December 1857 The Civil War

Where Will It End?

In its second issue, The Atlantic urged readers to take a stand against slavery.
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With abolitionist sentiment growing in the North, Abraham Lincoln’s 1858 observation that a “house divided against itself cannot stand” underscored the dire need for the United States to settle its slavery question. Here, blacks on a South Carolina plantation are pictured outside slave cabins. (Timothy H. O'Sullivan/Library of Congress)


When The Atlantic debuted in November 1857, the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision—declaring that slaves were not and could never become citizens, and also that Congress lacked the authority to outlaw slavery in federal territories—had been handed down just eight months earlier, and violence raged in Kansas over the question of popular sovereignty.

The magazine’s first broadside against the South’s “peculiar institution” appeared the following month, written by the author and anti-slavery activist Edmund Quincy, of a prominent Boston political family. Articulating a perspective common among Northern abolitionists, Quincy characterized the South as morally bankrupt and culturally and economically backward, and urged Northerners to take a decisive stand against slavery’s territorial and political encroachments.

—Sage Stossel
An artistic rendering by Henry Louis Stephens, a well-known illustrator of the era, depicts a family at a slave auction in the process of being separated (Library of Congress)

With all the means and materials of wealth, the South is poor. With every advantage for gathering strength and self-reliance, it is weak and dependent.—Why this difference between the [North and the South]?

The why is not far to seek. It is to be found in the reward which Labor bestows on those that pay it due reverence in the one case, and the punishment it inflicts on those offering it outrage and insult in the other … A man in fetters cannot do the task-work that one whose limbs are unshackled looks upon as a pastime … Hence the difference so often noticed between tracts lying side by side, separated only by a river or an imaginary line; on one side of which, thrift and comfort and gathering wealth, growing villages, smiling farms, convenient habitations, school-houses, and churches make the landscape beautiful; while on the other, slovenly husbandry, dilapidated mansions, sordid huts, perilous wastes, horrible roads, the rare spire, and rarer village school betray all the nakedness of the land …

True prosperity can never grow up from wrong and wickedness … But that the stronger half of the nation should suffer the weaker to rule over it … that the richer region should submit to the political tyranny of its impoverished moiety … is indeed a marvel and a mystery. That the intelligent, educated, and civilized portion of a race should consent to the sway of their ignorant, illiterate, and barbarian companions in the commonwealth … is an astonishment …

In the blighting shadow of Slavery letters die and art cannot live. What book has the South ever given to the libraries of the world? What work of art has she ever added to its galleries? What artist has she produced that did not instinctively fly, like Allston, to regions in which genius could breathe and art was possible? What statesman has she reared, since Jefferson died and Madison ceased to write?

The baleful influence … ever shed by Slavery on our national history and our public men has not yet spent its malignant forces … The line drawn in 1820, which the slaveholders plighted their faith Slavery should never overstep, insolently as well as infamously obliterated,—Slavery presiding in the Cabinet, seated on the Supreme Bench, absolute in the halls of Congress,—no man can say what shape its next aggression may not take to itself … Parasites everywhere instinctively feel that a zeal for the establishment of Slavery where it has been abolished, or its introduction where it had been prohibited, is the highest recommendation to the Executive favor … Mighty events are at hand, even at the door; and the mission of them all will be to fix Slavery firmly and forever on the throne of this nation …

Is our spirit effectually broken? Is the brand of meanness and compromise burnt in uneffaceably upon our souls? and are we never to be roused, by any indignities, to fervent resentment and effectual resistance? The answer to these grave questions lies with ourselves alone …

We believe that the days of this ignominious subjection are already numbered …

The people of the North submit to the domination of the South because they are used to it, and are doubtful as to what may replace it. Whenever the millions, North and South, whom Slavery grinds under her heel, shall be resolutely minded that her usurpation shall cease, it will disappear, and forever. As soon as the stone is thrown the giant will die, and men will marvel that they endured him so long. But this can only come to pass by virtue of a change yet to be wrought in the hearts and minds of men … The ideal of a true republic, of a government of laws made and executed by the people, of which bards have sung and prophets dreamed, and for which martyrs have suffered and heroes died, may yet be possible to us, and the great experiment of this Western World be indeed a Model, instead of a Warning to the nations.


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