Tuesday, May 19, 2009

How To Make The Unthinkable More Palatable -- One View

“Lincoln’s ever-repeated theme throughout the [Lincoln-Douglas] debates was that in a popular government, statutes and decisions are rendered possible or impossible of execution by public sentiment. It is in reference to such sentiment that legislatures and courts determine awhat they may and may not attempt. Lincoln did not believe that Taney’s court would have had either the incentive or the temerity to pronounce the [Dred Scott] decision of 1857 in 1854.

“First the Missouri Compromise had to be repealed;

“Second the doctrine of popular sovereignty, so called, erected into a campaign plank and an election carried under that obscure banner.

“Next, the people had to be taught, that in reelecting Democrats to office, they had had endorsed the constitutional opinion which had repealed the congressional power to restrict slavery in the territories as somehow improper, if not positively unlawful.

“Only when the idea of moral objectionableness of slavery, an idea enshrined in the Missouri Compromise, as it had been earlier enshrined in the Northwest Ordinance, had been replaced by the idea of moral indifference of slavery could the Court have attempted what it did attempt. Only as the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the party strategy which utilized it to change public sentiment, had in a measure succeeded was the Dred Scott decision deemed possible of execution and worth attempting.

“It was Lincoln’s contention, therefore, that if the Dred Scott decision could receive the endorsement at the polls which the Kansas-Nebraska Act had received – or, it should be said, of such an appearance of endorsement as Douglas and Buchanan claimed for it from the results of the 1856 elections – then still further revolutions might well be in store ….

“Once the idea of the sacrosanct character of property in slaves was firmly established, then indeed there might be another decision, which declared that no state had the power to prohibit slavery. Such a decision might appear intolerable and unenforceable now, Lincoln conceded. But did it appear more intolerable and unenforceable than the decision denying Congress the right to prohibit slavery in the territories would have appeared to Jefferson, Washington, Madison, either of the Adamses, or Monroe?”

Harry V. Jaffa –Crisis of the House Divided -- The University of Chicago Press (1959, 1982). Pages 286-287