Would Abraham Lincoln Be Pro-Life?
It is common knowledge that more books have been written about Abraham Lincoln, our 16th President, than any other figure except Jesus Christ. With so much archeological attention directed toward him it is unlikely that much new factual material will surface about Mr. Lincoln. When taken as a whole, the in-depth forensic examinations of his writings, relationships, lineage, marriage, religion (or supposed lack thereof), evidence a complex and brilliant identity. An interesting phenomenon of the last twenty years, however, has been to place a contemporary lens over Lincoln. In recent writings, Lincoln has been gay, depressed, and now even a Vampire Hunter. So if historian Joseph Ellis can tell us, as he did this week in a Time Magazine special edition on George Washington that Washington would have hated the Tea Party, it is a salient point to consider whether Lincoln would be pro-life were he alive today.
Evidence that he would be pro-life can be extracted from Lincoln's first great political speech, given October 4, 1854 in Peoria, Illinois. At this point in his life, it appeared to most that Lincoln had already reached the apex of his political career. He had concluded a decidedly unremarkable term in the in the House of Representatives in March of 1849 and spent the next several years growing his law practice. His speech in Peoria was the result of the recent passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act earlier that year, an event that according to Doris Kearns Goodwin's wonderful book, Team of Rivals, stirred him "as he had never been before." This piece of legislation nullified the Missouri Compromise of 1820 which did not allow slavery north of the Arkansas Territory except in the state of Missouri. Introduced by Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, the Kansas-Nebraska Act was intended to allow the people of Kansas and Nebraska to determine by "popular sovereignty" whether slavery would be permitted in their respective states. The setting for the speech was the Illinois State Fair. Douglas had given a three hour speech the previous evening defending the merits of the bill, and at the end of the speech, the crowd wanted Lincoln to answer. Lincoln told the crowd to come back the next day for his response.
Marshalling his formidable intellect, Lincoln put forth two arguments for repealing the Missouri Compromise. The first being, though he believed in the idea of popular sovereignty, "no man is good enough to govern another man, without the other's consent." The slave does not consent to be governed by the master, he submitted. The second and more compelling argument was that slavery should not be allowed in either state because of the very humanity of the slave. Like Wilberforce before him, who argued for the humanity of the African slave in England, and Bonhoeffer after, who argued for the humanity of the Jew in Nazi Germany, Lincoln believed that the "negro has some natural right to himself." Lincoln argued that their humanity was evident by the fact that the punishment for violating a federal 1820 anti-piracy law enacted to prohibit the slave trade was death. There was no such corresponding punishment for catching and selling wild horses or pigs, evidencing the value placed on the personhood of the slave. It is not unreasonable to believe that someone who rightfully spoke and thought so deeply about the personhood of the slave would not also find personhood in an unborn child.
Lincoln goes on to say that the awareness of the humanity of the slave is innate to all. He questions what makes some owners free their slaves at great financial loss. The answer, Lincoln says, "is your sense of justice and human sympathy, continually telling you, that the poor negro has some natural right to himself..." Is this not the law written on each person's heart that Paul writes about in Romans or in Lincoln's case, a foreshadowing of his appeal to our better angels? Our consciences impress upon us what is right and what is wrong. That is why we hear abortion advocates say the choice of whether to have one is such a "difficult decision." Why is it difficult? Because internally, innately, they know it is wrong.
One other component of Lincoln's life may give force to the argument that he would be pro-life if alive today. Throughout his life, Lincoln was followed by the imprecation of death. His beloved mother died when he was nine. His older sister Sarah, who cared for him before his father remarried, died when he was 19. Six years later, his first love, Anne Rutledge, died. As he stood giving his speech in Peoria, he had already lost one of his children, Eddie. And during his Presidency, he would lose another child, Willie, in addition to being commanding officer while over 600,000 Union and Confederate soldiers perished in the Civil War.
Often times, the proximity of mortality can magnify the value of life. Historians tell us the deaths of his mother, sister, first love, and second child, each took a heavy emotional toll on his psyche. The well-chronicled depth of Lincoln's despair as he mourned those mentioned above was so profound that it is impossible conclude that he did not contemplate and examine the very quintessence of life, including its significance, origin, cessation, and most importantly for the unborn, qualification.
Were he alive today, Mr. Lincoln would undoubtedly be pro-life. The Solomonic wisdom, forged in the crucible of failure and death, devoid of pride, arrogance and malice, saw the "natural right to himself" in the slave. His legendary compassion and magnanimity ("with malice toward none") would also see the natural right to self in the most vulnerable citizens of all - the unborn.
Joseph A. Kohm, Jr., is an attorney residing in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.