What the Civil War Can Teach Us About Trying to Compromise With Trump

A new history of the antebellum period shows us how remaining moderate can mean letting human rights violations drag on for far too long.

Phyllis Eckhaus January 4, 2019

(Smith Collection/Gado/Corbis Via Getty Images)

In our excru­ci­at­ing­ly polar­ized times, there are con­stant plain­tive calls for under­stand­ing and accom­mo­da­tion. Sure­ly if we could only suf­fi­cient­ly feel the pain of Trump sup­port­ers, they would even­tu­al­ly come to their sens­es and repu­di­ate him?

The Constitution was from the start a pact with the devil, a compromise that enabled atrocity.

That yearn­ing informs Andrew Delbanco’s The War Before the War: Fugi­tive Slaves and the Strug­gle for Amer­i­ca’s Soul From the Rev­o­lu­tion to the Civ­il War, a chrono­log­i­cal his­to­ry that cov­ers famil­iar ground in an unfa­mil­iar way. The text is stud­ded with right­eous asides draw­ing par­al­lels to mod­ern-day moral hor­rors. Simul­ta­ne­ous­ly — and pecu­liar­ly — the book sug­gests that those who equiv­o­cat­ed in resist­ing the hor­ror of slav­ery deserve our appre­cia­tive understanding.

The War Before the War offers a cau­tion­ary por­trait of how accom­mo­da­tion can cause a great injus­tice to drag on for decades. Del­ban­co charts the many com­pro­mis­es the Found­ing Fathers made with South­ern slave­hold­ers for the sake of cre­at­ing a Unit­ed States — how the Con­sti­tu­tion, which we think of as a moral­ly enlight­ened guide to gov­er­nance, was from the start a pact with the dev­il, a com­pro­mise that enabled atrocity.

Del­ban­co frames the Con­sti­tu­tion as pri­mar­i­ly a con­tract between slave­hold­ing and non­slave­hold­ing colonies. Twen­ty-five of the 55 del­e­gates to the Con­sti­tu­tion­al Con­ven­tion were slave­hold­ers, some attend­ing the con­ven­tion with a whole entourage of slaves. Pres­sured by slave­hold­ers to pre­serve their slave econ­o­my, the Founders post­poned any pos­si­ble ban on the slave trade for 20 years. Then they cre­at­ed the Three-Fifths Com­pro­mise, which meant that the slave­hold­ing South got extra polit­i­cal clout and dol­lars, just as rur­al prison towns do today by includ­ing pris­on­ers in their cen­sus count.

Final­ly, the Fugi­tive Slave Clause gave slave­hold­ers the right to have free­dom-seek­ing slaves returned to them. This was not triv­ial: John Adams, writ­ing to his son John Quin­cy Adams in 1805, sug­gest­ed that the South had joined the Unit­ed States in order to stake its claim to escap­ing slaves; that, had slave­hold­ers not been restrained by their Negroes,” they would reject Us from their Union with­in a Year.”

While some Founders, slave­hold­ers George Wash­ing­ton and Thomas Jef­fer­son among them, hoped slav­ery would fade away, those hopes were dashed by King Cot­ton, the lucra­tive crop that super­sized the slave force and its impact on the U.S. econ­o­my. The eco­nom­ic val­ue of enslaved Amer­i­cans ulti­mate­ly exceed­ed the com­bined worth of all the banks, fac­to­ries, and rail­roads in the Unit­ed States.”

By the 1830s, Boston abo­li­tion­ist William Lloyd Gar­ri­son had gal­va­nized the anti­slav­ery move­ment with The Lib­er­a­tor and his found­ing of a nation­al abo­li­tion­ist soci­ety. As ten­sion over the fugi­tive slave issue increased, North­ern states leg­is­lat­ed to pro­tect free­dom-seek­ers, for exam­ple bar­ring local law enforce­ment from coop­er­at­ing with fed­er­al slave catch­ers much as local­i­ties today bar com­pli­ance with ICE. As new ter­ri­to­ries were estab­lished, the South pushed for fur­ther leg­is­la­tion to guar­an­tee the return of their escap­ing slaves: the 1850 Fugi­tive Slave Law made the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment the active ally of the slave­hold­er and imposed a $1,000 fine on any­one who failed to assist with the freedom-seeker’s return. Abo­li­tion­ism caught fire among pre­vi­ous moderates.

Seek­ing to star­tle us out of our abo­li­tion­ist-lov­ing pre­con­cep­tions, how­ev­er, Del­ban­co sin­gles out the mod­er­ate foes of slav­ery who nei­ther open­ly broke the law nor fanned par­ti­san flames with their rhetoric. One was Charles Devens, the Boston fed­er­al mar­shal who in 1851 returned an escapee to slav­ery — then tried to salve his con­science by attempt­ing to buy the for­mer freedom-seeker’s free­dom. Anoth­er was fed­er­al judge John Kane, in the 1850s vig­or­ous­ly enforc­ing the Fugi­tive Slave Law by day and by night turn­ing a blind eye to his son oper­at­ing an Under­ground Rail­road sta­tion out of their house.

Address­ing most read­ers and writ­ers today,” Del­ban­co says it’d be harsh to con­sign these neu­trals” to an eter­ni­ty in the ante­room of hell.” We should instead appre­ci­ate their alleged sac­ri­fice and courage, and have empa­thy for their inner civ­il war.”

But why? Where does empa­thy get us in the fight against atroc­i­ty? Del­ban­co asserts that accom­mo­dat­ing the South was not unrea­son­able, giv­en the risk that a seced­ing South could expand its slave empire into the Caribbean and Cen­tral Amer­i­ca. Yet, even giv­en that dis­turb­ing pos­si­bil­i­ty, how does sit­ting on your butt and keep­ing your trap shut beget pos­i­tive change? There are always rea­sons to do lit­tle or noth­ing, includ­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ty that a par­tic­u­lar action may back­fire. But dither­ing guar­an­tees that evil will prevail.

Del­ban­co paus­es espe­cial­ly to hon­or dither­er William Green­leaf Eliot, a Har­vard-edu­cat­ed Mis­souri min­is­ter who sup­port­ed grad­ual eman­ci­pa­tion. Eliot strug­gled to jus­ti­fy his reluc­tance to con­demn slav­ery pub­licly, ask­ing him­self, in his jour­nal, Has it been through want of moral courage?” He reas­sured him­self that his silence was moral, that he could have left St. Louis to return to Boston as an abo­li­tion­ist and been “‘cov­ered with glo­ry’ & with the cer­tain­ty of good set­tle­ment. But my gain would have been the only gain.” Thus he con­ve­nient­ly char­ac­ter­ized the abo­li­tion­ists as self-serv­ing show-offs effect­ing no real change.

After the war, Eliot looked back to reflect that no one was suf­fi­cient­ly impar­tial to hon­est­ly record the fierce strug­gle” of the ante­bel­lum years: I thought I saw both sides as they real­ly were, but, in truth I saw nei­ther. … One thing, how­ev­er, is sure: that the right pre­vailed at last. Thank God for that.” Where Del­ban­co casts Eliot as a Ham­let-like hero, I see a delud­ed bystander.

Delbanco’s call to empa­thy is a call to inac­tion. Today we have neo-Nazis march­ing in the street, police killing black men with impuni­ty, fam­i­ly sep­a­ra­tion at the bor­der, and more than 44,000 immi­grants in deten­tion. As Dorothy Day observed, The abso­lutist begins a work. Oth­ers take it up and try to spread it.” We don’t need com­pro­mise — we need radicals.

Phyl­lis Eck­haus is an In These Times con­tribut­ing edi­tor who has writ­ten essays and book reviews for the mag­a­zine since 1993, cov­er­ing every­thing from the his­to­ry of Mad Mag­a­zine to the eco­nom­ics of ter­ror­ism. Her work has also appeared in News­day, The Nation, the Guardian (U.S.) and the Wom­en’s Review of Books, among oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. Trained as a lawyer and social sci­en­tist, with degrees from Yale, Har­vard and New York Uni­ver­si­ty, she works in non­prof­it man­age­ment and lives in New York City.
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