In his review of A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War, in the inaugural issue of the Claremont Review of Books, Charles Kesler writes, “Jaffa doesn’t draw attention to his revised view of Lincoln or of the American Founding. In fact, he is strangely silent about the whole subject, leaving it to the readers to figure out the relation between the two remarkably different accounts in Crisis and A New Birth.”
I do not think that I have been as silent, or strangely so, as Professor Kesler seems to think. That the Founding, which Lincoln inherited, was dominated by an Aristotelian Locke—or a Lockean Aristotle—has been a conspicuous theme of my writing since 1987. It has gone largely unnoticed because it contradicts the conventional wisdom of certain academic establishments. Like the “Purloined Letter,” however, it has been in plain view all along.
After speaking of our unalienable rights, to secure which governments are instituted, the Declaration of Independence goes on to say that “whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundations on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.” Notice that in the second institution, or reinstitution of government, “rights” become “ends.” And these ends are now said to be “Safety” and “Happiness,” the alpha and omega of political life in Aristotle’s Politics.
In one form or another, the metamorphosis of Lockean “rights” into Aristotelian “ends” (or vice versa) recurs in many of the documents of the founding. Washington in his first inaugural address as president, says that “there is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness.” The pursuit of happiness is thus understood as the pursuit of virtue. It is difficult to imagine a more forthright Aristotelianism in Hooker or Aquinas. Nor do Washington and the founders generally suppose that either virtue or happiness is something private or idiosyncratic. In Federalist 43, Madison speaks of the “transcendent law of nature and of nature’s God, which declares that the safety and happiness of society are the objects at which all political institutions aim, and to which all such institutions must be sacrificed.” The pursuit of happiness, while that of individuals in the state of nature, is a social or political happiness, within civil society.
Neither Washington nor Madison imagined for a moment that, in speaking of the happiness of society, he was contradicting the idea of all human individuals being equally endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights. In his letter transmitting the Constitution to the Congress of the Confederation, Washington speaks of “Individuals entering into society [having to] give up a share of liberty to preserve the rest.” But where—except in the state of nature—can individuals be, before “entering society”? How can they enter society, except by a social contract—or compact—in which each recognizes the equal natural rights of all, in a society dedicated to preserving the equal natural rights of each? It is this mutual recognition which is the foundation, at once, of majority rule and minority rights, of the rule of law.
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One might object that the idea of rule of law arising from a social contract is purely Lockean, and has no tincture of Aristotelianism. To think this, however, is to ignore what Aristotle says about all of natural right being changeable. Consider that, according to Aristotle, whatever the law does not command, it forbids. This is perfectly consistent with the idea of law in the Mosaic polity, which is another example of the ancient city. Remember that, according to Aristotle, a city with more than 10,000 citizens would be too large. Law for an ancient city and for a modern state—whether the 4 million inhabitants of the 13 original American states, or the 280 million of the 21st-century America—must of necessity be very different. It must be very different as to the ways and means by which it is formed, yet altogether the same for the human ends that it must serve. The ancient conception of law would, in the modern world, serve only tyranny, while the very purpose of law, according to Aristotle, is to prevent tyranny. The common ground of the ancient and the modern conception of law is shown by Aristotle’s dictum that law is reason unaffected by desire.
Locke’s state of nature is not a merely hypothetical construct. It is rather a dictate of that very prudence which is, according to Aristotle, the hallmark of all political wisdom. It arises from that fundamental transformation in the human condition from the world described in Fustel de Coulanges’ Ancient City—from a world in which each city had its own god—to one in which there was but one God for the human race. This God however was not the God of any one city, or the author of its laws. The obligation of a citizen of an ancient city to obey its laws followed from the obligation to the god of that city. Under Christian monotheism each individual has a relationship with God that is prior, both logically and ontologically, to his membership in his political community. Each individual is a citizen, actual or potential, of the City of God, before being a citizen of his own particular country.
The meaning of this distinction I have discussed at some length in chapter 2 of A New Birth in the context of Shakespeare’s discussion between Bates, Williams, and King Henry V (in disguise) around the campfire, before the battle of Agincourt. Their conclusion is that each man has an unconditional duty to the King who is alone responsible for the justice of his cause. But the king is not responsible for the fate of each man’s soul. Every man is responsible to God, but not the king, for this. Shakespeare, while displaying unflinchingly the defects of kingly rule, does not in the English histories have on his horizon any alternative to divine right monarchy. The American Founding’s Lockean republican political theory provides an answer to the defects of Christian divine right monarchy, the answer that Lincoln inherited. This supplied as well the theoretical foundation for Lincoln’s assault on slavery.
According to St. Peter and St. Paul, all power was held to come from God. Submission to the power of the Emperor was submission to God. This theory underlay the authority of the king, as Bates and Williams saw it in Henry V. In the Declaration of Independence, the origin of political authority is held to reside, not in emperor, king, or church, but in those unalienable rights with which every human individual is equally endowed by his creator. From the fact of this equal endowment, no one has by nature more authority over another than the other has over him. Hence the state of nature, and hence the social contract that takes men from the state of nature into civil society, a contract which initially is unanimous, and based upon mutual recognition of that equality of right. It is this unanimity which authorizes majority rule, rule which is understood in principle to be in the interests of the indefeasible rights of the minority no less than of the majority. The “just powers of the government” are moreover understood to be only those to which there has been unanimous consent a priori. Excluded thereby from all political control are the rights of conscience which make man a citizen of the City of God. From this follows the separation of state and church, from which is derived the distinction between state and society, from which, in turn, are derived those civil rights which are the outstanding feature of all decent modern constitutions. These limitations upon political power have no standing whatever in the constitutions of the ancient city. From all of the foregoing, I concluded long ago that, had Aristotle been called upon, in the latter half of the 17th century, to write a guide book for constitution makers, he would have written something very closely approximating Locke’s Second Treatise. For he would have recognized instantly those differences from his Politics that prudential wisdom required, in the world of Christian monotheism, with all its peculiar dangers of tyranny, especially from the union of divine right monarchy and established church.
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My critics, friendly and unfriendly, may ask why it took me so long to see the purloined letter on the mantelpiece. The reason is that I took for granted that the account of the Hobbesian Locke in Leo Strauss’s Natural Right and History represented the Locke that informed the American Founding. That rights were prior to duties, that duties were derived from rights, that civil society arose from a contract solely for mutual self-preservation, and that the goods of the soul were subordinated in all decisive respects to the goods of the body, were conclusions of Strauss’s interpretation. Strauss himself never said this Locke was the founder’s Locke, but the spell cast by his book led many of us to apply it to the founders. Many former students of Strauss, to this day, regard it as heresy to think that Strauss’s chapters on Hobbes and Locke do not constitute the authoritative account of the philosophic foundations of American constitutionalism. When presented with the evidence of Aristotelianism in the founding, they react like the scholastics who refused to look into Galileo’s telescope: “If it confirms Aristotle it is redundant; if it contradicts him it is false.” Strauss himself said that Aristotle would have been the first to look through the telescope.
Strauss was clear, in Natural Right and History, that his was an account of Locke’s esoteric teaching, but that Locke’s exoteric doctrine was far more conventional, and far more consistent with both traditional morality and traditional (albeit more tolerant) Christianity. Strauss also taught us that the authors of the past—and this certainly included political men no less than philosophers—were to be understood as they understood themselves, before the attempt was made to understand them differently or better. It was, and is, an anachronism to assume that the founders read Locke through the eyes of Strauss! One is reminded of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. Hector, himself a young man, denounces the elders of Troy, who are so bewitched by Helen’s beauty that they are unwilling to return her to her husband, and thus save their city from destruction. “You gloz’d [commented],” he said, “[like] young men whom Aristotle thought unfit to hear moral philosophy.” It seemed to me that imputing to the Founding Fathers Leo Strauss’s esoteric interpretation of Locke would be not unlike finding the Nicomachean Ethics in Hector’s library.