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Lincoln versus the “Monstrous Injustice of Slavery”

Soon after TOS posted on Facebook a link to Alexander V. Marriott’s new article, “Getting Lincoln Right,” various libertarians (or conservatives) pounced on the article. They claimed (among other things) that Lincoln didn’t “really” care about slavery, that he violated the “rights” of states to institutionalize slavery, that he prosecuted the Civil War only to “consolidate federal power,” and that he violated civil liberties during the war.

In other words, these critics made the very claims against Lincoln that Marriott addresses at length in his illuminating article.

Here I want to focus on just one aspect of the debate. Those who demonize Lincoln usually ignore or downplay the “monstrous injustice of slavery” (as Lincoln put it), the institution that was the “corner-stone” of the Confederacy (as Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens put it).

Slavery is among most horrific, most rights-violating practices in human history. Slavery, as it existed in America, meant that the “owner” treated slaves as property for the slaves’ entire lives (unless the owner chose to release them). The “owner” could brutally beat, rape, sell, or work to death his slaves, according to his whim. And, of course, the “owner” also assumed possession of his slaves’ children and did with them as he pleased, including “selling” them to other “owners.”

It is debatable whether any other act is morally worse than enslaving someone for life. Arguably murder is. However, if someone offered me the “choice” of being murdered or of becoming a slave for life, I think I would “choose” the former—I would “live free or die.” In the film 12 Years a Slave, one of the slaves begs for death in the face of continued existence as a slave. (The man she asks to kill her declines.) It is simply impossible to overstate the evil of slavery.

Slavery was a blot on America’s soul and a blatant contradiction of the principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence. In any debate regarding Lincoln and the Confederacy, one cannot rationally ignore the essential fact that Confederate leaders explicitly endorsed slavery and fought for the “right” of states to institutionalize the vile practice.

It can be perfectly appropriate to discuss Lincoln’s flaws and errors—as Marriott does in his article. What is not rationally defensible is to demonize Lincoln by quoting him selectively and ignoring relevant historical context and facts, such as the critical fact that the Confederacy fought to preserve and strengthen the most horrifically evil institution in America’s history.


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