One Issue Among Many?

We are now not only in the year, but in the seasons, the days of politics, marking the 150th anniversary of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Those debates marked the gravest crisis in our political history, the crisis of our “house divided.” For the issues truly ran to the core; they ran back to what John Paul II called the question of “the human person.” The question, said Lincoln, is “whether a negro is not or is a man. If he is not a man, why in that case, he who is a man may, as a matter of self-government, do just as he pleases with him. But if the negro is a man, is it not to that extent, a total destruction of self-government, to say that he too shall not govern himself?”

As Harry Jaffa pointed out, following Lincoln, the question of whether a black man was a human being was not a “value judgment.” His standing as a human would not depend on whether we imputed “value” to his life. Whether he was a “human” was a question with an objective answer. That answer did not hinge on the vote of a majority; the answer had to be clear before we would know just what kinds of creatures are suited for the life of politics in offering arguments and reasons and casting votes.

At every moment, in the debates these days over abortion, we find the ground for our argument in the reasoning that Lincoln set in place as he sought to make his own case compelling to a broad audience. As in our own time, there was a facile switching of labels: that was not a man but a “nigger,” not a small human but a “fetus.” And with that flick of a label a whole class of human beings would be removed from the circle of “rights-bearing” beings.


In the season of politics upon us now, we are faced again with the question of explaining why “this issue” – slavery or abortion – is not just one among several, plausible issues, but the issue that must be more central than anything else. The word has now managed to get through, especially to Catholics, that Barack Obama has the most radical pro-abortion stance of any national Democrat. But even as our Democratic friends absorb that news, it is not enough to dislodge them from their vote for Obama. Even certain Catholics are quick to remind us here that there are many other issues. Why should they take this one as decisive?

The late historian J.G. Randall of the University of Chicago once posed the question of why Lincoln was justified in forcing a political crisis over that vexing matter of slavery:

With all the problems that might have been put before the people as proper matter for their consideration in choosing a senator —choice of government servants, immigration, the tariff, international policy, promotion of education, westward extension of railroads, the opening of new lands for homesteads, protection against greedy exploitation of those lands … encouragement to settlers … improving the condition of factory workers, and alleviating those agrarian grievances that were to plague the coming decades—with such issues facing the country, those two candidates for the Senate talked as if there were only one issue.

Read today, that opinion is bound to strike readers as churlish, even oafish. And yet why? Is it wrong because we have come to regard that issue now, in our own day, as one we happen to care about? Or is it because there was truly something more fundamental in that question of just who were those beings who were the objects of concern in all of these other issues? Who were the “people” whose injuries mattered when it came to getting access to western lands? Who were the persons whose “rights” were being enhanced or denied as people were admitted to the country as immigrants or suffered from the conditions of work and pay in factories? In short, who out there counted as the “persons” whose interests and injuries mattered?

In politics we are ever dealing with the righting of wrongs, the relief of injuries, the doing of justice – whether in health care, the laying of taxes, or hazarding young men in war. Every one of these issues hinges on the prior question of just what constitutes the “person” who is the bearer of these interests and rights – and the object of our concern. The question of slavery was central in the way that others were not because it touched the core of the question that affected the rights of everyone else on every other issue. And yet, 150 years later, a population showing far higher levels of formal education cannot quite grasp the same point when it comes to them as a matter of recognizing the human standing of our own offspring.

In that famous old joke, a lawyer is told by the Devil that he can have all the women and money he would ever want – and in return? He would give the Devil his soul. The lawyer, ever wary, ponders the offer and finally asks, “What’s the catch”? But now large numbers of people with a college education learn that Barack Obama would withhold the protections of the law and medical care from a child who survives an abortion, and they say, “And so? Why should that make a difference in this election?” In this way, without the least strain or awareness, the soul of a democratic people is gently altered.


Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. His most recent book is Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is now available for download.