The Debate over Slavery: Antislavery and Proslavery Liberalism in Antebellum America

By David F. Ericson | Go to book overview

7

The “House Divided” and
Civil-War Causation

In the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln suggested a theory of civil-war causation based on a fundamental antagonism between Northern and Southern definitions of liberty.

The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the
American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for
liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing.
With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases
with himself, and the produce of his labor; while with others the same
word may mean for some men to do what they please with other men,
and the produce of other men's labor. Here are two, not only different,
but incompatable [sic] things called by the same name—liberty. And it
follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two
different and incompatable [sic] names—liberty and tyranny.1

Lincoln believed that the Northern definition of liberty was clearly the superior one, since it was the definition of the sheep, as opposed to the definition of the wolf. The shepherd who armed himself with the first definition to drive “the wolf from the sheep's throat” seemed to have the better of the argument, although his advantage was not as great as he or the sheep might have wished. Southern proslavery figures obviously would have presented their definition of liberty in a nobler light than Lincoln did. But they would have agreed with him that they applied liberal principles to the Southern institution of racial slavery in a quite different way than he and other Northern opponents of the institution did.2

The question Lincoln left unanswered in this speech was why the nation could not have existed as a house divided, with each section allowing the other to pursue its own definition of liberty in its own way. He had offered an answer to that question six years earlier,

-157-

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The Debate over Slavery: Antislavery and Proslavery Liberalism in Antebellum America
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • Part I 1
  • 1: The Liberal Consensus Thesis and Slavery 3
  • 2: The Antislavery and Proslavery Arguments 14
  • Part II 37
  • 3: Child, Douglass, and Antislavery Liberalism 39
  • 4: Wendell Phillips Liberty and Union 62
  • Part III 91
  • 5: Dew, Fitzhugh, and Proslavery Liberalism 93
  • 6: James H. Hammond Slavery and Union 121
  • Part IV 155
  • 7: The “house Divided” and Civil-War Causation 157
  • Notes 167
  • Index 235
  • About the Author 241
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