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Holy Week is a season for reflecting on a great price paid, once and for all, and the life that arose in triumph over sin and evil once that price was paid. And what an unfortunate season, indeed, for some to renew their effort to extort “reparations” for slavery from their fellow citizens.
Yet, lawsuits have been filed. Those responsible propose to settle the accounts of slavery leaving the Civil War out of the equation – complete and utter nonsense. The price for the sin of slavery has already been paid, in blood.
To answer the reparations question, we must re-awaken a living understanding of the great moral drama played out in blood, treasure and human spirit on the battlefields of America a century and a half ago. President Lincoln stated in the Second Inaugural that, at the beginning of the war, “slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war.”
By this simple adverb, Lincoln captures the great question slavery posed to the soul of the nation. The war began in imperfect understanding, and concluded in clear understanding, that it had been caused by national violation of the laws of nature, and of nature’s God. Lincoln spoke this truth for the nation:
If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which 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 until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s 250 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 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said, “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”
The moral drama of the Civil War was the nation’s discernment, in its agony, that slavery was the cause of the war not as an economic interest, not as a political provocation, but as a sin which must be paid for by the blood of North and South.
At the heart of Union sentiment was the sense that a precious common good, to which all had legitimate claim, was being denied by the illegitimate refusal of their fellow citizens in the South to accept the verdict of the 1860 election. In its various ways, the North understood that the Union was the attempt of one people to establish the possibility of self-government upon the basis of the equal dignity of all men. And so the North understood that secession in defense of slavery represented the illegitimate bid by the South to replace self-government by equal free men with its elder adversary – the tyrannical rule of the powerful over their weaker brethren.
In ever increasing numbers and with ever increasing clarity, the soldiers of the North came to understand that the cause of the Union was the cause of liberty for all men. In their letters and diaries, the leavening motive, in the chaos of war, was increasingly the belief that God called them to sacrifice their lives to repair the moral stain of slavery. And over this increasing discernment, President Lincoln exercised wise, and good and patient statesmanship. He saw, and led, a people coming to understand itself and its duty – its vocation unto death and a “new birth of freedom.”
This story is so complicated, and deep, that the venal and superficial among us can continue to deny it. Pseudo-learned scribblers who find contradiction in every prudence, and hypocrisy in every generous concession, continue to offer us their “real Lincoln” and to deny that Lincoln, or the North, had any real moral purpose. They demonstrate instead only their own incapacity to recognize moral purpose in the genuine complexity of human affairs. The true Lincoln, and the true moral greatness of the Union cause, will continue to tower above their uncomprehending pettiness.
Our liberty, reborn from the Civil War’s labor, remains imperfect – as we must expect of any mortal thing. Pettifogging lawyers and dishonest scholars will always be able to carp selectively and ignorantly about the warts upon our body politic.
But the truth of the Civil War is that the terrible price for American slavery has been paid, once for all, by the American people’s deliberate acceptance of their duty to pay it when, in God’s providence, Southern intransigence brought it due.
Let us resolve, this Easter season, to remember the price America paid for her sin. Let us remember and venerate the high moral purpose of those, including Lincoln, who died to make men free.
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