Scattered Thoughts on Lincoln, Ellis, Racism, and the Cross

Several times since moving to D.C. Esther and I have walked down to the Lincoln Memorial. Each time I take the time to read the speeches that are etched in the walls, the Gettysburg Address and his second inaugural address. Its a very moving exprerience, and reminds me of the third chapter of Ellis’ Founding Brothers, “The Silence,” which I read shortly before moving here. The silence he is referring to is the failure of any Northern or moderate Southern delegates to speak up against the pro-slavery arguments of delegates from the Deep South in Congressional debate in 1790. Benjamin Franklin, just weeks before his death, had made one final effort to appeal for the termination of the slave trade and abolition of slavery, but Madison and others from the South were arguing that it was impractical and would dissolve the union they had fought so hard to create.

Ellis see slavery as the ultimate failure of the Revolutionary legacy as slavery. I agree with him for two reasons. First, not only was slavery a heinous evil, but it was the very kind of evil which was most blatantly at odds with the Revolution ideals, namely freedom and equality. When Thomas Jefferson wrote “all men are created equal,” he owned over 200 slaves. He did not free them when he died. As Ellis puts it, “what was politically essential for the survival of the infant nation was ideologically at odds with what it claimed to stand for” (128). Of all people, they should have known better.

Second, the founders’ inability to uproot slavery in their own generation caused the institution to grow more entrenched and thus contributed to much greater upheaval when it was finally removed. Ellis: “we know full well what they could perceive dimly, if at all – namely, that slavery would become the central defining problem for the next seventy years of American history; that the inability to take decisive action against slavery in the decades immediately following the Revolution permitted the size of the enslaved population to grow exponentially and the legal and political institutions of the developing U.S. government to become entwined in compromises with slavery’s persistence; and that eventually over 600,000 Americans would die in the nation’s bloodiest war to resolve the crisis, a trauma generating social shock waves that would reverberate for at least another century.” (88).

Many have suggested that slavery could not have been dealt with without tearing asunder the Union the founders had fought so hard for. Ellis points out, however, that success in the Revolutionary War and the binding together of the contentious states under one law were probably equally improbable. If 1776 and 1787 could be achieved, why not the abolition of slavery? Besides which, would it not have been better to tear the union apart then retain such an evil practice?

During an intern discussion here this past week (I am an intern at Capital Hill Baptist Church) we discussed Francis Grimke’s famous sermon, “Christianity and Race Prejudice.” I came to see in a new way how our final hope for overcoming the lingering ugliness of racism in our country is the cross of Jesus Christ. Ephesians 2:13-16 says that the blood of Christ has broken down the “dividing wall of hostility” that existed between Jews and Gentiles, “that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so creating peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility” (15-16). If it is by the cross that Jews and Gentiles have been reconciled and united into a new people, how much more should the cross be at the center of reconciling various estranged Gentile groups! Race reconciliation begins with God reconciliation.

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