Authoritarian Morality, Lincoln’s 2nd Inagural, Today

For Black History Month 2020 the book I selected was Andrew Delbanco’s The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War. Random House Penguin 2018.

The thesis of the book is that cognitive dissonance between acceptance of slavery and the professed ideals of the new nation along with a clash with the Christian morality of most of its citizens produced a cold war between the North and South from the final acceptance of the Constitution in 1789 until the outbreak of hostilities in April 1861. The catalyst for this cold war and ultimately full war was a “poison pill” in the Constitution. For some reason, I had never really noticed this.

The “poison pill” was a provision in Article IV Sec. 2 which stated: “No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due” A significant opinion forming elite in Northern states would not obey that Constitutional requirement.

Delbanco’s book is well worth reading. His occasional moralizing may annoy some readers but I think it adds to the interest of the book. Here I focus on the moralizing towards the end of his text where he writes with approval that in March 1865 on the occasion of his second inaugural ” Lincoln had come to see the ’mighty scourge of war’ as divine punishment visited not only upon the South but upon all America. “ Delbanco quotes with approval Lincoln’s “God gives to both North and South, this terrible war , as the woe due to those by the offense came” He cites Lincoln’s reflections on ending the war . If it “continue until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword , ” There would be no cause to doubt God’s justice or to presume the blessings of his mercy.

With proclamation of suffering which ought to occur because of injustice, it is clear that Lincoln is using the language of authoritarian morality. I have no doubt that Lincoln was sincere in using this moral framework. I interpret Delbanco as accepting Lincoln’s framework. As Delbanco goes further to suggest that we Caucasians whose main roots reach back to those who fought the Civil War and its preceding cold war are still incurring punishment due for injustices done to descendants of the slaves after the Civil War. The moral order, if not an acting moral authority, is still passing judgment on us and prescribing some harm which ought to befall us.

The purpose of this post has been to remind us that the perspective of authoritarian morality was alive in 19th century USA and is still alive now.

I am not sure that it is the dominant moral perspective. It is interesting to note that when I consulted an on-line copy of Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural I called it up from a source called Owl Eyes. With respect to Lincoln’s talk of an avenging God a commentator, called: “Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor” suggests that Lincoln might have been using this language simply for rhetorical effect because he realized his audience used that kind of language. I was not surprised by the comment. There is a point of view in our contemporary culture that an intelligent person, and no doubt Lincoln was a highly intelligent person, would seriously believe what the language of authoritarian morality implies. However, that assumption about intelligent people is shown to be wrong by the clear words of Lincoln and how Lincoln’s moral perspective is shared by Delbanco. At least I interpret Delbanco as moralizing from the standpoint of authoritarian morality because he used the language with enough conviction to evoke in me a sense of dread of punishment due for our social structure which inflict injustice on African Americans.