Back from vacation in Colorado, having done little of consequence for over a week.
I’ll be on the radio Thursday evening, July 3, discussing my book. I should be on around 10:00 EST, or a few minutes after that. Go here for more information.
Back from vacation in Colorado, having done little of consequence for over a week.
I’ll be on the radio Thursday evening, July 3, discussing my book. I should be on around 10:00 EST, or a few minutes after that. Go here for more information.
In 1867, Lysander Spooner, a hero to many of today’s critics of Abraham Lincoln and one of the sixteenth president’s most vociferous postwar detractors, defended [white] southerners against the charge that they were traitors in the recently concluded Civil War, in part because they had not actually consented to the Constitution. “The number who actually consented to the Constitution of the United States, at the first, was very small,” Spooner reasoned. Consequently, “the adoption of the Constitution was the merest farce and imposture, binding upon nobody. The women, children, and blacks, of course, were not asked to give their consent. . . . Furthermore, those who originally agreed to the Constitution, could therefore bind nobody that should come after them. They could contract for nobody but themselves.” (emphasis mine)
I was recently alerted to an additional, or potential, deficiency in Spooner’s argument (for more see Loathing Lincoln, pp. 72-75) when reading the philosopher Annette Baier’s landmark 1986 essay, Trust and Antitrust.” In that piece, and with great wit, Baier observed the following:
The great moral theorists in our tradition not only are all men, they are mostly men who had minimal dealings with (and so were then minimally influenced by) women. With a few significant exceptions (Hume, Hegel, J.S. Mill, Sidgwick, maybe Bradley) they are a collection of gays, clerics, misogynists, and puritan bachelors. It should not surprise us, then, that particularly in the modern period they managed to relegate to the mental background the web of trust tying most moral agents to one another, and to focus their philosophical attention so single-mindedly on cool distant relations between more or less free and equal adult strangers, say, the members of an all male club, with membership rules and rules for breaking for dealing with rule breakers and where the form of cooperation was restricted to ensuring that each member could read his Times in peace and have no one step on his gouty toes. Explicitly assumed or recognized obligations toward others with the same obligations and the same power to see justice done to rule breakers then are seen as the moral norm.
Now, I want to be clear that I am not saying that Spooner fits all the characteristics Baier enumerated or that his works cannot be read with benefit. But she reminded me of one of the limitations of our political tradition and of the unhappy consequences if Spooner’s views were ever implemented. Spooner, who never married and rejected “social contract theory,” believed that “those who originally agreed to the Constitution, could thereby bind nobody that should come after them. They could contract for nobody but themselves. They had no more [*5] natural right or power to make political contracts, binding upon succeeding generations, than they had to make marriage or business contracts binding upon them.” The implication of such a stance, it seems to me, would be that Americans, in order to truly be “free,” would have to revisit fundamental matters of political consent, or rewrite their entire Constitution, on a relatively frequent basis.
But imagine how destabilizing, not to mention exhausting, this would be in practical terms. As the political theorist Stephen Holmes put it, “An inherited constitution can institutionalize as well as stabilize democracy. It is not only, and not essentially, a hedge against arbitrary government. For instance, it also designs and erects those institutions that render rulers accountable. Because it is relatively hard to change, a constitution can disencumber the present generation. Thus, it cannot plausibly be characterized as an oppressive force, an autocratic attempt by the past to enthrall the future. Precommitment [to previous a Constitution] is justified because it does not enslave but rather enfranchises future generations.” If we are continually revisiting basic political commitments we would be living in a nightmare world of endless political argument and/or legal disputation. And really, who would have the time for such controversy? The wealthiest Americans, I would imagine. And who might benefit? Lawyers, perhaps?
Corey Robin (full disclosure: Corey is a friend of mine) has written about what he thinks such a society – “neoliberal,” he calls it – might look like (and for the purposes of this post I wonder if this might apply as well to a world where we are constantly renegotiating previous generational commitments or using private companies to fulfill their “contracts” to us):
In the neoliberal utopia, all of us are forced to spend an inordinate amount of time keeping track of each and every facet of our economic [and political?] lives. That, in fact, is the openly declared goal: once we are made more cognizant of our money, where it comes from and where it goes, neoliberals believe we’ll be more responsible in spending and investing it. Of course, rich people have accountants, lawyers, personal assistants, and others to do this for them, so the argument doesn’t apply to them, but that’s another story for another day.
The dream is that we’d all have our gazillion individual accounts—one for retirement, one for sickness, one for unemployment, one for the kids, and so on, each connected to our employment, so that we understand that everything good in life depends upon our boss (and not the government)—and every day we’d check in to see how they’re doing, what needs attending to, what can be better invested elsewhere. It’s as if, in the neoliberal dream, we’re all retirees in Boca, with nothing better to do than to check in with our broker, except of course that we’re not. Indeed, if Republicans (and some Democrats) had their way, we’d never retire at all.
In real (or at least our preferred) life, we do have other, better things to do. We have books to read, children to raise, friends to meet, loved ones to care for, amusements to enjoy, drinks to drink, walks to take, webs to surf, couches to lie on, games to play, movies to see, protests to make, movements to build, marches to march, and more. Most days, we don’t have time to do any of that. We’re working way too many hours for too little pay, and in the remaining few hours (minutes) we have, after the kids are asleep, the dishes are washed, and the laundry is done, we have to haggle with insurance companies about doctor’s bills, deal with school officials needing forms signed, and more.
What’s so astounding about Romney’s [private unemployment accounts] proposal—and the neoliberal worldview more generally—is that it would just add to this immense, and incredibly shitty, hassle of everyday life. One more account to keep track of, one more bell to answer. Why would anyone want to live like that? I sure as hell don’t know, but I think that’s the goal of the neoliberals: not just so that we’re more responsible with our money, but also so that we’re more consumed by it: so that we don’t have time for anything else. Especially anything, like politics, that would upset the social order as it is.
As a result, I don’t think that Spooner was correct about consent, for both theoretical and practical reasons. The “stateless society” he and his modern-day compatriots envision would be powerless, as Holmes explains, “to overcome anarchy” or “to correct the unbearable maldistributions of private power.” To quote Abraham Lincoln, “Have we no tendency to the latter condition?”
An interesting article in the Houston Chronicle today on commemorating the 150th Anniversary of Lincoln’s murder by John Wilkes Booth. I’ll be taking students to see this.
See my post on this at the Society for U.S. Intellectual History website here. This is an updated blog, much improved I think, of a piece I wrote awhile ago. Enjoy!
Today, however, I’d like to write a little something about the panels I attended on Saturday morning and afternoon. The morning panel included Micah Mattix (Professor at Houston Baptist University), Peter Lawler (Professor at Berry College), and Leslie Marsh (Professor at University of British Columbia and founder of the Michael Oakeshott Association). The title of the panel’s topic was “Lost in the Cosmos: Is Science Enough Without Religion?” Mattix was the moderator and used Percy’s underappreciated book, Lost in the Cosmos, to begin the discussion. From there Lawler and Marsh gave their answer to the question, which was decidedly in the negative. Lawler, at least in my view, talked significantly more than Marsh. I think my friend Larry Arnhart, a political philosopher who has debated Lawler in the past (Larry was not at the conference), has characterized accurately Lawler’s views here. For what it is worth, I think Larry has the better of the argument by far. Added to this, there was some talk – negative – of “scientism” by the panel, a term of opprobrium that was/is never very well defined. It seemed to me that the panelists and most of the audience were Christians (I met and sat next to a kind and interesting Pastor of a Presbyterian Church in Baton Rouge who shared my interest in Wendell Berry), and what worries them, I think, is that “science” is going into places where it should not tread (e.g. Stephen Jay Gould’s NOMA argument). In other words, it is intellectually imperialistic. This is a strange argument to make, considering that Christians believe that all aspects of life are to be explained by Christianity/Jesus. People who oppose “scientism” should remind themselves that sauce for the goose, in short, is sauce for the gander. Scientists have the right and the duty to try and explain the world and they should not shy away from that project because it makes people, or their religious beliefs, uncomfortable. Moreover, there have been significant developments in how we understand human beings since Percy’s death in 1990 (e.g. mapping of the human genome; startling developments in neuroscience; the excellent work of primatologists) which lead me to believe that Percy’s theory of man might be somewhat “dated.” Still, this does not mean that Percy is not worth reading, for his humour, his trenchant observations about human beings, his critique of American society, including science and religion, and his fine storytelling skills.
The afternoon panel was entitled “Will Percy’s World: Stoicism and the Southern Aristocracy.” I was particularly interested in this panel simply because I came to Walker Percy’s writings through his Uncle Will’s book, Lanterns on the Levee. I had heard of Walker before encountering Lanterns, but dived right in to his novels after reading it. There was much in Will Percy I did not care for (his racism, his patrician outlook, to name just two), but I found, and still find his Stoicism attractive. Just a sampling of gems from his memoir, the last two of which had direct relevance to the panel:
“good cooking is one of the few things that make life bearable.” (page 10)
“But I was learning not so much how lonely I could be as how lonely everybody could be.” (page 27)
“After Fascism and Communism and Capitalism and Socialism are over and forgotten as completely as slavery and the Old South, that same headstrong human heart will be clamoring for the old things it wept for in Eden – love and a chance to be noble, laughter and a chance to adore something, someone, something, somewhere.” (page 34)
“Calling to mind with gratitude those to whom we are indebted on our journey is not only a sort of piety, but one of the few pleasures that endure without loss of luster to the end.” (page 49)
“I’m unhappily convinced that our exteriors have increased in importance while our interiors have deteriorated.” (page 62)
“To be at once intellectual honest and religious is a rack on which many have perished and on which I writhed dumbly, for I knew even then there were certain things which, like overwhelming physical pain, you must fight out alone, at the bottom of your own dark well, beyond ministration of assuagement or word of advice, incommunicado and leper-lonely.” (page 79)
“Peace to them, and endless gratitude.” (page 95 – on his teachers at Sewanee)
“Not satisfied with knowing they were as good as anyone else, they came to believe they were better than anyone else. Always a fatal delusion. They should have remembered hubris from their Greek.” (page 120 – on antebellum “Southern leaders”)
“Not science but the Christian sects are causing the death of religion.” (page 315)
“I suppose crises occurred, problems pressed, decisions had to be made, those four shining years [at Sewanee], but for me only one altered the sunlight. Once a month I would ride ten miles down the wretched mountain road to Winchester, go to confession, hear mass, and take communion. I had been thinking, I had never stopped thinking. I was determined to be honest if it killed me. So I knelt in the little Winchester church examining my conscience and preparing for confession. How it came about did not seem sudden or dramatic or anything but sad. As I started to the confessional I knew there was no use going, no priest could absolve me, no church could direct my life or my judgment, what most believed I could not believe. . . . It was over and forever. I rode back to the leafy mountain mournful and unregretful, knowing thenceforth I should breathe a starker and a colder air, with no place to go when I was tired.” (page 95 – on losing his faith in God at Sewanee)
The two panelists (no moderator this time) were Emily Erwin Jones (Archivist, Delta State) and Ralph Wood (Professor at Baylor University). Jones gave a nice talk on growing up in Greenville, Mississippi, where Will Percy lived (and Walker Percy grew up after his father’s suicide), and on some collections at Delta State related to the town. Still, the star of the show, so to speak, was Wood, who contrasted Will Percy’s “tragic” view of life (see quotes above) with Walker Percy’s “comic” outlook (see Wood’s “Introduction to Walker Percy” here.) Wood was an interesting speaker, well-organized, with copious readings from both Will and Walker Percy’s books. Being a professor at Baylor and having read some of Wood’s works, I was unsurprised by his criticism of Will Percy, nor do I think they were entirely unfair. Still, as I noted above, there are problems with Walker Percy’s thought as well, and I thought that there needed to be more recognition of such shortcomings.
Perhaps a more critical examination of Walker Percy’s works will be in the offing in the future. I certainly hope so. After all, Walker Percy’s best friend was Shelby Foote, a confirmed atheist, if I’m not mistaken, and one who told Percy upon his conversion to Catholicism that “he was in full intellectual retreat.” It is enough to say at this point that I thoroughly enjoyed my time in St. Francisville and have been reflecting on it ever since leaving and driving home to Texas. It reminded me of the joy I had in reading and rereading Percy’s books and the reason I named my dog, a beautiful, energetic dachshund, now deceased, Walker.
Sorry I haven’t posted anything in a few days, but Susan and I traveled to St. Francisville, Louisiana last weekend for the first annual (I can’t imagine there won’t be more) “Walker Percy Festival.” Organized by Rod Dreher, a writer/blogger at The American Conservative magazine, we had a great time eating crawfish, catfish, grilled oysters, sampling some craft beers, and drinking bourbon on a “bourbon tour” of front porches, yet at the same time learning more about Percy (a favorite writer of mine when I was in my thirties and one to whom I still occasionally reread today) and the charming, hospitable town of St. Francisville. I’ll have more on this festival later in the week.
George Orwell once said that “if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” Sadly, Orwell’s exhortation to freedom has been all too often violated in our nation’s past and reading David N. Livingstone’s excellent book, Dealing with Darwin: Place, Politics, and Rhetoric in Religious Arguments with Evolution (2014) provides confirmation of this abridgment of liberty. Livingstone’s work is based upon his 2014 Gifford Lectures and investigates “how religious communities dealt with Darwin and . . . the role played by what I call place, politics, and rhetoric in public encounters with one of the greatest scientific theories of our time” (preface). His key argument, it seems to me, is that “place, politics, and rhetoric were decisive in how the encounter was conducted and how evolution was judged in . . . different venues” (page 26).
The venue I am most interested in here is, of course, the United States. The fourth chapter of Dealing with Darwin, “Columbia, Woodrow, and the Legacy of the Lost Cause” details the firing of James Woodrow (the Uncle of future president Woodrow Wilson) “from the professorship he had held for over a quarter of a century at the Southern Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina, on account of his views on Darwin’s theory of evolution” (page 117). Woodrow’s “sin”? He thought Darwin was more or less right and it cost him his job.
Now, what interests me here, and be patient dear reader, because this does have relevance to Lincoln, I assure you, is that Woodrow’s case was not only about evolution, but also related to questions regarding race and (white) southern culture. Woodrow’s opponents were biblical literalists and Livingstone shows that “Darwin’s theory challenged [Robert] Dabney’s cozy cosmos head-on” (page 145), it “challenged the foundation of scripture, slavery, sound science, and social stratification on which southern civilization rested” (page 149). This is the same Robert Dabney, of course, who viewed the Civil War as a theological war between the North and South, with the virtuous, white, Christian South attempting to fend off the allegedly godless, mongrel, atheistic North (Yankees). “The Bible was thus appealed to as a means of resisting a host of perceived Yankee evils – radical democracy, emancipation [Lincoln!], higher criticism, and modern science. These were seen as subversive of what was taken to be a biblically sanctioned southern culture and as promoting godless notions of human equality” (page 156).
It is important to note the word emancipation in that sentence, because in the late nineteenth century it was Lincoln that Americans most associated with the freeing of the slaves. In my research for Loathing Lincoln I found that Lincoln’s critics were also Darwin’s critics (I think for the most part this is still true and is in need of more investigation). For example, in the 1920s, Lincoln critic Joseph Eggleston, the president of Hampden-Sydney College (where Robert Dabney had taught) worried about the influence of Darwin in Richmond, Virginia’s, churches, and lamented to one correspondent over the way William Jennings Bryan was treated in the Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee.
I think this points toward an explanation, at least in the former states of the Confederacy, of why some white southerners abhorred Lincoln: they equated him with modernism and they believed, as with their fear of Darwin’s theory of evolution, that to venerate Lincoln in any way was to denigrate their beloved white South. So, as I wrote in my book (page 117-118 and based on the work of historian Fred Arthur Bailey):
“No less than primary and secondary schools, higher education in the South also reflected the influence of Lost Cause advocates. In 1911 an especially conspicuous example of southern suppression of pro-Lincoln views occurred when University of Florida professor Enoch Marvin Banks published an article entitled “A Semi-Centennial View of Secession.” Banks argued that, among other things, prior to the war Lincoln and the Republican Party did not want to interfere with slavery in the South and only did so later because of the onset of war. More controversially, Banks claimed that “the Northern position on the subject” of slavery was “in harmony with dictates of an advancing civilization.” Sadly, Banks wrote, “the tragedy of the South’s past, and the tragedy of her present . . . [is] that he does not yet fully realize” this fact. To make matters worse, Banks concluded by favorably comparing Lincoln’s political philosophy with that of Jefferson Davis, which demonstrated the problems, or enemies, that groups such as the UDC rightly believed they faced:
Viewing the great civil conflict . . . in the light of a broad historical philosophy, we are led irresistibly to the conclusion that the North was relatively in the right, while the South was relatively in the wrong. Lincoln for the North became the champion of the principle of national integrity and declared the time ripe for vindication of its validity; Davis for the South became the champion of the principle of particularism exprest [sic] in State sovereignty and declared the time ripe for its vindication. The one advocated a principle of political organization in harmony with the age in which he lived and in accord with the teachings of history; the other advocated a principle out of harmony with his age and discredited by the history of Europe during the past thousand years. The one was a statesman of the highest order . . . the other was a statesman of a distinctly inferior order in comparison, since the cause which he championed with so much ability, heroism and devotion ran counter to the true course of political and social progress.
Banks was eventually pressured to resign from the University of Florida for such opinions, and he died a few short months later, in November 1911.”
Thus, in the former states of the Confederacy, at the very least in some instances, southerners were not at liberty to hear uncomfortable truths about Darwin or Lincoln, and thus intellectual freedom in the region was diminished.
The Wall Street Journal reported today that all “state offices will be closed Monday” in Alabama in order to celebrate the birthday of Jefferson Davis, the executive of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War.
One member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy is quoted in the piece as saying that “People are afraid of Southern history because it is a flash point, a symbol of racism and hate. But it’s not. There’s just a lack of understanding, knee-jerk reaction and fear by people screaming political correctness. This is who I am and who my family was.”
At the risk of engaging in a “knee-jerk reaction,” I’d like to make a few points in response and in regard to the idea of celebrating Jefferson Davis’s birthday more broadly. I think that the UDC member quoted here is conflating “Southern history” with white Southern history. Remember, in large swaths of the Confederacy, the majority of the inhabitants of various states (e.g. slaves) wanted the Confederacy to lose. The slaves did not want Davis and his cohorts to successfully establish a slaveholding republic that permanently enshrined slavery as natural and right. Added to this, throughout the Confederacy there were large numbers of whites opposed to the idea of secession, the break-up of the Union, and later fought in the Union Army.
Now, I happen to agree with the UDC member that there is a lack of understanding about Davis, especially what he stood for. To be specific, as James Huston shows in his book Calculating the Value of the Union, Davis believed that one set of human beings should be able to be able to own another set of human beings and take them virtually anywhere (except the free states) they wish in the United States. To wit:
“All property is best managed where Governments least interfere, and the practice of our Government has been generally founded on that principle. . . . What is there in the character of that property [slaves] which excludes it from the general benefit of the principles applied to all other property.”
Or, consider this from Davis, in an address to the Confederate Congress in 1861:
“As soon, how ever, as the Northern States that prohibited African slavery within their limits had reached a number sufficient to give their representation a controlling voice in the Congress, a persistent and organized system of hostile measures against the rights of the owners of slaves in the Southern States was inaugurated and gradually extended. A continuous series of measures was devised and prosecuted for the purpose of rendering insecure the tenure of property in slaves. Fanatical organizations, supplied with money by voluntary subscriptions, were assiduously engaged in exciting amongst the slaves a spirit of discontent and revolt; means were furnished for their escape from their owners, and agents secretly employed to entice them to abscond; the constitutional provision for their rendition to their owners was first evaded, then openly denounced as a violation of conscientious obligation and religious duty; men were taught that it was a merit to elude, disobey, and violently oppose the execution of the laws enacted to secure the performance of the promise contained in the constitutional compact; owners of slaves were mobbed and even murdered in open day solely for applying to a magistrate for the arrest of a fugitive slave; the dogmas of these voluntary organizations soon obtained control of the Legislatures of many of the Northern States, and laws were passed providing for the punishment, by ruinous fines and long-continued imprisonment in jails and penitentiaries, of citizens of the Southern States who should dare to ask aid of the officers of the law for the recovery of their property. Emboldened by success, the theater of agitation and aggression against the clearly expressed constitutional rights of the Southern States was transferred to the Congress; Senators and Representatives were sent to the common councils of the nation, whose chief title to this distinction consisted in the display of a spirit of ultra fanaticism, and whose business was not “to promote the general welfare or insure domestic tranquillity,” but to awaken the bitterest hatred against the citizens of sister States by violent denunciation of their institutions; the transaction of public affairs was impeded by repeated efforts to usurp powers not delegated by the Constitution, for the purpose of impairing the security of property in slaves, and reducing those States which held slaves to a condition of inferiority. Finally a great party was organized for the purpose of obtaining the administration of the Government, with the avowed object of using its power for the total exclusion of the slave States from all participation in the benefits of the public domain acquired by all the States in common, whether by conquest or purchase; of surrounding them entirely by States in which slavery should be prohibited; of thus rendering the property in slaves so insecure as to be comparatively worthless, and thereby annihilating in effect property worth thousands of millions of dollars. This party, thus organized, succeeded in the month of November last in the election of its candidate for the Presidency of the United States.
In the meantime, under the mild and genial climate of the Southern States and the increasing care and attention for the wellbeing and comfort of the laboring class, dictated alike by interest and humanity, the African slaves had augmented in number from about 600,000, at the date of the adoption of the constitutional compact, to upward of 4,000,000. In moral and social condition they had been elevated from brutal savages into docile, intelligent, and civilized agricultural laborers, and supplied not only with bodily comforts but with careful religious instruction. Under the supervision of a superior race their labor had been so directed as not only to allow a gradual and marked amelioration of their own condition, but to convert hundreds of thousands of square miles of the wilderness into cultivated lands covered with a prosperous people; towns and cities had sprung into existence, and had rapidly increased in wealth and population under the social system of the South; the white population of the Southern slaveholding States had augmented from about 1,250,000 at the date of the adoption of the Constitution to more than 8,500,000 in 1860; and the productions of the South in cotton, rice, sugar, and tobacco, for the full development and continuance of which the labor of African slaves was and is indispensable, had swollen to an amount which formed nearly three-fourths of the exports of the whole United States and had become absolutely necessary to the wants of civilized man. With interests of such overwhelming magnitude imperiled, the people of the Southern States were driven by the conduct of the North to the adoption of some course of action to avert the danger with which they were openly menaced.”
Contrast this with a statement of Abraham Lincoln’s from 1860:
“Look at the magnitude of this subject! One sixth of our population, in round numbers—not quite one sixth, and yet more than a seventh,—about one sixth of the whole population of the United States are slaves! The owners of these slaves consider them property. The effect upon the minds of the owners is that of property, and nothing else—it induces them to insist upon all that will favorably affect its value as property, to demand laws and institutions and a public policy that shall increase and secure its value, and make it durable, lasting and universal. The effect on the minds of the owners is to persuade them that there is no wrong in it. The slaveholder does not like to be considered a mean fellow, for holding that species of property, and hence he has to struggle within himself and sets about arguing himself into the belief that Slavery is right. The property influences his mind. The dissenting minister, who argued some theological point with one of the established church, was always met by the reply, “I can’t see it so.” He opened the Bible, and pointed him to a passage, but the orthodox minister replied, “I can’t see it so.” Then he showed him a single word—“Can you see that?” “Yes, I see it,” was the reply. The dissenter laid a guinea over the word and asked, “Do you see it now?” [Great laughter.] So here. Whether the owners of this species of property do really see it as it is, it is not for me to say, but if they do, they see it as it is through 2,000,000,000 of dollars, and that is a pretty thick coating. [Laughter.] Certain it is, that they do not see it as we see it. Certain it is, that this two thousand million of dollars, invested in this species of property, all so concentrated that the mind can grasp it at once—this immense pecuniary interest, has its influence upon their minds.
But here in Connecticut and at the North Slavery does not exist, and we see it through no such medium. To us it appears natural to think that slaves are human beings; men, not property; that some of the things, at least, stated about men in the Declaration of Independence apply to them as well as to us. [Applause.] I say, we think, most of us, that this Charter of Freedom applies to the slave as well as to ourselves, that the class of arguments put forward to batter down that idea, are also calculated to break down the very idea of a free government, even for white men, and to undermine the very foundations of free society. [Continued applause.] We think Slavery a great moral wrong, and while we do not claim the right to touch it where it exists, we wish to treat it as a wrong in the Territories, where our votes will reach it. We think that a respect for ourselves, a regard for future generations and for the God that made us, require that we put down this wrong where our votes will properly reach it. We think that species of labor an injury to free white men—in short, we think Slavery a great moral, social and political evil, tolerable only because, and so far as its actual existence makes it necessary to tolerate it, and that beyond that, it ought to be treated as a wrong.
Now these two ideas, the property idea that Slavery is right, and the idea that it is wrong, come into collision, and do actually produce that irrepressible conflict which Mr. Seward has been so roundly abused for mentioning. The two ideas conflict, and must conflict.
Again, in its political aspect, does anything in any way endanger the perpetuity of this Union but that single thing, Slavery? Many of our adversaries are anxious to claim that they are specially devoted to the Union, and take pains to charge upon us hostility to the Union. Now we claim that we are the only true Union men, and we put to them this one proposition: What ever endangered this Union, save and except Slavery? Did any other thing ever cause a moment’s fear? All men must agree that this thing alone has ever endangered the perpetuity of the Union. But if it was threatened by any other influence, would not all men say that the best thing that could be done, if we could not or ought not to destroy it, would be at least to keep it from growing any larger? Can any man believe that the way to save the Union is to extend and increase the only thing that threatens the Union, and to suffer it to grow bigger and bigger? [Great applause.]
Whenever this question shall be settled, it must be settled on some philosophical basis. No policy that does not rest upon some philosophical public opinion can be permanently maintained. And hence, there are but two policies in regard to Slavery that can be at all maintained. The first, based on the property view that Slavery is right, conforms to that idea throughout, and demands that we shall do everything for it that we ought to do if it were right. We must sweep away all opposition, for opposition to the right is wrong; we must agree that Slavery is right, and we must adopt the idea that property has persuaded the owner to believe—that Slavery is morally right and socially elevating. This gives a philosophical basis for a permanent policy of encouragement.
The other policy is one that squares with the idea that Slavery is wrong, and it consists in doing everything that we ought to do if it is wrong. Now, I don’t wish to be misunderstood, nor to leave a gap down to be misrepresented, even. I don’t mean that we ought to attack it where it exists. To me it seems that if we were to form a government anew, in view of the actual presence of Slavery we should find it necessary to frame just such a government as our fathers did; giving to the slaveholder the entire control where the system was established, while we possessed the power to restrain it from going outside those limits. [Applause.] From the necessities of the case we should be compelled to form just such a government as our blessed fathers gave us; and, surely, if they have so made it, that adds another reason why we should let Slavery alone where it exists.
If I saw a venomous snake crawling in the road, any man would say I might seize the nearest stick and kill it; but if I found that snake in bed with my children, that would be another question. [Laughter.] I might hurt the children more than the snake, and it might bite them. [Applause.] Much more, if I found it in bed with my neighbor’s children, and I had bound myself by a solemn compact not to meddle with his children under any circumstances, it would become me to let that particular mode of getting rid of the gentleman alone. [Great laughter.] But if there was a bed newly made up, to which the children were to be taken, and it was proposed to take a batch of young snakes and put them there with them, I take it no man would say there was any question how I ought to decide! [Prolonged applause and cheers.]
That is just the case! The new Territories are the newly made bed to which our children are to go, and it lies with the nation to say whether they shall have snakes mixed up with them or not. It does not seem as if there could be much hesitation what our policy should be! [Applause.]
Now I have spoken of a policy based on the idea that Slavery is wrong, and a policy based upon the idea that it is right. But an effort has been made for a policy that shall treat it as neither right or wrong. It is based upon utter indifference. Its leading advocate has said “I don’t care whether it be voted up or down.” [Laughter.] “It is merely a matter of dollars and cents.” “The Almighty has drawn a line across this continent, on one side of which all soil must forever be cultivated by slave labor, and on the other by free;” “when the struggle is between the white man and the negro, I am for the white man; when it is between the negro and the crocodile, I am for the negro.” Its central idea is indifference. It holds that it makes no more difference to us whether the Territories become free or slave States, than whether my neighbor stocks his farm with horned cattle or puts it into tobacco. All recognize this policy, the plausible sugar-coated name of which is “popular sovereignty.” [Laughter.]”
By all means, let us study the life and career of Jefferson Davis. As I said in my book, Loathing Lincoln:
“in 2010, the Texas State Board of Education started requiring schoolchildren in the Lone Star State to read the inaugural addresses of both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. Such a requirement makes perfect pedagogical sense if the purpose is to expose students to stances taken by important historical actors and their divergent interpretation of events. But it is another thing entirely if Davis and the cause he advocated—the perpetuation of inhuman bondage—is characterized instead as resistance to centralized government in the name of states’ rights and placed on the same moral plane as Lincoln’s desire to abolish the pernicious institution of slavery, ensure that all men enjoy the fruits of their labors, and preserve the Union from its foes.”
So, let us not honor
him Jefferson Davis with holidays, nor give credence to the idea that “Southern history” equates solely with the Confederacy. Instead, may I offer a suggestion? Because Davis believed that there was property in man, and his Republican opponents did not, I propose that Alabama replace their holiday celebrating Jefferson Davis’s birthday with one that celebrates Lincoln’s, or, even better, Frederick Douglass’. What do you think?