Mises Review

A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War, by Harry V. Jaffa

The Mises Review

jaffa.jpgThe Indefensible Abe

Mises Review 7, No. 2 (Summer 2001)

Harry V. Jaffa
Rowman and Littlefield, 2000; xiv + 549 pgs.

Professor Jaffa has set himself a difficult task. He presents Abraham Lincoln as a champion of freedom for all. Not for Honest Abe the virulent racist sentiments of his contemporaries about blacks. Quite the contrary, his lodestar was the clause of the Declaration of Independence that tells us “all men are created equal.” Far from being a mere man of his time, Lincoln ranks with Socrates as a political philosopher.

Our author must here confront a small problem. Did not Lincoln make a number of statements that suggest his commitment to equality for blacks was far from complete? Jaffa acknowledges that “in the debates with [Stephen A.] Douglas, Lincoln reiterates that he is not, and never has been, in favor of bringing about a perfect social and political equality between blacks and whites” (p. xii).

In order that we may fully appreciate Jaffa’s ingenious resolution of his difficulty, it will be helpful to have some of Lincoln’s remarks in more complete form: “There is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.” (See on this whole question Lerone Bennett’s very useful Forced Into Glory. The passage from Lincoln is quoted there on p. 208.)

How can someone who says this be regarded as a believer in equality between blacks and whites? Our author at once dissolves the difficulty: Although Lincoln says that he is not, and never has been, in favor of equality, “[h]e never says that he will not be” (p. xii). No doubt, then, the quotation just offered would leave Mr. Jaffa untroubled. Lincoln says that the physical difference will “forever” forbid social and political equality between blacks and whites. But he does not say that it will forever be true that these physical differences will forever have this effect. Hence he believes in equality. What could be simpler?

Has not Mr. Jaffa given us a marvelous hermeneutic tool? Let us see how well we can apply what our author has taught us. He tells us: “Lincoln is perhaps the greatest of all exemplars of Socratic statesmanship” (p. 368). Is not the meaning of this statement obvious? Jaffa does not say that he will in future believe that Lincoln manifested Socratic excellence. Of course, then, Jaffa is really telling us that Lincoln opposes whatever Socrates defended. And far from enlisting Lincoln in the egalitarian army, is not Jaffa really telling us that Lincoln is a racist of Hitlerian scale? Note carefully that Jaffa does not say that he will in future believe that Lincoln supported equality.

But have I not resorted too readily to mockery? It is easy to parody Mr. Jaffa’s reluctance to admit flaws in his Prince Charming, but surely his book raises an issue that classical liberals must confront. Have we supported the wrong side in the Civil War? From Lord Acton to Murray Rothbard, the leading classical liberals have embraced the cause of the Confederacy. Lincoln, in their view, was a faithful votary of Leviathan. By a bloody crusade that cost vast numbers of lives, he crushed those who dared resist centralizing power. In so doing, he ended the Old Republic, in which states’ rights drastically curtailed the scope of the national government.

Jaffa raises against this view an objection that compels attention. The libertarian outlook rests squarely on a fundamental Lockean insight: Each person is the rightful owner of his own body. As such, slavery is of course ruled out. Was it Lincoln or his Southern opponents who accepted the key libertarian axiom?                                                                         

Surely, our author claims, the honors go to Lincoln. He rejected slavery as illegitimate, precisely because it contravened the inalienable right to liberty possessed by blacks as well as whites. The leading lights of the Confederacy, to the contrary, denied the universal scope of self-ownership. In the famous “Cornerstone” speech, to which Jaffa attaches enormous importance, Alexander Stephens claimed that the Confederacy had overthrown the equality clause of the Declaration of Independence. The newly inaugurated Confederate vice president stated that “our government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its . . . corner stone rests upon the great truth that the negro [sic] is not equal to the white man” (p. 222, quoting Stephens).                                

I am here trying, with characteristic fairness, to present Jaffa’s argument as strongly as I can. But enough is enough. I cannot forbear from one illustration of our author’s peculiar way with ideas. Speaking of Stephens’s belief that science demonstrated blacks to be inferior, Jaffa writes: “One can only surmise that Darwin’s Origin of Species, published in 1859, may have been on his mind. Yet there is nothing in that work bearing directly on the question of Negro equality” (p. 224). Mr. Jaffa rather understates the case. Darwin’s book is not about human evolution at all. But even if one takes what he says at face value, Jaffa’s insouciance is nothing short of breathtaking. What he in essence says is: “Here is my surmise; the evidence contradicts it.” But this is by the way.

If Lincoln championed self-ownership against slavery, should not classical liberals defend rather than revile him? Further, Jaffa claims, the Union established by the U.S. Constitution did not allow secession. The rebel states refused to accept the legitimate results of a democratic election. In their rejection of majority rule, they again defied the Lockean principles that Lincoln did his best to uphold.

Such, in essence, is Jaffa’s case. It seems to me to fail at every point. For one thing, Lincoln’s commitment to self-ownership amounts to less than one might at first sight imagine. By no means did Lincoln think that blacks were unconditionally entitled to freedom. Quite the contrary, he repeatedly pledged after his election as president that he would do nothing to interfere with slavery in the states where it existed. In his First Inaugural, e.g., he said: “I do but quote from one of those [earlier] speeches when I declare that ‘I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe that I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so’”(p. 261). Lincoln did strongly oppose extension of slavery to the territories, but he sharply distanced himself from the abolitionists.

Why, then, does Jaffa make such a fuss over Lincoln’s alleged commitment to self-ownership in the style of John Locke? Why is Lincoln to be preferred to his Southern opponents? So long as the Union remained intact, Lincoln avowed himself willing to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law. What sort of Lockeanism is this?

Here we reach the heart of things. Jaffa’s version of self-ownership is hardly recognizable to libertarians. As he sees matters, a group of self-owners form a society by unanimous agreement. They accept majority rule as a principle of decision; since this acceptance rests on everyone’s agreement, it is consistent with individual autonomy. If you refuse to obey a properly constituted majority, you may be compelled to do so. How can you rationally object? You are merely being forced to carry out your promise to abide by majority rule.

But what if you say that you no longer wish to belong to the society whose majority has decided against you? Do you not have a basic right to depart? Not necessarily, our author tells us. If you deny that someone else owns himself, you forfeit all your own rights.

Applied to the situation in 1861, the departing Southerners stood guilty of supreme sin. Because they, or at least those among them whom Jaffa elects to quote, viewed slavery as a positive good, they forfeited their rights. Lincoln then acted with full propriety in his endeavor to thwart their efforts to depart from the Union. Unlike the revolutionaries of 1776, the Confederates could make no valid appeal to the right of self-government. This right does not exist for those who deny to anyone the right to liberty.

To grasp Jaffa’s point fully, one must avoid a misstep. The fault of the South was not that slavery existed within its borders. On this ground, one might deny rights to several of the Northern states as well. Indeed, would not Lincoln himself be suspect, since in his First Inaugural he promised to respect slavery where it existed? Rather, the fatal step was that some Southerners no longer regarded slavery as a necessary evil. Had they said that slavery was a temporary expedient; had they professed themselves in fear of the violence that blacks too hastily freed might inflict upon them; or had they tied gradual and compensated emancipation to expulsion of the blacks from the United States, all would have been well.

Is this not totally bizarre? Simply because one avows the wrong verbal formula, one’s rights are erased. You may hold slaves with Jaffa’s and Lincoln’s best wishes, so long as you do not declare your practice a good thing.

What manner of self-ownership rights do we have here? How can it be that a Lockean in good standing need not be committed to the immediate abolition of slavery? We here reach the core of Jaffa’s view of morality. The notion that a moral principle commits you to an absolute course of action is “Kantian” and as such beyond the pale. Instead, all is subordinate to prudence. Applied to the concrete historical situation in 1861, Lincoln, as the all-wise statesman, was free to act as he thought prudent. Since he mouthed with endless repetition the proper litany, he fulfilled all that morality required.

Do you suspect me of exaggeration? Let us see our author in action without interference from me. Against Chief Justice Taney, who argued that if the equality clause of the Declaration of Independence was intended to apply with full legal force to blacks, the signers would have acted at once to end slavery, Jaffa waxes indignant: “Taney’s pseudo-Kantian attempt to infer the ‘true’ meaning of the Declaration from the failure of the Founders to abolish slavery would have been merely ludicrous. . . . The Declaration itself endorses the dictates of prudence, thereby endorsing a prudential morality that is the very antithesis of Kant’s categorical imperative” (p. 297).

Once more, then, Jaffa’s position is as clear as it is repellent. Moral principle commits you to nothing in particular; all stands under that infinitely elastic catchword “prudence.” But one piece in the puzzle is missing. If Jaffa empties morality of its practical force, why does he regard the continued reiteration of Lockean liberties as so important? Why, in particular, is it so vital a matter that certain Southerners chose the wrong verbal formula to defend their policies toward blacks?

Our problem may be resolved by a glance at Lincoln’s First Inaugural. He tells us: “the central idea of secession, is the essence of anarchy” (p. 279). For him, the idea of secession refutes itself; do the Southerners not realize that eventually, dissidents will seek to leave the Confederacy, with the end result a group of small territories? Do the dissatisfied states not see that their course of action strikes at the existence of a strong and powerful nation?

Here we see what really troubled Lincoln. Like his Prussian contemporary Otto von Bismarck, he sought a powerful, centralizing state. The Constitution stood in his way, since under a widely held view, the states had the right to depart from a compact they had joined as sovereign entities. Hence Lincoln’s moralizing rhetoric, enthusiastically seconded by Jaffa. It committed him to nothing as regards the slaves, but it provided a screen behind which his transparently flimsy efforts to deny the right of secession could proceed.

Jaffa goes on at enormous length to support Lincoln’s absurd claim that the Union preceded the states. Yet at times he drops his guard, and he is constrained to admit that the states, at the time they ratified the Constitution were sovereign. Thus, he contends that the central authority under the Articles of Confederation did not rank as a genuine government. “Under the Articles of Confederation, the Congress possessed no powers of its own by which to execute its laws” (p. 376).

But, one might counter, was not the very point of the Constitution to change this situation? No doubt; but the issue at hand lies elsewhere. At the time the states contemplated ratification of the Constitution, they resumed their complete powers of sovereignty. Since the Articles of Confederation were no longer in force, literally nothing stood between a state and full authority. Of course, it is open to Jaffa to contend that once a state ratified the Constitution, it abandoned its sovereignty. But Lincoln’s tendentious account of the origin of the states cannot be used in favor of his antisecessionist line. Precisely to distract attention from the weakness of the legal case against secession, and to hide the real motive of power that underlies Lincoln’s policy, Jaffa constructs his spurious moral argument.

In view of the fact that Lincoln’s morality, as expounded by Jaffa, does nothing to limit power, Jaffa’s tasteless remarks about the late M.E. Bradford are astonishing. He compares Bradford, an outstanding Southern man of letters, to Hitler. “Bradford and Hitler agree with the Lincoln of the House Divided speech, that America, on the eve of the Civil War, stood at a divide between ‘a great new social order based on slavery and inequality’ [a remark allegedly made by Hitler] and one based on the principles of the Declaration. They only disagree with Lincoln as to which choice ought to have been made”(p. 503, n. 10).

Because Bradford dared question egalitarian dogma, Jaffa accuses him of support for a social order based on slavery. (In this context, it is but a minor issue, though worth noting, that the veracity of the volume by Hermann Rauschning on which our author relies for his quotation from Hitler is much in doubt. Of the controversy surrounding Rauschning he seems blissfully unaware.) Of course Bradford did not view the Confederacy as an incipient Third Reich. It is not Bradford but his critic who subordinates morality to power.

Even his harshest critic must grant Mr. Jaffa that he has carefully studied Lincoln’s words, which to him constitute a veritable Holy Writ. When he strays outside St. Abraham’s purview, though, he sometimes slips. He informs us that Shakespeare’s King John is set in the thirteenth century-the age “of papal supremacy within the Holy Roman Empire, of which Great Britain was a part” (pp. 14-15). Perhaps Mr. Jaffa would be good enough to give us the dates in which Britain was part of the Empire. Also in error is Jaffa’s claim that Henry VIII wanted the pope to grant him a divorce from Catherine of Aragon (p. 19). Henry sought an annulment. The Holy Alliance did not defeat Napoleon; it was not formed until after Napoleon’s final ouster (p. 84).

Mises Review Archives


Gordon, David. “The Indefensible Abe.” Review of A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War by Harry V. Jaffa. The Mises Review 7, No. 2 (Summer 2001).


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