The status of Lincoln in Conservative iconography has long been hotly disputed. To my way of thinking, it cannot but continue to be disputed, though one hopes that the heat of bitterness and acrimony will diminish. Lincoln is one of the most enigmatic and captivating of all historical figures. He blazes across the firmament of human history an impenetrably bright comet, its luminance tragically extinguished before anyone could get a good handle on its true inner character. I have heard it said that nothing is surer to boost the sales of any sort of book than the insertion of the word "Lincoln" in the title. Seems plausible. The man whose first and perhaps greatest talent was chopping wood (and I am not the sort of man to denigrate so ancient and sacred a talent as that) made use of the minimal instructional resources at hand to produce an intellect prodigious in practical political shrewdness, in farsighted statesmanship, in humor, in creative philosophical speculation, and above all in the art of rhetoric. How can this be? It is a question that will ring from sea to shining sea until this Republic is no more, and beyond.
The enigma of Abraham Lincoln, I submit, precludes us from dogmatizing as his final status for or against Conservatism. Men can and should present their views on the matter, but they should keep in mind the essential mystery of this statesman, and the sadly incomplete nature of his testimony to mankind. I myself have vacillated wildly over the years. I have written in the past of Lincoln as a kind of American Richelieu, "a consolidator and statesman of genius, an amalgam of despot and patriot, whose project by its very success wounded liberty, but who nonetheless commands admiration for his singular greatness in trying times." At other times I have written of my great sympathy for Harry Jaffa's protrayal of Lincoln.
The soundest claim of his Conservatism, in my view, takes cognizance of his remarkable expounding of Natural Law through both statesmanship and philosophy. Virtually no American established more forcefully the authority of a transcendent order of justice, to which men owe obedience as individuals and as communities, than Abraham Lincoln.
All the world is in revolt against Natural Law, and it is Lincoln's distinction to have anticipated certain strains of that revolt when they were in their infancy, and laid out an unparalleled edifice of thought and action to counteract them.
In any case, at the request of our illustrious Steve Burton, I present this post as a Lincoln Open Thread, with the caveat that dogmatic polemics, though common enough on Lincoln-related threads, are not welcome here. Let us keep to the sort of generosity and good will with one's opponents that Chesterton so often exemplified. Below the fold is a section of Willmoore Kendall's review of Crisis of the House Divided from National Review in 1959, which I present as further food for thought.
Harry V. Jaffa's Crisis of the House Divided is: 1) a political history of the United States through the years preceding the Civil War; 2) an analysis of the political thought of the spokesmen (Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas) for two of the alternative courses proposed during those years; and 3) a creative venture in political philosophy that -- unless the United States be as sick intellectually as some of us believe it to be -- will provoke the most profound and far-reaching debate of our generation about American politics.
Some of the book's readers (who this reviewer hopes will be legion) will no doubt wish that Jaffa had written his three books one at a time. Like Bergson, he is a subtle and seductive teacher of philosophy who, however, makes great intellectual demands upon his pupils. But what Jaffa proves, if he does not prove anything else, is that political history is inseparable from the history of political philosophy, and that neither can be grasped by the man who is not a political philosopher in his own right.
The man who refutes Jaffa's controversial theses (which are legion) will have to bring to his task all the skills Jaffa shows himself to possess, and to possess beyond any other member of his generation whom I have encountered on the printed page: the skills of the historian with an encyclopedic grasp of his materials, of the all-seeing textual analyst, of the creative political philosopher, and of the literary artist who has mastered the nuances and rhythms of the rich and beautiful language bequeathed to us by Milton, Shakespeare, Burke -- and Abraham Lincoln. (Of Lincoln's right to be mentioned in this context Jaffa leaves this reader -- the Gettysburg address, incidentally, entirely apart --in no doubt at all.)
The central problem of Crisis of the House Divided is the status in the American political tradition of the "all men are created equal" clause of the Declaration of Independence. For Jaffa this is the same problem as the status of Abraham Lincoln vis-a-vis the Signers of the Declaration and the Framers of the Constitution; which, again, is the same problem as that of the very possibility of self-government, that is, of democracy, as a realistic political alternative. These three problems, Jaffa brilliantly demonstrates, were Abraham Lincoln's own deepest preoccupations from the earliest moments of his career -- preoccupations, moreover, with which he wrestled not as the smart political strategist of recent Lincoln historiography (though Jaffa is willing for us to think of Lincoln as that too), but as a political philosopher of the first order of importance.
As for the "all men are created equal" clause, Jaffa's Lincoln (and Jaffa) sees it as the indispensable presupposition of the entire American political experience; either you accept it as the standard which that experience necessarily takes as its point of departure, or you deny the meaning of the entire American experience. As for the status of Abraham Lincoln vis-a-vis the Signers and Framers, Jaffa's Lincoln sees the great task of the nineteenth century as that of affirming the cherished accomplishment of the Fathers by transcending it. Concretely, this means to construe the equality clause as having an allegedly unavoidable meaning with which it was always pregnant, but which the Fathers apprehended only dimly. As for the possibility of self-government, Jaffa's Lincoln sees it as turning on the questions: What can be done about the Caesarist potential in the system elaborated by the Framers? What can be done to prevent the passions of a self-governing people from, in the long run, taking over from their reason, so that it ignores the duties correlative to the rights self-government is intended to secure?
Jaffa's Lincoln (and Jaffa) has a crystal-clear answer to these questions: Caesarism can be avoided, the takeover by passions at the expense of reason circumvented, only through the ministrations and ultimate self-immolation of an anti-Caesar, himself as indifferent to power and glory as Caesar is avid for it -- an anti-Caesar capable of transforming the fundamental affirmations of the Signers and Framers into a political religion that men can live by. And for Jaffa these three problems reduce themselves to the question -- tacit, but present on every page of the book -- whether the Civil War was, from the standpoint of natural right and the cause of self-government, the "unnecessary war" of the historians of the past fifty or sixty years, or a war that had to be fought in the interest of freedom for all mankind.