John Brown Redux
Pro-life forces are on the defensive because of abortion clinic killings. They stand accused of encouraging violence because of their efforts to outlaw abortion and to discourage women from seeking abortions. The Catholic hierarchy and other pro-life leaders who are in serious doubt about the future of peaceful protest should learn a lesson from the Republican Party's response to John Brown's abolitionist raids in the 1850s. Just as the Republicans then were accused of encouraging lawlessness by speaking out for the natural rights of slaves, so pro- life advocates now are vilified for defending the natural rights of the unborn. And just as Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans then found a way to condemn violence while continuing to demand an end to slavery, so pro-life advocates now must find a way to condemn violence while continuing to demand an end to abortion.
Brown's band of zealots terrorized "bleeding Kansas" and killed five pro-slavery settlers. After illegally running fugitive slaves across the Canadian border they seized the U.S. Armory in Harpers Ferry under a vague scheme to create a secessionist, slave-free Appalachian republic. They killed the mayor and four others before being captured in the shootout that killed twelve more, including two of Brown's sons. A Senate investigating committee found that Brown had stored arms and ammunition to equip 1,500 men, bought with donations from abolitionist sympathizers.
At his trial, Brown rejected advice to plead insanity and claimed to have been acting under "the law of God," adding:
I believe that to have interfered as I have done . . . in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments-I submit; so let it be done!
Brown and several other terrorists were hanged in 1859 for murder, criminal conspiracy, and treason against Virginia. Abolitionists everywhere such as Emerson, Thoreau, Longfellow, and Victor Hugo proclaimed him a saint, martyr, and messiah. To the tune of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," Union soldiers apotheosized Brown whose "body lies a-mould'ring in the grave," but whose "soul goes marching on."
Sectional interests and the national press whipped up memories of earlier slave uprisings in South Carolina and Haiti, charging that Brown had tried to start a black insurrection to murder slave owners and their families. The New York Herald ran Republican Senator William Seward's "irrepressible conflict" speech, and claimed that his party was implicated in the Brown raid. Democrats accused presidential candidate Lincoln of contributing money to Brown's cause. Even though the Democrat-dominated Senate investigation (chaired by Jefferson Davis) failed to show a Republican insurrectionary conspiracy, Stephen A. Douglas proposed a criminal sedition law that would in effect have silenced the Republicans.
In speech after speech, Lincoln repudiated Brown's fanatical actions. He equated Harpers Ferry with "the many attempts, related in history, at the assassination of kings and emperors. An enthusiast broods over the oppression of a people till he fancies himself commissioned by Heaven to liberate them. He ventures the attempt, which ends in little else than his own execution." In his Cooper Union Address, Lincoln challenged his partisan opponents: if you know of a single Republican who aided John Brown, name him; if you do not, then stop the malicious slander of the Republican Party.
The deeper problem, though, was Republican support for the anti-slavery cause. Millions of Americans, revulsed by the South's "peculiar institution," were voting for a government that would oppose it-or at least its extension into the Western territories. What would it take, Lincoln asked, to satisfy pro-slavery Democrats that Republicans, in opposing slavery, were not encouraging fanatics like John Brown?
This and this only: cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right. And this must be done thoroughly-done in acts as well as in words. Silence will not be tolerated. Senator Douglas' new sedition law must be enacted and enforced, suppressing all declarations that slavery is wrong, whether made in politics, in presses, in pulpits, or in private. We must arrest and return their fugitive slaves with greedy pleasure. . . . The whole atmosphere must be disinfected from all taint of opposition to slavery, before they will cease to believe that all their troubles proceed from us.
The "don't care" policy-Lincoln's name for Doug-las' "pro-choice" position on slavery-is sophistic, Lincoln argued. Republicans must care; they cannot compromise on the principle that slavery is morally evil. To seek a "middle ground between the right and the wrong [is as] vain as the search for a man who should be neither a living man nor a dead man." Denying that the U.S. Supreme Court had the power to impose a pro- slavery policy, he urged recourse to elections as the proper means to reverse the Dred Scott decision. (In fact, Lincoln's Republican Congress easily legislated the reversal in 1861.)
Lincoln saw that slavery's proponents were using Brown's extremism as an excuse to stop national protest against the obscenity of slavery and to intimidate his party. Republicans should respond, he suggested, by separating the principle of equal rights from abolitionist violence. Brown's lawlessness was not part of the movement to legislate against slavery; it was closer to the pro-slavery interests' own lawlessness in claiming a power to secede from the Union.
For Lincoln, the U.S. Constitution was the original "Contract With America," supported by a national moral consensus on Thomas Jefferson's statement that all men are created equal in their natural rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. This self-evident truth of the Declaration of Independence is the central proposition of American democracy. Constitutional self-government secures these rights by monopolizing the use of force to uphold law, punish criminals, and defend the nation. Shred the consensus on equal natural rights, and the specter of civil war arises as government licenses some individuals (slave owners or abortionists) to use force to deny the natural rights of others (black slaves or unborn children). The social contract unravels when rights to life and liberty are infringed by private force under color of law. After the Dred Scott decision that slaves were property, mass handing over to slave owners the slaves' natural right to liberty, abolitionist and secessionist violence were equally inevitable.
Since the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade surrendered the right to life of fetuses, the same issue has risen again-who is human and therefore possesses natural rights-and the violence has also returned. What pro-abortion forces see as fetal matter under the control of women, pro-life advocates see as unborn human beings entitled to the same natural rights enjoyed by all others. This is not a political issue like taxes or welfare on which half the nation can disagree with the other half. Both positions cannot simultaneously exist in a liberal democracy, because America's central problem, according to Lincoln, is to maintain the consensus on who is human in the absence of which the social contract collapses. We should be horrified but not surprised by today's John Browns. Our crisis differs from Lincoln's only in that the slavery question split the nation region by region while abortion divides America home by home.
As Lincoln repudiated John Brown's appeal to bullets in 1859, so should pro-life advocates treat clinic violence. They should condemn all forms of murder while not allowing pro-abortionists to use violence as an excuse to silence principled opposition to the evil of abortion. A year after Harpers Ferry put anti-slavery Republicans on the defensive, Lincoln's party swept into the White House and Congress. Pro-life advocates should take heart at last November's astonishing election victory in which not one pro-life incumbent lost to a pro-abortion challenger and in which the overall pro-life vote increased by about thirty. Like the anti-slavery movement of old, the pro-life cause has growing majority support; its leaders should stop seeing themselves as an embattled minority. They should raise the debate to higher levels by asserting the self-evident truth that all human beings, including the unborn, are created with the natural right to life. Once the moral consensus on that Lincolnian proposition has been restored, a majority of ballots will simply end the abortion policy that has bred so much civil conflict.
Dennis Teti is Associate Professor of Political Science at Hillsdale College and Special Assistant to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Opinions herein are not necessarily those of the institutions mentioned.