A House Divided Part III: The Slavery Analogy
January 5, 2012 3 Comments
In 1790, an elderly Benjamin Franklin, backed by a throng of Quakers, walked into the newly seated Congress and delivered a petition calling for the abolition of slavery. His timing, while ideal for his own reputation (he died a few months later), was potentially disastrous for the first Congress, and thus the new republic as a whole.
With the ink drying on the U. S. Constitution, and with the sectional politics of slavery constantly threatening to undermine the fragile coalition forged in Philadelphia, the “slavery question” was the one that could have easily stopped the Great Experiment dead in its tracks. Fully aware that a debate over the immediate abolition of slavery would implode the federal government he helped design, James Madison ushered Franklin and his Quaker acolytes behind closed doors and convinced them to drop the petition. Madison agreed to confront the issue. However, he knew that the abolition of slavery would have to happen gradually, fitfully, and—as the Father of the Constitution understood better than anyone—with compromise.
He was right. It would be an error to interpret the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment as orders that immediately abolished slavery. What really matters is the dialectical process of reform that made them possible. Slavery slowly turned from a commonly accepted labor system endemic to North and South alike into a morally flawed “peculiar institution” run by an insidious “slave power.” What made this happen was an instructive convergence of dependent trends, one that parallels our quest to end the systematic enslavement of animals.
First, for economic reasons, Northern states began to outlaw slavery. They did so gradually. New Jersey, for example, passed “An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery in 1804,” but slavery persisted legally until the 1820s. Similarly, most other states kept the current system of slavery in place but ended the importation of slaves while deeming the next generation of slave-born African-Americans (or even their grandchildren) free. The important thing to note for our purposes is that, even though a vocal minority of northerners at the time abhorred slavery on the grounds of moral principle, they accepted a process of change that reluctantly tolerated slavery’s temporary continuance in order to achieve its ultimate abolition.
Second, the gradual abolition of slavery in the north inspired a development that bore heavily on the process of inching toward freedom. Most notably, the confinement of slavery to the South—and to the Deep South especially—allowed northerners to start stigmatizing slavery after 1820 as a “peculiar institution,” an antiquated and anti-capitalist (yes, this was a tarring label in the 1820s, too!) arrangement better fit for effete manor lords than entrepreneurs and rugged individualists.
Slavery, in essence, was slowly squeezed by a containment policy, one that thrived at characterizing plantation owners as a tribe of glorified rednecks. This stereotyping had power, turning many ambivalent moderates into anti-slavery zealots. It was a critical part of a process that played an important role in advancing—but not fully embracing—the principle that all men and women are created equal.
Finally, capitalizing on these trends, several charismatic figures—sensing that public opinion in the 1840s and 1850s was primed for a more emotional critique—hit the nation with a morally charged anti-slavery message. The time was now ripe for principle to take center stage. Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of an American Slave, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the virtuous ravings of William Lloyd Garrison and his Liberator reminded observers that slavery was not just a political and economic issue, but a deeply moral one that should not be tolerated for an instant longer.
Then the dominoes fell.
But, as history confirms, those dominoes had been lining up for decades. It would be easy to look at the abolitionist movement alone—followed by the Civil War, Emancipation Proclamation, and Thirteenth Amendment—and portray the abolition of slavery as an example of principle trumping process, immediate change eschewing gradualism, and ideals triumphing over pragmatism.
The truth is something more complex. And it has something to do with the fact that the dialect of change—a dynamic blend of principle and process—fueled a process that, after decades and decades of tolerating what many abhorred, eventually reached the purity of principle. Had the Garrisons of the world not had their Madisons, and vice-versa, both process and principle would have floundered, allowing slavery to spread into the American West .
Similarly, had Franklin had his way, had Congress debated the abolition of slavery in 1790, it’s very likely the north and south would have bifurcated during Washington’s first term. Given the persistence of Jim Crow legislation in the South after the Civil War, it’s equally likely that slavery would have persisted much longer than decent Americans—Americans who knew in their heart that it was wrong for one sentient being to own another—could have ever imagined.