To understand the Republican Party today, in all its cluelessness, one needs to know what it was when it was founded. One needs to know what went into the making of “the party of Lincoln”—less the details of the history than the great crisis of America that was involved.
I would argue that the Slave Power that Lincoln confronted in the 1850s and ’60s bears frightening similarity to the slave power we see today in the administrative state and its manifestations among those in academia, the media, and the corporate and political elite, where political correctness reigns.
Fortunately, a striking opportunity to rediscover this America is a marvelous recent history of republicanism in America, From Oligarchy to Republicanism: The Great Task of Reconstruction, by an emerging scholar, Forrest Nabors. Nabors views America from the time of the Founding through the Civil War and Reconstruction not only in terms of slavery, race, and section but in actual political terms—oligarchy (the rule of the few) and republicanism (democratic self-government). He carefully notes the difference between Northern and Southern lives illustrated by such measures as education, political representation, and land ownership. In this endeavor he supplements the principles supplied by his and my teacher, the preeminent Lincoln scholar Harry V. Jaffa (1918-2015).
The data lead him to the inevitable conclusion that both blacks and working class whites were under the rule of slave-holding oligarchs. Thus, the institution of slavery defined not just the despotic relationship between white master and black slaves but rather the whole society where the few ruled the many. Keep in mind that in 1860 no one in a Southern, slave-holding state could vote for Lincoln; his name did not appear on their ballots.
In responding to my friendly critique of his argument, Nabors presented a brief summary of leading themes of his book. But to be of maximum benefit to his readers, which I hope are many, his essay needs some correction, in the form of how his thesis relates to today’s political crisis.
In sum, Nabors’s response overemphasizes majority rule as the crucial principle of American republicanism. He is completely silent on its bedrock principle of natural rights. Majority rule is derivative from the central truth of natural rights, as we know from Jefferson as well as The Federalist Papers. Attempting to advocate majority rule without natural rights is the error for which Jaffa excoriated conservative legal stars such as Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice Scalia.
Fortunately, Nabors’ book is not silent on natural rights. For example, he points out that the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution of the Kansas Territory declared slavery to be established by “the law of nature.” But that’s not the natural right teaching of the Founders. (Recall that Lincoln and Charles Darwin shared the same birthdate, February 12, 1809.)
In Crisis of the House Divided (1959) Jaffa attacked liberal historians in the name of Lincolnian equality, while in A New Birth of Freedom (2000) he attacked former friends, neoconservative and conservative academics and pundits in the name of the social contract. In both books he sought to destroy the credibility of both types of elites, who ignored or misunderstood the natural rights at the heart of the Declaration of Independence. Jaffa advocated natural right in its forms over the historical progress or evolution (historicism) of his opponents. While government by historical evolution is unlimited, the government by natural rights is limited to protecting individual freedoms and human happiness.
But natural right is also ever the cause of revolution and civil war. Therefore, its critics advocated historical evolution as a scientifically grounded theory. The historically advancing consensus John C. Calhoun offered in his political theory (originally as a protection of slavery), returned as a replacement for natural rights. Recall that Calhoun denounced the Declaration of Independence for its “self-evident lie” of human equality.
Calhoun and Woodrow Wilson, despite their differing defamation of the Founders, are on the side of historical progress. (FDR tried to steal the Declaration too, by embracing it and falsely interpreting it.) Liberals and their intellectual establishment embrace the departure from the Founding, easing the way to the odious Howard Zinn and his America-hating history and the rule of political correctness. Nabors himself seems not to object to the banishment of Confederate monuments, a policy that scarcely advances the Founders’ advocacy of natural rights and undermines the public appreciation of martial virtues of ancestors.
So how do Americans restore natural right today, when it becomes scandalous to point out the natural differences between boys and girls? Are we not on the verge of another civil war over natural right? Or might there be another birth of freedom?
Harry V. Jaffa, in some of these collected essays, defended nature in his denunciation of deference to “gay rights.” But he declined to pursue this angle in his later writing.
One step involves the taming of the Darwinian conception of nature, in favor of one that allows for the rationality of final causes, that is, a hierarchy of purposes in human life, as part of the science of man. This science does not necessarily involve a Creator or God, though it would not only not rule one out, it would make that possibility a core of its endeavor.
The next, related step might be to rehabilitate the American founders’ conception of property rights as natural rights, or derivative from natural rights. As Madison contended, “as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.”
I am delighted to report that both steps, as well as others, toward a “scholarship of the politics of freedom” are being taken by students of Harry V. Jaffa.