What the Lincoln-Douglas debates mean
Harry V. Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, first published in 1959, has long been regarded as the standard historiography of the pivotal 1858 debates between Abraham Lincoln during his candidacy for the U.S. Senate and Democratic incumbent Stephen A. Douglas on the issue of slavery. And in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the book’s publication, the University of Chicago Press has just reissued a new edition of Jaffa’s classic work, acknowledged today by Forbes magazine columnist Peter Robinson in an article that quotes Jaffa himself to demonstrate how the debates “turned on issues that were present at the very founding of western civilization—and that we must face again today.”
In the article Jaffa argues that “the issue between Lincoln and Douglas was identical to the issue between Socrates and Thrasymachus in the first book of Plato’s Republic.” Just as Thrasymachus argues that justice “possesses no independent or objective standing” and is at the mercy of those in power, so too did Douglas argue that “the citizens of Kansas or Nebraska could make slavery acceptable in their states simply by voting in favor of it.” The article continues:
Lincoln considered this absurd. “Lincoln thought slavery was wrong,” Jaffa explains, “and he did not think a vote of the people could make it right.”
Like the Founders, Lincoln believed implicitly in an objective moral order. Today we believe in “values.”
“The secretary of state, the president, they all talk about ‘values,'” Jaffa says. “A ‘value’ is a subjective desire, not an objective truth. George Washington said, ‘The foundations of our national policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality.’ If you had said, ‘Oh, Mr. Washington, you mean in our ‘values?’ Washington would have replied, ‘What the hell are you talking about?…'”
Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln. All believed that morality—that goodness and justice—were not merely human constructs but real.
“We have to return to the political thought of the American founders and Abraham Lincoln,” Harry Jaffa says. “Nothing is at stake but the salvation of Western civilization.”
Naviagte to the Forbes website to read the rest of the article or find out more about the anniversary edition of Jaffa’s groundbreaking work. Also see our edition of The Complete Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858 edited and with an introduction by Paul M. Angle.