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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

When the Moral Issue Is “Secondary” (Part One)

(Editor’s note:  This is the first segment in a two part series.)


History reveals how one ordinary citizen’s pursuit of happiness is often at another’s peril…

In the race to achieve material gain, sometimes we neglect consideration of our neighbor.  It’s as if he or she doesn’t even exist.  It’s as if we aren’t all connected.  Is there a moral issue at stake?  If so, a fix is at least plausible.  But how about when we are told that the moral issue is secondary?  What happens then?

The peculiar institution of slavery provides perhaps the best illustration.  Thomas Jefferson once said of the South’s dilemma that the institution of slavery was like holding a tiger by the tail: You can’t let go, but you can’t very well hold on, either.  August St. Clare, the fictional Louisiana master to our friend, Tom, the loyal slave in the 19th century classic novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, had presented the Southern intellectual’s view towards slavery:

It comes from the devil, that’s the short of it; --- and, to my mind, it’s a pretty respectable specimen of what he can do in his own line.


We’ve all heard the expression at one time or another: “Give the devil his due.”  The fictional St. Clare had been frustrated by a moral conflict.  On the one hand was his moral rejection of slavery as an insidiously evil institution.  But it stood against the reality that to stand alone as a pariah in its public rejection or to organize a force in the larger cause of its defeat was all but impossible.

One story in particular relates to Lincoln’s discussions with the political leaders of the various Southern states, as they contemplated secession, at the brink of the Civil War.

What could Lincoln have been thinking about upon his inauguration in March 1861?  Prior to his election, Lincoln’s goal had simply been to preserve the Union.  Whether that meant a Union that was to be all free, all slave, part free and part slave did not matter, that anything would be possible with compromise.  But since the South was economically dependent on slavery, the Southern states were not of a mind to compromise.  “Either slavery grows or it dies,” they reasoned.  And the platform of Lincoln’s new Republican Party to ban its further extension to the western territories meant the death of slavery. 

Consider an analogy involving “the South, slavery and the feeding tube.”  When the feeding tube of a patient who is on life support is removed, the consequences are that the patient dies.  Such was the South’s dilemma in the case of slavery: remove it and the economy of the South would also die.

Moreover, from the South’s perspective dating from the time of Texas statehood in 1845, the idea of the extension or spread of slavery westward flowed quite logically from the concept of Manifest Destiny.  Under that concept, the US had a right and special destiny by the power of God to surge westward, stretching clear across the continent from coast (Atlantic) to coast (Pacific).

But was the land grab in the creation of an empire one for liberty, or for slavery?  For if one adhered to the Southern view, one would also have to consider the following:

Natural rights, of course, are derived from natural law, the author of which is Nature’s God.  Americans might well have believed that God had staked out North America as their Promised Land, but it was a dangerous claim because it implied a responsibility to obey all of God’s other laws.


According to the theory of secession, each state, when it had joined the Union, had authorized the national government to act as its agent in the exercise of certain functions of sovereignty.  However, each state had never given away its own fundamental sovereignty.  Since the agreement or “compact” of the states was not permanent, any state could withdraw from the compact and reassert its individual sovereignty.  In practice, the South was bound neither by national laws with which it did not agree, nor the result of an election (in this case, Lincoln’s election of 1860) which it did not win.  The South was free to secede from the Union and form its own country.

Lincoln was well aware, and Northerners knew, that the South could scarcely be denied the right of revolution.  He knew that the secessionists were attempting merely to follow the example of their forefathers in declaring independence from a government which was threatening their civil rights and liberties.  Lincoln was also well aware that the South was basing its position on a constitutional argument, whose question had yet to be decided on a political basis.

(Editor’s note:  The second and final segment in this two part series encounters an exasperated Lincoln playing his last card.  He asks the South directly:  “How about the morality of slavery?”)



-Michael D'Angelo 

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