When an admirer once asked Harry Jaffa, the political philosopher who died earlier this month at the age of 96, what led to his interest in Abraham Lincoln, he answered without a moment’s hesitation, in a ferocious bark: “Plato!”
And he didn’t require a lot of encouragement to explain the connection. In 1946, Jaffa was a young graduate student in philosophy at the New School in New York City, reading Plato under the famous philosopher Leo Strauss. Footloose and penniless, as grad students tend to be, Jaffa spent his free hours wandering the used bookstores that long ago lined lower Fourth Avenue.
One fall Saturday, browsing the history shelves, he came across a dusty edition of the debates between Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas, held in 1858 as they contended for a U.S. Senate seat in Illinois. Jaffa’s curiosity about the debates, about Lincoln and the Civil War, was only cursory, but he took the volume down from the shelf and, as was his wont, settled himself on the floor, leaned against the wall, and began to read. He read until closing, when the owner shooed him away. He returned the next day, and then the evening of the next, until he had read the debates through.
“I was astonished,” he said. “It didn’t take long before I could see what was going on. The issue between Lincoln and Douglas was precisely identical to the one between Socrates and Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic. I was floored—delighted—thrilled!”
Ten years later Jaffa published Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. It was not only his best book (he wrote several very, very good books, on Aquinas and Shakespeare as well as Lincoln), it was also, in the words of the Civil War historian Allen Guelzo, “incontestably the greatest Lincoln book of the century.”
To understand its greatness, and the strange bravery of its author, it helps to consider the intellectual climate in which it appeared. After half a century cast as an unblemished hero by amateur authors, well-meaning folklorists, and researchers of uneven gifts and reliability, Lincoln had by the 1930s fallen into the icy hands of professional historians—scientific historians, they called themselves, who applied their clinical, pristinely objective methods to a president that most schoolchildren were still being taught to revere as the Great Emancipator.
Scientific history required its practitioners to dig for the reality beneath the deceiving surface of Lincoln’s words and actions. When they did so, they discovered—to everyone’s surprise but theirs—that Lincoln wasn’t much of an emancipator and he wasn’t so great either, at least by common measures.
Tugging their lab coats, the scientific historians announced that the Civil War was “the unnecessary war,” touched off by Lincoln’s bumbling and kept going by his political ambition. He was a machine pol whose accomplishments, such as they were, had been thrust upon him by events he couldn’t control. His prettiest speeches were at best poetic expressions of principles he found merely convenient and only half believed. The debates with his rival Stephen A. Douglas, supposedly over the expansion of slavery and—so Lincoln insisted—the future of liberty itself, boiled down to “a talking point . . . a campaign appeal.”
It fell to Jaffa to point out that this view of Lincoln as a purely political animal, ultimately uninterested in the future of slavery, was incoherent—incoherent, that is, for anyone who hoped to retain a shred of admiration for him. To assert that Lincoln prosecuted a fratricidal war for no purpose deeper than political ambition, Jaffa wrote, “is to give him a character that, in the profundity of its immorality, is beyond treason.” None of the scientific historians was willing to go that far, of course, not explicitly. But there’s no escaping it: The Lincoln their method reveals couldn’t have been simply opportunistic, indifferent, or incompetent. He would have been a monster. Somewhere Jefferson Davis was smiling, if you can imagine.
Jaffa applied a different method in Crisis of the House Divided. He approached Lincoln’s debates with Douglas as a classical scholar and a political philosopher. He did the two debaters the great tribute of taking them seriously and assuming that they were honorable and intelligent men whose words meant what they said. Against the wised-up historians of his day, Jaffa’s method looks almost innocent. And in a way it is—it has the innocence of intellectual generosity, guided by extreme sophistication and subtlety.