The American Question

Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, March 6, 1861

The subject which now divides the nation has so many aspects, its nature is so mixed, and its relations so complicated, that its discussion and adjustment are attended by perplexities that baffle the wisdom of the wisest, and by difficulties that test the firmness of the most energetic.—Whether the gordian knot is to be cut by the sword of civil war, and loosened by fraternal compromise, remains to be seen.

Slavery may be looked upon in various lights and from different points of view. It may be regarded as a mere matter of political economy, of dollars and cents, affecting the material and productive interests of the country,—as an instrument for the culture of the soil, and other services. It may be looked upon simply as a civil institution, ordained and regulated by positive statute, and put on the salve footing precisely as other establishments, that are created by law and legalized by local and municipal authority. It may, again, be contemplated and treated as a social organization, modifying the manner of life, the morals of the community, the domestic habits and the estimate of labor in places where it prevails. It is viewed by others from a higher standpoint. They regard this as an institution of Divine appointment, clothed with all the sacredness of religious sanction, and sustained by Scriptural authority. They treat it as belonging to the normal condition of society, as part and parcel of the original constitution under which man was placed. We do not now discuss the truth or falsity of this view. We merely state the fact as an important item to be weighed in the fair consideration of the subject. While some thus make it a part of their religion to uphold slavery, there are others, who, with equal conscientiousness, deny its claims to Divine support, and maintain that this institution is opposed to the original and best state of society, and utterly at variance with the laws of GOD and the precepts of Christianity.

And here is the issue. Here lies the gist of the question. One party, the defenders of slavery as an ordinance of GOD, take the ground that their opinions and practices in relation to the subject are right. It is to them a matter of conscience, of religious obligation and sacred right,—a bounden duty to maintain this institution at all hazards. To trench in any way on its prerogatives, or to prevent its prevalence, is to touch the apple of their eye, to assault the palladium of their liberties, and to lay violent hands on the Ark of GOD. On the other hand, those who differ from them feel equally constrained by conscience, and by all the dictates of justice, humanity and religion, to condemn an institution which they regard as radically wrong and inimical to the best interests of society. In short, as President LINCOLN states in his Inaugural Address, “One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended.” All questions about the economical, social and civil aspects of slavery, however important they may be, are merged into the higher ethical and religious bearings of the subject.—Both the South and the North appeal to the tribunal of conscience, and the leaders in this conflict of ideas make it a matter of sacred and imperious duty to maintain their respective grounds. All discussions of the subject, in its lesser and lower relations, are mere skirmishings on the outside of the battle-field. The real conflict is not concerning words or modes of society, but about ideas of right, and convictions of duty. No subject, which does not involve the conscience and the most sacred principles of men, could produce results such as we now witness.—The real moving cause of this violent agitation is a question of ethics in relation to government,—of deeply seated convictions with reference to their bearing on the fundamental law of the land. If it were a mere abstract enquiring into the right or wrong of Slavery, and if the discussion were limited to a single State, it would be difficult to reach a satisfactory conclusion. The question is embarrassed and complicated by its relations to the Constitution of the country.—Does this instrument ignore or recognize it? Does it condemn or justify it, either expressly or by implication? Is slavery placed under the broad aegis of the Federal compact, and entitled to its protection and patronage in the common domain, where it has never been legally established? Mr. LINCOLN puts the question in his Address: “Must Congress protect slavery in the territories?” To this he answers: “The Constitution does not expressly say.”

In the cursory analysis we have given of this much-mooted subject, it is evident that it is a mixed and complex one, involving grave questions of freedom of conscience and of constitutional interpretation. We find that it is that phase of it which makes it a matter of right or of wrong, of human or of Divine authority,—a serious question of conscience and of religious duty,—that it is this view of the topic, which gives the clue and coloring to our interpretations of the Constitution, and modifies all the opinions that are held in relation to it, whether as an element of material prosperity, or as a mere civil and social institute. The question is, then, in fact, one of conscience; and as it now stands before the nation, summoning the contending parties to peaceful adjustment or to the arbitrament of arms, it is in reality, at its basis, a question of religious liberty. The South openly declares this; and while they contend that the plea of conscience on the part of the people of the North is a mere pretence, the deep moral convictions of the Northern people are as much a reality as the alleged conscientiousness of the South. This conflict is only another form and development of the great contest, which has agitated the nations for ages, and involves the fundamental inquiry: What is the proper and legitimate province of civil government in matters of conscience and religious freedom? The exigencies of the case force this enquiry upon us; and it becomes the parties now at variance calmly to consider and fairly to answer this question, before proceeding further. We will then be better prepared to consider what are the guarantees or prohibitions of the Constitution—the obligations of Government and the duty of the people in the premises.