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Chapter 20: the death-grapple.

The triumph of the Republican party at the polls was the signal for the work of dissolution to begin. Webster's terrific vision of “a land rent with civil feuds” became reality in the short space of six weeks after Lincoln's election, by the secession of South Carolina from the Union. Quickly other Southern States followed, until a United States South was organized, the chief stone in the corner of the new political edifice being Negro slavery. It was not six weeks after the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, when the roar of cannon in Charleston Harbor announced to the startled country that war between the States had begun. The first call of the new President for troops to put down the rebellion and to save the Union, and the patriotic uprising which it evoked made it plain that the struggle thus opened was to be nothing less than a death-grapple between the two sections.

Before the attack on Fort Sumter, Garrison was opposed to coercing the rebel States back into the Union. He admitted the Constitutional power of the National Government to employ force in maintaining the integrity of the Republic. “The Federal Government must not pretend to be in actual operation, embracing thirty-four States,” the editor of the [371] Liberator commented, “and then allow the seceding States to trample upon its flag, steal its property, and defy its authority with impunity; for it would then be (as it is at this moment) a mockery and a laughingstock. Nevertheless to think of whipping the South (for she will be a unit on the question of slavery) into subjection, and extorting allegiance from millions of people at the cannon's mouth, is utterly chimerical. True, it is in the power of the North to deluge her soil with blood, and inflict upon her the most terrible sufferings; but not to conquer her spirit, or change her determination.”

He, therefore, proposed that “the people of the North should recognize the fact that the Union is Dis-solved, and act accordingly. They should see, in the madness of the South, the hand of God, liberating them from ‘ a covenant with death’ and an ‘agreement with hell,’ made in a time of terrible peril, and without a conception of its inevitable consequences, and which has corrupted their morals, poisoned their religion, petrified their humanity as towards the millions in bondage, tarnished their character, harassed their peace, burdened them with taxation, shackled their prosperity, and brought them into abject vassalage.”

It is not to be wondered at that Garrison, under the circumstances, was for speeding the South rather than obstructing her way out of the Union. For hardly ever had the anti-slavery cause seen greater peril than that which hung over it during the months which elapsed between Lincoln's election and the attack on Sumter, owing to the paralyzing apprehensions to which the free States fell a prey in view of the [372] then impending disruption of their glorious Union. Indeed no sacrifice of anti-slavery accomplishments, policy, and purpose of those States were esteemed too important or sacred to make, if thereby the dissolution of the Union might be averted. Many, Republicans as well as Democrats, were for repealing the Personal Liberty Laws, and for the admission of New Mexico as a State, with or without slavery, for the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, for suppressing the right of free speech and the freedom of the press on the subject of slavery, and for surrendering the Northern position in opposition to the extension of slavery to national Territories, in order to placate the So'lth and keep it in the Union. Nothing could have possibly been more disastrous to the anti-slavery movement in America than a Union saved on the terms proposed by such Republican leaders as Willian H. Seward, Charles Francis Adams, Thomas Corwin, and Andrew G. Curtin. The Union, under the circumstances, was sure death to the slave, in disunion lay his great life-giving hope. Therefore his tried and sagacious friend was for sacrificing the Union to win for him freedom.

As the friends of the Union were disposed to haggle at no price to preserve it, so was Garrison disposed to barter the Union itself in exchange for the abolition of slavery. “Now, then, let there be a Conven-Tion of the free States,” he suggested, “called to organize an independent government on free and just principles; and let them say to the slave States: Though you are without excuse for your treasonable conduct, depart in peace! Though you have laid piratical hands on property not your own, we [373] surrender it all in the spirit of magnanimity! And if nothing but the possession of the Capitol will appease you, take even that without a struggle! Let the line be drawn between us where free institutions end and slave institutions begin!”

But the thunder of the rebel guns in Charleston Harbor wrought in the reformer a complete revolution in this regard. In the tremendous popular uprising which followed that insult to the national flag he perceived that the old order with its compromises and dispositions to agree to anything, to do anything for the sake of preserving the Union had passed away forever. When it was suggested as an objection to his change of base that the “Administration is endeavoring to uphold the Union, the Constitution, and the Laws, even as from the formation of the Government,” he was not for a moment deceived by its apparent force, but replied sagely that “this is a verbal and technical view of the case.” “Facts are more potential than words,” he remarked with philosophic composure, “and events greater than parchment arrangements. The truth is, the old Union is non est inventus, and its restoration, with its pro-slavery compromises, well-nigh impossible. The conflict is really between the civilization of freedom and the barbarism of slavery-between the principles of democracy and the doctrines of absolutism-between the free North and the man-imbruting South ; therefore, to this extent hopeful for the cause of impartial liberty.”

With the instinct of wise leadership, he adjusted himself and his little band of Abolitionists, as far as he was able, to the exigencies of the revolution. In [374] his madness there was always remarkable method. When the nation was apathetic, dead on the subject of slavery, he used every power which he possessed or could invent to galvanize it into life. But with the prodigious excitement which swept over the free States at the outbreak of the war, Garrison saw that the crisis demanded different treatment. Abolitionists and their moral machinery he felt should be withdrawn, for a season at least, from their conspicuous place before the public gaze, lest it happen that they should divert the current of public opinion from the South to themselves, and thus injure the cause of the slave. He accordingly deemed it highly expedient that the usual anniversary of the American Anti-Slavery Society, held in New York, ought, under the circumstances, to be postponed, coming as it would but a few weeks after the attack on Sumter, and in the midst of the tremendous loyal uprising against the rebels. This he did, adding, by way of caution, this timely counsel: “Let nothing be done at this solemn crisis needlessly to check or divert the mighty current of popular feeling which is now sweeping southward with the strength and impetuosity of a thousand Niagaras, in direct conflict with that haughty and perfidious slave-power which has so long ruled the republic with a rod of iron, for its own base and satanic purposes.”

The singular tact and sagacity of the pioneer in this emergency may be again seen in a letter to Oliver Johnson, who was at the time editing the Anti-Slavery Standard. Says the pioneer: “Now that civil war has begun, and a whirlwind of violence and excitement is to sweep through the country, every day increasing [375] in interest until its bloodiest culmination, it is for the Abolitionists to ‘ stand still and see the salvation of God,’ rather than to attempt to add anything to the general commotion. It is no time for minute criticism of Lincoln, Republicanism, or even the other parties, now that they are fusing, for a death-grapple with the Southern slave oligarchy; for they are instruments in the hands of God to carry forward and help achieve the great object of emancipation for which we have so long been striving. . . We need great circumspection and consummate wisdom in regard to what we may say and do under these unparalleled circumstances. We are rather, for the time being, to note the events transpiring than seek to control them. There must be no needless turning of popular violence upon ourselves by any false step of our own.”

The circumspection, the tact, and sagacity which marked his conduct at the beginning of the rebellion characterized it to the close of the war, albeit at no time doing or saying aught to compromise his antislavery principle of total and immediate emancipation. On the contrary, he urged, early and late, upon Congress and the President the exercise of the war power to put an end for ever to slavery. Radical Abolitionists like Stephen S. Foster were for denying to the Administration anti-slavery support and countenance, and for continuing to heap upon the Government their denunciations until it placed itself “openly and unequivocally on the side of freedom,” by issuing the edict of emancipation. Against this zeal without discretion Garrison warmly protested. “I cannot say that I do not sympathize with the Government,” [376] said he, “as against Jefferson Davis and his piratical associates. There is not a drop of blood in my veins, both as an Abolitionist and a peace man, that does not flow with the Northern tide of sentiment; for I see, in this grand uprising of the manhood of the North, which has been so long groveling in the dust, a growing appreciation of the value of liberty and free institutions, and a willingness to make any sacrifice in their defence against the barbaric and tyrannical power which avows its purpose, if it can, to crush them entirely out of existence. When the Government shall succeed (if it shall succeed) in conquering a peace, in subjugating the South, and shall undertake to carry out the Constitution as of old, with all its pro-slavery compromises, then will be my time to criticise, reprove, and condemn; then will be the time for me to open all the guns that I can bring to bear upon it. But blessed be God that ‘covenant with death’ has been annulled, and that ‘agreement with hell’ no longer stands. I joyfully accept the fact, and leave all verbal criticism until a more suitable opportunity.”

But it must be confessed that at times during the struggle, Lincoln's timidity and apparent indifference as to the fate of slavery, in his anxiety to save the Union, weakened Garrison's confidence in him, and excited his keenest apprehensions “at the possibility of the war terminating without the utter extinction of slavery, by a new and more atrocious compromise on the part of the North than any that has yet been made.” The pioneer therefore adjudged it prudent to get his battery into position and to visit upon the President for particular acts, such as the revocation [377] of anti-slavery orders by sundry of his generals in the field, and upon particular members of his Cabinet who were understood to be responsible for the shuffling, hesitating action of the Government in its relation to slavery, an effective fire of criticism and rebuke.

Nevertheless Mr. Garrison maintained toward the Government a uniform tone of sympathy and moderation. “I hold,” said he, in reply to strictures of Mr. Phillips upon the President at the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Society in 1862; “I hold that it is not wise for us to be too microscopic in endeavoring to find disagreeable and annoying things, still less to assume that everything is waxing worse and worse, and that there is little or no hope.” He himself was full of hope which no shortcomings of the Government was able to quench. He was besides beginning to understand the perplexities which beset the administration, to appreciate the problem which confronted the great statesman who was at the head of the nation. He was getting a clear insight into the workings of Lincoln's mind, and into the causes which gave to his political pilotage an air of timidity and indecision.

“ Supposing Mr. Lincoln could answer to-night,” continued the pioneer in reply to his less patient and hopeful coadjutors, “and we should say to him: ‘ Sir, with the power in your hands, slavery being the cause of the rebellion beyond all controversy, why don't you put the trump of jubilee to your lips, and proclaim universal freedom? ’ --possibly he might answer: ‘Gentlemen, I understand this matter quite as well as you do. I do not know that I differ in [378] opinion from you; but will you insure me the support of a united North if I do as you bid me? Are all parties and all sects at the North so convinced and so united on this point that they will stand by the Government? If so, give me the evidence of it, and I will strike the blow. But, gentlemen, looking over the entire North, and seeing in all your towns and cities papers representing a considerable, if not a formidable portion of the people, menacing and bullying the Government in case it dared to liberate the slaves, even as a matter of self-preservation, I do not feel that the hour has yet come that will render it safe for the Government to take that step.’ I am willing to believe that something of this kind weighs in the mind of the President and the Cabinet, and that there is some ground for hesitancy as a mere matter of political expediency.” This admirable and discriminating support of the President finds another capital illustration in weighty words of his in answer to animadversions of Prof. Francis W. Newman, of England, directed against Mr. Lincoln. Says Garrison: “In no instance, however, have I censured him (Lincoln) for not acting upon the highest abstract principles of justice and humanity, and disregarding his Constitutional obligations. His freedom to follow his convictions of duty as an individual is one thingas the President of the United States, it is limited by the functions of his office, for the people do not elect a President to play the part of reformer or philanthropist, nor to enforce upon the nation his own peculiar ethical or humanitary ideas without regard to his oath or their will.”

Great indeed was the joy of the pioneer when President [379] Lincoln on January I, 1863, issued his Emancipation Proclamation. The same sagacious and statesmanlike handling of men and things distinguished his conduct after the edict of freedom was made as before. When the question of Reconstruction was broached in an administrative initiative in Louisiana, the President gave great offence to the more radical members of his party, and to many Abolitionists by his proposal to readmit Louisiana to Statehood in the Union with no provision for the extension of the suffrage to the negro. This exhibition of the habitual caution and conservatism of Mr. Lincoln brought upon him a storm of criticism and remonstrances, but not from Garrison. There was that in him which appreciated and approved the evident disposition of the President to make haste slowly in departing from the American principle of local self-government even in the interest of liberty. Then, too, he had his misgivings in relation to the virtue of the fiat method of transforming chattels into citizens. “Chattels personal may be instantly translated from the auction-block into freemen,” he remarked in defence of the administrative policy in the reconstruction of Louisiana,

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. . . . Besides, I doubt whether he has the Constitutional right to decide this matter. Ever since the 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 honestly seeking to preserve the Union, it [380] 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. . . . 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.

A very remarkable prophecy, which has since been exactly fulfilled in the Southern States. Garrison, however, in the subsequent struggle between Congress and Mr. Lincoln's successor over this selfsame point in its wider relation to all of the Southern States, took sides against Andrew Johnson and in favor of the Congressional fiat method of transforming chattels personal into citizens. The elimination of Abraham Lincoln from, and the introduction of Andrew Johnson upon the National stage at this juncture, did undoubtedly effect such a change of circumstances, as to make the Congressional fiat method a political necessity. It was distinctly the less of two evils which at the moment was thrust upon the choice of the Northern people.

The same breadth and liberality of view, which marked his treatment of Mr. Lincoln upon the subject of emancipation and of that of reconstruction, marked his treatment also of other questions which [381] the suppression of the rebellion presented to his consideration. Although a radical peace man, how just was his attitude toward the men and the measures of the War for the Union. Nothing that he did evinced on his part greater tact or toleration than his admirable behavior iu this respect. To his eldest son, George Thompson, who was no adherent of the doctrine of non-resistance, and who was commissioned by Governor Andrew, a second lieutenant in the Fiftyfifth Massachusetts Regiment, the pioneer wrote expressing his regret that the young lieutenant had not been able “to adopt those principles of peace which are so sacred and divine to my soul, yet you will bear me witness that I have not laid a straw in your way to prevent your acting up to your own highest convictions of duty.” Such was precisely his attitude toward the North who, he believed, in waging war against the South for the maintenance of the Union, was acting up to her own highest convictions of duty. And not a straw would he place across her path, under those circumstances, though every step bore witness to one of the most gigantic and destructive wars in history.

Garrison did not have to wait for posthumous appreciation from his countrymen. His steady and discriminating support of the Government, and his ardent sympathy with the arms of the North won him appreciation in his lifetime. Indeed, there came to him, if not popularity, something closely akin to it during the war. His visit to the capital in June, 1864, well illustrates the marvelous changes which had taken place in the Union touching himself and his cause. On his way to Washington the pioneer stopped over [382] at Baltimore, which he had not revisited for thirtyfour years, and where the Republican Convention, which renominated Lincoln was in session. He watched the proceedings from the gallery, and witnessed with indescribable emotions the enthusiastic demonstrations of joy with which the whole body of delegates greeted the radical anti-slavery resolution of the Convention. To the reformer it was “a full indorsement of all the Abolition fanaticism and incendiarism” with which he had been branded for years. The jail where he had been held a prisoner for seven weeks, like the evil which he had denounced, was gone, and a new one stood in its place, which knew not Garrison. In the court-house where he was tried and sentenced he was received by a United States judge as an illustrious visitor. Judge Bond hunted up the old indictment against the junior editor of the Genius of Universal Emancipation, where it had lain for a generation, during which that guiltless prisoner had started a movement which had shaken the nation by its mighty power, and slavery out of it. “Eight or nine of the original jurymen who gave the verdict against Mr. Garrison are still living,” wrote Theodore Tilton, at the time, to the Independent, “and Judge Bond jocosely threatened to summon them all into Court, that Mr. Garrison might forgive them in public.”

At Washington the pioneer's reception seemed to him like a dream. And no wonder. He was heartily received by President Lincoln and Secretary Stanton. He was accorded the most marked attentions on the floor of both branches of Congress. On every side there rose up witnesses to the vastness of the revolution [383] which had taken place, and to the fact that the great Abolitionist was no longer esteemed an enemy of the Republic but one of its illustrious citizens. This was evinced in a signal and memorable manner a little later when the National Government extended to him an invitation to visit Fort Sumter as its guest on the occasion of the re-raising over it of the Stars and Stripes. He went, and so also went George Thompson, his lifelong friend and coadjutor, who was the recipient of a similar invitation from the Secretary of War.

This visit of Mr. Garrison, taken in all its dramatic features, is more like a chapter of fiction, with its strange and improbable incidents and situations, than a story of real life. The pioneer entered Georgia and trod the streets of Savannah, whose legislature thirty-three years before had set a price upon his head. In Charleston he witnessed the vast ruin which the war had wrought, realized how tremendous had been the death-struggle between Freedom and Slavery, and saw everywhere he turned that slavery was beaten, was dead in its proud, rebellious center. Thousands upon thousands of the people whose wrongs he had made his own, whose woes he had carried in his soul for thirty-five years, greeted him, their deliverer, in all stages of joy and thanksgiving. They poured out at his feet their overflowing love and gratitude. They covered him with flowers, bunches of jessamines, and honeysuckles and roses in the streets of Charleston, hard by the grave where Calhoun lay buried. “ ‘Only listen to that in Charleston streets!’ exclaimed Garrison, on hearing the band of one of the black regiments playing the air of ‘ Old [384] John Brown,’ and we both broke into tears,” relates Rev. Theodore L. Cuyler, who stood by the side of the pioneer that April morning under the spire of St. Michael's church.

“ The Government has its hold upon the throat of the monster, slavery,” Mr. Garrison assured an audience of nearly four thousand freedmen, “and is strangling the life out of it.” It was even so. Richmond had fallen, and Lee had surrendered. The early and total collapse of the rebellion was impending. The Government was, indeed, strangling the life out of it and out of slavery, its cause and mainspring. The monster had, however, a crowning horror to add to a long list of horrors before fetching its last gasp. The assassination of President Lincoln was the dying blow of slavery, aimed through him at the Union which he had maintained. Appalling as was the deed, it was vain, for the Union was saved, and liberty forever secured to the new-born nation. As Garrison remarked at the tomb of Calhoun, on the morning that Lincoln died, “Down into a deeper grave than this slavery has gone, and for it there is no resurrection.”

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