Some Notes on “Seven Notes from ‘Lincoln’”

A Response to M. David Sills

Dr. Sills claims the movie makes a “reductionist argument that the war was over slavery,” and says that this “is tantamount to saying the Iraq and Afghanistan wars…were over petroleum.”  That is laughable.  Here’s the main difference: Southern leaders and secession documents both state that the war was indeed over slavery. 

 

 

It should be no surprise that Spielberg’s well-done biopic of Abraham Lincoln is renewing the old debate over the American Confederacy, its reasons for seceding and whether it had the right to secede.  It is somewhat surprising, however, that the Dean of Missions from a seminary which has a student body made up of men and women from many races and nations would wade into that debate with some justification for the South and what it did.

The question is not whether there was much to admire about Southern society.  There was and is.  Nor is it a question over whether men like Lee (not to mention Southern Presbyterian ministers and theologians) were right about much.  They certainly were.  And yet, what they were wrong about sadly obscures much that was right.  To that end, I offer just a few notes in response to Dr. Sills on several of his points.

Point 2:  Dr. Sills laments that Lincoln, “like many politicians…brokered backroom deals and led with the philosophy that “the ends justify the means.””  The truth is, if we look for pristine politics in our history, whether colonial or mid-nineteenth century, we would look in vain.  The Confederacy was every bit as rancorous and politically intriguing as the Union.  The election of 1800 (the second in our history) stands as the nadir of base political campaigns, waged by two titans of the revolution, both giants of intellect.  Politics is always messy because the world is messy.  Yet, the implication of Dr. Sills’s argument is that Lincoln’s end was somehow selfish, and not noble.  In this case, it was a good end.  Good ends still do not justify sinful means, we know this.  And, if men were angels, government would not be necessary.

Point 3:  Yes, there was vitriol, much of it comical, in the United States House of Representatives.  It was there when the Southern states were represented, and there after they departed.  Lest we forget, several slave states refused to leave the Union.  It should not surprise us that the debates were thus rancorous.  They were likewise rancorous in the South.  Such was the tenor of the times, and frankly, I think we were better served when our House resembled the House of Commons.  When men hold beliefs dearly, it is natural for them to express their views passionately.

Point 4:  Dr. Sills claims the movie makes a “reductionist argument that the war was over slavery,” and says that this “is tantamount to saying the Iraq and Afghanistan wars…were over petroleum.”  That is laughable.  Here’s the main difference: Southern leaders and secession documents both state that the war was indeed over slavery.  For instance, in Vice President (CSA) Alexander Stephens’s famous “Cornerstone” speech, he says:

The prevailing ideas entertained by [Jefferson]…at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically…somehow or other in the order of providence, [it] would pass away…They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races.  This was an error.  Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.  This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical and moral truth.

Or, one may consider the various secession documents of the departing states, many of which put slavery at the head of the list of reasons for departing.  For instance, the first sentence of the declaration of secession from Georgia:

The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates and the world the causes which have led to the separation. For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.

Or Mississippi:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Or South Carolina:

Or South Carolina:

Those States …have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

I can recall no such claim from President Bush or any other American leader when going to war in the Middle East.  The great pro-South argument that secession was somehow the triumph of small government over big government or freedom over tyranny is belied by these and many other statements.  This myth has dominated pro-Southern arguments since the end of the war.  Like many other myths, there are enough facts to give it life, but certainly not enough to prove it.

Point 5:  The claim that another solution could have been found that spared the nation the great tragedy of the Civil War is intriguing but historically naïve.  Dr. Sills claims that the industrializing North wanted to declare slavery outlawed.  Where is his proof for such a claim?  Yes, there were voices for immediate emancipation –Lincoln’s was not one of them, by the way.  It must be pointed out that even the Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves in states in rebellion, not in Maryland or Kentucky or other slaveholding Union states.  In fact, as the movie rightly showed, it was Lincoln who was the moderate who often held Stevens and the other radicals at bay.  It is interesting to speculate how Southern Reconstruction might have been different had Lincoln lived, and the project not fallen into the hands of the Radical Republicans.

Point 6:  Dr. Sills claims that “All thinking, godly men and women know that it is sinful to own another person…”  Yes, that is now true.  It was not, however, true then, though it ought to have been.  If it is so self-evident, how did the Christian South miss it?  Why, instead, did it go to great lengths to justify it, even using Scripture?  Was it the aggression of the North or the surreptitious rebellion of the South that was responsible for 700,000 dead?  Why precisely did South Carolina secede?  She did not secede over the outlawing of slavery, but over the election of a president.  Why put the blame at the feet of the North?  Who fired the first shots, against a federal fort?  Who raised up an army against her own nation?  Wasn’t 700,000 dead an awful price to pay to maintain something as ephemeral as “states’ rights?”  Moreover, we must ask, “the right to do what, exactly?”  The right to elect its own dogcatchers?  No, it was one right and one right only in view –and that right was to uphold a godless, debased, demoralizing system that tore apart families and treated men and women who were created in God’s image, as soulless property of others.

It is a grievous thing to dig up the dead and try to vindicate or villainize them.  Our new day requires us to view the past with a cold eye –and to own our great cultural sins, and to weep over them.

Ken Pierce is a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America and serves as Senior Pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Jackson, MS. 

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