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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

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 expense …

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