Abolitionism and Pro-Life: Failure Precedes Success

Pro-life advocates frequently compare abortion, the great American moral issue of the 20th and 21st centuries, to slavery, the great American moral issue of the 19th century. The pro-life movement (like other movements dedicated to resolving social injustices) often compares itself to the abolitionist movement, and as the abolitionists finally reached their goal in 1865 with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, so pro-lifers hope to one day achieve their goal of restoring the inalienable right to life of unborn children.

But did the abolitionists really succeed in eradicating slavery in the manner that we, today, often assume they did — by dogged persistence in “fighting the good fight” long enough to turn the tide of public opinion? That’s the question posed in a recent post at The New York Times’ Civil War history blog, “Disunion“. Author Jon Grinspan, reflecting on the 150th anniversary of the 13th Amendment’s approval by Congress, states:

On Jan. 31, 1865, Congress passed the 13th Amendment, banning slavery in America. It was an achievement that abolitionists had spent decades fighting for — and one for which their movement has been lauded ever since.

But before abolitionism succeeded, it failed. As a pre-Civil War movement, it was a flop. Antislavery congressmen were able to push through their amendment because of the absence of the pro-slavery South, and the complicated politics of the Civil War. Abolitionism’s surprise victory has misled generations about how change gets made.

While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that abolitionism “failed”, I believe Grinspan makes some important points that today’s pro-lifers, traditional marriage advocates, and others fighting uphill battles against moral evils might want to consider.

Those of us who follow St. Blogs have surely noticed how the question of voting for the lesser of two evils in relation to abortion, same-sex civil marriage and other “non-negotiable” moral issues comes up each election cycle. Some will insist that one must vote only for committed and consistent pro-life candidates who never compromise on these issues, regardless of whether or not they have realistic chances of winning. Others will say that “throwing away” one’s vote on a candidate who is not likely to win, or abstaining from voting, only enables the worst or most aggressive promoters of abortion or other evils to win.

Both the no-compromise and lesser-evil approaches are morally acceptable in Catholic teaching, and I do not wish to judge or impugn the motives of anyone who takes either approach. That said, I think those who adhere to the no-compromise approach ought to consider what they would have done had they been abolitionists living in Illinois in 1858, or anywhere else in the nation in 1860. Chances are that if they had been in that situation, and applied the same reasoning with regard to slavery that they do to abortion today, they would not have voted for Abraham Lincoln — the president who ultimately freed the slaves — because he was a “moderate” on the issue by 1850s standards.

Lincoln’s lifelong opposition to slavery is well documented. All who knew him, knew that he considered slavery a great evil and hoped it would one day cease to exist. But prior to the Civil War, he was not an abolitionist in the strict sense of the term, because he did not advocate the immediate abolition of slavery where it was already established.

From the time Lincoln returned to political life in 1854 until his 1860 election as president, he embraced the “free soil” stance on slavery: keeping it out of the territories so that no new slave states would be created in the future, while tolerating its continued existence in established slave states. Throughout his 1858 campaign for the U.S. Senate seat held by Stephen A. Douglas, the architect of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Lincoln emphasized containment of slavery and disavowed any intention of abolishing slavery. Even in his famous “House Divided” speech, in which he asserted that the nation “cannot endure permanently half slave and half free,” he described the choice confronting the nation thus:

Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction, or its advocates will push it forward till it shall become alike lawful in all the states, old as well as new, North as well as South.

Notice that the alternative Lincoln presents to “pushing slavery forward” until it becomes legal everywhere is not to push it back by attempting to make it illegal everywhere. Rather, the alternative is to “arrest (its) further spread” so that it will remain “in the course of ultimate extinction.”

In another speech in 1860, Lincoln compared slavery to a snake that had slithered into a child’s bed — an image his constituents who had grown up in drafty frontier cabins would have identified with:

 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!

Lincoln’s point was that a direct attack on slavery in the South, where it had already become “embedded”, would do more harm than good by provoking the South into secession and civil war, which he was not willing to risk at that time. In addition, abolitionism was still an unpopular “fringe” movement. Outside of, perhaps, New England, abolitionists were generally viewed as fanatical and dangerous agitators, even among those opposed to slavery. As a practical politician who knew what he needed to do to get elected, Lincoln made every effort to cast himself as a moderate.

While Lincoln’s approach to slavery was not that of a hardcore abolitionist, it also bore little resemblance to the stance of Douglas and other prominent Democrats. Douglas’ advocacy of “popular sovereignty”, that is, letting residents of new territories decide whether they wanted to be free or slave, was the embodiment of a “pro-choice” approach. The most controversial provision that Douglas wrote into the Kansas-Nebraska Act — repeal of the Missouri Compromise boundary between slave and free territory — was his way of stating that he would not “impose” anti-slavery moral convictions on residents of those territories.

Lincoln did not simply wash his hands of the slavery issue, nor did he embrace blatantly pro-slavery measures while claiming to be “personally opposed” to slavery.  Rather, he spelled out how he would act against slavery without destroying the nation in the process. In addition to emphasizing containment of slavery, he proposed compensating slave owners and resettling freed slaves in Africa as possible long-term solutions.

Not surprisingly, many abolitionists considered Lincoln “soft” on slavery and did not hide their disappointment when he was chosen over William Seward of New York as the Republican presidential nominee in 1860. Seward had been much more active in opposing slavery; he and his wife Frances had financially contributed to various anti-slavery efforts, helped free slaves both by purchase and by legal defense, and may have participated in the Underground Railroad.  He was by far the favored candidate among those who considered slavery a non-negotiable moral issue.

According to Grinspan, it was not the success of the abolitionist movement, but the self-defeating extremism of pro-slavery advocates, that ultimately brought an end to slavery:

Abolitionism gained strength thanks to the uncompromising stance of radical “fire eating” Southerners. By ostracizing Northern allies, seceding and then starting a war, Southern radicals gave abolitionism gift after gift after gift. When South Carolina militiamen fired on Fort Sumter, Frederick Douglass exalted: “Thank God! — The slaveholders themselves have saved our cause from ruin!”….

By January 1865, the tide had turned. Congress moved to ban slavery everywhere (not just in the Confederacy, but in loyal slave states like Maryland and Kentucky). A body that had tried to make slavery un-abolishable a few years before voted to free four million men and women. It could never have passed the amendment if all those Southern congressmen had stayed in Washington to vote against it. Every politician who stormed off to join the Confederacy cast an inadvertent ballot for abolition….

Today, we point to abolition as proof that we can improve society by eliminating one glaring evil. This is what unites “new abolitionists” across the political spectrum, whether they’re working to end the death penalty or ban abortion. We like the idea of sweeping change, of an idealistic movement triumphing over something so clearly wrong.

The problem is, that’s not really how slavery ended. Those upright, moral, prewar abolitionists did not succeed. Neither did the stiff-necked Southern radicals who ended up destroying the institution they went to war to maintain. It was the flexibility of the Northern moderates, those flip-floppers who voted against abolition before they voted for it, who really ended 250 years of slavery…. We can only wonder which of today’s unpopular causes will, in 150 years, be considered the abolitionism of 2015.

I do believe Grinspan sells the abolitionist movement short. Yes, the anti-slavery side may have “won the game” more because the opposing team walked off the field and forfeited, rather than because they played better. But without the opponents of slavery keeping the cause alive for all those years, the “game” would never have been played at all.

So what lessons can pro-lifers draw from this? First, that the attainment of their ultimate goal does not depend entirely upon electing perfect candidates, getting favorably disposed judges appointed to state and federal courts, or getting particular pieces of legislation passed. Second, that “compromise” is not necessarily a dirty word, and not promising more than one can deliver is not the same as “selling out” (though telling the two apart can be difficult). Third, that apparent defeats or setbacks can actually be victories in disguise. The more aggressive pro-abortion advocates become (like the “fire eaters” of old), the more likely they are to undermine their own cause (just ask Wendy “Abortion Barbie” Davis and Mark “Uterus” Udall).

Fourth,  just as the president who freed the slaves wasn’t an abolitionist, the president on whose watch abortion on demand comes to an end may not be a committed pro-lifer. He or she may well be a “moderate” Republican, or even a Democrat (hard as that is to believe right now) who experiences a Nixon-in-China moment.

Finally, we should not be all that surprised that abolitionism failed before it succeeded — so did Christ Himself. The cross came before the resurrection, and the Church is at its strongest when it appears weakest, in times of persecution and poverty. The same  applies to pro-life and all other causes promoted in the name of Christ, so there is always reason for hope.



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  1. A brilliant article Elaine! The abolitionists forced Americans to look at something that most would rather not, and that is definitely the case today with abortion. The anger that is sometimes directed against pro-lifers is quite similar to the anger that was directed against pro-lifers: how dare you shove those bloody photos in our faces; with you people it is always the negroes. The awakening of consciences takes time and constant effort, but once awakened the days of a great evil are numbered. Thomas Jefferson, although he lived and died a slave holder saw that:

    “And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest. — But it is impossible to be temperate and to pursue this subject through the various considerations of policy, of morals, of history natural and civil. We must be contented to hope they will force their way into every one’s mind. ”

    As Lincoln noted almost one hundred and fifty years ago: “The Almighty has His own purposes.” When God determines that a great evil must not be allowed to stand, he raises up men and women to join together in movements to rouse the consciences of their fellows as a sign and warning of what needs to be done before He takes a role in the affairs of Man to end the evil.

  2. Thanks very much Don. The general idea of Lincoln as the “moderate” who ended up getting the credit for abolishing slavery had been percolating in my brain for some time, then the blog post about how abolitionism failed before it succeeded was just the icing on the cake.

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