by P. H. Wentworth III
National News Editor
April 9, 1864
United States Senate Joint Resolution 16, passed April 8, 1864
Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Science and Philosophy are often at loggerheads, but in truth, are natural bedfellows, sharing many commonalities: distrust of accepted wisdom, untidy experimentation, exacting analysis, flashes of brilliance on the back of years of laborious work, the paring away of supposition and half-truth, and a canon on which to build initial reflections into what we call “natural law.”
However: Laws are never natural; they are always man-made.
Long before the discovery of oxygen, human beings were inhaling and exhaling, and no one can argue our need for food and water; either we eat, drink, and breathe, or we die. Presumably, Adam and Eve learned, after their first cold night away from Eden, to shelter against intemperate weather; they surely found a way around their fig leaves to procreate, or humanity itself would not exist. (For those more inclined to Mr. Darwin’s hypotheses, as I am, the same might be said for any ancestor we share with monkeys.)
Killing one another indiscriminately was considered immoral long before the Code of Moses, but even the prohibition against murder is not “natural law,” at least until such time as one is deprived of corporeal existence by an unseen force upon committing such an act. On that day, however, I doubt the entity passing judgment will distinguish soldiers at war, executioners at law, or men upholding their honor.
This question of intrinsic, universal human law may also be explicated by the rules of the physical universe. While Sir Isaac Newton’s Laws of Motion are integral to our understanding of the physical world, even without him, apples fall from trees. Before we understood the Earth to be round, it was already circling the sun; Copernicus had no influence on the orbit, for all he opened up the Heavens.
By Enlightenment principles, though, the theories of both men might yet be disproven. Gravity might be nothing more than Satan dragging us down to Hell. When we travel to the moon, we may discover it is made of cheese and held up by a puppeteer’s strings. We may one day come across a hidden race of people who would choose service over self-determination, but I think it unlikely, at best.
Nature (God, in some circles) is the arbiter of life and death, not scientists, not philosophers, not governments. The extent of the human imperative is biological. Every other law has been constructed by man to improve our lot and is, accordingly, fallible.
Everything we consider vital to our existence—civilization in general—is a moral imperative, not physiological, and moral imperatives change, day-to-day, year-to-year, generation after generation, between cultures, religions, one person and another. Values—personal and patriotic—are never universal. Never.
Simply put, this misapprehension is why civilizations rise and fall.
Such was the case even in America’s naissance. Whether or not they were responsive on the subject of slavery, the founders of our nation were enlightened men of reflective inquiry, who understood the implications of the march of time. Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and Washington stood on the backs of Locke, Hobbes, Machiavelli, and Rousseau. This is how and why their social constructs emphasized free will, personal autonomy, individual responsibility—the most progressive, self-directed philosophy of governance in history.
They knew they could not decide the course of our nation based on eighteenth-century facts and values. They could not decide the course at all. Only time would bear out their thesis, which, paradoxically, would only prove true after change had become the accepted norm.
So, in their wisdom, the framers imposed frequent and habitual reexamination of our collective morality. They understood that knowledge changes history, and there is never a dearth of new knowledge. It is, therefore, our responsibility—as caretakers of the vision of our forefathers—to reflect upon matters of principle and consider our society’s advances and changing mores.
There is no doubt amending our Constitution is not to be taken lightly. It is an enormous step to change the underpinnings of our government (especially so without the input of half our nation, who will be assimilated back into a society that has made a fundamental shift in priorities, policies, and parity).
However, not only have we made such changes before, we are only clarifying what we have declared all along to be “natural law”: humans (or rather, Americans) have unalienable rights, among them freedom from involuntary servitude.
Is the call to freedom, or is it not, as natural a law as breathing? Is it not at the core of every person born everywhere? True, one can survive without it, demonstrated by countless unfortunates around the globe, but is it not a half-life? Does the futile yearning for self-rule not starve the soul?
A successful system of governance (using longevity as measure) maintains internal stability in the face of external events—economic, social, cultural—but permanence is a balance between past and future that must be maintained in equilibrium. Formal governance is meant to impose social norms, but no widespread edict has ever sprung from the ether fully formed. Every “accepted fact” was accepted first by one person, then a second, a third, and so on. No great sea change is spontaneous.
Though some moral imperatives have proven more pervasive and long lasting than others—commandments set out in religious doctrine tend to have staying power—there cannot ever be a man-made, universal “natural law.” The premise is entirely faulty.
A century ago, when our country was deciding how to govern itself, we only had knowledge of the same six planets as Copernicus in 1543, when his De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium rejected the hypotheses of Ptolemy’s Almagest, by that time “natural law” for almost fourteen hundred years.
Today, a star chart is filled with named planets and moons, more classified each day. We have rejected great swaths of Copernicus’ work, one experiment at a time, even redefined the taxonomy. Our understanding of this fixed force of nature, the night sky, has changed radically during my lifetime, and is yet as impermanent as stardust.
One hundred years hence, we may find there are millions more planets than we can see. If we make such discoveries, it will happen because Newton was dissatisfied with accepted wisdom, so advanced the technology of the telescope. Scientific innovation—theorizing and testing and reframing—changes what we believe possible, again and again.
A century ago, there was little question in America of the rightness of slavery (and precious little question elsewhere)—a few toothless voices drowned out by the rumble of a worldwide financial engine. Now, human servitude is at issue all over the globe, even to the point of full-scale war in America. (Ironically, given the stance of the British Commonwealth, it is only by dint of our hard-won independence that slavery still exists here at all.)
One hundred years hence, perhaps human bondage will be eradicated everywhere on the planet, but first, we must accept this philosophic proposition: human beings are not property, no matter their complexion, desperation, or circumstance, and freedom itself is a natural law. Only in decades to come will our moral code evolve to meet our highest American ideals.
This should not be such a vexing question: without Enlightenment philosophers, without rigorous inquiry, without a document declaring it so, every person on Earth understands—for himself, in any case—it is better to live free than enslaved.
Returning for a moment to Newton, his 1687 Principia defined the “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy.” Most applicable here, The First Law of Motion: Inertia. An object at rest will remain so unless acted upon by some catalyst. A moving object will maintain the same speed and trajectory until acted upon by an external force.
The question of Southern secession forced action by the Northern states. The military defense of slavery forced action by people of conscience everywhere. Any manner of external (and internal) forces surrounding our Black population have set into motion this remarkable momentum toward the Thirteenth Amendment, not least, our President and esteemed Senators, to be commended for their courage and resolve.
Bad luck for those who would rail against it; there is no stopping the trajectory now, for freedom is every man’s natural state, and “all men are created equal.”
Even if the South won the war tomorrow, the American Negro will not now stand for anything less than absolute liberty and full citizenship, nor should he. If not imposed by economic sanction, by martial law. If not enforced by Lincoln, by the Crowned Heads of Europe. If not now at the hands of the Federal government, a year from now by armed insurrection. Slavery cannot, will not, stand.
Much as our founding fathers outlined their philosophical treatise using theoretical principles to explain intangible truths—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—Lincoln knows his courage in the short-term will transform our nation’s moral center in the long run, perfecting our most deeply held values.
This is why Lincoln cannot give up the forest for the trees, much like the framers, who knew there would be conditions on “life,” responsibilities to “liberty,” and more definitions of “happiness” than citizens, but still deemed enforcement of “natural law” to be worth the cost in American lives. If their suppositions remain true today, the Thirteenth Amendment and its resultant legal precedent will move our society in the direction of freedom, equality, and brotherhood.
The president’s personal interest has, perhaps, been the deciding factor for the passage yesterday of Senate Joint Resolution 16, and rightly so; he has no other honorable choice. His Emancipation Proclamation does not carry the full force of American jurisprudence, and would not withstand a drawn-out test in the courts. As a man of principle, he must make the injustice right, and he has only so long—and so much Congressional currency—to do it.
If Lincoln is to fulfill his promise and leave an end to slavery as his legacy, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution must be passed by the House and ratified without delay. This legislation is far from law and, much like a Presidential proclamation, it only takes a shift in the political wind, a change in milieu, for the House bill to fail, or to invite an amendment to amend this one. The very idea of four million Americans given freedom to have it snatched away is appalling.
As such, President Lincoln is following the example of our learned antecedents, defending his thesis so it might take hold and become part of the American philosophic canon. So freedom might, eventually, come to be thought unalienable for everyone in our borders.
I, personally, am more partial to scientific illumination than philosophical. Perforce, both hold pride of place in our understanding of ourselves, individually and cooperatively, but both also have something weighty in common with American governance: the creative process. At some point, all looks a jumble, maddeningly muddy and indistinct, but by application of rules, systems, context, experience, trial, error, evaluation, and correction, one ends with a masterpiece: a hypothesis or doctrine or piece of legislation changing the trajectory of “natural law.”
© 2017 Mari Anne Christie. All Rights Reserved
As America marches toward the Civil War, Harry Wentworth, gentleman of distinction and journalist of renown, finds his calls for peaceful resolution have fallen on deaf—nay, hostile—ears. As such, he must finally resolve his own moral quandary: comment on the war from his influential—and safe—position in Northern Society, or make a news story and a target of himself South of the Mason-Dixon Line, in a city haunted by a life he has long since left behind?
The day-to-day struggle against countervailing forces, his personal and professional tragedies on both sides of the conflict, and the elegant and emotive writings that define him, all serve to illuminate the trials of this newsman’s crusade, irreparably altering his mind, his body, his spirit, and his purpose as an honorable man. Blind Tribute exposes the shifting stones of the moral high ground as Harry’s family and friendships, North and South, are shattered by his acts of conscience.
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