Imagine someone manning a loaded machine gun at the back of the House chamber in the Capitol Building. He is following the proceedings with what looks like a potent intensity, as if his whole mind were engaged, but what that whole mind is, we cannot tell, especially as his fixed smile of flashing teeth suggests that he is not only ready on an instant to do harm but that he wishes everyone to know that he is ready. No deliberation, then, is possible. The solons sweat. Their minds cloud. He is glad of that because he will get what he wants or thwart what he does not want, without having to utter a word. The machine gun does the speaking for him.
As terrible as that imaginary scene is, in certain important respects, hysteria is even worse. The man with the machine gun prevents; hysteria perverts. In the condition of general hysteria, people seem to do nothing but make utterances, shouting, seething, laughing without mirth, accusing without evidence, crying out like spoiled children, raving, roaring, threatening; gleefully presenting themselves as victims, the better to make victims of others; calling down apocalyptic fire from heaven unless they get what they demand, now, and never once pausing to consider that almost every political desideratum comes with a price, or what that price may be, and who will pay it, and with what distant and often undesirable consequences.
So it is that while a parade of people occupy and preoccupy the U.S. Congress and various state houses, people whom anyone, liberal or conservative, a few cultural minutes ago would have recognized as deviant or mentally ill, a lot of immensely difficult work is left undone.
I do not mean simply the ordinary things. The American family has taken a lot of economic, political, cultural, and ideological beatings, some of them at the hands of the Supreme Court, ever since the justices decided that their expertise and their juridical purview extended beyond constitutional law to the more intimate features of culture, folkways, sex, and family life.
The same six or seven decades have not been kind to the working class, either, eroding on one side their never-great economic power, and on the other side their main store of capital: the familial and moral, and all in the supposed cause of liberty. The results for the nation have been bad all around, and worse than the pessimists warned they would be. For not even the pessimists, in the days when “the pill” was deemed a boon for mankind, not even Paul VI at his most morose could have foreseen a time when people would take as a matter of course entire neighborhoods where hardly an intact family is to be found, and when the very definition of male and female members of the human race would be seen as beyond the capacity of the biology departments, let alone the philosophy departments, of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.
And I doubt that even the pessimists who foretold the urban blight to be caused by a wrong-headed rush for urban renewal (I think here of the notorious Pruitt-Igoe complex in St. Louis, evincing an inhuman ugliness that only modernism and a lot of money could accomplish) saw that people would take for granted, as we do, that our infrastructure should crumble away, because we never raised the skilled craftsmen from the working class who could build the handsome bridges, dams, retaining walls, and parks their grandfathers in the WPA once built.
I am aware that hysteria is not a new thing in the world. The arsonist you will always have with you. But must the arsonist be met with cheers? Must all our passions for justice be transmogrified into hysteria? Can it ever be otherwise?
Here I consider the moral evil that once bade fair to rip the United States apart forever: slavery. I have come upon a memorial to the Reverend Dr. Leonard Bacon, written by his son, Leonard Woolsey Bacon, for the March 1883 issue of The Century Magazine, which instigated a curt and bitter response from one Oliver Johnson in the May issue, followed by the younger Bacon’s reply in August.
In the memorial, “A Good Fight Finished,” Bacon the son dwells with love, gratitude, and admiration on the tireless Christian life his father led, focusing on the man’s wide-ranging missionary work, his efforts to maintain unity among the Presbyterian churches, his fighting for postage rates that ordinary people could afford, his fighting against “the eternal greenbacks”—fiat money without intrinsic value—his scholarly work on the faith of the New England settlers, and, yes, his constant and firm condemnation of slavery. “If that form of government,” wrote the elder Bacon, “that system of social order is not wrong—if those laws of the Southern States, by virtue of which slavery exists there and is what it is, are not wrong, nothing is wrong.”
You might think, then, that Dr. Bacon aligned himself with the abolitionists led by William Lloyd Garrison. He did not. It was his criticism of their methods, what he saw as their going beyond the bounds of logic, sound practical reasoning, and charity, that earned him their bitter enmity. For Dr. Bacon wrote that “the wrongfulness of that entire body of laws, opinions, and practices is one thing; and the criminality of the individual master who tries to do right is another thing.” He was concerned with setting things right. But that was not enough for the abolitionists.
Bacon the son, in his October rejoinder, gives us an example of their fervid rhetoric, from the resolutions at an abolitionist meeting in 1848, in the latter end of the presidency of the expansionist James K. Polk: “That any enlightened man who voluntarily supports this government by voting or taking office under it, has no moral principle that would deter him from becoming a pirate on the high seas, whenever a favorable opportunity should present.”
The son concludes thus: “There is no real danger that [history] will make any mistake on the question whether slavery was at last abolished by ferocious non-resistants and disunionists, such as wrote these resolutions; or whether the work was done by sober, conscientious, church-going, voting, union-loving, sedition-and-secession-hating ‘pirates’; was accomplished, as I said last March, ‘in pursuance of principles which Mr. Garrison abhorred, by measures which he denounced, and under the leadership of men who had been the objects of his incessant and calumnious vituperation.’”
Johnson, for his part, accused Dr. Bacon of being a temporizer, “one of the blind leaders of the blind multitude who, fifty years ago, ‘did not see how slavery was to be got rid of,’ and who were forever wandering about in a metaphysical cloud, throwing obstructions in the way of those whose vision was clear.”
Bacon, said Johnson, drew a distinction between those who instituted the evil system and those who inherited it, but the old friend of Garrison would have none of it: “The guilty, in other words, were dead, the living were innocent!” To this he opposed the clear vision of Garrison, “who held, on the contrary, that the slave-holders were wrong-doers, and summoned them to undo the heavy burdens and let the oppressed go free.”
I will not decide here between the antagonists. If there were a speedy and peaceful way to extricate the South from the evil it had taken intimately to itself, and to do so without massive displacement and the destitution of the slaves who were to be liberated and assisted, the United States did not find that way. One of the results was the deaths of 620,000 soldiers—as many deaths as the nation suffered in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, and the Korean War combined. Cool heads and tender hearts did not prevail, in no small part, I suppose, because of hot heads and hard hearts. Did a Calhoun, justifying slavery, produce a John Brown, or was it the other way? Or did the one sword sharpen the other? I do not know.
I am not pleading for moderation; the queasy middle, usually without principles, floats where it floats because leaders in ideas good and bad have gone where they have gone. My views are not moderate. And yet I am impressed by the fact that Bacon and Johnson could have this exchange of eloquent and pointed acrimony, without descent very far into personal animus, while bringing into the field of debate moral imperatives, historical facts, and unadorned words uttered and written. Neither man played the tragedy queen, though it is clear that each took the other’s criticism as a personal attack on someone he loved. I do not think such an exchange is possible now. It behooves us to ask why not.