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The Conflict with Slavery
The Lesson and Our Duty.

by John Greenleaf Whittier

                       From the Amesbury Villager.


[1865.]

In the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the unspeakably brutal assault upon Secretary Seward slavery has made another revelation of itself. Perhaps it was needed. In the magnanimity of assured victory we were perhaps disposed to overlook, not so much the guilty leaders and misguided masses of the great rebellion as the unutterable horror and sin of slavery which prompted it.

How slowly we of the North have learned the true character of this mighty mischief! How our politicians bowed their strong shoulders under its burthens! How our churches reverenced it! How our clergy contrasted the heresy-tolerating North with the purely orthodox and Scriptural type of slave-holding Christianity! How all classes hunted down, not merely the fugitive slave, but the few who ventured to give him food and shelter and a Godspeed in his flight from bondage! How utterly ignored was the negro's claim of common humanity! How readily was the decision of the slave-holding chief justice acquiesced in, that "the black man had no rights which the white man is bound to respect"!

We saw a senator of the United States, world-known and honored for his learning, talents, and stainless integrity, beaten down and all but murdered at his official desk by a South Carolina slave-holder, for the crime of speaking against the extension of slavery; and we heard the dastardly deed applauded throughout the South, while its brutal perpetrator was rewarded with orations and gifts and smiles of beauty as a chivalrous gentleman. We saw slavery enter Kansas, with bowieknife in hand and curses on its lips; we saw the life of the Union struck at by secession and rebellion; we heard of the bones of sons and brothers, fallen in defence of freedom and law, dug up and wrought into ornaments for the wrists and bosoms of slave-holding women; we looked into the open hell of Andersonville, upon the deliberate, systematic starvation of helpless prisoners; we heard of Libby Prison underlaid with gunpowder, for the purpose of destroying thousands of Union prisoners in case of the occupation of Richmond by our army; we saw hundreds of prisoners massacred in cold blood at Fort Pillow, and the midnight sack of Lawrence and the murder of its principal citizens. The flames of our merchant vessels, seized by pirates, lighted every sea; we heard of officers of the rebel army and navy stealing into our cities, firing hotels filled with sleeping occupants, and laying obstructions on the track of rail cars, for the purpose of killing and mangling their passengers. Yet in spite of these revelations of the utterly barbarous character of slavery and its direful effect upon all connected with it, we were on the very point of trusting to its most criminal defenders the task of reestablishing the state governments of the South, leaving the real Union men, white as well as black, at the mercy of those who have made hatred a religion and murder a sacrament. The nation needed one more terrible lesson. It has it in the murder of its beloved chief magistrate and the attempted assassination of its honored prime minister, the two men of all others prepared to go farthest to smooth the way of defeated rebellion back to allegiance.

Even now the lesson of these terrible events seems but half learned. In the public utterances I hear much of punishing and hanging leading traitors, fierce demands for vengeance, and threats of the summary chastisement of domestic sympathizers with treason, but comparatively little is said of the accursed cause, the prolific mother of abominations, slavery. The government is exhorted to remember that it does not bear the sword in vain, the Old Testament is ransacked for texts of Oriental hatred and examples of the revenges of a semi-barbarous nation; but, as respects the four millions of unmistakably loyal people of the South, the patient, the long-suffering, kind-hearted victims of oppressions, only here and there a voice pleads for their endowment with the same rights of citizenship which are to be accorded to the rank and file of disbanded rebels. The golden rule of the Sermon on the Mount is not applied to them. Much is said of executing justice upon rebels; little of justice to loyal black men. Hanging a few ringleaders of treason, it seems to be supposed, is all that is needed to restore and reestablish the revolted states. The negro is to be left powerless in the hands of the "white trash," who hate him with a bitter hatred, exceeding that of the large slave-holders. In short, four years of terrible chastisement, of God's unmistakable judgments, have not taught us, as a people, their lesson, which could scarcely be plainer if it had been written in letters of fire on the sky. Why is it that we are so slow to learn, so unwilling to confess that slavery is the accursed thing which whets the knife of murder, and transforms men, with the exterior of gentlemen and Christians, into fiends? How pitiful is our exultation over the capture of the wretched Booth and his associates! The great criminal, of whom he and they were but paltry instruments, still stalks abroad in the pine woods of Jersey, where the state has thrown around him her legislative sanction and protection. He is in Pennsylvania, thrusting the black man from public conveyances. Wherever God's children are despised, insulted, and abused on account of their color, there is the real assassin of the President still at large. I do not wonder at the indignation which has been awakened by the late outrage, for I have painfully shared it. But let us see to it that it is rightly directed. The hanging of a score of Southern traitors will not restore Abraham Lincoln nor atone for the mighty loss. In wreaking revenge upon these miserable men, we must see to it that we do not degrade ourselves and do dishonor to the sacred memory of the dead. We do well to be angry; and, if need be, let our wrath wax seven times hotter, until that which "was a murderer from the beginning" is consumed from the face of the earth. As the people stand by the grave of Lincoln, let them lift their right hands to heaven and take a solemn vow upon their souls to give no sleep to their eyes nor slumber to their eyelids until slavery is hunted from its last shelter, and every man, black and white, stands equal before the law.

In dealing with the guilty leaders and instigators of the rebellion we should beware how we take counsel of passion. Hatred has no place beside the calm and awful dignity of justice. Human life is still a very sacred thing; Christian forbearance and patience are still virtues. For my own part, I should be satisfied to see the chiefs of the great treason go out from among us homeless, exiled, with the mark of Cain on their foreheads, carrying with them, wherever they go, the avenging Nemesis of conscience. We cannot take lessons, at this late day, in their school of barbarism; we cannot starve and torture them as they have starved and tortured our soldiers. Let them live. Perhaps that is, after all, the most terrible penalty. For wherever they hide themselves the story of their acts will pursue them; they can have no rest nor peace save in that deep repentance which, through the mercy of God, is possible for all.

I have no disposition to stand between these men and justice. If arrested, they can have no claim to exemption from the liabilities of criminals. But it is not simply a question of deserts that is to be considered; we are to take into account our own reputation as a Christian people, the wishes of our best friends abroad, and the humane instincts of the age, which forbid all unnecessary severity. Happily we are not called upon to take counsel of our fears. Rabbinical writers tell us that evil spirits who are once baffled in a contest with human beings lose from thenceforth all power of further mischief. The defeated rebels are in the precise condition of these Jewish demons. Deprived of slavery, they are like wasps that have lost their stings.

As respects the misguided masses of the South, the shattered and crippled remnants of the armies of treason, the desolate wives, mothers, and children mourning for dear ones who have fallen in a vain and hopeless struggle, it seems to me our duty is very plain. We must forgive their past treason, and welcome and encourage their returning loyalty. None but cowards will insult and taunt the defeated and defenceless. We must feed and clothe the destitute, instruct the ignorant, and, bearing patiently with the bitterness and prejudice which will doubtless for a time thwart our efforts and misinterpret our motives, aid them in rebuilding their states on the foundation of freedom. Our sole enemy was slavery, and slavery is dead. We have now no quarrel with the people of the South, who have really more reason than we have to rejoice over the downfall of a system which impeded their material progress, perverted their religion, shut them out from the sympathies of the world, and ridged their land with the graves of its victims.

We are victors, the cause of all this evil and suffering is removed forever, and we can well afford to be magnanimous. How better can we evince our gratitude to God for His great mercy than in doing good to those who hated us, and in having compassion on those who have despitefully used us? The hour is hastening for us all when our sole ground of dependence will be the mercy and forgiveness of God. Let us endeavor so to feel and act in our relations to the people of the South that we can repeat in sincerity the prayer of our Lord: "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us," reverently acknowledging that He has indeed "led captivity captive and received gifts for men; yea, for the rebellious also, that the Lord God might dwell among them."
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