One of the important elements of the so-called Compromise of 1850, a late-in-the-day attempt to avoid the pending Civil War, was the Fugitive Slave Act, which required Northern states, even the most anti-slavery of Northern states, to capture runaway slaves and return them to their owners.
Massachusetts was, of course, one of these states, and when its famous U.S. senator, Daniel Webster, supported the Act in a desperate attempt to save his beloved Union, many of its most distinguished citizens (e.g., Ralph Waldo Emerson: see his lecture on the Fugitive Slave Act ) withdrew the tremendous admiration they had hitherto given the great man.
Did the Fugitive Slave Act result in the capture and return of many runaway slaves who would otherwise have found their way to a life of freedom? Probably not. For despite the Act, slaves would still run away, the Underground Railroad would still operate, and northerners unsympathetic to slavery would still be reluctant to report runaways to the police.
What, then, was the point of the Fugitive Slave Act? To rub the noses of anti-slavery people in slavery. The pro-slavery South was saying to the anti-slavery North: “You don’t like slavery? You think it is wicked? You think we are great sinners for maintaining this, our peculiar institution? Well, we’ll show you. By the Fugitive Slave Act we’ll make you co-operators in our system. We’ll make you assist us in maintaining slavery. If we are guilty, we’ll make you share our guilt.”
What does this remind you of? In any case, what does it remind me of?
It reminds me of the policy position now taken by virtually every Democrat on the national scene – the policy position now taken, for instance, by that famous Catholic politician, Joe Biden. It reminds me, in other words, of their position that the Hyde Amendment must be done away with and the federal government must pay for abortions. Which means of course that taxpayers should pay for abortions, even those taxpayers (me, for example) who believe that abortion is an act of unjustifiable homicide.
Will it greatly increase the number of abortions if we make them free of charge for women who wish to kill their unborn babies? Probably not. What, then, is the point of getting rid of the Hyde Amendment? The point is to rub our noses in abortion. The point is to make all of us, even the most anti-abortion among us, collaborators in the great abortion machine. “You don’t like abortion? You think it wicked? You think we are great sinners for maintaining this our splendid institution? Well, we’ll show you. By getting rid of the Hyde Amendment we’ll make you co-operators in our system. We’ll make you assist us in maintaining abortion. If we are guilty, we’ll make you share our guilt.”
The pro-abortion people profess to be great believers in choice – just as the pro-slavery people professed to be great believers in state rights. But, in fact, the pro-slavery people were not true believers in state rights. They believed that their state had the right to choose slavery, but they didn’t believe that Massachusetts (for example) had the right to reject slavery. They didn’t believe that Massachusetts had the right to decree that a slave who set foot on Massachusetts soil automatically became a free man or woman.
A few years later (1857) the U.S. Supreme Court ratified this view with its Dred Scott ruling, which Abraham Lincoln (along with others who were as clear-minded as he) understood to imply not just that Congress could not ban slavery from the territories but that, sooner or later, state legislatures could not ban slavery from their states.
Just as pro-slavery Southerners did not honestly believe in state rights, so pro-abortion Democrats (and others) do not honestly believe in free choice. For if they did, they would believe in our choice not to pay for abortions. They would believe in our choice not to become collaborators in homicide.
Let’s suppose you’re in a situation in which you are doing something that you know, deep down, to be wrong; but you don’t want to admit it to yourself; on the contrary, you want to persuade yourself that your wickedness is virtuous. In a situation like this, your conscience will be greatly eased if you find that everybody around you believes that the wrong thing is right.
And so it was with Southern slaveholders. The slaveholders were comforted by the fact that all the “best people” in their society were slaveholders. But that wasn’t enough. And so they worked hard to persuade non-slaveholding Southern whites that slavery was a fine institution; and they largely succeeded in this effort of persuasion, as was demonstrated when the Civil War came, and poor and almost-poor whites were willing to fight and die to protect the South’s “peculiar institution.” This persuasion succeeded even among many slaves.
But in the North there remained millions and millions of Americans who were not persuaded – some of them abolitionists, far more of them anti-slavery in sentiment while not going so far as to be abolitionists.
As long as these people were denouncing slavery as wicked (and their voices of denunciation were getting louder and louder every year), the consciences of slaveholders could not be totally silenced. What could be done? Make these anti-slavery people co-operate in catching runaway slaves (the Fugitive Slave Act). Better still, make them tolerate the presence of slavery in their midst (the Dred Scott ruling). Make them share our guilt.
So it is with the pro-abortion people. They need to silence us if they are to silence their own consciences. They can do this by making us share their guilt. How? By making us pay for their abortions. If we quietly pay, if we make little or no fuss about this, we will have become part of the great abortion machine. The consciences of pro-abortionists will be able to sleep in peace.
*Image: A Ride for Liberty – the Fugitive Slaves by Eastman Johnson, c. 1862 [Brooklyn Museum ]