Benjamin Wood.

Speech of Benjamin Wood of New York, on the State of the Union, in the House of Representatives, May 16th, 1862 online

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Online LibraryBenjamin WoodSpeech of Benjamin Wood of New York, on the State of the Union, in the House of Representatives, May 16th, 1862 → online text (page 1 of 2)
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MAY 16th, 1862.


So grciit has been the demand for the speech of the
Hon. Benj. Wood, that the undersigned have issued an
edition of it for general circnhition, at merely nomisKii

Single copies, by mail, post paid 5 C! nts.

One Dozen, '' " ;30 ''

One Hundred, \)i'V express .^2 50 ^'

One Thousand, " 20 00 "

All orders under 100, at the rates named, will 1)0 sent
by mail, ])Ost paid. All orders for 100 or over will be sent
by e.xpress, or as may be directed by the party ordering, nt
his own expense. Address

No. 162 Nassau St., New York.






xa m




18 6 2.






Mr. WOOD. Mr. Chairman, I have hitherto avoided troubling this House.
Content to be a listener, without any other participation in its proceedings than
to oppose my solemn individual negative against measures which my conscience
and my principles would not approve, I have said nothing. Indeed, sir, I have
not had the heart to rise here and speak. A glance at this Hall, of itself, has
been enough to prevent. When I look around and see one third of the Union
unrepresented here, and find myself in a body, purporting to be one branch
of the Congress of the United States, really in fact but a fragmentary part of
it, my heart sinks within me. It appears to be a sectional body— a gathering
of the representatives of a sectional party. With these feelings, and with this
spirit, I have until now avoided participating in debate.

Besides, sir, during the earlier period of this session, disaster had accompanied
the efforts of the Federal arms. I felt that the hour of defeat was not a fit one
in which to strive to awaken the great soul of the North to thoughts of peace ; I
felt that something was due to the sense of mortification, something to the natu-
ral desire to retrieve the shame of discomfiture. I hoped, too, that when victory
should perch upon our banners, others than myself would seize the occasion to
urge a plea in behalf of peaceable measures; and that this Government itself,
feeling secure and strong enough to be magnanimous, would take the lead and be
the pioneer in opening a path for the settlement of our difficulties without further
recourse to bloodshed. I even hoped that the leaders of the now dominant
party, moved by the sore distress which has visited our country, wouid relent
from the stern rigor of their doctrine of subjugation, and, in the flush of triumph,

would lean a little towards a gentler policy than that which they have heretofore
championed with so much zeal and with so little forbearance.

I hoped in vain. The triumph came ; a long train of successes has relieved
the North from its humiliation. The Government claims now to stand as a rock
against which the tempest of opposition must waste itself in futile efiForts. The
partisans of the ultra war party laugh to scorn the idea that any effectual resist-
ance can be offered to the onward march of our triumphant armies, and yet no
single effort has been made in these congressional Halls to stay the effusion of
blood. It has been left for me, powerless as I am, to speak the first conciliatory
word in behalf of my countrymen. And I do it, sir, in the hope that others,
more capable, will not be too much engrossed with the lust of conquest and the
pride of victory, to follow my example.

Sir, it is an ineffaceable reproach to those either deluded or wicked men who,
in the North, by their unwearied agitation of abolition schemes, have stirred the
embers of this strife ; it is an eternal reproach to them that, through defeat and
victory, throughout every phase of this unhappy struggle, with the groans of their
distressed and tortured country smiting upon their ears, they have clung, and
still cling, with unpitying pertinacity, and even with ferocity, to the doctrine
which has been the germ of all the mischief. With the first exulting shouts of
Federal victories they set up the echoing cry of emancipation. With all the
energy of fanaticism, with all the subtile arts and intrigues of scheming dema-
gogues, with all the appliances of cunning, intellect, and patronage at their com-
mand, even at this eventful crisis, when every American brain should be at work
to bring about a fair and honorable peace, they have no thought, no hope, no
duty but to propagate their creed, extending its influence into every nook and
corner of the land, and poisoning the atmosphere of these sacred Halls with its
interminable discussion. Openly and in secret, by the agency of the press, the
pulpit, and the political rostrum, in the camp, in the city, and in the open field,
they are spreading the contagion ; they are innoculating the country with this
moral pestilence which has already brought us where we are, to the very brink of
the grave of our nationality.

Sir, to these apostles of abolitionism will be traced hereafter whatever of evil
has befallen or may befall our country. They are building its sepulchre with the
bones of their slaughtered countrymen. I do believe there are gentlemen
within my vision now, whose sworn purpose, whose first desire, paramount even
to the preservation of Republicanism, is emancipation. They and their disciples

first threw tbe apple of discord. They first applied the torch, and are now more
busy than ever with throwing fresh fuel to the flume. Should history ever traee —
which God forbid — the record of this country's ruin, that page will seem the
strangcs' to those that read which shall tell of the madness and wickedness of
the arch-fanatics of abolitionism. In the dark recesses of the temple of infamy,
the gloomiest niches will bear the inscription of their names.

Sir, I counsel none but a moral interference with the work of these mischief-
makers. I would not have even flmaticism deprived of the right of free speech !
nor would I, in any emergency, advocate the slightest infringement by the Gov-
ernment upon the liberty of the press. Let them sow tbe seeds of their infamous
doctrine broadcast over the land. Whatever may be the danger, I will not coun-
tenance the greater danger of establishing a dictatorship over the thoughts of my

But if the abominable theme must be brought into the Council Chambers of
the nation, for the sake of decency, if not of justice, let it be at a more suitable
time. If there remain one Union man at the South, let us remember that he is
unrepresented here; that the subject; of slavery particularly concerns him, and
that it is un^^enerous and unjust, if not cowardly, io take advantage of his absence
to push forward measures in regard to the local iastitutions of his section; meas-
ures against which, were he present, he would give his earnest opposition. It will
quench whatever remains of Union feeling at the South, if it have not already done
so. It will destroy the last hope of a reconstruction of the Union on a friendly
basis. It will prove that the first idea of the dominant party in the North is active
and unwavering antagonism to slavery, and a fixed purpose to legislate it out of
the land at all hazards. Is it thus that we are to conquer a peace ? Sir, we are
flinging away the last chances of reconciliation as recklessly as madmen cast their
treasures into the sea. The agitation of the subject has been the country's bane
at every period of its history j its discussion at this crisis is desperate self-destruc-
tion. Is it while the magazine is beneath us and about us, bursting with tbe
agencies of ruin, that we must choose to sport with the flaming torch of the
incendiary ? Sir, until our beloved country shall be saved, the word " emanci-
pation" should, by common consent, be banished from the language of debate in
this assemblage. It is a spell which has wrought enough already of desolation.
It is a hellish formula of incantation which has conjured up the fiends of discord
and civil war ; and it never was so potent in its evil tendency as now, when it is
being passed, like the breath of the plague, from mouth to mouth, in the Council


Chambers of the country which it has ruined. It should be spoken in a whisper and
with a prayer linked to it, as a thing that brings a curse and spreads a pestilence.
I despair of my country, I despair of ever living once more in a blessed Union of
fraternal States, when I hear all around me the utterance of that ruin-breeding
word " emancipation," mingling with the shouts of battle, the fierce huzzahs of
triumph over fallen brothers^ and the groans of our dying countrymen.

Sir, if in place of making the negro question a subject-matter of debate, this
Congress would take into earnest, solemn consideration some expedient for
securing peace, I do believe that success would crown our efforts. If they
would enter upon that task, not with hearts embittered and intellects swayed
by sectional antipathies and mock philanthropy, but with all their souls
devoted to that one sacred purpose — the reconstruction of the Union and our
redemption from civil war ; if they would do this, in the spirit of conciliation,
of forgiveness, of tolerance, of brotherhood, and kindly feeling, it is my convic-
tion that before the close of this eventful session, the preliminaries of a peace
would be arranged. But while, with the obstinacy of a blind fanatic, and the
instinct of a brutal gladiator, the first object is to promulgate a party creed, and
the second to crush an opponent and wear the badge of victory, I see no fairer
prospect than, at some distant period, reached through seas of blood and heaps
of carnage, the forced submission of a crushed and devastated section, and the
equally unhappy spectacle of a Government triumphant, but exhausted by its
triumph, detested by a moity of those sovereignties that gave it birth, and gazing
with horror and remorse upon the desolation it has wrought.

Sir, it is not my intention to vent reproaches, even where I believe them best
deserved. I have risen to enter my protest against the discussion, in this
Chamber, of any anti-slavery scheme whatever at this crisis, and to offer an
earnest appeal to this Congress that its legislation shall embrace every means of
securing an immediate peace. If, as the Government claims, the confederate cause
is hopeless, the leaders of the secession movement cannot be ignorant of the fact j
and knowing it, they will be naturally inclined to lend a willing ear to whatever
proper overtures this Government may present. At some period of this struggle
there must be negotiation j it must be resorted to, sooner or later ; why not

Is it because pride forbids that we should be the first to stretch out the hand of
conciliation ? Heaven forefend that thousands of human lives and a country's
welfare should depend upon so false a principle. Is it because the South has not

been sufficiently punished, humbled, and subdued ? Then let us confess that
chastisement and vengeance are the objects of this war. Is it because the anti-
slavery movement has not yet received a sufficient impetus ? If so, go tell it to
the armies that have won your victories ! Make abolition the war-cry ! Place a
banner with that device in the vanward, and lure those armies on to conquest
with it — if you can. Your soldiers would rend the treacherous ensign into shreds
and would march to their homes with the same alacrity with which they pushed
on to the battle-field.

What, then, is the cause that withholds negotiation ? You will not parley with
armed treason ! But you have parleyed with armed treason, if that be the word ;
parleyed for the mere convenience of an exchange of prisoners, and other pur-
poses to mitigate the grievances of war. It was your duty so to do. And shall
you not do so to accomplish all that your troops are fighting for — the reconstruc-
tion of the Union ?

Let us suppose that the South is anxious to embrace an opportunity of return,
and is withheld from making advances by doubts as to the intentions of the North;
is it not right that we should confer with them, that those doubts may be removed ?
What do the people care for such miserable punctilios in the hour of a nation's
agony ? Sir, an honorable peace is within the grasp of this Congress without
further bloodshed. This Congress knows that it is so, and when the people shall
realize that it is only the infamous design to strengthen the anti-slavery move-
ment that prevents an efi'ort to obtain that peace, woe to the chiefs of the aboli-
tion party in the land.

But, enough of them. Words are thrown away upon their stubborn fanaticism.
I appeal with better hope to the loftier feelings that should pervade humanity,
and especially pervade this august assemblage ; that should, by the nature of its
sacred functions, be far removed from the miserable ambition of reducing a sec-
tion of our common country to the extreme and therefore dangerous condition of

Sir, there may be a fascination in the gory magnificence of war. There may
be a craving for martial glories in the hearts of men, and an instinct of conten-
tion which we share in common with the brute creation. But if ever there can
be a time when a more Christian impulse should possess our souls, it is now ;
now, when triumph and the consciousness of strength give us the noble privilege of
extending the hand of conciliation without fear of degradation, or of self-reproach
for cowardice. If adversity has been our excuse for sternness, let success be our


plea for magnanimity. Providence has placed within the reach of the North a
greater triumph than countless armed legions could conquer ; the triumph of sub-
duing a brave enemy with a generous and merciful policy, that will disarm resent-
ment and rekindle the old brotherly flame that perhaps is not yet totally extinct.
For, after all, they are our brothers, sir ; and some softening of the stern Roman
rigor which our rulers have assumed is due to that brotherhood, which, by
untimely severity, may be canceled now forever. There are gentlemen who will
say that the South must be subdued ; that every armed southerner must throw
down his weapon and sue for mercy. Should a freeman ask so much of his brother
freeman ? Would they be worthy of companionship in our fraternity, being
reclaimed at such a sacrifice of manly feeling? What would you have them do?
Would you have them crouch and cringe and strew their heads with ashes and
kneel at your gates for readmission ? They are Americans, sir, and will not
do it. No ! though Roanoke and Henry and Donelson should be re-enacted
from day to day through the lapse of bloody years, they will not do it.
Give them some chance for an honorable return, or you will wipe out every
hope, and the two sections will be twain forever. Yes, sir ! you may link them
to each other with chains, and pin their destinies together with bayonets, but at
heart they will be twain forever. They are the children of the same heroic stock,
the joint inheritors with ourselves of the precious legacy of freedom ; and it is
a sacrilege and an insult to the memories of the past, that so many, sir, should
sit in your presence here to-day to goad them on to desperate resistance, and so
few — alas ! so very few — to mediate and restrain.

Of those few, I thank my God that I am one. I am proud to proclaim it here
beneath the dome of the Capitol. I shall proclaim it, here and everywhere, until
the wings of peace shall be once more folded over the bleeding bosom of my
country. I shall proclaim it aloud and honestly, although to do so would make
me the next victim of this cruel strife.

Sir, it may be said that I speak of peace, while its attainment, without further
recourse to arms, remains impossible. I do not believe it impossible. What
effort has been made ? What door has been opened through which the passions
and ill-feelings of the contestants might pass out and reason enter ? None. The
single idea has been forced upon the people that the sword, and the sword alone,
must decide the issue. It has been pronounced treason to hold an opposite
opinion. Sir, if to have but little faith in the efficacy of the sword for joining
severed friendships, if to earnestly desire peace and deprecate the horrors of war,

be treason, then am I a traitor ; and I am prouder of such treason than others
can be of their vindictive, flaming, and pretentious patriotism.

I conjure this Congress, in the name of our suffering country, in the names of
wives that may be widows, of children that may be orphans, in the names of gal-
lant men, now strong in health, and who, to-morrow, may be stretched in death
upon the gory ground, or writhing, maimed, and di&figured, with tormenting
wounds — in the name of humanity, that sickens at the daily record of this terri-
ble strife, I conjure this Congress to seize at the merest chance that may exist of
a present termination of this tragedy. Let something be attempted in the spirit
of mediation. Sir, the people will respond to it. They will thank this Congress
for it. They will bless this Congress for any measure that breathes of the spirit
of reconciliation. They are weary of this war, weary in despite of the excitement
of present victory. They will awake soon to the consciousness that such victories
are purchased at a sacrifice terrible to contemplate ; that a national debt is
created, which, in its rapid accumulation, is appalling — a debt which, if ever
paid, will press like an incubus upon future generations, stunting the growth and
paralyzing the vigor of our yoiing Republic; or, if repudiated, resting a blot
upon our annals.

If we look abroad the spectacle tends only to our shame. Wc see the
sceptered hands of Europe planting their royal banners upon the soil of this
western hemisphere, which it is our natural duty to consecrate to republicanism,
and which we might at least have guarded from the greed of foreign despots.
The flag of Arragon and Castile flaunts in the air of San Domingo, and, united
with the blazonries of France and England, is unfurled upon the walls of San
Juan de Ulloa. Where may they not float a twelve months hence, if we, the nat-
ural guardians of this continent, should still be busy dabbling in each other's
gore ? Sir, if there must be war, let it be against the natural enemies of repub-
licanism : if we must humble our national pride to conciliate the British lion,
let us make Eome sacrifice to win back in amity the South, that we may stand
once again as comrades in arms, to scourge these foreign interlopers within their
proper limits.

I am no advocate of bloodshed, but if a foreign war should be the alternative
of submission to foreign insolence, I trust that I should be among the last to fall
prostrate that the hurricane might sweep harmless by. To subserve the schemes
of a party, we have already humiliated the American people in the eyes of scoflSng
Europe ! It will be a task hereafter to regain the caste we have lost in the


family of nations. No greater evil could befall us than to be forced from
the position we have hitherto assumed towards foreign Powers ! I would not
have my country swerve one inch from any vital principle of her foreign policy
m any emergency whatever. Above all things I hold dear that national honor
Which we have ever, till of late, preserved untarnished. However gloomy may
be the aspect of things at home, I would have our flag float as proudly as
ever gijroad, not deigning to make domestic affliction a plea for humility an
excuse for cowardice, or a palliation of national dishonor. Whenever the occasion
demands that a stand should be made against foreign aggression, or a rebuke
administered to foreign pride, or a chastisement inflicted upon foreign insolence
I would have the gauntlet thrown down upon the impulse of the national senti-
ment, without reference to domestic exigencies, or pausing to measure the strong
proportions of the foe.

In the heat of our private discord, we seem to have forgotten that our great
mission as a people, is to republicanize the world, to advance the principle that
men are capable of self-government, and to check the progress of monarchy Sir
we are losing ground in the fulfillment of that sacred mission, and monarchy has
gained a new foothold, while we have been weakening our sinews with intestine
strife. To what purpose? Is it possible that gentlemen can hope to recon-
struct the Union by pursuing a policy of unrelenting severity ? Can they expect
to re-establish concord and brotherly love by pushing hostilities to the extreme
verge? What is the Union worth without mutual respect and reciprocal
amity to bind the sections? What! a Union of unwilling States, driven
into companionship at the point of the bayonet, and held there by military
power! Such a Union would not be worth the shedding of one brave man's
blood. We want their hearts, or we want them not at all. And we cannot
conquer hearts with bayonets, although they should outnumber the spears of
Xerxes. If not brought back by negotiation, they are gone from us for-
ever. To conquer them may be possible. To slay their soldiers, lay waste
their lands, and burn their cities may be within our power. But to hold them
in subjection, would, in itself, be a final repudiation of the first principle of
republicanism. Prosecute this war until you have accomplished the necessity
of holding a subdued section in subjection, and the world will look in vain for
a republic on the western hemisphere.

Sir, I love to entertain the hope that our Union will be restored upon the
foundatjon laid down by our fathers ; and I desire no changes in the plan of that


glorious superstructure. But I am not so unnatural a worshiper of the Union
as to seek its salvation with the destruction of those for whose welfare it was
conceived; to build it up upon the dead bodies of my countrymen. I would
purchase its redemption otherwise than by anarchy and ruin. I would not fling
away the substance to perpetuate the name. Every drop of blood that is shed in
this struggle will weaken the bond of union between us. One word of concilia-
tion at this crisis will do more to save the country than all the achievements,
past and to come, of your victorious soldiery.

Why should not that word go forth, even now, in the hour of the triumph of
the Federal arms. If there has ever been a period in the history of republics
when prolonged civil strife has failed to curtail the liberty of the masses, I have
not read that history aright. Already, with one year's bitter experience, we
have beheld some of the dearest privileges of American citizenship wrested from
our grasp. And how long, at the same rate, before, upon the convenient plea
of necessity, we shall be stripped of other rights which heretofore have made us
deem ourselves freemen ? How long, while personal liberty even now depends
on the nod of an official? How long, while free-born American citizens can be
left to languish in bastiles, beyond the reach of the constituted tribunals of the
land and°at the mercy of the Executive? How long, while the press,
the guardian of liberty, the friend of the masses, is shackled, gagged, cowed
down to sullen silence, or, worse yet, become the minion of a party? How
long, while voters are arrested at the polls by military process, and legislators
are^hurried off to prison before they can assume their sacred functions ? How
long, while the partisans of the abolition party are coining money out of the
blood of their countrymen, parading their showy patriotism and shouting
"Union," with their arms up to the elbows in the public Treasury? How
long, sir, will the people of the North, taxed beyond endurance, robbed and
cheated by an ever-craving horde of political hyenas-how long will they have
a choice between freedom and anarchy, between a republic and a despotism?


Online LibraryBenjamin WoodSpeech of Benjamin Wood of New York, on the State of the Union, in the House of Representatives, May 16th, 1862 → online text (page 1 of 2)