April 1862 The Civil War

American Civilization

An Atlantic founder argues vehemently for the emancipation of the slaves.
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Shown in this 1861 cartoon, Union General in Chief Winfield Scott’s plan to win the war involved sealing Confederate ports and gaining control of the Mississippi River. The notion was ridiculed by those who thought the war would be too brief to warrant such a strategy. As the war pressed on, though, the once-dismissed idea became a key factor in the Union’s victory. (MP/Getty Images)


For abolitionists, the key issue at stake in the war was slavery. But even President Lincoln, who found slavery repugnant, had run for office on a platform committed merely to containing the institution—rather than eliminating it altogether. As the war dragged on, however, and casualties mounted, the Union sought a way to break the stalemate. Both Congress and the president began to consider emancipation, which would change not only the moral but also the tactical calculus of the war.

In late January 1862, Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered a lecture at the Smithsonian Institution, urging emancipation and emphasizing that only ending slavery would end the conflict. Two days later, he visited Lincoln at the White House. Three months after that, the text of his speech (along with some additional paragraphs commending Lincoln for steps he had since taken toward emancipation) appeared in The Atlantic. Within a year, Lincoln would issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

—Sage Stossel

The highest proof of civility is, that the whole public action of the State is directed on securing the greatest good of the greatest number.

Our Southern States have introduced confusion into the moral sentiments of their people, by reversing this rule in theory and practice, and denying a man’s right to his labor …

Labor of each for all, is the health and virtue of all beings … Well, now here comes this conspiracy of slavery,—they call it an institution, I call it a destitution,—this stealing of men and setting them to work,—stealing their labor, and the thief sitting idle himself …

We cannot but remember that there have been days in American history, when, if the Free States had done their duty, Slavery had been blocked by an immovable barrier, and our recent calamities forever precluded. The Free States yielded, and every compromise was surrender, and invited new demands. Here again is a new occasion which Heaven offers to sense and virtue. It looks as if we held the fate of the fairest possession of mankind in our hands, to be saved by our firmness or to be lost by hesitation …

Emancipation is the demand of civilization. That is a principle; everything else is an intrigue …

Congress can, by edict, as a part of the military defense which it is the duty of Congress to provide, abolish slavery, and pay for such slaves as we ought to pay for. Then the slaves near our armies will come to us: those in the interior will know in a week what their rights are, and will, where opportunity offers, prepare to take them. Instantly, the armies that now confront you must run home to protect their estates, and must stay there, and your enemies will disappear …

There can be no safety until this step is taken … We have too much experience of the futility of an easy reliance on the momentary good dispositions of the public. There does exist, perhaps, a popular will that the Union shall not be broken,—that our trade, and therefore our laws, must have the whole breadth of the continent, and from Canada to the Gulf. But, since this is the rooted belief and will of the people, so much the more are they in danger, when impatient of defeats, or impatient of taxes, to go with a rush for some peace, and what kind of peace shall at that moment be easiest attained: they will make concessions for it,—will give up the slaves; and the whole torment of the past half century will come back to be endured anew.

Neither do I doubt, if such a composition should take place, that the Southerners will come back quietly and politely, leaving their haughty dictation. It will be an era of good feelings. There will be a lull after so loud a storm; and, no doubt, there will be discreet men from that section who will earnestly strive to inaugurate more moderate and fair administration of the Government, and the North will for a time have its full share and more, in place and counsel. But this will not last,—not for want of sincere good-will in sensible Southerners, but because Slavery will again speak through them its harsh necessity. It cannot live but by injustice, and it will be unjust and violent to the end of the world.

The power of Emancipation is this, that it alters the atomic social constitution of the Southern people. Now their interest is in keeping out white labor; then, when they must pay wages, their interest will be to let it in, to get the best labor, and, if they fear their blacks, to invite Irish, German, and American laborers. Thus, whilst Slavery makes and keeps disunion, Emancipation removes the whole objection to union. Emancipation at one stroke elevates the poor white of the South, and identifies his interest with that of the Northern laborer …

Since the above pages were written, President Lincoln has proposed to Congress that the Government shall cooperate with any State that shall enact a gradual abolishment of Slavery. In the recent series of national successes, this Message is the best. It marks the happiest day in the political year. The American Executive ranges itself for the first time on the side of freedom. If Congress has been backward, the President has advanced. This state-paper is the more interesting that it appears to be the President’s individual act, done under a strong sense of duty. He speaks his own thought in his own style. All thanks and honor to the Head of the State! The Message has been received throughout the country with praise, and, we doubt not, with more pleasure than has been spoken. If Congress accords with the President, it is not yet too late to begin the emancipation; but we think it will always be too late to make it gradual. All experience agrees that it should be immediate. More and better than the President has spoken shall, perhaps, the effect of this Message be,—but, we are sure, not more or better than he hoped in his heart, when, thoughtful of all the complexities of his position, he penned these cautious words.


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