JS Mill on Civil War

The Contest in America

This article originally appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 1862.

The cloud which for the space of a month hung gloomily over the
civilized world, black with far worse evils than those of simple war,
has passed from over our heads without bursting. The fear has not been
realized, that the only two first-rate Powers who are also free
nations would take to tearing each other in pieces, both the one and
the other in a bad and odious cause. For while, on the American side,
the war would have been one of reckless persistency in wrong, on ours
it would have been a war in alliance with, and, to practical purposes,
in defence and propagation of, slavery. We had, indeed, been wronged.
We had suffered an indignity, and something more than an indignity,
which, not to have resented, would have been to invite a constant
succession of insults and injuries from the same and from every other
quarter. We could have acted no otherwise than we have done: yet it is
impossible to think, without something like a shudder, from what we
have escaped. We, the emancipators of the slave—who have wearied
every Court and Government in Europe and America with our protests and
remonstrances, until we goaded them into at least ostensibly
coöperating with us to prevent the enslaving of the negro—we, who for
the last half century have spent annual sums, equal to the revenue of
a small kingdom, in blockading the African coast, for a cause in which
we not only had no interest, but which was contrary to our pecuniary
interest, and which many believed would ruin, as many among us still,
though erroneously, believe that it has ruined, our colonies,—we
should have lent a hand to setting up, in one of the most commanding
positions of the world, a powerful republic, devoted not only to
slavery, but to pro-slavery propagandism—should have helped to give a
place in the community of nations to a conspiracy of slave-owners, who
have broken their connection with the American Federation on the sole
ground, ostentatiously proclaimed, that they thought an attempt would
be made to restrain, not slavery itself, but their purpose of
spreading slavery wherever migration or force could carry it.

A nation which has made the professions that England has, does not
with impunity, under however great provocation, betake itself to
frustrating the objects for which it has been calling on the rest of
the world to make sacrifices of what they think their interest. At
present all the nations of Europe have sympathized with us; have
acknowledged that we were injured, and declared with rare unanimity,
that we had no choice but to resist, if necessary, by arms. But the
consequences of such a war would soon have buried its causes in
oblivion. When the new Confederate States, made an independent Power
by English help, had begun their crusade to carry negro slavery from
the Potomac to Cape Horn; who would then have remembered that England
raised up this scourge to humanity not for the evil’s sake, but
because somebody had offered an insult to her flag? Or even if
unforgotten, who would then have felt that such a grievance was a
sufficient palliation of the crime? Every reader of a newspaper, to
the farthest ends of the earth, would have believed and remembered one
thing only—that at the critical juncture which was to decide whether
slavery should blaze up afresh with increased vigor or be trodden out
at the moment of conflict between the good and the evil spirit—at the
dawn of a hope that the demon might now at last be chained and flung
into the pit, England stepped in, and, for the sake of cotton, made
Satan victorious.

The world has been saved from this calamity, and England from this
disgrace. The accusation would indeed have been a calumny. But to be
able to defy calumny, a nation, like an individual, must stand very
clear of just reproach in its previous conduct. Unfortunately, we
ourselves have given too much plausibility to the charge. Not by
anything said or done by us as a Government or as a nation, but by the
tone of our press, and in some degree, it must be owned, the general
opinion of English society. It is too true, that the feelings which
have been manifested since the beginning of the American contest—the
judgments which have been put forth, and the wishes which have been
expressed concerning the incidents and probable eventualities of the
struggle—the bitter and irritating criticism which has been kept up,
not even against both parties equally, but almost solely against the
party in the right, and the ungenerous refusal of all those just
allowances which no country needs more than our own, whenever its
circumstances are as near to those of America as a cut finger is to an
almost mortal wound,—these facts, with minds not favorably disposed
to us, would have gone far to make the most odious interpretation of
the war in which we have been so nearly engaged with the United
States, appear by many degrees the most probable. There is no denying
that our attitude towards the contending parties (I mean our moral
attitude, for politically there was no other course open to us than
neutrality) has not been that which becomes a people who are as
sincere enemies of slavery as the English really are, and have made as
great sacrifices to put an end to it where they could. And it has been
an additional misfortune that some of our most powerful journals have
been for many years past very unfavorable exponents of English feeling
on all subjects connected with slavery: some, probably, from the
influences, more or less direct, of West Indian opinions and
interests: others from inbred Toryism, which, even when compelled by
reason to hold opinions favorable to liberty, is always adverse to it
in feeling; which likes the spectacle of irresponsible power exercised
by one person over others; which has no moral repugnance to the
thought of human beings born to the penal servitude for life, to which
for the term of a few years we sentence our most hardened criminals,
but keeps its indignation to be expended on “rabid and fanatical
abolitionists” across the Atlantic, and on those writers in England
who attach a sufficiently serious meaning to their Christian
professions, to consider a fight against slavery as a fight for God.

Now, when the mind of England, and it may almost be said, of the
civilized part of mankind, has been relieved from the incubus which
had weighed on it ever since the Trent outrage, and when we are no
longer feeling towards the Northern Americans as men feel towards
those with whom they may be on the point of struggling for life or
death; now, if ever, is the time to review our position, and consider
whether we have been feeling what ought to have been felt, and wishing
what ought to have been wished, regarding the contest in which the
Northern States are engaged with the South.

In considering this matter, we ought to dismiss from our minds, as far
as possible, those feelings against the North, which have been
engendered not merely by the Trent aggression, but by the previous
anti-British effusions of newspaper writers and stump orators. It is
hardly worth while to ask how far these explosions of ill-humor are
anything more than might have been anticipated from ill-disciplined
minds, disappointed of the sympathy which they justly thought they had
a right to expect from the great anti-slavery people, in their really
noble enterprise. It is almost superfluous to remark that a democratic
Government always shows worst where other Governments generally show
best, on its outside; that unreasonable people are much more noisy
than the reasonable; that the froth and scum are the part of a
violently fermenting liquid that meets the eyes, but are not its body
and substance. Without insisting on these things, I contend, that all
previous cause of offence should be considered as cancelled, by the
reparation which the American Government has so amply made; not so
much the reparation itself, which might have been so made as to leave
still greater cause of permanent resentment behind it; but the manner
and spirit in which they have made it. These have been such as most of
us, I venture to say, did not by any means expect. If reparation were
made at all, of which few of us felt more than a hope, we thought that
it would have been made obviously as a concession to prudence, not to
principle. We thought that there would have been truckling to the
newspaper editors and supposed fire-eaters who were crying out for
retaining the prisoners at all hazards. We expected that the
atonement, if atonement there were, would have been made with
reservations, perhaps under protest. We expected that the
correspondence would have been spun out, and a trial made to induce
England to be satisfied with less; or that there would have been a
proposal of arbitration; or that England would have been asked to make
concessions in return for justice; or that if submission was made, it
would have been made, ostensibly, to the opinions and wishes of
Continental Europe. We expected anything, in short, which would have
been weak and timid and paltry. The only thing which no one seemed to
expect, is what has actually happened. Mr. Lincoln’s Government have
done none of these things. Like honest men, they have said in direct
terms, that our demand was right; that they yielded to it because it
was just; that if they themselves had received the same treatment,
they would have demanded the same reparation; and that if what seemed
to be the American side of a question was not the just side, they
would be on the side of justice; happy as they were to find after
their resolution had been taken, that it was also the side which
America had formerly defended. Is there any one, capable of a moral
judgment or feeling, who will say that his opinion of America and
American statesmen, is not raised by such an act, done on such
grounds? The act itself may have been imposed by the necessity of the
circumstances; but the reasons given, the principles of action
professed, were their own choice. Putting the worst hypothesis
possible, which it would be the height of injustice to entertain
seriously, that the concession was really made solely to convenience,
and that the profession of regard for justice was hypocrisy, even so,
the ground taken, even if insincerely, is the most hopeful sign of the
moral state of the American mind which has appeared for many years.
That a sense of justice should be the motive which the rulers of a
country rely on, to reconcile the public to an unpopular, and what
might seem a humiliating act; that the journalists, the orators, many
lawyers, the Lower House of Congress, and Mr. Lincoln’s own naval
secretary, should be told in the face of the world, by their own
Government, that they have been giving public thanks, presents of
swords, freedom of cities, all manner of heroic honors to the author
of an act which, though not so intended, was lawless and wrong, and
for which the proper remedy is confession and atonement; that this
should be the accepted policy (supposing it to be nothing higher) of a
Democratic Republic, shows even unlimited democracy to be a better
thing than many Englishmen have lately been in the habit of
considering it, and goes some way towards proving that the aberrations
even of a ruling multitude are only fatal when the better instructed
have not the virtue or the courage to front them boldly. Nor ought it
to be forgotten, to the honor of Mr. Lincoln’s Government, that in
doing what was in itself right, they have done also what was best
fitted to allay the animosity which was daily becoming more bitter
between the two nations so long as the question remained open. They
have put the brand of confessed injustice upon that rankling and
vindictive resentment with which the profligate and passionate part of
the American press has been threatening us in the event of concession,
and which is to be manifested by some dire revenge, to be taken, as
they pretend, after the nation is extricated from its present
difficulties. Mr. Lincoln has done what depended on him to make this
spirit expire with the occasion which raised it up; and we shall have
ourselves chiefly to blame if we keep it alive by the further prolongation of that stream of vituperative eloquence, the source of which, even now, when the cause of quarrel has been amicably made up, does not seem to have run dry. [1]

Let us, then, without reference to these jars, or to the declamations
of newspaper writers on either side of the Atlantic, examine the
American question as it stood from the beginning; its origin, the
purpose of both the combatants, and its various possible or probable
issues.

There is a theory in England, believed perhaps by some, half believed
by many more, which is only consistent with original ignorance, or
complete subsequent forgetfulness, of all the antecedents of the
contest. There are people who tell us that, on the side of the North,
the question is not one of slavery at all. The North, it seems, have
no more objection to slavery than the South have. Their leaders never
say one word implying disapprobation of it. They are ready, on the
contrary, to give it new guarantees; to renounce all that they have
been contending for; to win back, if opportunity offers, the South to
the Union by surrendering the whole point.

If this be the true state of the case, what are the Southern chiefs
fighting about? Their apologists in England say that it is about
tariffs, and similar trumpery. They say nothing of the kind. They
tell the world, and they told their own citizens when they wanted
their votes, that the object of the fight was slavery. Many years ago,
when General Jackson was President, South Carolina did nearly rebel
(she never was near separating) about a tariff; but no other State
abetted her, and a strong adverse demonstration from Virginia brought
the matter to a close. Yet the tariff of that day was rigidly
protective. Compared with that, the one in force at the time of the
secession was a free-trade tariff: This latter was the result of
several successive modifications in the direction of freedom; and its
principle was not protection for protection, but as much of it only as
might incidentally result from duties imposed for revenue. Even the
Morrill tariff (which never could have been passed but for the
Southern secession) is stated by the high authority of Mr. H. C. Carey
to be considerably more liberal than the reformed French tariff under
Mr. Cobden’s treaty; insomuch that he, a Protectionist, would be glad
to exchange his own protective tariff for Louis Napoleon’s free-trade
one. But why discuss, on probable evidence, notorious facts? The world
knows what the question between the North and South has been for many
years, and still is. Slavery alone was thought of, alone talked of.
Slavery was battled for and against, on the floor of Congress and in
the plains of Kansas; on the slavery question exclusively was the
party constituted which now rules the United States: on slavery
Fremont was rejected, on slavery Lincoln was elected; the South
separated on slavery, and proclaimed slavery as the one cause of
separation.

It is true enough that the North are not carrying on war to abolish
slavery in the States where it legally exists. Could it have been
expected, or even perhaps desired, that they should? A great party
does not change suddenly, and at once, all its principles and
professions. The Republican party have taken their stand on law, and
the existing constitution of the Union. They have disclaimed all right
to attempt anything which that constitution forbids. It does forbid
interference by the Federal Congress with slavery in the Slave States;
but it does not forbid their abolishing it in the District of
Columbia; and this they are now doing, having voted, I perceive, in
their present pecuniary straits, a million of dollars to indemnify the
slave-owners of the District. Neither did the Constitution, in their
own opinion, require them to permit the introduction of slavery into
the territories which were not yet States. To prevent this, the
Republican party was formed, and to prevent it, they are now fighting,
as the slave-owners are fighting to enforce it.

The present government of the United States is not an Abolitionist
government. Abolitionists, in America, mean those who do not keep
within the constitution; who demand the destruction (as far as slavery
is concerned) of as much of it as protects the internal legislation of
each State from the control of Congress; who aim at abolishing slavery
wherever it exists, by force if need be, but certainly by some other
power than the constituted authorities of the Slave States. The
Republican party neither aim nor profess to aim at this object. And
when we consider the flood of wrath which would have been poured out
against them if they did, by the very writers who now taunt them with
not doing it, we shall be apt to think the taunt a little misplaced.
But though not an Abolitionist party, they are a Free-soil party. If
they have not taken arms against slavery, they have against its
extension. And they know, as we may know if we please, that this
amounts to the same thing. The day when slavery can no longer extend
itself, is the day of its doom. The slave-owners know this, and it is
the cause of their fury. They know, as all know who have attended to
the subject, that confinement within existing limits is its
death-warrant. Slavery, under the conditions in which it exists in the
States, exhausts even the beneficent powers of nature. So incompatible
is it with any kind whatever of skilled labor, that it causes the
whole productive resources of the country to be concentrated on one or
two products, cotton being the chief, which require, to raise and
prepare them for the market, little besides brute animal force. The
cotton cultivation, in the opinion of all competent judges, alone
saves North American slavery; but cotton cultivation, exclusively
adhered to, exhausts in a moderate number of years all the soils which
are fit for it, and can only be kept up by travelling farther and
farther westward. Mr. Olmsted has given a vivid description of the
desolate state of parts of Georgia and the Carolinas, once among the
richest specimens of soil and cultivation in the world; and even the
more recently colonized Alabama, as he shows, is rapidly following in
the same downhill track. To slavery, therefore, it is a matter of life
and death to find fresh fields for the employment of slave labor.
Confine it to the present States, and the owners of slave property
will either be speedily ruined, or will have to find means of
reforming and renovating their agricultural system; which cannot be
done without treating the slaves like human beings, nor without so
large an employment of skilled, that is, of free labor, as will widely
displace the unskilled, and so depreciate the pecuniary value of the
slave, that the immediate mitigation and ultimate extinction of
slavery would be a nearly inevitable and probably rapid consequence.

The Republican leaders do not talk to the public of these almost
certain results of success in the present conflict. They talk but
little, in the existing emergency, even of the original cause of
quarrel. The most ordinary policy teaches them to inscribe on their
banner that part only of their known principles in which their
supporters are unanimous. The preservation of the Union is an object
about which the North are agreed; and it has many adherents, as they
believe, in the South generally. That nearly half the population of
the Border Slave States are in favor of it is a patent fact, since
they are now fighting in its defence. It is not probable that they
would be willing to fight directly against slavery. The Republicans
well know that if they can reëstablish the Union, they gain everything
for which they originally contended; and it would be a plain breach of
faith with the Southern friends of the Government, if, after rallying
them round its standard for a purpose of which they approve, it were
suddenly to alter its terms of communion without their consent.

But the parties in a protracted civil war almost invariably end by
taking more extreme, not to say higher grounds of principle, than they
began with. Middle parties and friends of compromise are soon left
behind; and if the writers who so severely criticize the present
moderation of the Free-soilers are desirous to see the war become an
abolition war, it is probable that if the war lasts long enough they
will be gratified. Without the smallest pretension to see further into
futurity than other people, I at least have foreseen and foretold from
the first, that if the South were not promptly put down, the contest
would become distinctly an antislavery one; nor do I believe that any
person, accustomed to reflect on the course of human affairs in
troubled times, can expect anything else. Those who have read, even
cursorily, the most valuable testimony to which the English public
have access, concerning the real state of affairs in America—the
letters of the Times’ correspondent, Mr. Russell—must have observed
how early and rapidly he arrived at the same conclusion, and with what
increasing emphasis he now continually reiterates it. In one of his
recent letters he names the end of next summer as the period by which,
if the war has not sooner terminated, it will have assumed a complete
anti-slavery character. So early a term exceeds, I confess, my most
sanguine hopes; but if Mr. Russell be right, Heaven forbid that the
war should cease sooner; for if it lasts till then, it is quite
possible that it will regenerate the American people.

If, however, the purposes of the North may be doubted or
misunderstood, there is at least no question as to those of the South.
They make no concealment of their principles. As long as they were
allowed to direct all the policy of the Union; to break through
compromise after compromise, encroach step after step, until they
reached the pitch of claiming a right to carry slave property into the
Free States, and, in opposition to the laws of those States, hold it
as property there; so long, they were willing to remain in the Union.
The moment a President was elected of whom it was inferred from his
opinions, not that he would take any measures against slavery where it
exists, but that he would oppose its establishment where it exists
not,—that moment they broke loose from what was, at least, a very
solemn contract, and formed themselves into a Confederation professing
as its fundamental principle not merely the perpetuation, but the
indefinite extension of slavery. And the doctrine is loudly preached
through the new Republic, that slavery, whether black or white, is a
good in itself, and the proper condition of the working classes
everywhere.

Let me, in a few words, remind the reader what sort of a thing this
is, which the white oligarchy of the South have banded themselves
together to propagate and establish, if they could, universally. When
it is wished to describe any portion of the human race as in the
lowest state of debasement, and under the most cruel oppression, in
which it is possible for human beings to live, they are compared to
slaves. When words are sought by which to stigmatize the most odious
despotism, exercised in the most odious manner, and all other
comparisons are found inadequate, the despots are said to be like
slave-masters, or slave-drivers. What, by a rhetorical license, the
worst oppressors of the human race, by way of stamping on them the
most hateful character possible, are said to be, these men, in very
truth, are. I do not mean that all of them are hateful personally, any
more than all the Inquisitors, or all the buccaneers. But the position
which they occupy, and the abstract excellence of which they are in
arms to vindicate, is that which the united voice of mankind
habitually selects as the type of all hateful qualities. I will not
bandy chicanery about the more or less of stripes or other torments
which are daily requisite to keep the machine in working order, nor
discuss whether the Legrees or the St. Clairs are more numerous among
the slave-owners of the Southern States. The broad facts of the case
suffice. One fact is enough. There are, Heaven knows, vicious and
tyrannical institutions in ample abundance on the earth. But this
institution is the only one of them all which requires, to keep it
going, that human beings should be burnt alive. The calm and
dispassionate Mr. Olmsted affirms that there has not been a single
year, for many years past, in which this horror is not known to have
been perpetrated in some part or other of the South. And not upon
negroes only; the Edinburgh Review, in a recent number, gave the
hideous details of the burning alive of an unfortunate Northern
huckster by Lynch law, on mere suspicion of having aided in the escape
of a slave. What must American slavery be, if deeds like these are
necessary under it?—and if they are not necessary and are yet done,
is not the evidence against slavery still more damning? The South are
in rebellion not for simple slavery; they are in rebellion for the
right of burning human creatures alive.

But we are told, by a strange misapplication of a true principle, that
the South had a right to separate; that their separation ought to
have been consented to, the moment they showed themselves ready to
fight for it; and that the North, in resisting it, are committing the
same error and wrong which England committed in opposing the original
separation of the thirteen colonies. This is carrying the doctrine of
the sacred right of insurrection rather far. It is wonderful how easy
and liberal and complying people can be in other people’s concerns.
Because they are willing to surrender their own past, and have no
objection to join in reprobation of their great-grandfathers, they
never put themselves the question what they themselves would do in
circumstances far less trying, under far less pressure of real
national calamity. Would those who profess these ardent revolutionary
principles consent to their being applied to Ireland, or India, or the
Ionian Islands. How have they treated those who did attempt so to
apply them? But the case can dispense with any mere argumentum ad
hominem
. I am not frightened at the word rebellion. I do not scruple
to say that I have sympathized more or less ardently with most of the
rebellions, successful and unsuccessful, which have taken place in my
time. But I certainly never conceived that there was a sufficient
title to my sympathy in the mere fact of being a rebel; that the act
of taking arms against one’s fellow-citizens was so meritorious in
itself, was so completely its own justification, that no question need
be asked concerning the motive. It seems to me a strange doctrine that
the most serious and responsible of all human acts imposes no
obligation on those who do it of showing that they have a real
grievance; that those who rebel for the power of oppressing others,
exercise as sacred a right as those who do the same thing to resist
oppression practised upon themselves. Neither rebellion nor any other
act which affects the interests of others, is sufficiently legitimated
by the mere will to do it. Secession may be laudable, and so may any
other kind of insurrection; but it may also be an enormous crime. It
is the one or the other, according to the object and the provocation.
And if there ever was an object which, by its bare announcement,
stamped rebels against a particular community as enemies of mankind,
it is the one professed by the South. Their right to separate is the
right which Cartouche or Turpin would have had to secede from their
respective countries, because the laws of those countries would not
suffer them to rob and murder on the highway. The only real difference
is that the present rebels are more powerful than Cartouche or Turpin,
and may possibly be able to effect their iniquitous purpose.

Suppose, however, for the sake of argument, that the mere will to
separate were in this case, or in any case, a sufficient ground for
separation, I beg to be informed whose will? The will of any knot of
men who, by fair means or foul, by usurpation, terrorism, or fraud,
have got the reins of government into their hands? If the inmates of
Parkhurst Prison were to get possession of the Isle of Wight, occupy
its military positions, enlist one part of its inhabitants in their
own ranks, set the remainder of them to work in chain gangs, and
declare themselves independent, ought their recognition by the British
Government to be an immediate consequence? Before admitting the
authority of any persons, as organs of the will of the people, to
dispose of the whole political existence of a country, I ask to see
whether their credentials are from the whole, or only from a part. And
first, it is necessary to ask, Have the slaves been consulted? Has
their will been counted as any part in the estimate of collective
volition? They are a part of the population. However natural in the
country itself, it is rather cool in English writers who talk so
glibly of the ten millions (I believe there are only eight), to pass
over the very existence of four millions who must abhor the idea of
separation. Remember, we consider them to be human beings, entitled
to human rights. Nor can it be doubted that the mere fact of belonging
to a Union in some parts of which slavery is reprobated, is some
alleviation of their condition, if only as regards future
probabilities. But even of the white population, it is questionable if
there was in the beginning a majority for secession anywhere but in
South Carolina. Though the thing was pre-determined, and most of the
States committed by their public authorities before the people were
called on to vote; though in taking the votes terrorism in many places
reigned triumphant; yet even so, in several of the States, secession
was carried only by narrow majorities. In some the authorities have
not dared to publish the numbers; in some it is asserted that no vote
has ever been taken. Further (as was pointed out in an admirable
letter by Mr. Carey), the Slave States are intersected in the middle,
from their northern frontier almost to the Gulf of Mexico, by a
country of free labor—the mountain region of the Alleghanies and
their dependencies, forming parts of Virginia, North Carolina,
Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama, in which, from the nature of the
climate and of the agricultural and mining industry, slavery to any
material extent never did, and never will, exist. This mountain zone
is peopled by ardent friends of the Union. Could the Union abandon
them, without even an effort, to be dealt with at the pleasure of an
exasperated slave-owning oligarchy? Could it abandon the Germans who,
in Western Texas, have made so meritorious a commencement of growing
cotton on the borders of the Mexican Gulf by free labor? Were the
right of the slave-owners to secede ever so clear, they have no right
to carry these with them; unless allegiance is a mere question of
local proximity, and my next neighbor, if I am a stronger man, can be
compelled to follow me in any lawless vagaries I choose to indulge.

But (it is said) the North will never succeed in conquering the South;
and since the separation must in the end be recognized, it is better
to do at first what must be done at last; moreover, if it did conquer
them, it could not govern them when conquered, consistently with free
institutions. With no one of these propositions can I agree.

Whether or not the Northern Americans will succeed in reconquering the
South, I do not affect to foresee. That they can conquer it, if
their present determination holds, I have never entertained a doubt;
for they are twice as numerous, and ten or twelve times as rich. Not
by taking military possession of their country, or marching an army
through it, but by wearing them out, exhausting their resources,
depriving them of the comforts of life, encouraging their slaves to
desert, and excluding them from communication with foreign countries.
All this, of course, depends on the supposition that the North does
not give in first. Whether they will persevere to this point, or
whether their spirit, their patience, and the sacrifices they are
willing to make, will be exhausted before reaching it, I cannot tell.
They may, in the end, be wearied into recognizing the separation. But
to those who say that because this may have to be done at last, it
ought to have been done at first, I put the very serious question—On
what terms? Have they ever considered what would have been the meaning
of separation if it had been assented to by the Northern States when
first demanded? People talk as if separation meant nothing more than
the independence of the seceding States. To have accepted it under
that limitation would have been, on the part of the South, to give up
that which they have seceded expressly to preserve. Separation, with
them, means at least half the Territories; including the Mexican
border, and the consequent power of invading and overrunning Spanish
America for the purpose of planting there the “peculiar institution”
which even Mexican civilization has found too bad to be endured. There
is no knowing to what point of degradation a country may be driven in
a desperate state of its affairs; but if the North ever, unless on
the brink of actual ruin, makes peace with the South, giving up the
original cause of quarrel, the freedom of the Territories; if it
resigns to them when out of the Union that power of evil which it
would not grant to retain them in the Union—it will incur the pity
and disdain of posterity. And no one can suppose that the South would
have consented, or in their present temper ever will consent, to an
accommodation on any other terms. It will require a succession of
humiliation to bring them to that. The necessity of reconciling
themselves to the confinement of slavery within its existing
boundaries, with the natural consequence, immediate mitigation of
slavery, and ultimate emancipation, is a lesson which they are in no
mood to learn from anything but disaster. Two or three defeats in the
field, breaking their military strength, though not followed by an
invasion of their territory, may possibly teach it to them. If so,
there is no breach of charity in hoping that this severe schooling may
promptly come. When men set themselves up, in defiance of the rest of
the world, to do the devil’s work, no good can come of them until the
world has made them feel that this work cannot be suffered to be done
any longer. If this knowledge does not come to them for several years,
the abolition question will by that time have settled itself. For
assuredly Congress will very soon make up its mind to declare all
slaves free who belong to persons in arms against the Union. When that
is done, slavery, confined to a minority, will soon cure itself; and
the pecuniary value of the negroes belonging to loyal masters will
probably not exceed the amount of compensation which the United States
will be willing and able to give.

The assumed difficulty of governing the Southern States as free and
equal commonwealths, in case of their return to the Union, is purely
imaginary. If brought back by force, and not by voluntary compact,
they will return without the Territories, and without a Fugitive Slave
Law. It may be assumed that in that event the victorious party would
make the alterations in the Federal Constitution which are necessary
to adapt it to the new circumstances, and which would not infringe,
but strengthen, its democratic principles. An article would have to be
inserted prohibiting the extension of slavery to the Territories, or
the admission into the Union of any new Slave State. Without any other
guarantee, the rapid formation of new Free States would ensure to
freedom a decisive and constantly increasing majority in Congress. It
would also be right to abrogate that bad provision of the Constitution
(a necessary compromise at the time of its first establishment)
whereby the slaves, though reckoned as citizens in no other respect,
are counted, to the extent of three fifths of their number, in the
estimate of the population for fixing the number of representatives of
each State in the Lower House of Congress. Why should the masters have
members in right of their human chattels, any more than of their oxen
and pigs? The President, in his Message, has already proposed that
this salutary reform should be effected in the case of Maryland,
additional territory, detached from Virginia, being given to that
State as an equivalent: thus clearly indicating the policy which he
approves, and which he is probably willing to make universal.

As it is necessary to be prepared for all possibilities, let us now
contemplate another. Let us suppose the worst possible issue of this
war—the one apparently desired by those English writers whose moral
feeling is so philosophically indifferent between the apostles of
slavery and its enemies. Suppose that the North should stoop to
recognize the new Confederation on its own terms, leaving it half the
Territories, and that it is acknowledged by Europe, and takes its
place as an admitted member of the community of nations. It will be
desirable to take thought beforehand what are to be our own future
relations with a new Power, professing the principles of Attila and
Genghis Khan as the foundation of its Constitution. Are we to see with
indifference its victorious army let loose to propagate their national
faith at the rifle’s mouth through Mexico and Central America? Shall
we submit to see fire and sword carried over Cuba and Porto Rico, and
Hayti and Liberia conquered and brought back to slavery? We shall soon
have causes enough of quarrel on our own account. When we are in the
act of sending an expedition against Mexico to redress the wrongs of
private British subjects, we should do well to reflect in time that
the President of the new Republic, Mr. Jefferson Davis, was the
original inventor of repudiation. Mississippi was the first State
which repudiated, Mr. Jefferson Davis was Governor of Mississippi, and
the Legislature of Mississippi had passed a Bill recognizing and
providing for the debt, which Bill Mr. Jefferson Davis vetoed. Unless
we abandon the principles we have for two generations consistently
professed and acted on, we should be at war with the new Confederacy
within five years about the African slave-trade. An English Government
will hardly be base enough to recognize them, unless they accept all
the treaties by which America is at present bound; nor, it may be
hoped, even if de facto independent, would they be admitted to the
courtesies of diplomatic intercourse, unless they granted in the most
explicit manner the right of search. To allow the slave-ships of a
Confederation formed for the extension of slavery to come and go free,
and unexamined, between America and the African coast, would be to
renounce even the pretence of attempting to protect Africa against the
man-stealer, and abandon that Continent to the horrors, on a far
larger scale, which were practised before Granville Sharp and Clarkson
were in existence. But even if the right of intercepting their slavers
were acknowledged by treaty, which it never would be, the arrogance of
the Southern slave-holders would not long submit to its exercise.
Their pride and self-conceit, swelled to an inordinate height by their
successful struggle, would defy the power of England as they had
already successfully defied that of their Northern countrymen. After
our people by their cold disapprobation, and our press by its
invective, had combined with their own difficulties to damp the spirit
of the Free States, and drive them to submit and make peace, we should
have to fight the Slave States ourselves at far greater disadvantages,
when we should no longer have the wearied and exhausted North for an
ally. The time might come when the barbarous and barbarizing Power,
which we by our moral support had helped into existence, would require
a general crusade of civilized Europe, to extinguish the mischief
which it had allowed, and we had aided, to rise up in the midst of our
civilization.

For these reasons I cannot join with those who cry Peace, peace. I
cannot wish that this war should not have been engaged in by the
North, or that being engaged in, it should be terminated on any
conditions but such as would retain the whole of the Territories as
free soil. I am not blind to the possibility that it may require a
long war to lower the arrogance and tame the aggressive ambition of
the slave-owners, to the point of either returning to the Union, or
consenting to remain out of it with their present limits. But war, in
a good cause, is not the greatest evil which a nation can suffer. War
is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and
degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing
worth a war, is worse. When a people are used as mere human
instruments for firing cannon or thrusting bayonets, in the service
and for the selfish purposes of a master, such war degrades a people.
A war to protect other human beings against tyrannical injustice; a
war to give victory to their own ideas of right and good, and which is
their own war, carried on for an honest purpose by their free
choice—is often the means of their regeneration. A man who has
nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more
about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature,
who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the
exertions of better men than himself. As long as justice and injustice
have not terminated their ever renewing fight for ascendancy in the
affairs of mankind, human beings must be willing, when need is, to do
battle for the one against the other. I am far from saying that the
present struggle, on the part of the Northern Americans, is wholly of
this exalted character; that it has arrived at the stage of being
altogether a war for justice, a war of principle. But there was from
the beginning, and now is, a large infusion of that element in it; and
this is increasing, will increase, and if the war lasts, will in the
end predominate. Should that time come, not only will the greatest
enormity which still exists among mankind as an institution, receive
far earlier its coups de grâce than there has ever, until now,
appeared any probability of; but in effecting this the Free States
will have raised themselves to that elevated position in the scale of
morality and dignity, which is derived from great sacrifices
consciously made in a virtuous cause, and the sense of an inestimable
benefit to all future ages, brought about by their own voluntary
efforts.

[1] I do not forget one regrettable passage in Mr. Seward’s letter,
in which he said that “if the safety of the Union required the
detention of the captured persons, it would be the right and duty of
this Government to detain them.” I sincerely grieve to find this
sentence in the dispatch, for the exceptions to the general rules of
morality are not a subject to be lightly or unnecessarily tampered
with. The doctrine in itself is no other than that professed and
acted on by all governments—that self-preservation, in a State, as
in an individual, is a warrant for many things which at all other
times ought to be rigidly abstained from. At all events, no nation
which has ever passed “laws of exception,” which ever suspended the
Habeas Corpus Act or passed an Alien Bill in dread of a Chartist
insurrection, has a right to throw the first stone at Mr. Lincoln’s
Government.

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