Saturday, April 26, 2008

Compromising on the issue of slavery...

We had a class discussion recently regarding the prelude to the Civil War and whether or not the Republicans should have accepted the "Crittenden Compromise" which was six Constitutional amendments and four resolutions proposed by Kentucky Senator John Crittenden, in a last ditch effort to avoid war.

The amendments included the prohibition of slavery north of the latitude 36 degrees, 30 minutes but that territory south of the line would recognize slavery and could not be interfered by Congress; Congress could not abolish slavery in DC as long as it existed in adjoining states, it could not be abolished without the consent of DC citizens; and compensation was to be given to owners who refused to consent to abolition. It stated that Congress would not interfere or prohibit interstate slave trade; would provide full compensation to owners of rescued fugitive slaves, and allowed Congress to sue any county which obstructed the fugitive slave laws; and no amendments could ever be made to the Constitution to ever change the six Crittenden amendments. The resolutions stated that fugitive slave laws were constitutional; that "personal liberty laws" (designed to protect slaves) were unconstitutional; and that the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 be modified by equalizing the fee schedule for returning or releasing alleged fugitives as well as limiting the powers of marshals to summon citizens to aid in their capture. Finally it called for the execution of laws for the suppression of the African Slave trade. (I mean after all who needed the Africans when there were plenty of blacks already in America?)

Every one of the six amendments proposed by Senator John Crittenden as well as three of the four resolutions in the Compromise supported slavery and would have been a concession to the south. It’s hard to believe that congressional Republicans were willing to compromise after all the time and effort on the part of thousands of people in the quest to abolish slavery. One of the biggest reasons there were tensions between the north and south were because the anti-slavery northerners wanted to impress their values upon the pro-slavery population of the south. The south wanted to be left alone, even those who did not own slaves did not like the northerners trying to force their culture in the south. The people of the south had a rich, strong heritage they were proud of and they were not eager for change. The whole basis of compromise is for opposing sides to make mutual concessions; they modify demands, claims and principles in an effort to avoid conflict. To accept the Crittenden Compromise would have been a total and complete failure of the abolitionist movement and a violation of principles and values on the part of every anti-slavery Republican who might have supported it.

Abraham Lincoln made a morally right decision in rejecting the Compromise. After all, he was elected in part because of his principles and stance on slavery and one thing is for sure is that Abraham Lincoln was a man of principle. Even though in his early years he did not call for the emancipation of slaves, eventually he changed his mind.

Here is an excerpt from a letter Lincoln wrote to a friend in August 1855:

“You know I dislike slavery; and you fully admit the abstract wrong of it. So far there is no cause of difference. But you say that sooner than yield your legal right to the slave -- especially at the bidding of those who are not themselves interested, you would see the Union dissolved. I am not aware that any one is bidding you to yield that right; very certainly I am not. I leave that matter entirely to yourself. I also acknowledge your rights and my obligations, under the constitution, in regard to your slaves. I confess I hate to see the poor creatures hunted down, and caught, and carried back to their stripes, and unrewarded toils; but I bite my lip and keep quiet. In 1841 you and I had together a tedious low-water trip, on a Steam Boat from Louisville to St. Louis. You may remember, as I well do, that from Louisville to the mouth of the Ohio there were, on board, ten or a dozen slaves, shackled together with irons. That sight was a continual torment to me; and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio, or any other slave-border. It is hardly fair to you to assume, that I have no interest in a thing which has, and continually exercises, the power of making me miserable. You ought rather to appreciate how much the great body of the Northern people do crucify their feelings, in order to maintain their loyalty to the constitution and the Union.

I do oppose the extension of slavery, because my judgment and feelings so prompt me; and I am under no obligation to the contrary.”

The last part of the letter, “You ought to appreciate how much the great body of the Northern people do crucify their feelings, in order to maintain their loyalty to the Constitution and the Union” represents that while many people in the North disagreed with the institution of slavery, they did nothing because they thought that was better than possibly going to war with their fellow Americans over it.

In any case, for anti-slavery Republicans to have accepted the Crittenden Compromise would have meant compromising their moral principles and values in an effort to avoid having to stand up and defend them, possibly to the death.

And I suppose then comes the question--what is the point of having principles if you aren't willing to defend them?

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