(Editor’s note: This is the second and concluding segment in a two part series. The first segment reflected on how one ordinary citizen’s pursuit of happiness is often at another’s peril. Historically, this could be demonstrated best, perhaps, through the peculiar institution of slavery, coming as it did from the devil.)
Moral issues: When are they merely "secondary?" Although both sides in the Civil War claimed God to be on their side, was it not more important in the end, as Lincoln himself had emphasized, to be on God’s side? …
After the results of the 1860 election were known, some held out an olive branch of compromise to the point of exhaustion to keep the
Union intact. But Lincoln
believed that no appeasement should be entertained regarding the extension of slavery, after an election
had just been carried on principles fairly stated to the people. To surrender the government to those we have
beaten, "is the end of us." Lincoln
hoped against hope that "right would make might."
It was then, and only as a last resort, that
Lincoln played his final card, the one that bespoke "morality." Unlike 1776, the motto, according to Lincoln, was not liberty, but slavery. Lincoln reasoned that
the right of revolution, is never a legal right. At most, it is but a moral right, when exercised for a morally justifiable cause. When exercised without such a cause, revolution is no right, but simply a wicked exercise of physical power.
The South was not persuaded. It stuck doggedly to the argument that it was about states’ rights over federal under the constitution and the loss of some $4 billion in property rights (that the slave labor purportedly represented). An exasperated
Lincoln was compelled to pose the direct question: "How about the morality
But the South remained unmoved. As even the casual observer of drug and substance abuse addiction well knows, dependency will play evil tricks on an otherwise sensible, rationally thinking mind. And so the South's response rang with an air of determined finality: "The moral issue is secondary."
The idea that the South saw the moral issue of slavery as secondary is generally attributed to the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, the stakes being an Illinois US Senate seat. Lincoln had won the Republican Party’s nomination for the seat, which put him head-to-head in a race with the powerful US Senator, Stephen A. Douglas, an incumbent, who was running for a third term as a Democrat. A series of seven debates between Lincoln and Douglas in towns across
ensued over the next 10 weeks. Illinois
The debates attracted national attention for several reasons. First,
Douglas had enjoyed a reputation as the “Little Giant” of
the Democratic Party and its best stump speaker. Together with Henry Clay, he had been one of
the key figures behind the Compromise of 1850.
The national debate over slavery was also reaching a boiling point. Responding to the fervor, journalists
accompanied the candidates, writing detailed articles and offering editorial
commentary that was unprecedented in American political history to that
point. Consequently, the whole country
watched the debates unfold.
Douglas met the challenge by trying to portray
Lincoln as a radical abolitionist,
disagreeing with 's
claim that the Founding Fathers had opposed slavery. Lincoln Douglas
pointed out that many of them, including George Washington and Thomas
Jefferson, had owned slaves. He played
down the moral issue, saying that the power to decide about the existence of
slavery should be dealt with on the local level. And he argued that slavery would never be
able to survive outside of the South for simple economic reasons in any
case. He warned the nation not to try to
judge political issues on moral grounds, lest emotions spill over into civil
war. Ultimately, Douglas
argued that the issue came down to conflicting ideologies: a view of the nation
as a confederacy of sovereign and equal states vs. a federalist empire of
Although both sides claimed God to be on their side during the ensuing carnage of the Civil War,
Lincoln’s concern was not so much whether God was on his side but, rather, whether he
was on God’s side. As fate would
have it, however, his own fame for preserving the Union through perseverance on the side of the right would not be secured in the conscience of the reunited nation until many decades following his death.