“I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1781. The American revolution still raged, many of his own slaves had escaped, his beloved Virginia teetered on social and political chaos. Jefferson, who had crafted the Declaration of Independence for this fledgling nation at war with the world’s strongest empire, felt deeply worried about whether his new country could survive with slavery, much less the war against Britain. Slavery was a system, said Jefferson, “daily exercised in tyranny,” with slaveholders practicing “unremitting despotism”, and the slaves a “degrading submission”.
The founder was hopeless and hopeful. He admitted that slaveholding rendered his own class depraved “despots” and destroyed the “amor patriae” of their bondsmen. But his fear was universal. “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God?” This advocate of the natural rights tradition, and confounding contradictory genius, ended his rumination with the vague entreaty that his countrymen “be contented to hope” that a “mollifying” of the conditions of slaves and a new “spirit” from the revolution would in the “order of events” save his country.
For that republic to survive it took far more than hope and a faith in progress. Indeed, it did not survive; in roughly four score years it tore itself asunder over the issue of racial slavery, as well as over fateful contradictions in its constitution. The American disunion of 1861-65, the emancipation of 4 million slaves, and the reimagining of the second republic that resulted form the pivot of American history. The civil war sits like the giant sleeping dragon of American history ever ready to rise up when we do not expect it and strike us with unbearable fire. It has happened here – existential civil war, fought with unspeakable death and suffering for fundamentally different visions of the future.