Aristotle and Locke in the American Founding

Claremont Review of Books, Winter 2001.


In his review of A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War, in the inaugural issue of the Claremont Review of Books, Charles Kesler writes, “Jaffa doesn’t draw attention to his revised view of Lincoln or of the American Founding. In fact, he is strangely silent about the whole subject, leaving it to the readers to figure out the relation between the two remarkably different accounts in Crisis and A New Birth.

I do not think that I have been as silent, or strangely so, as Professor Kesler seems to think. That the Founding, which Lincoln inherited, was dominated by an Aristotelian Locke—or a Lockean Aristotle—has been a conspicuous theme of my writing since 1987. It has gone largely unnoticed because it contradicts the conventional wisdom of certain academic establishments. Like the “Purloined Letter,” however, it has been in plain view all along.

After speaking of our unalienable rights, to secure which governments are instituted, the Declaration of Independence goes on to say that “whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundations on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.” Notice that in the second institution, or reinstitution of government, “rights” become “ends.” And these ends are now said to be “Safety” and “Happiness,” the alpha and omega of political life in Aristotle’s Politics.

Claremont Review of Books