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Letter to the Tribune.

To the Editor of the New York Tribune:--
Sir: You misrepresent me when you say that I discourage enlistments in the Union armies; though, for aught I know, the garbled extracts and lying versions of New York papers may make me do that and many other things I never thought of. You know, by experience, that the American press, in general, neither tries nor means to speak truth about Abolitionists of any type. I have never discouraged enlistments. In the Union army are my kindred and some of my dearest friends. Others rest in fresh and honorable graves. No one of these ever heard a word from me to discourage his enlisting. I had the honor, last March, to address the Fourteenth Massachusetts at Fort Albany, and, this very week, the Thirty-third Massachusetts at Camp Cameron. No man in either regiment heard anything from my lips to discourage his whole-souled service of the Union.

Allow me to state my own position. From 1843 to 1861, I was a Disunionist, and sought to break this Union, convinced that disunion was the only righteous path, and the best one for the white man and the black. I sought disunion, not through conspiracy and violence, but by means which the Constitution itself warranted and protected. I rejoice in those efforts. They were wise and useful. Sumter changed the whole question. After that, [465] peace and justice both forbade disunion. I now believe three things:--

  • 1. The destruction of slavery is inevitable, whichever section conquers in this struggle.
  • 2. There never can be peace or union till slavery is destroyed.
  • 3. There never can be peace till one government rules from the Gulf to the Lakes; and having wronged the negro for two centuries, we owe him the preservation of the Union to guard his transition from slavery to freedom, and make it short, easy, and perfect.

Believing these three things, I accept Webster's sentiment, “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable.” Gladly would I serve that Union,--giving it musket, sword, voice, pen,--the best I have. But the Union which has for twenty-five years barred me from its highest privileges by demanding an oath to a proslavery Constitution, still shuts that door in my face; and this administration still clings to a policy which, I think, makes every life now lost in Virginia, and every dollar now spent there, utter waste. I cannot conscientiously support such a Union and administration. But there is room for honest difference of opinion. Others can support it. To such I say, Go; give to the Union your best blood, your heartiest support.

Is there, then, no place left for me? Yes. I believe in the Union. But government and the Union are one thing. This administration is quite another. Whether the administration will ever pilot us through our troubles, I have serious doubts: that it never will, unless it changes its present policy, I am quite certain. Where, then, is my place under a republican government which only reflects and executes public opinion? I believe in getting through this war by the machinery of regular government, not by any Cromwell stalking into the Senate-Chamber or the [466] White House. Where, then, is my post, especially under an administration that avowedly sits waiting, begging to be told what to do? I must educate, arouse, and mature a public opinion which shall compel the administration to adopt and support it in pursuing the policy I can aid. This I do by frankly and candidly criticising its present policy, civil and military. However “inapt and objectionable” you may think my “means,” they are exactly described in your own words: “The good citizen may owe his government counsel, entreaty, admonition, to abandon a mistaken policy, as well as force to sustain it in the discharge of its great responsibilities.” No administration can demand of a citizen to sacrifice his conscience, and the limits within which he is bound to sacrifice his opinion are soon reached. If the press had not systematically eulogized a general, whom none knew, and few really trusted, we should have saved twelve months, five hundred millions of dollars, and a hundred thousand lives. In my opinion, had the Tribune continued, last August, to do its duty and demand vigor of the government, you would have changed or controlled the Cabinet in another month, and saved us millions of dollars, thousands of lives, and untold disgrace. Such criticism is always every thinking man's duty. War excuses no man from this duty: least of all now, when a change of public sentiment, to lead the administration to and support it in a new policy, is our only hope of saving the Union. The Union belongs to me as much as to Abraham Lincoln. What right has he or any official-our servants — to claim that I shall cease criticising his mistakes, when they are dragging the Union to ruin? I find grave faults in President Lincoln; but I do not believe he makes any such claim.

I said on the 1st of August, that, had I been in the Senate, I should have refused the administration a dollar or a man until it adopted a right policy. That I repeat. [467] Had I been, in that way, a part of the government, I should have tried so to control its action. You were bound as a journalist, I think, to have impressed that duty on the Republican party which holds the administration. Such a course is right and proper under free governments. But when Congress has decided, and under its authority, or by his own, the President demands soldiers, the hour for such effort or protest is gone. We have no right now to “discourage enlistments,” as a means to change public opinion, or to influence the administration. Our remedy is different. If we cannot actively aid, we must submit to the penalty, and strive meanwhile to change that public thought which alone can alter the action of government.

That duty I try to do in my measure. My criticism is not, like that of the traitor presses, meant to paralyze the administration, but to goad it to more activity and vigor. or to change the Cabinet. I claim of you, as a journalist of broad influence, that you resume the post which I think you deserted last summer, and hasten the ripening of that necessary public purpose by constant and fearless criticism of the whole policy of the administration, civil and military, in order to avert years of war, to save thousands of lives, to guard the industry of the future from grinding taxes, to secure speedy and complete justice for the negro, and to put the Union beyond hazard.

Respectfully yours, Wendell Phillips August 16, 1862

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