We previously posted an excerpt on the “sacred right” of secession (or “revolution”) written by Princeton theologian Charles Hodge. Surprising as that may have been, it hardly means Hodge supported southern aims. Earlier in the same essay, he argued what everyone knew at the time, but so many deny today: the South seceded over slavery. Not only was it over the perpetuation of the institution, but specifically the extention of it, as we argued the other day. Hodge saw this clearly.
Southerners began making attempts immediately after the war to pretend it had only been about constitutional issues, and to bury the issue of slavery virtually altogether. The damage control turned into the full-on creation of a mythology during the Lost Cause era (1880 or so and forward). It is strongly embraced today as gospel truth. Hodge’s contemporary witness, among many others, tells a quite different story.
(From “President Lincoln,” by Charles Hodge, The Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review 37, no. 3, July 1865.)
No Christian can look upon the events of the last four years without being deeply impressed with the conviction that they have been ordered by God to produce great and lasting changes in the state of the country, and probably of the world. Few periods of equal extent in the history of our race are likely to prove more influential in controlling the destinies of men. Standing, as we now do, at the close of one stage at least of this great epoch, it becomes us to look back and to look around us, that we may in some measure understand what God has wrought.
Although at the South, and by the partisans of the Southern cause at the North, the cause of the desolating war just brought to a close has been sought elsewhere than in the interests of slavery, the conviction is almost universal, both at home and abroad, that the great design and desire of the authors of the late rebellion were the perpetuation and extension of the system of African slavery. That this conviction is well-founded is plain, because slavery has been from the formation of the government the great source of contention between the two sections of the country; because the immediate antecedents of secession were the attempts to extend slavery into the free Territories of the Union; the abrogation of the Missouri compromise, in order to facilitate that object; the Dred Scott decision, which shocked and roused the whole country, because it was regarded as proof that even the Supreme Court, the sacred palladium of our institutions, had become subservient to the slave power. The reaction produced by these attempts to perpetuate and extend the institution of slavery, led to the election of Mr. Lincoln, on the avowed platform that while slavery was not to be interfered with within the limits of the States which had adopted the institution, its extension to the free Territories belonging to the United States was to be strenuously resisted. The success of the party holding this principle was the immediate occasion of secession, and the formation of the Southern Confederacy.
Besides these obvious facts, it is notorious that the public mind at the South had been exasperated by exaggerated accounts of the anti-slavery feeling at the North, and inflamed by glowing descriptions of an empire founded on slavery, where all property and power should be concentrated in the hands of slaveholders, and all labour performed by slaves. This was advocated as the best organization of society, as the only secure foundation for what was called free institutions, and the only method in which the highest development of man was to be attained. Accordingly slavery was declared to be the cornerstone of the new Confederacy; slaveholders were called upon by the Richmond editors to sustain the burdens of the war, because the war was made for them; and the editor of the leading journal in Charleston, South Carolina, declared that the South sought and desired independence only for the sake of slavery; that if slavery were to be given up, they care not for independence. It cannot therefore be reasonably doubted that the great design of the authors of the rebellion was the extension and preservation of the system of African slavery.
As little can it be doubted that this was a most unrighteous end without going to the unscriptural extreme of maintaining that all slaveholding is sinful, two things are, in the judgment of the Christian world, undeniable; first, that however it may be right in certain states of society and for the time being to hold a class of men in the condition of involuntary bondage, any effort to keep any such class in a state of inferiority or degradation, in order to perpetuate slavery, is a great crime against God and man; and, secondly, that the slave laws of the South, being evidently designed to accomplish that end, were unscriptural, immoral, and in the highest degree cruel and unjust. It is self-evident that only an inferior race can permanently be held in slavery, and it is therefore unavoidable that the effort to perpetuate slavery involves the necessity of the perpetual degradation of a class of our fellow-men. Such was the design and effect of the laws which forbade slaves to be taught to read or write; which prohibited their holding property; which made it a legal axiom that slaves cannot marry; which authorized the separation of parents and children, and of those living as husbands and wives. These laws, which no Christian can justify, had been for more than a century operating at the South. The state of the slaves therefore in 1860 was little, if any, better than it was a hundred years before. Household servants, and, to a certain degree, the slaves in the Border States, had made advances in knowledge and in their social condition; but the great mass of the bondmen in the cotton, rice, and sugar plantations was to the last degree degraded. The journal of Mrs. Fanny Kemble, written a few years ago, photographs these Southern plantations, the slaves, their habitations, their food, dress, and social state, their sufferings and wrongs, in such a way as to compel faith in the fidelity of the picture, while it revolts and horrifies the beholder.
To lament over this system as an evil entailed by former generations, to admit that it ought not to be perpetuated, and to acknowledge the obligation to labour for its removal, is one thing; to maintain that the system which necessitates this degradation of millions of our race, is a good system, which ought to be continued and extended, is a very different thing. It is the great revolution which the high price of Southern productions, and the consequent profitableness of slavery, wrought in the opinions and feelings of Southern men on this subject, which is the true cause of the terrible evils which have rendered the South a desolation. It could not be that an offence so great as the indefinite perpetuity of a system so fraught with evil, and the avowal of the purpose not only to perpetuate but to extend it, could long continue without provoking the Divine displeasure.
There is not one man in a thousand who will not be more or less corrupted by the possession of absolute power, even when that power is legitimate. But when it is illegitimate, and requires for its security the constant exercise of injustice, no community and no human being can escape its demoralizing influence. This is evinced in the cast of character which it produces; the arrogance, insubordination, recklessness of the interests and rights of others, the loss of the power to restrain the passions which have few external restraints, which it unavoidably engenders. The moral sense becomes perverted by the necessity of justifying what is wrong, so that we see even good men, men whom we must regard as children of God, vindicating what every unprejudiced mind instinctively perceives to be wrong. It is enough to humble the whole Christian world to hear our Presbyterian brethren in the South declaring that the great mission of the Southern church was to conserve the system of African slavery. Since the death of Christ no such dogma stains the record of an ecclesiastical body. We are not called upon to dwell on the manifold evils, which, until recently, even Southern statesmen and Christians acknowledged to be the inevitable fruits of slavery.
(The full piece can be accessed here.)