It is regrettably common for neo-Confederates to libelously paint the North as the aggressors in the Civil War, and paint the demands of moderate antebellum Republicans like Abraham Lincoln as treasonous scoundrels who disregarded the Constitution. The fact that their claims follow the fallacious historical reading of Judge Taney (the Chief Justice responsible for the Dred Scott decision) rather than the historical record does not seem to trouble these would-be historians, whose willful ignorance about history is only exceeded by the vitriol they demonstrate towards anyone bold enough to challenge them. It is the purpose of this short essay to demonstrate briefly two points, both of which spring from the excellence of Lincoln’s Cooper Union address: first, that Lincoln and his fellow Free-Soilers acted in accordance with the Constitution in their desire to end the spread of slavery into the territories, and second, that the South has willfully perverted the historical record for its own selfish and revolutionary purposes. Both of these will be addressed in turn.
Our Fathers, Who Framed The Government…
Abraham Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech takes as its “text” a line from Stephen Douglas’ 1859 “The Dividing Line” essay in Harper’s Magazine that sought to bolster his bogus claim that the Founding Fathers of the United States forbade the federal government from regulating slavery. The text is as follows: “Our fathers, when they framed the government under which we live, understood this question just as well, and even better, than we do now.” It is clear that just as Douglas and Lincoln disagreed on the opinions of “the Fathers” concerning the federal regulation of slavery, such disagreement still exists between those who consider themselves themselves heirs of Lincoln’s principled political judgment and those neo-Confederates who consider Lincoln and all who support him as traitors worthy only to be hung from the highest tree in the vicinity. Since such disagreement exists, it is useful to turn as Lincoln did to the historical record.
What did the founding fathers have to say about the federal regulation of slavery in the territories, not merely through their words, but through their votes in Congress? In 1784, of the 39 men who signed the Constitution, four people voted on the issue of banning slavery in the Northwest Territory: three supported the ban (Roger Sherman, Thomas Mifflin, and Hugh Williamson of North Carolina), and one opposed the ban (James McHenry of Maryland). In 1787, two more of the 39 voted to ban slavery in the Northwest Territory, William Blount (of North Carolina) and William Few (of Georgia). In the First Congress under the Constitution, the same Congress that passed the Bill of Rights (one of which, #10, gave the states the authority to regulate all matters that were not Constitutionally within the jurisdiction of the national government), sixteen of the 39 signers of the Constitution voted in the unanimous upholding of the Norhwest Territory’s ban of slavery: John Langdon, Nicholas Gilman, William S. Johnson, Roger Sherman, Robert Morris, Thomas Fitzsimmons, William Few, Abraham Baldwin, Rufas King, William Paterson, George Clymer, Richard Bassett, George Read, Pierce Butler, Daniel Carroll, and James Madison. Another signer of the Constitution, George Washington, quickly signed the bill into law. These seventeen men were from all parts of the country, and all agreed without dissent that the federal government had the authority to regulate slavery in the territories. In 1798, the following three members of the 39 signers passed regulations strictly limiting slavery within the Territory of Mississippi: John Langdon, George Read (who was from Delaware), and Abraham Baldwin (who was from Georgia) in another unanimous congressional voice vote. In 1804, two of the 39 signers passed another unanimous voice vote that strictly limited slavery in the new Territory of Louisiana, that had been recently purchased from France: Abraham Baldwin and Jonathan Dayton. Finally, two of the 39 signers were in Congress in 1820 and voted on the Missouri Compromise’s ban of slavery in all territories north of the 36′-30” line: one voted for the ban (Rufas King), and one against (Charles Pinckney of South Carolina). In all, of the 23 signers of the Constitution who were on the record concerning the issue of federal regulation of slavery, 21 supported such regulation, and only two were opposed. These included such influential signers as George Washington and James Madison, who would be particularly notable authorities on what behavior was and was not Constitutional, given their importance in writing, defining, and defending the Constitution during the early Republic. In addition, at least one of the other signers, James Wilson, is on the record during Pennsylvania’s Convention to approve the Constitution as expressly defending the power and obligation of the federal government to ban slavery in future territories acquired by the United States. Clearly, the record of the Founding Fathers against the spread of slavery is itself a well-established and worthy historical fact.
Given the fact that many of the founding fathers who voted to restrict the spread of slavery into the territories were themselves slave-owners (including just about all of the Southerners), and given that the northern Free Soilers (like Lincoln) were merely continuing this tradition of opposing the spread of slavery without seeking to interfere with slavery where it already existed, was this position principled? One need not be without wrong whatsoever to recognize evil and seek to prevent its spread. Just as many Northerners who opposed the spread of slavery into virgin territories did so because of racism and the economic motive that the existence of slavery would depress the wages of free labor to the level of slavery, many Southerners (at least of the Founding Generation) recognized that slavery itself was evil, even if they were slave-owners who saw no other way of prospering within their society. We may recognize that something is evil, even in ourselves, and desire that the evil be contained until it may be dealt with, even if we do not know exactly how to rid ourselves of that evil. We may, in other words, be remorseful sinners in such a situation and not merely hypocrites. A wise politician depends on both a knowledge of absolute morality as well as the pragmatic concern of how that standard may be most closely met given the reality of the situation. We must, at times, consent to great evils to avoid worse ones, but we must never waver in recognizing what is evil and what is good. In this matter Lincoln was agreeing with both the position and the method of the Founding Fathers, and, we should note, with prudential morality in so doing.
Why It Matters Today
The South, in exchanging the Founders’ principled admission that slavery was wrong even if they were dependent on it for an aggressive defensiveness in the rightness of slavery as it was practiced for the South, engaged in numerous corrupt, unconstitutional, and treacherous activities. For one, southerners engaged in extralegal coercion of their own citizens to threaten and attack those southerners who opposed slavery or who even (in 1860) believed the South should remain in the Union. Unwilling to accept an open and honest debate, they bullied and coerced their neighbors to fall in line with the party line. Likewise, Southeners sought to take advantage of their control of power in Congress and the Supreme Court (through their capture of the Democratic Party) to engage in a long litany of unconstitutional actions: the gag rule, fought by John Quincy Adams, against allowing the hearing of anti-slavery petitions in Congress; the unconstitutional admission of Texas into the Union through a joint resolution in Congress because a 2/3 majority in the Senate was impossible to obtain; the aggressive war against Mexico to seize more territory for slaveholders to settle; the passage of a fraudulent state constitution for Kansas against the wishes of the anti-slavery majority; and the fraudulent Dred Scot decision that sought to make the Missouri Compromise as well as all northern states’ personal liberty laws (protecting the rights of free blacks against kidnapping) unconstitutional. In all of these situations the South sought to unconstitutionally expand federal power, perverted the pivotal institutions of Congress and the Supreme Court, and engaged in coercive and treasonous behavior to achieve minority rule. However, despite the fact that their maliciously ignorant neo-Confederate successors claim the mantle of states’ rights and limited government, these same scoundrels refuse (by and large) to admit their “noble” ancestors erred in these criminal behaviors.
In fact, the behavior of the wicked extremists of the South in the antebellum period and their followers today exhibits a marked similarity with a couple of unsavory tendencies in modern society to thwart open inquiry. For one, the attempt by Southeners (even to this day) to consider any pro-Lincoln speech or indeed any speech that would claim the South behaved in a sinful fashion in its form of slavery as hate speech mirrors similar attempts by gay rights groups to taint any speech that considers homosexual behavior to be sinful as hate speech. Like Southern slave-owners, gay rights advocates wish to criminalize speech that points to the immorality of their behavior so that they may defend their abominable ‘peculiar institutions’ from condemnation and criticism. This is so even when someone condemning the sin involved is willing to suffer abuse from extremists on the other side for showing great love and compassion for those who struggle against the sin, even if they are unable to conquer it. He who walks in the middle gets attacked from both sides.
Likewise, just as Southerners resemble the gay rights lobby in their attempt to criminalize condemnation of their flagrant and unrepentant sinning, the attitude of Southeners towards their erroneous theories of social organization with regards to education resembles the cowardly and insecure behavior of evolutionists in seeking to control textbooks and prevent an open and honest inquiry into the matter under dispute. Just like neo-Confederates have often censored textbooks (when they controlled the public schools in the South) in order to prevent a historically accurate portrayal of the Civil War, so now they seek to escape from the truth and ensure the viability of slanted and biased textbooks in the future with which to corrupt the minds of future generations. Such behavior is like those of Darwinists who seek to go to court to prevent any kind of teaching against Darwinian Evolution in science classrooms. Rather than face an open debate in which losing is extremely likely, both seek to build an unassailable fortress around a treasured and deeply held error that they are unwilling to see corrected.
Let Us Have Faith That Might Makes Right
How then are we to deal with such a lamentable state of affairs? Like Lincoln, let us resolve to have faith that might makes right and dare to do our duty as we understand it. We must firmly hold to the truth, even when (especially when) it is unpopular, but we must never forget to remain charitable to those who struggle with sin and error even if they are unable to conquer it or its effects. Our world, and indeed, our lives, have been shaped and warped by the sins of others in ways that is often difficult to understand, and is always difficult to overcome. No one should be more conscious of our shortcomings and failures than we ourselves, and no one should desire more passionately or sincerely for those errors to be corrected, for those sins to be wiped away, and for those evils to be destroyed, even when (especially when) we ourselves are unable to do so by our limited strength. We need, though, to be firmly committed to the right, firmly committed to an open and honest struggle for truth and justice, even when we know that its absolute attainment may be far beyond our grasp. We must at least do the best we can to leave the world a better place than we have found it, to proclaim the truth even when it is not possible for us to rigorously and consistently enforce it, and to lament the existence of evil and struggle against its effects even when we find it deeply intertwined with our own lives and practices. We must have faith that our efforts can inspire others, and ultimately succeed, even if we ourselves must be judged as noble failures.