This morning at Mass, we sang the Battle Hymn of the Republic as an anticipatory 4th of July recessional. Go, and submit to tyrants no more!
I have loved this song since I was kid (1). What’s not to love? Catchy tune, rousing anthem, colorful and evocative lyrics. It’s even easy to sing.
It is the anthem of the Abolitionists. We forget, if we ever knew, that the North was torn before the Civil War between those who preached that the righteous should be willing to pay any price to end slavery, even to the destruction of the Republic and their own lives, while others, keeping in mind the horrors of war and observing how slavery had been ended without much bloodshed in much of the New World already(2), sought desperately to avoid it (3).
Right up until Fort Sumter, many Northerners who opposed slavery were looking hard for ways to avoid war. But all that changed once the South demanded the surrender of, and then attacked, an American fort. The attitude of the North shifted in the direction of the Abolitionists.
When Julia Ward Howe wrote the Battle Hymn of the Republic, it expressed the sense that the North was doing God’s work in attacking the South, and that dying (and, by the inescapable logic of war, killing) for the cause was the only right and holy thing to do.
Four years and a million deaths later, Lincoln expressed a different view in his 2nd Inaugural Address.
Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.
The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
2 thoughts for this Fourth:
First, Lincoln is of course right: God’s purposes cannot ever be reduced to what men want, even when men want a good thing – the end of slavery. To get that end, men chose war. With war came blood and misery; a million lives destroyed and the families they were a part of horribly damaged. The bitterness of the South over what they view, not without reason, as the excesses and revenge taking of the North has still to this day not been healed. Slavery has ended, a very good thing to be sure, but healing has not.
As mentioned elsewhere on this blog, in most non-trivial cases we humans can only choose means, not ends, properly speaking: we choose to do or allow whatever the next step is in the *hope* that the desired ends will be achieved. Our choices result in actions now that *may* achieve the desired end eventually, but may not. Thus, our choices of means are real and immediate in a sense that our desired ends will never be. (Outside trivial cases, where there are no steps involved: pick the chocolate or the vanilla ice cream.)
Only God makes things real by the simple act of willing them. Our wills are weak; our intellects clouded; our desires impure. Even, perhaps especially, when we think we’re doing God’s work.
Second, if Lincoln is right about Divine Justice, what will come of the millions aborted, what will that Divine Justice demand and allow? If 250 years of slavery needed a million deaths, what are we facing as the cost to end this horror?
My Lord and my God, have mercy on me, a sinner!
- Especially, the ‘teacher hit me with a ruler’ version, which would get a kid suspended, the police called and his parent thrown in jail these days. We sang it with gusto in 3rd grade at St. Mary’s Whittier back in the 60s. Good times.
- See, for example, this list. It was all fits and starts, to be sure, and Brazil still had slaves into the 1880s, but the anti-slavery yet non-Abolitionists Northerners weren’t just blowing smoke.
- In the early parts of The Metaphysical Club, Menand portrays at least some of the Boston upper crust as viewing Abolitionists as rubes of a sort, their fervor getting the best of their reason.