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The Conflict with Slavery
The Presidential Election of 1872.

by John Greenleaf Whittier

     The following letter was written on receiving a request from a
     committee of colored voters for advice as to their action at the
     presidential election of 1872.


AMESBURY, 9th mo. 3d, 1872.

DEAR FRIENDS,--I have just received your letter of the 29th ult. asking my opinion of your present duty as colored voters in the choice between General Grant and Horace Greeley for the presidency. You state that you have been confused by the contradictory advice given you by such friends of your people as Charles Sumner on one hand, and William L. Garrison and Wendell Phillips on the other; and you ask me, as one whom you are pleased to think "free from all bias," to add my counsel to theirs.

I thank you for the very kind expression of your confidence and your generous reference to my endeavors to serve the cause of freedom; but I must own that I would fain have been spared the necessity of adding to the already too long list of political epistles. I have felt it my duty in times past to take an active part--often very distasteful to me--in political matters, having for my first object the deliverance of my country from the crime and curse of slavery. That great question being now settled forever, I have been more than willing to leave to younger and stronger hands the toils and the honors of partisan service. Pained and saddened by the bitter and unchristian personalities of the canvass now in progress, I have hitherto held myself aloof from it as far as possible, unwilling to sanction in the slightest degree the criminations and recriminations of personal friends whom I have every reason to love and respect, and in whose integrity I have unshaken confidence. In the present condition of affairs I have not been able to see that any special action as an abolitionist was required at my hands. Both of the great parties, heretofore widely separated, have put themselves on substantially the same platform. The Republican party, originally pledged only to the non-extension of slavery, and whose most illustrious representative, President Lincoln, avowed his willingness to save the Union without abolishing slavery, has been, under Providence, mainly instrumental in the total overthrow of the detestable system; while the Democratic party, composed largely of slave-holders, and, even at the North, scarcely willing to save the Union at the expense of the slave interest upon which its success depended, shattered and crippled by the civil war and its results, has at last yielded to the inexorable logic of events, abandoned a position no longer tenable, and taken its "new departure" with an abolitionist as its candidate. As a friend of the long-oppressed colored man, and for the sake of the peace and prosperity of the country, I rejoice at this action of the Democratic party. The underlying motives of this radical change are doubtless somewhat mixed and contradictory, honest conviction on the part of some, and party expediency and desire of office on the part of others; but the change itself is real and irrevocable; the penalty of receding would be swift and irretrievable ruin. In any point of view the new order of things is desirable; and nothing more fully illustrates "the ways that are dark and the tricks that are vain" of party politics than the attempt of professed friends of the Union and equal rights for all to counteract it by giving aid and comfort to a revival of the worst characteristics of the old party in the shape of a straight-out Democratic convention.

As respects the candidates now before us, I can see no good reason why colored voters as such should oppose General Grant, who, though not an abolitionist and not even a member of the Republican party previous to his nomination, has faithfully carried out the laws of Congress in their behalf. Nor, on the other hand, can I see any just grounds for distrust of such a man as Horace Greeley, who has so nobly distinguished himself as the advocate of human rights irrespective of race or color, and who by the instrumentality of his press has been for thirty years the educator of the people in the principles of justice, temperance, and freedom. Both of these men have, in different ways, deserved too well of the country to be unnecessarily subjected to the brutalities of a presidential canvass; and, so far as they are personally concerned, it would doubtless have been better if the one had declined a second term of uncongenial duties, and the other continued to indite words of wisdom in the shades of Chappaqua. But they have chosen otherwise; and I am willing, for one, to leave my colored fellow-citizens to the unbiased exercise of their own judgment and instincts in deciding between them. The Democratic party labors under the disadvantage of antecedents not calculated to promote a rapid growth of confidence; and it is no matter of surprise that the vote of the emancipated class is likely to be largely against it. But if, as will doubtless be the case, that vote shall be to some extent divided between the two candidates, it will have the effect of inducing politicians of the rival parties to treat with respect and consideration this new element of political power, from self- interest if from no higher motive. The fact that at this time both parties are welcoming colored orators to their platforms, and that, in the South, old slave-masters and their former slaves fraternize at caucus and barbecue, and vote for each other at the polls, is full of significance. If, in New England, the very men who thrust Frederick Douglass from car and stage-coach, and mobbed and hunted him like a wild beast, now crowd to shake his hand and cheer him, let us not despair of seeing even the Ku-Klux tarried into decency, and sitting "clothed in their right minds" as listeners to their former victims. The colored man is to-day the master of his own destiny. No power on earth can deprive him of his rights as an American citizen. And it is in the light of American citizenship that I choose to regard my colored friends, as men having a common stake in the welfare of the country; mingled with, and not separate from, their white fellow-citizens; not herded together as a distinct class to be wielded by others, without self-dependence and incapable of self-determination. Thanks to such men as Sumner and Wilson and their compeers, nearly all that legislation can do for them has already been done. We can now only help them to help themselves. Industry, economy, temperance, self-culture, education for their children,--these things, indispensable to their elevation and progress, are in a great measure in their own hands.

You will, therefore, my friends and fellow-citizens, pardon me if I decline to undertake to decide for you the question of your political duty as respects the candidates for the presidency,--a question which you have probably already settled in your own minds. If it had been apparent to me that your rights and liberties were really in danger from the success of either candidate, your letter would not have been needed to call forth my opinion. In the long struggle of well-nigh forty years, I can honestly say that no consideration of private interest, nor my natural love of peace and retirement and the good-will of others, have kept me silent when a word could be fitly spoken for human rights. I have not so long acted with the class to which you belong without acquiring respect for your intelligence and capacity for judging wisely for yourselves. I shall abide your decision with confidence, and cheerfully acquiesce in it.

If, on the whole, you prefer to vote for the reelection of General Grant, let me hope you will do so without joining with eleventh-hour friends in denouncing and reviling such an old and tried friend as Charles Sumner, who has done and suffered so much in your behalf. If, on the other hand, some of you decide to vote for Horace Greeley, you need not in so doing forget your great obligations to such friends as William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and Lydia Maria Child. Agree or disagree with them, take their advice or reject it, but stand by them still, and teach the parties with which you are connected to respect your feelings towards your benefactors.
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