A Tale of Two Abolitionists
An excellent movie released six years ago, “Amazing Grace,” depicted the life of William Wilberforce and his ultimately successful efforts to abolish, first, the British Slave Trade in 1806, and then slavery throughout the English empire with the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. He did so entirely peacefully, through the British parliamentary system. It was a long and arduous struggle, and he is rightly depicted as a man of deep religious conviction who dedicated his entire life to this noble cause.
Last weekend Steven Spielberg’s biopic, “Lincoln”, was released, concentrating on the several weeks of Lincoln’s similarly successful machinations to have the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery passed by Congress.
While the carnage and horrors of the Civil War make brief appearances, the movie focuses on the political back-room deal-making, horse-trading, and scheming surrounding Lincoln’s championing of the amendment.
In this, then, the two movies similarly deal with slavery as public policy, and how laws abolishing the practice were passed.
Which then begs the question—why, then, the American Civil War?
If, ultimately, what did away with slavery was a change in the law of the land, which passage of the 13th Amendment accomplished in America in 1865 what the Slavery Abolition Act accomplished throughout the British empire in 1833, why did 620,000 Americans out of a population of 30 million die horrific deaths in a war supposed to have been to “end slavery” in the U.S., with no war required to abolish it anywhere else?
In the book, Time on the Cross, by Fogel and Engerman, they do a survey of emancipation in this time period, and they find that dozens of countries, including the British Empire, the Spanish Empire, the French and Danish colonies—dozens of countries ended slavery peacefully through some sort of compensated emancipation.
…The one big quandary is, why didn’t we do what every other country in the world did during the previous 50 years that ended slavery, and end it peacefully through compensated emancipation?
Numerous scholars have done superb work studying the issues around the Civil War and Lincoln’s despotic rule during it, and Spielberg’s movie includes the president’s musing aloud upon the legality of his actions. In addition to unleashing total war against the South, instituting a draft, and violently suppressing draft riots in New York, he famously suspended habeas corpus, censored all telegraph communication, nationalized railroads, and ordered federal troops to interfere in Northern elections.
Lincoln deported Ohio Congressman Clement Vallandigham for disagreeing with him. He confiscated firearms. Ministers in the South were imprisoned for not praying for Abraham Lincoln. Secretary of State William Seward set up a secret police force, and he famously boasted to Lord Lyons, the British Ambassador, that he could ring a bell and have any man in America arrested.
Steven Spielberg is, of course, a master filmmaker, and “Lincoln” is no exception, with a superb cast. But for a tale of the principled fight to abolish slavery, see “Amazing Grace.” It is a far more satisfying tale of how one pursues noble ends—not through a wanton disregard for human life, liberty, and the rule of law under the guise of “the ends justifying the means.”
Meanwhile, the reader interested in further enlightenment on the question of why the United States, uniquely in all the history of the world, required a war to “end slavery”, should read the transcript or listen to the audio of the above-referenced debate; or check out any of the following wonderful resources on our site—and there are many more elsewhere:
- “The Great Centralizer: Abraham Lincoln and the War between the States,” by Thomas J. DiLorenzo
- “The Bloody Hinge of American History,” by Robert Higgs
- Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War, by Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, reviewed by Stanley L. Engerman
- “The Civil War: Liberty and American Leviathan,” featuring Henry Mayer and Jeffrey Rogers Hummel
- “Civil War and the American Political Economy,” by Joseph R. Stromberg
And, of course, Robert Higgs’s prescient classic, Crisis and Leviathan, now in a new 25th Anniversary Edition, tracing the growth of today’s leviathan state from its roots in the American Civil War and Lincoln’s precedent-setting power-grab.