The Place of Abraham Lincoln in History

"Men ask one another only, Why has the President been struck down, and why do the people mourn? We think we pay the best tribute to his memory and the most fitting respect to his name, if we ask after the relation in which he stands to the history of his country and his fellow-man."

THE funeral procession of the late President of the United States has passed through the land from Washington to his final resting-place in the heart of the Prairies. Along the line of more than fifteen hundred miles his remains were borne, as it were, through continued lines of the people; and the number of mourners and the sincerity and unanimity of grief were such as never before attended the obsequies of a human being; so that the terrible catastrophe of his end hardly struck more awe than the majestic sorrow of the people. The thought of the individual was effaced; and men’s minds were drawn to the station which he filled, to his public career, to the principles he represented, to his martyrdom. There was at first impatience at the escape of his murderer, mixed with contempt for the wretch who was guilty of the crime; and there was relief in the consideration, that one whose personal insignificance was in such a contrast with the greatness of his crime had met with a sudden and ignoble death. No one stopped to remark on the personal qualities of Abraham Lincoln, except to wonder that his gentleness of nature had not saved him from the designs of assassins. It was thought then, and the event is still so recent it is thought now, that the analysis and graphic portraiture of his personal character and habits should be deferred to less excited times; as yet the attempt would wear the aspect of cruel indifference or levity, inconsistent with the sanctity of the occasion. Men ask one another only, Why has the President been struck down, and why do the people mourn? We think we pay the best tribute to his memory and the most fitting respect to his name, if we ask after the relation in which he stands to the history of his country and his fellow-man.

Before the end of 1865, it will have been two hundred and forty-six years since the first negro slaves were landed in Virginia from a Dutch trading-vessel, two hundred and twenty-eight since a Massachusetts vessel returned from the Bahamas with negro slaves for a part of its cargo, two hundred and twenty years since men of Boston introduced them directly from Guinea. Slavery in the United States had not its origin in British policy: it sprung up among Americans themselves, who in that respect acquiesced in the customs and morals of the age. But at a later day the importation of slaves was insisted upon by the government of the mother country, under the influence of mercantile avarice, with the further purpose of weakening the rising Colonies, and impeding the establishment among them of branches of industry that might compete with the productions of England. Climate and the logical consequences of the principles of the Puritans checked the increase of slaves in Massachusetts, from which it gradually disappeared without the necessity of any special act of manumission; in Virginia, the country within the reach of tide-water was crowded with negroes, and the marts were supplied by continuous importations, which the Colony was not suffered to prohibit or restrain.

The middle of the eighteenth century was marked by a rising of opinion in favor of freedom. The statesmen of Massachusetts read the great work of Montesquieu on the Spirit of Laws; and in bearing their first very remarkable testimony against slavery, they simply adopted his words, repeated without passion, for they had no dread of the increase of slavery within their own borders, and never doubted of its speedy and natural decay. The great men of Virginia, on the contrary, were struck with terror as they contemplated its social condition; they drew their lessons, not from France, not from abroad, but from themselves and the scenes around them; and half in the hope of rescuing that ancient Commonwealth from the corrupting element of slavery, and half in the agony of despair, they went in advance of all the world in their reprobation of the slave-trade and of slavery, and of the dangerous condition of the white man as the master of bondmen. In the years preceding the war of the Revolution, the Ancient Dominion rocked with the strife of contending parties: the King with all his officers and many great slaveholders on the one side, against a hardy people in the hack country and the best of the slaveholders themselves. On the side of liberty many were conspicuous, among them Richard Henry Lee, George Wythe, Jefferson, who from his youth was the pride of Virginia; but all were feeble in comparison with the enthusiastic fervor and prophetic instincts of George Mason. They reasoned, that slavery was inconsistent with Christianity, was in conflict with the rights of man; that it was a slow poison, daily contaminating the minds and morals of their people; that, by reducing a part of their own species to abject inferiority, they lost the idea of the dignity of man, which the hand of Nature had implanted within them for great and useful purposes; that, by the habit from infancy of trampling on the rights of human nature, every liberal sentiment was extinguished or enfeebled; that every gentleman was born a petty tyrant, and by the practice of cruelty and despotism became callous to the finer dictates of the soul; that in such an infernal school were to be educated the future legislators and rulers of Virginia. And before the war broke out, the House of Burgesses of Virginia was warned of the choice that lay before them: either the Constitution must by degrees work itself clear by its own innate strength and the virtue and resolution of the community, or the laws of impartial Providence would avenge on their posterity the injury done to a class of unhappy men debased by their injustice.

 At the opening of the war of the Revolution, the Narragansett country of Rhode Island, the Southern part of Long Island, New York City and the counties on the Hudson, and East New Jersey had in their population about as large a proportion of slaves as Missouri four years ago. In all the Colonies collectively the black men were to the white men as five to twenty-one. The British authorities unanimously held that the master lost his claim to his slave by the act of rebellion. In Virginia a system of emancipation was inaugurated; and the emancipation of slaves by success in arms Jefferson pronounced to be right. But the system of emancipation took no large proportions: partly because the invaders in the beginning of the war were driven from the Chesapeake; partly because the large slaveholders of South Carolina, on the subjugation of the low country in that State, renewed their allegiance to the Crown; and partly because British officers chose to ship slaves of rebels to the markets of the West Indies. Yet the continued occupation of Rhode Island, Long Island, and New York City, and the exodus of slaves with other refugees at the time of peace, facilitated the movements in Rhode Island and New York for the abrogation of slavery. At the end of the war the proportion of free people to slaves was greatly increased; and, whatever willful blindness may assert, the free black had the privileges of a citizen.

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