Wendell Phillips.

Disunion: two discourses at Music Hall, on January 20th, and February 17th, 1861 online

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On January 20th, and February 17th, 1861.



"Tf the PorereigBty of the Union were to engage in a ptmg-gle with that of the
States, at the present day. it? defeat may be eonfidently predirtel : and it is not
probable that such a struggle would be seriously undertaken. As often as steady
resistance is offered to the Federal GoTcrnment. it will be found to yield. Experi-
ence has shown that whenever a State lias deniaiided any thing with perseverance
and resolution, it has invariably succeeded: and that if a separate Government has
distinctly refused to act, it was left to do as it thought fit." — D£ Tocqceville,
in 18^.





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The office of the pulpit is to teach men their duty.
Wherever men's thoujihts influence their laws, it is the duty
of the pulpit to preach politics. If it were possible to con-
ceive of a community whose opinions had no influence on
their government, there the pulpit would have no occasion
to talk of government. I never heard or knew of such a
community. Though sheltered by Roman despotism, Herod
and the chief priests abstained from this and that because
they " feartid the people." The Sultan dared to murder his
Janissaries only when the streets came to hate them as much
as he did. The Czar, at the head of a government whose
cou'^titution knows no check, but poison and the dagger, yet
feels the pressure of public opinion. Certainly, where pews
are full of voters, no question but the sermon should be full
of politics.

" The Lord reigneth ; let the earth rejoice." " The Cov-
enant with Death" is annulled; "the Agreement with
Hell " is broken to pieces. The chain which has held the
slave system since 1787 is parted. Tiiirty years ago. South-
ern leaders, sixteen years ago. Northern Abolitionists, an-
nounced their purpose to seek the dissolution of the Amer-
ican Union. Who dreamed that success would come so
soon? South Carolina, bankrupt, alone, with a hundred
thousand more slaves than whites, four blacks to three whites,
within her borders, flings her gauntlet at the feet of twenty-
five millions of peo[)le in defence of an idea, to maintain
what she thinks her right. I would New England could
count one State as fearless among Iier six! Call it not the
madness of an enjiineer who stands in front of his cannon at
the moment of discharge ; — call it rather the forlorn hope
of the mariner, seizing plank or spar in the fury of the storm.


The mistake of South Carolina is, she fimcies there is more
chance of saving slavery outside of tlie Union than inside.
Three wStates have followed her example. Probably the
rest of the Slave States, or many of them, will find them-
selves unable to resist the infection, and then the whole
raerciless conspiracy of 1787 is ended, and timid men will
dare to hate slavery without trembling for bread or life.

Let us look at the country — the North, the South, and
the Government. The South divided into three sections :
1st, Thase who hold slaves exactly as they do bank-stock or
land — and of course love the Union, which enables them to
treat man as property — timid wealth shrinking from change,
but so timid as to stand dumb. 2d, Those who have ruled
the nation sixty years, monopolizing Presidents' chairs and
embassies ; defeated now, these plan, in earnest sincerity, for
another nation with presidencies and embassies all to them-
selves. 3d, A class made up from these two, who cling to
the Union in their hearts, but threaten loudly, well knowing
the loudest threats get the best bargain.

The object of the South is a separate confederacy, hop-
ing they can stand long enough for the North to ask for an-
nexation on their terms.

Then comes the Government, so-called — in reality a con-
spiracy against justice and honest men ; some of its mem-
bers pilferers and some traitors — the rest pilferers and trai-
tors too. Like all outgoing administrations, they have no
wish to lessen the troubles of their successors by curing the
nation's hurt — rather aggravate it. They have done all
the mischief in their power, and long now only to hear the
clock strike twelve on the 4th day of March.

Then look at the North, divided into three sections. 1st,
The defeated minority, glad of any thing that troubles their
conquerors. 2d, The class of Republicans led by Seward,
offering to surrender any thing to save the Union. (Ap-
plause.) Their gospel is the Constitution (applause), and
the slave clause is their sermon on the mount. (Laughter
and applause.) They think that at the judgment-day, the
blacker the sins they have committed to save the Union, the
clearer will be their title to heaven. 3d, The rest of the
Republicans, led by the Tribune^ — all honor to the Tribune,
faithful and true ! — who consider their honor pledged to
fulfil in office the promises made in the canvass. Their


motto is : " The Chicago platform, every inch of it ; nol u
bair's-breadth of the territories shall be surrendered to hIhv-
ery." (Applause.) But they, too, claim the cannon's monlli
to protect forts, defend the flag, and save the Union. Al ll»'
head of this section, we have every reason to believe, standi
Mr. Abraham Lincoln.

All these are the actors on the stage. But the foundnli'tti
on which all stand divides only into two parts: those uIm»
like slavery and mean it shall last — those who hate it mimI
mean it shall die. In the boiling gulf goes on the perpfliinl
conflict of acid and alkali ; all these classes are but biil»l>l«"»
on the surface. The upper millstone is right, and the lon<'i'
wrong. Between them, governments and parchments, pur
ties and compromises, are being slowly ground to powder.

Broadly stated, the Soutli plans a Southern Confedennv
to uphold slavery — the North clings to the Union to ujtlM'M
trade and secure growth. Without the Union, Mr. SevMird
tells us we can neither be safe, rich, strong, nor happy. AVp
used to think justice was before thrift, and nobleness beM"i'
than happiness. I place no great reliance on that prud<'»»''
patriotism which is the child of interest. The Tribune, un-
usually frank, pre-eminently honorable and lofty as has been
its tone of late, still says, " Be it the business of the p«'o|tl«<
everywhere to forget the negro, and remember only iIm*
countr}'." (Applause.)

After drifting, a dreary night of thirty years, before Hm'
hurricane, our ship of State is going to pieces on the )«''*
shore of slavery. Everyone confesses that the poison "'
our body j)olitic is slavery. European critics, in view of ••»
have pronounced the existence of the Union hitherto a " f'"
tunate accident." Orators floated into fame on one inspii' ''
phrase, "irrepressible conflict." Jefferson died foresc* inK
^ that this was the rock on which we should split. Even M''
Webster, speaking with bated breath, in the cold chill ''^
1850, still dared to be a statesman, and offered to meet <h''
South on this question, suggesting a broad plan for the efM'''
of our dread disease. But now, with the Union dro])]/in'/
asunder, with every brain and tongue active, we have yt '"
hear the first statesman word, the first proposal to consid' ^
the fountain and origin of all our ills. We look in \Mi"
through Mr. Seward's speech for one hint or suggestion w«
to any method of dealing with our terrible hurt. Indr-^'^^


one of his terrors of disunion is, that it will give room for
"an European, an uncompromising hostility to slavery."
Such an hostility — the irrepressible eonfliet of right and
wrong — William H. Seward, in 1861, pronounces "fearful " !
To describe the great conflict of the age, the first of Atner-
ican statesmen, in the year of Garibaldi and Italy, can find
no epithet but " fearful."

The servile silence of the 7th of March, 18o0, is outdone,
and, to New York, Massachusetts yields the po-^t of infamy
which lier great Senator has hitherto filled. Yes, of all the
doctors bending over the patient, not one dares to name his
disease, except the Tribune^ which advises him to forget it !
Throughout half of the great cities of the Xorth, every one
who touches on it is mobbed into silence ! This is, indeed,
the saddest feature of our times.

Let us, then, who, unlike Mr. Seward, are not afraid to
tell, even now, all and just what we wish — let us look at
the real nature of the crisis in which we stand. The Tri-
bune says we should " forget the negro." It seems to me
that all our past, all our present, and all our future com-
mand us at this moment to think of nothing but the negro.
(Slight laughter derisively.)

Let me tell you why. Mr. Seward says, '• The first object
of every human society is safety ; " I think the first duty of
society is justice. Alexander Hamilton said, '' Justice is
the end of government. It is the end of civil society." If
any other basis of safety or gain were honest, it would be
impossible. *' A prosperous iniquity," says Jeremy Taylor,
"is the most unprofitable condition in the world." The na-
tion which, in moments when great moral questions <listurb
its peace, consults fii-st for its own sajWi/, is atheist and cow-
ard, and there are three chances out of four that it will end
by being knave. We were not sent into the world to plant
cities, to make Unions or save them. Seeing that all men
are born equal, our first civil duty is to see that our laws
treat them so. The convulsion of this hour is the effort of
the nation to do this, its duty, while politicians and parties
strive to balk it of its purpose. The natioji agonizes this
hour to recognize man as man, forgetting the color, condi-
tion, sex, and creed.

Our Revolution earned us only independence. Whatever
our fathers meant, the chief lesson of that hour was that


America l»olongs to American?:. That generation learned it
tliorouglily ; the second inherited it as a prejudice; we, the
third, havp our bones and blood made of it. AVhen thought
passes through purpose into character, it becomes the un-
changeahlo basis of national life. That Revolutionary les-
son nctil lu'ver be learned again, and will never die out.
Let a liiiii>,|i fleet, with admirals of the blue and red, cover
our Atlaniic coast, and in ten days, Massachusetts and Caro-
lina will stand shoulder to shoulder, the only rivalry, who
shall die nearest the foe. (Loud applause, with cries of

That principle is all our Revolution directly taught us.
MassaclniM'tts was hide-bound in the aristocracy of classes
for y(fi >^ after. The Ijar and the orthodox j)ulpit were our
House of Lords. A Baptist clergyman was little better
than a negro. The five points of ^lassachusetts decency
were, to trace your lineage to the Mayflower, graduate at
Harvanl (\>lU^ge, be a good lawyer or a member of an
orthodox ehnrch, — either would answer (laughter), — pay
your deb;v. and frighten your child to sleep by saying
" Thoina^ .let^erson."' Our theological aristocra(;y went
down bv-ton^ the stalwart blows of Jiaptist, Unitai-iaii, and
Freelhiukv r — before Channing and Al)ncr Kneeland.
Virginia -slaveholders, making tiieorelical democracy their
passivMi, \>%n(piered the Federal Government, and emanci-
pated ihv- working classes of New England. Bitter w;is the
cup to iHM>e-t FederaUsm and the E<sex junto. To-day,
Massachov(Mts only holds to the lips of Carolina a beaker
of the svi^nie beverage. I know no man who has ana-
lyzed tluv passage in our history so well as Richard Hil-
dreth. The last thirty years have been the flowering out of
this les.vv,\n. Tiie Democratic principle, crumbling classes
into men., h;is been working down from pulpits and judges*
seats, tb^^^,^pr), shoj)-boards and shoe-benches, to Irisii hod-
men, ai.'sx reached the negro at last. Tiie long toil of a
century v-vios out "Eureka/" — I have found it ! — the dia-
mond o: ,?,-,i immortal soul and an equal manhood under a
black islv/, a< triily as under a white one. For tiiis, Leggett
labored ,<->^l Lovejoy died. For this, the bravest soul of the
centui-y >^-ont u\) to God from a \'irginia scaffold. (Hisses
and app»:;-)j>(v.) Yor this, young m<'n gave up iheir iNIay of
youth, ajTh.i old men the lionors and ease of ag(3. It went


through the land writing history afresh, setting up and pull- \

ing down parties, riving sects, mowing down colossal reputa-
tions, mal-iing us veil our faces in shame at the baseness of
our youlli'a idols, sending bankrupt statesmen to dishonored

We stand to-day just as Hancock and Adams and Jeffer-
son stood, wJK^n stamp act and tea tax, Patrick Henry's elo-
quence and the massacre of March 5th. Otis' blood and
Bunker Hill, had borne them to July, 177G. Suppose at
that moment John Adams had cried out, " Now let the peo-
ple everywhere forget Independence, and remember only
* God save the King'!" (Laughter.) The toil of a whole
generation — thirty 3 ears — has been s|)ent in examining (his
question of the rights and place of tiie negro; the whole
earnest thought of the nation given to it; old parties have
been worked against it, new ones grown out of it ; it stifles
all other questions ; the great interests of the nation neces-
sarily suffer, men refusing to think of any thing but this ;
it struggles up through all compromises, asserting its right
to be heard ; no gieen withes of eloquence or cuiuiing, trade,
pulpit, Congress, or college, succeed in binding this Sam-
son ; the business of tiie seaboard begs it may be settled, no
matter how ; the whole vSouth is determined to have it met,
proclaiming that it does not secede because of Personal
Liberty Laws or a Republican Presi<lent, but because of
the state of Northern feeling of which these are signs. It
is not Northern laws or officers they fear, but Nortiiern co)i-
science. Why, then, should not tlie North accept the issue,
and try to settle the question forever? You may run the
Missouri line to the Pacilic, but Garrison still lives; and
while he does. South Carolina hates and fears JMassachu-
setts. (Applause.) No congressional resolves can still our
brains or stifle our hearts ; till you do, the slaveholder feels
that New P^ngland is liis natural foe. There can therefore
be no real peace till we settle the slave question. If thiity
years of debate have not fitted us to meet it, when shall we
be able ?

But the most honest Republicans say a State has no right
to secede; we will show first that we have a goverrmieut,
and then, not ix'ibre, settle vlisputed questions. Supjjose a
State has no i ight to secede, of what consequence is that ?
A Union is made up of willing States, not of conquered


provinces. Thore are pome riglits, quite perfect, yet wholly
incapable of being enforced. A husband or wife who cmh
■ only keep the other partner within the bond by locking the
'doors and standing armed before, them, had better submit to
'''■peaceable separation. (Applause.) A firm where one
partner refuses to act, has a full right to his services, but
;iiow compel them ? South Carolina may be punished for
her fault in going out of the Union, but that does not keep
• ' her in it. Why not recognize soberly the nature and neces-
sity of our position? "Why not, like statesmen, remember
that homogeneous nations, like France, tend to centralization;
' confederacies, like ours, tend inevitably to dismember-
' ment ? France is the slow, still deposit of ages on central
"granite; only the globe's convulsion can rive it! We are
* the rich mud of the Mississippi; every flood shifts it from
'^^^le side to the other of the channel. Nations, like Austna,
" Tictim States, held under the lock and key of despotism, —
» or like ourselves, a herd of States, hunting for their food
together, — must expect that any quarrel may lead to dis-
' union. Beside, Iiiter arma, silent leges — Armies care
' nothing for constables. This is not a case at law, but rev-

Let us not, however, too anxiously grieve over the Union

of 1787. Real Unions are not made, they grow. Tiiis

'was made, like an artificial waterfall or a Connecticut nut-

' meg. It was not an oak which to-day a tempest shatters.

It was a wall hastily built, in hard times, of round boulders ;

' the cement has crumbled, and the smooth stones, obeying

the law of gravity, tumble here and there. Why should

we seek to stop them, merely to show that we have a right

and can ? Tliat were only a waste of means and temper.

Let us build, like the pyramids, a fabric which every natural

law guarantees ; or, better still, plant a L^nion whose life

survives the ages, and quietly gives birth to its successor.

"Mr. Seward's last speech, which he confesses does not
express his real convictions, denies every principle, but one,
that he proclaimed in his campaign addresses ; that one —
which, at Lansing, he expressly said " he was ashamed to
confess" — that one is this: Every thing is to be sacrificed
to save the Union. I am not aware that, on any public oc-
casion, varied and wide as have been his discussions and
topics, he has ever named the truth or the virtue which he


would not sacrifice to >ave the Union. For thirty years,
there lias been slormv and searcliin^r di?cu<:«ion ot" profound
moral que.stions; one, wliom his friends call our only states-
nuui, has s[)oken often on all ; yet he has never named the
sin which he does not think its saving of the Union would
not change into a virtue.

Remembering this element of his statesmanship, let us
listen to the key-note of his late speech : " The first object
of every human society 13 safety or security, for which, if
need be, they will and tliey must sacrifice every other."

I will not stop to say that, even with his explanation, his
princij)le is equivocal, and, if unlimited, false ; that, uncjual-
ilied, it jusciiies every crime, and would have prevented
«»Tery glory oi" history; that by it, James II. and Bonaparte
were saints; under one sense, the Pilgrims were madmen,
and under another, the Puritans did right to hang Quakers.
But grant it. Suppose the Union means wealth, culture,
La[)piness, and safety, man has no right to buy either by

IMany years ago, on the floor of Congress, Kentucky and
Tennessee both confessed that ''the dissolution of the Union
was the dissolution of slavery." Last month, Senator .John-
son of Tennessee said, '* If I were an abolitionir^t, and wanted
to accomplish the abolition of slavery in the Southern States,
the first step I would take would be to break the bonds of
this Union. I believe the continuance of slavery dej)ends on
the preservation of this Union, and a compliance with all the
guarantees of the Constitution." In September last (at La-
Crosse) Mr. Seward himself said, ''What are they [the South-
ern States] in for, but to have slavery saved for them l»y
the Fe(leral Union? Why would they go out, for they could
not maintain and defend themselves against their own slaves!'''
In this last speech, he tells us it is the Union which restricts
the op[)osition to slavery within narrow limits, and prevents
it from being, like that of Europe, a '' direct and uncompro-
mising" demand for abolition.

Kow, if the Union created for us a fresh Golconda every
month, if it made every citizen wise as Solomon, blameless
as St. .John, and safe as an angel in the courts of Heaven,
to cling to it would still be a damnable crime, hateful to
God, while its cement was the blood of the negro — while


it, and it alone, made the crime of slavcholdiiig possible in
fifteen States.

MiC Seward is a power in the State. It is worth while to
understand his course. It cannot be caprice. His position
decides that of millions. The instinct that leads him to
take it shows his guess (and he rarely errs) what the ma-
jority intend. I reconcile tlius the utter difference and op-
position of his campaign speeches, and his last one. I think
he went West, sore at the loss of the nomination, but with
too much good sense, perhaps magnanimity, to act over again
Webster's sullen part when Taylor stole his rights.

Still, Mr. Seward, though philosophic, though keen to an-
alyze and unfold the theory of our politics, is not cunning in
plans, lie is only the hand and tongue ; his brain lives in
private life on the Hudson River side. Acting under that
guidance, he thought Mr. Lincoln not likely to go beyond,
even if he were able to keep, the whole Chicago platform.
Accordingly, he said, "I will give free rein to my natural feel-
ings and real convictions, till these Abolitionists of the Re-
publican ranks shall cry, ' Oh, what a mistake ! We
ought to have nominated Seward ; another time we will not
be balked.'" Hence the hot eloquence and fearless tone of
those prairie speeches. He returns to Washington, finds
Mr. Lincoln sturdily insisting that his honor is pledged to
keep, in office, every promise made in the platform. Then
Mr, Seward shifts his course, saying, *' Since my abolition-
ism cannot take the wind from my rival's sails, I'll get credit
as a Conservative. Accepting the premiershij^ I will fore-
stall public opinion, and do all possible to bind the coming
administration to a policy which I originate." He oflfers to
postpone the whole Chicago Platform, in order to save the
Union — though last October, at Chicago, he told us post-
ponement never settles any thing, whether it is a lawsuit
or national question ; better be beat and try again, than post-

This speech of Mr. Seward I regard as a declai-ation of
war against the avowed policy of the incoming President.
If Lincoln were an Andrew* Jackson, as his friends aver, he
would dismiss Mr. Seward from his Cabinet. The incoming
administration, if honest and firm, has two enemies to fight,
Mr. Seward and the South,

His power is large. Already he has swept our Adams


into the vortex, making him offer to sncrifice the whole
Republican platform, though, as events have turned, he has
sacrificed only his own personal honor. Fifteen years ago,
John Quincy Adams prophesied that the Union would not
last twenty years. He little thought that disunion, when it
came, would swallow his son's honor in its gulf.*

At such hours. New England Senators and Representa-
tives have, from the very idea of their ultraism, little or no
direct weight in Conjiress. But while New England is the
brain of the Union, and therefore foreshadows what will be
public opinion in the plastic West five years hence, it is of
momentous consequence that the people here should make
tbeir real feelings known ; that the pulpit and press should
sound the bugle-note of utter defiance to slavery itself —
Union or no Union, Constitution or no Constitution, freedom
for every man between the oceans, and from the hot Gulf to
the frozen Pole ! You may as well dam up Niagara with
bulrushes as bind our anti-slavery purpose with congres-
sional compi'omise. The South knows it. While she holds
out her hand for Seward's ofler, she keeps her eye fixed on
us, to see what we think. Let her see that we laugh it to
scorn. Sacrifice any thing to keep the slaveholding States
in the Union? God forbid! we will rather build a bridge
of gold, and pay their toll over it — accompany them out
with glad noise of trumpets, and " speed the parting guest.'*
Let them not "stand on the order of their going, but go at
once"! Let them take the forts, empty our arsenals and
sub-treasuries, and we will lend them beside jewels of gold
and jewels of silver, and Egypt be glad when they are
departed. (Laughter and applause.)

But let the world distinctly undei*stand why they go —
to save slavery; and why we rejoice in their departure —
because we know their declaration of independence is the
jubilee of the slave. The eyes of the world are fixed on us
as the great example of self-government. When this Union
goes to pieces, it is a shock to the hopes of the struggling
millions of Europe. All lies bear bitter fruit. To-day is
the inevitable fruit of our fathers* faithless compromise in
1787. For the sake of the future, in freedom's name, let

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Online LibraryWendell PhillipsDisunion: two discourses at Music Hall, on January 20th, and February 17th, 1861 → online text (page 1 of 5)