It happened today - March 13, 2016

It took long enough. But on March 13 of 1862 the U.S. federal government forbade Union army officers returning fugitive slaves. There was a logic to abolition that just could not be denied, and led from Lincoln’s election through the Emancipation Proclamation to the 13th Amendment ending slavery.

It was not a straight road. Indeed, the March 13 order had to be given because some officers were returning fugitive slaves, either because of genuine doubts about the legality of sheltering them or because they didn’t like blacks. The American Civil War is very strange in that respect; it was fought for the freedom of the most despised segment of the populace, and sadly anti-black feelings were scarcely less virulent in the North than the South. And yet… and yet…

Southerners made a big fuss in the run-up to war about the Yankees interfering with their freedom to govern themselves. But there was one issue, and one issue only, on which the North was going to intrude on the South, and that was human bondage. In some way the incompatibility of this institution with the moral and philosophical foundations of the Republic was instinctively obvious to all and, moreover, drove them to act. It is an illustration of the maxim that people have small ideas, but big ideas have people.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the legislation that inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was a piece of southern rather than northern aggression, trying to make Northerners complicit in slavery by forcing them to return runaway slaves. And when pressed to choose, reluctantly and often with cold hearts, Northerners chose liberty. Then they fought for it, an enormously destructive war, and when it ended they freed southern blacks.

The end of slavery was not, of course, the end of bigotry and legal as well as social mistreatment of non-whites in the United States. But that idea never died and, through an even longer and more twisted road, led ultimately to the success of the Civil Rights movement, the election of a black president, and the relegation of bigotry to the fever swamps where it shares space with those who insist that nothing has really changed.

It took far too long. But the logic was there, and could not ultimately be denied.