Republicans and the Relics of Barbarism


Editor’s note: Robert George made the following comments as he was presented with the Alliance Defense Fund’s Edwin Meese Award at the Capitol Hill Club in Washington, DC, on Oct. 26, 2011.

In the middle of the 19th century, a new political party emerged dedicated to two great moral struggles. The Republican Party pledged in its original platform to fight the “twin relics of barbarism”: slavery and polygamy.

By then, slavery was deeply entrenched in the culture of the American south. What some had regarded as a “necessary evil” that would gradually die out, had been given a new lease on life by technological developments and the emergence of profitable overseas markets for cotton. An entire social and economic system was built on slavery. No longer was it reasonable to hope that the “peculiar institution,” and with it the moral controversy convulsing the nation, would quietly fade away. Powerful interests had a stake, not only in maintaining the slave system, but in extending it into the western territories of the United States.

So the Republicans faced a daunting challenge. Pro-slavery Democrats condemned them as “fanatics” and “zealots” who sought to impose their religious scruples and moral values on others. Slaveholders demanded that they “mind their own business” and stay out of the “domestic” and “private” affairs of others. Defenders of the “right” to own slaves pointedly invited northern abolitionists to redirect their moral outrage towards the “wage slave” system in the industrial north. “If you are against slavery,” they in effect said, “then don’t own a slave.”

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