In many years of offering pastoral counseling, one thing became very clear to me: Marriages struggle and break up because of issues that were problematic but unresolved before the wedding.
A moment’s thought will show why this is so. Problems bring people together unless they are problems between the people. So a financial crisis, for example, will either strengthen the bond between a husband and wife or it will expose a flaw in that bond, possibly straining it to the breaking point.
I think of this often when I study either the founding of our nation or the Civil War, that great test of the American dream. The Civil War did not create a problem for the United States.Rather, it exposed a flaw that had been there from the beginning. It should have been corrected long before 1776 and should certainly have never been built into the Constitution.
That problem was slavery.
One of my ancestors arrived at the struggling Jamestown colony in 1608, just a year after the first arrivals. He may have been living there even in 1619. If so, he would have seen the first African slaves to reach the land that would someday be called the United States of America. They weren’t deliberately imported but were traded by a ship’s captain in exchange for supplies. It may well be that the Africans were considered not slaves but indentured servants, working for a time to pay off the expenses of those who received them from the captain. Even so, they were captives, not volunteers, so they certainly were in a different category from other indentured servants.
It seems there may have been no lifetime slaves into later in the 17th century. The record is unclear for a time but there is no doubt that lifetime servitude was well established by the end of the century. It is no coincidence that it was strongest in Virginia, where the primary crop was the labor-intensive tobacco leaf.
Slavery became increasingly important to the southern economy during that century but received an enormous boost with the invention of the cotton gin. It allowed the processing of cotton with greatly increased speed and efficiency. Cotton growers had a seemingly unlimited market for their valuable crop. The problem was that the picking of the cotton was even more labor-intensive than tobacco. To make money in the international marketplace, the growers relied on the cheapest labor possible: slavery. It made economic sense, though few in the South seemed to have asked whether it made moral sense.
The human heart can adapt itself to evil with simple exposure over time, especially when the evil “solves” another large problem. History proves that again and again, witness for example the way Germany accepted Hitler’s evil in order to find some sort of economic stability.
By the time Lincoln was elected, the South had built its entire economy and society on slavery. They rationalized it in numerous ways but never had the moral courage simply to renounce it. As an Evangelical, it makes me ashamed that people who thought of themselves as Bible believers defended slavery as ardently as the next fellow.
The southerners were right about one thing: The election of Abraham Lincoln, though he was a moderate who favored the gradual eradication of slavery, was a severe threat to the entire southern culture. The only question was whether the South would surrender its way of life before or after a great war.
The founding fathers, though a great many of them, saw slavery as a problem, did not consider it serious enough to warrant correction. They built it into the Constitution, in what we now think of as a bizarre contradiction of the Declaration of Independence. We had declared independence in the name of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Constitution, sad to say, agreed with the southern idea that these “unalienable rights” could be alienated for some people for the economic benefit of others.
George Washington had slaves. Thomas Jefferson had slaves. Both knew it to be wrong but neither had the courage to face the financial challenge of freeing their slaves. Oh, if only they could have seen how much devastation would come four score and seven years later!