A New Birth Of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln And The Coming Of The Civil War, by Harry V. Jaffa
It is somewhat melancholy that this ended up being the last book by the author and that he did not live long enough to finish writing about the second half of Lincoln’s presidency and the rhetoric of his later speeches. Yet if this was to be the last work that Jaffa lived to complete, it is a masterful work that combines his interests in theology, political science, and literary criticism. Over and over again in this book, Jaffa contrasts the politics of Lincoln with those of his contemporaries, and not only finds Lincoln to be superior (as we would expect), but also finds some surprising resonances with others and shows the way that being a popular leader requires both leading one’s people but not going too far ahead of them. The author forthrightly admits the racism of the times and shows how it was that Lincoln, who appears not to have been particularly prejudiced by the standards of his time, had to continually fight against the accusation that he was trying to push for full equality for blacks to a people that was not ready to entertain that thought, much less act on it. In some ways the tragedy of Lincoln’s time is not too distant from that of our own.
This book is nearly 500 pages long and divided into seven very large chapters. The preface clearly defines the scope of the book and its aim to talk about the political philosophy of Lincoln as president. After that the author compares the election of 1800 and 1860 to show how it was that a free people vindicated their worth as a free people by accepting the verdict of ballots and not resorting to bullets (1). This leads to a look at the relationship between the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address while critiquing revisionist historians (2). AFter that the author discusses the divided American mind on the eve of the Civil War by giving a close Straussian analysis of the contemporary speeches and writings of James Buchanan, Jefferson Davis, and Alexander Stephens during the secession winter (3). After that there are two chapters that give a lengthy exegesis of Lincoln’s first inaugural address and the prudence and moderation but also firmness that went into writing it despite the likely suspicion that Lincoln had that its mild sentiments would not be responded to positively by the Confederacy (4, 5). After that the author discusses Lincoln’s address to Congress on July 4, 1861 on why the Union must be preserved. The book then ends with a discussion of slavery, secession, and the political teaching of John C. Calhoun (7) before an epilogue covers Douglas’ “Dividing Line” essay of 1859, as well as notes, an index, and information about the author.
By and large, Jaffa succeeds wonderfully at showing how Lincoln was able in his writing and speaking, especially after 1854, to point out eloquently that the principles of the American founding and the universal claims upon the freedom of mankind that we claimed for ourselves required granting those freedoms to others. If we have still not reached the level of attaining the respect for others that the Declaration of Independence claims, at least Lincoln provided a moral example of how we could do better for others to follow. This book also shows the tragedy of Taney having been an anti-slavery man in his youth but becoming a professional hypocrite to defend the slave power, for Alexander Stephens forthrightly claiming the racist foundation of the Confederate States of America while being the most moderate political position that one could find in the South at the time that was accepted by the people of the time and place. Over and over again the author points to the tragedy of Calhounian influence on the politics of the South and the way that people were poisoned to think so much of their freedom but not to care about the freedom of those whom they exploited. A massive work and one that is heavy with the weight of the burden of history, this is a work that deserves to be read by all who would wish to understand the politics of the Civil War and its continuing influence on us to this day.