Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Crisis of the House Divided by Henry Jaffa

I’m a huge fan of Dr. Larry Arne of Hillsdale College. So when he recommended a book on the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, by his mentor, Dr. Harry Jaffa, I had to get it. Crisis of the House Divided was originally published in 1959 and it shows. I think Americans were a lot smarter then. I think they were tremendously smarter than we are today when the original Lincoln/Douglass Debates took place. The book took me weeks to read and it’s only about 400 pages long, but it was a long, tough slog. I’m just not knowledgeable enough about the time of the debates, the issues involved, or the thinking at the time the book was written. Nevertheless, I’m glad I plowed through. It certainly opened my eyes to a part of history I thought I knew pretty well. 

Dr. Jaffa writes, “It is doubtful that any forensic duel, any clash of reasoned argument before a popular audience -- or, for that matter, before any legislative body -- ever held the power of decision over the future of a great people as these debates did.” By opposing Douglas, Lincoln set in motion a chain of events that eventually led to secession, the Civil War and Emancipation.

Douglas believed in “Popular Sovereignty” when it came to slavery in the states. He was pushing for legislation, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, that would allow states to vote slavery up or or down as they went from territory to state and effectively abolish the Missouri Compromise line of 1820 (although he claimed he did not was to see the Compromise repealed). This idea tapped into the long-standing American tradition of local self-government. Lincoln, seeing this as absurd, believed free government could not be reconciled to slavery, and that no man was so good at self-governing as to be able to govern over another. The existence of slaver was so repugnant to a free society, it simply could not be put to a vote. By challenging Douglas’ idea of popular sovereignty, Lincoln opened up a debate that would threaten the very existence of America.

Dr. Jaffa begins by presenting Douglas’ case. Stephen Douglas saw himself as the descendent of Andrew Jackson. He desired to spread democracy as far as it would go. He loved the Constitution and would go to remarkable lengths to defend it. His fame and integrity were such that even though he was a Democrat, had not Lincoln challenged him, the Republicans were considering Douglas as their standard-bearer. 

Being a strict Constitutionalist, Douglas, and most everyone else, believed the Constitution did not give the Federal government a say over the legality of slavery. Not only was it unConstitutional to do so, but he rightly feared it would tear the country apart. As a friend to both North and South, he was uniquely positioned to see the passions and positions on both sides. Unlike the abolitionists, who appealed to a “higher law” and were willing to go around the Constitution, Douglas knew his bill would pass Constitutional muster and be approved by the South, even if it hurt them in the end. 

Douglas did not necessarily want slavery to spread, in fact in his lifetime he had seen state after state abolish it within their jurisdiction. He recognized that the line of Missouri Compromise had become a protection of slavery rather than a limitation of it. He firmly believed that in giving states north of the line the power to vote, that would allow states south of the line to enter as free states as well. The current line presupposed all southern states would enter as slave states. Popular Sovereignty made no such preconditions. 

Douglas believed the battle must be fought for hearts and minds. Both Lincoln and Douglas recognized that without public sentiment behind you, laws were meaningless. While proclaiming he didn’t care a whit about whether the vote went for or against slavery, it is clear, he believed time and again the vote would be against. As more states entered the Union “free,” the slave states would see their power diminish and eventually the institution would wither. But as Popular Sovereignty came to embody “free soil” as a goal, Douglas had to work harder to maintain neutrality so as not to lose the South. 

Douglas believed strongly in the theory of Manifest Destiny and actually supported the American takeover of all of North and South America from the European imperialists so that more territories could be admitted and more opportunities for free states to be potentially created. Of course this would have created a very different kind of America than the one Lincoln wished to merely preserve.To that end, he beat the anti-European (and by extension, anti-abolition) drum that pervaded America at this time. As a true statesman, Douglas worked very to find the delicate balance of the possible, the moods of the people, and the good of his country. Not an easy job.

“When Lincoln in 1858 expressed the conviction that the Union must become all slave or all free, Douglas accused him of advocating a war between the sections. And Lincoln’s persistent retort was that he did not, by theses words, advocate anything at all; he only said what he believed would happen.” This conviction had been percolating in Lincoln’s psyche for many years. In fact, Lincoln seems to have presaged his role when he speaks of a Great Emancipator in his Lyceum Speech of 1838. In fact, those who knew Lincoln best said his “common man” exterior was affected and designed to give the appearance of one who was common but in fact covered up a very deep thinker.

Lincoln saw the country was actually moving in the wrong direction when it came to black civil rights. This was highlighted by the Dredd Scott decision holding that no black person could be a citizen, ever. However, this did not make Lincoln a friend to abolitionists. He saw in them a kind of mob rule and an appeal to lawlessness. He recognized the core of every argument being made came down to whether or not slavery was right or wrong. If right, then it didn’t matter whether it was extended or not. If wrong, then it couldn’t be extended. Since he believed enslaving a black man meant that a white man could be enslaved on the same grounds, he repeatedly made the case that slavery was wrong. But his desire to argue and change minds rather than resort to unConstitutional mob rule angered the abolitionists of his day. And his position certainly didn’t gain him friends in the pro-slavery crowd. 

Lincoln clearly saw the danger of the Popular Sovereignty movement. He believed it was “a base parody of of the principle of popular rights. It implied that whatever the people wanted they had a right to...” And some things, like slavery, were simply not issues that could be put to a vote in a republican form of government. For slavery violated the very spirit and foundation of republican government in the first place. Lincoln saw himself as an Old Testament prophet trying to get the people to follow him to a higher place. He wanted to lead the country into a new era where the words of Declaration of Independence, “all men are created equal,” would become a sacred reality. “For Lincoln, there was nothing more substantially important than whether Americans lived their lives believing that all men are created equal or whether they did not. For Lincoln the material prosperity of America saw chiefly valuable as the external sign of inner spiritual health. And that health -- the qualitative superiority of American life -- was inextricably and inexorably linked to the tenets of the Declaration of Independence.” The true statesman helps create this conviction in the hearts and minds of the people. Lincoln warned the people that if the Declaration was right, then nothing justified the enslavement of the Negro. But if the Negro was a man, then the Declaration was wrong and didn’t include blacks. The pro-slavery crowd could admit neither proposition. Everyone knew that the Founders clearly intended “all men” to mean “all men.” They relied on the future to enforce and secure that right. According to Lincoln, it was time to start enforcing the Declaration.

Dr. Jaffa offers this wonderful summary, “Douglas’s policy with respect to slavery... constituted a kind of agreement to disagree. The desirability of such an agreement was predicated, in turn, upon his belief that ‘we exist as a nation only by virtue of the Constitution’ and that therefore a scrupulous observance of all constitutional duties was all that was really necessary for the states and sections to live amicably together. Citizens of the several states might continue to hold differing opinions on slavery because they would abstain from any attempt to frame a joint policy on slavery, an attempt which would inevitably produce collision. Lincoln, however, categorically denied the whole foundation of this policy because Lincoln denied that we existed as a nation solely, or even mainly, by virtue of the Constitution. This denial he was to make the affirmative faith of the nation at Gettysburg, when ‘fourscore and seven years ago’ carefully placed the birth of the nation in the year 1776, not the year 1787.And the life principle of the nation was then said to be not the compromises of the Constitution -- which Lincoln, as an honest man, always admitted and freely accepted -- but in the dedication and rededication to the equality of all men.”

Today, Lincoln is criticized for not being a purist. He did not call for the end of all slavery.  He did not argue for the rights of black people to vote. He never advocated full interracial equality. Lincoln was a true statesman. He operated in the realm of the possible, know it was his job to nudge the people closer to the perfect position. Had been a purist, his party would have lost and slavery, not freedom, would have been in ascendency. Wisely, Lincoln eschewed aiming for heaven to avoid hell on earth. There is a lesson in there somewhere for purists today. If you are right, make your case incrementally and the people will follow. 

This book was a hard slog for me. The reasoning of both the authors and the subjects was so intricate and nuanced, many times I had trouble following it! I cannot imagine a world in which the debates of Lincoln and Douglas resonated so powerfully with the common people. Our culture today is the lesser for it. 

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