November 19, 2011


Jaffa, Harry V., A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and The Coming of the Civil War (Lanham, Maryland, & Oxford, England: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000) ("The present work is intended to be what, in medieval literature, would be called a Great Commentary. Its text, as the title indicates, is the Gettysburg Address. The Gettysburg Address, as we know, has been read and recited countless times by Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, by schoolchildren of all ages, by visitors to the Lincoln Memorial, by politicians, citizens, and scholars. As Soviet tanks were crushing the Hungarian revolution of 1956, the final message the Hungarian freedom fighters, broadcast on the Free Hungarian Radio, was a reading of the Gettysburg Address. The reading was not completed when it was cut off to the sound of gunfire. Some forty years later, however, the Soviet tanks were gone, and the reading of the Gettysburg Address will have resumed. We can say once again that Lincoln's work, and Jefferson's, have proved more powerful than tyranny and despotism." Id. at 78. "A commentary on the Gettysburg Address is necessarily, and above all, a commentary on what is meant by dedication to 'the proposition that all men are created equal.' The idea compressed withing this proposition is called, by Lincoln, 'an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.' It is also said, by Lincoln, to be the central idea, from which all minor thoughts radiate, of the public opinion upon which the nation was founded. I have found it necessary . . . to lead the argument again and again from the periphery back to the center, to illuminate the geometrical necessity that, in Lincoln's mind, governed the struggle memorialized at Gettysburg. In doing so, I have no hesitated to repeat either the proposition, abstractly considered, or he structure of reasoning into which it is incorporated. This structure comprehends precisely what James Madison meant in his oft repeated dictum that 'compact is the essence of all free government.' That maxim of Madison unites his thought and Jefferson's, as it unites the principles of the Declaration [of Independence] and the Constitution, The compact theory and the doctrine of human equality are identical, and I found that the repetition of that identity was essential to compel us to think, as Lincoln thought, that the cause of union was no less metaphysical than moral and political." Id. at xiii. "Lincoln, in his speech on the Dred Scott decision in 1857, confronted the argument of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney and Senator Stephen A. Douglas tat the authors of the Declaration of Independence has not meant to include Negroes in the proposition of universal human equality, on the evidence that 'they did not at once actually place them on an equality with the whites.' 'This grave argument,' said Lincoln, 'comes to just nothing at all, by the other fact, that they did not at once, or ever afterwards, actually place all white people on an equality with one another.' Lincoln did not then say who were the whites excluded form the privileges of equality. However, in one of the earliest announcements of his political views, in the Sangamo Journal on June 13, 1836, Lincoln had said, 'I go for admitting all whites to the right of suffrage, who pay taxes or bear arms, (by no means excluding females).' Certainly the largest class of excluded 'equals' were women, and Lincoln at the age of twenty-seven is on record as favoring female suffrage. Speaking in 1957, however, he said he understood that the authors of the Declaration 'meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit.' Jefferson himself, in his famous diatribe against slavery in Notes on Virginia, speaks of the 'execration' with which a statesman would be loaded, 'who, permitting one half of the citizens thus to trample on the rights of the other, transforms those into despots, and these into enemies, destroys the moral of the one part, and the amor patriae of the other.' For Jefferson to write in the 1780s of slaves as 'one half citizens' of Virginia--that is to say, citizens by natural right, if not by positive law--is certainly extraordinary. But It is consistent with his reference in 1774 [in Summary View] to the whole population of America as the equals, by right of nature, to the electors of Great Britain." Id. at 21.).


Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth
on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and
dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing
whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so
dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-
field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of
that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave
their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether
fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate…we cannot
consecrate…we cannot hallow…this ground. The brave men,
living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it
far above our poor power to add or detract. The world
will little note nor long remember what we say here, but
it can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the
living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished
work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly
advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the
great task remaining before us…that from these honored
dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which
they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here
highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain;
that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of
freedom; and that government of the people, by the people,
for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

November 19, 1863