Jaffa’s Lincolnian Defense of the Founding

Thomas G. West, Interpretation, Spring 2001.


In A New Birth of Freedom, Harry Jaffa presents a powerful defense of the political theory of the American founding. He does it in grand style. Formally, his topic is Lincoln and the Civil War. In fact, the book ranges widely among philosophers, poets, and events, from the distant past right down to the present. It is hard to know how to classify this book. It is not political philosophy in the usual sense of analysis of abstract themes or texts. Nor is it history in the usual sense of a story of a particular person, event, or era. It is philosophical history, in which a single statesman (Lincoln) and political event (the beginning of the Civil War) become the focus of sustained reflection on the enduring problems of life, justice, civilization, and human greatness. And it obliterates the perverse thesis, widely believed by many libertarians and conservatives today, that the Civil War was not about slavery, and that Lincoln represents the victory of tyranny over liberty.

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