Two Men who Stood against Slavery

One abolitionist believed that God had called him to radical action against slavery in the United States. He killed pro-slavery settlers in the territory of Kansas. He led escaped slaves to Canada. And he tried to spark an uprising of slaves in the South that would not only destroy slavery but overthrow the Federal Government.

Another abolitionist believed that slavery could be economically strangled without bloodshed. If slavery could be prohibited in territories like Kansas, it would become too costly and the South would have to give it up. But he did not believe in a morally pure utopia, in which God called the righteous to purge the wicked. He wanted to improve the real world, not chase an imaginary one.

H. W. Brands has written a new book about these two men, the radical John Brown and the pragmatic Abraham Lincoln. The Zealot and the Emancipator tells the story of how the radical’s stand failed and the pragmatist’s succeeded. But neither prevented the Civil War’s horrific violence.

Brands shows that the moral purity of Brown was a con game. Brown was sincerely against slavery. But his sincerity about other issues was selective. After marauding in Kansas, he became a celebrity among abolitionists in New York and New England. He was a scintillating dinner guest, playing his role of backwoods prophet colorfully and raising a lot of cash. But he was not clear about what the money was for, leaving unmentioned the army he was recruiting and the new constitution he had written for the U.S. And he was evasive about the Kansas murders. Brown’s supporters were preachers like Lyman Beecher, who had erotic skills both for flirtation and fundraising, and intellectuals like Henry David Thoreau, who saw radical action like Brown’s as material for another essay.

These collaborations were heavy on P.R. and light on integrity. By the time Brown was hung for his Harper’s Ferry insurrection in 1859, some northern abolitionists who supported him were fleeing from federal agents to Canada. They had enjoyed too many dinners with Brown, given him too many dollars, and exchanged too many letters. (The 19th century equivalent of Parler was the postal service.) They pretended that Brown had taken their radical ideas a little too far.

In 1859, Lincoln was building a coalition for the new Republican party to win the presidency. His coalition is the key to understanding how he stood against slavery.

Slavery was wrong, he said. But the way to get rid of it was to bring groups of citizens together — citizens with all their petty interests and rivalries. The Union provided ways for groups of citizens to correct wrongs — campaigning, winning offices, passing laws, and, not least, conducting free trade. The only alternative to coalition-building was war — the violence Brown had been trying to provoke.

Bringing groups of citizens together is hard work, however, and Lincoln’s coalition was especially hard to gather. One part of was abolitionists, who loved Brown’s prophetic clarity but had trouble making friends outside their own meetings. Another part was immigrants, especially German-Americans, who were anti-slavery. But they were widely hated as foreign newcomers. A third part of Lincoln’s coalition was poor white laborers. If they had to compete with slavery in the territories, they would never gain ground financially. But they were inclined to join the anti-immigrant Know Nothing party.

Against the odds, Lincoln succeeded in bringing these factious groups together. He showed them that quarantining slavery would help all of them, and that they would succeed if they worked together. This coalition not only won the presidential election of 1860 but held through the Civil War that followed. Why were slaves eventually emancipated? Why was the Union later restored? Because Lincoln built a coalition. He gathered groups of citizens together. The coalition was not perfect. But it helped make a more perfect Union.

The lesson for Christians who want to stand against evil today is just as hard as it was for abolitionists in 1859. The world will never become the place of moral purity that con artists are selling you. If you want to stand against evil, you have to accept the imperfections of this world and make common cause with people who sin differently from you.

God blesses this work more than we realize. It yields a deeper good than we imagine, a good that refreshes self-government: the modesty to admit that your group does not possess moral purity and does not have the right to dominate all the others.

At Towamencin’s Spring Bible Study, we will explore this topic of standing against evil today. The study starts on Wednesday, March 10th. Stay tuned for details.

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