Speech on the Dred Scott Decision Abraham Lincoln



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Speech on the Dred Scott Decision

Abraham Lincoln

June 26, 1857

FELLOW CITIZENS:—I am here to-night, partly by the invitation of some of you, and partly by my own inclination. Two weeks ago Judge Douglas spoke here on the several subjects of Kansas, the Dred Scott decision, and Utah. I listened to the speech at the time, and have read the report of it since. It was intended to controvert opinions which I think just, and to assail (politically, not personally,) those men who, in common with me, entertain those opinions. For this reason I wished then, and still wish, to make some answer to it, which I now take the opportunity of doing . . .

And now as to the Dred Scott decision. That decision declares two propositions—first, that a negro cannot sue in the U.S. Courts; and secondly, that Congress cannot prohibit slavery in the Territories. It was made by a divided court—dividing differently on the different points. Judge Douglas does not discuss the merits of the decision; and, in that respect, I shall follow his example, believing I could no more improve on McLean and Curtis, than he could on Taney.

He denounces all who question the correctness of that decision, as offering violent resistance to it. But who resists it? Who has, in spite of the decision, declared Dred Scott free, and resisted the authority of his master over him?

Judicial decisions have two uses—first, to absolutely determine the case decided, and secondly, to indicate to the public how other similar cases will be decided when they arise. For the latter use, they are called "precedents" and "authorities."

We believe, as much as Judge Douglas, (perhaps more) in obedience to, and respect for the judicial department of government. We think its decisions on Constitutional questions, when fully settled, should control, not only the particular cases decided, but the general policy of the country, subject to be disturbed only by amendments of the Constitution as provided in that instrument itself. More than this would be revolution. But we think the Dred Scott decision is erroneous. We know the court that made it, has often over-ruled its own decisions, and we shall do what we can to have it to over-rule this. We offer no resistance to it . . .

I have said, in substance, that the Dred Scott decision was, in part, based on assumed historical facts which were not really true; and I ought not to leave the subject without giving some reasons for saying this; I therefore give an instance or two, which I think fully sustain me. Chief Justice Taney, in delivering the opinion of the majority of the Court, insists at great length that negroes were no part of the people who made, or for whom was made, the Declaration of Independence, or the Constitution of the United States.

On the contrary, Judge Curtis, in his dissenting opinion, shows that in five of the then thirteen states, to wit, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey and North Carolina, free negroes were voters, and, in proportion to their numbers, had the same part in making the Constitution that the white people had. He shows this with so much particularity as to leave no doubt of its truth; and, as a sort of conclusion on that point, holds the following language:

"The Constitution was ordained and established by the people of the United States, through the action, in each State, of those persons who were qualified by its laws to act thereon in behalf of themselves and all other citizens of the State. In some of the States, as we have seen, colored persons were among those qualified by law to act on the subject. These colored persons were not only included in the body of ‘the people of the United States,’ by whom the Constitution was ordained and established; but in at least five of the States they had the power to act, and, doubtless, did act, by their suffrages, upon the question of its adoption."

Again, Chief Justice Taney says: "It is difficult, at this day to realize the state of public opinion in relation to that unfortunate race, which prevailed in the civilized and enlightened portions of the world at the time of the Declaration of Independence, and when the Constitution of the United States was framed and adopted." And again, after quoting from the Declaration, he says: "The general words above quoted would seem to include the whole human family, and if they were used in a similar instrument at this day, would be so understood."

In these the Chief Justice does not directly assert, but plainly assumes, as a fact, that the public estimate of the black man is more favorable now than it was in the days of the Revolution. This assumption is a mistake. In some trifling particulars, the condition of that race has been ameliorated; but, as a whole, in this country, the change between then and now is decidedly the other way; and their ultimate destiny has never appeared so hopeless as in the last three or four years. In two of the five States—New Jersey and North Carolina—that then gave the free negro the right of voting, the right has since been taken away; and in a third—New York—it has been greatly abridged; while it has not been extended, so far as I know, to a single additional State, though the number of the States has more than doubled. In those days, as I understand, masters could, at their own pleasure, emancipate their slaves; but since then, such legal restraints have been made upon emancipation, as to amount almost to prohibition. In those days, Legislatures held the unquestioned power to abolish slavery, in their respective States; but now it is becoming quite fashionable for State Constitutions to withhold that power from the Legislatures. In those days, by common consent, the spread of the black man’s bondage to new countries was prohibited; but now, Congress decides that it will not continue the prohibition, and the Supreme Court decides that it could not if it would. In those days, our Declaration of Independence was held sacred by all, and thought to include all; but now, to aid in making the bondage of the negro universal and eternal, it is assailed, and sneered at, and construed, and hawked at, and torn, till, if its framers could rise from their graves, they could not at all recognize it. All the powers of earth seem rapidly combining against him. Mammon is after him; ambition follows, and philosophy follows, and the Theology of the day is fast joining the cry. They have him in his prison house; they have searched his person, and left no prying instrument with him. One after another they have closed the heavy iron doors upon him, and now they have him, as it were, bolted in with a lock of a hundred keys, which can never be unlocked without the concurrent of every key; the keys in the hands of a hundred different men, and they scattered to a hundred different and distant places; and they stand musing as to what invention, in all the dominions of mind and matter, can be produced to make the impossibility of his escape more complete than it is.

It is grossly incorrect to say or assume, that the public estimate of the negro is more favorable now than it was at the origin of the government.

Three years and a half ago, Judge Douglas brought forward his famous Nebraska bill. The country was at once in a blaze. He scorned all opposition, and carried it through Congress. Since then he has seen himself superseded in a Presidential nomination, by one indorsing the general doctrine of his measure, but at the same time standing clear of the odium of its untimely agitation, and its gross breach of national faith; and he has seen that successful rival Constitutionally elected, not by the strength of friends, but by the division of adversaries, being in a popular minority of nearly four hundred thousand votes. He has seen his chief aids in his own State, Shields and Richardson, politically speaking, successively tried, convicted, and executed, for an offense not their own, but his. And now he sees his own case, standing next on the docket for trial.

There is a natural disgust in the minds of nearly all white people, to the idea of an indiscriminate amalgamation of the white and black races; and Judge Douglas evidently is basing his chief hope, upon the chances of being able to appropriate the benefit of this disgust to himself. If he can, by much drumming and repeating, fasten the odium of that idea upon his adversaries, he thinks he can struggle through the storm. He therefore clings to this hope, as a drowning man to the last plank. He makes an occasion for lugging it in from the opposition to the Dred Scott decision. He finds the Republicans insisting that the Declaration of Independence includes ALL men, black as well as white; and forthwith he boldly denies that it includes negroes at all, and proceeds to argue gravely that all who contend it does, do so only because they want to vote, and eat, and sleep, and marry with negroes! He will have it that they cannot be consistent else. Now I protest against that counterfeit logic which concludes that, because I do not want a black woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. I need not have her for either, I can just leave her alone. In some respects she certainly is not my equal; but in her natural right to eat the bread she earns with her own hands without asking leave of any one else, she is my equal, and the equal of all others.

Chief Justice Taney, in his opinion in the Dred Scott case, admits that the language of the Declaration is broad enough to include the whole human family, but he and Judge Douglas argue that the authors of that instrument did not intend to include negroes, by the fact that they did not at once, actually place them on an equality with the whites. Now this grave argument comes to just nothing at all, by the other fact, that they did not at once, or ever afterwards, actually place all white people on an equality with one or another. And this is the staple argument of both the Chief Justice and the Senator, for doing this obvious violence to the plain unmistakable language of the Declaration. I think the authors of that notable instrument intended to include all men, but they did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness, in what respects they did consider all men created equal—equal in "certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." This they said, and this meant. They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit. They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere. The assertion that "all men are created equal" was of no practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain; and it was placed in the Declaration, not for that, but for future use. Its authors meant it to be, thank God, it is now proving itself, a stumbling block to those who in after times might seek to turn a free people back into the hateful paths of despotism. They knew the proneness of prosperity to breed tyrants, and they meant when such should re-appear in this fair land and commence their vocation they should find left for them at least one hard nut to crack.

I have now briefly expressed my view of the meaning and objects of that part of the Declaration of Independence which declares that "all men are created equal."

Now let us hear Judge Douglas’ view of the same subject, as I find it in the printed report of his late speech. Here it is:

"No man can vindicate the character, motives and conduct of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, except upon the hypothesis that they referred to the white race alone, and not to the African, when they declared all men to have been created equal—that they were speaking of British subjects on this continent being equal to British subjects born and residing in Great Britain—that they were entitled to the same inalienable rights, and among them were enumerated life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The Declaration was adopted for the purpose of justifying the colonists in the eyes of the civilized world in withdrawing their allegiance from the British crown, and dissolving their connection with the mother country."

My good friends, read that carefully over some leisure hour, and ponder well upon it—see what a mere wreck—mangled ruin—it makes of our once glorious Declaration.

"They were speaking of British subjects on this continent being equal to British subjects born and residing in Great Britain!" Why, according to this, not only negroes but white people outside of Great Britain and America are not spoken of in that instrument. The English, Irish and Scotch, along with white Americans, were included to be sure, but the French, Germans and other white people of the world are all gone to pot along with the Judge’s inferior races.

I had thought the Declaration promised something better than the condition of British subjects; but no, it only meant that we should be equal to them in their own oppressed and unequal condition. According to that, it gave no promise that having kicked off the King and Lords of Great Britain, we should not at once be saddled with a King and Lords of our own.

I had thought the Declaration contemplated the progressive improvement in the condition of all men everywhere; but no, it merely "was adopted for the purpose of justifying the colonists in the eyes of the civilized world in withdrawing their allegiance from the British crown, and dissolving their connection with the mother country." Why, that object having been effected some eighty years ago, the Declaration is of no practical use now—mere rubbish—old wadding left to rot on the battle-field after the victory is won.

I understand you are preparing to celebrate the "Fourth," to-morrow week. What for? The doings of that day had no reference to the present; and quite half of you are not even descendants of those who were referred to at that day. But I suppose you will celebrate; and will even go so far as to read the Declaration. Suppose after you read it once in the old fashioned way, you read it once more with Judge Douglas’ version. It will then run thus: "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all British subjects who were on this continent eighty-one years ago, were created equal to all British subjects born and then residing in Great Britain."

And now I appeal to all—to Democrats as well as others,—are you really willing that the Declaration shall be thus frittered away?—thus left no more at most, than an interesting memorial of the dead past? thus shorn of its vitality, and practical value; and left without the germ or even the suggestion of the individual rights of man in it?

But Judge Douglas is especially horrified at the thought of the mixing blood by the white and black races: agreed for once—a thousand times agreed. There are white men enough to marry all the white women, and black men enough to marry all the black women; and so let them be married. On this point we fully agree with the Judge; and when he shall show that his policy is better adapted to prevent amalgamation than ours we shall drop ours, and adopt his. Let us see. In 1850 there were in the United States, 405,751, mulattoes. Very few of these are the offspring of whites and free blacks; nearly all have sprung from black slaves and white masters. A separation of the races is the only perfect preventive of amalgamation but as all immediate separation is impossible the next best thing is to keep them apart where they are not already together. If white and black people never get together in Kansas, they will never mix blood in Kansas. That is at least one self-evident truth. A few free colored persons may get into the free States, in any event; but their number is too insignificant to amount to much in the way of mixing blood. In 1850 there were in the free states, 56,649 mulattoes; but for the most part they were not born there—they came from the slave States, ready made up. In the same year the slave States had 348,874 mulattoes all of home production. The proportion of free mulattoes to free blacks—the only colored classes in the free states—is much greater in the slave than in the free states. It is worthy of note too, that among the free states those which make the colored man the nearest to equal the white, have, proportionally the fewest mulattoes the least of amalgamation. In New Hampshire, the State which goes farthest towards equality between the races, there are just 184 Mulattoes while there are in Virginia—how many do you think? 79,775, being 23,126 more than in all the free States together.

These statistics show that slavery is the greatest source of amalgamation; and next to it, not the elevation, but the degeneration of the free blacks. Yet Judge Douglas dreads the slightest restraints on the spread of slavery, and the slightest human recognition of the negro, as tending horribly to amalgamation.

This very Dred Scott case affords a strong test as to which party most favors amalgamation, the Republicans or the dear union-saving Democracy. Dred Scott, his wife and two daughters were all involved in the suit. We desired the court to have held that they were citizens so far at least as to entitle them to a hearing as to whether they were free or not; and then, also, that they were in fact and in law really free. Could we have had our way, the chances of these black girls, ever mixing their blood with that of white people, would have been diminished at least to the extent that it could not have been without their consent. But Judge Douglas is delighted to have them decided to be slaves, and not human enough to have a hearing, even if they were free, and thus left subject to the forced concubinage of their masters, and liable to become the mothers of mulattoes in spite of themselves—the very state of case that produces nine tenths of all the mulattoes—all the mixing of blood in the nation.

Of course, I state this case as an illustration only, not meaning to say or intimate that the master of Dred Scott and his family, or any more than a per centage of masters generally, are inclined to exercise this particular power which they hold over their female slaves.

I have said that the separation of the races is the only perfect preventive of amalgamation. I have no right to say all the members of the Republican party are in favor of this, nor to say that as a party they are in favor of it. There is nothing in their platform directly on the subject. But I can say a very large proportion of its members are for it, and that the chief plank in their platform—opposition to the spread of slavery—is most favorable to that separation.

Such separation, if ever effected at all, must be effected by colonization; and no political party, as such, is now doing anything directly for colonization. Party operations at present only favor or retard colonization incidentally. The enterprise is a difficult one; but "when there is a will there is a way;" and what colonization needs most is a hearty will. Will springs from the two elements of moral sense and self-interest. Let us be brought to believe it is morally right, and, at the same time, favorable to, or, at least, not against, our interest, to transfer the African to his native clime, and we shall find a way to do it, however great the task may be. The children of Israel, to such numbers as to include four hundred thousand fighting men, went out of Egyptian bondage in a body.

How differently the respective courses of the Democratic and Republican parties incidentally bear on the question of forming a will—a public sentiment—for colonization, is easy to see. The Republicans inculcate, with whatever of ability—they can, that the negro is a man; that his bondage is cruelly wrong, and that the field of his oppression ought not to be enlarged. The Democrats deny his manhood; deny, or dwarf to insignificance, the wrong of his bondage; so far as possible, crush all sympathy for him, and cultivate and excite hatred and disgust against him; compliment themselves as Union-savers for doing so; and call the indefinite outspreading of his bondage "a sacred right of self-government."

The plainest print cannot be read through a gold eagle; and it will be ever hard to find many men who will send a slave to Liberia, and pay his passage while they can send him to a new country, Kansas for instance, and sell him for fifteen hundred dollars, and the rise.

Stephen Douglas and the Slavery Issue

During the mid-1800s, Stephen A. Douglas had a great deal of influence on issues dealing with slavery in the United States. Douglas's views and plans on what to do with slavery did undergo changes, because his basic goal was to save the Union.

Douglas first became involved with the slavery issue when he proposed what to do with slavery in the land won by the United States in the Mexican War. Douglas wanted to develop the West, and he also wanted to start a transcontinental railroad that would have Chicago as its terminus. Southern senators hoped that New Orleans, St. Louis, or Memphis would become the eastern railroad terminus. To please these senators, Douglas proposed the principle of popular sovereignty in the Kansas-Nebraska Act. It allowed citizens of the new territories to decide if they wanted to enter the Union as a slave state or a free state. Douglas thought popular sovereignty would solve the slavery problem. Instead, it greatly displeased many northerners.

The Dred Scott case, which was about a black man who claimed he was a free man since he resided in a free state, had a profound effect on Douglas and his ideas. In 1857 the Supreme Court ruled that, regardless of his residency, Scott was a slave. It also ruled that since Congress had no power to prohibit slavery in a territory, neither did the government of that territory. This outraged Douglas, who had labored so hard to protect his party's strength in the North by invoking popular sovereignty.

President James Buchanan further angered Douglas and antislavery forces by recommending that Kansas allow slavery under the Lecompton Constitution. Most observers, including Stephen Douglas, believed that the Lecompton Constitution had been obtained fraudulently because the anti-slavery majority in Kansas had previously rejected the constitution in a referendum. Douglas thought that admitting Kansas under the Lecompton Constitution would be a mere parody of popular sovereignty and an embarrassment to the party in most of the North. Infuriated, Douglas broke with Buchanan and the southern Democrats and mobilized western Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives to defeat the Lecompton Constitution. Kansas finally entered the Union as a free state in 1861, after secession was well under way and many southern representatives had left Congress.

Historians have traditionally regarded the series of seven Lincoln-Douglas Debates between Stephen Douglas, who was bidding for reelection to the Senate, and Abraham Lincoln, who had offered the challenge of these debates to Douglas, as among the most significant events in American political history. The debaters attracted national interest because of Douglas's prominence and his break with President Buchanan's administration.

During these debates Lincoln attacked slavery. He doubted African Americans' capacities for equality and explicitly rejected formulas that would give them social and political equality. But he declared that blacks were entitled to the same rights granted to whites by the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln also challenged Douglas on how he could accept the Dred Scott decision and at the same time advocate popular sovereignty.

Douglas responded by reformulating popular sovereignty. In this doctrine, which became known as the Freeport Doctrine, because it was stated first in Freeport, Illinois, Douglas asserted that settlers could exclude slavery from a territory by not adopting local legislation to protect it. In other words, he claimed that even if territorial governments followed the Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott and did not prohibit slavery, municipalities could still do so by failing to support slavery. This furthered his view that demography and geography would make the victory of slavery in the territory almost impossible. To Southerners this doctrine meant that they could be denied the victory they won in the Dred Scott case.

Douglas was reelected to the Senate by a narrow margin in the state legislature, but Lincoln virtually discredited popular sovereignty in Illinois. Douglas's victory resulted form overrepresentation in the legislature of the staunchly Democratic counties in southern Illinois rather than any popularity he might have gained from his Freeport speech.

In 1860 Douglas ran against Lincoln again, this time for the presidency. Douglas, however, was not the only Democrat running for office. The Democratic Party split its votes among three candidates and Republican Abraham Lincoln won the election. Douglas then offered his services to Lincoln during the Civil War and toured the border states to arouse enthusiasm for the Union cause. On this trip Stephen A. Douglas, a man whose life had always been concerned with slavery. [From Kenneth C. Davis, Don't Know Much About the Civil War; Stewart Sifakis, Who Was Who in the Civil War.]

John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights

by David Reynolds, 2005 (Excerpted with permission)

One of the most symbolic events of the Civil War occurred in a mansion. The event was the reception held on January 1, 1863, at the Medford, Massachusetts, estate of the businessman George L. Stearns to celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation, which had been issued that afternoon by President Lincoln.

Stearns called the affair "the John Brown Party." The highlight of the evening was the unveiling of a marble bust of John Brown, the antislavery martyr who had died on a scaffold three years earlier after his doomed, heroic effort to free the slaves by leading a twenty-two-man raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

Brown's presence was felt elsewhere in America that day. The Union general Robert H. Milroy, stationed near Harpers Ferry, read Lincoln's proclamation aloud to his regiment, which spontaneously thundered forth the war song "John Brown's Body," with its heady chorus about Brown "mouldering in the grave" while "his soul keeps marching on." The Emancipation Proclamation made General Milroy feel as though John Brown's spirit had merged with his. "That hand-bill order," he said, "gave Freedom to the slaves through and around the region where Old John Brown was hung. I felt then that I was on duty, in the most righteous cause that man ever drew sword in."

In Boston, a tense wait had ended in midafternoon when the news came over the wires that the proclamation had been put into effect. At a Jubilee Concert in Music Hall, Ralph Waldo Emerson read his Abolitionist poem "Boston Hymn" and was followed by performances of Handel's Hallelujah Chorus, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, and Mendelssohn's "Hymn of Praise." That evening at Tremont Temple a huge crowd cheered as the proclamation was read aloud and exploded into song when Frederick

Douglass led in singing "Blow Ye the Trumpet, Blow!" the joyous hymn that had been Brown's favorite and had been sung at his funeral.

A number of people missed the Boston celebration because they had gone to George Stearns's twenty-six-acre estate in nearby Medford for the John Brown Party. The party was, in its own way, as meaningful as Lincoln's proclamation. It celebrated the man who had sparked the war that led to this historic day. Lincoln's proclamation, freeing millions of enslaved blacks, sped the process that led eventually to civil rights. John Brown's personal war against slavery had set this process in motion.

Gathered in Stearns's elegant home was a motley group. Stearns himself, long-bearded and earnest, had made a fortune manufacturing lead pipes. His guests included the bald, spectacled William Lloyd Garrison and the volatile Wendell Phillips, pioneers of Abolitionism; the stately, reserved philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, magus of Transcendentalism; his idealistic cohort Amos Bronson Alcott, who was there with his daughter, Louisa May, soon to captivate young readers with Little Women; Franklin Sanborn, the Concord schoolteacher whose students included children of Emerson, John Brown, and Henry James, Sr.; and the red-haired, vivacious Julia Ward Howe, writer of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." They represented cultural threads that had once been aimed in various directions but were now unified in their devotion to the memory of John Brown.

Garrison and Phillips had since the 1830s called for immediate emancipation of the slaves or, barring that, separation of the North and the South. Garrison, long committed to pacifism, had advocated moral argument as the sole means of fighting slavery until John Brown's self-sacrificing terrorism inspired him to espouse a more militant stance. Phillips, long driven by his disgust with slavery to curse the Constitution and the American Union, had come to espouse Brown's vision of a unified nation based on rights for people of all ethnicities.

Emerson had begun his career alienated from the antislavery cause but had taken it up with growing zeal that culminated in his famous statement that John Brown would "make the gallows as glorious as the cross." Along with Thoreau, who had died the previous year, he had been chiefly responsible for rescuing Brown from infamy and oblivion. Alcott, too, had played a part in the resuscitation of Brown, whom he called "the type and synonym of the Just." If, as Alfred Kazin suggests, without John Brown there would have been no Civil War, we would add that without the Concord Transcendentalists, John Brown would have had little cultural impact.

And without Julia Ward Howe, John Brown may not have become fused with American myth. The wife of Samuel Gridley Howe, one of those who had financed Brown, she wrote "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" to the tune of "John Brown's Body," retaining its "Glory, glory hallelujah" and changing "His soul goes marching on" to "His truth is marching on." With her memorable images of a just God "trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored," and loosening "the fateful lightnings of His terrible swift sword" against the slaveholding South, she caught the essence of John Brown, a devout Calvinist who considered himself predestined to stamp out slavery. She had coupled his God-inspired antislavery passion with the North's mission and had thus helped define America.

Another of Stearns's guests, Frank Sanborn, helped define John Brown. In 1857 he had introduced Brown to several reformers who, along with him, would make up the group of Brown's backers known as the Secret Six. A zealous Brown booster, he would perpetuate the legend of the heroic Brown in his writings of the post-Civil War period.

As for George Stearns, besides having been the chief contributor of funds and arms to Brown, he was largely responsible for pushing Brown's ideal of racial justice toward civil rights. He once declared, "I consider it the proudest act of my life that I gave good old John Brown every pike and rifle he carried to Harper's Ferry." Just as Brown had assigned prominent positions to blacks in his antislavery activities, so Stearns led the recruitment of blacks for the Union army. After the war, Stearns would fight for passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave suffrage to blacks.

That these and assorted other reformers, writers, and society people would gather on Emancipation Day to honor John Brown was more than fitting. From their perspective, it was inevitable. Everyone present believed that without John Brown this day would not have come, at least not as soon as it did.

Several at the party had doubts about President Lincoln. Despite his deep hatred of slavery, Lincoln had acted with politic moderation early in his presidency. Hoping to preserve the Union by conciliating the South, he had supported the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (anathema even to some of the most conservative Northerners), had endorsed a constitutional amendment preserving slavery where it already existed, had revoked an emancipation proclamation in Missouri, and had advocated colonization for blacks, who, he said, could never live on equal terms with whites in America due to racial differences. In response, Wendell Phillips had written a bitter article, "Abraham Lincoln, Slave-hound of Illinois." Garrison was so angry that he wrote of Lincoln, "He has evidently not a drop of anti-slavery blood in his veins; and he seems incapable of uttering a humane or generous sentiment respecting the enslaved millions in our land."

As strange as such statements appear today, they were not so to those who had known John Brown and had absorbed his progressive racial views. There was good reason Stearns had organized a John Brown Party instead of an Abraham Lincoln Party.

Although Stearns and his guests were overjoyed by the president's proclamation, they saw Lincoln as a latecomer to emancipation, a goal for which John Brown had given his life. In 1861, two years before Lincoln's proclamation, Stearns, Sanborn, Phillips, and other followers of Brown had formed an Emancipation League, whose aim was to win over Lincoln to the idea that freeing the slaves must be the primary mission of the Union war effort. The league issued a public document demanding emancipation "as a measure of justice, and as a military necessity." As a first step, Stearns wrote in a letter to Lincoln, black troops were needed to ensure a Union victory. Lincoln accepted the strategy after Stearns had devoted most of 1862 traveling thousands of miles throughout the North and organizing ten black regiments, including the famous 54th Massachusetts, led by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw.

The use of black soldiers was just one of Brown's forward-looking measures that impelled George Stearns to single out John Brown for tribute that evening.

Although the white marble bust of Brown, which Stearns and his wife had commissioned Edwin A. Brackett to sculpt in 1859 while the imprisoned Brown awaited execution, had long been a fixture in the Stearns mansion, unveiling it anew on Emancipation Day gave it fresh significance. The bust, which many compared to Michelangelo's Moses, was an idealized rendering. It invested the stern, hatchet-faced Brown with a calm Jovian dignity. It gleamed against the black walnut wainscoting on the landing of the Stearns's curved staircase as the hushed crowd below heard Emerson read his "Boston Hymn" and Julia Ward Howe give a powerful recitation her "Battle Hymn of the Republic."

The journalist James Redpath would later see the bust in the Boston Athenaeum amid Roman statuary and would comment that it might well be Moses but certainly was not John Brown. True: but, then, who was John Brown?

Perhaps the most significant meaning of the John Brown Party was that everyone present was joined by an idealistic vision of a man who, in other circles, was branded as a murderer, a thief, and an insane fanatic. The pristine purity of Brackett's bust was as distant from John Brown's real looks as the starry-eyed hero worship of Stearns's guests was from a true appraisal of his achievements.

The fact is that during his life and after it Brown gave rise to significant misreadings that shaped the course of American history. Brown himself had misread the slaves and sympathetic whites among the locals, whom he expected to rally in masses to his side as soon as his raid on Harpers Ferry began. The blacks he liberated misread him, since, by most reports, few of them voluntarily joined him in the battle against the Virginia troops -- a fact that may have contributed to the fatal delay on the part of Brown, who had expected "the bees to hive" as soon as his liberation plan became known among the slaves.

Most important, Brown himself became the subject of crucial misreadings. Although after the raid he was at first denounced by most Northerners, a few influential individuals, especially the Transcendentalists, salvaged his reputation by placing him on the level of Christ -- a notable misreading of a man who, despite his remarkable virtues, had violent excesses, as evidenced by the nighttime slaughter of five proslavery residents he had directed in Pottawatomie, Kansas. The Transcendentalist image of Brown spread throughout the North and was fanned by books, melodramas, poems, and music-culminating in "John Brown's Body," the inspiring song chanted by tens of thousands of Union troops as they marched south.

At the same time that this misreading swept the North, an opposite one was pervading the South. The South's initial grudging admiration for Brown's courage was quickly overwhelmed by a paranoid fear that he was a malicious aggressor who represented the entire North -- a tremendous and tragic misreading, since virtually everyone in the Northern-led Republican Party, from Lincoln to Seward, actually disapproved of his violent tactics. The South's misreading was fanned by Democratic Party propaganda that unjustifiably smeared the Republicans with responsibility for Harpers Ferry. In this view, "Black Republicanism" meant not only "nigger-worship" but also deep alliance with John Brown, whom the Democrats characterized as a villain of the blackest dye.

These dual misreadings, positive and negative, were perpetuated in biographies of Brown. The early biographers were mainly people who had known Brown personally and who idolized him -- they therefore twisted facts to make him seem heroic, at times godlike. In reaction, there arose a school of biographers intent upon exploding this saintly image. They swung to the other extreme of portraying him as little more than a cold-blooded murderer, horse thief, inflexible egotist, fanatical visionary, and shady businessman.

These extremes of hagiography and vilification were in time answered by scholarly objectivity. Several biographers -- most notably Oswald Garrison Villard and Stephen B. Oates -- present information about Brown's life factually, unfiltered by partisan bias. Villard and Oates pitilessly expose Brown's savagery at Pottawatomie and question the wisdom of his provisional constitution and his attack on Harpers Ferry, even as they praise his humanitarian aims.

Still, there is a danger to an overstrict insistence on impartiality. One reviewer's comment on Villard -- i.e., that he "holds a position of impartiality, and almost of aloofness" -- speaks for the best modern biographies. For example, biographers have waffled on the issue of Brown's sanity, leaving it as an unsolved problem. One can be objective without remaining impartial about the crucial moral, political, and human issues that Brown's life poses.

My stand on some key issues is: (a) Brown was not insane; instead, he was a deeply religious, flawed, yet ultimately noble reformer; (b) the Pottawatomie affair was indeed a crime, but it was a war crime committed against proslavery settlers by a man who saw slavery itself as an unprovoked war of one race against another; and (c) neither Brown's provisional constitution nor the Harpers Ferry raid were wild-eyed, erratic schemes doomed to failure: instead, they reflect Brown's overconfidence in whites' ability to rise above racism and in blacks' willingness to rise up in armed insurrection against their masters.

The current book develops these and other arguments by placing Brown fully in historical context. This is emphatically a cultural biography, a term that demands explanation. Cultural biography is based on the idea that human beings have a dynamic, dialogic relationship to many aspects of their historical surroundings, such as politics, society, literature, and religion.

The special province of the cultural biographer is to explore this relationship, focusing on three questions: How does my subject reflect his or her era? How does my subject transcend the era-that is, what makes him or her unique? What impact did my subject have on the era?

Cultural biography takes an Emersonian approach to the human subject. As Emerson writes, "the ideas of the time are in the air, and infect all who breathe it. . . . We learn of our contemporaries what they know without effort, and almost through the pores of our skin." The cultural biographer explores the historical "air" surrounding the subject and describes the process by which the air seeped through the pores of his or her skin. "Great geniuses are parts of the times," Melville wrote; "they themselves are the times, and possess a correspondent coloring." Once the biographer accepts the cultural environment as a viable area of study, new vistas of information and insight open up. John Brown emerges in cultural biography not as an isolated, insane antislavery terrorist but as an amalgam of social currents-religious, reformist, racial, and political-that found explosive realization in him.



From: John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights by David Reynolds, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, copyright, 2005.

Stephen Douglas: Speech on Slavery and the Founding (1858)

Web version: http://www.nps.gov/liho/debate5.htm

. . . .I tell you that this Chicago doctrine of Lincoln's -- declaring that the negro and the white man are made equal by the Declaration of Independence and by Divine Providence -- is a monstrous heresy. The signers of the Declaration of Independence never dreamed of the negro when they were writing that document. They referred to white men, to men of European birth and European descent, when they declared the equality of all men. I see a gentleman there in the crowd shaking his head. Let me remind him that when Thomas Jefferson wrote that document he was the owner, and so continued until his death, of a large number of slaves. Did he intend to say in that Declaration that his negro slaves, which he held and treated as property, were created his equals by divine law, and that he was violating the law of God every day of his life by holding them as slaves? It must be borne in mind that when that Declaration was put forth, every one of the thirteen colonies were slave-holding colonies, and every man who signed that instrument represented a slaveholding constituency. Recollect, also, that no one of them emancipated his slaves, much less put them on an equality with himself, after he signed the Declaration. On the contrary, they all continued to hold their negroes as slaves during the Revolutionary War. Now, do you believe -- are you willing to have it said -- that every man who signed the Declaration of Independence declared the negro his equal, and then was hypocrite enough to hold him as a slave, in violation of what he believed to be the divine law? And yet when you say that the Declaration of Independence includes the negro, you charge the signers of it with hypocrisy.



I say to you frankly, that in my opinion this government was made by our fathers on the white basis. It was made by white men for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever, and was intended to be administered by white men in all time to come. But while I hold that under our Constitution and political system the negro is not a citizen, cannot be a citizen, and ought not to be a citizen, it does not follow by any means that he should be a slave. On the contrary, it does follow that the negro as an inferior race ought to possess every right, every privilege, every immunity which he can safely exercise consistent with the safety of the society in which he lives. Humanity requires, and Christianity commands, that you shall extend to every inferior being, and every dependent being, all the privileges, immunities, and advantages which can be granted to them consistent with the safety of society. If you ask me the nature and extent of these privileges, I answer that that is a question which the people of each State must decide for themselves. . . .

Abraham Lincoln: Speech on Slavery and the Founding (1858)

. . . .[Stephen Douglas] has alluded to the Declaration of Independence, and insisted that negroes are not included in that Declaration; and that it is, a slander upon the framers of that instrument to suppose that negroes were meant therein; and he asks you: Is it possible to believe that Mr. Jefferson, who penned the immortal paper, could have supposed himself applying the language of that instrument to the negro race, and yet held a portion of that race in slavery? Would he not at once have freed them? I only have to remark upon this part of the Judge's speech (and that, too, very briefly, for I shall not detain myself, or you, upon that point for any great length of time), that I believe the entire records of the world, from the date of the Declaration of Independence up to within three years ago, may be searched in vain for one single affirmation, from one single man, that the negro was not included in the Declaration of Independence; I think I may defy Judge Douglas to show that he ever said so, that Washington ever said so, that any president ever said so, that any member of Congress ever said so, or that any living man upon the whole earth ever said so, until the necessities of the present policy of the Democratic party, in regard to slavery, had to invent that affirmation. And I will remind Judge Douglas and this audience that while Mr. Jefferson was the owner of slaves, as undoubtedly he was, in speaking upon this very subject, he used the strong language that "he trembled for his country when he remembered that God was just"; and I will offer the highest premium in my power to Judge Douglas if he will show that he, in all his life, ever uttered a sentiment at all akin to that of Jefferson.


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