["No Union with Slaveholders!" Letter of William Lloyd Garrison to Francis William Newman. The Liberator 15 July 1864: 114.]
To Professor Newman.
Dear Sir: — For your letter of the 7th ultimo, at once so kindly and so frankly expressed, I beg you to accept my heartfelt thanks; for, believing that you "have no other objects than those sacred interests, Truth and Right," and knowing how zealously you have hitherto espoused the cause of the American Government, as upheld by President Lincoln against the Confederate treason of the South, whatever you may write concerning the terrible trial through which this republic is passing will challenge and deserve my profoundest consideration. "Faithful are the wounds of a friend"; and that you are a friend to America and its free institutions, and, consequently, an enemy to the rebellion which, for the horrible purpose of forming a slaveholding empire on this continent, is now filling our land with devastation and blood, you have unmistakably proved by your noble testimonies and acts ever since the war began.
The tone of your letter is to me, however, a matter of surprise; — so unlike, indeed, any thing I have seen from your pen or read from your lips, that I am persuaded it was not spontaneously written, but owes its birth to the promptings of certain ill-balanced, erratic American minds on your side of the Atlantic, whose pretensions to superior vigilance and fidelity in regard to the rights of our colored population, and whose morbid representations respecting President Lincoln and his administration, have evidently affected your imagination and controlled your judgment. Mr. Conway's jaundiced views are so literally expressed in your letter, that I shall not do him or you any injustice in attributing its origin to him. And here let me say, that you will not find him a safe counsellor, or a reliable witness on public issues. Impulsive, eccentric, reckless, highly imaginative, and ambitious at this time for "radical" distinction, his flaming zeal is not always according to knowledge; and his vision is too apt to "magnify mole-hills into mountains," and to "give to an inch the importance of a mile," according to his mood of mind. His extraordinary and unwarrantable correspondence with Mr. Mason, wherein he false assumed to be duly authorized by "the leading abolitionists of America" to negotiate for the recognition of the independence of the Southern Confederacy, provided it would in some way abolish slavery, (the sole cause of its inception and object of its existence!) should make our English friends cautious in giving credence to his representations concerning men and things in America, and admonish him that he is not specially competent to call in question the anti-slavery integrity of those whose lives have been devoted to the liberation of the fettered millions on our slavery-cursed soil. However fervent his zeal or praiseworthy his object, the course he is pursuing is well-calculated to damage the American Government abroad, and to help faction and sedition at home.
But, whether correct in my surmises or not concerning the paternity of your letter, I am sorry to see your name appended to it.
Before proceeding to notice its complainings, let me say that I am neither the partisan nor eulogist of President Lincoln, in a political sense. Since his inauguration, I have seen occasion sharply to animadvert upon his course, as well as occasion to praise him. At all times I have endeavored to judge him fairly, according to the possibilities of his situation, and the necessities of the country. In no instance, however, have I censured him for not acting upon the highest abstract principles of justice and humanity, and disregarding his constitutional obligations. His freedom to follow his convictions of duty as an individual is one thing — as the President of the United States, it is limited by the functions of his office; for the people do not elect a President to play the part of reformer or philanthropist, nor to enforce upon the nation his own peculiar ethical or humanity ideas, without regard to his oath or their will. His primary and all-comprehensive duty is to maintain the Union and execute the Constitution, in good faith, according to the best of his ability, without reference to the views of any clique or party in the land, and for the general welfare. And herein lies the injustice of your criticism upon him. You seem to regard dim as occupying a position and wielding powers virtually autocratic; so that he may do just as he pleases — yes, just as though there were no people to consult, no popular sentiment to ascertain, no legal restrictions to bind. In a strain of unmerited sarcasm you say: —
"With your President it is not the treason of the rebels, but your 'military necessity,' — that is, present and galling danger, — which alone makes his conscience easy in a deed so rash and desperate as that of giving to his innocent, injured, loyal fellow-citizens [meaning the slaves] their elementary natural rights."
Again you say: —
"Horrible indeed is the augury for your future, when your Chief Magistrate does not indulge the moralities of his heart, through conscientious tremors at the guilt of violating the wicked laws of conquered rebels!"
Finally, in reference to the sneering remark of "an eminent person" upon the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, that it was an act of "villainous hypocrisy, for the President refused to set free those whom he could, while pretending to set free those whom he could not," you say that you are "now pierced in the heart to discover, that, however envenomed in the phrase, it was no slander at all, but a terrible truth! "
This impeachment is of the gravest character. It implies that President Lincoln is a base dissembler, reckless of his moral duties, but anxiously concerned not to incur "the guilt of violating the wicked laws of conquered rebels," and desirous rather to perpetuate than to abolish slavery. I am compelled to say that I regard it as utterly slanderous.
The President was similarly denounced for saying in his letter to Horace Greeley, dated August 22, 1863: —
"My paramount object is to save the Union, and not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could do it by freeing some, and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save this Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause; and I shall do more whenever I believe doing more will help the cause. . . . I have here stated my purpose according to my views of official duty; and I INTEND NO MODIFICATION OF MY OFT-REPEATED PERSONAL WISH THAT ALL MEN EVERY WHERE COULD BE FREE."
Now, in similar circumstances, this is precisely what every President, from George Washington to Abraham Lincoln, if true to the trust committed to his hands, would have been bound to say and do. "According to my views of OFFICIAL DUTY"! This is the whole question in a sentence. It is not the evidence of a callous heart or a pro-slavery disposition, but indicates the man of integrity, anxious to know and to do his duty in a time of national calamity, and in the midst of unparalleled official trials and perils. It shows an inflexible determination to maintain the Government, if possible, in fulfilment of his oath of office, and in accordance with the powers (and only the powers) constitutionally within his grasp. Herein he deserves credit, and not reproach. Before the rebellion, he had no right to break the fetter of a single slave in any of the Slave States. After the rebellion, his right to do so was co-extensive with the nature and object of the rebellion, under the war power, and according to "military necessity."
It is my firm conviction that no man has occupied the chair of the Chief Magistracy in America, who has more assiduously or more honestly endeavored to discharge all its duties with a single eye to the welfare of the country, than Mr. Lincoln. And his recent unanimous nomination for reëlection by the National Loyal Convention at Baltimore, (preceded by an equally unanimous nomination by all the loyal States in their legislative or conventional character,) after every effort of his bitter enemies, and of well-meaning but short-sighted friends of the slave, to cause his ejectment, is a splendid tribute of confidence in his honesty, patriotism and ability, and a sufficient answer to all the damaging accusations brought against him, whether by the copperheads on the one hand, or those who are so acting, under a mistaken idea of duty, as to strengthen and encourage the copperhead movement.
To those who have struggled so long for the total abolition of slavery, and whose desires for the speedy realization of all their aims and aspirations have naturally been of he most ardent character, Mr. Lincoln has seemed exceedingly slow in all his emancipatory measures. For this he has been severely chided, in the Liberator and out of it; and, for a time, a pro-slavery purpose was attributed to him, which I am now satisfied was not his animating spirit. It was only a proof of the great circumspection which contolled his acts with reference to the formidable rebellion at the South, and the fearfully divided state of public sentiment at the North, especially on the slavery question. Ever since his inauguration, the country has been violently rent asunder — the Northern soil has been hot with sympathetic sedition — and the possibility of preserving the supremacy of the government and restoring the union of the States is still an open question. Yet what long strides he has taken in the right direction, and never a backward step! What grand and far-reaching anti-slavery measures have been consummated under his Administration! How near he has brought us — if the Government succeed in asserting its rightful supremacy over the rebellious States — to that glad day of jubilee, when not a slave shall be found in all our broad domains to clank his fetters, nor a tyrant to wield his gory lash!
In this connection, let me adduce the testimony of FREDERICK DOUGLASS as to his impression concerning President Lincoln, obtained from a personal interview with him at the White House, and related in a speech delivered last December, in Philadelphia, at the celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of the American Anti-Slavery Society — to wit: —
"Now, you will want to know how I was impressed by him. He impressed me as being just what every one of you have been in the habit of calling him — an honest man. (Applause.) I never met with a man, who, on the first blush, impressed me more entirely with his sincerity, with his devotion to his country, and with his determination to save it at all hazards. (Applause.) He told me (I think he did me more honor that I deserve) that I had made a little speech, somewhere in New York, and it had got into the papers, and among the things I had said was this: That if I were called upon to state what I regarded as the most sad and most disheartening feature in our present political and military situation, it would not be the various disasters experienced by our armies and our navies, on flood and field, but it would be the tardy, hesitating, vacillating policy of the President of the United States; and the President said to me, 'Mr. Douglass, I have been charged with being tardy and the like'; and he went on, and partly admitted that he might seem slow; but he said, 'I do not think that charge can be sustained; I think it cannot be shown that when I have once taken a position, I have ever retreated from it.' (Applause.) That I regarded as the most significant point in what he said during our interview. I told him that he had been somewhat slow in proclaiming equal protection to our colored soldiers and prisoners; and he said that the country needed talking up to that point. He hesitated in regard to it, when he felt that the country was not ready for it. He knew that the colored man throughout this country was a despised man, a hated man, and that if he at first came out with such a proclamation, all the hatred which is poured on the head of the negro race would be visited on his administration. He said that there was preparatory work needed; and that preparatory work had not been done. And he said 'Remember this, Mr. Douglass; remember that Milliken's Bend, Fort Hudson and Fort Wagner are recent events; and that these were necessary to prepare the way for this very proclamation of mine.' I thought it was reasonable, and came to the conclusion, that while Abraham Lincoln will go down to posterity not as Abraham the Great, or as Abraham the Wise, or as Abraham the Eloquent, although he is all three, wise, great and eloquent, he will go down to posterity, if the country is saved, as Honest Abraham; (applause;) and going down thus, his name may be written with that of Washington, without disparaging the latter. (Renewed applause.)"
What could be more ingenuous, or evince a more thoughtful state of mind, on the part of the President, than this frank interchange of views? How clearly it shows his anxiety to do all that he felt could be justifiably and safely done, in the volcanic state of the country, toward the extinction of slavery and the elevation of the colored race! It was neither cowardice nor corruption that led him to pause, hesitate, and carefully weigh the consequences of an untried experiment; it was not that he waited to be "bullied" into concessions to the cause of impartial freedom; nor was it because he was lacking in the feelings of humanity. But when "the elements are melting with fervent heat," and "the earth is moved out of its place" — when to transcend public sentiment so far as to outrage and defy it, is to imperil the existence of the government itself—may not something be charitably allowed for anxious doubts, cautious procedure, and deliberate action? What if the President might have gone faster and farther in grappling with the rebellion and its cause? I, for one, thought he could; he thought otherwise; and it was for him to follow his own convictions, not mine. I may have been mistaken; he may have been more intelligent and accurate as to his possibilities. At the worst, it was wiser to be slow and sure, than premature and rash, in working up to a desirable point. As early as the spring of 1862, — my friend Mr. Phillips being witness, —
"The President said to a leading Republican of New York — 'Why don't you hold meetings' (it was two days before that glorious Convention in New York which Carl Schurz made immortal by his great speech) — 'Why don't you hold meetings, and let me feel the mind of the nation?' 'Sir,' was the reply, 'we are to hold them; we hold one to-morrow.' 'Hold them often; hold many of them; hold as many as possible. You cannot create more anti-slavery feeling than we shall need before we get through this war.' (Applause.) In other words, the President holds out his hands to the people, and says, 'Am I right?' 'How far may I go?' Answer him. Tell him the ice is thick thus far, and will be thicker an arrow's flight ahead. Tell him that if his message to the Border States leads you to say Amen, a message to the Gulf States that says Liberty will have a tenfold Amen. (Loud applause.) In one sense, we demand too much of the Government — of the Senate and the Cabinet. They are only portions of the government that have definite ideas, but they are nothing; the masses are everything. Struggling up to light on all sides are indications of the popular sentiment. There should be official, grave indications. Leading men, legislative bodies, official corporations, should speak the will of the North, if it really exist, on this question, so that the Government may feel able to trust and lean on a well assured public purpose." [Speech of Mr. Phillips at the Tremont Temple, April 1862.]
Now this was well said and well considered, both by Mr. Phillips and Mr. Lincoln. I see nothing that has since transpired to justify the withdrawal of respect and confidence from the latter by the former, or by any other advocate of the Anti-Slavery cause; on the contrary, the President has been steadily advancing toward the goal of liberty, and perhaps quite as fast as the altered state of the Northern mind would allow him, if not beyond all that could have been reasonably expected of him. For, remember, at that time scarcely one of the numerous measures to which he has given his sanction had been executed, and which will assuredly secure for himself lasting historic renown, and cover his administration with historic glory.
Let us see, then, what has been done. But, first, let me call to your remembrance the appalling circumstances in which President Lincoln succeeded in getting to Washington, to be duly inaugurated as President — the Capital swarming with traitors and assassins — an empty treasury — no army, no navy — the Northern house almost equally divided against itself, and to this hour so divided by sympathy for the Southern rebels as to cause serious apprehension of disastrous outbreaks and bloody conspiracies — the real abolition strength of the country numerically insignificant, and, politically speaking, of no importance — prejudice against the negro strong and universal — a general disposition, for a long period subsequently, to avoid the issue with slavery, and to endeavor to restore "the Union as it was," and even worse than it was, with all its pro-slavery compromises — and a sorcery power exerted over the popular mind in regard to constitutional obligations and historical precedents. This was all the moral and political capital Mr. Lincoln had to trade upon for the benefit of the despised and oppressed colored people; yet he has done a vast and truly magnificent business.
Witness the emancipation of more than three millions of slaves by the President's Proclamation of January 1, 1863 — a virtual death-blow to the whole slave system! Witness, as a necessary sequence, emancipation in Missouri, Western Virginia, Maryland, the District of Columbia! Witness the entire abolition of slavery in Louisiana and Arkansas! Witness its virtual abolition in Tennessee — leaving only Kentucky to be speedily delivered by the enrollment of her able-bodied slaves as soldiers and freemen, and the consequent liberation of their families! Witness the treaty with Great Britain for the effectual suppression of the foreign slave trade! Witness the consecration of all the vast Territories of the Union to free men, free labor, free institutions! Witness the recognition of the independence of Hayti and Liberia — an act which alone, at any time before the rebellion, would have caused a secession of the Southern States! Witness the abolition of all Fugitive Slave Bills, and the consequent termination of all slave-hunting in the country under governmental sanction — a measure of such signal mercy and beneficence, and so directly striking down the great protective bulwark of the slave system, that its adoption alone would justify popular celebrations and joyful illuminations throughout the country! Witness the abolition of the accursed inter-State slave trade — a trade more revolting and hideous in some of its features than even the foreign! Witness one hundred and thirty thousand colored soldiers, battling against those who would perpetuate their enslavement! Witness the admission of negroes to equal rights in the United States Courts, as parties to suits and as witnesses, even before Judge Taney! Witness, finally, the loyal sentiment of the country pledged to the amendment of the Constitution, forever prohibiting slavery in the land! Nor is this all that has been done.
Yours with the highest esteem,
Wm. Lloyd Garrison.