Book Review: Crisis Of The House Divided

Crisis Of The House Divided:  An Interpretation Of The Issues In The Lincoln-Douglas Debates, by Harry V. Jaffa

This was my first introduction to Harry Jaffa and his political thinking some two decades or so ago and it remains a book I enjoy reading from time to time, although I have not read or reviewed it for more than a decade and so I thought it worthwhile to do so as part of my quarantine reading project to catch up on the late thinker’s writings as a whole.  The influence that Jaffa has had on my own political thinking has been considerable, not least because it offered a deeply conservative viewpoint that had a very high view of virtue, a high view of charitable and sympathetic reading of political thinkers and other writers in general, as well as a high degree of respect and regard for the importance of egalitarianism to the American and biblical traditions which I hold so near and dear.  This particular book was also greatly influential to me because of its structure in the way that it sets up a case for Douglas’ thinking as sympathetically as possible and then shows how Lincoln answers the challenges of his revisionist critics for his pre-Civil War behavior and remains an example for us today.

This book consists of four parts that last for more than 400 pages.  After acknowledgements and a preface the book contains an introduction that looks at 1958 as being a crisis in historical judgment that viewed the Lincoln-Douglas debates as unimportant (1) as well as the alternatives present in Illinois between Lincoln and Douglas in 1858 (2).  The second part of the book then consists of Jaffa making the best case for Douglas by discussing slavery (3), manifest destiny (4), the legal power and practical impotence of federal prohibitions of slavery in the territories (5), the question of the the superseding of the Missouri Compromise by the Compromise of 1850 (6), the intentions of Douglas in passing the Kansas-Nebraska act (7), and the tragedy of the extremism that resulted (8).  After that the author discusses the political education of Abraham Lincoln (III) by giving a detailed discussion of his views on political salvation in the Lyceum speech (9) and on political moderation in the temperance address (10).  The book then ends with Jaffa’s tour de force case for Lincoln (IV) with chapters on the legal (11) and political (12) tendencies towards the expansion of slavery, the intrinsic evil of repealing the Missouri compromise (13), the universal meaning of the Declaration of Independence (14), the form and substance of political freedom in the modern world (15), what was true and false about popular sovereignty (16), the abstract and political meanings of equality (17), the natural limits of slavery expansion (18), the Republican fidelity to Lincoln’s principles after 1860 (19), and the end of manifest destiny (20), after which there are two appendices that discuss some historical background to the debates (i) as well as some notes on the Dred Scott decision (ii) before an index.

It is remarkable that in 1858 that ordinary people in Illinois were willing to sit out for three hours of political speeches from two political candidates where instead of being promised various aspects of aid and assistance for the government there was a detailed policy discussion of issues of the spread of slavery in the Union and how it related to the policy of the three branches of government.  It is hard to imagine very many contemporary politicians on any level that would be capable of focusing their attention on matters of basic philosophical importance or an audience that would be able to listen attentively to such matters without finding it to be too wonkish and boring.  That said, we are all the better for having had such debates recorded for us to read and for having Professor Jaffa speak so eloquently about what is at stake to remind us that the questions of liberty and the legitimacy of popular regimes and the morality that legitimizes such regimes are questions that remain with us today and that we would do well to think more about in such times as we now experience where faith in ourselves is so unwarranted and faith in our institutions is so imperiled.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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