This year’s Constitution Day comes at a fearful time for friends of constitutional government. Some now even fear its collapse, whether by raging mobs or scheming lawyers. Either way, whether by force or by fraud, from fists or from sophistry, tyranny lurks to replace constitutional government.
This division stems from a stark question: Is America a land of which we can be proud or one of which we must be ashamed? An exceptional nation for its virtues, prosperity, faith, and strength, or an exceptionally evil and hypocritical one for its slavery, materialism, bigotry, and imperialism? “Anti-Racism” is surging with its demands to end “institutional racism” and “white privilege” and indulge in self-flagellation with confessions of guilt.
This arises in part from our confusion over slavery. Today slavery has become synonymous with racism, oppression, income inequality, marriage, and childhood. I would contrast such distortions of the “anti-racism” mindset with the “anti-slavery” of Abraham Lincoln.
Keep in mind that Lincoln’s entire approach to abolishing slavery distinguished the evil of slavery itself from issues of race. Today’s race-obsessed understanding of American history produces perverse policies and attitudes consumed by passion. But the equality we all seek is not a passion. Defining equality and the issues around it in terms of passion thwarts the reason required to understand it and persuade others.
Lincoln displayed such logic in making his case against slavery. In the 1850s the growing nation had become morally indifferent to slavery, while at the same time finding itself more economically dependent on it. Yet he did not condemn the Southerners as monsters, as the abolitionists did. He allowed that human nature was alike, in the North and the South. He won over skeptical audiences with a succinct definition of slavery: “you work, I eat.”
Instead of further polarizing his audiences, Lincoln appealed to the work ethic prevalent throughout the country. No one boasts of being a moocher, any more than most people alive then thought the slave-trader was respectable company. Obvious to most if not nearly all, this consensus on self-interest and subsequent moral duty lies at the heart of what Lincoln meant by equality of natural right. So we understand him when he says, “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.” And, more strongly, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.”
The Road to Emancipation
Similarly, when the South seceded, Lincoln had to respond with war—a war about saving the Union, not ending merely slavery. In fact, his civil war statesmanship revolved around the meaning of “saving” the Union. The meaning of salvation deepens throughout the Civil War, as Americans would later hear in the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln led the nation from First Inaugural necessity to the Second Inaugural fulfillment, from the saving of the physical integrity of the nation to the saving of its soul.
All his objections to secession applied with even greater political, moral, and religious force to slavery. In his July 4, 1861 message to Congress, Lincoln justifies the war against the secessionists, as “essentially a people’s contest. [The] . . . leading object is to elevate the condition of men; to lift artificial weights from all shoulders; . . . to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life. Yielding to partial and temporary departures, from necessity, this is the leading object of the Government for whose existence we contend.”
Without mentioning slavery or race, Lincoln made the purpose of the Civil War “an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life.”
We could examine numerous instances of Lincoln’s statesmanship advancing the anti-slavery cause throughout the war, but let’s examine the most important, the Emancipation Proclamation.
Often mistaken for an emancipation of all slaves (that was not accomplished until the passage of the 13th Amendment) the Emancipation Proclamation of September 22, 1862, distilled Lincoln’s strategy and principle. Of course, it was attacked then and today as a worthless gesture, not actually freeing any slaves. In the same vein, the proclamation could not have succeeded in its grand object had it freed any slaves in the Union. In fact, its success rested on its appearance of moral indifference.
Lincoln reportedly said early in the war, “I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky.”
The Union army victory at Antietam on September 17 (Constitution Day 1862) would permit the proclamation of September 22. That victory meant the coalition of free and slave States would hold against the secessionists. The war’s objective of “affording all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life” might now begin to be fully pursued.
Even here Lincoln had to proceed cautiously. The proclamation was an executive order, not a law, and followed from his power as commander-in-chief.
The Union boldly spread word of the proclamation among the slaves. For example, in Florida an army unit of freedmen was sent on a covert mission to spread word of the proclamation to plantations and thus encourage slaves to flee. Of course, masters feared retribution and even massacres from their freed slaves. Thus what the Declaration of Independence had made a reason for independence—the encouragement by the Crown of “domestic insurrections” against the colonists—had now become a means for restoring the Declaration. To understand America we need to grasp the reason behind seeming contradictions and see the ultimate purpose.
The South reacted as might be expected for those being threatened by death from their slaves. They executed 300 captured black soldiers and their white officers. On April 18, 1864, Lincoln eloquently protested the Ft. Pillow massacre. He had introduced black soldiers into Union ranks and for that, he said, in appealing to the consciences of his Maryland audience: “I am responsible for it to the American people, to the Christian world, to history, and on my final account to God. Having determined to use the negro as a soldier, there is no way but to give him all the protection given to any other soldier.”
Lincoln was saying that the laws of war and natural law apply to black soldiers’ treatment by both South and the North. This states plainly what he had said poetically in the Gettysburg Address and what he would say in his Second Inaugural. The black soldiers were part of the proof for the truth of the proposition that “all men are created equal.”
Lincoln’s radicalism is found in his conservatism: he is radical in returning to the ways of the fathers.
Recovering an Older Wisdom
How did the change take place from Lincoln’s view of equality to the “anti-racism” cacophony we hear today? In sum, the great shift took place in two stages: First, with Progressive Woodrow Wilson’s unique attack on the Declaration of Independence as an outdated, individualistic document. A far more clever Democratic president, Franklin Roosevelt, instead reinterpreted the Declaration for his own purposes.
Replacing Lincoln’s equality of natural rights, FDR redefined the Declaration to be a guarantee of socialized security. Such an indeterminate goal sets no limit to what government can do for that overriding psychological purpose. FDR replaced the old Lockean social contract with a new “contract” between the government and the governed. Now we must agree that those who work will have their wealth redistributed. And, to emphasize his seriousness, he condemned as a fascist anyone who criticized this new understanding.
The equality of the American founding can be treated as an exercise in metaphysics, and in fact, it is worthy of such an endeavor. But the moral meaning of equality is clear to all: injustice occurs when Lincoln’s “you work, I eat” definition of slavery prevails. But only being free of slavery does not suffice for a fulfillment of equality.
“Here comes my friend Douglass,” Lincoln announced, as he saw Frederick Douglass enter the White House. If we berate America for the injustice of slavery, we must hail the nation for its strongest souls and its best friendships. These are the rare types of equality that deepen the fundamental equality.
Flannery O’Connor demands mention as modern America’s most profound storyteller about race and real anti-racism. She would scoff at the clichés that plague our contemporary discourse and media.
In her 1965 short story, “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” she presents us with a vain mother who boasts of her grandfather’s plantation of 200 slaves and her even more preposterous Progressive son who desperately tries to meet black professionals on newly integrated buses and fantasizes about introducing his mother to a black fiancé. In different guises revelation literally strikes them both, but too late. O’Connor was able to dissect such bathetic people because her art truly transcended race, rooted as it was in her faith.
“Anti-racism” is growing like its 19th-century ancestor, the temperance movement. Both forms of fanaticism have their parallels in Marxian socialism. Lincoln’s magnificent Temperance Address pointed out the flaws it shared with its cousins, the abolitionists, and the pro-slavery oligarchs. For the fundamental evil of reformist revolutionaries is certainly not being drunk on alcohol but rather being drunk on power. An appreciation of Lincoln’s anti-slavery statesmanship is the first step to recovery.