Why Did Harry Jaffa Change His Mind?

"Harry V. Jaffa published Crisis of the House Divided in 1959. The book established him as the foremost interpreter of the American political tradition, because it established him as the foremost interpreter of Lincoln, our foremost politician. He published A New Birth of Freedom in 2000, to much less acclaim. Both books are about Lincoln and the struggle over slavery. One striking difference between them is their different accounts of the American founding. Crisis presented the founding as dominated by a modern thoroughly self-interested rationality, whose resulting morality was nothing beyond what calculating self-interest would advise. Jefferson was the spokesman for this morality, which did not provide a solid basis for opposing slavery. Lincoln overcame this morality, as well as Jefferson and slavery. He gave the nation a new birth of freedom by creatively interpreting the claim that all men are created equal as a noble, transcendent idea of justice.

New Birth presented the founding as already containing this transcendent morality, expressed especially in Jefferson’s insistence on a majority rule guided by the “sacred principle” that that rule “to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.” This sacred principle, Jaffa now argued, was contained in the declaration of human equality that founded the country. Whereas Crisis presented Lincoln as overcoming Jefferson, New Birth presented Lincoln as Jefferson’s greatest student."