In reading a book about the crisis at Fort Sumter (soon to be reviewed ) that preceded the Civil War , I was struck by the difference between physical and moral courage as it relates to warfare. As warfare can be both physical and spiritual, a focus on courage is profitable for those who are interested in both phenomena. As I have reflected on the similarity of the cultures engage in secession and support hierarchies and oppression , I thought it useful to examine some of the quotes and context of these crises to examine what we can learn about ourselves.
I would like to begin with a revealing quote from an obscure fellow, U.S. Representative Samuel S. Blair of Pennsylvania, about this time: “Will the generations that are to succeed us believe that at such a time we sat out a whole winter with these guns still pointed at us, trying how far we might go to comply with the demands of traitors, and what new securities we might devise for the protection and spread of human bondage ?” Here was a man of my home state struggling with the reality that in the time of crisis his moral courage had failed him and that he had engaged in efforts to compromise on principle with rebels and traitors who opposed the godly standard of liberty. That’s a lot to live with.
There is indeed a great and serious difference between moral and physical courage. Physical courage is born in the heat of action, in standing up to the fear of death, whether it is by gunfire, sword, lions, furnaces, other means. People win awards for physical courage–and even that more mild form of physical courage found on athletic fields is what earns many men the adoration and love of attractive young women. Physical courage is visibly obvious, and easy to appreciate and recognize, and so it is. That which is visible and tangible is widely respected and highly regarded.
Moral courage is, though, a less visible and less tangible quality. A noble firmness on principle must be contrasted to sheer obstinacy or stubbornness, where people are merely mulish or inflexible. It takes a genuinely noble spirit to be able to overlook or forgive personal slights but nonetheless remain rock-solid on principle, because in a crisis when the calls for peace at any price and reconciliation are the loudest, it is harder to remain firm on principle than it is to give in to expediency and to postpone the day of reckoning, to surrender the God-given fruits of victory for the knowledge that peace has been maintained. To those who abandon expediency and are willing to suffer the slings and arrows of abuse to remain true on godly principles–whether those people be a Lincoln in late 1860 or early 1861 or a Luker in 2010–credit is to be given, even as the tactical mistakes and misstatements one makes are to be admitted and examined to be useful the next time.
Indeed, in any crisis there will usually be three broad camps. On two opposing gulfs there will be those who are called “ultras” or hardliners on each side, with mutually irreconcilable positions and demands. In the middle there will be the moderates, desperately trying to maintain peace at any price, unhappy with the divisions and splits threatened by one side but also unhappy with the inflexibility and unwillingness to yield by the other side. If a crisis is a genuine one, it will have reached a point to where no common ground exists, and the only option that remains, after much talking has been done and many fruitless negotiations have been undertaken, is which side of the line one stands on.
One of the tragedies of crises is that they tend to blur the distinctions that exist between these three different approaches. For example, I am not personally a very extremist person in terms of my aims and goals. In a broad sense, I would be a Lincolnian, a person of high-toned beliefs and moderate and gradual means of reaching those aims. I neither believe in peace or reconciliation at any price or in the disregard for the rule of law because it happens to be tainted (as all else is) with human corruption. We are to work within the system and make the best of it, working to gradually and consistently improve ourselves and our institutions to ever more closely approach the standard of perfection.
How such views can be considered harsh and extreme is something that bothers me. Right and wrong are right and wrong no matter who does them. All people, regardless of their title and position, are under the same standard of the law, and are accountable for their behavior. It takes moral courage to be able to work with those who can be worked with, to avoid being a law unto yourself resisting all institutions because of their inevitable failings while failing to recognize one’s own corruption and errors, and yet to remain firm and unbending on questions of principle when push comes to shove. That is a delicate and difficult balance to find and maintain, and those who are able to do so deserve far more credit than they often receive.
To face down one’s fears and doubts and worries, to steer the ship of one’s soul through the sandbars in uncharted channels, without lighthouses or buoys to guide one the right way, except those provided by God through the promptings of His spirit and through the discernment one has developed over a lifetime, is a far more difficult and noble courage than that faced in the heat of physical battle. The enemy in a physical battle is visible, tangible, and recognizable. The adversary in a spiritual battle is far more subtle, far more slippery, far more fearsome. Should we not therefore honor moral courage, when it can be found, far more than we honor physical courage? Should we not learn to recognize it, and develop it within ourselves, realizing that the man who governs his own fears and doubts is far stronger than he who conquers a city? Indeed we should.
 Taken from the Congressional Globe, January 24, 1860, Appendix, 250