23 January 2013

The Laxity of Public Tone

The following is from Charnwood's Lincoln.  There is so much here that explains our ever-evolving demise that I don't know where to begin a discussion of it...First, read it yourself.

For the extinction of slavery he would wait; for a decision on the
principle of slavery he would not.  It was idle to protest against
agitation of the question.  If politicians would be silent that would
not get rid of "this same mighty deep-seated power that somehow
operates on the minds of men, exciting them and stirring them up in
every avenue of society--in politics, in religion, in literature, in
morals, in all the manifold relations of life."  The stand, temperate
as it was, that he advocated against slavery should be taken at once
and finally.  The difference, of which people grown accustomed to
slavery among their neighbours thought little, between letting it be in
Missouri, which they could not help, and letting it cross the border
into Kansas, which they could help, appeared to Lincoln the whole
tremendous gulf between right and wrong, between a wise people's
patience with ills they could not cure and a profligate people's
acceptance of evil as their good.  And here there was a distinction
between Lincoln and many Republicans, which again may seem subtle, but
which was really far wider than that which separated him from the
Abolitionists.  Slavery must be stopped from spreading into Kansas not
because, as it turned out, the immigrants into Kansas mostly did not
want it, but because it was wrong, and the United States, where they
were free to act, would not have it.  The greatest evil in the repeal
of the Missouri Compromise was the laxity of public tone which had made
it possible.  "Little by little, but steadily as man's march to the
grave, we have been giving up the old faith for the new faith."
Formerly some deference to the "central idea" of equality was general
and in some sort of abstract sense slavery was admitted to be wrong.
Now it was boldly claimed by the South that "slavery in the abstract
was right."  All the most powerful influences in the country, "Mammon"
(for "the slave property is worth a billion dollars"), "fashion,
philosophy," and even "the theology of the day," were enlisted in
favour of this opinion.  And it met with no resistance.  "You yourself
may detest slavery; but your neighbour has five or six slaves, and he
is an excellent neighbour, or your son has married his daughter, and
they beg you to help save their property, and you vote against your
interests and principle to oblige a neighbour, hoping your vote will be
on the losing side."  And again "the party lash and the fear of
ridicule will overawe justice and liberty; for it is a singular fact,
but none the less a fact and well known by the most common experience,
that men will do things under the terror of the party lash that they
would not on any account or for any consideration do otherwise; while
men, who will march up to the mouth of a loaded cannon without
shrinking, will run from the terrible name of 'Abolitionist,' even when
pronounced by a worthless creature whom they with good reason despise."
And so people in the North, who could hardly stomach the doctrine that
slavery was good, yet lapsed into the feeling that it was a thing
indifferent, a thing for which they might rightly shuffle off their
responsibility on to the immigrants into Kansas.  This feeling that it
was indifferent Lincoln pursued and chastised with special scorn.  But
the principle of freedom that they were surrendering was the principle
of freedom for themselves as well as for the negro.  The sense of the
negro's rights had been allowed to go back till the prospect of
emancipation for him looked immeasurably worse than it had a generation
before.  They must recognise that when, by their connivance, they had
barred and bolted the door upon the negro, the spirit of tyranny which
they had evoked would then "turn and rend them."  The "central idea"
which had now established itself in the intellect of the Southern was
one which favoured the enslavement of man by man "apart from colour."
A definite choice had to be made between the principle of the fathers,
which asserted certain rights for all men, and that other principle
against which the fathers had rebelled and of which the "divine right
of kings" furnished Lincoln with his example.  In what particular
manner the white people would be made to feel the principle of tyranny
when they had definitely "denied freedom to others" and ceased to
"deserve it for themselves" Lincoln did not attempt to say, and perhaps
only dimly imagined.  But he was as convinced as any prophet that
America stood at the parting of the ways and must choose now the right
principle or the wrong with all its consequences.

The principle of tyranny presented itself for their choice in a
specious form in Douglas' "great patent, everlasting principle of
'popular sovereignty.'"  This alleged principle was likely, so to say,
to take upon their blind side men who were sympathetic to the
impatience of control of any crowd resembling themselves but not
sympathetic to humanity of another race and colour.  The claim to some
divine and indefeasible right of sovereignty overriding all other
considerations of the general good, on the part of a majority greater
or smaller at any given time in any given area, is one which can
generally be made to bear a liberal semblance, though it certainly has
no necessary validity.  Americans had never before thought of granting
it in the case of their outlying and unsettled dominions; they would
never, for instance, as Lincoln remarked, have admitted the claim of
settlers like the Mormons to make polygamy lawful in the territory they
occupied.  In the manner in which it was now employed the proposed
principle could, as Lincoln contended, be reduced to this simple form
"that, if one man chooses to enslave another, no third man shall have
the right to object."

It is impossible to estimate how far Lincoln foresaw the strain to
which a firm stand against slavery would subject the Union.  It is
likely enough that those worst forebodings for the Union, which events
proved to be very true, were confined to timid men who made a practice
of yielding to threats.  Lincoln appreciated better than many of his
fellows the sentiment of the South, but it is often hard for men, not
in immediate contact with a school of thought which seems to them
thoroughly perverse, to appreciate its pervasive power, and Lincoln was
inclined to stake much upon the hope that reason will prevail.
Moreover, he had a confidence in the strength of the Union which might
have been justified if his predecessor in office had been a man of
ordinary firmness.  But it is not to be supposed that any undue
hopefulness, if he felt it, influenced his judgment.  He was of a
temper which does not seek to forecast what the future has to show, and
his melancholy prepared him well for any evil that might come.  Two
things we can say with certainty of his aim and purpose.  On the one
hand, as has already been said, whatever view he had taken of the peril
to the Union he would never have sought to avoid the peril by what
appeared to him a surrender of the principle which gave the Union its
worth.  On the other hand, he must always have been prepared to uphold
the Union at whatever the cost might prove to be.  To a man of deep and
gentle nature war will always be hateful, but it can never, any more
than an individual death, appear the worst of evils.  And the claim of
the Southern States to separate from a community which to him was
venerable and to form a new nation, based on slavery and bound to live
in discord with its neighbors, did not appeal to him at all, though in
a certain literal sense it was a claim to liberty.  His attitude to any
possible movement for secession was defined four years at least before
secession came, in words such as it was not his habit to use without
full sense of their possible effect or without much previous thought.
They were quite simple: "We won't break up the Union, and you shan't."

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