"A Man Knows A Man", Harper's, 22 April 1865

The Logic of Slavery, The Logic of Abortion

by Jay Johansen
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Buchanan on slavery

I was recently doing some research on the history of slavery -- totally unrelated, I thought, to this web site -- when I came across an article about James Buchanan, the man who was president before Lincoln. Here's what the article said about Buchanan's position:

Buchanan personally opposed slavery, but as a public official he felt bound to sustain it where sanctioned by law. Political enemies called him a "trimmer," but he took middle ground consistently as a matter of policy. What some considered impotent vacillation was an expression of three fundamental convictions: (1) that only by compromise between the parts could a federal republic survive; (2) that citizens had to obey the law even when they thought it unjust; and (3) that questions of morality could not be settled by political action. Despite the secession movement, he succeeded in preventing hostilities between North and South, and he turned over to Lincoln a nation at peace with eight slave states still in the Union.

From Grolier presents: The American Presidency

Personally opposed

I was immediately struck by the similarity of this statement to the position of many today on abortion, especially politicians. How often have you heard someone say, "I am personally opposed to abortion, but I don't think it should be illegal". The fact that President Buchanan may have been "personally opposed" to slavery did nothing to help any slave when, at the same time, President Buchanan worked so hard to enact "compromises" that preserved slavery. The fact that a politician may be "personally opposed" to abortion does nothing to help any unborn children when, at the same time, that politician works hard to enact "compromises" that preserve abortion.

Legislating morality

Likewise, note the similarity between Mr Buchanan's third point, that "questions of morality could not be settled by political action", with the common pro-abortion argument, "You can't legislate morality". It is surely true that when slavery finally was outlawed, this did not suddenly make all whites respect blacks as equals and love them as brothers. It did not end all discrimination against blacks. So in that sense it is true that you can't legislate morality. But it is surely blindingly obvious that outlawing slavery brought an end to the worst oppression of black people: the government would no longer protect the slave-master's "right" to oppress a black person at will.

Likewise, if abortion was outlawed, this would not suddenly make all parents love and want their children and take care of them. It would not end all child abuse and abandonment. So in that sense it is true that you can't legislate morality. But it is surely blindingly obvious that outlawing abortion would bring an end to the worst cruelty to unborn children: the government would no longer protect the abortionist's "right" to kill unborn babies at will.

Martin Luther King once said, "The law cannot force my neighbor to love me. But it can restrain him from lynching me."

Divisiveness

Interestingly enough, as you can probably see from the paragraph I quoted, and as is made quite clear if you read the entire Grolier's article, the writer is very sympathetic to President Buchanan's position. And look at the praise he offers of President Buchanan: "Despite the secession movement, he succeeded in preventing hostilities between North and South, and he turned over to Lincoln a nation at peace with eight slave states still in the Union." President Buchanan decided that avoiding conflict between North and South, between slave-holders and abolitionists, was what was really important. If that meant that a few negroes had to continue living as slaves, well, that was just too bad.

Again, this is exactly the same argument used to defend abortion today. We don't want to be "divisive". Abortion is legal, so pro-lifers should just shut up because they're just causing conflict. Even if a particular pro-life group doesn't condone violence, by speaking out against abortion they are creating a "climate of hate" that may inspire others. Et cetera.

His own words

I don't want to be unfair to President Buchanan. I don't want to draw conclusions solely based on what others say about him. So let's look at his own words, such as his inaugural address.

The issue resolved

An important section of that speech deals with the slavery issue. He begins by declaring that the debate is now resolved:

... the passions of our fellow-citizens were excited to the highest degree by questions of deep and vital importance; but when the people proclaimed their will the tempest at once subsided and all was calm. The voice of the majority, speaking in the manner prescribed by the Constitution, was heard, and instant submission followed.
He does not spell out just what event he is referring to as bringing this instant resolution. From the context of the speech he appears to be referring to some Supreme Court decisions that declared slavery to be legal, as well as to his own victory in the election over the anti-slavery candidate, John Fremont

Individual liberty

In any case, he sums up the compromise which he believes has now resolved the debate:

Congress is neither to legislate slavery into any Territory or State nor to exclude it therefrom, but to leave the people thereof perfectly free to form and regulate their domestic institutions in their own way, subject only to the Constitution of the United States. ... This sacred right of each individual must be preserved. That being accomplished, nothing can be fairer than to leave the people of a Territory free from all foreign interference to decide their own destiny for themselves, subject only to the Constitution of the United States.
When he talks about the "sacred right of each individual ... to decide their own destiny for themselves", he means, of course, the right of each white person to decide for himself whether or not to own slaves. The idea that a black person might also have a sacred right to decide his own destiny does not appear to have occurred to Mr Buchanan.

Again, there is a clear parallel to the present abortion debate. The pro-abortion side makes much of calling itself "pro-choice". One of their key arguments is that they believe in the "sacred right" of each pregnant woman to "decide her own destiny for herself". The idea that an unborn child might have a sacred right to decide her own destiny -- perhaps by living long enough to make some decisions for herself -- does not seem to have occurred to the pro-abortionists.

Reality check

Considering that the nation fought a bloody civil war over the issue just four years after he made this speech, Mr Buchanan's confident declaration that the issue is now resolved because the Supreme Court ruled that slavery is a Constitutional right and the people elected a pro-slavery president was a bit premature. Likewise, the claim that the abortion issue is now resolved because the Supreme Court has ruled that abortion is a Constitutional right and the people have elected some pro-abortion presidents is equally premature. Did Mr Buchanan honestly believe that the abolitionists were going to "instantly submit" just because nine unelected judges said they were wrong? Would anyone today say that they were somehow morally obligated to give up because they lost one election? Likewise, did the pro-aborts of our time honestly believe that pro-lifers were going to "instantly submit" just because nine unelected judges said they were wrong? Could anyone say that they were somehow morally obligated to give up because they lost one election?

Agitation and violence

While Mr Buchanan doesn't seem to have been bothered much about the practice of slavery, he found the protests of the abolitionists deeply troubling:

Throughout the whole progress of this agitation, which has scarcely known any intermission for more than twenty years, whilst it has been productive of no positive good to any human being it has been the prolific source of great evils to the master, to the slave, and to the whole country. It has alienated and estranged the people of the sister States from each other, and has even seriously endangered the very existence of the Union.
Pro-aborts today routinely talk about how pro-lifers are creating a "climate of hate and violence" by continuing to speak out on the issue.

The truly important issues

Finally, he ends this section of his speech with the hope that, now that the slavery issue has been resolved:
Most happy will it be for the country when the public mind shall be diverted from this question to others of more pressing and practical importance. ... Time is a great corrective. Political subjects which but a few years ago excited and exasperated the public mind have passed away and are now nearly forgotten. ... Let every Union-loving man, therefore, exert his best influence to suppress this agitation, which since the recent legislation of Congress is without any legitimate object.
He then goes on to spend the bulk of his speech discussing some of these other truly pressing and important issues facing the nation, issues far more important than slavery, like what to do about the budget surplus, whether the Federal government has the Constitutional authority to build a road in California, and the impact of the Mexican-American War on our relations with Europe.

Okay, I just can't help but be amused by the fact that in 1857, President Buchanan declared that the slavery issue was now resolved, and in any case it was unimportant, it would all be forgotten in a few years, and so we should stop letting it divert our attention from these other really important issues. One hundred and fifty years later, the country is still wrestling with the legacy of slavery. As I write this the nation is still debating whether the slate is now clean or whether whites still owe blacks some sort of monetary "reparations" for slavery. I freely admit that I don't know what arguments were made for and against building that road in California that Mr Buchanan considered so much more important than slavery, or if the government ever in fact built it. Do you know? Do you care?

Pro-aborts today wring their hands over how the abortion debate has polarized the country, and distracted attention from other issues that are so much more important. As I write this, the big issue in the news in the Enron scandal. You can't turn on the TV or open a newspaper without hearing about it. And I wonder: If you're reading this two years or three years or five years after I wrote it, do you remember the Enron scandal? Is it something you think about a lot? Did it turn out to have some important implications for the history of America?

One hundred and fifty years from now, what will people say was the great issue of our age? Do you think they'll say that it was the deficit? Social Security? How we pay for medical care? Dimpled chads? Or, just as we look back and wonder how seemingly decent, rational people could defend the brutal oppression of millions of fellow human beings through slavery, will people of the future look back at us and wonder how seemingly decent, rational people could defend the brutal oppression of millions of innocent babies through abortion?

It's funny, isn't it: The same arguments are being recycled all over again. The logic, the thinking, doesn't change. All that's changed is the victims.


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Posted 14 Jan 2002.

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