Wages of Sin

Claremont Review of Books, Spring 2004.


Among the young scholars in the 1950s who challenged the prevailing historical canon on slavery, no less than Fogel, was one he never mentions. Before the publication of Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, in 1959, there had been no book, or serious study of any kind, by American historians, on the great debates. The debates themselves were a lengthy sequel to Lincoln’s House Divided speech, which had declared that the government of the United States could not remain permanently half slave and half free. “Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the states, old as well as new, North as well as South.”

The debates had been ignored, because historians did not recognize the crisis that Lincoln believed existed, in which the nation would be compelled to choose either the path of freedom or of despotism. They did not believe in any such test, such as that asserted in the Gettysburg Address, as to whether popular government under the rule of law would survive. In substance, they agreed with Stephen Douglas that, as the framers and ratifiers of the Constitution had made a government half slave and half free, there was no reason why the nation could not continue indefinitely half slave and half free. All that was necessary, according to Douglas, was that the people of each state and territory decide for themselves, whether or not to have slavery among their domestic institutions. This was the doctrine of popular sovereignty, which Douglas held to be the true principle of American republicanism. Lincoln held to the very different doctrine, that all men are created equal, that the just powers of government are derived from the consent of the governed, and that no man, whether in a majority or minority, had any right to govern another man without his consent. This debate, which divided not only Lincoln and Douglas, but the American people at the deepest level of their consciousness, is completely ignored by Fogel and the cliometricians he so ably represents.

Claremont Review of Books