There have been some great minds that have already covered the recent exchange between Judge Andrew Napolitano and Jon Stewart on the Daily Show. On the overall issue of the legacy of Lincoln, without years of study on the subject, I dare not think I can cover that issue better than or as well as they might. There was, however, an issue briefly brought up in the debate between these two New Jerseyans that should be discussed in greater detail, namely our state’s involvement in slavery before the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.
For those unfamiliar with nullification efforts before the Civil War, one of (if not THE) most noble involved the Personal Liberty Laws, which sought to nullify the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The nullification of the Fugitive Slave Act, as well as the names of states utilizing such nullification, are cited in the secession declarations of South Carolina and several other southern states. Shamefully absent from that list of nullifying northern states is New Jersey. If the institution of slavery is, as Judge Napolitano and Mr. Stewart both agree, an aberration and perhaps the greatest evil in American history, then New Jerseyans need to know about this ugly mark on our state’s past. New Jersey not only failed to resist the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 via nullification, but went the opposite route, actively enforcing it. One can see a deeply entrenched precedent in state law making it difficult to promote nullification in our state.
In a conflict that went from simply being about preserving the union at all costs to supposedly being a struggle against slavery, how many died to preserve the same union that was sending escaped slaves in chains back to slave states that did not secede? According to the book “United States Colored Troops,” by William A. Gladstone, a total of 1,185 black soldiers from New Jersey served in the Civil War. How many of them died in the name of a union that perpetuated slavery while claiming to fight it, while at the same time representing its most willing accomplice among the northern states?
During the Daily Show debate over Lincoln, Stewart brushed aside Napolitano’s concerns over the atrocities committed against women and children by union soldiers in the Civil War. Maybe he thought the southern white population had it coming, or perhaps he just thought rape and bank robberies were bad, but less serious than slavery, the former being an unfortunate but necessary stepping stone toward ending the latter. If his concerns were exclusively about slavery, then a question not asked on the show, to which we may never know the answer is this; how many slaves were among the civilian casualties resulting from union war tactics? Were they also a necessary stepping stone toward ending slavery? Was it consistent with just war teaching, on which the Judge attempted to school Mr. Stewart, to pursue tactics that resulted in the unintended deaths of some slaves in the name of liberating them? Were all options exhausted before embracing full scale war? Would The Daily Show’s viewer base be willing to entertain such a question regarding a war not fought during the Bush administration?
All the debate over Lincoln and the perceived necessity of the Civil War will not change what happened in the past, but looking well beyond what we are taught in our government approved history books is important to help us make better choices in the future. To claim a war that still leaves scars on America’s identity was necessary, while simultaneously believing it unnecessary to engage in some serious soul searching about the actions of all sides during the war, is folly. Hopefully, New Jersey residents will be among those to take an in depth look at our history, not to deify or demonize certain major figures, but with the intent of avoiding the evil and building on the good deeds of those who came before us.