan was hardly alone in asking that states repeal their personal liberty laws. Joel Parker, professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law school, former chief justice of the New Hampshire supreme court, a Whig, and later a defender of Lincoln's suspension of the privilege of the writ, also urged the same thing. Parker was joined by most of the leading lawyers in Massachusetts.[7]

Buchanan's advocacy might also be seen as a way of understanding Southern fireaters and avoiding secession. And wasn't Lincoln's promise to enforce the fugitive slave law an implicit indication that state opposition to that enforcement was wrong? Jaffa seldom reveals Lincoln's empathy and tolerance for his adversaries.

Yet despite his occasional missteps, Jaffa has provided a work that will stand for decades as the starting point to enter Lincoln's mind. Jaffa's brilliance as a political philosopher provokes questions and analysis of the historical record that are unmatched. Of the right of revolution, he notes that "in the Declaration of Independence, the right to alter or abolish tyrannical government is at one and the same time the right to institute new and better government" (416). And his fundamental point, that "Every step of Lincoln's antislavery career was governed on the one hand by the Page  [End Page 69] necessity of the recognition of the Negro's humanity and of his right to life and liberty and, on the other, by the equal necessity to bring about that recognition by the consent of the governed" should inspire abiding analysis.

This is a superb book of political philosophy; it inspires criticism as a work of history but predominantly because Jaffa's quality of mind provokes questions about the nation's deepest values at every level. Page  [End Page 70]


  1. Phillip Shaw Paludan, "Hercules Unbound: Lincoln, Slavery, and the Intentions of the Framers," in The Constitution, Law, and American Life: Critical Aspects of the Nineteenth Century Experience, ed. Donald G. Nieman (Athens: University of Georgia, 1992), 1–23, especially 14–15; and Paludan, "Emancipating the Republic: Lincoln and the Means and Ends of Antislavery," in "We Cannot Escape History": Lincoln and the Last Best Hope of Earth, ed. James McPherson (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995), 45–62. return to text
  2. Joseph J. Ellis, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Knopf, 1997), 31–33. return to text
  3. Incidentally, Jaffa shoots at conservatives as well as liberals. Chief Justice Rehnquist's argument for "original intent," says Jaffa, "has less in common with the intent of those who ratified the Constitution than with the intent of those who 'de-ratified' it in 1860–61" (87). The Chief has failed to see the intrinsic worth and abiding truth of the ideals of liberty, rather asserting that the standards of 1787 emerged from the history of those years, not from "any intrinsic worth nor ... in someone's idea of natural justice" (87). "In Rehnquist, we can observe that historical right has been transformed into unmitigated positivism or indeed into nihilism" (88). return to text
  4. Levy, in Major Problems in Constitutional History I, ed. Kermit L. Hall (Lexington, Mass.: Heath, 1992). return to text
  5. Fehrenbacher, The Dred Scott Case (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978). return to text
  6. See discussion in Paludan, "Hercules Unbound," 22. return to text
  7. See Paludan, Covenant with Death: The Constitution, Law and Equality in the Civil War Era (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1975), 127. return to text