Alan Jacobs: What a clash between conservatives reveals
While that may be true for some, it neglects a little-known but long-standing constitutional argument for an all-powerful, redemptive executive, one rooted in fundamental law and high principle, and one that has underwritten the thinking right’s steadfast support of this president. This argument long predates the rise of this real-estate developer turned politician, and its origins lie not within the nation’s premier law schools or the Federalist Society, but in the pages of major mid-century conservative publications such as Triumph and Modern Age; on radio and television programs such as Fulton J. Sheen’s Life Is Worth Living; in books; and in academia—and, crucially, within the philosophy and political-science departments, not the law schools.
In these places, students of the Jewish German émigré philosopher political philosopher Leo Strauss—in particular, the Claremont McKenna political scientist Harry V. Jaffa—and a diverse array of Christian thinkers insisted, often in high, prophetic dudgeon, that the ultimate foundation of the U.S. Constitution was not structural, institutional, or procedural, as other conservatives were arguing at the time, but moral. To them, the Constitution’s foundational principles were to be found not in the shallow, democratic soil of what “we the people” happened to want at any given time—including the 1789 Founding—or in the Constitution’s first three articles, but in the eternal principles of natural law and right set out in 1776 in the stirring language of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.”
In practicing and tolerating chattel slavery in 1789 and afterwards, Jaffa argued, the American Founders had betrayed the bedrock moral commitments of the Declaration, the country’s foundational constitutional text. Only when President Abraham Lincoln belatedly pronounced slavery morally wrong was the regime redeemed. Others echoed his views: Both other Straussians and touchstone Christian-right thinkers such as the evangelical Francis Schaeffer, a seminal figure in the anti-abortion movement, and the Thomist Catholic theologians Sheen and John Courtney Murray, insisted that only those who likewise affirmed and attested to the natural-rights and natural-law foundations of the American republic earned our approbation as statesmen, guardians, and defenders of the American constitutional republic.
Jaffa’s seminal 1959 book, Crisis of the House Divided, set out these understandings in an extended moral-philosophical exegesis—he called it his “teaching”—of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Trained by Strauss at the New School for Social Research (before Strauss moved on to a long career at the University of Chicago and then, briefly, at Claremont and later St. John’s College, in Annapolis), Jaffa read those debates as a world-historical clash “very nearly in form identical with the issue between Socrates and Thrasymachus” recounted in Plato’s Republic. Jaffa pronounced the debates one of the most profound texts in human history, pitting against each other the respective claims of merely positive, human-fashioned law—what the majority of the people will—and natural, divinely ordained law, which is to say what is true, right, and good, or what the people should will. In the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois argued for positive law in propounding his theory of “popular sovereignty” concerning slavery in the country’s western territories. Lincoln argued for natural law, insisting that the people had no right or power to enact any law that violated the equality of natural rights by providing for the enslavement of other human beings.