["No Union with Slaveholders!" No. 2. Letter of William Lloyd Garrison to Francis William Newman. The Liberator 22 July 1864: 118.]
To Professor Newman.
Dear Sir: — Not to make my letter to you, in the Liberator of last week, too long for convenient perusal, it was somewhat abruptly closed. I desire to look fairly in the face the grievances you specify; though having demonstrated that the most cheering and important anti-slavery measures, — virtually including the total abolition of slavery, and absolutely relieving the government of its old complicity with that foul system of wrong, — have been instituted by President Lincoln and his administration in the prosecution of the war, any minor grievances might be left unnoticed as not affecting the general question at issue.
"The greater includes the less." The abolition of slavery is first in order, and of paramount importance, before we begin to determine the exact political status of those set free. The elective franchise is a conventional, not a natural right; yet, the more it is enjoyed in any community, as a general statement, the better for public safety and administrative justice. It is the boast of England, that no slave can touch her soil with sundering her fetters; yet suffrage is far from being universal among you, for thousands of your laboring poor are deprived of its possession. Nevertheless, you are none the less proud to declare that
"Slaves cannot breathe in England; if their lungs
Inhale our air, that moment they are free;
They touch our country, and their shackles fall." [*]
How is it, then, that — overlooking the great fact, that slavery has been abolished throughout Louisiana — you seek to cast odium upon President Lincoln for not giving the right to vote to the colored population of that State, in the reconstruction of its State government? By what political precedent or administrative policy, in any country, could he have been justified if he had attempted to do this? When was it ever known that liberation from bondage was accompanied by a recognition of political equality? Chattels personal may be instantly translated from the auction-block into freemen; but when were they ever taken at the same time to the ballot-box, and invested with all political rights and immunities? According to the laws of development and progress, it is not practicable. To denounce or complain of President Lincoln for not disregarding public sentiment, and not flying in the face of these laws, is hardly just. Besides, I doubt whether he has the constitutional right to decide this matter. Ever since this government was organized, the right of suffrage has been determined by each State in the Union for itself, so that there is no uniformity in regard to it. In some free States, colored citizens are allowed to vote; in others, they are not. It is always a State, never a national matter. In honestly seeking to preserve the Union, it is not for President Lincoln to seek, by a special edict applied to a particular State or locality, to do violence to a universal rule, accepted and acted upon from the beginning till now by the States in their individual sovereignty. Under the war power, he had the constitutional right to emancipate the slaves in every rebel State, and also to insist that, in any plan of reconstruction that might be agreed upon, slavery should be admitted to be dead, beyond power of resurrection. That being accomplished, I question whether he could safely or advantageously — to say the least — enforce a rule, ab initio, touching the ballot, which abolishes complexional distinctions; any more than he could safely or advantageously decree that all women (whose title is equally good) should enjoy the electoral right, and help form the State. Nor, if the freed blacks were admitted to the polls by Presidential fiat, do I see any permanent advantage likely to be secured by it; for, submitted to as a necessity at the outset, as soon as the State was organized and left to manage its own affairs, the white population, with their superior intelligence, wealth, and power, would unquestionably alter the franchise in accordance with their prejudices, and exclude those thus summarily brought to the polls. Coercion would gain nothing. In other words, — as in your own country, — universal suffrage will be hard to win and to hold, without a general preparation of feeling and sentiment. But it will come, both at the South and with you; yet only by a struggle on the part of the disfranchised, and a growing conviction of its justice, "in the good time coming." With the abolition of slavery in the South, prejudice or "colorphobia," the natural product of the system, will gradually disappear — as in the case of your West India colonies — and black men will win their way to wealth, distinction, eminence, and official station. I ask only a charitable judgment for President Lincoln respecting this matter, whether in Louisiana or any other State.
Referring to the President, you say: —
"His Proclamation has done immense good; nor will I yield to you in extolling many of his acts. Yet if we had understood the quality of his logic, his exclusion of morality from Presidential duties, and his wonderful disowning of all duty towards colored men not prescribed in the codes of slaveholders, it would have been impossible to excite enthusiasm for him in an English audience."
Is there not some confusion of mind here? Is the Proclamation destitute of morality? Or do you find it "prescribed in the codes of slaveholders"? And so of the "many other acts" which you are disposed to extol. You do injustice to Mr. Lincoln, and subject him to an unfair impeachment. Be assured, he has tried, to the best of his judgment, faithfully to discharge his constitutional duties, as under solemn oath to God and the people. Granted that he has been sometimes lacking in energy of will, clearness of vision, and power of inspiration: who is complete in all things, and never found wanting? The main thing is, is he honestly and sincerely endeavoring to save the republic, according to the measure of his constitutional power; and has he not done a mighty work for liberty and humanity — unparalleled in any age or nation — since he became President? Because he is guided by what is prescribed in the Constitution, as he understands it, is he to be accused of confessed immorality on his part? Can he act otherwise without being guilty of perfidy? Is it credible in England for a man to take office, and then do as he pleases, without regard to the conditions imposed upon him?
Again you say — "Mr. Lincoln puts a Southern construction upon the Constitution." Herein you are greatly mistaken, and do him fresh injustice — unintentionally, of course. The only construction Mr. Lincoln puts upon the Constitution is an American one — the same as was put upon it by Washington, Adams, and Jefferson, and the people have always sanctioned.
Again you err in saying — "In old days, the iniquity [slavery] was maintained in Tennessee by local wickedness only. Mr. Lincoln has insisted on upholding it there by Federal guilt." Now, the fact is, before the rebellion, the whole power of the country was constitutionally pledged to maintain slavery in Tennessee, and in every other slave State, if needed, as against a slave insurrection or an exodus of the oppressed. At the present time, in that State, it is a rope of sand, and has only a nominal existence. As elsewhere, its doom is sealed. Here and there, "Northern soldiers" may have been "the vile instruments of the slaveholder," but the cases have been few and far between, incidental and transient, arising more from personal prejudice against the blacks than from official command, and are not likely to be repeated.
Once more you say: —
"Until recently, I have looked on your war with serene satisfaction as a sublime sacrifice for a magnificent future, glorious to you, beneficent to our millions. I have indulged in glowing anticipations, in which I seemed to friends but a wild dreamer. Since I have learned that your President has sanctioned Gen. Banks's ordinances, I begin to fear that I have indeed been a dreamer, and that your enemies here are substantially correct."
Your charge is somewhat indefinite in regard to "General Banks's ordinance." One of them is the establishment of common schools—that system which has made New England so prosperous, intelligent and powerful—for the entire colored population under his rule. Surely, you do not mean to condemn that ordinance, or to impeach the President for its enforcement! Please put this great saving measure down to the credit both of Mr. Lincoln and Gen. Banks. It is a tall plume in their caps! Another ordinance is, the total abolition of slavery by Gen. Banks throughout his department, where it was expressly exempted by the President's Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863—thus making it complete throughout the State. Of course, this was done with the sanction of the President, and is an additional plume for himself and the President, of the tallest kind!
Finally, you say:—
"If it can be said, 'Garrison does not reprove General Banks's measures,' it will be inferred that they do full justice to the colored race. A great responsibility now rests on you to use your power aright."
Such noble measures as I have referred to deserve no reproof, but rather the warmest commendations. Any measure which is ill-judged and unjust,—such as the ordinance for the cultivation of the plantations,—I denounce and condemn. But, at the worst, it is only a temporary shift—for a single year, rapidly expiring—to adjust matters in the midst of a disorganized state of society, where the masters no longer have power to enforce their authority, and where the unemployed and uncoerced are liable to be a burden to the government, or to become vagabonds. It was made needlessly stringent, and is very objectionable in some of its features. It will, however, unquestionably end by its own limitation. Hereafter, its operations will be better known and understood. Gen. Banks has yet to be heard in vindication, or at least explanation of his course in this particular. His two other grand ordinances, already alluded to, will cover a multitude of blunders and mistakes.
As a proof that the colored population within the loyal portion of Louisiana under Gen. Banks's administration regard their altered condition as one calling for enthusiastic public demonstrations, I ask you to read — as I have with pleasure and wonder—the following extracts from a letter which I find in the Philadelphia Christian Reader, (colored,) from James F. Jones, Ward Master in Hospital of the 8th U. S. H. A. and dated "Camp Parapet, New Orleans, June 19, 1864":—
"Wonderful indeed has been the mighty change in public opinion. Stranger still the change that the feelings and sentiments of the people of the South are daily undergoing in reference to slavery and the colored race. Strange and unlooked for changes in this direction are daily taking place. Stranger, too, when clothed in the garb of justice and humanity to the colored man, the chief operators in which are Southern slaveholders, in an extreme Southern State. My astonishment is still increased when I behold a State Constitutional Convention, composed of slaveholders, sitting in the slaveholding city of New Orleans, adopting a clause to their Constitution which at once and forever abolishes slavery and involuntary servitude, except it be for crime, within the State of Louisiana—and that, too, without the great and selfish hobby of compensation to owners. This is a triumph indeed, and shows conclusively that Northern arms, under the guidance of the Almighty, have accomplished more than speeches of Northern men in Congress could accomplish. Not only this, but it proves further to me that the Lord has declared, for the last time, that the stain of human slavery must and shall be wiped out. He has made frequent calls to them through the pulpit, the press, and from the halls of Congress. All these they have allowed to pass unheeded, and now they must bow and submit to His holy will; and they themselves are the first instruments in his hands to do what they defied the nations of the earth to do, viz: abolish slavery, and declare the slave a man.
"Saturday, the 17th, was a day long to be remembered by both white and colored people in the city of New Orleans. This day was set apart by our people, for the purpose of giving expression to their feelings and sentiments in reference to the passage of the Emancipation Act. To properly celebrate this great event was a matter of no little interest to them; and, fraught as it was with unknown effects upon the freed men, and placing upon them new and important responsibilities and obligations, it became a matter of double interest to all concerned. Fortunately for themselves and their race, they acquitted themselves honorably. The day was such a one as is only to be seen and enjoyed in the 'Sunny South.' At an early hour, the people began to pour into the city from the country and surrounding villages. Men, women and children, young and old, those that had ever been free, and those that had just realized the pleasing sensation caused by the falling off of their chains, all were there. For the time being, the plantation, the farm, the workshops, hotels, and all places of labor and amusement, were deserted and forgotten. The people were out to celebrate what to them was a great epoch in the history of their race.
"They came by hundreds and thousands; they came with bands playing and banners flying; they came vieing with each other as to who should appear best, and show the highest appreciation for the cause that brought them together. They came in their strength, and as they came their cry was,
'Slavery's Chain is Broken!'
"At ten o'clock, A. M., the procession was formed at the Second Baptist Church, which was the place of general rendezvous. From thence they passed through some of the principal streets, to Congo Square, the place where the meeting was held.
"I cannot be precise in giving your readers the names of the different societies, or their order in the procession. Suffice it to say that religious congregations, Sabbath and day schools, benevolent Societies, Temperance Societies, political and social Clubs, Mechanics' Associations, farmers, and last, though not least, laborers, all had a place in that mighty procession, which, as it passed along, headed by the Fourth Louisiana (colored) Cavalry, made event he good men that voted them free almost shudder when they beheld the power and numbers that by their individual and collective aid had been, as it were, brought to life.
"The procession arriving at Congo Square, the different delegations were disposed according to programme. The exercises were opened with prayer by the Rev. Mr. Forrest, after which the Rev. Mr. Rodgers, D.D., orator of the day, delivered an address replete with historical facts, and plainly showing that the Almighty has called us as a people from under the hand of the hard taskmaster.
"It was a masterly effort indeed, and bore on its face the fact that the colored man has a mind, and is capable of thinking and reasoning. The Doctor's address went very far towards convincing the slaveholders that, now that they had opened the door of education to the colored man, they must guard the path to intellectual improvement with a jealous eye, or else they will find a stern and powerful competitor in that same black man, in an intellectual point of view.
"The celebration was a complete success. It did honor to all engaged in its arrangement; and our Northern brethren have little to boast of when we contrast behavior and general deportment."
My dear sir, I beg you to take a telescopic rather than a microscopic view of our affairs; and, instead of dwelling upon and magnifying to huge dimensions those incidental errors and outrages which are inevitable in the midst of such an awful civil war, and which are sure to be corrected, fix your gaze upon those sublime and glorious acts of President Lincoln's administration, whereby slavery has received its death-warrant, and the haughty Slave Power been laid low in the dust, and still feel justified in looking on this struggle "with serene satisfaction as a sublime sacrifice for a magnificent future."
Accepting your letter as a proof of your personal friendship, and as elicited by a very commendable zeal for the cause of justice and humanity, I remain,
Yours, with a heart full of thanksgiving and joy,
and with high regards,
Wm. Lloyd Garrison.
[*William Cowper, The Task II.i.40-2.—FWNRC.]