A Trip to Gettysburg at the End of a Polarizing Election

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am taking a group of my students to Gettysburg this weekend and the timing is good for me as it will take me to a place that helps me put things in perspective, especially as this election goes into its last few days.

Even so I have a sense, a sense of dread that our country is soon to head into an abyss of violence no-matter who wins the election. The solid and reasonable center seems to have disappeared, moderates of all types are derided. Trump and his supporters have repeatedly called the election rigged and say that they may not accept the results, unless they win. Throughout the campaign Trump and his surrogates have hinted at violence, they have whipped up their supporter’s emotions into a virtual tempest of rage that is threatening to explode into real violence. In 1860 it was the Southern political and religious leadership which said that they would not abide the results of the election of Abraham Lincoln, ignoring Democrat Stephen Douglas who said:

“It is apprehended that the policy of Mr. Lincoln and the principles of his party endanger the peace of the slaveholding states. Is that apprehension founded? No, it is not. Mr. Lincoln and his party lack the power, even if they had the disposition, to disturb or impair the rights and institutions of the South. They certainly cannot harm the South under existing laws. Will they have the power to repeal or change these laws, or to enact others? It is well known that they will be a minority in both houses of Congress, with the Supreme Court against them. Hence no bill can pass either house of Congress impairing or disturbing these rights or institutions of the southern people in any manner whatever, unless a portion of southern senators and representatives absent themselves so as to give an abolition majority in consequence of their actions.

In short, the President will be utterly powerless to do evil…. Four years shall soon pass, when the ballot box will furnish a peaceful, legal, and constitutional remedy for the evils and grievances with which the country might be afflicted.”

Georgia Senator and future Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens had the greatest faith in the checks and balances provided in the Constitution and he pleaded with his fellow Georgians at the state capital of Milledgeville noting that the checks and balances “would render Lincoln “powerless to do any great mischief,” and he warned that “the dissolution of the Union would endanger this “Eden of the world,” that “instead of becoming gods, we shall become demons, and no distant day commence cutting one another’s throats…”

Louisiana Senator and future Confederate Secretary of the Treasury Judah Benjamin noted: “The prudent and conservative men South… were not able to stem the wild torrent of passion which is carrying everything before it…. It is a revolution…of the most intense character…and it can no more be checked by human effort, for the time, than a prairie fire by a gardener’s watering pot.”

Today reasonable people, including many Conservatives and Republicans are making similar observations about the dangers of Trump and how little people have to fear a Clinton presidency. But it will be for naught if the new fire-breathers that Trump has awakened respond as Southern did in 1860, responding not through reason but through blind fear and ideological hatred. Sadly, that kind of visceral response has not changed since Alexander Stephens and Judah Benjamin caved into the demands of the fire-eaters for secession and war, despite knowing that it would be a disaster. This is exactly how most supposedly responsible and moderate conservative Republicans are acting today. They too will be held responsible by history for not having the moral courage of Stephen Douglas to put the country and the constitution ahead of sectional interests. 

Northern abolitionist newspaper editor William Lloyd Garrison correctly judged the mood of the South when he wrote:

“Never had the truth of the ancient proverb “Whom the gods intend to destroy, they first make mad” been more signally illustrated than in the condition of southern slaveholders following Lincoln’s election. They were insane from their fears, their guilty forebodings, their lust for power and rule, hatred of free institutions, their merited consciousness of merited judgments; so that they may be properly classed as the inmates of a lunatic asylum. Their dread of Mr. Lincoln, of his Administration, of the Republican Party, demonstrated their insanity. In vain did Mr. Lincoln tell them, “I do not stand pledged to the abolition of slavery where it already exists.” They raved just as fiercely as though he were another John Brown, armed for southern invasion and universal emancipation! In vain did the Republican party present one point of antagonism to slavery – to wit, no more territorial expansion. In vain did that party exhibit the utmost caution not to give offense to any other direction – and make itself hoarse in uttering professions of loyalty to the Constitution and the Union. The South protested that its designs were infernal, and for them was “sleep no more!” Were these not the signs of a demented people?”

I feel that madness is true today of many of Trump’s supporters, his enablers in the GOP and media, and maybe of the man himself.

God help us all,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under civil rights, civil war, History, News and current events, Political Commentary

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