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The Central Idea

By: Harry V. Jaffa
February 19, 2006

According to Abraham Lincoln, public opinion always has a central idea from which all its minor thoughts radiate. The central idea of the American Founding—and indeed of constitutional government and the rule of law—was the equality of mankind. This thought is central to all of Lincoln's speeches and writings, from 1854 until his election as president in 1860. It is immortalized in the Gettysburg Address.


The equality of mankind is best understood in light of a two-fold inequality. The first is the inequality of mankind and of the subhuman classes of living beings that comprise the order of nature. Dogs and horses, for example, are naturally subservient to human beings. But no human being is natural subservient to another human being. No human being has a right to rule another without the other's consent. The second is the inequality of man and God. As God's creatures, we owe unconditional obedience to His will. By that very fact however we do not owe such obedience to anyone else. Legitimate political authority—the right of one human being to require obedience of another human being—arises only from consent. The fundamental act of consent is, as the 1780 Massachusetts Bill of Rights states, "a social compact by which the whole people covenants with each citizen and each citizen with the whole people that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good." The "certain laws for the common good" have no other purpose but to preserve and protect the rights that each citizen possesses prior to government, rights with which he or she has been "endowed by their Creator." The rights that governments exist to secure are not the gift of government. They originate in God.

The great difficulty in forming legitimate governments is in persuading those forming the governments that those who are to be their fellow citizens are equal to them in the rights, which their common government is to protect. Catholics and Protestants in sixteenth-century Europe looked upon each other as less than human, and slaughtered each other without pity and without compunction. It was impossible for there to be a common citizenship of those who did not look upon each other as possessing the same right of conscience. How one ought to worship God cannot be settled by majority rule. A majority of one faith cannot ask a minority of another faith to submit their differences to a vote. George Washington, in 1793, said that our governments were not formed in the gloomy ages of ignorance and superstition, but at a time when the rights of man were better understood than in any previous age. Washington was right, in that such rights were, in the latter part of the eighteenth century, in America, better understood. But they were not perfectly understood, as the continued existence of chattel slavery attests. A difference concerning the equal rights of persons of color made the continued existence of a common government of all Americans impossible. A great civil war had to be fought, ending the existence of slavery, reuniting the nation and rededicating it to the proposition that all men are created equal.

The United States is engaged today in a great mission to spread democracy to the Middle East, beginning with Afghanistan, and continuing with Iraq. The inhabitants of Iraq are divided into many groups and factions that hate and distrust each other. The attitude of Sunni and Shia Muslims toward each other resembles that of Catholic and Protestant Christians in the sixteenth century (which persist today in northern Ireland), each regarding the other as heretics. Under the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, the minority of Sunnis persecuted the majority Shias. It is understandable that the minority Sunnis are today resisting majority rule, while the majority Shia favor it. The Sunnis clearly believe that majority rule by Shia will be used as a means of retribution and revenge. The Sunnis look upon majority rule by the Shia the way the South looked upon the election of Lincoln in 1860. It is inconceivable to the Sunnis that the rule of the Shia majority will be anything other than tyranny. Indeed, it is inconceivable to them that any political power, whether of a minority or a majority, would be non-tyrannical. The idea of non-tyrannical government is alien to their history and their experience. They regard our assertions of Jeffersonian or Lincolnian principles as mere hypocrisy, as they se no other form of rule other than that of force. Our government assumes that the people of the Middle East, like people elsewhere, seek freedom for others no less than for themselves. But that is an assumption that has not yet been confirmed by experience.

Our difficulty in pursuing a rational foreign policy in the Middle East—or anywhere else—is compounded by the fact that we ourselves, as a nation, seem to be as confused as the Iraqis concerning the possibility of non-tyrannical majority rule. We continue to enjoy the practical benefits of political institutions founded upon the convictions of our Founding Fathers and Lincoln, but there is little belief in God-given natural rights, which are antecedent to government, and which define and limit the purpose of government. Virtually no one prominent today, in the academy, in law, or on government, subscribes to such beliefs. Indeed, the climate of opinion of our intellectual elites is one of violent hostility to any notion of a rational foundation for political morality. We, in short, engaged in telling others to accept the forms of our own political institutions, without any reference to the principles or convictions that give rise to those institutions.

According to many of our political and intellectual elites, both liberal and conservative, the minority in a democracy enjoys only such rights as the majority chooses to bestow upon them. The Bill of Rights in the American Constitution—and similar bills in state Constitutions—are regarded as gifts from the majority to the minority. But the American Constitution, and the state constitutions subordinate to it have, at one time or another, sanctioned both slavery and Jim Crow, by which the bills of rights applied to white Americans were denied to black Americans. But according to the elites, it is not undemocratic for the minority to lose. From this perspective, both slavery and Jim Crow were exercises of democratic majority rule. This is precisely the view of democracy by the Sunnis in Iraq, and is the reason they are fighting the United States.

Unless we as a political community can by reasoned discourse re-establish in our own minds the authority of the constitutionalism of the Founding Fathers and of Lincoln, of government devoted to securing the God-given equal rights of every individual human being, we will remain ill equipped to bring the fruits of freedom to others.

Harry V. Jaffa

Febuary 19, 2006