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Thursday, August 22, 2013

When the Moral Issue Is "Secondary" (Part Two)

(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? …

Lincoln claimed that secession was unconstitutional, since the voluntary "compact" among the states was intended to be a permanent, binding arrangement.  This permanent compact could not be legally broken, absent the unanimous agreement of the states to permit secession.

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 of slavery?"

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 Illinois ensued over the next 10 weeks.

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.

Lincoln had boldly announced that slavery was simply immoral and had to be dealt with forthrightly by Congress.  For Lincoln, slavery violated the fundamental assertion of the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal, arguing that its continued existence and support ran counter to the wishes of the Founding Fathers.  Ultimately, only the power of the federal government could resolve the issue by extinguishing slavery from the nation.  Although Lincoln contended that there existed no constitutional way of interfering with slavery where it presently existed, he believed that it should not be allowed to expand westward.  For him, the matter was a question of right and wrong, with Douglas indifferent to a moral wrong.

Douglas met the challenge by trying to portray Lincoln as a radical abolitionist, disagreeing with Lincoln's claim that the Founding Fathers had opposed slavery.  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 consolidated states.

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.


-Michael D'Angelo

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