I was amazed to read Kirkpatrick Sale’s vile condemnation of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. It seemed to me a strange way to mark next Tuesday’s 150th anniversary of that remarkable document, but I won’t second-guess the wisdom of The Post and Courier. Perhaps Mr. Sale’s views were aired in the spirit of free speech. After all, how better to demonstrate this newspaper’s commitment to the marketplace of ideas than to publish views so offensive to the sensibilities of the community?
Let us then engage Mr. Sale in the spirit of free debate. I begin at the rear end of his argument: that equality is “impossibly abstract” and in trying to achieve it we must construct the gigantic, oppressive machinery of a centralized state.
Sale tells us that aspiring for equality was something invented by Lincoln, a deviation from the Founding Fathers, who thought inequality was natural and that aristocracy was preferable to government by the people. Why else, Sale reasons, did they build slavery into the Constitution?
Why indeed? Nearly every delegate to the Constitutional Convention believed in equality. They thought slavery stained the nation and ought to be cleaned out.
To take just one example, Luther Martin of Maryland said that slavery was “inconsistent with the principles of the Revolution” and “dishonorable to the American character.” Like Lincoln, most delegates recognized that equality was an aspiration — something to be accomplished gradually, and they wanted to give the federal government the power to do so.
So why didn’t they? Because South Carolina threatened to stay out of the Union. And because John Rutledge, Charles Pinckney, and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, all men of Charleston, led the other delegates to believe that South Carolina eventually would do of its own accord, on its own timetable, what the “abstract” Declaration of Independence demanded.
Of course Rutledge and the Pinckneys were dissembling. They hobbled the powers of the federal government to make sure the machinery of our state government could stay as destructive of individual rights as it had been before the Revolution. The villain in this story is state, not federal, power.
From the very beginning, equality was the irrepressible philosophy of this nation, wildflowers blooming at the edges of every repressive law. In fact, it took a lot of hard work by a few greedy aristocratic legislators from South Carolina to make sure the fact of equality would not bloom over the whole South, where the idea of equality already flourished.
One of the worst examples of that vigilance came in 1836. Francis Pickens of Edgefield told Congress that Thomas Jefferson had not been in earnest, that his idealism carried him away into spasms of abstraction, that “all men are created equal” was no “truth.” A frank look at reality, Pickens reasoned, demonstrated that inequality was preferable to equality.
Mr. Sale would have us believe that this view was normal among Northerners and Southerners even in 1776. Yet in 1836 very few people outside South Carolina took it seriously. Pickens was a sort of crackpot.
But the crackpot knew exactly what he was doing. He had to repudiate the Declaration of Independence in order to pave the way for John C. Calhoun’s more radical idea that slavery was a “positive good” and ordained by God and nature. That distorted, self-serving, revisionist history of our nation’s birth eventually led the South into the Civil War.
And let us make no mistake about what caused the Civil War: If Lincoln equivocated about his reasons, the white South Carolinians who started the war did not. They fought to preserve their “civilization,” which meant slave society. Many even fought with the hope of launching a slave empire throughout Latin America. To deny this point is the sophistry of apologists too timid to face facts.
The truth is, only the machinery of South Carolina’s government could have prevented the weed-like growth of this most American belief in equality: laws forbidding men and women of conscience from manumitting their slaves, laws disabling free people of color, laws forbidding the education of slaves, laws forbidding black churches, laws censoring free speech among whites, laws forbidding citizens to petition their government, laws preventing the distribution of literature, laws imprisoning foreign sailors, loyalty oaths, “lynch” law, and all kinds of laws binding the hands and minds of enlightened Southerners until, after a generation of these grinding gears, all thought of equality and liberty was crushed out of the South.
By 1861, nearly every white Carolinian was the product of Calhoun’s political correctness, and they recited the same nonsense about inequality that Sale published a week before the anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
Joe Kelly is an English professor at the College of Charleston and the author of “America’s Longest Siege: Charleston, Slavery and the Slow March toward Civil War.”