Today is Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. On February 12, 1809, the rail-splitter who would go on to become the greatest American president and oversee the greatest American tragedy made his way into the world in the humblest of beginnings. Time often makes the man; rare is the man who makes the time. “How hard,” a young Lincoln lamented to a friend, “oh how hard it is to die and leave one’s country no better than if one had never lived.” Unimaginable it was to this young American that his life, and death, would forever change the course of world history, as well as the history of his beloved country.
Not so many years ago, Lincoln Day celebrations and parades were commonplace across the country in cities large and small. And while many Americans remain interested in Lincoln as a historical figure, few understand him as a source of moral or political wisdom for us, the living. Here at the Claremont Institute, Lincoln remains important. His actions, his speeches, his principles, for which he gave the “last full measure of devotion,” help us understand political philosophy and statesmanship, to which we have dedicated ourselves.
At the center of our enterprise is the work of the greatest living Lincoln scholar, Claremont Institute Distinguished Fellow Harry V. Jaffa. Professor Jaffa is best known for his groundbreaking book on the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Crisis of the House Divided. Until Jaffa’s book was published in 1959, most historical scholarship on Lincoln was written within a framework of moral relativism, the idea that there is no right and wrong, only differing moral “values” of equal validity.
For modern academic historians, it seemed ridiculous that intelligent men of the 19th century fought a bloody war over slavery. Slavery, after all, presented a moral question, and these historians were confident that answers to moral questions could not be defended in the court of reason. The leading thesis of Civil War scholarship was that it had been an “unnecessary war,” because there was no reason to fight. Had the anti-slavery men and pro-slavery men understood that their respective views were nothing but subjective values—had they refrained from insisting that their values were right—war would never have come.
Harry Jaffa drove a stake through the heart of this moral relativism dressed up in academic garb. Against the conventional academic view that morality evolves over time, which has become the conventional political view of liberals today, Professor Jaffa stands firm with Lincoln. During the tumult of the 1850s, as the argument for slavery gained increasing acceptance, as policies that prohibited the spread of slavery were replaced with policies that allowed it to grow, Lincoln warned: “Repeal the Missouri compromise—repeal all compromises—repeal the Declaration of Independence—repeal all past history, you still cannot repeal human nature.” In unchanging human nature we discover the immutable principles of moral and political right, principles applicable to our day no less than to Lincoln’s.
In his life’s work, most recently in his magisterial A New Birth of Freedom, Jaffa has labored tirelessly teaching Americans that the difference between right and wrong is real—that the pro-slave and anti-slave forces had not merely differing moral opinions, but Lincoln was right and his opponents were wrong. Not only has he demonstrated that Lincoln genuinely believed in the proposition that all men are created equal, almost alone Jaffa has defended the truthfulness of that proposition, proving that human equality is the father of all moral principles, as Lincoln once put it.
Professor Jaffa delivered the keynote address at the Claremont Institute’s annual Lincoln Day event in 1998. He cautioned Americans that we abandon the principles of Lincoln, which are the principles of the American Founding, at our peril. Further, he made clear that many of America’s leading lights, including many leading lights of modern conservatism, have already strayed far from those principles. We can think of no higher purpose this Lincoln Day than to remind our friends and fellow citizens of Professor Jaffa’s urgent message, and we happily make available his speech for those minds who seek to conserve all that is good in this country.
Happy Birthday, Mr. Lincoln.