Friday, April 6, 2012
The Missing Voices of Reason
At the time the Constitution was written in 1787, slavery (a word that never appears in that document, by the way) was pervasive not only in our new nation but in many of the other colonies in the Western Hemisphere. It was present not only in the southern states, but to a lesser degree in most of the northern ones. Even so, the more astute of our Founders — Adams, Franklin and Jefferson among them — understood that it was an institution that eventually had to go.
When Lincoln was elected president, nearly three quarters of a century later, the United States was an outlier. Slavery, at least as an openly practiced institution, was gone just about everywhere else and was confined to America’s southern states. It had clearly been relegated to the wrong side of history, but its practitioners were, with near-unanimity, oblivious to the trend.
Hiding behind every form of self-deception imaginable, southerners resisted all appeals to reason and aggressively attempted to expand what had generally come to be seen as a morally bankrupt enterprise. Their intransigence led to the bloodiest war in American history, and new scholarship indicates it may have been worse than previously believed, killing three quarters of a million Americans.
These thoughts were called to mind by a reading, over the past weekend, of Tony Horwitz’ recent book, Midnight Rising, an account of John Brown and his raid on the U.S. military arsenal at Harpers Ferry in northern Virginia. Horwitz says, rightly I believe, that Harpers Ferry was the real beginning of the Civil War, but it leaves unanswered the question of whether the Civil War, with all its physical, political and emotional carnage, had to happen.
John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry was an act of lunacy by a principled fanatic. Brown thought he could take over the U.S. arsenal, arm the slaves, and launch a large-scale rebellion. Instead he took his small band of followers into a confined area where they were quickly surrounded, then killed or subdued in a day and a half by a force of fewer than a hundred men.
Brown was a loner of inflexible principle with no serious support outside his group. (A half-dozen affluent northerners gave him money, but later claimed, for the most part, that they didn’t know what he was up to). His penetration of the South never got any farther than a few hundred yards into one of its northernmost areas. Yet southerners, with near unanimity, reacted more vehemently than most Americans did after 9/11, believing that their very society was under fundamental attack.
Lincoln’s nomination as the Republican candidate cemented their desire to leave the Union if he was elected, even though he repeatedly made clear that he would not touch slavery where it currently existed but would only oppose its expansion into new territories. By the end of the Civil War, Lincoln had moved to the belief that slavery had to go, but when he took office, Southerners could have dealt with him. Had they done so, it is possible that their slaves would still have been in chains into the Twentieth Century.
The big question raised by all this was where were the voices of reason in the South, and I’ve never seen a good answer. Instead of calming down and trying to work things out, the South allowed its fear for its Way of Life to become a lockstep way of thinking and lead the country into its worst catastrophe. In the end, Southerners did what no abolitionist could have accomplished nearly so soon. They forced their losing issue into becoming a losing battle.