Book Review: Equality And Liberty

Equality And Liberty:  Theory And Practice In American Politics, by Harry V. Jaffa

During the process of writing his epic work on Abraham Lincoln and his importance to political philosophy, which was published late in life, Jaffa worked on a variety of essays and other works that helped him discuss the context of equality and liberty and their relationships and some of those essays are included in this particular collection.  If you love Jaffa’s writing as much as I do and his fundamental respect for the struggle of American statesmen to influence and not merely reflect the prejudices of the times and of the voters, then this book is certainly well worth checking out if you can find it either in print or online.  If Jaffa is rather critical about the state of American political theory, there are certainly good reasons, since America’s predominant political philosophy amount to some sort of pragmatism and much of America’s influence in the world consists on imitations of our practice rather than a great deal of fondness for the theories that excite many thinkers.  One wonders what Jaffa would have to say about the political drama of our own times, given his fondness for finding a principled place from which to critique both right and left from the point of view of a principled but practical conservative mindset.

This book is a bit more than 200 pages and consists of ten essays.  After a foreword the author discusses the nature of America’s political parties and their history and how it is that various elections have proven to be immensely important in shifting the dominance of one party over another (1).  After that the author provides a historical view of agrarian virtue and republican freedom (2) as well as a discussion of the relationship between patriotism and morality (3).  There is a discussion of the issue of value consensus in American democracy through a look at the Lincoln-Douglas debates( 4) as well as a discussion of the continuation of the Lincoln-Douglas debates in the Ohio campaign of 1859 (5).  The author discusses the relationship between theory and practice in the American political tradition to the detriment of the former (6) as well as providing a discussion of the moral and political value of the Emancipation Proclamation (7) as well as discussing the connection between religious and civil liberty (8).  The book then ends with essays in defense of the natural law thesis (9) and also a case against political theory (10) continuing on the author’s previous discussion on the subject.

A great part of the wonder of this book, and the political philosophy of Jaffa as a whole, is the way that Jaffa manages to defend the importance of equality and liberty within the conservative political tradition while also pointing out that these terms have always been troublesome.  Jaffa does not minimize the difficulties that Americans face concerning questions of freedom and equality as well as the deep contradictions that are present in America’s principles given the different meanings of liberty and equality that have always existed.  To use but one example, one can come up with plausible and reasonable interpretations of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution that make it unconstitutional to have denied civil rights to black slaves (recognized as human beings even in the Fugitive Slave clause) while simultaneously making it unconstitutional to deprive Southern slaveowners of their property rights in said human beings.  Similar contradictions exist to this day when we think about issues such as the legitimacy of state public health rules and their enforcement as well as social evils like abortion which clearly deny the right to life to innocent unborn children because of the insistence of contemporary feminists on defending their supposed property rights in the womb.  We have never been able to define freedom and equality well, and so these issues continually become matters of disagreement and conflict within our republic.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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