Archive for the ‘slavery’ Tag

Happy birthday, Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln, about two weeks before giving the Gettysburg Address

Abraham Lincoln, about two weeks before giving the Gettysburg Address

Today is the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln (and of Charles Darwin too; they were born within hours of each other).  Given the bicentennial, it might be fitting and proper to explore some of Lincoln’s writings.

This blog has already shared the Gettysburg Address on another occasion; it is surely one of the greatest speeches ever given in the English language, and has few peers in any language.  His Second Inaugural Address (Wikipedia article, with text) is another excellent and short piece of oratory, and is highly recommended.  The peroration is a classic, and is probably familiar to many, even if they can’t place it:

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

But many of Lincoln’s lesser-known speeches are likewise excellent.  To select just one, I highly recommend an address that he delivered in Milwaukee to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society on 30 September 1859.  The speech as a whole is most excellent, and the full text is available here, among other places.  The topic of the speech is progress, primarily technological, which in Lincoln’s day meant better plows, new fencing technology, railroads, canals, and the like.  Again, the peroration is excellent, and alone was worth any admission price:

It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: “And this, too, shall pass away.” How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride!—how consoling in the depths of affliction! “And this, too, shall pass away.” And yet let us hope it is not quite true. Let us hope, rather, that by the best cultivation of the physical world, beneath and around us; and the intellectual and moral world within us, we shall secure an individual, social, and political prosperity and happiness, whose course shall be onward and upward, and which, while the earth endures, shall not pass away.

The above is a sentiment that I try to keep in mind.  I also try to remember what Lincoln wrote circa 1854 about the nature and purpose of government:

The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves—in their separate and individual capacities.  In all that the people can individually do as well for themselves, the government ought not to interfere.

A pre-beard Abraham Lincoln in 1846 or 1847

A pre-beard Abraham Lincoln in 1846 or 1847

Only John Stuart Mill has come close to so excellently summing up the raison d’être of government, and we’d be much better off if more shared the sentiment.  In that same fragment, Lincoln concludes “it appears that if all men were just, there would be some, though not so much need of government.” (Cf. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”—Federalist No. 51)  It is only with great regret that I omit the remainder of that item for purposes of space.

Another interesting short item contains Lincoln’s musing on slavery, again circa 1854, which seems to echo Kant’s categorical imperative, involving reasoning that can—and should—apply to far more than simply the peculiar institution:

If A. can prove, however conclusively, that he may, of right, enslave B.—why may not B. snatch the same argument, and prove equally, that he may enslave A?—

You say A. is white, and B. is black. It is color, then; the lighter, having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own.

You do not mean color exactly?—You mean the whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks, and, therefore have the right to enslave them? Take care again. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to your own.

But, say you, it is a question of interest; and, if you can make it your interest, you have the right to enslave another. Very well. And if he can make it his interest, he has the right to enslave you.

Finally, consider what is possibly the most extraordinary missive ever sent from a head of government to one of his generals in the field.  In a letter dated 26 January 1863, shortly after General Joseph Hooker was given the most important command in the army at a pivotal point in the Civil War, Lincoln addressed him as follows:

I have placed you at the head of the Army of the Potomac.  Of course I have done this upon what appear to me to be sufficient reasons.  And yet I think it best for you to know that there are some things in regard to which I am not quite satisfied with you. I believe you to be a brave and skillful soldier, which, of course, I like. I also believe you do not mix politics with your profession, in which you are right. You have confidence in yourself, which is valuable, if not an indispensable quality. You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm. … I hear, in such a way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government needed a Dictator. Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain success, can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship. … Beware of rashness, but with energy, and sleepless vigilance, go forward, and give us victories.  Yours very truly

History shows that Hooker did not become dictator; despite being a good general, he didn’t live up to his potential as commander of the Army of the Potomac and was replaced by Gen. George Meade shortly before the Battle of Gettysburg.

In any event, I hope you will spend some time today to consider Abraham Lincoln’s accomplishments and what we each can do to achieve and cherish a just and lasting society, among ourselves, and with all nations.

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Newsweek says Bible supports gay marriage. They’re right.

Newsweek magazine has an excellent cover story in their most recent issue that argues that the Bible does not support the position of same-sex marriage opponents, despite their claims that it does. The article opens with this:

Let’s try for a minute to take the religious conservatives at their word and define marriage as the Bible does. Shall we look to Abraham, the great patriarch, who slept with his servant when he discovered his beloved wife Sarah was infertile? Or to Jacob, who fathered children with four different women (two sisters and their servants)? Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon and the kings of Judah and Israel—all these fathers and heroes were polygamists. The New Testament model of marriage is hardly better. Jesus himself was single and preached an indifference to earthly attachments—especially family. The apostle Paul (also single) regarded marriage as an act of last resort for those unable to contain their animal lust. “It is better to marry than to burn with passion,” says the apostle, in one of the most lukewarm endorsements of a treasured institution ever uttered. Would any contemporary heterosexual married couple—who likely woke up on their wedding day harboring some optimistic and newfangled ideas about gender equality and romantic love—turn to the Bible as a how-to script?

This book supports same-sex marriage rights; it doesn't oppose them

This book is supportive of same-sex marriage rights

The authors point out that fifteen decades ago the Bible was used to support (and to oppose) human slavery.  They also point out the many ways that the institution of marriage has already changed, both since the Mosaic Code was written and within the past few years. They deal with the anti-homosexuality passages in the Bible, albeit with a bit less skill and thoroughness, and give a status update on the state of same-sex unions in various U.S. denominations.  Further polling data on how Americans view same-sex unions and homosexuality are also included.  (See also my prior post, Newsweek poll: support for gay rights is up.)

The article argues that, far from supporting the position of same-sex marriage opponents—who too often go unchallenged theologically—the Bible supports an inclusive view of the institution.

The religious argument for gay marriage …  “is not generally made with reference to particular texts, but with the general conviction that the Bible is bent toward inclusiveness.”

The practice of inclusion, even in defiance of social convention, the reaching out to outcasts, the emphasis on togetherness and community over and against chaos, depravity, indifference—all these biblical values argue for gay marriage. If one is for racial equality and the common nature of humanity, then the values of stability, monogamy and family necessarily follow. The religious argument for gay marriage, he adds, “is not generally made with reference to particular texts, but with the general conviction that the Bible is bent toward inclusiveness.”

Not surprisingly, the article, “Gay Marriage: Our Mutual Joy” (available online here), has proven pretty controversial.  The usual suspects among conservative religious groups is accusing Newsweek of blasphemy, relativism, and the whole gamut of their normal charges.  The magazine’s editor anticipated this and wrote in the issue that “Religious conservatives will say that the liberal media are once again seeking to impose their values (or their ‘agenda,’ a favorite term to describe the views of those who disagree with you) on a God-fearing nation.”  He continued, “Let the letters and emails come. History and demographics are on the side of those who favor inclusion over exclusion.”

Whether you’re inclined to agree with it or not, I highly recommend you check out the article for yourself and make up your own mind.