The compromises that Christian thinkers were willing to make in order to accommodate biblical faith to Greco-Roman philosophy, ultimately, slowed the progress that Christian ideas of personhood had made and prevented these ideas from further transforming the cultures that had adopted the Christian religion. In many instances, these compromises not only prevented further progress but also undid the progress that had already been made. This is the case, for example, with slavery, which largely fell into disuse throughout the Middle Ages, sometimes being abolished outright but generally being replaced with the institution of serfdom. It was, however, revived with renewed vigor and deepened brutality in the early modern period. The early modern revival of slavery both differed from and bore similarity to ancient Greco-Roman slavery in important ways. Its greatest difference was that it was based in the new, supposedly scientific concept of race. This root, though it differed from Greco-Roman ideas, allowed the ideologists of slavery in the early modern era to revive many of the Greco-Roman arguments in favor of slavery, such as the beliefs that slaves were innately inferior and intended by nature for servility and different ontologically from their masters. The new belief that these differences were biologically-based, however, allowed early modern ideologists to ignore and circumvent the biblical tradition’s emphasis on the spiritual equality of all people. In addition, these same ideologists also drew on the beliefs of certain church fathers that slavery was a product of man’s original sin and argued that it was a kind of necessary evil.
The same could also be posited regarding the status of women. Although women were never able to attain full equality with men throughout Western history, there can be little doubt that, as existential philosopher Simone de Beauvoir observed in her landmark book on the status of women, The Second Sex, many women in the medieval world were able to stand on an “equal footing” with their husbands, being viewed as “neither a thing nor a servant” but as “his other half” in possession of “concrete autonomy” and with a meaningful and fulfilling “economic and social role.”76 According to de Beauvoir, the economic and social changes of the early modern era undermined the “equal footing” upon which men and women had stood in much of the medieval world and created a resurgence of misogyny as well as a renewal of the oppression and marginalization of women.77
While the work begun by the early Christians in the light of their new anthropology remained incomplete throughout the Middle Ages and was often compromised by some of the brightest and most important medieval minds, it was the ideas of these early Christians which planted the seeds for later developments in Western thought which sought to remedy the injustice of systems which denied the innate equality and essential personhood of all human beings, including movements such as abolitionism, feminism, anti-colonialism, and the civil rights movement in the United States. In the succinct words of Thomas Cahill, the democratic principles of the West emerge from the biblical “vision of individuals, subjects of value because they are images of God, each with a unique and personal destiny.”78 He explains, quoting the American Declaration of Independence, “there is no way that it could ever have been ‘self-evident that all men are created equal’ without” this biblical vision.
Christianity had brought a renewed vigor to and emphasis upon the Jewish ideas that all human beings possessed a special worth and dignity by virtue of having been created in the image of God by coupling this biblical idea with its own unique beliefs that God himself had become a person and thereby united humanity and divinity and made spiritual salvation available to all people. This broad vision of personhood was a shocking idea in the Greco-Roman world of Late Antiquity, in which personhood was generally restricted to an elite group of free adult Greek and Roman men, and explicitly denied to barbarians, women, slaves, and children. These groups were, in turn, attracted by this new idea which granted them a status they had never before been afforded. Through the influence of these groups, Christianity was able, eventually, to penetrate into the upper and governing classes of the Roman Empire. By the end of the fourth century, it had become the Empire’s official religion. From this vantage point, the Church was able to shape Roman law and society in conformity with its ideas. While this process of shaping law and society remained incomplete throughout the Middle Ages, it nonetheless planted the seeds for later change as various movements for legal and social equality of oppressed and marginalized groups around the world drew on the ideas and legacy of the early Christians to formulate their own visions of personhood and responses to injustice.
76 Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (New York: Random House, 2011), 110.
78 Cahill, Gifts of the Jews, 249.
We can see the meaning in the fact that we have a national birthday. Ask yourself, what is the birthday of France? Or China? Or England? One day every summer we celebrate the making of our country. As John Adams predicted, this day is the anniversary of a document that states the purposes of our nation. Abraham Lincoln once spoke of a “central idea” in America, from which all of our “minor thoughts radiate.” The Declaration of Independence called this idea a “self-evident truth.” It is the idea that each of us is equally a child of God, born the same kind of creature, and so equal with respect to our rights.
Larry P. Arnn, “Our Responsibility to America,” in Liberty and Learning, p. 102
Though there were other, largely secondary, factors involved, the central cause of the Civil War was undoubtedly the “peculiar institution” of slavery. The issue of slavery had been a divisive factor from a very early point in American history. It was so much so that the Founding Fathers intentionally chose to put off decisively handling the issue for a subsequent generation, in spite of their insistence in the Declaration of Independence and throughout their principles that “all men are created equal.”1 In their unwillingness to resolve the issue of slavery once and for all, the founders of the United States created the situation which led to the Civil War. Slavery was identified as the central dividing issue in the Civil War by the leadership of the Confederate States of America in their justifications for secession, by others members of the Confederacy in their thoughts on the war, and by the Union leadership in their statements on the Civil War and its causes.
Confederate leadership early on stated that slavery was the central issue over which they were seceding from the Union. They saw Northern industrialists, abolitionists, and politicians as encroaching on their “peculiar institution” and saw secession as the only way to save it. Alexander Hamilton Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, could not have made this point any clearer than when he said, “our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea [from abolition]; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.”2
While their leadership recognized and clearly stated, even boasted, over their reasons for secession, the soldiers who fought under them also recognized slavery as the primary reason for their fight. While their leadership proudly proclaimed the inferiority of blacks and sought openly to keep them in subjugation, the average Southern soldier did not own any slaves and some questioned whether the reasons for the war were really worth the cost or were even ethical reasons. According to historian David J. Eicher, “a small but growing number of Confederate soldiers began to question the ruining of their society over slavery.”3 To this effect, he cites the words of one soldier, Colonel William H.A. Speer, wondering whether “there is some national sin hanging over [the Confederacy]” and stating his belief that if Southern slave owners were to agree to emancipate their slaves within 30 years the war would end almost immediately.3
Union leaders, on the other hand, early identified their primary aim in the war as “a struggle to preserve the Union.”5 However, as time went on, Union leadership very quickly realized that the only way to preserve the Union was to agree with the Confederate leadership that the war was primarily about slavery and to adopt the opposite position, seeking to “reconstruct the Union into the nation it should have been without slavery.”6 To this end, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, making it clear that the Union side was willing to match the Confederacy in its own goals.
Though there are other factors that must be taken into consideration when considering the causes of the Civil War, slavery was without a doubt the primary issue and the one around which the others revolve and from which they largely emerged. The Founding Fathers had deferred in their duties and created the situation that led almost inevitably to the Civil War. As is made clear from the stated reasons for secession on the part of Confederate leadership, the statements of soldiers who fought on the side of the Confederacy during the war, and the statements, however hesitant, of the Union leadership, the Civil War was fought over slavery.
1 Declaration of Indepence, National Archives, accessed 14 November 2012, http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_transcript.html.
2 Alexander Hamilton Stephens, in David J. Eicher, The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002), 49.
3 Ibid., 626-7.
5 Ibid., 364-5.