Editor’s Note: This article is part of a symposium titled “Abortion after Dobbs.” We asked seven Commonweal contributors, from various backgrounds and with various views, to discuss what the Supreme Court’s recent decision is likely to mean for abortion law, American politics, and the creation of a “culture of life” worthy of the name.
The 1850s were a rough time in American history. The historian James McPherson recounts the story of a jury that convicted a slave trader who had illegally imported slaves from Africa (the trade had been banned since 1808). The jury was subjected to such vicious public threats that they collectively issued a public recantation of their verdict. In it, they distanced themselves from the “pretended philanthropy and diseased mental aberration of ‘higher law’ fanatics.” The term “higher law” had become a common term used by radical abolitionists to justify their refusal to follow mandates like the Fugitive Slave Act. Obviously, the scare quotes were intended to suggest how skeptical these Southerners were toward any appeal to a higher law. And it wasn’t only Southerners who defined abolitionists as fanatics. In 1863, “Peace Democrats” in the North sought to strike a compromise with the South instead of, as they put it, causing further “bloodshed to gratify a religious fanaticism.”
In the period between 1853 and 1863, it was not obvious that the position of radical abolitionists—that all slaveholding should be outlawed and that former slaves should be granted an equality of civil freedom—would ever prevail. Certainly, in the 1850s, this position was quite outside the mainstream. Lincoln even spent the first years of the Civil War insisting that his aim was not to end slavery or enact Black equality. Indeed, certain anti-slavery extremists like John Brown were constantly held up as proof of the violent nature of this religious fanaticism; lurid descriptions of what would happen if abolitionists had their way ratified the worst Southern fears. Gradually, the outrageous behavior of many pro-slavery fanatics, especially those zealous to expand slavery to the territories using any means necessary, nudged both politicians and ordinary citizens toward the abolitionists’ side. Still, it’s safe to say that the more common view of slavery was a kind of ambivalence. Most Americans certainly did not hold slaves, but their distaste for slavery stemmed as much from an idealization of the nobility of honest “free labor” and a resentment of the power exercised by Southerners in national politics as it did from any sense that slavery was wrong. Nor did many really know what would happen after slavery ended. Even among the slaveholding Founders, there was clearly an intention to manage a kind of gradual disappearance of slavery. But how, exactly? Would former slaves be sent back to Africa, as some thought? Most citizens of antebellum America, in the North as well as in the South, would not have endorsed racial equality. The pity of many white Americans was aroused by accounts of the inhumanity of slavery, like in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But this pity was not always accompanied by respect for Black civic equality.
How, then, did a minority holding a view outside the mainstream and derided as “religious fanatics” within a divided and ambivalent culture finally win the day? And what exactly constituted “winning”? These are really the two questions that all opponents of abortion ought to be asking themselves in the wake of Dobbs. As Alasdair MacIntyre writes, “the history of any society is in key part the history of an extended conflict or set of conflicts,” most importantly about justice, but also inevitably about the moral reasoning of the society in general. The enslavement of Black people and the subsequent history of racial injustice is one such defining conflict about justice and natural rights; abortion has surely become another. We must not imagine that the conflict is of marginal importance because voters may now be more concerned about, say, inflation. The issue of slavery was not a central one in the minds of many ordinary people in the 1850s. But by then, there had already been decades of struggle between two groups of cultural elites for whom the issue had particular moral importance, and that struggle was only intensifying.