By RL Forrest
Early in our history, Americans were faced with a great challenge. Slavery existed in the very nation that had declared, “all men were created equal”. Americans had believed in that declaration, hoping for freedom from the bondage to England. Americans had united and fought a war for independence and freedom based upon that very declaration. The American War for Independence was won, but freedom had not been won for all Americans. That battle had not been fought in the revolution. Many Americans believed that the only true course for preserving their new nation was to compromise.
Time passed and America grew. The northern states were committed to remain ‘free’ states, and the southern states were determined to remain ‘slave’ states. Our nation was divided. For a time, these two Americas existed precariously side-by-side. But a fire had been kindled by the American declaration of equality for all, and the growth of America fanned its flames. There was no turning back.
Congress was the first to take on the struggle and the issue of slavery was tackled legislatively. The enactment of the first Fugitive Slave Law of 1793, mandated Northerners to return any slaves from the South that came to the North for their freedom. Tensions grew between North and South as northern resistance fanned the fires of abolition.
A Compromise For Peace
Compromise was first achieved in 1820, when Maine was admitted to the Union as a ‘free’ state, while Missouri was admitted as a ‘slave’ state. This landmark agreement reached by Congress became known as the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Political balance was secured in the Senate, and the nation was preserved. But the call for the abolition of slavery would not subside, and the call grew stronger. Many slaves were running north for freedom on the ‘Underground Railroad’. The southern states called for the enforcement of the law.
Compromise was again achieved in 1850. California was admitted to the Union as a ‘free’ state and the South was granted a stronger Fugitive Slave Law. But many knew that compromise would not work indefinitely, and war was looming on the horizon.
Originally, the issue of slavery remained under the authority of each individual state for determination. When an enslaved person fled to a ‘free’ state, that person was under the jurisdiction of the laws of the ‘free’ state. Slaves were held to be personal property in the south, and free people in the north. But by compromise of the Fugitive Slave Laws, the ‘free’ states had given up their jurisdiction to the authority of the federal government. Although these laws were enacted to maintain the peace, they had morally bankrupt the nation. America had turned its back on the ‘self-evident’ truth that:
“all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
America had lost its compass and strayed off of its foundation. It would take an extraordinary leader to steer it back on course.
Faith In The Midst Of A Storm
In 1858, when Abraham Lincoln was running for the U.S. Senate he brought the young American nation a message that everyone already knew to be true:
…”A house divided against itself cannot stand.” I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided.
It will become all one thing or all the other. 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….”
Abraham Lincoln knew that slavery was the enemy of freedom. He knew that slavery and freedom could not co-exist because one would eventually defeat the other. There could be no real compromise. Abraham Lincoln was courageous, but Lincoln also had faith. He knew, even then, that America would survive the coming civil war.
That war did come, and Lincoln saw the nation through as its President. Although the Union was preserved, it paid a heavy price. Over 600,000 American lives were lost, and America had to endure the ravages of another war fought on American soil.
Abraham Lincoln went on to give America two of the most important messages in American history “the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address”. But it is in Lincoln’s lesser-known Second Inaugural Address, delivered several weeks before his assassination, that we find the truest message born out of the American Civil War:
“At this second appearing to take the oath of the presidential office, there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement, somewhat in detail, of a course to be pursued, seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention, and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself; and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.
On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago, all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it–all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war– seeking to dissolve the Union, and divide effects, by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.
One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war; while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it
Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. 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.
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 offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!’ If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences 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 offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him?
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 bond-man’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.”
Lincoln’s message is clear, “American Slavery” was the offence and the American Civil War was the consequence. Although the South practiced slavery, the North had allowed the practice of slavery through compromise for peace. America had lost its moral compass.
Lincoln’s message also reminds us today, that people in the North and South “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.” However, the “woe” of war was sent to both sides. As Christians, we should find instruction in Lincoln’s words.
Right and wrong are always set before us. As we grapple every day with our own personal struggles, and the evil in the world around us, we should not forget that there is always danger when we try to compromise with evil.
“The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring for ever: the judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.”