Mirror of Evil – “One Great Question of the Day”

“One Great Question of the Day”

For the thinking American, slavery was the issue of the moment. Though primarily divided according to geographical lines, there were exceptions to that generic division. As with any major controversy, there were a variety of positions. The South was not the monolith of pro-slavery radicals sometimes perceived. Some denounced slavery on ethical reasons, while others took the more pragmatic approach, citing political or economic reasons.[1] Northern opinions ranged from the extreme abolitionist to those willing to compromise over the slavery issue.

By 1860, a majority of Americans were in favor of restricting the expansion of slavery. [2] They were not all abolitionists, but were aware of the immoral nature of slavery. Their support gave Abraham Lincoln the presidency.

This majority held various views on dealing with slavery. Many called for moderate means of eradication. Gradual emancipation, voluntary colonization, and monetary compensation were some of the solutions proffered by these anti-slavery advocates. [3]

At the center of the argument, compromise called for things to remain as they were. Stephen Douglas, the most prominent spokesman of this group, opposed even the more moderate views of emancipation. Compromise on slavery had held the country together since its inception. The Three-fifths Compromise, the Missouri Compromise in 1820, the Compromise of 1850, and the provisions of the Nebraska-Kansas Act of 1854 balanced the interests of the North and South with provisions that satisfied each. [4]

Representing both regions, these centrists proposed further compromise to maintain the “peace, harmony, and good-will among all the States, by permitting each to mind its own business.” [5] Their position was essentially, “I’m personally against it, but I can’t force my beliefs on others.” This attitude of appeasement found national support and launched Douglas into candidacy for president.

Abolitionists were adamant in their demands for immediate and complete emancipation. Anything less would be immoral. This led some extremists, such as John Brown of Kansas, to advocate violence as an acceptable means.

This radical ideology had two negative results. It cast the abolitionist movement in a profoundly bad light. Even many abolitionists denounced the extreme conduct of Brown and his followers. It resulted also in a fanatical defense of slavery in the South. Brown’s attack on Harper’s Ferry in 1859 “galvanized slave state leaders as nothing before it. [6] In the words of President James Buchanan, “One extreme naturally begets another.” [7] Fearing a slave revolt as well as the increased resolve of abolition forces, the pro-slavery leaders of the South reacted with firm resolve. [8Dissolution of the union became a more viable option to prevent bloodshed.

Strangely, the church seemed to be split on this issue.Some, though not all, Southern churches led the defense of slavery from a Biblical standpoint. In the North, the abolition movement was firmly founded and led by Christians and pastors.


[1] Deggar, Another South, 298

[2]Allan Nevins, War for the Union, 1861-1862. (New York: Konecky and Konecky, 1971), 10.

[3]Goodwin, Rivals, 206.

[4]Douglas, Mr. Lincoln, 17-18.

[5] Stephen Douglas, Political Debates between Hon. Abraham Lincoln and Hon. Stephen A. Douglas in the Celebrated Campaign of 1858, in Illinois (Columbus: 1860), 24-40 in The Causes of the Civil War, ed. Kenneth M. Stampp (New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1974), 81.

[6] William C. Davis, Look Away! A History of the Confederate States of America. (New York: The Free Press, 2002), 11.

[7] James Buchanan, Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion (New York: 1866) 9-14 in The Causes of the Civil War, ed. Kenneth M. Stampp (New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1974), 81.

[8]Goodwin, Rivals, 226-227.

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