A radio commentator I heard today said that slavery was “unconscionable” at the time of the civil war.
The most common meaning of “unconscionable”, then as well as now, is “beyond all reason.” Today slavery in America would certainly be beyond all reason and therefore unconscionable. But it wasn’t beyond all reason in 1861 and had been recently supported by no less that a majority of the Justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, as evidenced by the Dred Scott case in 1857. Chief Roger Taney wrote for a 7-2 majority to strike down laws prohibiting slavery in new territories, holding that such laws were unconstitutional. A mere twenty years earlier, in 1837, Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina wrote a widely read essay arguing that far from “unconscionable”, slavery was a positive good. Slavery had existed in almost all human societies since the beginning of civilization and the Bible, in every passage that speaks specifically of slavery, seems to approve of it. Clearly slavery was not “unconscionable”, i.e., beyond all reason, in mid-19th century.
But by April, 1865 it had become so. Larry Arnhart, at Darwinian Conservatism, puts it this way:
Before the Civil War, many American Christians read the Bible as supporting slavery as a dictate of divine law. After the Civil War, most Christians assumed that the Bible clearly condemns slavery as wrong, despite the fact that all of the passages of the Bible specifically on slavery seem to support it.
Amazing that a worldwide institution that had existed for thousands of years could have become unconscionable in a mere four years. Of course, human slavery was unconscionable to William Wilberforce as early as the 1770’s and by 1832 Wilburforce had convinced Parliament in London to abolish slavery in all British territories. The British Navy began stopping ships carrying slaves on the high seas and freeing their captives.
Something even swifter and almost as dramatic occurred 100 years later. Slavery was abolished in 1865 but was immediately replaced by the Jim Crow Era which existed in the American South until 1965. Then in one fell swoop it disappeared. This time it didn’t take a civil war. Racial strife and violence preceded the end of Jim Crow, and people were maimed and murdered. But the numbers paled in comparison with the over 600,000 dead and over a million severely wounded in the Civil War.
America has come a long way in learning to treat all of its citizens equally and with dignity. Whether it will continue to be that kind of country for much longer is not certain. America now has some people making a good living by telling other people that these miraculously good things never happened, and that America remains a bitterly racist country. It’s a big lie, but we now live in the era of the low-information citizen, and they believe it. For now, at least.