Lincoln on slavery

When it comes to politicians who are "personally opposed" to abortion but will not interfere with it, Abraham Lincoln has a lesson to teach.

The general assumption that Lincoln was ready to go to war to stop slavery in the United States, and that defeating the seceding South would automatically end slavery in America, has become part of our national lore.

However, at least in terms of the beginnings of the Civil War, this was not the case.

Without a doubt, Lincoln personally disliked slavery all his life, but he came to abhor slavery after seeing the slave markets in New Orleans. Going to New Orleans while working on a riverboat on the Mississippi River took him to the markets.

While he personally detested slavery, and indeed saw slavery as an issue splitting the country, he was not about to allow slavery to tear apart the United States.

At his first inauguration in March 1861, he announced his support of a constitutional amendment that would deny government the right ever to interfere with slavery as an American institution.

He assured states that if they remained loyal to the Union, no steps would be taken to free their slaves, at least by him. Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri, and their slaves, remained in the Union.

When war finally came, one Union commander, Gen. James Fremont, freed slaves in occupied territories. Lincoln ordered him to stop this. U.S. law, not just an individual state's law, regarded slaves as the property of their owners. Lincoln felt that U.S. law had to be enforced, by him as well as by the general.

In a famous correspondence with Horace Greeley, who was impatient with the president's hesitancy toward total abolition of slavery, Lincoln wrote that if he could save the Union without freeing a single slave, he would do so.

Then, changing circumstances led Lincoln to free slaves in seceding states, but not in states still loyal to the Union. It was part of an extended policy of weakening the war effort in the South and, at the same time, winning British public opinion over to the Union's side.

What happened then was that the whole notion of freedom for slaves took hold. The immorality of slavery took hold. Lincoln championed it. Even some slave owners in the South questioned slavery.

By the end of the war, Lincoln was no longer just personally opposed to slavery, but he had developed the conviction that he, and every American, had the moral obligation to end slavery, finally and completely, sooner rather than later.

When a constitutional amendment to eliminate slavery was proposed, Lincoln supported it. He learned that the ultimate problem was not about keeping the Union intact, or about allowing everyone to treat others any way they wanted to, or that legality made things right. He learned what honoring the dignity of each human being requires. 

Americans today who are devoted to the right of the unborn to life cannot lose any opportunity to try to change the minds of these politicians who identify themselves as Catholics but will not oppose abortion.

But neither can pro-life Americans miss any chance to change the minds of their friends and neighbors who "personally oppose" abortion but think that no American can impose a personal view on anyone else.

A cherished American notion is that no one should force a personal opinion on anyone else. This same argument was strong at the time of slavery. "I personally would not own a slave, but slavery is legal, and who am I to demand that others be deprived of owning slaves if they think the practice is all right?"

Laws must be based upon morality. So must court rulings. But when it comes to abortion people's hearts must change.

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor and editor of OSV's The Priest magazine. He was named a member of the Pontifical Council for Social Commun-ications in 2006.