Observations: The Politics of Slavery in the 1860s… and Abortion in the 1990s

In the mid-1800s, public opinion on slavery in this country showed approximately the same pattern as it does on abortion today. The two extremes were then occupied by a vehement minority of pro-slavery whites in the South and an equally strident minority of Northern abolitionists. As the battles between the two escalated from words to blows, the issue of slavery came to dominate national policy-making, then national elections, and finally, the great, reluctant center of the electorate had to make a choice.

That center disliked slavery. They didn’t hate it, and they were certainly unwilling to die to stop it. In fact, they really preferred not to think about it. Nevertheless, the proposition that “all men are created equal” had soaked thoroughly into the American conscience, and most people knew that slavery violated that proposition.

This knowledge was nearly as widespread in the South as it was elsewhere. Advocates of slavery—many of whom were otherwise sensible and admirable citizens—were forced to adopt contorted and even grotesque policies and arguments to defend it. They tried to halt the entry of abolitionist literature into Dixie; they intimidated Southerners who broke ranks; they made it very hard for penitent slave owners to free or even educate their own slaves; and they tried, through the Fugitive Slave Act, to compel the Yankees to enforce a practice the Yankees had rejected in their own states.

To support these frantic actions, slave owners argued that slavery was not actually wrong at all, but good—good for slaves, who would be miserably impoverished if set free, and good for the rest of society, as the high civilization of the South, contrasted with the barbaric North, demonstrated daily. And finally, there was no violation of the principle of equality, because Southern leaders had determined that slaves were not fully human.

The arguments of today’s pro-abortion leaders closely resemble this logic. Driven to abortion by the desire to avoid the expense, inconvenience, and shame of an unwanted child—just as wealthy Southerners were driven to slavery to avoid the expense of free labor or the shame of working in the fields themselves—modern abortion advocates resort to the same philosophical base: the fetus is not fully human. Thus, there is no question of a denial of a right, and the pain felt by the fetus is of no more moral significance than that of a laboratory animal or a slave, again because the fetus is not fully human.

Abortion advocates force people who believe abortion is murder to pay for it through taxes and, with a touch of Orwell, argue that abortion is freedom, since sex is freed from its most onerous consequence, the woman is freed from impediments to her education and career, Planet Earth is freed from an addition to its population burden, and even the child is freed from the misery of being unwanted. In short, abortion as a manifestation of freedom is good for the child, the mother, and society. Substitute “slavery” and “slave” at the right places, and you have a statement acceptable to antebellum Southern leaders, to whom slavery was the practical evidence of liberty.

During the 1840s, presidential candidates ignored the slavery issue with all the political expertise they could muster and waffled masterfully when pushed to the wall; as the 1850s wore on, this tactic became less tenable. Then came the election of 1860. Radical Southerners finally split the Democratic Party into two and nominated John Breckinridge, who was openly pro-slavery. Northern Democrats nominated the most prominent and principled waffler on the slavery question available—Stephen Douglas. People who were determined to prove that this country could still elect a president who was not interested in the slavery issue formed the Constitutional Union Party and nominated John Bell. The young Republican Party chose a man who had said, in a nationally publicized debate that “slavery is founded on the selfishness of man’s nature.” His name was Abraham Lincoln.

None of these positions could win a majority of the voters, but Lincoln’s position had the most support—40 percent of the popular vote. Douglas, who thought slavery wrong but was willing to go far to appease the South, and who had the support of the dominant Democratic Party, came second with 30 percent. The South’s candidate got only 18 percent, and last place went to the man who tried to ignore the “s” word altogether—only 13 percent voted for Bell.

There may be a lesson for the politicians of the 1990s in the experience of their predecessors of 1860. They have to choose. They can choose the morally wrong position and fight all limits on abortion in their states. A majority of the political left will support them, as a majority of the white South supported Breckinridge in 1860.

Or they can try to construct a viable compromise, in the hope of capturing the great middle ground. I think this tactic will serve them about as well as it served Douglas, who was known in his day as the Great Compromiser. A substantial minority of the political left, unable to stomach the moral reality of abortion, will defect to the compromiser, as did many Southerners in 1860. A minority of the center will also support the compromise position from fear that an anti-abortion politician might be a fanatic, or from a desire for compromise per se. Douglas won quite a few ballots from similarly-minded voters in 1860. But he lost the election.

The middle-of-the-road voter in 1860 understood that to compromise with slavery advocates was to accept not only a certain amount of slavery, but also to compromise on the South’s hidden agenda—Southern control of half the votes in the Senate in the short run, and permanent control of half the nation’s political power and population in the long run. To Southern leaders, these were all elements of the same indivisible plank; faced with an all-or-nothing offer, Northern moderates abandoned the slave owners.

Similarly, the average voter of 1990 might, with some reluctance, accept a compromise candidate on abortion, if only it didn’t mean accepting the rest of the left-wing agenda as well. Thus, for example, he might tolerate legal abortions in the first six weeks if he didn’t also have to swallow Molly Yard’s socialism and homosexual rights advocacy. As Yard and others make it clear that “comparable worth,” gay marriage, the welfare state, and abortion are inextricably linked, the public will abandon this so-called compromise.

The position to which they will most likely retreat, and the position to which our representatives should accompany them, is opposition to abortion. In a political and ethical mine field, the right thing for a politician to do is what Lincoln did—take the moral high ground. Lincoln was not an abolitionist fanatic, and they need not be, either. He was willing to tolerate a Union which included slave states, but not the addition of more slave states, and he explicitly condemned all slavery.

Anti-abortion politicians today can tolerate the traditional exceptions for cases of incest, rape, and threats to the life of the mother. It may be that more voters will oppose anti-abortion politicians than support them, but that’s what happened to Lincoln, and he won in the end. Certainly any anti-abortion representative will get vociferous public opposition; in most state elections in the country, he’ll also get the most votes, other things being equal.

A final, currently popular option for state politicians is to imitate the ostrich, in the desperate hope of getting through the next election without having to take a stand on abortion. As the 1990s wear on, I think that tactic will take them where it took John Bell—to last place.

In my own state of Florida, Governor Bob Martinez proved the sincerity of his anti-abortion stance immediately after the Webster decision was announced, by calling the legislature to a special session to consider enacting into law those few restrictions on abortion that the Supreme Court will now allow. Martinez’s mail was running 11 to one against him at one point, and Florida legislators were not pleased at being pushed into the abortion spotlight. Some of them have waffled, others have managed, so far, to avoid answering the Big Question at all, and a few, beloved of my local newspaper, are making a name for themselves as abortion advocates. Others, however, have simply announced they will oppose abortion at the special session, and Martinez, who has taken most of the heat so far, seems to have decided to stick to his guns.

Abortion and slavery are not analogous, but the moral questions which surround them are. A century and a half ago, some saw a denial of the unalienable rights with which the slaves had been endowed by their Creator, while others feared an infringement of slave owners’ personal liberty by Congress. Today, some see the extraordinarily callous murder of helpless infants where others fear an arbitrary denial of women’s personal liberty by state governments.

Such fundamental ethical divisions create political configurations like that of 1860. Thus, the “no comment” position is already untenable; the adroit compromiser will be popular but ultimately a failure. The pro-abortion candidate will be passionately supported by a tiny minority, and the anti-abortion candidate will be the most viable person in a field of largely unpopular platforms.

But issues like slavery and abortion make history, and as Lincoln reminded his fellow politicians in Congress in 1862, “we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the last generation.”

Our state leaders face exactly that choice in the next decade: to fight abortion or condone it, to be remembered 150 years from now—when abortion will be, I hope, as thoroughly condemned as slavery is now—in honor or dishonor, as successors to Abraham Lincoln or as advocates of a fate for the unborn worse than slavery.


  • Stephanie D. Moussalli

    At the time this article was published, Stephanie D. Moussalli was an adjunct instructor in the department of history and political science at Pensacola Junior College in Pensacola, Florida.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...