Many people at the time of the American founding would have preferred a world without slavery but nonetheless opposed abolition. Such people - Thomas Jefferson was one - reasoned that, given the world as it was, with slavery woven into the fabric of society just as it had often been throughout history, the economic consequences of abolition for society as a whole and for owners of plantations and other businesses that relied on slave labor would be dire. Many people who argued in this way were not monsters but honest and sincere, albeit profoundly mistaken. Some (though not Jefferson) showed their personal opposition to slavery by declining to own slaves themselves or freeing slaves whom they had purchased or inherited. They certainly didn’t think anyone should be forced to own slaves. Still, they maintained that slavery should remain a legally permitted option and be given constitutional protection.
Would we describe such people, not as pro-slavery, but as “pro-choice”? Of course we would not. It wouldn’t matter to us that they were “personally opposed” to slavery, or that they wished that slavery were “unnecessary,” or that they wouldn’t dream of forcing anyone to own slaves. We would hoot at the faux sophistication of a placard that said “Against slavery? Don’t own one.” We would observe that the fundamental divide is between people who believe that law and public power should permit slavery, and those who think that owning slaves is an unjust choice that should be prohibited.
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