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Tim Stafford

Abolition's Hidden History

How black argument led to white commitment.

It is a continuing puzzle to me that Americans know so little about abolition. This great social movement began with barely a handful of men and women, faced fierce and violent opposition, convinced half the country to view slavery as morally wrong, and ultimately created the moral crisis of the Civil War. This is the sort of tale you want to tell schoolchildren. However, nobody tells this story to schoolchildren, or to anybody else. Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War are endlessly masticated as though they suddenly popped into history full grown, their brooding ambiguities already formed. This is like studying World War II without mentioning Nazism, or Jesus without Israel.

Perhaps we forget the abolitionists because even today they make us face the unresolved guilty ambiguities of race. The abolitionists were first to recognize race as fundamentally a moral issue—not political or economic or biological. Even more, they stuck racial immorality in the face of their fellow citizens until America had to deal with it. We, like the abolitionists' contemporaries, would rather read American history as economics, politics, or war, all done and gone and having little claim on our lives.

Recently at Princeton Seminary I saw a plaque dedicated to Princeton graduate Elijah Lovejoy, an abolitionist who, according to the plaque, gave his life fighting for the freedom of the press. I had to laugh at that. What an extremely odd way to summarize the life and death of an abolitionist editor who was murdered while he tried to keep a mob from dumping yet another of his printing presses into the Mississippi River. Lovejoy believed in the freedom of the press, certainly, but that was not what he died for. No abstract constitutional principle could have so captured his life; it is purely a twentieth-century fantasy to put it so. He died for the slaves, because he believed Christ had commanded him to share in their struggle.

Such a twisting of history would never have been done by Paul ...

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