The current issue of the New York Review of Books features an essay by Garry Wills comparing Senator Obama’s recent speech on race with Lincoln’s great Cooper Union address of 1860. Wills draws comparisons between Lincoln and Obama throughout the piece, beginning with their youth (Obama is 46, Lincoln was 51 in 1860) and what Wills deems their common struggle to overcome prejudice (the gangly, awkward Lincoln was considered uneducated, while the exotically-named Obama seems un-American to some).
But, Wills argues, the essential connection between Lincoln and Obama is in their views of the Constitution:
In addressing the Constitution, [Obama] knew what he was talking about. Lincoln, while professing obedience to the Constitution, said that this did not preclude its improvement from “all the lights of current experience.” Obama went further, saying that the preamble’s call for “a more perfect union” initiated a project, to make the Constitution a means for its own transcendence. This was a view Lincoln articulated often.
According to Wills’s narrative, the progressive Lincoln understood that the pro-slavey Constitution had to be transcended, that the country had to move past its racist founding and on to a brighter era. And Obama takes it one step further.
In the forthcoming issue of the Claremont Review of Books (subscribe here), Professor Harry V. Jaffa responds to the issues raised by Senator Obama, Reverend Wright, and Wills. The CRB introduces Professor Jaffa’s essay with this editor’s note:
Five years ago, at Barack Obama’s church in Chicago, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright declared: “No, no, no, not God bless America, God damn America, that’s in the Bible, for killing innocent people, God damn America, for treating her citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme.” Shall we sing “God Bless America” or “God Damn America” then? Because Senator Barack Obama aspires to be America’s president, and because his spiritual mentor happens to be Rev. Wright, the senator was obliged to make a speech in answer to this question. The speech was properly ambitious. It attempted to relate God, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, race, slavery, and the American cause. We offer here an alternative to the reverend’s diatribes and the senator’s speech.
Professor Jaffa explains that, Wills to the contrary notwithstanding, the concessions to slavery in the Constitution do not require us to reject it or the era that gave birth to it. Instead, Lincoln’s achievement marks a return to the principles of the founding:
Slavery was lawful in every one of the original thirteen states. There was accordingly nothing remarkable in the fact that slavery was not abolished immediately on independence. What is remarkable is that a slave-owning nation would declare that all men are created equal, and thereby make the abolition of slavery a moral and political necessity.
That is, the Constitution itself, imperfect by necessity, contained within it the recipe not for its own transcendence, but its own completion. This completion comes not from Senator Obama’s progressive vision of the future, but from the self-evident truths recognized in the Declaration of Independence.
Professor Jaffa recalls the intellectual history related to the growth of slavery in the antebellum period, from the common view of slavery as a temporary evil to the later (Calhounite) view of it as a positive — and permanent — good:
This changed attitude toward slavery was, however, part of a changed attitude toward morality in general that was sweeping over Western civilization. This change was marked by the apotheosis of “change” itself. What had heretofore been regarded as moral absolutes came to be regarded as merely relative to a particular time and placeto History or Progresswith no enduring claim upon our consciences. Lincoln praised Jefferson for embodying in the Declaration “an abstract truth applicable to all men and all times.” But the idea of such truth, and of the correlation of such truth with justice, was increasingly repudiated by the most educated and influential minds in the Western world. Representative of this triumph of historicism and moral relativism was historian Carl Becker’s assertion in a landmark 20th-century work that “To ask whether the natural rights philosophy of the Declaration of Independence is true or false is essentially a meaningless question.”
To ask whether what the American people in the Declaration of Independence had affirmed as truth was in fact truth, was now said to be meaningless. But if History or Progress or “change” is to be our guide, if the truth of relativism is to replace the truth of the Declaration, then the cause for which the nation fought at its birth, and in the Civil War, was meaningless, too. White power, black power, the Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, are as justifiable as Jefferson, Lincoln, or the doctrine of the equal natural rights of all human beings. We may understand how the Rev. Jeremiah Wright could so awfully misunderstand the American political tradition, inasmuch as it has been so very misunderstood for so long in circles from whom a better understanding could be expected. But this misunderstanding is a cancer which can in the end prove fatal, not only to a political campaign but to our country.
If we are to have a foundation upon which to continue to build a more perfect union, we must return unequivocally, as Lincoln returned, to the source of our greatness in the American Founding.
Professor Jaffa’s signal contribution to clarifying the issues laid before the public in the current campaign is “God Bless America.”