Something different in today’s post, a bit of historical analysis…
I’m fascinated by the antebellum period (1781-1860), the time when Americans tried and failed to resolve the question of slavery and prevent the Civil War.
I am a student and admirer of Abraham Lincoln. Many people know him as the president who won the Civil War. What’s not as well known to ordinary readers is that Lincoln became famous, and was ultimately elected president, by arguing that slavery should be allowed in the states where it already existed (because the Constitution protected it there) and prohibited in the new territory acquired during the Mexican War (1846-48).
This was not a universally accepted view. The slaveholding states argued that slavery should be allowed in all the territories, and prominent politicians like Senator Stephen A. Douglas tried to split the baby by arguing that the citizens of the territories should decide for themselves whether to permit or prohibit slavery. Douglas said that the framers of the federal government would not have tried to legislate on slavery in the territories and therefore the politicians of his day should not either.
In 1860, weeks before being nominated by the Republicans for president, Lincoln gave a speech at Cooper Union in New York in which he rebutted Douglas’s claim that the framers would not have allowed the federal government to restrict slavery in the territories. He argued point by point that the framers of the Constitution had in fact voted on several occasions, while members of the Confederation Congress (1781-89) and the early Constitutional Congresses (1789-1820), to restrict slavery in the territories. Lincoln made a thoroughly researched argument, grounded in the oldest and most relevant authority he knew, the laws enacted by the framers while serving as legislators under the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution.
As a student of Lincoln, I already knew about the Cooper Union Address, and Lincoln’s logical and methodical arguments about slavery generally. Then, not long ago, I came across Angelina Grimke, a woman born to a wealthy South Carolina family who came to abhor slavery and the part her family and her home region played in it. Eventually her conscience prompted her to move to Philadelphia and became an abolitionist. In 1836 she published “Appeal to the Christian Women of the South,” in which she made well-researched and logical arguments against American slavery based on Biblical readings, primarily from passages of the Old Testament. She wrote that slavery was wrong because it was against the scriptures. Being a devout Christian, she made arguments based on the oldest and most relevant authority she knew, the Bible.
Grimke’s interpretation of the Bible was not a well-accepted view in the South. It was more common for Southern clergy to quote the Bible to justify the existence of slavery. Grimke’s “Appeal” rebutted these justifications with chapter and verse, and called on Southern women to study their Bibles, pray, listen to their consciences, and speak out.
Grimke was what we could call an activist, an overtly religious woman who married an abolitionist preacher, who called on the South to abolish slavery immediately. She spoke to her fellow Southerners as one of them.
Lincoln was a politician, not an activist. He was not known for religiosity, and while he was steadfastly anti-slavery, he was always cautious in his public speech and political acts. He moved much more carefully against slavery than people like Grimke wanted him to.
Yet, despite their differences, Grimke and Lincoln took similar approaches. They argued their cases based on facts and precedents, as they understood them, and treated their opposition with respect as people being persuadable by reasoned argument.
I found this comparison and contrast very interesting, but might not have written about it if not for one of the lines in Grimke’s “Appeal.” She quoted Jesus saying ,”It must needs be that offences come, but woe unto that man through whom they come.” The point she was making was that even though the slaveholding Southerners of her time did not create slavery, they engaged in it and would be held accountable for their actions on Judgement Day.
Although I don’t read the Bible often, I recognized the quote. Lincoln used it in his Second Inaugural Address in 1865. The “with malice toward none; with charity for all” is the best known line of the speech, but my favorite passage is in the paragraph before, starting with “The Almighty has his own purposes. ‘Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!’ ” The purpose of the passage was to reframe the war from a contest of North against South to one in which North and South were united in paying the moral debt they both owed for participating in slavery.
In this framing, all were responsible, all subject to God’s purposes. Malice to the opposition should be avoided as malice toward oneself. Give charity if you would receive charity. We can and must heal the nation because there is no “I” and “You”, only “We” before God.
I already knew the “woe unto that man” line from Lincoln’s speech, so when I ran across it again in Grimke’s “Appeal”, it gave me chills. Did Lincoln know of Grimke, and was he quoting her as well as Jesus? Was he, who had always been careful to distance himself from the most strident abolitionists, now quoting the Southern abolitionist woman who, twenty-five years before the Civil War began, predicted that offenses would come? Was he saying, now only weeks before the end of the War, that they had indeed come as Grimke predicted? I think maybe he was, and if so, then this passage, already one of the darkest in his public writings, was even darker and more terrible than I realized.
There are many books about the antebellum period. One of my favorites is Arguing about Slavery by William Lee Miller. By the 1830’s, abolitionists like Angelina Grimke had begun flooding Congress with petitions against slavery, particularly the slave trade in the District of Columbia. Members of the House of Representatives, consisting mainly of Southerners and Northerners who had to work together and who therefore wanted to ignore the hopelessly contentious subject of slavery, tried to shut out the petitions by enacting a Gag Rule to prevent anti-slavery petitions from being considered. Arguing about Slavery is the story of the Gag Rule and the fight of a handful of congressmen like Joshua Giddings and John Quincy Adams to allow the moral voice of the abolitionists to be heard in the people’s House.
William Lee Miller is one of the most thoughtful and entertaining writers of history I know, and I highly recommend this book and all his books.