Do you think you would’ve been on Lincoln’s side during the Civil War? Maybe you shouldn’t be so sure. The philosophical argument that divided the country on slavery exists to this day in the abortion debate.
Do you think you would’ve been on Lincoln’s side during the Civil War? Maybe you shouldn’t be so sure.
I went to see Spielberg’s movie Lincoln the other night. Rather, seven of us went, three generations from the same family, packed in to a Sunday matinee like sardines. I wasn’t surprised. There are few Americans who don’t admire him, and who don’t look back at that period of time with trepidation and awe. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in my thoughts that we’re suffering from a deep divide now.
The Civil War was ultimately about the kinds of laws each side desired to live with, but the impetus for secession was a vast philosophical disagreement about what the country stands for.
In Lincoln’s day the big argument about our founding principles was slavery. In ours it’s abortion. Both arguments are about equality. The timeless answer remains unchanged.
Lincoln was a lover of the Natural Law we’re founded on. What do I mean? The framers asserted that nature has a structure, and that within it are unchanging moral truths. Human beings can put aside their private dogma and instead reason together and agree upon what those moral truths are.
We’re built on an important agreement about this structure. It’s the line we all know, but often misunderstand. All men are created equal, meaning simply: Nature doesn’t make some of us kings or others slaves. We share a natural status. None of us is a god, or an animal. We’re all men.
Our natural rights to our own life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are what we conclude is true and good in light of our natural equality. They never supersede it; they come from it. They say very little about what we can do. Instead, they tell us everything we need to know about what we can’t do to each other. This prevents morality from being personal or subjective. Why? Because whatever the circumstances of the moment, whatever our feelings, our personal desires or urgent needs, the permanent circumstance of our equality overrides it all.
So why is it that we understand the problem with slavery so clearly through the filter of history, but can’t sort out the abortion argument? Watching Lincoln’s wise face brought to life on the screen I couldn’t help but think that the answer is that human knowledge is hard to come by, and harder still to retain.
How did Lincoln know that slavery was wrong? It wasn’t because he was nice. It wasn’t political pragmatism. It wasn’t opinion, religious dogma or a love of diversity. It definitely wasn’t that he was a “social liberal.” It was his precise understanding of the natural rights the United States of America are founded upon. That knowledge drove his thinking on the subject of slavery.
The Confederacy insisted that interpretations about equality and freedom were subjective. Lincoln insisted they couldn’t be.
Slaveowners argued that slaves might be similar to themselves, human-like perhaps, but not in an equal way. Without equality, they had no rights. Whites were clearly human, while blacks were less so. Slaveowners were superior naturally and legally, therefore, their wants and needs were superior. To end slavery, even to deny it’s expansion into more territory, was an infringement on the slaveowners inherent freedom.
Lincoln knew that equality wasn’t about acceptance or dependent on favorable perception or even law. Lincoln knew the inherent equality of the black race was a fact of nature’s morality itself. To reduce equality to human judgement is to render it absurd.
To avoid war, he offered the South tolerance. He promised that if only they would agree not to expand their immoral behavior, he would allow slavery to continue there. If his generous offer of sympathy to the plight of Southerners had worked, slavery would have continued indefinitely.
Today we have a nearly identical debate about abortion. How so?
No one really thinks that even a tiny embryo is just more of it’s mother’s own tissue.
We know that it’s a separate entity, even if it’s inferior to ourselves in many ways. We also know that it’s human, since people never produce, say, puppies. The question isn’t really “Is a fetus human?” The question once again is “Is he equal?”
Strangely, the argument in favor of abortion is virtually identical to the argument made in favor of slavery 200 years ago.
Modern liberals insist, inside your mother’s belly, in a state of low development, and later merely in a state of dependency, you’re inferior, human …, but less so than your mother.
You’re a being without equality to whom no natural rights flow. You’re a possession, to be kept or discarded at your owner’s whim. To ban abortion, to limit it in any way, is to infringe on the superior party’s freedom.
It only seems to be an incomprehensible puzzle because we’ve lost Lincoln’s solid understanding of the founding principles that would guide us.
Submerged in the enjoyment of Day-Lewis’ beautiful portrayal, I couldn’t help but wonder what the man who said “I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world.” would have said on the subject of abortion.
My suspicion is that his analysis wouldn’t have concluded with “To each, her own.”
Equality is always the ultimate question here. It’s not just an idea, it’s the American idea. The natural rights that follow it, the freedom we enjoy thanks to it, isn’t an absence of moral imposition, it’s the antithesis of that.
Tolerance would have perpetuated slavery, and tolerance also failed to prevent the violence of war. Personal truth perpetuated slavery. Subjective morality perpetuated slavery.
Lincoln’s love of rational moral principle ended it. That’s not coincidental. It was the only thing powerful enough to make it so.