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Chapter 1: introduction

The periods of history that are most interesting are those which have been lighted up by spiritual bonfires. As we read about such epochs we seem to feel the fires rekindling in our bosoms. Through the identity of those historic flames with our own, we become aware of our portion in the past, and of our mission in the present. The names of the actors, to be sure, are changed; the names of the forces at work vary continually. Yet the substance of the story is ever the same; the fable deals with ourselves. And therefore that fable stirs the intimate embers in us. Here, within us, are those smothered and banked furnaces which the stride of History has left behind it-the only now living part, the only real part and absolute remnant of the divine pageant.

There are some periods of great conflagration [2] where a whole epoch is lighted up with one great flame of idea, which takes perhaps a few decades to arise, blaze, and fall; during which time it shows all men in its glare. Willy-nilly they can be and are seen by this light and by no other. Willynilly their chief interest for the future lies in their relation to this idea. In spite of themselves they are thrilling, illustrative figures, seen in lurid and logical distortion, --abstracts and epitomes of human life. Nay, they stand forever as creatures that have been caught and held, cracked open, thrown living upon a screen, burned alive perhaps by a searching and terrible bonfire and recorded in the act as the citizens of Pompeii were recorded by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

It happened that a period of this kind passed over the United States between the years 1830 and 1865. There is nothing to be found in that epoch which does not draw its significance, its interest, its permanent power from the slavery question. There is no man whose life falls within that epoch whose character was not controlled by that question, or whose portrait can be seen by any other light than the light of that fire. Subtract that light and you have darkness; [3] you cannot see the man at all. In the biographies of certain distinguished conservatives of that time you may often observe the softening of the portrait by the omission of unpleasant records, the omission by the biographers of those test judgments and test ordeals with which the times were well supplied. By these omissions the man vanishes from the page of his own book. The page grows suddenly blank. You check yourself and wonder who it was that you were reading about. Now the reason of this disappearance of the leading character from your mind is that the biographer has drawn someone who could not have existed. The man must have answered aye or nay to the question which the times were putting. And, in fact, he did so answer. By this answer he could have been seen. Without it he does not exist.

I confess that I had rather stand out for posterity in a hideous silhouette, as having been wrong on every question of my time, than be erased into a cipher by my biographer. But biographers do not feel in this way toward their heroes. Each one feels that he has undertaken to do his best by his patron. Therefore they stand the man under a north light in a photographer's attic, [4] suggest his attitude, and thus take the picture;--whereas. in real life, the man was standing on the balcony of a burning building which the next moment collapsed, and in it he was crushed beyond the semblance of humanity. The Civil War,--that war with its years of interminable length, its battles of such successive and monstrous carnage, its dragged-out reiterations of horror and agony, and its even worse tortures of hope deferred,--hope all but extinct,that war of which it is impossible to read even a summary without becoming so worn out by distress that you forget everything that went before in the country's history and emerge, as it were, a new man at the close of your perusal;--that war was no accident. It was involved in every syllable which every inhabitant of America uttered or neglected to utter in regard to the slavery question between 1830 and 1860. The gathering and coming on of that war, its vaporous distillation from the breath of every man, its slow, inevitable formation in the sky, its retreats and apparent dispersals, its renewed visibilities-all of them governed by some inscrutable logic — and its final descent in lightning and deluge;--these matters make the history of the interval between [5] 1830 and 1865. That history is all one galvanic throb, one course of human passion, one Nemesis, one deliverance. And with the assassination of Lincoln in 1865 there falls from on high the great, unifying stroke that leaves the tragedy sublime. No poet ever invented such a scheme of curse, so all-involving, so remotely rising in an obscure past and holding an entire nation in its mysterious bondage — a scheme based on natural law, led forward and unfolded from mood to mood, from climax to climax, and plunging at the close into the depths of a fathomless pity. The action of the drama is upon such a scale that a quarter of the earth has to be devoted to it. Yet the argument is so trite that it will hardly bear statement. Perhaps the true way to view the whole matter is to regard it as the throwing off by healthy morality of a little piece of left-over wickedness — that bad heritage of antiquity, domestic slavery. The logical and awful steps by which the process went forward merely exhibit familiar, moral, and poetic truth. What else could they exhibit?

We are ungrateful to the intellects of the past; or rather, like children we take it for granted that somebody must supply us with our supper and our ideas; and, for the most [6] part, it is difficult to discover the extent of our indebtedness, whether, for example, to Charlemagne or to the scholars who have revealed him. Yet everything we know and live by is due to the mind of someone in the past: its formulation, at any rate, was the act of a man.

These same illuminations of history that we have been speaking of were due to the enlightenment of individual minds. Our Revolution of 1776 was made interesting by its state papers, and to-day our knowledge of that time is a knowledge of the minds of Washington, Franklin, and the other patriots. Now the light by which we to-day see the Anti-slavery period was first shed on it by one man-William Lloyd Garrison. That slavery was wrong, everyone knew in his heart. The point seen by Garrison was the practical point that the slavery issue was the only thing worth thinking about, and that all else must be postponed till slavery was abolished. He saw this by a God-given act of vision in 1829; and it was true. The history of the spread of this idea of Garrison's is the history of the United States during the thirty years after it loomed in his mind. From the day Garrison established the Liberator [7] he was the strongest man in America. He was affected in his thought by no one. What he was thinking, all men were destined to think. How had he found that clew and skeleton-key to his age, which put him in possession of such terrible power? What he hurled in the air went everywhere and smote all men. Tide and tempest served him. His power of arousing uncontrollable disgust was a gift, like magic; and he seems to sail upon it as a demon upon the wind. Not Andrew Jackson, nor John Quincy Adams, nor Webster, nor Clay, nor Benton, nor Calhoun,--who dance like shadows about his machine,--but William Lloyd Garrison becomes the central figure in American life.

If one could see a mystical presentation of the epoch, one would see Garrison as a Titan, turning a giant grindstone or electrical power-wheel, from which radiated vibrations in larger and in ever larger, more communicative circles and spheres of agitation, till there was not a man, woman, or child in America who was not a-tremble.

We know, of course, that the source of these radiations was not in Garrison. They came from the infinite and passed out into the infinite. Had there been no Garrison [8] they would somehow have arrived and at some time would have prevailed. But historically speaking they did actually pass through Garrison: he vitalized and permanently changed this nation as much as one man ever did the same for any nation in the history of the world.

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