In October of 1860, just prior to the start of the American Civil War, James Russell Lowell penned an essay entitled “The Election in November” for the Atlantic in which he endorsed Abraham Lincoln for President. Mr. Lowell believed that Lincoln “had experience enough in public affairs to make him a statesman, and not enough to make him a politician.” This, Lowell hoped, would provide Mr. Lincoln with the skills and wisdom that would be needed to find a way out of the problem facing our divided nation: How to finesse the mortal sin of slavery without tearing the nation asunder.
Slavery had fatally corrupted both our nation and its leaders. Mr. Lowell summed up its effects thusly: “It has compelled our politicians into that first fatal compromise with their moral instincts which makes all consequent ones easy; it has accustomed us to makeshifts instead of statesmanship, to subterfuge instead of policy, to party platforms for opinions, and to a defiance of the public sentiment of the civilized world for patriotism.” Mr. Lowell further noted the moral relativism of slavery in relation to the free and slave states, writing that “when [a slave] leaves Virginia, it is a thing; when it arrives in Boston, it becomes a man . . .” The abandonment of morality for expediency had for many decades necessitated a peculiar blindness that afflicted many who were both desperate to avoid the conflict but were also devastatingly aware that it was inevitable because lazy compromise soiled all Americans—regardless of their beliefs regarding this issue.
Perhaps the one salutary effect of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the now famous (or infamous) Dobbs decision is that Americans can no longer avoid discussing the morality, legality, and practicality of abortion. The fantasy that legal abortion was somehow squirreled away between the commas in The Constitution has been discarded, and a war between the states—in this case between those who allow abortion and those who do not—is now forced upon us.
Many questions that could at one time be ignored can no longer be forestalled.
Americans and their leaders today must reckon with those first fatal compromises of our own moral instincts that have for many decades permitted a procedure that snuffs out a human life—whether actual or potential—as a consequence. Indeed, vitally important questions regarding whether a human life begins at conception, viability, or birth are now unavoidable. Much as the question of whether a slave became a human being based solely on their physical location was argued during Mr. Lowell’s time, the matter of whether a fully-formed and viable child is completely disposable until the moment it travels down a woman’s birth canal is one we are now compelled to address without compromise. The opportunity for studied and slovenly equivocation has now been removed.
Much as was the case prior to the fateful election of 1860, today our politicians are looking to the November elections for answers to questions that escape a neat and easy resolution. Should we somehow—to use an appropriate yet sickening Solomonic analogy—continue to slice a baby in half in order to circumvent all the moral, ethical, and legal issues we now must confront?
It is likely that, as in 1860, we will require leaders who are statesmen instead of politicians if we are to find the answers to the many questions we can no longer avoid. This is a time for soul searching and not glib sloganeering or snark.
Whether we still have it within ourselves to connect with ideas, values, and beliefs that transcend our own narrow concerns will certainly be a test for many—but perhaps ultimately a welcome one. Democracy requires both our diligent effort and our earned consent, and we have perhaps forgotten that Americans who are too indolent to listen and learn are unworthy of citizenship in the great country we today too often take for granted.
Also published in The News-Gazette (news-gazette.com) August 3, 2022 under the title “Supreme Court’s Ruling Will Force a Reckoning on Abortion in U.S.”