Posted: July 10, 2014
1984 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of Crisis of the House Divided.
A review of Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, by Harry V. Jaffa
ne of the most important contributions to American history and political science in the past generation is the work of a political philosopher who, in a significant sense, is an "outsider" to both fields. In Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, Harry V. Jaffa, Henry Salvatori Professor of Political Philosophy at Claremont McKenna College, rejects the historical canon that the past should be studied for its own sake, and the dominant assumption of modern political science that truth is relative to historical circumstances. Yet in this distinguished book, originally published in 1959 and now reissued by the University of Chicago Press, Jaffa combines history and political science in a uniquely effective manner. Writing about the slavery controversy that produced the Civil War, he is concerned with the past less for its own sake than as a source of instruction for contemporary politics. Denying that truth is historical, he nevertheless firmly grasps historical truth. In conscious pursuit of the principles of just government, Jaffa gives renewed meaning to the ancient conception of history as philosophy teaching by example.
A disciple of Leo Strauss, Jaffa approaches the study of history from the perspective of classical natural right. This view rests on the assumption that the validity of political and moral standards is derived not from convention, but from unchanging principles of right inherent in the universe. Like Strauss, Jaffa insists that any concession to historicism-that is, to the belief that the meaning of political and moral principles is to be found in the particular circumstances of the historical situation that produced them-is to accept the relativist, ultimately nihilistic argument that all right is positive right, determined by human will and agency. Rejecting the fact-value distinction that is the foundation of modern social science, contending instead that value judgments are true or false irrespective of historical circumstance, Jaffa asserts the importance of the perennial questions concerning man's place in the nature of things.1
Jaffa's defense of natural law and natural right, and his concern as a student of political thought to determine the meaning of the text in relation to the perennial problems of political philosophy, have placed him outside the mainstream of contemporary political science. Yet it is by no means clear that the "textualist" approach is as obsolete as it once appeared to proponents of the "new" history of political thought. Jaffa may claim a measure of vindication in the fact that the "contextualist" method of analyzing political ideas urged by Skinner and his followers, despite its self-conscious rejection of the "perennial problems" strategy, evinces concern for what are now recognized to be the perennial problems of political philosophy.2
Jaffa's scholarship has been vindicated in the study of American political thought. When Jaffa turned to the American Revolution and the American Founding, as the basis for understanding the antebellum struggle over slavery, theories of class conflict dominated the interpretation of revolutionary-era political thought. Jaffa by contrast viewed the Declaration of Independence as an expression of the classical conception of politics, concerned with natural right and moral and political virtue. Where others dated the abandonment of the natural-law tradition to Machiavelli and Hobbes, and considered American political thought exclusively in the light of modern individualism, Jaffa saw a continuation of the ancient tradition. The emergence in recent years of the classical republican interpretation of the Revolution, as in the writings of the Pocockian school, confirms Jaffa's insight in linking American thought to classical foundations.
Conflict and Consensus
Jaffa's interpretation of American politics is an illustration of sound historical conclusions resulting from an a-historical method. When Crisis of the House Divided appeared in 1959, the consensus view of American history prevailed. Emphasizing the relationship between the Revolution and the Civil War, Jaffa formulated an alternative outlook that acknowledged the valid features of the consensus point of view and yet placed conflict at the center of American political history.
Jaffa's critique of consensus history offers the most useful perspective for evaluating Crisis of the House Divided as a contribution to American historiography. Jaffa views the United States as historically unique-a nation founded on the universal principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence. The most important of these principles for him is the idea of equality, on which republican governments are based and which forms the nation's central theme; Jaffa concurs with the consensus view that agreement on national political ideals has made the American people homogeneous. This homogeneity has been manifested through political parties forming electoral majorities on the basis of their promise to maintain or fulfill the American creed.3
Within the national consensus, however, profound conflicts have occurred over the meaning and application of the equality principle. These conflicts have developed periodically as the result of social and cultural change, Jaffa points out, and they have been resolved by electoral realignments focusing on critical elections, as in 1800, 1828, 1860, and 1932. These critical elections have in turn been followed by extended periods of consensus. "The evangelical revival of the Revolutionary creed," Jaffa writes, "is the key to these great shifts in the structure of political power in the community." He concludes that in realigning elections, political parties achieve a "re-creation of the Revolution by a creative appeal to its principles," and restore the people's faith in republican freedom.4
The most critical election in American history placed Abraham Lincoln in the White House and led directly to the Civil War. But this election was critical also in the broader sense that it tested the nation's commitment to its Founding principles as no other event before or since. This turning point in national development is the subject of Crisis of the House Divided. In order fully to understand Jaffa's treatment of it, we must first consider his philosophical analysis of the Declaration of Independence.
Jaffa contends that the Declaration introduced ambiguities into American politics at the very outset. The relationship between equality and consent lies at the heart of the problem. The Declaration states that all men are created equal, and that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. Most commentators have treated equality and consent as distinct and separate concepts.5 Jaffa, however, has always insisted on the necessary connection between the two principles. In his view, consent, and majority rule, which derives from it, does not constitute an ultimate or self-evident principle providing its own justification. Rather, consent derives legitimacy and justification from, and is dependent upon, the principle of equality. Jaffa argues that because all men are equal, in the sense that human beings occupy an intermediate place between God and the animal world, it is morally wrong for one person to rule another without that other's consent. The political institutions designed to express consent rest on no merely expedient or convenient basis, Jaffa reasons, but on the logically prior and morally superior principle of equality.6
Declaring all men equal and popular consent the ground of legitimate authority, the nation's charter of independence nevertheless contained fateful ambiguities that gave rise to political conflict. Jaffa describes these conflicts as the problem of the relation of the general to the particular, or the one to the many. The most prominent sources of internal discord, initially separate but eventually joined together as causes of the Civil War, were the relationship between the states and the federal government, and the relationship between Negro slaves and freemen and the political community of the nation. These issues were conflated in the question: Who were the equal and consent-giving people referred to in the Declaration of Independence? The Declaration pronounces the colonies "free and Independent states but it also refers to Americans as a "people" having a "Country." Hence arose the constitutional controversy over whether the Union was created pluralistically by the people of the separate states, or unifiedly by the people of the United States considered as a single nation. Similarly rooted in the Declaration was the question of whether slaves were persons or chattel. Did the equality principle comprehend Negroes as a class and entitle them to be regarded as members of the self-governing community?7
Confounding the Revisionists
In Crisis of the House Divided Jaffa shows how Americans in the 1850s attempted to resolve the dilemmas and contradictions inherent in the revolutionary principles of equality and consent. His approach, however, is not that of an orthodox historian, but rather that of the historian as moral critic.8 Jaffa seeks specifically to illuminate the nature of republican government and revive a political science based on natural right. His larger intellectual purpose, announced in his earlier study, Thomism and Aristotelianism, and pursued in all his writings, is to establish principles of moral and political judgment that can replace merely arbitrary opinions and provide guidance for right conduct in the light of eternal principles of justice.9
As a work of history, Crisis of the House Divided proceeds on the assumption that the historian ought to examine events from the standpoint of the participants themselves, according to what was known at the time, rather than in the light of subsequent developments. In adopting this outlook, Jaffa questioned the conclusions and methodology of the body of historical scholarship known as Revisionism, which had long dominated interpretations of the coming of the Civil War.
Influenced by the widespread revulsion against war in the 1920s and 1930s, Revisionist historians placed responsibility for the coming of the Civil War on political leaders of the 1850s, whose emotionalism, political ambition, and narrow sectional interests prevented the adoption of rational compromises and accommodations that would have avoided war. Revisionism also reflected the preoccupation of twentieth century liberals with economic interests and their corresponding insensitivity to political liberty. Although they were ostensibly impartial in blaming the Civil War on northern and southern extremists, the Revisionists' allegedly rational alternative of sectional accommodation, had it been adopted in 1861, would have had significant pro-slavery consequences. Revisionism, in other words, was not politically neutral.
Jaffa did not fault the Revisionists for the insensitivity to human freedom implicit in their treatment of the slavery question; they could hardly help being representative of the progressive temper in this respect. He did criticize them, however, for holding political leaders accountable for things they could not have known and for events that were unavoidable and beyond their control. Examining the sectional conflict prospectively through the eyes of Lincoln and Douglas rather than retrospectively through the eyes of later generations, Jaffa constructs an historical reenactment that respects the separateness and integrity of the past, yet is also relevant to contemporary concerns. Where Revisionists deplored a blundering generation for starting a needless war, Jaffa seeks to show how, "from good motives and with sober judgment," Lincoln and Douglas could "lead the nation down a road upon which war might become the only means of honorable resolution" (p. 8; all notes within the text are to Crisis of the House Divided).
Lincoln versus Douglas
Jaffa sees the conflict between Lincoln and Douglas as the central event in the coming of the Civil War because it determined whether the dual principles of consent and equality would be irrevocably sundered or successfully maintained in the face of the challenge posed by the existence of slavery. Crisis of the House Divided begins with a sympathetic account of the sectional struggle from Douglas's point of view. Acknowledging the positive elements in popular sovereignty, Jaffa regards Douglas's expansionist conception of republican freedom as the key to his statesmanship. Douglas sought to promote a rapidly expanding Union embracing a variety of peoples, cultures, and economic tendencies. After reviewing Douglas's disastrous attempt to resolve the organization of the Nebraska territory on the basis of popular sovereignty, however, Jaffa concludes that while the Illinois Senator was not personally pro-slavery in outlook, his publicly professed indifference to the morality of slavery and to its expansion into the territories effectively made him an agent of the slave power.
Douglas's conception of republican government was flawed, Jaffa reasons, by a refusal to place limits on the power of popular majorities beyond those expressed in the Constitution. Douglas treated majority rule as an end in itself, an embodiment of the revolutionary principle of consent. He also placed high value on the principle of equality, but, according to Jaffa, he separated it from consent and gave it a restricted, essentially tautological definition which meant that all men were equal who were created equal (p. 33). Jaffa concludes that Douglas's popular sovereignty recognized no higher moral standard, rested on positive right alone, and in reality defined justice as the interest of the stronger (pp. 33-37).
Jaffa places Lincoln, in contrast to Douglas, in the tradition of classical natural-right thinking. His interpretation underscores Lincoln's attachment to the principles of equality and consent contained in the Declaration of Independence. But Douglas sundered these principles and gave operational meaning only to consent. Lincoln, according to Jaffa, integrated them in a way that recognized the priority of equality. Condemning slavery on moral grounds as a violation of the Declaration's teaching on equality and consent, Lincoln said that for popular majorities to approve slavery was inherently contradictory and destructive of republican government. Recognition of equality did not mean that blacks were equal to whites in all respects, Lincoln reasoned, but it did mean that blacks were equal in respect of the right to personal liberty. The nation must therefore work toward this end, and must prevent the sanctification of slavery in national law by preventing its extension into the territories. Jaffa believed that Lincoln at the same time was ever mindful of the decisive role played by public opinion in a republican government, and sought the highest degree of equality for which popular consent could be secured (p. 35).
While Jaffa's analysis of the Lincoln-Douglas debates confounded Revisionist historiography, it harkened back to an older point of view that recognized the importance of the Declaration of Independence in Lincoln's antislavery thinking. The more distinctive historiographical contribution of Crisis of the House Divided is its unified interpretation of Lincoln's life and statesmanship. Jaffa argues that Lincoln consciously directed his life to the end of preserving the Union, adapting the principles of the Declaration of Independence into a political religion.
The major interpretive problem in Lincoln scholarship has always been to explain the relationship between the ordinary life of the Illinois lawyer-politician in the 1830s and 1840s and the heroic achievements of the wartime president.10 Using the historiographically unorthodox approach of political philosophy, which can perhaps not unfairly be described as based on the assumption that political actors say what they mean and mean what they say, Jaffa constructs a portrait of Lincoln as a far-sighted statesman who throughout his life anticipated and prepared himself for the work of political salvation that occupied him during the Civil War. Crisis of the House Divided treats Lincoln's Springfield Lyceum Address of 1838 and his Temperance Address of 1842 as illustrations of the coherence, consistency, and integrity of his life and thought.
The Lyceum Address, "On the Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions," deals with the problem of preserving republican government in the face of the political passions of the 1830s. Lincoln questioned whether the rule of law could be maintained amid numerous mob incidents, many of them occasioned by abolitionist attacks on slavery. The danger was that popular rioting would encourage ambitious men, who would not be satisfied merely to support existing institutions. In a famous passage Lincoln said:
Towering genius disdains a beaten path. . . . It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor. . . . It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen.
To guard against this danger, the people must be united with each other and attached to the government and the laws. Lincoln therefore exhorted: "Let reverence for the laws . . . be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice . . . let it become the political religion of the nation" (pp. 210, 227).
Jaffa sees the Lyceum speech as a prophetic anticipation of Lincoln's wartime role as savior of the Union. Honoring the achievement of the Founding Fathers, yet distancing himself from them, Lincoln envisioned the necessity of re-creating the Republic in order to preserve it, by returning to the principles of the Declaration of Independence. After a period of Old Testament-like prophetic warnings from 1854 to 1860, Jaffa says Lincoln created a political religion for the nation during the Civil War that restated the revolutionary principles. In Jaffa's view, Lincoln believed the work of reestablishing the republic would bring distinction greater than that of a Caesar tearing down the government, greater even than the glory that attached to the original act of foundation.
Crisis of the House Divided studies the Temperance Address of 1842 for insight into the political moderation that distinguished Lincoln's subsequent career. Supporting the goal of the temperance movement, Lincoln nevertheless criticized its Utopian, moralistic spirit. By ignoring human imperfections and denying a legitimate scope to public opinion, this spirit was a potential threat to liberty. Prophetic in its own right is Jaffa's observation that Lincoln's teaching on political moderation provides "a diagnosis of the totalitarian impulse within the heart of modern egalitarianism. . ." (p. 272).
Jaffa's treatment of Lincoln's political philosophy as a young Whig, virtually a monograph in itself, guides his analysis of the debates with Douglas. Urging the people to keep faith with the nation's Founding principles, Lincoln successfully avoided the snare of popular sovereignty. Refusing after his election to accede to extension of slavery or recognition of the southern Confederacy, he led the nation into war-and created the political religion of which he had spoken in the Lyceum Address a quarter of a century earlier. Crisis of the House Divided makes only brief reference to the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural, in which Lincoln developed his political religion. The book does, however, advance Jaffa's very important argument that Lincoln's political religion, based on the principle of equality and offered as rationale for the "new birth of freedom" signified in slave emancipation, transformed the original meaning of the Declaration of Independence. Whereas Jefferson regarded the principle of equality as the effective basis of political right, Lincoln treated it as a transcendent goal in an ongoing struggle to improve and extend republican freedom.11 According to Jaffa, Lincoln transformed the idea of equality from a negative, minimal norm prescribing what society ought not to be, "into a transcendental affirmation of what it ought to be" (p. 321).
In an intellectual climate marked by changing race relations and heightened concern for civil rights, Crisis of the House Divided was recognized as a convincing statement of the centrality of the slavery question in the coming of the Civil War and a persuasive refutation of Revisionism.12 Taking what appeared to be a liberal view of slavery as a moral issue, it anticipated the favorable reassessment of Republican antislavery and wartime civil rights policies that emerged in the scholarship of the 1960s.13 On the other hand, a few Revisionist-minded historians considered Jaffa simply a partisan defender of Lincoln.14 Few critics appreciated the conservative philosophical framework of Crisis of the House Divided and its relevance not only for civil rights issues but also for the struggle against Communism.15
Jaffa's unified view of Lincoln's political thought and action was a major contribution to Lincoln historiography, which as I have noted had long been concerned to establish a meaningful coherence between the Illinois years and the later presidential period. In 1954 the literary critic Edmund Wilson, in a brief and acerb essay, had argued that Lincoln from an early date was conscious that he would play a significant public role; projected himself as the ambitious tyrant in the Lyceum Address; and vindicated this prophetic vision in the Civil War by crushing the southern foe.16 Studies of Lincoln in the 1960s emphasized his pragmatism and political realism, following the lead of neither Jaffa nor Wilson in the very different-interpretations of the philosophical or psycho-ideological unity they discerned in his career.17 Recently, however; several psychohistories have elaborated on Wilson's negative sketch. They argue that Lincoln identified with the Caesar-figure in the Lyceum speech, was ambivalent toward and ultimately rejected the teachings of the Founding Fathers, and was responsible for the Civil War and the imperialistic results and destruction of republicanism that it allegedly produced." One need only note that Crisis of the House Divided stands up very well in comparison with these rather lurid accounts, which may charitably be described as resting more on psychiatric theory than empirical evidence.19
Jaffa's scholarship has also had an impact on the study of American political thought. His argument about Lincoln's transformation of the equality principle led Willmoore Kendall to expound the thesis that Lincoln derailed the American political tradition from its legislative majoritarian course and steered it in the direction of modern egalitarianism.20Criticized from the right for his emphasis on equality, Jaffa has been attacked from the left for his natural-right interpretation of Lincoln's political religion. Thus in a recent essay William S. Corlett rejects Jaffa's elitist and transcendental view of Lincoln and tries to assimilate him to the Pocockian citizen-participation model of republicanism.21
Jaffa's penetrating study of the Lincoln-Douglas debates and his interpretation of Lincoln's political thought have earned him a secure place in American historical letters. Both in its philosophically grounded methodology and its conclusions about the role of political ideas in the coming of the Civil War, Crisis of the House Divided shows us philosophy teaching by example. Considered as political philosophy, as an attempt to restore the true meaning of the Declaration of Independence and establish a political science of natural right, Jaffa's views have not found ready acceptance. They have, however, been constructively controversial in a post-liberal period that is questioning many of the pragmatic-relativist assumptions that seemed the unshakeable foundations of the western intellectual world a generation ago. It is in stimulating this intellectual reassessment that Harry V. Jaffa, Socratic provocateur and moral critic, has made his most significant and lasting contribution.
1Jaffa, "In Defense of the 'Natural Law Thesis,'" in Equality and Liberty: Theory and Practice in American Politics (Oxford University Press, 1965), pp. 190-208; Jaffa, "In Defense of Political Philosophy: A Letter to Walter Berns," National Review,Jan. 22, 1982.
2David Boucher, "New Histories of Political Thought for Old?" Political Studies, Vol. 31 (March 1983), pp. 112-21; Gordon J. Schochet, "Quentin Skinner's Method," Political Theory, Vol. 2 (August 1974) pp. 261-76.
3Jaffa, "The Nature and Origin of the American Party System," Equality and Liberty, pp. 3-10.
4Ibid., p. 40.
5See, for example, Donald S. Lutz, Popular Consent and Popular Control: Whig Political Theory in the Early State Constitutions (Louisiana State University Press, 1980).
6Jaffa, "Equality as a Conservative Principle," in How To Think About the American Resolution (Carolina Academic Press, 1978), pp. 39-43; Jaffa, "Theory and Practice in American Politics," in Equality and Liberty, p. 137.
7Ibid., pp. 131-39.
8I employ the concept developed by John Higham, "Beyond Consensus: The Historian as Moral Critic," American Historical Review, Vol. 67 (April 1962), pp. 609-25:
9Jaffa, Thomism and Aristotelianism: A Study of the Commentary by Thomas Aquinas on the Nicomachean Ethics(University of Chicago Press, 1952; reprinted, Greenwood Press, 1979).
10See G. S. Boritt, Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream (University of Tennessee, 1978), pp. 291-311.
11Glen E. Thurow tells the full story of this ideological transformation in Abraham Lincoln and American Political Religion(State University of New York Press/1976). Jaffa has long promised a second volume on Lincoln dealing with the war years.
12See American Political Science Review, Vol. 54 (March 1960), pp. 225-26; Journal of Politics, Vol. 23 (Feb. 196i), pp. 152-54; Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 14 (June 1961), pp. 602-03); American Historical Review, Vol. 65 (Jan. 1960), p. 390; Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 75 (Dec. 1960), pp. 604-06.
13Don E. Fehrenbacher, Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850s (Stanford University Press, 1962), is the best example of this scholarship which confirms Jaffa's interpretation of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
14See Review of Politics, Vol. 23 (Jan. 1961), pp. 116-18; Journal of Southern History, Vol. 26 (August 1960), pp. 400-01. Gerald D. Capers, reviewing Jaffa's work in the Journal of Southern History, very much liked his interpretation of Douglas, however, observing that no better case had ever been made for the Illinois Senator.
15An exception was Gerhart Niemeyer, who reviewed the book for Midwest Journal of Political Science, Vol. 4 (May 1960), pp. 197-99.
16Edmund Wilson, Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1962), pp. 106-15, pp. 127-30.
17Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Changing Image of Lincoln in American Historiography (Oxford University 1968 lecture), pp. 19-20.
18See George B. Forgie, Patricide in the House Divided: A Psychological Interpretation of Lincoln and His Age (New York, 1979); Dwight G. Anderson, Abraham Lincoln and the Quest for Immortality (New York, 1982); Charles B. Strozier, Lincoln's Quest for Union: Public and Private Meanings (New York, 1982).
19An exception is Major L. Wilson, "Lincoln and Van Buren in the Steps of the Fathers: Another Look at the Lyceum Address," Civil War History, Vol. 29 (Sept. 1983), pp. 197-211.
20Willmoore Kendall and George W. Carey, The Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition (Louisiana State University Press, 1970).
21William S. Corlett, Jr., "The Availability of Lincoln's Political Religion," Political Theory, Vol. 10 (Nov. 1982), pp. 520-40.