Among the much reading I did for the forthcoming book on American slavery and racism, about half ended up helpful or interesting. Some of it was drudgery. Some, however, gave a little delight and a spark of hope, as well as a little surprise. Among the more remarkably surprising little bits was Charles Hodge’s article penned on the occasion of Lincoln’s assassination. Would you believe this northerner, opponent of slavery, and supporter of Lincoln, nevertheless upheld the right to secession, which he called “revolution”?
While I find the piece to be far to hagiographical of Lincoln himself, it contains several surprising notes. Hodge gives a remarkably clear and convincing review of why slavery was indeed the cause of the war, and he also notes just as clearly and firmly that Lincoln did not wage war to free the slaves but rather to save the Union whatever else may happen.
But when he turns to the question that many people were urging the execution of Southern rebels for war crimes, he provides the human race with one of the finest little gems of theological and moral writing ever put to paper. Here we see man of principle remaining consistent with his principles even under social pressure. The excerpt on the “sacred” right of revolution is as follows:
(From “President Lincoln,” by Charles Hodge, The Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review 37, no. 3, July 1865.)
The right of revolution is a sacred right of freedom. It is a right which, if Englishmen and Americans had not claimed and exercised, despotism had now been universal and inexorable. It is of special moment in times of popular excitement, that great principles of moral and of civil policy should be kept constantly in view. It is plain that rebellion as homicide, may be an atrocious crime, or justifiable, or commendable, according to circumstance. Whereas moral offences are always, and under all circumstances, evil. A good thief, or good murderer, is as much a solecism as good wickedness. But a good rebel is no such solecism. Hampden was a rebel, so was Washington; they and thousands of other good men have risen in armed resistance to constituted authority, and such resistance has been justified by the verdict of the enlightened conscience of the world.
But even when rebellion is not justifiable; nay, when it is not only a great mistake, but really a great crime in itself considered, it does not necessarily follow that those who commit it must be wicked men. It is often the effect of wrong political theories. In the protracted wars In England, between the house of York and Lancaster, good men were found on either side. So also, in the war between Charles I and the Parliament; between the adherents of the Stuarts and the house of Hanover. It did not follow that a man was wicked because he conscientiously believed that the Pretender was legally entitled to the British throne. A man might be a Christian, and believe that the Salic law bound the Spanish nation, and rendered it incumbent on him to be a Carlist. In like manner it cannot be doubted that thousands of our Southern brethren religiously believed that their allegiance was due first to their several States, then, and only conditionally to the Union. This does not infer moral depravity. No sane man can believe that all the Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist clergy and laity, who entered into the rebellion, were unrenewed, wicked men.
There is, therefore, a distinction between political offences and ordinary crime, and to treat both alike would be a violation of the plainest principles of justice. This is not saying that rebellion, except for adequate cause, is not a moral offence; nor is it saying that the late Southern rebellion was not a great crime, for such it assuredly was; nor is it saying that because a man think a thing is right, to him it is right; but it is saying that there may be a great difference between the criminality of an act in itself, and the blameworthiness of the offenders. Men forget what a strange anomalous thing human nature is. There have been pious persecutors, and pious slave-traders. The Scotch Covenanters believed that it was the duty of the civil magistrate to suppress false religions, and therefore they felt justified, in treating their opponents as their opponents treated them. Samuel hewed Agag in pieces, they believed heretics should be put to death. John Newton (author of hymns still sung in all our churches,) was a slave-trader after his conversion. Why, then, must we take it for granted that every man who aided the rebellion was in heart a reprobate[?] . . .
(The full piece can be accessed here.)