Uncle Sam's Akedah: Abraham, Isaac, and the Demands of Citizenship, 1850–65

Friday, January 7, 2011: 9:30 AM
Room 208 (Hynes Convention Center)
David F. Holland , University of Nevada at Las Vegas, Las Vegas, NV
To explain their acquiescence to the Fugitive Slave Act, some northerners turned to a biblical narrative.   As when Abraham offered Isaac, they had to obey an unjust demand for the sake of a higher good.  Their opponents pilloried them for this analogy.  “The piety of Abraham, who offered up Isaac as a sacrifice to Jehovah, has been imitated, and the country has continued to offer up its fugitive slaves as a sacrifice to Slavery,” howled Charles Sumner on the floor of the United States Senate.   During the war, however, the opponents of slavery could invoke the same bit of scripture.  A short story in Arthur’s Home Magazine tried to capture the feelings of those on the home front who sent their young men into the fight: “Our hearts shook with such inward agony as we can imagine Abraham’s did…but the voice calling out of Heaven to the patriarch was not to be more unquestioningly obeyed that that which spoke in the solemn silences of our souls, bidding us lay upon the altar of liberty things most sacred and precious.” 

Repeatedly during the sectional crisis and Civil War, Abraham and Isaac entered the political arena and helped Americans make sense of their situation.  How should one respond in the face of an apparently immoral request from the state?  How was one supposed to ask the younger generation to die for the sake of their parents’ sense of national covenant?  How much should one be willing to give to a righteous cause?  The binding of Isaac served as a contested cultural artifact through which Americans understood their own moral and political crises.  This paper will examine the use of the Akedah in this period to shed light on American conceptions of suffering, obedience and citizenship in a time of war.

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