George William Curtis
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George William Curtis (24 February 1824 – 31 August 1892) was an American writer and public speaker. A Republican, Curtis supported the abolition of slavery and spoke in favor of the rights of freed slaves.
- I walked beside the evening sea
And dreamed a dream that could not be;
The waves that plunged along the shore
Said only: "Dreamer, dream no more!"
- Ebb and Flow.
- While we read history we make history ... Every great crisis of human history is a pass of Thermopylae, and there is always a Leonidas and his three hundred to die in it, if they can not conquer.
- The Call of Freedom.
- With the sure sagacity of a leader of men, Washington at once selected, for the highest and most responsible stations, the three chief Americans who represented the three forces in the nation which alone could command success in the institution of the government. Hamilton was the head, Jefferson was the heart, and John Jay was the conscience. Washington's just and serene ascendancy was the lambent flame in which these beneficent powers were fused, and nothing less than that ascendancy could have ridden the whirlwind and directed the storm that burst around him.
- As quoted in Manual Of Patriotism : For Use in the Public Schools of the State of New York (1900) By Charles Rufus Skinner, p. 261.
The Present Aspect of the Slavery Question (1859)
- Full text of "The Present Aspect of the Slavery Question" (18 October 1859), New York City
- There are certain great sentiments which simultaneously possess many minds and make what we call the spirit of the age. That spirit at the close of the last century was peculiarly humane. From the great Spanish Cardinal Ximenes, who refused the proposal of the Bishop Las Casas to enslave the Indians; from Milton, who sang, 'But man over man He made not Lord; such title to himself Reserving, human left from human free', from John Selden, who said, 'Before all, Liberty', from Algernon Sidney, who died for it, from Morgan Godwyn, a clergyman of the Established Church, and Richard Baxter, the Dissenter, with his great contemporary, George Fox, whose protest has been faithfully maintained by the Quakers; from Southern, Montesquieu, Hutcheson, Savage, Shenstone, Sterne, Warburton, Voltaire, Rosseau, down to Cowper and Clarkson in 1783 — by the mouths of all these and innumerable others Religion, Scepticism, Literature, and Wit had persistently protested against the sin of slavery. As early as 1705 Lord Holt had declared there was no such thing as a slave by the law of England. At the close of the century, four years before our Declaration, Lord Mansfield, though yearning to please the planters, was yet compelled to utter the reluctant 'Amen' to the words of his predecessor. Shall we believe Lord Mansfield, who lived in the time and spoke for it, when he declared that wherever English law extended — and it extended to these colonies — there was no man whatsoever so poor and outcast but had rights sacred as the king's; or shall we believe a judge eighty-four years afterwards, who says that at that time Africans were regarded as people 'who had no rights which the white man was bound to respect'? I am not a lawyer, but, for the sake of the liberty of my countrymen, I trust the law of the Supreme Court of the United States is better than its knowledge of history.
- The principle of our Revolution, as defined by its leaders with sublime simplicity, was, that as Liberty is a natural right of man, every man has consequent equal rights in society, subject indeed to limitation, but not to annihilation. 'But', cries Mister Douglas, in his Memphis speech last November. I quote his words, 'our fathers were not talking of Negroes, nor thinking of them ... they were speaking of white men, men of European birth, and they said they were equal, that is, equal to their brethren across the water'. Well, it would have been perfectly easy to say, 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all white men of the European race upon this continent are created equal — to their brethren across the water; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; but that yellow, blacky brown, and red men have no such rights'. It would have been very easy to say this. Our fathers did not say it, because they did not mean it. They were men who meant what they said, and who said what they meant, and meaning all men, they said all men. They were patriots asserting a principle and ready to die for it, not politicians pettifogging for the presidency.
- Mr. Douglas incessantly remembers to inform us in every speech he has made for a year past that, when the Constitution was formed, all the thirteen States but one recognized slavery by law; but he incessantly forgets to add that Pennsylvania in 1780 passed an act for the gradual abolition of slavery which freed everybody born in the State after its passage; that one day later Massachusetts decided that her Bill of Rights abolished slavery forever; that in 1784 Connecticut followed Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island at about the same time; that in 1792, soon after the Constitution was formed. New Hampshire, under her Bill of Rights, Vermont, by express assertion in her Constitution, New York in March, 1799, and New Jersey in 1804, gradually abolished slavery.
- That is to say, within less than twenty years after the Constitution was formed, and in obedience to that general opinion of the time which condemned slavery as a sin in morals and a blunder in economy, eight of the States had abolished it by law — four of them having already done so when the instrument was framed; and Mr. Douglas might as justly quote the fact that there were slaves in New York up to 1827 as proof that the public opinion of the State sanctioned slavery, as to try to make an argument of the fact that there were slave laws upon the statute-books of the original States. He forgets that there was not in all the colonial legislation of America one single law which recognized the rightfulness of slavery in the abstract; that in 1774 Virginia stigmatized the slave-trade as 'wicked, cruel, and unnatural'; that in the same year Congress protested against it 'under the sacred ties of virtue, honor, and love of country'; that in 1775 the same Congress denied that God intended one man to own another as a slave; that the new Discipline of the Methodist Church, in 1784, and the Pastoral Letter of the Presbyterian Church, in 1788, denounced slavery; that abolition societies existed in slave States, and that it was hardly the interest even of the cotton-growing States, where it took a slave a day to clean a pound of cotton, to uphold the system. Mr. Douglas incessantly forgets to tell us that Jefferson, in his address to the Virginia Legislature of 1774, says that 'the abolition of domestic slavery is the greatest object of desire in these colonies, where it was unhappily introduced in their infant state'; and while he constantly remembers to remind us that the Jeffersonian prohibition of slavery in the territories was lost in 1784, he forgets to add that it was lost, not by a majority of votes — for there were sixteen in its favor to seven against it — but because the sixteen votes did not represent two thirds of the States; and he also incessantly forgets to tell us that this Jeffersonian prohibition was restored by the Congress of 1785, and erected into the famous Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which was re-enacted by the first Congress of the United States and approved by the first President.
- I will not weary you with the proof of this. James Madison, who knew perhaps as well as any one what the makers of the Constitution meant, said, 'We intend this Constitution to be the great charter of Human Liberty to the unborn millions who shall enjoy its protection, and who should never see that such an institution as slavery was ever known in our midst'. And the Congress of 1787, in resigning its functions, echoed the meaning of his words in saying, 'Let it never be forgotten that the cause of the United States is the cause of human nature' — not of white men nor black men nor red men nor brown men — but of man, of mankind.
- Our fathers, therefore, were fully alive to the scope of their words and their work; and thus, as I believe, the Constitution of the United States, in its essential spirit and intention, recognizes the essential manhood of Dred Scott as absolutely as it does that of the President, of the Chief Justice, or of any Senator of the United States. I think I have not unfairly stated the spirit of the age, the sentiments of the fathers, and the original doctrine of this government upon the question of slavery. The system was recognized by law, but it was considered an evil which Time was surely removing. And, as if to put this question at rest forever, to show that the framers of this government did not look forward to a continuance of slavery, Mr. Stephens of Georgia, the most sagacious of the living slavery leaders, says, in June of this year, 'The leading public men of the South, in our early history, were almost all against it. Jefferson was against it. This I freely admit, when the authority of their names is cited. It was a question which they did not, and perhaps could not, thoroughly understand at that time'.
- In like manner the Reverend Dr. William A. Smith, President of the Randolph-Macon College in Virginia, in his work upon the Philosophy and Practice of Slavery, deliberately repudiates Mr. Jefferson's view of slavery as a 'grossly offensive error', and attributes the anti-slavery movement to him – which is as wise as to attribute the motion of the earth to Galileo. Judge Wayne, in his late charge at Savannah upon the law against the slave-trade, confirms Mr. Stephens's statement. And, as if to establish it by the most unexpected testimony, Mr. Edward Everett, in his late discourse upon Daniel Webster, said, 'In common with all, or nearly all, the statesmen of the last generation, he believed that free labor would ultimately prevail throughout the continent'.
- If there be any fact in our history beyond dispute it is that Roger Sherman expressed the universal sentiment of our fathers when he said, 'The abolition of slavery seemed to be going on in the United States, and the good sense of the several States would probably by degrees complete it'. In that spirit the compromises of the Constitution were made. Had not slavery at that time deprecated itself as an evil, the Constitution could not have been formed. Could the future have been foreseen, it would not have been formed. But, reasoning from the light they had, it was fair to believe as they believed, that, when the slave-trade was prohibited, the system would wither away under the double curse of Morality and Law.
- Now, so far as we may ascribe any great historic result to a single cause, it is the cotton-gin which has thwarted the Constitution and defeated the expectation of our fathers. The cotton-gin — which in seven years saw a crop twenty times as large as before; the cotton-gin, which enabled a man to pick a thousand pounds of cotton in a day instead of one pound — has seemed also to pick the moral perceptions out of the minds of a great many sober and kindly people; to pick all the intention, the spirit, the humanity, the meaning, the very soul, out of the Constitution of the United States, making it not the charter of equal freedom to all who are subject to it, but a mere commercial band by which a part of the population are compelled, directly or indirectly, to hold another part in slavery.
- From the invention of the cotton-gin slavery became a progressive system — not passively tolerated as in process of extinction, but actively striving for development and extension. It became a conscious political power. It made no offensive professions. It still deprecated itself as an evil, so difficult to deal with, and, with an adroit allusion to Ham and Onesimus, it smoothed the ecclesiastical conscience of the country and only asked to be let alone. And it was let alone. The War of 1812, and the consequent commercial confusion and renewed devotion to trade, held the country torpid upon the subject. If anybody looked at slavery inquisitively, it folded its hands demurely upon its breast and said, 'I am such a dreadful thing! How unfortunate that I should exist! What can be done with me? Just please to let me alone, that is all I want. A leper, you see; a miserable leper!'.
- And so it went until the alarm was struck in the famous Missouri debate. Then wise men remembered what Washington had said, 'Resist with care the spirit of innovation upon the principles of the Constitution'. They saw that the letting alone was all on one side, that the unfortunate anomaly was deeply scheming to become the rule, and they roused the country. The old American love of liberty flamed out again. Meetings were everywhere held. The lips of young orators burned with the eloquence of freedom. The spirit of John Knox and of Hugh Peters thundered and lightened in the pulpits, and men were not called political preachers because they preached that we are all equal children of God. The legislatures of the free States instructed their representatives to stand fast for liberty. Daniel Webster, speaking for the merchants of Boston, said that it was a question essentially involving the perpetuity of the blessings of liberty for which the Constitution itself was formed. Daniel Webster, speaking for humanity at Plymouth, described the future of the slave as 'a widespread prospect of suffering, anguish, and death'. The land was loud with the debate, and Rufus King stated its substance in saying that it was a question of slave or free policy in the national government. Slavery hissed disunion; liberty smiled disdain. The moment of final trial came. Pinckney exulted. John Quincy Adams shook his head. Slavery triumphed and, with Southern chivalry, politely called victory compromise.
- The advantage it had gained it has steadily maintained. 'This is our matter, you know', it said. 'Just please let us alone'. It was let alone. Texas was ceded for Florida, completing the sea-line of slavery; and when slavery was ready Texas was taken back again, as when, afterwards, slavery had secured its share of the bargain, the Missouri Compromise was broken. In due order came the Mexican war and its consequences, the Fugitive-slave Bill and the loud chatter about saving the Union, so incessant that every thoughtful man asked himself. Is the casket more than the gem — the body than the soul — the Union than liberty? Then came the bloody tragedy of Kansas, with its justification by the President of the United States and by the Chief Justice; and I think no one will deny that Mr. Stephens is correct in calmly congratulating himself that slavery has carried all the important objects for which it has striven.
- For what do we now see in the country? We see a man who, as Senator of the United States, voted to tamper with the public mails for the benefit of slavery, sitting in the President's chair. Two days after he is seated we see a judge rising in the place of John Jay — who said, 'Slaves, though held by the laws of men, are free by the laws of God' — to declare that a seventh of the population not only have no original rights as men, but no legal rights as citizens. We see every great office of State held by ministers of slavery ; our foreign ambassadors not the representatives of our distinctive principle, but the eager advocates of the bitter anomaly in our system, so that the world sneers as it listens and laughs at liberty. We see the majority of every important committee of each house of Congress carefully devoted to slavery. We see throughout the vast ramification of the Federal system every little postmaster in every little town professing loyalty to slavery or sadly holding his tongue as the price of his salary, which is taxed to propagate the faith. We see every small Custom-House officer expected to carry primary meetings in his pocket and to insult at Fourth-of-July dinners men who quote the Declaration of Independence. We see the slave-trade in fact, though not yet in law, reopened — the slave-law of Virginia contesting the freedom of the soil of New York We see slave-holders in South Carolina and Louisiana enacting laws to imprison and sell the free citizens of other States. Yes, and on the way to these results, at once symptoms and causes, we have seen the public mails robbed — the right of petition denied — the appeal to the public conscience made by the abolitionists in 1833 and onward derided and denounced, and their very name become a byword and a hissing. We have seen free speech in public and in private suppressed, and a Senator of the United States struck down in his place for defending liberty. We have heard Mr. Edward Everett, succeeding brave John Hancock and grand old Samuel Adams as governor of the freest State in history, say in his inaugural address in 1836 that all discussion of the subject which tends to excite insurrection among the slaves, as if all discussion of it would not be so construed, 'has been held by highly respectable legal authorities an offence against the peace of the commonwealth, which may be prosecuted as a misdemeanor at common law'. We have heard Daniel Webster, who had once declared that the future of the slave was 'a widespread prospect of suffering, anguish, and death', now declaring it to be 'an affair of high morals' to drive back into that doom any innocent victim appealing to God and man, and flying for life and liberty. We have heard clergymen in their pulpits preaching implicit obedience to the powers that be, whether they are of God or the Devil — insisting that God's tribute should be paid to Caesar, and, by sneering at the scruples of the private conscience, denouncing every mother of Judea who saved her child from the sword of Herod's soldiers.
- We have heard popular orators declaiming to audiences to whose fathers James Otis and Samuel Adams spoke, and whose fathers' cheeks would have burned with shame and their hearts tingled with indignation to hear, that the Declaration of Independence was the passionate manifesto of a revolutionary war, and its doctrine of equal human rights a glittering generality. And finally, throwing off the mask altogether, but still whining to be let alone, we see this system, grown now from seven hundred thousand to four millions of slaves, declaring that it is in a peculiar sense a divine and Christian institution; that it is right in itself and a blessing, not a bane; that it is ineradicable in the soil; that it is directly recognized and protected by the Constitution of the United States ; that its rights under that Constitution are to be maintained at all hazards ; and haw they are maintained we may see in the slave States, by the absolute annihilation of free speech and by codes of law insulting to humanity and common-sense ; and how they are to be maintained in the new States we have seen in the story of Kansas. It declares that, the Congress of the United States being a slave instrument and being also the supreme law of the land, the rights of the slave States are to be protected from injury by the suppression in the free States of what shall be decided by the United States Courts to be incendiary discussion; and at last it openly announces, by its representative leaders in Congress, that if a majority of the people of the United States shall elect a government holding what they allow to have been the principles of the founders of the government upon this question, they will hesitate at no steps to destroy the Union.
- So vast has been the change in the claim and position of slavery! So entirely has it reversed the classic story, and the blind, begging Belisarius has become the imperial general! So proudly, in such long and dazzling and magnificent array, stands Xerxes at the fiery pass of war! And where is Leonidas? Where is liberty?
- Still, slavery professes only to wish its rights. It only wants to be let alone. Of course, what else could it want? And what else is the secret of the present state of the country? Under the plea of being let alone — that it was a dreadful thing and only wanted to mind its own business — it has quietly possessed itself, one after another, of all the outworks of the Constitution, and now seeks to intrench itself finally in the citadel.
- It was no further from the compromises of 1850 to the repeal of the Missouri bill in 1854, than it was from the annexation of Texas in 1845 to the compromises. Slavery had no reason to fear that it could not take one more step, and one more, every few years. If freedom will bear a pinch, it argued, it will bear a blow. If a blow, a kick. If a kick, we'll throw it and throttle it. The burglar who has quietly mounted one stair does not see why he may not mount the next. There is a risk; that is all. The master of the house sleeps quietly on. The burglar mounts another stair. Still the sleeper sleeps. Another. There is no motion yet. He mounts another. No reason for alarm. Hist! the last stair creeks ; the master awakes — springs to his feet — grasps his weapon — aims — fires. Do you think he will sleep again ? I don't believe he will.
- This attempt to usurp the government by subverting the Constitution of the United States was the policy of the greatest leader the system of slavery has ever had in this country — that pagan of our politics, Mr. Calhoun. While other statesmen merely saw, he foresaw. His mind, of large forecast and comprehensive grasp, perceived that the logic of history, of civilization, of our national idea, of the universal conscience, was against slavery. But he had seen the conscience of the country, roused for a moment in the Missouri debate, drop asleep again. And with the audacity of genius he resolved to stun the country into acquiescence by claiming that slavery was the fundamental law of the land.
- In 1850 Mr. Calhoun said, 'Let us be done with compromises. Let us go back and stand upon the Constitution'. Four years afterwards, the most Christian and most democratic statesman we have had in our history since Washington, Mr. Seward, accepted the challenge thrown out by Mr. Calhoun, solemnly saying, 'The sands of compromise are sliding from beneath my feet, and they are taking hold once more of the rock of the Constitution'.
- The debate forced upon the mind of the country this question. Does the Constitution, made at the time we know, by the men we know, holding the views we know, for the distinct intention it declares, stultify itself by securing the destruction of its expressed purposes?
- The slavery debate has been really a death-struggle from that moment. Mr. Clay thought not. Mr. Clay was a shrewd politician, but the difference between him and Calhoun was the difference between principle and expediency. Calhoun's sharp, incisive genius has engraved his name, narrow but deep, upon our annals. The fluent and facile talents of Clay in a bold, large hand wrote his name in honey upon many pages. But time is already licking it away. Henry Clay was our great compromiser. That was known, and that was the reason why Mr. Buchanan's story of a bargain with J.Q. Adams always clung to Mr. Clay. He had compromised political policies so long that he had forgotten there is such a thing as political principle, which is simply a name for the moral instincts applied to government. He did not see that when Mr. Calhoun said he should return to the Constitution he took the question with him, and shifted the battle-ground from the low, poisonous marsh of compromise, where the soldiers never know whether they are standing on land or water, to the clear, hard height of principle. Mr. Clay had his omnibus at the door to roll us out of the mire. The Whig party was all right and ready to jump in. The Democratic party was all right. The great slavery question was going to be settled forever. The bushel-basket of national peace and plenty and prosperity was to be heaped up and run over. Mr. Pierce came all the way from the granite hills of New Hampshire, where people are supposed to tell the truth, to an- nounce to a happy country that it was at peace — that its bushel-basket was never so overflowingly full before. And then what ? Then the bottom fell out. Then the gentlemen in the national rope -walk at Washington found they had been busily twining a rope of sand to hold the country together. They had been trying to compromise the principles of human justice, not the percentage of a tariff ; the instincts of human nature and consequently of all permanent government, and the conscience of the country saw it. Compromises are the sheet-anchor of the Union — are they? As the English said of the battle of Bunker Hill, that two such victories would ruin their army, so two such sheet- anchors as the Compromise of 1850 would drag the Union down out of sight forever.
- Government is, unquestionably, a science of compromises, but only of policies and interests, not of essential rights; and if of them, then the sacrifice must fall equally on all.
- Up to this time the argument of the abolitionists, who since 1833 had been storming the national conscience — for they knew the real citadel of a nation — with the assertion that slavery was an absolute wrong, had been met by the reply, 'Yes, yes; we know all about that. Of course it's a great wrong. The South agrees to that. It's dreadful sorry about it — but it's got the nasty thing, and it says if we'll only let it alone it will settle itself. Slavery is one of those things that work out themselves. The more you talk the worse it is. Besides, it's their own affair; we've nothing to do with it. Let 'em alone ! Let 'em alone !'.
- And the clergy said, 'Certainly, you're quite right; the disease is awful. Therefore, the only way is to let it alone. Amen. A contribution will now be taken up to extend Gospel privileges to the Philippine Islands'. The abolitionists retorted by declaring that you might as well let fire alone, by telling the free States that they were bound to thrust back fugitives, and were, therefore, themselves the mere bloodhounds and slaves of slavery, which could only live by expansion, and only wanted to be let alone to become impregnable.
- 'Pooh! Pooh! Nonsense!' was the reply, 'that's all very well in theory, but it doesn't work so. The returning of slaves amounts to nothing in fact. All that is obsolete. And why make all this row? Can't you hush ? We've nothing to do with slavery, we tell you. We can't touch it; and if you persist in this agitation about a mere form and theory, why, you're a set of pestilent fanatics and traitors; and if you get your noisy heads broken, you get just what you deserve'. And they quoted in the faces of the abolitionists the words of Governor Edward Everett, who was not an authority with them, in that fatal inaugural address, 'The patriotism of all classes of citizens must be invited to abstain from a discussion which, by exasperating the master, can have no other effect than to render more oppressive the condition of the slave'. It was as if some kindly Pharisee had said to Christ, 'Don't try to cast out that evil spirit; it may rend the body on departing'. Was it not as if some timid citizen had said, 'Don't say hard things of intemperance lest the dram-shops, to spite us, should give away the rum'? And so the battle raged. The abolitionists dashed against slavery with passionate eloquence like a hail of hissing fire. They lashed its supporters with the scorpion whip of their invective. Ambition, reputation, ortune, ease, life itself they threw upon the consuming altar of their cause. Not since those earlier fanatics of freedom, Patrick Henry and James Otis, has the master chord of human nature, the love of liberty, been struck with such resounding power. It seemed in vain, so slowly their numbers increased, so totally were they outlawed from social and political and ecclesiastical recognition. The merchants of Boston mobbed an editor for virtually repeating the Declaration of Independence. The city of New York looked on and smiled while the present United States marshal insulted a woman as noble and womanly and humane as Florence Nightingale. In other free States men were flying for their lives; were mobbed, seized, imprisoned, maimed, murdered ; but still as, in the bitter days of Puritan persecution in Scotland, the undaunted voices of the Covenanters were heard singing the solemn songs of God that echoed and re-echoed from peak to peak of the barren mountains, until the great dumb wilderness was vocal with praise — so in little towns and great cities were heard the uncompromising voices of these men sternly intoning the majestic words of the Golden Rule and the Declaration of Independence, which echoed from solitary heart to heart until the whole land rang with the litany of liberty.
- But still the great public opinion of the free States was unmoved. It cried angrily, 'You're only making matters worse. It's very hard, but what can we do? It's none of our business. It's none of our business'. But when 1850 came, and theory was found to be fact, when the man who was angrily crying, 'It's none of my business, what have I to do with slavery?' suddenly felt the quivering, panting fugitive clinging to his knees — a wretched, forlorn, outcast, hunted man, guilty of no crime but color, and begging the succor that no honest man would refuse to a cur cowering on his threshold — then, as he stood aghast and heard Slavery thundering at his door, 'I am the law. Give me my prey! Give me my prey!' he felt God knocking at his heart, 'Whoso doeth it unto the least of these my little ones, doeth it unto me'.
- Up to this time, as I believe, slavery had been let alone, as it claimed to be, in good faith. Up to this time it is clear enough in our history that there was no general perception of the terrible truth that slavery was a system aggressive in its very nature, and necessarily destructive of Constitutional rights and liberties. Up to this time there had been a general blindness to the fact that, under the plea, which was allowed, that it was a local and State institution, slavery had acquired an absolute national supremacy, and if not checked would presently declare itself in national law as the national policy. I think that the eyes of the people were opened rather by the frank statements and legislative action in Congress of the slave party; by the speeches of Mr. Calhoun, filtered through lesser minds and mouths than his ; at last by the events in Kansas forcing every man to consider whether, while we had let slavery alone, it had also let us alone ; and forcing him to see that its hand was already upon the throat of freedom in this country. I think that by the cuts of the slave party, not by the words of the technical abolitionists, the country was at last aroused. The moral wrong and the political despotism of the system were at last perceived, and a reconstruction of political parties was inevitable. For in human society, while the individual conscience is the steam or motive power, political methods are the engine and the wheels by which progress is effected and secured.
- The country was divided between the Whig and Democratic organizations. The Democratic Party then, as now, was in open alliance with slavery, in a conspiracy against the Constitution and the peace of the country. Of that there was no hope; and when the Whig party at Baltimore with fabulous fatuity dodged the question, the great Whig party, newly painted and repaired, with all its guns burnished, its drums beating and colors flying, went down in a moment clean out of sight, like the Royal George at Spithead, and of all that stately craft there remain but a few ancient mariners drifting half-drowned in the water, and sputtering with winking eyes that the ship had better try another voyage.
- Out of the chaos that followed the so-called final settlement of the slavery question in 1850 arose the great political antislavery party, whose vital force is in the conscience of its supporters, whose central idea is the original American principle, the equality of human rights, and whose unswerving policy is the planting of the government ineradicably upon that principle. It is a party of ideas and interests combined. It holds with Jefferson that God has no attribute which can take part with slavery. It looks anxiously with Washington for the means by which it can be abolished. It seeks with the framers of the Northwest Ordinance to exclude it from the territories, because it is at war with the essential principles of the government and with the expressed intention of the Constitution. I confess I secretly suspect the Republicanism of an orator who is more anxious to show his hearers that he respects what he calls the rights of slavery than that he loves the rights of man. If God be just and the human instinct true, slavery has no rights at all. It has only a legalized toleration. Have I a right to catch a weaker man than I, and appropriate him, his industry, and his family, forever, against his will, to my service? Because if I have, any man stronger than I has the same right over me. But if I have not, what possible right is represented by the two thousand million dollars of property in human beings in this country? It is the right of Captain Kidd on the sea, of Dick Turpin on the land. I certainly do not say that every slave-holder is a bad man, because I know the contrary. The complicity of many with the system is inherited, and often unwilling. But to rob a man of his liberty, to make him so far as possible a brute and a thing, is not less a crime against human nature because it is organized into a hereditary system of frightful proportions. A wrong does not become a right by being vested.
- If the slave-power could now in good faith stand where the fathers stood, with the added lights of experience shining upon the question, asking sympathy and co-operation in a system of emancipation, pleading that it was unfair to ask them to make greater sacrifices than other men are willing to make, allowing that it was a common evil, the cost and trouble of whose removal should be cheerfully borne by all, or if the laws of any slave state looked towards the gradual relief of the difficulty, there is not an honest man in the North or the South whose heart would not tremble with joy as he contemplated the destiny of his country.
- And as I understand the Republican party, while it steadily holds that slavery is in itself a wrong, it does not forget human conditions and the actual state of things, and, therefore, that the questions of planting slavery in fresh territory and of removing it where it is in wrought in a system of society are very different, as different as the prevention and the cure of disease. The question of the moment, then, is simply whether the most unrelenting and permanent despotism can be justified by the Constitution of the United States. That is, whether the makers of the government meant that the democratic-republican principle should gradually, but surely, disappear from that government. There are, therefore, but two parties, one holding that a system of free society, the other that one of slave society, is the real intention of the government. These parties are sectionally divided in situation, but they both aim to have their idea become the national policy. The party of slavery, indeed, is divided in its own camp, but only upon a minor question. The point of difference between Mr. Douglas and Mr. Buchanan is not whether all men under this government have rights, but simply in what way those who deprive them of those rights shall be most securely protected. Mr. Douglas argues that the slave party is the only national party; 'because', he says, 'so long as we live under a common Constitution, any political creed which cannot be proclaimed wherever that Constitution is the supreme law of the land must be ruinous and fatal'. He makes short work of it For it is a matter of fact that the creed of equal human and consequent political rights cannot be proclaimed everywhere in the country; and therefore whoever, in the present juncture of our affairs, can proclaim his entire political creed as frankly in Charleston as in Boston, can do it only because he has stricken from the list our distinctive national principle, without which we are not Americans at all — the natural equal rights of men. If Washington or Jefferson or Madison should utter upon his native soil today the opinions he entertained and expressed upon this question, he would be denounced as a fanatical abolitionist. To declare the right of all men to liberty is sectional, because slavery is afraid of liberty and strikes the mouth that speaks the word. To preach slavery is not sectional — no: because freedom respects itself and believes in itself enough to give an enemy fair play. Thus Boston asked Senator Toombs to come and say what he could for slavery. I think Boston did a good thing, but I think Senator Toombs is not a wise man, for he went. He went all the way from Georgia to show Massachusetts how slavery looks, and to let it learn what it has to say. When will Georgia ask Wendell Phillips or Charles Sumner to come down and show her how liberty looks and speaks?
- If a man cannot stand up in Charleston or Savannah or Richmond and say that he believes the right of every man to the enjoyment of life, liberty, and happiness to be self-evident ; if he be tarred and feathered for saying it, or ridden upon a rail, or ducked in a horse-pond, or driven out of his pulpit or professorial chair, or shot down in his office, or waited upon by a committee who cannot be answerable for the chivalric impatience of their fellow-citizens — Mr. Douglas says it is a proof that his political principles are ruinous and fatal; which is simply the argument of a highway robber to his victim whom he knocks on the head, that if he didn't carry so much money in his pocket he wouldn't be robbed.
- The party which is humorously called the Douglas Democracy no more recognizes the rights declared by the Declaration of Independence to be inalienable than does the party of the administration. Its leader repudiates the theory that the Constitution establishes slavery, but he does not perceive in it, or in the circumstances of its adoption, or in the expressed sentiments and actions of its framers, any reason to suppose that it favors liberty more than slavery. He leaves all human rights at the mercy of a majority, and insists that the Constitution does the same.
- Mister Douglas in his speech at Memphis expressly says, 'Whenever a territory has a climate, soil, and productions making it the interest of the inhabitants to encourage slave property, they will pass a slave-code and give it encouragement'. He adds that they have a right to do it, and in his late speech at Columbus he declares that there must be no interference with any action of any state, insisting, according to the report, amid great laughter at the exquisite humor of the witticism, 'If you go over to Virginia to steal her Negroes, I trust she will catch you and put you in jail with other thieves'. Ah, Mr. Douglas! Mr. Douglas! if the little child just born to you were stolen from your arms and sold into slavery, and you went through fire and water to rescue her, would you say so airily, so jauntily, with such pleasant humor, that if you went to steal her you trust you would be caught and put in jail with other thieves? And yet not more do you love that child hanging at this moment upon her mother's bosom, than an old slave mother whom I know in the hospital across the river loved the child who forty years ago was torn from her breast and sold, and of whose fate for forty years that silent, sorrowing Rachel has not heard?
- This negative doctrine of Mr. Douglas that there are no rights anterior to governments is the end of free society. If the majority of a political community have a right to establish slavery if they think it for their interest, they have the same right to declare who shall be enslaved. The doctrine simply substitutes the despotic, irresponsible tyranny of many for that of one. If the majority shall choose that the interest of the State requires the slaughter of all infants born lame, of all persons more than seventy years of age, they have the right to slaughter them, according to what is called the Democratic doctrine. Do you think this a ludicrous and extreme case? But if the majority have a right to deprive a man of his liberty at their pleasure, they have an equal right to take his life. For life is no more a natural right than liberty. The individual citizen, according to Mr. Douglas, is not secure in his person, in his property, in his family, for a single moment from the whim or the passion or the deliberate will of the majority, if expressed as law. Might is not right. I have the power to hold a child by the throat until he turns purple and dies. But I have not the right to do it. A State or a Territory has the power to steal a man's liberty or labor, and to hold him and his children's children forever in slavery. It has the power to do this to any man of any color, of any age, of any country, who is not strong enough to protect himself. But it has no more right to do it to an African than to an American or an Irishman, no more right to do it to the most ignorant and forsaken foreigner than to the prosperous and honored citizen of its own country. 'Fiddle-fad-dle', says the Supreme Court of the United States, 'an African doesn't count. He is only a Negro. He has no friends. Hit him again! And, now that we have decided the matter, what are you going to do about it?' We are going to do what Patrick Henry did in Virginia, what James Otis and Samuel Adams did in Massachusetts, what the Sons of Liberty did in New York, ninety years ago. We are going to agitate, agitate, agitate. You say you want to rest. Very well, so do we — and don't blame us if you stuff your pillow with thorns. You say you are tired of the eternal Negro. Very well, stop trying to turn a man into a thing because he happens to be black, and you'll stop our mouths at the same time. But while you keep at your work, be perfectly sure that we shall keep at ours. If you are up at five o'clock, we shall be up at four. We shall agitate, agitate, agitate, until the Supreme Court, obeying the popular will, proclaims that all men have original equal rights which government did not give and cannot justly take away.
- The country does want rest, we all want rest. Our very civilization wants it — and we mean that it shall have it. It shall have rest — repose — refreshment of soul and re-invigoration of faculty. And that rest shall be of life and not of death. It shall not be a poison that pacifies restlessness in death, nor shall it be any kind of anodyne or patting or propping or bolstering — as if a man with a cancer in his breast would be well if he only said he was so and wore a clean shirt and kept his shoes tied. We want the rest of a real Union, not of a name, not of a great transparent sham, which good old gentlemen must coddle and pat and dandle, and declare wheedlingly is the dearest Union that ever was, SO it is; and naughty, ugly old fanatics shan't frighten the pretty precious — no, they sha'n't. Are we babies or men? This is not the Union our fathers framed — and when slavery says that it will tolerate a Union on condition that freedom holds its tongue and consents that the Constitution means first slavery at all costs and then liberty, if you can get it, it speaks plainly and manfully, and says what it means. There are not wanting men enough to fall on their knees and cry: 'Certainly, certainly, stay on those terms. Don't go out of the Union — please don't go out; we'll promise to take great care in future that you have everything you want. Hold our tongues? Certainly. These people who talk about liberty are only a few fanatics — they are tolerably educated, but most of 'em are crazy; we don't speak to them in the street; we don't ask them to dinner; really, they are of no account, and if you'll really consent to stay in the Union, we'll see if we can't turn Plymouth Rock into a lump of dough'. I don't believe the Southern gentlemen want to be fed on dough. I believe they see quite as clearly as we do that this is not the sentiment of the North, because they can read the election returns as well as we. The thoughtful men among them see and feel that there is a hearty abhorrence of slavery among us, and a hearty desire to prevent its increase and expansion, and a constantly deepening conviction that the two systems of society are incompatible. When they want to know the sentiment of the North, they do not open their ears to speeches, they open their eyes, and go and look in the ballot-box, and they see there a constantly growing resolution that the Union of the United States shall no longer be a pretty name for the extension of slavery and the subversion of the Constitution. Both parties stand front to front. Each claims that the other is aggressive, that its rights have been outraged, and that the Constitution is on its side. Who shall decide? Shall it be the Supreme Court? But that is only a co-ordinate branch of the government. Its right to decide is not mutually acknowledged. There is no universally recognized official expounder of the meaning of the Constitution. Such an instrument, written or unwritten, always means in a crisis what the people choose. The people of the United States will always interpret the Constitution for themselves, because that is the nature of popular governments, and because they have learned that judges are sometimes appointed to do partisan service.
- Therefore our Constitution will always be the measure of our national morality; and if we were all sorry, it would still be true. I am not sorry, for it founds the government in the character of the people, and hence everything in the future depends upon the popular faith in the original principles of the government. If the people of this country do believe with the fathers that there are self-evident, original, and indefeasible human rights, then slavery will surely, quietly, and legally be terminated, under the Constitution of the United States. If they do not believe that there are such rights, then slavery will, just as surely, quietly, and legally, be established under the Constitution, which, as the paramount law of the land, will legalize it in New York as well as in Alabama, leaving the policy of adopting it to be decided by individual judgment.
- Such is the present aspect of the slavery question. For myself, I believe that the faith in which the government was founded still survives. I believe that the spirit of despotism which now says to the country, 'I will rule or ruin', will hear the imperial voice of the conscience of the American people, recognizing that justice and prosperity walk hand in hand, saying, 'You will do neither'. I believe that God did not hide this continent through all time as the spot whereon a nation should be planted upon the only principle that can render a nation as permanent as the race, to suffer the experiment to fail within a century. I believe these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Do you believe it? If aye, let us go into the battle, and God speed the right.
The Good Fight (1865)
- "The Good Fight" (1865), written in Autumn 1865.
- It is a wise old saw that warns us not to whistle until we are out of the woods. But, as we climb the Alps and, emerging from the morass and forest, set once more the sun and the broad landscape, we may fairly shout and sing, although we are still toiling on, and are yet far below the pure peaks towards which we go. In our Revolution, a man who saw distinctly, as we can now see, that the triumph of Great Britain would have imperiled constitutional liberty everywhere, surely had a right to rejoice over the victory of Saratoga, though it was not the end of the war. The battle did not end the war, indeed. The Tories sneered and bade the Yankees wait. They did wait. They waited from Burgoyne's surrender at Saratoga to Comwallis's surrender at Yorktown. Yankee pluck, as usual, waited until it won, as in later days it waited from Bull Run to Richmond. The battle of Saratoga was a skirmish compared with our later battles, but it was a fatal blow to Tory supremacy upon this continent. It was a gleam of sunshine in which it was right to shout and sing, for it was another great gain in the 'Good Fight of Man'.
- [Human]] history is the story of that 'Good Fight', of the effort of man to attain that universal liberty to which, he feels himself born. All wars are but battles in this war. It is fought by the tongue and pen as earnestly as with the sword and shell. It is called by various names. The combatants rally under various banners. Whatever in human nature is hopeful, generous, aspiring, the love of God and trust in man, is arrayed on one side. The meaner passions, the baser purpose, stand upon the other.
- But the two sides are always plainly apparent in every form of the struggle, and every man inevitably shows his colors. We are all Butternuts or Bluecoats. A modem Protestant clergyman, for instance, who boils down his Bible to distill from it the one black drop of slavery, and who excuses the most horrible crimes by the sending back of Onesimus and the cursing of Ham, joins hands with the Romish Grand Inquisitor Torquemada, and burns human freedom at the stake. The scientific scholar, who from the forma- tion of Tom's shin-bone proves that Dick may whip Tom's wife and sell his children, fights in the ranks with the cruel skill that used the thumb-screw and the boots to frighten the mind from freedom. And an American convention which solemnly resolves, with one in Pennsylvania lately, that to confer the right of suffrage upon any person but a white man is a crime against the Constitution and a degradation of the white race, helps Philip II. of Spain to crush the Netherlands, fights with the redcoats at Saratoga, tears the Declaration of Independence, and fires at the flag of the United States a more shameful shot than that at Sumter.
- And, on the other hand, the Greek Leonidas choking the pass against the Persian torrent, the Italian Galileo holding fast his scientific faith in the teeth of the Church of Rome, Robert Small steering his bold boat under the guns of slavery straight towards the flag of freedom, Abraham Lincoln patiently saving civil liberty, are all, in their times and countries, soldiers of the true cross, heroes and martyrs of the Good Fight.
- The part assigned to this country in the 'Good Fight of Man' is the total overthrow of the spirit of caste. Luther fought it in the form of ecclesiastical despotism; our fathers fought it as political tyranny; we have hitherto encountered it entrenched in a system of personal slavery. But in all these forms it is the same old spirit of the denial of equal rights. Martin Luther, the monk, had exactly the same right to his religious faith that Giovanni de' Medici, the pope, had to his. Galileo had the same right to hold and teach his scientific theories that the Church doctors had to teach theirs. Patrick Henry, a British subject, had the same right to refuse to be taxed without representation that Lord North, another British subject, had. Robert Small, one of the American people, had exactly the same right to vote upon the same qualifications with other citizens that the President has or the Chief Justice of the United States. The Inquisition in Italy, aristocratic privilege in England, chattel slavery or unfair political exclusion in the United States, are only fruits ripened upon the tree of caste. Our swords have cut off some of the fruit, but the tree and its roots remain, and now that our swords are turned into plough-shares and our Dahlgrens and Parrotts into axes and hoes, our business is to take care that the tree and all its roots are thoroughly cut down and dug up, and burned utterly away in the great blaze of equal rights.
- There is no gentleman in America, but he who feels that every man is his equal in natural right, and who does not know that he is cheated if every man does not have fair play.
- In January 1865, Louis Wigfall, one of the rebel chiefs, said, in Richmond, 'Sir, I wish to live in no country where the man who blacks my boots or curries my horse is my equal'. Three months afterwards, when the rebel was skulking away to Mexico, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, walked through the streets of Richmond and respectfully lifted his hat to the men who blacked Louis Wigfall's boots and curried his horse. What did it mean? It meant that the truest American president we have ever had, the companion of Washington in our love and honor, recognized that the poorest man, however outraged, however ignorant, however despised, however black, was, as a man, his equal. The child of the American people was their most prophetic man, because, whether as small shop-keeper, as flat-boatman, as volunteer captain, as honest lawyer, as defender of the Declaration, as President of the United States, he knew by the profoundest instinct and the widest experience and reflection, that in the most vital faith of this country it is just as honorable for an honest man to curry a horse and black a boot as it is to raise cotton or corn, to sell molasses or cloth, to practice medicine or law, to gamble in stocks or speculate in petroleum. He knew the European doctrine that the king makes the gentleman; but he believed with his whole soul the doctrine, the American doctrine, that worth makes the man. He stood with his hand on the helm, and saw the rebel colors of caste flying in the storm of war. He heard the haughty shout of rebellion to the American principle rising above the gale, 'Capital ought to own labor and the laborer, and a few men should monopolize political power'. He heard the cracked and quavering voice of medieval Europe in which that rebel craft was equipped and launched, speaking by the tongue of Alexander Stephens, 'We build on the comer-stone of slavery'. Then calmly waiting until the wildest fury of the gale, the living America, which is our country, mistress of our souls, by the lips of Abraham Lincoln thundered jubilantly back to the dead Europe of the past, 'And we build upon fair play for every man, equality before the laws, and God for us all'.
- It is not yet the Millennium. We have not yet reached these pure heights of civilization, the ascent to which is the Good Fight. But are we no nearer the summit because we do not stand upon it? Has the Good Fight gained nothing by the war? If you sail from Boston to Calcutta, when you are off Madagascar you are not yet in India, but you have rounded the Cape of Good Hope, you are not yet in India, but at least you are outside Boston Light. I do not say the country is yet beyond Boston Light, but if not, it is only because Boston Light is the sun of liberty that shines all over the world.
- There was a time indeed when it was not so, when the bold mariner, Roger Williams, sailed beyond the Boston Light of two centuries ago, and asked of the wilds of the Seekonk and the Mawshawsuc, 'What cheer? What cheer?' And the friendly solitudes answered, 'A truer liberty than you left behind'. And if Boston Light cheers the world to-day it is because the spirit of Roger Williams feeds the flame.
- What is our reckoning, then? How far are we towards Cathay? What advantages has the 'Good Fight of Man' gained in the war? We have shown, first, that a popular government, under which the poorest and the most ignorant of every race but one are equal voters with the richest and most intelligent, is the most powerful and flexible in history. It is proved to be neither violent nor cruel nor impatient, but fixed in purpose, faithful to its own officers, tolerant of vast expense, of enormous losses, of torturing delays, and strongest at the very points where fatal weakness was most suspected. 'If you put a million of men under arms you will inevitably end in a military despotism', said Europe. 'The re-absorption of an army is the most perilous problem of any nation'. And within six months of the surrender of Lee an English gentleman, Sir Morton Peto, found himself in a huge business office in Chicago, surrounded by scores of clerks quietly engaged with merchandise and ledgers. 'Did you go on so during the war?' he asked. 'Oh, no, Sir Morton. That young man was a corporal, that was a lieutenant, that was a major, that was a colonel. Twenty-seven of us were officers in the army'. 'Indeed!', said the English gentleman. And all Europe, looking across the sea at the same spectacle, magnified by hundreds of thousands, of citizens quietly re-engaged in their various pursuits, echoes the astonished exclamation, 'Indeed!' for it sees that a million of men were in arms for the very purpose of returning to their offices and warehouses to sell their merchandise and post their ledgers in tranquility. Yes, the great army that for four years shook this continent was only the Yankee constable going his rounds.
- European Toryism has long regarded us as a vulgar young giant sprawling and spitting over a continent, whose limbs were indeed too loose and ungainly to be very effective, but who might yet one day make trouble and require to be thrashed into decency and order. When Horace Greeley was in Paris, he was one morning looking with an American friend at the pictures in the gallery of the Louvre and talking of this country. 'The fact is', said Mister Greeley, 'that what we need is a darned good licking'. An Englishman who stood by and heard the conversation smiled eagerly, as if he knew a nation that would like to administer the castigation. 'Yes, sir', said he, complacently, rubbing his hands with appetite and joining in the conversation, 'that is just what you do want'. 'But the difficulty is', continued Mister Greeley to his friend as if he had heard nothing, 'the difficulty is that there's no nation in the world that can lick us'. It was true; so we turned to and licked ourselves. And it seems to me that a young giant who for the sake of order and humanity scourges himself at home, is not very likely wantonly to insult and outrage his neighbors. Indeed, measured by his neighbors who go marauding in India or China or Mexico, and through whose slippery neutral fingers a dozen privateers escape to sweep his commerce from the sea, he is an orderly and honorable citizen of the world. The British Tory mind did not believe that any popular government could subdue so formidable a rebellion. Mister Gladstone is not a Tory, but even he said, 'Great Britain could not do it, sir', and what Great Britain could not do he did not believe could be done. Perhaps he would have thought differently could he have heard what a friend of mine did when the Massachusetts Sixth Regiment passed through New York on its way to Washington. It was the first sign of war that New York had seen, and as Broadway stared gloomily at the soldiers steadily marching, my friend stepped into the street and, walking by the side of one of the ranks, asked the soldier nearest him from what part of the State he came. The soldier, solely intent upon stepping in time, made his reply in measure with the drum-beat, 'From Bunker Hill; from Bunker Hill; from Bunker Hill'.
- Mister Gladstone is an Englishman and a scholar. Had he walked by the side of that soldier, remembering Cromwell's Ironsides who trusted in God and kept their powder dry, and the old Continental militia, I think he would not have declared as he did that 'Jefferson Davis had created a nation', but he would rather have said, 'If Bunker Hill sends the first soldiers to this war, it is already decided. My lords and gentlemen, John Bull had better touch no American bonds which Bunker Hill does not endorse'.
- But the indication of the strength of our system was moral as well as physical. 'You cannot stand the strain of a civil war and of party spirit combined', said the skeptics. 'You will end in anarchy at the election'. I knew those who apprehended revolution and provisional governments as November approached. In hushed expectation election day dawned. You remember the old story of an agreement of everybody in the world to shout all together at the same moment upon a certain day, and make a noise that would be heard to the stars. The hour came; and it was the most silent moment ever known. The sole sound was the thin, weak cry of one deaf old woman. Everybody else in the world was listening for the prodigious noise. So the Great Election passed in perfect peace. The sun of the ninth of November rose, not upon a convulsed nation tumbling into anarchy, but standing calm, strong, and erect upon its two feet of Union and Liberty, and somewhere upon the ground the tip-end of the tail of a copperhead snake sneaking into his hole.
- The war has revealed an overpowering national instinct. The conflicting theories of the exact nature and limitations of our government had blinded the shrewdest minds to the fact that we were a nation, with all the feelings and instincts of a nation, and that our quarrels must be settled inside and not outside of the Union.
- Mister Toombs was willing to dissolve the Union to save slavery, Mister Phillips, to save liberty; while Mister Seward, denounced and derided by both, declared that the deepest instinct of the American people was for union. Reserved rights. State rights, limited powers, the advantages of union and disunion, were the cucumbers from which we were busily engaged in distilling light, overlooking the fact of nationality in discussing the conditions of union. We were speculating upon costume. We gravely proved that the clothes were the clothes of a woman, or of a child, without seeing that whatever the clothes might be there was a full-grown man inside of them. 'The Constitution is a contract between sovereign States', shouted Mister Toombs, 'let Georgia tear it and separate'. 'The Constitution is a league with hell', calmly replied Mister Phillips, 'let New York cut off New Orleans to rot alone'. 'Oh, dear! it's a dreadful dilemma', whimpered President Buchanan. 'States have no right to secede, and the United States have no right to coerce. Oh, dear me! it's perfectly awful! I'm the most patriotic of men, but what shall I do? what shall I do?' Separate! Cut off! Secede! It was of a living body they spoke, which, pierced anywhere, quivered everywhere.
- Our national unity was the secret of the force of each of the members. New York could not be New York nor Ohio be Ohio without Massachusetts and without Georgia. And a government which had not the right to coerce had not the right to exist.
- A few years after the Constitution was adopted Alexander Hamilton said to Josiah Quincy that he thought the Union might endure for thirty years. He feared the centrifugal force of the system. The danger, he said, would proceed from the States, not from the national government. But Hamilton seems not to have considered that the vital necessity which had always united the colonies from the first New England league against the Indians, and which, in his own time, forced the people of the country from the sands of a confederacy to the rock of union, would become stronger every year and inevitably develop and confirm a nation. Whatever the intention of the fathers in 1787 might have been, whether a league or confederacy or treaty, the conclusion of the children in 1860 might have been predicted. Plant a homogeneous people along the coast of a virgin continent. Let them gradually overspread it to the farther sea, speaking the same language, virtually of the same religious faith, inter- marrying, and cherishing common heroic traditions. Suppose them sweeping from end to end of their vast domain without passports, the physical perils of their increasing extent constantly modified by science, steam, and the telegraph, making Maine and Oregon neighbors, their trade enormous, their prosperity a miracle, their commonwealth of unsurpassed importance in the world, and you may theorize as you will, but you have supposed an imperial nation, which may indeed be a power of evil as well as of good, but which can no more recede into its original elements and local sources than its own Mississippi, pouring broad and resistless into the Gulf, can turn backward to the petty forest springs and rills whence it flows. 'No, no', murmurs the mighty river, 'when you can take the blue out of the sky, when you can steal heat from fire, when you can strip splendor from the morning, then, and not before, may you reclaim your separate drops in me'. 'Yes, yes, my river,' answers the Union, 'you speak for me. I am no more a child, but a man; no longer a confederacy, but a nation. I am no more Virginia, New York, Carolina, or Massachusetts, but the United States of America'.
- The foreboding statesman who knew how Greece had fallen asunder and perished, who knew the mean tenure of European leagues, who knew the absolute necessity of union and the jarring jealousies of sections, saw in the Constitution but a shadowy bond which foretold early separation and disaster. It was not strange when the Union was scarcely ten years old, still in the gristle, he heard the serpent of State sovereignty angrily hissing in the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions of '98.
- Hamilton doubted the cohesive force of the Constitution to make a nation. He was so far right, for no constitution can make a nation. That is a growth, and the vigor and intensity of our national growth transcended our own suspicions. It was typified by our material progress. General Hamilton died in 1804. In 1812, during the last war with England, the largest gun used was a thirty-six pounder. In the war just ended it was a two-thousand pounder. The largest gun then weighed two thousand pounds. The largest shot now weighs two thousand pounds. Twenty years after Hamilton died the traveler toiled painfully from the Hudson to Niagara on canal-boats and in wagons, and thence on horseback to Kentucky. Now he whirls from the Hudson to the Mississippi upon thousands of miles of various railroads, the profits of which would pay the interest of the national debt. So by a myriad influences, as subtle as the forces of the air and earth about a growing tree, has our nationality grown and strengthened, striking its roots to the centre and defying the tempest. Could the musing statesman who feared that Virginia or New York or Carolina or Massachusetts might rend the Union have heard the voice of sixty years later, it would have said to him, 'The babe you held in your arms has grown to be a man, who walks and runs and leaps and works and defends himself. I am no more a vapor, I am condensed. I am no more a germ, I am a life. I am no more a confederation, I am a nation'.
- Carolina or Virginia may try to break away. In the effort it may destroy its local government as it has now destroyed it, except by successful revolution no rebellious state can escape the jurisdiction, and it will be reorganized exclusively by the national authority of the United States of America. This is what Gettysburg roars and Vicksburg and Port Royal. This is the thunder of the Kearsarge as she sinks the Alabama, This is the song of Sherman's march to the sea; and Lee's surrender, the fall of Richmond, and the universal crash of the rebellion mutter and murmur their reluctant 'Amen, Amen'. But, at the same moment that the profound sense of nationality and the power of the nation are revealed, the national mind has gained a clear perception of the relation of morals and politics, the strict dependence of civil order and national prosperity upon morality.
- The relation between physical sanitary laws and the national welfare is now hardly disputed. At this moment the cholera is stealthily feeling its terrible way along the edges of Europe to this country, and there is not an intelligent man who does not know that it is a divine vengeance upon uncleanliness. Let it seize the unclean city of New York, and it will riot in horror and devastation. Panic will empty the palaces, trade will stop in the warehouses. Those who can will flee, while the poor and wretched, poisoned in tenement-houses, will be huddled in heaps of agony and death. Does any man say that cholera is God's remedy for overpopulation? On the contrary, it is only the ghastly proof that God's laws of human health are disregarded. It is not a proclamation that the world is over-peopled; it is merely a warning for the world to provide decently for its population. God does not create men in his image to rot in tenement-houses, and he will make squalor and filth and misery plague-spots threatening the fairest prosperity, until that prosperity acknowledges in vast sanitary reforms that cleanliness is next to godliness. And if the dread pestilence now approaching our shores would frighten us into universal purgation of our foul cities, it would be seen at this moment hovering in the wintry air, not an angry demon, but a stem angel with a sword of fire to open the path of knowledge and humanity and civilization.
- And are there no laws of moral health? Can they be outraged and the penalty not paid? Let a man turn out of the bright and bustling Broadway, out of the mad revel of riches and the restless, unripe luxury of ignorant men whom sudden wealth has disordered like exhilarating gas; let him penetrate through sickening stench the lairs of typhus, the dens of small-pox, the coverts of all loathsome disease and unimaginable crimes; let him see the dull, starved, stolid, lowering faces, the human heaps of utter woe, and, like Jefferson in contemplating slavery a hundred years ago in Virginia, he will murmur with bowed head, 'I tremble for this city when I remember that God is just'. Is his justice any surer in a tenement-house than it is in a State? Filth in the city is pestilence. Injustice in the State is civil war. 'Gentlemen', said George Mason, a friend and neighbor of Jefferson's, in the Convention that framed the Constitution, 'by an inscrutable chain of causes and effects Providence punishes national sins by national calamities'. 'Oh no. gentlemen, it is no such thing', replied John Rutledge of South Carolina. 'Religion and humanity have nothing to do with this question. Interest is the governing principle with nations'. The descendants of John Rutledge live in the State which quivers still with the terrible tread of Sherman and his men. Let them answer! Oh seaports and factories, silent and ruined! Oh barns and granaries, heaps of blackened desolation! Oh wasted homes, bleeding hearts, starving mouths! Oh land consumed in the fire your own hands kindled! Was not John Rutledge wrong, was not George Mason right, that prosperity which is only money in the purse, and not justice or fair play, is the most cruel traitor, and will cheat you of your heart's blood in the end?
- 'Don't be visionary', shouted trade and the spiritual blindness which is absurdly called practical common sense, 'morals have nothing to do with politics'. 'Don't talk of injustice. In this world we must compromise. Compromise is the very essence of government'. So it is, if you do not attempt to compromise moral principle. 'All government', says Edmund Burke, 'is founded upon compromise and barter'. 'But in all fair dealings the thing bought must bear some proportion to the purchase paid. None will barter away the immediate jewel of the soul'. And what is and always has been the immediate jewel of our national soul if it be not the equal rights of men? Compromise equal rights in the United States? Whittle a crowbar? How do we like it, as the boys say, as far as we have got? You may compromise questions of cotton and com, but you cannot long compromise a point of conscience. Moral principles are absolute and eternal. You may stretch an inch of India rubber to cover your hat; you cannot stretch a diamond the shadow of a hair.
- We thought we could and we tried it. The breath of our national nostrils was equal rights. The jewel of our soul was fair play for all men. But, selecting one class of our population, we denied to them every natural right and sought to extinguish their very humanity. Resistance was hopeless, but they protested silently by still wearing the form of man, of which we could not deprive them. Planting both feet upon the prostrate and helpless, men as much as we, we politely invited the world to contemplate the prosperity of the United States. Forests falling, factories humming, gold glittering in every man's pocket ! Above all, would the world please to take notice that it was a land of liberty, and that we offered a happy home to the oppressed of every clime? 'A wise and sensible man was John Rutledge of South Carolina', smiled the complacent country, smoothing its full pockets, 'morals have nothing to do with politics'. 'Good', mutters the ostrich, as he buries his head in the sand, 'now nobody sees me'.
- And suddenly, in a moment smitten by the avenging storm of fire, choking and struggling in the thick clouds and blood of war, for four years we have desperately wrestled for life, and kneeling among the dear and mangled bodies of our first-born and best-beloved, we have acknowledged that even Yankees cannot shake the throne of God, that he has created men with equal rights, and that morals and politics, which his right hand has joined together, not the shrewdest head nor the basest heart, nor the most prosperous nation nor the most insolent and popular party, nor sneers nor falsehoods, nor mean men nor wicked laws can put asunder. Ah, fathers, mothers, lovers, whose darlings come no more, you whose sad voices ask, 'What have we gained ? what have we gained?' how can your aching hearts believe it, but this war of four years, so full of doubt and anguish, was infinitely nobler and more glorious than the thirty years of peace before it. Four years more of such peace would have slain the very soul of the nation ; and because the country was still strong enough to tear off that fair and fatal robe of compromise, because she bared her bosom and bravely endured the sharp torture of the knife, to-day the cancer is cut away, and she stands erect, though bleeding, and thanks God for health renewed.
- This, then, is the gain of the Good Fight in this war, first, that the nation has attained a living consciousness of its inevitable unity, second, that it has proved its enormous power, and third, that in the terrible struggle it has used that united power for, and not against, equal rights. And the spirit of caste which it has disabled it will now utterly destroy. For the Good Fight is not a crusade against a section or a State, but against caste everywhere in the country. This is now entrenched in the bitter prejudice against the colored race, which is as inhuman and unmanly as the old hatred and contempt of Christendom for the Jews. Lifting their heads from bloody defeat in the field, the wan and wasted States of the South say in terms caste must be maintained, and by every kind of vagrant law and hostile legislation they will try to maintain it.
- But when we freed the slaves we did not say to them, 'Caste shall not grind you with the right hand, but it shall with the left'. We said, 'Caste shall not grind you at all, and you shall have the same guarantees of freedom that we have'. President Johnson defines the liberty springing from the Emancipation amendment as the right to labor and enjoy the fruit of labor to its fullest extent. It is easy to quarrel with this as with every definition. But it is good enough, and it is as true of Connecticut as of Missouri that no man fully enjoys the fruit of his labor who does not have an equality of right before the law and a voice in making the law. That is the final security of the commonwealth, and we are bound to help every citizen attain it, whether it be the foreigner who comes ignorant and wretched to our shores or the native whom a cruel prejudice opposes. Do you tell me that we have nothing to do with the State laws of Alabama? I answer that the people of the United States are the sole and final judges of the measures necessary to the full enjoyment of the freedom which they have anywhere bestowed. If we choose, we may trust a certain class in the unorganized States to secure this liberty, just as we might have chosen to trust Mister Vallandigham, Mister Horatio Seymour, and Mister Fernando Wood to carry on the war. But as we wanted honor and not dishonor, as we wanted victory and not surrender, we chose to trust it to Farragut and Sherman, to Sheridan and Grant. If you don't want a thing done, says the old proverb, send; if you do, go yourself. When Grant started. Uncle Sam went himself. So, if we don't care whether we keep our word to those whom we have freed, we may send, by leaving them to the tender mercies of those who despise and distrust them. But if we do care for our own honor and the national welfare, we shall go ourselves, and through a national bureau and voluntary associations of education and aid, or in some better way if it can be devised, keep fast hold of the hands of those whom the President calls our wards, and not relinquish those hands until we leave in them every guarantee of freedom that we ourselves enjoy.
- Mayor Macbeth, of Charleston, told General Howard that he did not believe that a bureau at Washington could manage the social relations of the people from the Potomac to the Rio Grande. But the answer to Mayor Macbeth is that he and his companions have managed those relations at a cost to the country of four years of civil war, three thousand millions of dollars, and hundreds of thousands of lives. The Freedmen's Bureau will hardly be as expensive as that. And while such a bureau merely defends the rights of a certain class under the laws, the aid societies give them that education which in the present state of local feeling would be inevitably withheld. The mighty arch of Sherman, wasting and taming the land, is followed by the noiseless steps of the band of unnamed heroes and heroines who are teaching the people. The soldier drew the furrow, the teacher drops the seed. There is many and many a devoted woman, hidden at this moment in the lowliest cabins of the South, whose name poets will not sing nor historians record, but whose patient toil the eye that marks the sparrow's fall beholds and approves. Not more noble, not more essential, was the work of the bravest and most famous of the heroes who fell in the wild storm of battle, than that of many a woman to us unknown, faithful through privation and exposure and disease, and perishing at the lonely outpost of duty in the act of helping the nation keep its word.
- But the spirit of caste, if naturally more malignant in a region where personal slavery has been abolished against the will of the dominant class, is not confined to it. We are apt to draw the line geographically, but it will not run so. They may be sad goats on the other side of the line, but we sheep may find an occasional speck in our virtuous wool. 'Caste must be maintained', say the governors and legislatures of Mississippi and Louisiana and Alabama and North and South Carolina and Georgia.' 'Amen', says Connecticut, 'that is a political wooden nutmeg for this market'. 'Amen', says New York, which prefers to pour political power into a foreign white whiskey-skin rather than into a native sound and serviceable vessel of a darker hue. 'Amen', says Indiana, which asks her colored children to fight and die for her upon the battle-field, and refuses by her laws to permit the survivors to return to their homes. 'Amen', say Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Illinois, Michigan, Iowa, California, Minnesota, Oregon, Kansas, Ohio, Wisconsin, Missouri, and West Virginia, which forbid an entire class of their citizens to vote upon equal qualifications with others. And why? Because the party of hostility to human rights, which is 'conservative' in this growing, aspiring, expanding country, exactly as sheet-iron swaddling-clothes are conservative of a new-born babe, pursued by the pitiless logic of the sublime American principle and driven from one absurdity to another, now claims that ours is 'a white man's government'. Oh, no! Gentlemen, you may wish to make it so, but it was not made so. The false history of Judge Taney was promptly corrected from Judge Taney's bench by Justice Curtis.
- Government of the United States was made by men of all races and colors, not for white men, but for the refuge and defense of man. If it does not rest upon the natural rights of man, it rests nowhere. If it does not exist by the consent of governed then any exclusion is possible, and it is a shorter step from an exclusive white man's government to an exclusively rich white man's government, than it is from a system for mankind to one for white men. The spirit which excludes some men today because they are of a certain color, may exclude others tomorrow because they are of a certain poverty or a certain church or a certain birthplace. There is no safety, no guarantee, no security in a prejudice. If we build strong and long, we must build upon moral principle.
- A white man's government? Not a government of intelligence, of justice, of virtue? Not a government by the consent of the governed, but a government of complexion? Where reason is skin deep? Who is a white man? Is a Spaniard? Is a Creole? Is an octoroon? Ohio says that a blood mixture of half-and-half will do for her. But if you have a qualification for the enjoyment of equal rights which vast numbers of our population cannot by nature satisfy, it is as if you made it depend upon a man's height or the color of his hair. You ask us to prefer a system of accidents to one of principles. You ask us to agree that a worthless, idle, drunken rascal, whose face might possibly be white if it could ever be washed clean enough, may be more safely trusted with political power, than an honest, intelligent, sober, industrious colored citizen.
- A white man's government? Well, I am a white man, I believe. Will anybody undertake to teach me what are the antipathies and loathings of white men? What mean whites may or may not like is of small importance. But the generous soul of my race, which has led the van in the great march of liberty and civilization, and whose lofty path is marked by the broken chains of every form of slavery, has an instinctive hatred of injustice, of exclusive privilege, of arrogance, ignorance, and baseness, and an instinctive love of honor, magnanimity and justice. The white soul of my race naturally loves the man, of whatever race or color, who bravely fights and gloriously dies for equal rights, and instinctively loathes every man who, saved by the blood of such heroes, deems himself made of choicer clay. The spirit of caste asks us to believe the outraged race inferior. Inferior? Inferior in what? In sagacity? In fidelity? In nobility of soul? In the prime qualities of manhood? And who are asked to believe this? We? We, hot, panting, exhausted from a fight for our national life in a part of the country where every white face was probably that of an enemy, and every colored face was surely that of a friend. We are asked to say it, whose brothers and sons, escaping from horrible pens of torture and death hundreds of miles from our lines, made their way through swamps and forests, safe from hungry bloodhounds and fiercer men, back to our homes and hearts, only because the men whom in our triumphant fortune we are asked to betray, in our darkest hour of misfortune risked their lives to save ours.
- Inferior race? Was it they who carved the skulls of our boys into drinking-cups and their bones into trinkets? Was it they who starved and froze our brothers into idiocy and madness at Andersonville and Belle-Isle? Was it they who hunted our darlings with bloodhounds, or hung faithful Union men before the very eyes of their wives and children? Come! Come! Brothers of my race, whether at the north or south, these things which we all execrate and abhor were the work of men of our own color. Let us clasp hands in speechless shame, and confess that manhood in America is to be measured not by the color of the skin, but by the quality of the soul.
- I know how subtle, elusive, apparently ineradicable, is the spirit of caste. But I remember that the English lords six centuries ago tore out the teeth of the Jew Isaac of York in the dungeon under the castle; and today he lives proudly in the castle, and the same lords come respectfully to his daughter's marriage, while the most brilliant Tory in the British Parliament proposes her health, and the Lord Chief Justice of England leads the hip-hip-hurrah at the wedding breakfast. Caste is very strong, but I remember that five years ago there were good men among us who said. If white hands can't win this fight let it be lost. I have seen the same men agreeing that black hands had even more at stake in it than we, giving them muskets, bidding them Godspeed in the Good Fight, and welcoming them with honor as they returned. Caste is very strong, but I remember that six years ago there was a Tennessee slave-holder, born in North Carolina, who had always acted with the slave interest, and was then earnestly endeavoring to elect John C. Breckenridge President of the United States. We have all seen that same man four years afterwards, while Tennessee quivered with civil war, standing beneath the autumn stars and saying, 'Colored men of Tennessee, humble and unworthy as I am, if no better shall be found I will indeed be your Moses and lead you through the Red Sea of war and bondage to a fairer future of liberty and peace. I speak now as one who feels the world his country and all who love equal rights his friends'. So said Andrew Johnson, God and his country listening. God and his country watching, Andrew Johnson will keep his word.
- Yes, yes, caste is a glacier, cold, towering, apparently as eternal as the sea itself. But at last that glittering mountain of ice touches the edge of the Gulf Stream. Down come pinnacle and peak, frosty spire and shining cliff. Like a living monster of shifting hues, a huge chameleon of the sea, the vast mass silently rolls and plunges and shrinks, and at last utterly disappears in that inexorable warmth of water. So with us the glacier has touched the Gulf Stream. On Palm Sunday, at Appomattox Court House, the spirit of feudalism, of aristocracy, of injustice in this country, surrendered, in the person of Robert E. Lee, the Virginian slave-holder, to the spirit of the Declaration of Independence and of equal rights, in the person of Ulysses S. Grant, the Illinois tanner. So closed this great campaign in the 'Good Fight of Liberty'. So the Army of the Potomac, often baffled, struck an immortal blow, and gave the right hand of heroic fellowship to their brethren of the West. So the silent captain, when all his lieutenants had secured their separate fame, put on the crown of victory and ended civil war. As fought the Lieutenant-General of the United States, so fight the United States themselves, in the 'Good Fight of Man'. With Grant's tenacity, his patience, his promptness, his tranquil faith, let us assault the new front of the old enemy. We, too, must push through the enemy's Wilderness, holding every point we gain. We, too, must charge at daybreak upon his Spottsylvania Heights. We, too, must flank his angry lines and push them steadily back. We, too, must fling ourselves against the baffling flames of Cold Harbor. We, too, outwitting him by night, must throw our whole force across swamp and river, and stand entrenched before his capital. And we, too, at last, on some soft, auspicious day of spring, loosening all our shining lines, and bursting with wild battle music and universal shout of victory over the last desperate defense, must occupy the very citadel of caste, force the old enemy to final and unconditional surrender, and bring Boston and Charleston to sing Te Deum together for the triumphant equal rights of man.
- Never fear, true hearts! A people which has shown the quality of its genius as this nation has in the last four years will finish its work. It will go forward and not backward. For our America shall be the Sinai of the nations, and from the terrible thunders and lightnings of its great struggle shall proceed the divine law of liberty that shall subdue and harmonize the world.
Quotes about Curtis
- Congress incorporated birthright citizenship and legal equality into the Constitution via the Fourteenth Amendment. In recent decades, the courts have used this amendment to expand the legal rights of numerous groups, most recently, gay men and women. As the Republican editor George William Curtis wrote, the Fourteenth Amendment changed a Constitution 'for white men' to one 'for mankind'. It also marked a significant change in the federal balance of power, empowering the national government to protect the rights of citizens against violations by the states. In 1867 Congress passed the Reconstruction Acts, again over Johnson’s veto. These set in motion the establishment of new governments in the South, empowered Southern black men to vote and temporarily barred several thousand leading Confederates from the ballot. Soon after, the 15th Amendment extended black male suffrage to the entire nation. The Reconstruction Acts inaugurated the period of Radical Reconstruction, when a politically mobilized black community, with its white allies, brought the Republican Party to power throughout the South. For the first time, African-Americans voted in large numbers and held public office at every level of government. It was a remarkable, unprecedented effort to build an interracial democracy on the ashes of slavery. Most offices remained in the hands of white Republicans. But the advent of African-Americans in positions of political power aroused bitter hostility from Reconstruction's opponents.
- Early in his career, he clerked for a New York City merchant and worked a farm. The young intellectual was a member of a study club along with Henry Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Amos Alcott. After four years traveling in Europe and the Middle East, Curtis joined the editorial staff of the New York Tribune. Harper's Weekly later made him its chief editorial writer. He married the sister of Robert Gould Shaw, who would command the 54th Massachusetts. His entry into politics was making campaign speeches for Republican presidential nominee John Fremont... Curtis was delegate to the GOP's 1860, 1864 and 1876 national conventions. He declined a diplomatic post in Egypt. During the year of President Lincoln's re-election he lost an election for the U.S. House of Representatives in a very Democrat district. In 1868, he cast an electoral vote for Ulysses Grant, who named him to a commission on civil service reform. President Rutherford Hayes offered him a choice of any ambassadorship, but the busy writer preferred to remain at home... In his final years, he served as regent and then vice chancellor of New York University.
- Michael Zak, "Honoring George Curtis, Republican orator and author" (24 February 2016), Grand Old Partisan, TypePad.