Of Slavery and the Constitution

Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash

Slavery in America was doomed under the Constitution, and the slavocrats knew it.  For more than four score years they had been fighting and steadily losing ground to preserve slavery.  When Abraham Lincoln was elected President, the slavocrats understood that things would not get better for them.  They saw getting out as the only way to continue slavery.

They pushed their states to leave after the election of 1860 not because they disputed the results.  They recognized that Lincoln had been duly elected.  What the slavocrats feared was that under his administration and his support in Congress their ability to preserve slavery would be irreparably eroded and eventually ended.  They sought to exit the Union before that happened.

By necessity, forming a “more perfect union” under the Constitution required compromise to accommodate diverse peoples and experiences.  The miracle of the Founders was to bring all the states in.  Compromise and accommodation are at the heart of a republic. 

There is an art to compromise.  I saw that during the days of the Reagan administration.  President Reagan was a highly principled man, yet he often compromised.  I marveled how, in his compromising, he resisted compromise of principle.  Again and again he advanced his principles while accommodating on details.   

The Founders establishing a Constitution sought to preserve essential principles by which a government of liberty would act.  A key example was the slave trade.  Some vociferously argued for its end.  Slave state representatives argued for the matter to be left to individual states.  The Constitution enshrined the national principle that the slave trade must end.  Placing regulation of trade in general with Congress, the compromise set 1808 for the complete end of the slave trade.

A similarly important example where compromise embraced the principle was the apportionment of seats in the House of Representatives.  The number of a state’s representatives was based on population.  Representatives from slave states wanted to count slaves.  Others objected that if your state treats these people as property, then they should not be counted any more than other property.  The principle in the compromise was to recognize the humanity of people held in slavery, but to count a person only as three-fifths for congressional apportionment so long as he was held in slavery, reducing southern congressional representation.

With these two compromises, resting on anti-slavery principles, all the states came into the union, accepting a Constitution that would progressively lead to abolition.  As the reality of that became abundantly clear to the leadership of eleven of the states, they tried to renege on the deal and leave.  The slavocrats failed.  Rather than let the Constitution end slavery peacefully, they forced a horrid war that ended it all the sooner, but at the cost of more than 600,000 dead, greater than the total of Americans killed in both World Wars I and II. 

The power of the principles of the Constitution continued its work.  Amidst a Civil War that, in the words of Lincoln, tested “whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure,” elections were held.  The voters chose liberty and the nation endured.

The American Founders were sober people, sobered by a long and difficult war of Independence followed by several years of economic and social confusion.  They understood that people were flawed and make mistakes.  They believed that people are also good, who can and do make good decisions.  The Constitution on which they established the United States recognizes and is designed to offset the bad and allow good to succeed, which it more often than not does.  

Tested by myriad difficulties and unparalleled prosperity, the Constitution has worked better than any other system of government on earth.  That is why enemies of freedom hate it and why so many people want to come here to live.

Of Elections and Sports

Shortly before the 2012 election I offered an observation about sports and elections, and how one is not like the other. That message may continue to have relevance today.

It is early Fall. That means that we are nearing the end of the regular season of baseball, and the New York Yankees are on course to make the playoffs and another run for the World Series title, number 28. Their chances look good this year, if they can keep their players from injury and the bullpen resumes pitching up to its abilities.

Others are following football. Already the Washington Redskins have gone from having a lock on getting into the Super Bowl, after winning their first game, to being nearly mathematically eliminated from the playoffs by losing their next two. As they say in baseball, though with less justification in pro-football, it’s a long season. And speaking of the Redskins, it has been said that you can tell that someone has been in Washington too long when he begins cheering for the Redskins. Let that rest on your own taste and experience.

Basketball fans know that in just a few weeks, practice begins for college hoops. The college basketball season will terminate several months later in the greatest sporting event that the United States has to offer, March Madness! I don’t know when or whether the professional basketball season ever ends. I suppose it does.

Somewhere someone is playing soccer, where some team is leading another by the insurmountable score of 1-0. But I think that we may be in the only few weeks of the year when there are no hockey games—even as the NHL is haunted again by more labor-management strife.

At his school my son is running on a cross country team, the Trinity Tempest. The motto of the team is not but should be, “Tempest Fugit.” Instead, it seems to be something like, “Pass the weak, hurdle the dead.” Nice so far as it goes. Classical Latin would be better, it seems to me, but I am not a runner and have no say.

Yes, there is much sporting excitement and many sports in the Fall. Elections, however, are not one of them. Electing the leaders of our government, who will wield control over life and death, freedom and slavery, prosperity and poverty, is not a sport. Self-government is one of the most serious activities of life for those who cherish their liberty. Those who do not will eventually vote away their freedom, as we have seen in places like Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia in recent years, and before that in places like Germany of the 1930s.

Of course, you would never know that from the public discourse on television, radio, in newspapers and other media outlets. Presidential, gubernatorial, and congressional races are treated as if they all were games, with little at stake other than whether your favorite team wins. Issues are trivialized, if mentioned at all. The trivializers have even assigned team colors, one side “Red” and another “Blue.” The most important issue in the media after a debate is “who won?” rather than, “what did we learn about what a candidate believes and what he would do if elected?” Points are awarded by press experts for style, poise, rhetoric, and gotcha lines. Panels of talking heads award scores as if they were judges at a figure skating competition.

It is all more than beside the point. It corrupts the process. Rather than true debates, in which candidates have enough time to declare and explain their views and policies on important issues, media celebrities offer trick questions, to which the future President of the United States is given two, three, or sometimes even five minutes to respond as he or she fishes for a soundbite to make it into the 60-second news recap (most of which will again be focused on, “who won?”). Based on this silly exercise, viewers are encouraged to text in (for a small fee) their vote—not for who would be the best office holder—but for who was the winner of the night’s contest.

We should expect and demand better. Through modern revelation we have been given a set of standards. You do not have to be a believer in revelation to recognize the wisdom of the counsel:

Wherefore, honest men and wise men should be sought for diligently, and good men and wise men ye should observe to uphold; otherwise, whatsoever is less than these cometh of evil. (Doctrine and Covenants 98:10)

Our task as voters interested in preserving our rights and freedoms is too seek out diligently the honest, the good, and the wise. Anything less is evil. In an election, in a campaign, in a debate, I want to discover who is the honest, the good, and the wise, and I am little interest in style points.

That takes careful and diligent effort, for among the honest, the good, and the wise, are the liars, the false, and the foolish intent on deceiving. These latter like to hide in the noise of the sporting contest and often seek to divert attention to the things that little matter, the stray word, the high school prank. We need to keep our focus on a diligent search for the honest, the good, and the wise. With persistent effort, we can find them.

In self-government, we are the players. The issue is life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, decidedly not a game. But if we follow these standards and apply them diligently, then in the end We the People will be the winners.

(First published September 26, 2012)

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