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Views of Slavery: Abolitionist, Southern Enlightenment & Lincoln

Updated on May 23, 2013


Fratricide, or internal (civil) war within a state, leaves images of family members killing each other. That is horrific enough to imagine, but it also describes the murder of a society. (Abbott) Abbott likened internal war to the “Hobbesian terror” that society itself would fall apart and that it would be incapable of reconciliation and healing. (Abbott 137) By no means was the American Civil War an anomaly; Civil War has occurred throughout history when particular institutions are no longer able to do what they were intended to do. But culture and history play a role in Civil War and how it is played out. According to Abbott, in the American Civil War, there were three features that defined it, beginning in 1861. The institution of slavery that was based simply on color became unacceptable to middle-class men and women from the North to refuse to accept gradual emancipation. Because of this, many Northern abolitionists suggested secession as a way to demand immediate emancipation of slaves. Southerners agreed as they re-evaluated their culture and asked themselves if their ideologies were enough in common with the North to be part of the Union. (Abbott)

Both sides of the slavery issue developed their own interpretations of republicanism to defend their positions. The North used republicanism to represent “human rights, religious retribution and redemption and the idea of nation.” (Abbott 138) The South used republicanism as a form of honor by focusing on family, friends and farm. Though modern warfare, economics, political infidelities, and industrialization all played a role in when, where, and how the Civil War was fought, it is the development and action of three political thoughts that answer the question why. (Abbott) The first was the abolitionist view. The second is called the Southern Enlightenment; and the third is the viewpoint of Abraham Lincoln. I will discuss the philosophical arguments of each of these viewpoints and include their practical implications, discovering that there is a common theme of defining morality for political thought for a nation as a whole.

Abolitionist Thought

The abolition movement had begun gaining ground in the early 1830s and many books were written before Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But Stowe’s characters reflected the idea that the Christian took two spiritual paths, one to freedom and the other to martyrdom. (Abbott) Uncle Tom’s Cabin provides the base for abolitionist thought – freedom is preferred. Stowe pointed out that there were two roads for a Christian, one who acted and one who did not. The one who acted was doing as God would have them do, right a wrong. The one who did not act, observed a Calvinistic fatalism of refusing to act because it simply did not matter.

Support of the abolition of slavery however did not coincide with equality for most abolitionists. There was not even a sense of separate but equal at this time. With the exception of a few, such as William Lloyd Garrison, who had foresight to see beyond just freedom from slavery, most abolitionists agreed on one thing only, which was that it was unacceptable to deny human freedom. In the “Declaration of Sentiments” signed in 1833, the minimal requirement of the abolition of slavery was evident: “The right to enjoy liberty is inalienable.” This meant that to prevent that right was to claim to be beyond God. The Anti-slavery defined minimal as the “right to control one’s body and one’s labor.” Few bothered to determine how that would be possible if millions of slaves were suddenly released into freedom.

There was disagreement between abolitionists on how to best accomplish the end to slavery. The abolition movement came into full swing by a grass roots movement focused particularly on the church-going people through their ministers. As well as this worked, the moral communitarianism placed important limitations on the strategies of the movement. Garrison, John Brown, and even Frederick Douglass used various unorthodox methods, some would even be considered terrorists or traitors by today’s standards. Garrison claimed a slaveholder power embedded in the country and with focus on the Constitution, claimed conspiracy between Congress and the Southern plantation owners. Thus, the South and therefore the Nation, by its acceptance of Southern slave standards, became morally evil and corrupt. The result was that some abolitionists supported anti-slave politicians and some for third-party movements. Douglass, who originally supported a refusal of the Republican ticket of John C. Fremont and William Lewis Dayton, mainly because the party was supportive only regarding anti-slavery in the Kansas-Nebraska territories, changed his mind because the right action against slavery is the one that is the most effective at any given time.

Southern Enlightenment

The Southern Enlightenment came as a reactionary response to “the outpouring of philosophical, cultural, and scientific criticism of traditional society.” (Abbott) An overabundance of literature rose from the South. Louis Hartz coined the term “reactionary enlightenment” when explaining that Southern intellectuals re-examined the nature of America as a liberal society based on enlightenment. Suddenly, Hartz asked, had America produced “a movement of reactionary feudalism?” (Abbott 145) Literature of the South depicted the Bible as pro-slavery and used Greek and Roman democracy and feudalism as justification. They came against individualism, Locke and Jefferson, as well as capitalism and free society. (Abbott) With this, came the “mud sill theory”, which declared that it was by “the consent of mankind” and “nature’s law” that the South was fortunate enough to have found an inferior race to use as slaves. (Abbott 146) George Fitzhugh, a Virginia journalist furthered the mud sill theory that the welfare of society is best promoted by each man solely advancing his pecuniary interests. (Abbott) He likened this to all capitalists who cheat their employees. Further, using Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, there was used the attitude that every regime provides its own idea of virtue and because of this, the good citizen may not always correspond with the good man. Finally, Fitzhugh theorized that slavery was the best, common and oldest form of socialism because like all laborers, they receive a portion of their labor. Fitzhugh’s political theory raised questions about community for the republic that had previously been voiced by Jefferson and Taylor.

John C. Calhoun embraced the “positive good” of slavery rather than the necessary evil. (Abbott 148) His defense of the slave institution grew the Southern nationalism. He claimed that the South was as equal to the North in many aspects and the only possible inferiority in the South would be the lack of the “arts of gain,” claiming the “conflict between labor and capital” was more of a crisis than slave issues. (Abbott 148) Hofstadter points out that Calhoun sought out institutional mechanisms to preserve slavery. (Abbott) Calhoun used the liberal argument of concurrent majority of Jefferson and Madison, though changing it to his benefit. He argued that a state had precedence over the federal government to deal with its own political and economic interests. Since the Constitution was designed to curb majority factions, separation of powers and the federal system were to restrain power from power. The problem with Calhoun’s theory is that he used the rights of a minority to suppress a minority. As Louis Hartz points out, Calhoun denounced Locke and then used Lockean solutions to justify slavery. Where Hofstadter assumes Calhoun is using brilliant political thinking, Hartz sees him as a “profoundly disintegrated political theorist.”

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln began with the idea that rather there was slavery or not, the Union was indissoluble. The salvation of the Union, not the freedom of slaves was his first goal and remained so, even when he came to believe in anti-slavery. Lincoln has been exalted among the highest, dying on Good Friday, and being the “Great Emancipator” (Abbott), he had become a Christ-like figure. Hofstadter considers Lincoln a talented politician who never could catch up with the Northern consensus on slavery. (Abbott) There has been continued anti-Lincoln sentiment through the years and the South did not take kindly to him. He has been perceived as ill-educated by his peers and a prairie populist by poet Sandburg. His worst critics would say that he was not hard enough on the Confederacy after the war, pardoning and providing for the South.

During the Civil War, Lincoln declared war without consulting Congress, assuming sole powers and suspending the writ of habeas corpus. Historian David Donald has admitted that a simple signature from Lincoln could sensor press, banish a politician or arrest particular members of state legislature. Modern scholars take the approach of Albert Bledsoe, editor of the Southern Review that it was his “’ruling passion’ for personal distinction.” (Abbott) Abbott writes that a review of Lincoln’s political thought shows a little of all of the above. Lincoln may not challenge and even appeal to a racist comment; he admired power; and he could interpret American political culture. In order to illustrate Lincoln more fully, Abbott focuses upon the institution of slavery and the nature of the Union. The slavery issue was only important in regard to Lincoln’s attempts to save the Union.

Because he was able to present argument and symbols that met the abolitionists’ “ends-and-means” and also challenge the principles of the Southern reactionary Enlightenment, his political theory has been successful. (Abbott) In his Lyceum address, Lincoln regarded the rise in violent racial events to a monocratic spirit in the land causing good men saw danger to their families and property and not seeing a change for the better, acted wrongly. He focused on the effects of antislavery instead of the causes. The republican theme of carrying out what the first and second generations to create liberty and equal rights was in place. It was the third generation’s job to carry out the duties of seeing it through. However, it was failing and the republic, to Lincoln, was at a critical juncture. Lincoln used the memory of the Revolution as a natural support for republican institution. He iterated that passion had helped the Republic in the past, but only reason could help them now. His pledge for the reaffirmation of the American social contract was so important to Lincoln that he demanded that it become “the political religion of the nation.”(Abbott) The Lyceum speech placed current political problems into the universals of human nature, which can be corrected within the context of a republican social contract and accomplishing this can only occur by following the law.

Lincoln’s political thought evolves during the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Lincoln had served one term in Congress in 1848 and his political career was failing. However, the Repeal of the Missouri Compromise spurred him into action. In Lincoln’s 1850s speeches, he provided two contradictory themes. One was a carefully constructed political critique of slavery in an effort to revise the Whig agenda. That agenda had been failing because of the membership split between whether to allow slavery into the Kansas Nebraska Territories. His other theme provided a jeremiadic vision of America as a society in need of redemption. This meant an adaptation of the abolitionists’ position. Douglas wanted each of the Territories to determine if they would become slave-states, which would take the power away from the federal government. Douglas based this view on popular sovereignty. Lincoln argued that though slavery could be tolerated on a local basis, to spread it into a nationalization of slavery was intolerable because it would go against the central beliefs that America was a free nation and slavery was intended to be localized in the South because it would eventually collapse, not nationalized. Using Biblical Matthew, he explained that a house divided against itself cannot stand. He used this New Testament analogy, along with others, to contradict the Southerner’s Old Testament argument for slavery. Abbott refers to Lincoln’s position that slavery was a moral crisis that would require national expiation.

The next evolution of Lincoln’s political thought is seen years later at Gettysburg when he sees the Civil War as a providential test for America. He spoke of the birth of the nation, the trial of whether such a new and great nation could succeed and the rebirth of freedom. In his second inaugural came his lasts thought evolution, he made clear that both sides read the same Bible, prayed to the same god and aided the other. No malice was to be shown and charity given to all in order to “achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”



So it would seem the reason that the Civil War was fought was because of conflict over the economics of slavery. There is truth to that. It is also true that defining what America was to be, a free or slave nation as well as the fight of federal government verses state sovereignty, were major issues. But it appears that the underlying theme that can explain why the Civil War was fought is because of shifts of moral consciousness which in turn led to shifts in political thought. This is seen in the movement from the minimal line of freedom to partial abolitionist theories of equality, through the Southern struggle of reviewing exactly what individualism and equality means to Lincoln’s conclusion that slavery is Biblically wrong.


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