on the way to abolition
by Tom Van Dyke
Many Americans, especially the folks whose ancestors were directly affected, are well-aware of Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution---the nefarious Three-Fifths Compromise, where slave states counted their slaves as a "3/5 of a person" for determining their number of congressmen in the House of Representatives, and number of votes in the Electoral College.
Much less known is Article 1, Section 9, a "poison pill" for slavery in the United States:
The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.
In other words, the African slave trade could continue unmolested by Congress, but only for another 20 years. Everybody knew slavery must end someday, just not today.
And indeed, the US Congress had the bill banning the Middle Passage in place by 1807, to take effect the first day constitutionally possible, March 1, 1808, even before Great Britain's own similar and much-praised law went into effect.
Everybody knew that slavery must end someday. Just not today, but this was a start. But although the law was high on symbolism, it was short on teeth.
Let's pop in on an interesting argument from Rev. Frederick Thomas Brown from 1865:
"When, in 1787, the Constitution of the United States was adopted, there was but one opinion in the country on the subject of slavery, viz: that it was iniquitous and unprofitable; unjust to the slave, demoralizing to the master, inimical to free labor, and antagonistic to free institutions. No one thought of defending it, either from the Scriptures or on the ground of political economy. The slave States, especially, were weary of it, and lamented it as a heavy curse."The author goes on to say that "As new cotton, sugar and rice fields were opened, slaves increased in value and slavery became more and more profitable..."
"With the acquisition of Florida in 1819, the price of slaves ran up to $800 and $1000, and slavery in the Southern States began to be regarded with decided favor; it was clearly profitable, and some Christian men were found who said, but timidly, it could be proved from the Scriptures that it was a divine institution."
So, according to Rev. Brown, it was as slavery became more and more profitable that the "Biblical arguments" went from "timid" to vociferous.
In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson famously writes in 1781 that
The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.and famously continues
"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."
The slaveholding Jefferson makes no attempt to defend it: slavery is unjust and must end, perhaps even by the Hand of God! Someday. Just not today.
But after 80 years of "compromises" and procrastinations, that day of reckoning arrives unquietly in 1861 at Ft. Sumter, and throws the nation---an "almost chosen people"---into ruinous war. In his second inaugural address in 1865, President Lincoln, surveying the wreckage of that great civil war:
"Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged."
Lincoln's being a just bit ironic here, I think, because the way he puts it, it sure does seem strange if not bizarre. But if we are to not judge each other, there is a higher power Who will:
"The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?"Jefferson's "supernatural interference"? After all, "The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest," that is, take the side of the defenders of slavery.
"Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
That's from Psalm 19:9, written some three thousand years ago. And Lincoln echoes Jefferson here as well: "Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever..."
The ill-gotten gains of the South lie in ruins; the blood from the lash paid back by her sons. The divine justice that made Jefferson "tremble" was done.
Perhaps there's some inner Jiminy Cricket in every human being that tells us when we are treating our fellow man justly or unjustly. And it's long been thought that man's reason is corrupt; we can talk ourselves into anything to justify our own actions, let's face it. But how can anyone who believes in the Bible think he can fool God with God's Own Word?
But I suppose Mr. Lincoln had it right in judging not, lest we judged---neither Bible folk nor "rational" people are immune to deluding themselves or trying to delude The Universe. Mr. Lincoln famously closes his address:
"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."
That is both wise and "Christian" in its sentiment. Both Jiminy and Jesus would approve. And if there's one thing that Jiminy, Jesus, the Psalmist, Jefferson, Lincoln agreed on, and those Founders---the Framers and Ratifiers who got Article 1 Section 9 into the Constitution---it's that justice does not sleep forever.