MOST POPULAR books on the Civil War are military histo- ries, colorful narratives that too of- ten descend into the pornography of bloodshed. Academic historians, by contrast, treat the period ac- cording to the prevailing fashions of their discipline, which these days run to social history with a strong dose of racial politics. (At a recent dinner party, a historian who is RICHARD BROOKHISER, a senior edi- tor at National Review, is the author, most recently, of Alexander Hamilton, American.
BOOKS IN REVIEW working on a biography of Harriet Tubman grimaced when I told her I was reviewing a book about so fusty a topic as Abraham Lincoln.) For more than 40 years now, Harry V Jaffa has provided a much- needed antidote to both these ten- dencies in Civil War historiography.
A professor emeritus of government at Claremont McKenna College, he has focused not only on the era’s leading political figures but on their publicly stated views-that is, what they said, and their reasons for say- ing it. In his best-known book, The Crisis of the House Divided (1958), Jaffa analyzed the seminal debates over slavery between Abraham Lin- coln and Stephen Douglas in the 1858 race for the Senate in Illinois.
His latest book, A New Birth of Free- dom, is the long-awaited sequel, fill- ing in more of the political back- ground of the Civil War and carry- ing the story up to the first battle of Bull Run in the summer of 1861.
THE BOOK is organized around four of Lincoln’s great antagonists: two who laid the groundwork for South- ern secession and two who actually brought it about. The earliest of these foes was John C. Calhoun (1782-1850), whom Jaffa calls the “philosopher-king” of the South. A formidable Senator from South Car- olina and the author of two major theoretical works on American gov- ernment and the Constitution, Cal- houn sought to replace the scheme of checks and balances outlined in The Federalist with a new guarantee of minority rights: the “concurrent majority,” which would grant to large, compact minority groups- like the South-a veto power over any proposal that affected their in- terests. In the ferocious dispute over the tariff during the Jackson admin- istration, Calhoun’s proposed veto took the form of “nullification”- the supposed right of a state to defy federal laws it deemed onerous. By the end of his life, with the political power of the South threatened by an increasingly populous North, the in- terest dearest to Calhoun’s heart was slavery, and the ultimate form of his veto became the threat of secession.
Jaffa also sets out the arguments of Roger Taney (1777-1864), who as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court wrote the infamous 1857 de- cision in Dred Scott, which greatly encouraged Southern radicals. Rul- ing that Dred Scott, a slave who had been taken to territory where slav- ery was prohibited, had to be re- turned to bondage, Taney asserted that the Declaration of Indepen- dence, with its claim that “all men are created equal,” had not been in- tended to “embrace … the enslaved African race.” If it had, he suggest- ed, Jefferson and his peers would have freed their own slaves.
As for the actual leaders of seces- sion, they too offered novel justifi- cations for their cause. Jefferson Davis (1808-1889), the future pres- ident of the Confederacy, gave a speech in 1859 outlining a theolo- gy of slavery. Referring to the pas- sage from Genesis in which Noah curses his son Ham while blessing his sons Shem and Japheth, Davis said that in it “the Creator” had “declared the destiny of the three races of men.” Blacks, being the hapless “race of Ham,” were thus doomed to enslavement by the di- vine scheme of things. As Jaffa com- ments, “One hardly knows whether to laugh or weep” at this crude fun- damentalism, but “before laughing, one must remember that hundreds of thousands of men … met violent deaths because of it.” More surprising perhaps are the modern-sounding arguments ad- vanced by Alexander Stephens (1812- 1883), the vice president of the Con- federacy. Setting out the principles of the new Southern government early in 1861, Stephens acknowledged that the American founders considered slavery a “violation of the laws of na- ture.” But, he added, they were wrong to do so, lacking as they did the more up-to-date knowledge of the 19th century. The “great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man,” Stephens declared, “has been slow in the process of its develop- ment, like all other truths in the var- ious departments of science.” But, as with the principles discovered by Galileo and William Harvey, which were initially met with skepticism, this one too would eventually win “universal acknowledgment.” JAFFA HARDLY leaves these argu- ments unanswered. Against Taney’s ruling in Dred Scott, for instance, he cites the statements of numerous members of the founding generation and their immediate successors, all of whom described slavery as an ex- isting evil that, in time, would draw to an end. Indeed, one such state- ment unearthed byJaffa comes from an 1818 trial in Maryland in which a prominent local attorney argued that slavery “is a blot on our national character, and every real lover of freedom confidently hopes that it will [be] wiped away.” The name of the lawyer? Roger Taney, speaking decades before his effort to rewrite the country’s moral history.
But the central chapters ofA New Birth of Freedom are devoted not to Jaffa’s but to Abraham Lincoln’s re- sponses to the assorted theories of the South’s partisans. As Lincoln saw it, the nation’s practices had to be tested against the principles of the Declaration of Independence. This was not just because the Declaration was integral to American history, but because the fundamental equality it describes-and attributes to natural law-was essential to the very idea of free government.
The catch, as Lincoln knew, was that free men had to come to this conclusion on their own. As Jaffa summarizes his view, those who en- joy rights need to appreciate that their own rights depend upon recognizing the equal rights of others. But they must be made to understand this. It can- not be imposed upon them….
Among the paradoxes of the American founding is that it is based upon philosophic wisdom COMMENTARY FEBRUARY 2001 while denying to philosophers, or to anyone else, the right to rule without the consent of the governed.
Thus it was that, as a political candidate and as President-elect, Lincoln pledged not to touch slav- ery in states where it already exist- ed. Slave-owners themselves would have to do away with the institution.
Lincoln was determined, however, to keep slavery out of the vast West- ern territories-at that time, more than a third of the continental Unit- ed States. And he was equally de- termined to argue that slavery was unambiguously wrong.
JAFFA’S EXPLORATION of these themes is not just of historical in- terest. Slavery still flourishes in parts of Africa, unsteady democra- cies exist on almost every continent, and ideas of equality in the United States today are often based on mis- informed and antidemocratic para- digms of group rights, evidenced most strikingly in Bill Clinton’s un- successful nomination to the Justice Department of Lani Guinier, a can- did admirer of John C. Calhoun’s notion of a concurrent majority. Jaf- fa himself argues that the modern Supreme Court, in its reluctance to endorse the idea of natural law, has grasped the essence and significance of the Declaration of Independence no better than did Roger Taney.
In view of its great interest and relevance, it is all the more unfor- tunate that A New Birth of Freedom is such a forbidding book, its many brilliant passages alternating with dense and repetitious ones. It seems that Jaffa has been so long in the maze of his own thoughts on these weighty issues that he has forgotten where the entrance is. Aristotle said a plot should have a beginning, mid- dle, and end; A New Birth of Free- dom has dozens of each.
To this criticism Jaffa would probably reply that he is simply ex- tending to his readers the same courtesy he extends to his subjects, which is to treat serious matters se- riously, and to leave no implication unpursued. There may be some jus- tice in that. It is certainly true that readers with the stamina to sur- mount the difficulties of this book will be rewarded with a lifetime’s worth of profound reflection on the problems and possibilities of con- stitutional government.