In the language of Mr. Jefferson, uttered many years ago, “It is
still in our power to direct the process of emancipation and
deportation peaceably, and in such slow degrees as that the evil will
wear off insensibly, and their places be, pari passu, filled up by
free white laborers. If, on the contrary, it is left to force itself
on, human nature must shudder at the prospect held up.”
Mr. Jefferson did not mean to say, nor do I, that the power of
emancipation is in the Federal Government. He spoke of Virginia;
and, as to the power of emancipation, I speak of the slave holding
States only. The Federal Government, however, as we insist, has the
power of restraining the extension of the institution–the power to
insure that a slave insurrection shall never occur on any American
soil which is now free from slavery.
John Brown’s effort was peculiar. It was not a slave insurrection.
It was an attempt by white men to get up a revolt among slaves, in
which the slaves refused to participate. In fact, it was so absurd
that the slaves, with all their ignorance, saw plainly enough it
could not succeed. That affair, in its philosophy, corresponds with
the many attempts related in history at the assassination of kings
and emperors. An enthusiast broods over the oppression of a people
till he fancies himself commissioned by Heaven to liberate them. He
ventures the attempt, which ends in little else than his own
execution. Orsini’s attempt on Louis Napoleon and John Brown’s
attempt at Harper’s Ferry were, in their philosophy, precisely the
same. The eagerness to cast blame on old England in the one case,
and on New England in the other, does not disprove the sameness of
the two things.
And how much would it avail you, if you could, by the use of John
Brown, Helper’s Book, and the like, break up the Republican
organization? Human action can be modified to some extent, but human
nature cannot be changed. There is a judgment and a feeling against
slavery in this nation, which cast at least a million and a half of
votes. You cannot destroy that judgment and feeling–that sentiment-
-by breaking up the political organization which rallies around it.
You can scarcely scatter and disperse an army which has been formed
into order in the face of your heaviest fire; but if you could, how
much would you gain by forcing the sentiment which created it out of
the peaceful channel of the ballot-box, into some other channel?
What would that other channel probably be? Would the number of John
Browns be lessened or enlarged by the operation?
But you will break up the Union rather than submit to a denial of
your constitutional rights.
That has a somewhat reckless sound; but it would be palliated, if not
fully justified, were we proposing, by the mere force of numbers, to
deprive you of some right plainly written down in the Constitution.
But we are proposing no such thing.
When you make these declarations, you have a specific and well-
understood allusion to an assumed constitutional right of yours to
take slaves into the Federal Territories, and to hold them there as
property. But no such right is specifically written in the
Constitution. That instrument is literally silent about any such
right. We, on the contrary, deny that such a right has any existence
in the Constitution, even by implication.
Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is that you will destroy the
Government unless you be allowed to construe and enforce the
Constitution as you please on all points in dispute between you and
us. You will rule or ruin, in all events.
This, plainly stated, is your language. Perhaps you will say the
Supreme Court has decided the disputed constitutional question in
your favor. Not quite so. But, waiving the lawyer’s distinction
between dictum and decision, the court have decided the question for
you in a sort of way. The court have substantially said it is your
constitutional right to take slaves into the Federal Territories, and
to hold them there as property. When I say, the decision was made in
a sort of way, I mean it was made in a divided court, by a bare
majority of the judges, and they not quite agreeing with one another
in the reasons for making it; that it is so made as that its avowed
supporters disagree with one another about its meaning, and that it
was mainly based upon a mistaken statement of fact–the statement in
the opinion that “the right of property in a slave is distinctly and
expressly affirmed in the Constitution.”
An inspection of the Constitution will show that the right of
property in a slave is not “distinctly and expressly affirmed” in it.
Bear in mind, the judges do not pledge their judicial opinion that
such right is impliedly affirmed in the Constitution; but they pledge
their veracity that it is “distinctly and expressly” affirmed there-
-“distinctly,” that is, not mingled with anything else; “expressly,”
that is, in words meaning just that, without the aid of any
inference, and susceptible of no other meaning.
If they had only pledged their judicial opinion that such right is
affirmed in the instrument by implication, it would be open to others
to show that neither the word “slave” nor “slavery” is to be found in
the Constitution, nor the word “property” even, in any connection
with language alluding to the things slave or slavery; and that
wherever in that instrument the slave is alluded to, he is called a
“person”; and wherever his master’s legal right in relation to him is
alluded to, it is spoken of as “service or labor which may be due,”
as a debt payable in service or labor. Also, it would be open to
show, by contemporaneous history, that this mode of alluding to
slaves and slavery, instead of speaking of them, was employed on
purpose to exclude from the Constitution the idea that there could be
property in man.
To show all this, is easy and certain.
When this obvious mistake of the judges shall be brought to their
notice, is it not reasonable to expect that they will withdraw the
mistaken statement, and reconsider the conclusion based upon it?
And then it is to be remembered that “our fathers; who framed the
Government under which we live”,–the men who made the Constitution–
decided this same constitutional question in our favor, long ago;
decided it without division among themselves, when making the
decision, without division among themselves about the meaning of it
after it was made, and, so far as any evidence is left, without
basing it upon any mistaken statement of facts.
Under all these circumstances, do you really feel yourselves
justified to break up this Government unless such a court decision as
yours is shall be at once submitted to as a conclusive and final rule
of political action? But you will not abide the election of a
Republican President! In that supposed event, you say, you will
destroy the Union;, and then, you say, the great crime of having
destroyed it will be upon us! That is cool. A highwayman holds a
pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, “stand and deliver,
or I shall kill you, and then you’ll be a murderer!”
To be sure, what the robber demanded of me-my money was my own, and I
had a clear right to keep it; but it was no more my own than my vote
is my own; and the threat of death to me, to extort my money, and the
threat of destruction to the Union, to extort my vote, can scarcely
be distinguished in principle.
A few words now to Republicans: It is exceedingly desirable that all
parts of this great confederacy shall be at peace and in harmony one
with another. Let us Republicans do our part to have it so. Even
though much provoked, let us do nothing through passion and ill
temper. Even though the Southern people will not so much as listen
to us, let us calmly consider their demands, and yield to them if, in
our deliberate view of our duty, we possibly can. Judging by all
they say and do, and by the subject and nature of their controversy
with us, let us determine, if we can, what will satisfy them.
Will they be satisfied if the Territories be unconditionally
surrendered to them? We know they will not. In all their present
complaints against us, the Territories are scarcely mentioned.
Invasions and insurrections are the rage now. Will it satisfy them
if, in the future, we have nothing to do with invasions and,
insurrections? We know it will not. We so know because we know we
never had anything to do with invasions and insurrections; and yet
this total abstaining does not exempt us from the charge and the
The question recurs, what will satisfy them? Simply this: We must
not only let them alone, but we must, somehow, convince them that we
do let them alone. This, we know by experience, is no easy task.
We have been so trying to convince them from the very beginning of
our organization, but with no success. In all our platforms and
speeches we have constantly protested our purpose to let them alone;
but this has had no tendency to convince them. Alike unavailing to
convince them is the fact that they have never detected a man of us
in any attempt to disturb them.
These natural and apparently adequate means all failing, what will
convince them? This, and this only: cease to call slavery wrong, and
join them in calling it right. And this must be done thoroughly–
done in acts as well as in words. Silence will not be tolerated–we
must place ourselves avowedly with them. Senator Douglas’s new
sedition law must be enacted and enforced, suppressing all
declarations that slavery is wrong, whether made in politics, in
presses, in pulpits; or in private. We must arrest and return their
fugitive slaves with greedy pleasure. We must pull down our free
State constitutions. The whole atmosphere must be disinfected from
all taint of opposition to slavery, before they will cease to believe
that all their troubles proceed from us.
I am quite aware they do not state their case precisely in this way.
Most of them would probably say to us, “Let us alone, do nothing to
us, and say what you please about slavery.” But we do let them alone
have never disturbed them–so that after all it is what we say which
dissatisfies them. They will continue to accuse us of doing, until
we cease saying.
I am also aware they have not as yet, in terms, demanded the
overthrow of our free State constitutions. Yet those constitutions
declare the wrong of slavery, with more solemn emphasis than do all
other sayings against it; and when all these other sayings shall have
been silenced, the overthrow of these constitutions will be demanded,
and nothing be left to resist the demand. It is nothing to the
contrary, that they do not demand the whole of this just now.
Demanding what they do, and for the reason they do, they can
voluntarily stop nowhere short of this consummation. Holding, as
they do, that slavery is morally right, and socially elevating, they
cannot cease to demand a full national recognition of it, as a legal
right and a social blessing.
Nor can we justifiably withhold this on any ground save our
conviction that slavery is wrong. If slavery is right, all words,
acts, laws, and constitutions against it are themselves wrong, and
should be silenced and swept away. If it is right, we cannot justly
object to its nationality its universality; if it is wrong, they
cannot justly insist upon its extension–its enlargement. All they
ask we could readily grant if we thought slavery right; all we ask
they could as readily grant, if they thought it wrong. Their
thinking it right and our thinking it wrong is the precise fact upon
which depends the whole controversy. Thinking it right, as they do,
they are not to blame for desiring its full recognition, as being
right; but thinking it wrong, as we do, can we yield to them? Can we
cast our votes with their view, and against our own? In view of our
moral, social, and political responsibilities, can we do this? Wrong
as we think slavery is, we can yet afford to let it alone where it
is, because that much is due to the necessity arising from its actual
presence in the nation; but can we, while our votes will prevent it,
allow it to spread into the national Territories, and to overrun us
here in these free States? If our sense of duty forbids this, then
let us stand by our duty, fearlessly and effectively. Let us be
diverted by none of those sophistical contrivances wherewith we are
so industriously plied and belabored-contrivances such as groping for
some middle ground between the right and the wrong, vain as the
search for a man who should be neither a living man nor a dead
man-such as a policy of “don’t care” on a question about which all
true men do care–such as Union appeals beseeching true Union men to
yield to Disunionists, reversing the divine rule, and calling, not
the sinners, but the righteous to repentance–such as invocations to
Washington, imploring men to unsay what Washington said, and undo
what Washington did.
Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations
against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the
Government nor of dungeons to ourselves. LET US HAVE FAITH THAT RIGHT
MAKES MIGHT, AND IN THAT FAITH LET US, TO THE END, DARE TO DO OUR
DUTY AS WE UNDERSTAND IT.
SPEECH AT NEW HAVEN, CONNECTICUT, MARCH 6, 1860
MR. PRESIDENT, AND FELLOW-CITIZENS OF NEW HAVEN:–If the Republican
party of this nation shall ever have the national House entrusted to
its keeping, it will be the duty of that party to attend to all the
affairs of national housekeeping. Whatever matters of importance may
come up, whatever difficulties may arise in its way of administration
of the Government, that party will then have to attend to. It will
then be compelled to attend to other questions, besides this question
which now assumes an overwhelming importance–the question of
slavery. It is true that in the organization of the Republican party
this question of slavery was more important than any other: indeed,
so much more important has it become that no more national question
can even get a hearing just at present. The old question of tariff-
-a matter that will remain one of the chief affairs of national
house-keeping to all time; the question of the management of
financial affairs; the question of the disposition of the public
domain how shall it be managed for the purpose of getting it well
settled, and of making there the homes of a free and happy people?
these will remain open and require attention for a great while yet,
and these questions will have to be attended to by whatever party has
the control of the Government. Yet, just now, they cannot even
obtain a hearing, and I do not propose to detain you upon these
topics or what sort of hearing they should have when opportunity
For, whether we will or not, the question of slavery is the question,
the all-absorbing topic of the day. It is true that all of us–and by
that I mean, not the Republican party alone, but the whole American
people, here and elsewhere–all of us wish this question settled,
wish it out of the way. It stands in the way, and prevents the
adjustment, and the giving of necessary attention to other questions
of national house-keeping. The people of the whole nation agree that
this question ought to be settled, and yet it is not settled. And
the reason is that they are not yet agreed how it shall be settled.
All wish it done, but some wish one way and some another, and some a
third, or fourth, or fifth; different bodies are pulling in different
directions, and none of them, having a decided majority, are able to
accomplish the common object.
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