Mike Kueber's Blog

June 13, 2010

“Our peculiar institution” and abortion

Filed under: History,Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 4:47 am
Tags: ,

As I previously mentioned, I am reading A Patriot’s History of the United States to refresh my recollection of a subject that I last studied formally more than 30 years ago in college.  My reading has progressed to Ft. Sumter and the start of the Civil War.  

For several decades leading up to the Civil War, American politicians struggled with “our peculiar institution,” which was a euphemism used by those who didn’t like the term slavery.  Unfortunately, because our politicians failed to do their job successfully, 620,000 American soldiers died. 

As the authors of A Patriots History, Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen, described the various efforts by politicians to resolve the slavery issue, I was struck by the similarities of slavery with America’s current political disagreement regarding abortion.  Both issues involve an individual’s personal morality, there is no middle ground, and an individual’s position is not susceptible to reasoning, analysis, or persuasion.  Abolitionists believed that slavery was immoral, just as pro-life people believe that abortions are evil.

During my readings, I was also struck by the slavery position taken by Stephen Douglas in the 1860 election.  You may recall that Douglas was the Illinois senator who defeated Lincoln in a 1858 senatorial race, but then lost to Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election.  Douglas was a pragmatic politician, and he argued that the voters of each state should have the right to decide whether to allow slavery in their jurisdiction.  That happens to be exactly the position I took on abortion during my congressional race. 

As a congressional candidate, I argued that Roe v. Wade should be reversed because this issue should be decided by the people, not by judicial legislation.  And consistent with the Tenth Amendment, this issue should be decided by each state, not the federal government.  Furthermore, there is already precedent for the states successfully handling another comparable issue – i.e., the death penalty. 

A lot of Americans think the death penalty is immoral, but most are comfortable with allowing each state to decide how it feels.  My home state of North Dakota does not have a death penalty, but my adopted state of Texas does.  Even though there are occasionally a few out-of-state protestors outside the Walls Unit in Huntsville for executions, the practice is generally accepted as a legitimate state power even by those who personally oppose it.   

Douglas’s position in favor of state sovereignty over slavery was never tested because Lincoln took a stronger anti-slavery stance and won the election.  It is doubtful, however, whether the southern states would have stayed in the Union even if Douglas had won.  They felt that their “peculiar institution” would never be accepted by the northern states and that secession was an inevitable necessity to maintain their way of life.  As Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz noted, war is the continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means.  Or as Mao Zedong said, “Politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed.”  Let’s hope that the abortion issue can be resolved civilly over time without war.


  1. I agree that states should each have the right to decide whether or not abortion is legal in their state. Different regions of the US have very different views on this subject, making it a mistake for the national government to enforce a national law on the issue.

    I doubt that abortion would be enough reason for a war to begin. Many people feel strongly about this issue, but most are women and the men do not probably feel strong enough to risk their lives and those of their comrades over the issue. I believe this will stay a purely political issue.

    I enjoyed your inclusion of Stephen Douglas’s point. I was not aware of him or his position and am glad I learned something new today.


    Comment by gregw89 — June 13, 2010 @ 6:04 am | Reply

  2. Thanks for your comments. The authors of A Patriot’s History of the United States suggest that, although the Civil War was entirely about slavery, many Southerners didn’t feel that strongly in favor of slavery, but still went to war because they felt more loyalty to their state government than to their federal government. That is why states’ rights was an important component to the war and why it remains a consideration today, especially in the South. I wonder whether the federal government would go to war over secession today; I hope not.

    Comment by Mike Kueber — June 13, 2010 @ 12:49 pm | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: