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Mr. Jaffa's Postscript

Mr. Jaffa claims that Joe Sobran has misused Lincoln's statements during the 1850s about Negroes. Was it not essential for Lincoln, if he hoped to gain electoral success, to distance himself from the abolitionists, who did not wish to observe the restraints that the constitution imposes? But what has the quotation that Mr. Jaffa cites to do with constitutional restraints or the abolitionists? In it, Lincoln declared his opposition to political and social equality of Negroes with whites. Few even of the abolitionists supported this. For all Mr.Jaffa has argued to the contrary, Lincoln here meant exactly what he said.

Also in error is the claim that secession meant that the Southern states refused to accept the results of a democratic election. Precisely the opposite is the case. Just because they did accept those results, they wished to withdraw from the union. They did not deny that Lincoln was the president.

Mr. Jaffa, astonishingly, uses the legal principle that one cannot unilaterally repudiate the terms of a contract as a stick with which to beat the secessionists. In doing so, he begs the question: to what exactly did the states commit themselves when they ratified the constitution? If, as they contended, the terms of the constitution left them free to withdraw, they did not unilaterally renounce their obligations.

But did they in this particular read the constitution correctly? Joe Sobran has pointed to a strong indication that they did: three of the states in their declarations of ratification explicitly reserved the right to secede. How then can they be held to have agreed to an arrangement in which they could not secede?

To this Mr. Jaffa says that these states only meant to refer to the right of revolution, not a right legally to depart. But why would a reminder of an extra-legal power have been inserted in a legal document? Both Jaffa and his antagonist Sobran are close students of Shakespeare, who has the perfect phrase for Jaffa's construal: it is very midsummer madness.

August 3, 2001