Why Jefferson Davis Opposed Roe v. Wade

Okay, he didn’t, really, because he never had the chance — but it’s as certain as magnolia blooms in the spring that if Jefferson Davis were to rise again and take his place as the extremely senior senator from Mississippi, he would make the Senate ring with his denunciations of Roe v. Wade. In fact, he might even threaten secession over it.
His bill of indictment would, of course, include that Roe v. Wade violated states’ rights — indeed, this would be the very grounds of secession: the Federal government had no proper authority to strike down Mississippi’s abortion laws and invoke some new, unfounded, unconstitutional, and un-Christian right.
And un-Christian would have been an operative word. Southerners might defend slavery as a positive good or a necessary evil, but they generally did so within a Christian context, to wit: that slavery was accepted as a fact of life in the Bible; and that however painful the chains of the slave ships that had brought slaves to the New World (the Confederate Constitution, incidentally, prohibited restarting the slave trade), its providential purpose was no doubt to bring black people from heathen darkness and Christianize them to the point where, as both Robert E. Lee and Davis foresaw, they would eventually be free men. Indeed, by 1860, about 10 percent of black Americans in the Upper South were already free men.
I realize that it is a common saw among pro-lifers (of which I am one) to say that abortion and slavery are really two sides of the same coin — denying the personhood of someone of a different color or of an unborn child. And some think it quite clever to wrong-foot the opposition — though I doubt anyone’s mind has ever been changed by this argument — by throwing out the question, “So, would you have been pro-choice about slavery in 1860?” The idea is that the pro-life cause is the abolitionist cause of our time.
But if we’re honest to history, things are lot more complicated than that — or why did the Vatican’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, editorialize on behalf of the Confederacy; why did British diplomat Odo Russell report that the pope “would not conceal from me that all his sympathies were with the Southern Confederacy and he wished them all success”; and why did Pope Pius IX send Davis a crown of thorns, woven by his own hands, when Davis was imprisoned by the Federals? Surely the Church did not sympathize with the South because it was founded on an institution that was the moral equivalent of abortion. Nor, for that matter, did it sympathize with the South because of the institution of slavery. It did so because it saw the war between North and South in a rather deeper way.
When one is setting up alternative histories, so-called “counter-factuals,” it’s best not to go too counter-factual. If abolitionism and the defense of life are really so similar, consider the actual course of history in this country and answer the question: Which region do you expect would enact more stringent anti-abortion laws if Roe v. Wade were overturned — the former abolitionist hotbeds of New England or the “Bible Belt” of the Deep South?
In New England in 1860, of course, traditional Christianity was beginning to be superseded by Unitarianism, transcendentalism, and a “social gospel” less focused on the gospel than on social reform, from which one can draw a line from abolitionism to feminism and most of the other -isms of our time. Religion in the South, on the other hand, was, as Richard Weaver noted, “a simple acceptance of a body of belief, an innocence of protest and heresy which left religion one of the unquestioned and unquestionable supports of the general settlement under which men live.”
Sacrificing children to Moloch — or to the “right of women to control their own bodies” — is not something that most Southerners could reconcile with their Bibles. But it is rather easier to see how spiritual traditions that put increasing weight on the rights of the autonomous individual and on self-fulfillment might be more open to considering an “unplanned” or an “unwanted” pregnancy an inconvenience that could be dispensed with, something that should be left to a woman’s right to choose.
The South, of course, was a rather libertarian place, and Davis, though a very modest drinker, was an opponent of such nanny-state -isms as prohibitionism. But the South’s vision of itself was also a somewhat medieval one. Ivanhoe, after the Bible, was probably the most widely read and most popular book in the South. The South saw itself as a bastion of feudal order and liberty, a traditional, agricultural, and Christian civilization. It was this that attracted Pius IX to the South, for the Church opposed the rising tide of nationalism, of mass urban democracy, of centralizing power that swept away subsidiary institutions like the Church and undermined traditional moral restraints, such as those provided by orthodox Christianity, in the name of progress and efficiency (words not often associated with the South).
Or, in the words of Allen Tate:
In a sense, all European history since the Reformation was concentrated in the war between the North and the South. For in the South the most conservative of the European orders had, with great power, come back to life, while in the North, opposing the Southern feudalism, had grown to be a powerful industrial state which epitomized in spirit all those middle-class, urban impulses directed against the agrarian aristocracies of Europe after the Reformation.
Davis might assert that slaves were “property,” but he never claimed that masters could thereby kill them. The entire moral defense of slavery depended on the argument of paternalism. And it is impossible to believe that Davis would stand before the Senate or the people of Mississippi and say that he believed in a mother’s right to kill her own children, or to bash out the brains of a child untimely ripped from its mother’s womb. With slavery, he could point to its explicit recognition in the Constitution and in the Bible. With abortion, there could be — and can be — no such defense.
All of which is not to make any apologia for slavery. General Lee, in his postwar correspondence with Lord Acton, wrote that the South “receives without reserve the amendment which has already been made for the extinction of slavery. This is an event that has long been sought, though in a different way, and by none has it been more earnestly desired than by the citizens of Virginia.” But it is a request that we be honest about history, which shines a rather kinder light on the South than many callow polemicists are willing to admit.

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H.W. Crocker III is a popular historian and novelist. His most recent book, available for preorder, is Armstrong and the Mexican Mystery.

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