Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, 50th Anniversary Editionby Harry V. Jaffa
Crisis of the House Divided is the standard historiography of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Harry Jaffa provides the definitive analysis of the political principles that guided Lincoln from his reentry into politics in 1854 through his Senate campaign against Douglas in 1858. To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the original publication, Jaffa has provided a/i>
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Crisis of the House Divided is the standard historiography of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Harry Jaffa provides the definitive analysis of the political principles that guided Lincoln from his reentry into politics in 1854 through his Senate campaign against Douglas in 1858. To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the original publication, Jaffa has provided a new introduction.
"Crisis of the House Divided has shaped the thought of a generation of Abraham Lincoln and Civil War scholars."—Mark E. Needly, Jr., Civil War History
"An important book about one of the great episodes in the history of the sectional controversy. It breaks new ground and opens a new view of Lincoln's significance as a political thinker."—T. Harry Williams, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences
"A searching and provocative analysis of the issues confronted and the ideas expounded in the great debates. . . . A book which displays such learning and insight that it cannot fail to excite the admiration even of scholars who disagree with its major arguments and conclusions."—D. E. Fehrenbacher, American Historical Review
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Crisis of the House Divided
An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates
By Harry V. Jaffa
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2009 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
1958: The Crisis in Historical Judgment
A CENTURY has not diminished the fame of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. They are justly regarded as the greatest in American history, although in a deeper sense they constitute as well a unique episode in the history of free government in the Western world. It is doubtful that any forensic duel, any clash of reasoned argument before a popular audience—or, for that matter, before any legislative body—ever held the power of decision over the future of a great people as these debates did. Whatever their intrinsic merits, the magnitude of their consequences, for good or evil, is as undeniable as it is incalculable. By opposing Douglas for the senatorship in the Illinois campaign of 1858, Lincoln prevented the Little Giant from capturing the leadership of the free-soil movement, possibly even of the Republican party itself, at a moment when Douglas was being looked upon with the greatest favor by eastern leaders of the party. At the same time that he forced Douglas into a warfare with the Republicans that opened an impassable breach between them—and thereby kept open the place for leadership which he himself soon filled—Lincoln also compelled Douglas to take ground that brought about a new and more disastrous split in the Democratic party, a split which contributed mightily to the election of a Republican, and minority President, in 1860. Thus did Lincoln forge a great link in the chain of events that led to secession and civil war.
Popular tradition has surrounded the debates with the aura which, in retrospect at least, always attends a clash of champions. It has ascribed to them a level of dialectic and rhetoric befitting such a match. As to the intensity of the campaign and the emotions it stirred in the principals and followers on both sides, there can be no question. But the real worth of the debates cannot be judged merely by popular tradition, particularly when it is remembered that that tradition is today largely the tradition of the descendants of Lincoln's camp, for the debates proved the springboard whose momentum carried Lincoln to the White House and to the chief responsibility for the nation's safety in its greatest crisis. This tradition, finding a dramatic foil for its hero in Douglas, has pictured Douglas as a brilliant but unscrupulous "dough-face," a "northern man with southern principles," whose highflying career was finally brought to earth by Lincoln's supreme political logic. According to this view, what Socrates was to the Sophists, what Sherlock Holmes was to Dr. Moriarty, what St. George was to the dragon, so Lincoln was to Douglas. The analogy with Socrates is perhaps the most apt, when it is remembered that Lincoln is thought to have wrought Douglas's downfall with a certain famous question.
But this view of the debates is not regarded highly today by leading authorities of the historical profession. "Solely on their merits," writes Albert J. Beveridge in a classic biography published in 1928, "the debates themselves deserve little notice." This judgment is repeated nearly twenty years later by James G. Randall, widely regarded today as the foremost academic authority on Lincoln, who also quotes with approval the opinion of George Fort Milton, the leading biographer and advocate of the cause of Douglas. "Judged as debates, they do not measure up to their reputation. On neither side did the dialectic compare with that in the debates between Webster, Hayne, and Calhoun."
If this were a mere dash of critical cold water upon a piece of folklore, it would perhaps not much matter. The literary insignificance of campaign speeches is notorious, and the debates were, after all, campaign speeches. Yet this agreement of more recent opinion contrasts remarkably, not only with the folklore, but with the mature and scholarly judgment of the more distant past. James Ford Rhodes, writing in the early 1890's, said that Lincoln, in the campaign of 1858 as well as in his speeches on the repeal of the Missouri Compromise and on the Dred Scott decision, had formulated "a body of Republican doctrine which in consistency, cogency, and fitness can nowhere be equalled." And Rhodes, who was the supreme admirer of the great apostle of the Union, could write that "such clearness of statement and irrefragable proofs had not been known since the death of Webster." As for rhetoric, Lincoln's "bursts of eloquence, under the influence of noble passion, are still read with delight by the lovers of humanity and constitutional government." "Listening to the arguments of Lincoln and Douglas," said Rhodes, "the meanest voter of Illinois must have felt that he was one of the jury in a cause of transcendent importance, and that ... the ablest advocates of the country were appealing to him ..." Lord Chamwood, writing his famous memoir a generation after Rhodes, goes even further, in his opinion that Lincoln, in the debates, had "performed what, apart from results, was a work of intellectual merit beyond the compass of any American statesman since Hamilton."
The alteration of historical judgments is a phenomenon all too familiar to every student. It is no accident that the school of which Randall was the leading member and exponent calls itself, self-consciously, revisionist. The work of "revision" is characterized by him in the preface to his masterpiece, the multi-volumed Lincoln the President, as follows: "If sources are diligently re-examined, then by the same token the product may become revisionist.' Even in a simple matter it is not easy after the passage of years to recover the true picture. If the past situation was complicated, if many factors went into its making, if observers at the time lacked full understanding or differed as to what it meant, and especially if it has become controversial, then an uncommon effort is needed to disengage reality from the accumulated deposit which the years have brought ... Evidence is ... unearthed ... Discoloring is corrected, partisan misrepresentation ... is exposed ... Historical insight cuts through with a new clarity ... This is called 'revision,' but that suggests mere change or rewriting; a much better word for it would be historical restoration." Randall then likens the work of the true historian to that of an archaeologist: "Where a building belonging to a past age has disappeared or fallen into ruin, there is the process of studying available traces and records, examining the period, and gradually building up a restoration' to show the structure as it originally stood. With a like motive the historian seeks out original records, excavates, so to speak, clears away unhistorical debris, and endeavors, if he can, to restore events and essential situations of the past." Randall does not, therefore, like some contemporary historians, think it sufficient to replace the prejudices of one generation with those of another in the rewriting of history. While the revisionist does not expect to achieve perfection in his work, "he does hope by fresh inquiry to come nearer to past reality." "New conclusions come not from preconception, assuredly not from a wish to overthrow or destroy. The historian searches; he presents his findings; if he works validly he destroys nothing except misconception and unfounded tradition." It is in this spirit, we are told, that "the Lincoln-Douglas debates [have been] reanalyzed."
The impression is, I think, inescapable that the severe judgment upon the merits of these debates, coming after generations had looked upon them as an intellectual and moral contest of the highest order of which democratic politics admits, is a consequence of the rise and application of scientific historical method. This impression is greatly strengthened when it is discovered that revisionism differs from both the popular and scholarly tradition concerning the debates, not merely in the judgment of quality to which we have adverted, but on a substantive question of the first magnitude. For the depreciation of the debates is accompanied by—indeed, it may be the consequence of—a debunking of the belief which is at the root of their fame: the belief that Lincoln had opposed Douglas on a great issue and for the sake of a great cause. Randall, in his "reanalysis," concludes that Lincoln and Douglas only "seemed to differ" (Randall's italics) while actually they were in substantial agreement on all important questions. "For the debate to have had significance," he writes with marked emphasis, "the contestants would ... have been expected to enter upon the practical and substantial results of their contrary positions." When, however, early in the canvass, "each candidate sought to impale his opponent upon the spikes of formal interrogation," it turned out that only upon the question of the prohibition of slavery in the national territories was there a difference. "Yet even on that point the difference was not vital in its practical effect upon the results. That is to say, in the territories that existed or might later be organized, Lincoln's demand of Congressional prohibition for slavery would produce freedom, but so would Douglas's principle of popular sovereignty honestly applied." The "only point of difference," then, itself turns out, according to Randall, to be "a talking point rather than a matter for governmental action, a campaign appeal rather than a guide for legislation."
It must be apparent that the judgment now confronting us is as shocking and paradoxical as any rendered upon our national history. How paradoxical this example of revisionism is, how greatly it contradicts the common—or common-sense—conception of this historic episode, may be further gathered from the following contemporary estimate of the Illinois campaign of 1858 by a man who had labored in Douglass camp: "It was no ordinary contest, in which political opponents skirmished for the amusement of an indifferent audience, but it was a great uprising of the people, in which the masses were politically, and to a considerable extent socially, divided and arrayed against each other. In fact, it was a fierce and angry struggle, approximating the character of a revolution." That it is also shocking is evident the moment one remembers the immense importance of these debates in furthering the breakup of national parties and drawing the nation toward the abyss of civil war. For if the issue between Lincoln and Douglas was a mere talking point, if Douglas had as good a solution to the problem of slavery in the territories as Lincoln had, then what justification did Lincoln have to oppose Douglas and to bring on such an angry and deep-seated struggle? The inference is well-nigh inescapable that Lincoln opposed Douglas only to further his own ambitions, that he deliberately accepted the chance of civil war (which Douglas repeatedly accused him of inviting) by his house divided doctrine and by his "prediction" that the nation was faced with the awful choice of becoming all slave or all free. If Lincoln forced an illusory alternative upon the country, he must be accused of bringing on the very crisis he predicted, with the end in view not the future freedom of the nations soil (which Randall insists that Douglas had already guaranteed) but the political future of A. Lincoln. We may even better appreciate the devastating character of the moral judgment herein implied if we ask: What would have happened had Lincoln accepted Greeley's advice and the Illinois Republicans had supported, or at least not opposed, Douglass return to the Senate? The answers to such "iffy" questions are at best problematical, but we may venture the following with as much confidence as Randall advances the hypothesis that popular sovereignty would of itself have kept slavery out of the territories.
Douglas, who had so recently led the Republicans in Congress to victory over the Buchanan forces upon the issue of a fraudulent slave constitution for Kansas, would not have moved away from them had Lincoln not forced him to do so. Thus his position vis-à-vis the Danites, or administration Democrats, would have been stronger throughout the North. This strength he might then have used, either to dictate terms of reconciliation within his own party, or to move over to the Republicans completely. Or, if Douglas had headed a new free-soil party (it might have been called Democratic-Republican, reviving the original simon-pure Jeffersonian nomenclature), including Douglas Democrats as well as all the principal ingredients of the combination that supported Lincoln in 1860 (exclusive of lunatic-fringe abolitionists and Know-Nothings), he might have led a party with a far broader base than Lincoln achieved in the next presidential campaign. It should be remembered that, although Lincoln would have been elected in 1860 even if all the votes actually cast for other candidates had been combined in favor of any one of them, he received only a fraction under 40 per cent of the popular vote in that year. At the same time Douglas received nearly 30 per cent of the popular vote in the country. Of the combined Lincoln-Douglas vote in the free states, Lincoln received 60 per cent and Douglas 40 per cent, and this tells why Lincoln's victory was so decisive in the electoral college. Yet, although the split in the Democratic vote did not directly cause Lincoln's election, indirectly it must have played a tremendous, if immeasurable, role. For the split made the election of Douglas (whose strength in 1860 was far more diffused throughout the country than that of any other candidate) by the electoral college a virtual impossibility. This fact, moreover, was well known throughout the campaign. Had Americans chosen their President by direct popular vote in 1860, it is far from improbable that, notwithstanding the damaging campaign of 1858, Douglas might have polled many more votes than Lincoln.
Because of the peculiarities of the electoral system, the only real alternative to Lincoln's election by the electoral college was an election in the House or, still more probably, in the Senate. Had Douglas carried New York or Pennsylvania, for example, in both of which there were fusion tickets in the field against Lincoln in 1860, then the electoral college might very likely have failed to produce a majority. The South might have prevented the election of any candidate in the House, where voting would have gone by states, and under the Twelfth Amendment the President inaugurated in 1861 might have been the man chosen by the Senate to be Vice-President. The cry of "Lincoln or Lane" undoubtedly sent many Douglas men into Lincoln's camp in 1860. This suggests the extreme probability that a coalition of Douglas Democrats and Greeley-Seward Republicans in 1860 might have produced a far greater electoral triumph for the free-soil movement in that year, even if the candidate had been Seward and not Douglas.
Had the free-soil candidate of 1860 enjoyed the vastly greater popular plurality that an addition of the Lincoln and Douglas vote suggests, it would have taken far greater moral courage for the South to have seceded. That a large minority had voted against Lincoln in the free states helped to convince opinion in the South that the North would never coerce them to remain in the Union. The South had long been warned by Calhoun that it ought not remain in a union in which the constitutional minority should be defenseless against the power of a constitutional majority. In the eyes of many, however, that the power of the constitutional majority should be exercised by an actual minority was not merely intolerable but contemptible.
Excerpted from Crisis of the House Divided by Harry V. Jaffa. Copyright © 2009 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Meet the Author
Harry Jaffa is Henry Salvatori Research Professor of Political Philosophy Emeritus at Claremont McKenna College.
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