Eve Fairbanks, in an essay for the Washington Post, argues that many of the writers on the so-called “reasonable right,” a group that includes such seemingly benign figures as Bari Weiss and Jonathan Haidt, are making many of the same arguments and using much the same language as proslavery advocates in the American South:
The reasonable right’s rhetoric is exactly the same as the antebellum rhetoric I’d read so much of. The same exact words. The same exact arguments. Rhetoric, to be precise, in support of the slave-owning South.
Fairbanks follows this breathless announcement by acknowledging that she is not accusing anyone of defending slavery, and that includes, weirdly enough, actual antebellum proslavery writers. “Proslavery rhetoricians talked little of slavery itself,” she writes. “Instead, they anointed themselves the defenders of ‘reason,’ free speech and ‘civility.’” This is a bit like smearing someone as a Nazi, then qualifying it with the claim that overt anti-Semitism was really quite atypical of Nazism. In her characterization of proslavery thought, Fairbanks has taken a line that not even the most stalwart member of the Daughters of the Confederacy would care to defend. It is, well, an exact inversion of the truth.
In one sense, the argument is too silly to merit a serious response. The fact that defenders of slavery have in the past appealed to reason and civility no more discredits anyone who appeals to those values than the Nazis’ love of calisthenics discredits anyone who exercises. But the essay does raise, in an absurd, wrong-headed way, an interesting question about the fate of civility and free speech in a society that no longer operates on shared moral premises.
Free speech principles were often at stake in the antebellum controversy over slavery. In every case, proslavery advocates took the offensive in seeking to suppress the rights of their adversaries. Abolitionists attacked slavery as an institution, but they never seriously questioned the right to advocate on its behalf. Slaveholders, by contrast, fought to suppress free speech whenever they had a plausible chance of doing so. They fought to “gag” the reading of abolitionist petitions in Congress, and to prevent the postal system from circulating antislavery writings in the South.
The resilience of any free society is revealed by its tolerance for dissent. This was the proud boast of the North and an unavoidable embarrassment to the South. In his famous “Cotton is King” speech, Senator James Henry Hammond of South Carolina delivered some genuinely unsettling criticisms of Northern society. The growing chasm between rich and poor in the North, he predicted, would soon lead to either anarchy or tyranny. A society that promised “freedom” to its most impoverished members was bound to erupt in bloodshed. Only slavery prevented such dangerous discontents, placing republican institutions on a stable foundation.
Hammond then immediately contradicted himself. “You have been making war upon us to our very hearth-stones,” he complained. “How would you like us to send agitators North,” to foment revolt among the poor, he asked his colleagues in the Senate. To which several replied at once, “Send them along.” The contrast was obvious and crucial. Of all the grievances slaveholders cited in justifying secession, the most visceral and important was that antislavery criticism would provoke an insurrection.
It is true, however, that the violent reaction of Southerners to any criticism of slavery did not entail a flat repudiation of free expression in principle. The history of the antebellum South shows how a society ostensibly protected by the first amendment can suppress dissent. While traveling in the antebellum South, the journalist and Irish immigrant E.L. Godkin explained why Southerners preferred to rely on mobs rather than laws:
The fact is, I imagine, that while every man in the country feels it to be necessary to the safety of the existing state of things to prohibit, absolutely and completely, all discussion as to the right of the masters to their slaves, no one likes to establish a censorship of the press by statutable enactment. This would be rather too close an imitation of absolutism. As long as it is only ‘the mob’ or ‘the public’ that maltreat a man for free speech, the credit of the state is saved…
The emperor of Austria, Godkin continued, could only dream of angry mobs willing to do his dirty work for him, gratis. How that Emperor would have swooned at the glorious potential of Twitter!
Here then is a contrast worth pondering, as we all tend to assume that the primary threat to free speech comes from the state. Judged purely by their toleration of dissent, Abraham Lincoln’s administration was far more despotic than that of Jefferson Davis. The conclusion is absurd, but it suggests an unsettling reality. Pro-Confederate editors in the North faced possible imprisonment; any pro-Union editors in the South were murdered or otherwise silenced well before President Davis could be bothered with their existence. A truly illiberal society does not require the government to suppress dissent.
Fairbanks correctly notes that slaveholders often claimed to be the victims of unfair and abusive rhetoric. The claim to victimhood, she explains, “can function as a veiled threat. It tricks the listener into entering a world where the speaker is the needy one, fragile, requiring the listener to constantly adjust his behavior to cater to the imperiled person.” All true. But I am at a loss to understand how anyone can believe this timeless tactic, familiar to every bully since the world began, is unique to any political faction, past or present. Excessive outrage is perhaps the one universal feature of every political faction. Competing claims to victimhood are how the game is played, the means of keeping score.
The unhinged reasoning in Fairbanks’s essay invites an overcorrection. It would be easy—and tendentious—to reverse her argument. The Left are the real heirs of the proslavery tradition—intolerant aggression disguised as aggrieved fragility, etc. Both versions reflect the same polarizing tendencies. In the absence of a common moral framework, the ideal of free speech becomes hollow.
Consider again the controversy over the gag rule prohibiting antislavery petitions in Congress. Do Congressional majorities have an obligation to treat any and all minority petitions as equally legitimate? We sympathize with the abolitionists in principle because we agree with them in substance. If a few white nationalist managed to get themselves elected to Congress and began reading constituent petitions insisting on the creation of a white ethno-state, the old gag rule would instantly seem like a prudent response. A society that cannot distinguish between reason and fanaticism, between serious debate and incendiary bigotry, is a society at the mercy of its own worst hatreds and fanaticisms. It is a fantasy to pretend that a procedural right to free speech is, in itself, a solution to such a fraught impasse.
But if the history of the 1850s is any guide, one objective measure remains among the welter of incompatible worldviews. Those most impatient with the hard work of reasoning with their fellow citizens belie their own dogmatic convictions. “He whose conscience acquits him will naturally be slow to accuse those whose cooperation he needs,” William Henry Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, said during the secession crisis. “History alone can adjust the balance.”
We can be sure history is not going to repeat itself as precisely as Eve Fairbanks imagines. But her essay is a reminder that we remain trapped in its recurring rhythms.
Adam Rowe is a postdoctoral teaching fellow at the University of Chicago. A historian of the United States, Rowe’s research has focused on American political thought from the Revolution to the Civil War.
Photo by Vincent Delegge on Unsplash.