Tayler Lewis.

The heroic periods in a nation's history. An appeal to the soldiers of the American armies online

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A NATION is born, a league is aiade. The oue is a natuial
aud historical product, the other an outward and artificial
construction. The one has an inward organic power making
its organization what it is, the other is made by its organiza-
tion as a purely outward adjustment. In other words, a na-
tion lias a true life, vivifying every part, and felt in every part ;
a league is a mere balance of power, an equilibrium of me-
chanical forces. Hence a nations-has. a true political person-
ality ; it has a conscience, an acconntlibility-; a league is the
creature of diplomacy ; it (^an 'have, at the' highest, no other
principle for its inward or outward action than a time-serving
expediency ; there can enter in its history no high question of
right, for anything of the kind would be a disturbing instead
of a conserving element. A nation claims a true allegiance ;
a league has no higher obligation than a temporary contract,
Avhich each party may put an end to, with no other consider-
ation than its own safety in so doing. A nation is an histor-
ical power ordained of God, and representing God upon earth ;
a league is a purely human thing, a contrivance of politicians,
often the lowest contrivance of the lowest politicians. Such
political alliances have often appeared in history. There were
the ever-dissolving Grecian confederacies ; there was the short-
lived Achaean league, the best of them all ; there were the
Italian leagues of the middle ages ; there have been European
congresses and alliances of more modern times ; going back
into the remote past, we find the remarkable " confederacy,"

mention :-d by the Psalmist, of " Edom and the Ishmaelites,
of Moab and the Hargarencs ; " last of all there lias been tlie
Soutbein Confederacy, beginning to crumble as soon as formed*
having the elements of weakness and wickedness in its very
inception, and falling to pieces through its own innate deprav^-
ity, its own inbred dissensions, even when a fierce outward,
conflict was giving it an unnatural vigor and an artificial enthu-
siasm. It might have destroyed the nation whose life it
assailed ; it never could have sustained itself. Its brief
wretched existence shows us the fearful danger we have ^^1
escaped, the fatal wreck that might have come over the whole
nation, from the example even of its temporary success.

Political combinations of this kind have ever exhibited the
same base features. Products of an evil diplomacy were they
all. Their history is nothing but a history of faction and in-
trigue. They have ever presented the worst aspects of human
nature, destroying social integrity, and weakening the sense of
obligation id the individual man, by merging it in a soulless
mechanism having neither life, nor honor, nor conscience, nor
accountability. They have never had anything great and glo-
. rious about them, except as they have approached, or been trans-
formed into, the national idea, or have had a transient honor
from flashes of glory that have occasionally appeared in some
of their component parts. In thenaselves, they have ever
been the deformities of human history. For such leagues
there are no elements of the sublime, because there are no
necessary historical ideas connected with them ; no elevating
reminiscences of the past ; no proud hopes of the future ; no
inspiring eras ; no symbolic words and days to call out a lofty
enthusiasm; no great questions of right; in a word, no heroic
periods, such as are ever associated with the ideas of a true
political personality, and of a precious national life. All is
sordid, low, selfish. Such political mechanisms, if they de-
serve the name, may be said to have, in truth, no history in
themselves, or as wholes. It is simply a record of the selfish,
sectional struggles of the parts with each other and wnth the

embracing combination. This must be so, since there is no
national feeling — in^other words, no feeling of a common life,
to prevent it. The annals of such a soulless corporation can
give us nothing more than the unceasing strivings of sections
ever disturbing in the very effort to maintain this mechanical
balance of power, or ever seeking to separate themselves from
the merely artificial whole with which they are connected by
no living bond.

It is only a nation that can have anything truly heroic in
its history, and the converse of this holds equally true ; every
real nation created by God, even the smallest and most
obscure of them, have had, somewhere in the course of their
political existence, their heroic periods. It is the historical
sign of nationality. It has been their birth struggle, or some
other eventful time or times to which they are ever looking back,
as that which gives them a title to stand in the family of na-
tions. It is that which gave them oneness and totality, or se-
cured it against destruction, and to which they, therefore,
refer as identical with their national life and national contin-
uance. Even Portugal thus looks back to the days of Vasco
da Gama ; Holland remembers, and yet lives in, the remem-
brance of her glorious struggle for nationality ; aud so, too,
the national existence of Sweden yet derives strength from
the great period of her emerging from anarchy in the days of
Gustavus Vasa. It is the remembrance of Tell and his heroic
time that makes Switzerland a true nation, preventing the league
character, which enters too much into her structure, from
wholly marring her noble history. In the greater nations
this has shown°itself still more strikingly. All that is politic-
ally high and glorious has ever connected itself with these
thoughts of a national hfe, as a true personality having at
some periods of its course such facts of a glorious past, and
making that past the ground of its hope in the future.

A heroic age may be briefly defined as one predominantly
unselfish, or as a time when the self-consciousness, both
individual and national, is all taken up in some strong absorb-


ing emotion— when a strange elevation of feeling and corres-
ponding dignity of action are seen in men, and they seem to
be carried on by impulses that appear extravagant to the more
calculating temperaments of succeeding times. This heroic
spirit is not grace, nor religion, but that which stands next to '
them among the moving powers of humanity. It is, in other
words, the highest thing purely human. Strong feeling, like
the pure reason, is unselfish, and the heroism of which we
speak may be characterized as the self-forgetfulness aroused by
a great ri(/kt, or a great idea, and grounded on the fact that
the ideal in man is ever higher and purer than his ordinary
actual. The denial of this is a mere play upon words. It is
enough to justify the name that such intense passion, so called
out, is something far above the low, sordid, consciously calcu-
lating selfishness of our common life. Such heroic periods in
a nation's history seemed designed by Providence, not for
themselves only, or the great etiects of which they are the
immediate causes, but for their influence upon the whole after-
current of the national existence. The strong remembrance
becomes a part of the national life ; it enters afterward into
the common and constant thinking; it gives a peculiar direc-
tion to the national feeling; it imparts a higher character to
its subsequent action ; it makes the whole historical being
very different from what it would have been had there been no
such epic commencement, no such heroic time ,or times. It fur-
nishes a treasury of glorious reminiscences wherewith to rein-
vigorate the national virtue when impaired, as it is so like to
be, by the factious, and selfish, and unheroic temper produced
by subsequent days of merely economical or utilitarian pros-

And thus ^oe stand in the family of nations. Young as
we are we too have had our heroic periods, the second, in
respect to glory, every way worthy of being named together
with the first. The earlier struggle has passed into history,
and its character is secured. The critical after-period was
marked by no compromises, no letting down of the heroic

idea out of a false charity to traitors, no belittling of the
great struggle, no marring of its honor by any attempts to
give eqnal honor to its domestic foes, no obscuring the great
truth for the political accommodation of tories who had fought
against it, no yielding the great right by admitting to Its
equal guardianship men who had zealously opposed its asser-
tion, no sinking into ignominy the whole contest, on both sides,
by lessening that great right to a mere question of "stand-
points," as though it had in itself no intrinsic, unchangeable
truth as seen from every stand-point. The men of that day
never admitted that they went through a long and fierce war
to settle what might have at any time been viewed as an open
question, or which had not been regarded as irrevocably de-
cided from the beginning. They fought not to settle what
was in itself doubtful, and which, therefore, never could be so
settled, but to assert and maintain what was certain, vital
never to be yielded. Such was the temper of the men who
essayed the "reconstruction " of our nation after the war in
which it had its birth. No such proceedings followed our
first glorious epoch as now threaten to tarnish the lustre of the
second and to deprive it of all its due historic eftect.

It is all idle for the false conservative to say that there is
no danger of this. History does, indeed, in time, assert itself,
and the value of the heroic is not wholly lost, but it may be
obscured for generations. There never was for England a
nobler period than that of the wars of the Puritans ao-ainst
the Stuarts. Its honor is now again emerging from the cloud
but we know that unprincipled reaction and a base reconstruc-
tion, under the name of restoration, put the brand of ino-lorious
centuries upon the most heroic cause and the roost heroic
names in English history. We must see to it that our Hamp-
dens, our Pyms, and our Vanes, our civil and military heroes,
our glorious asserters of the fundamental idea of the Ameri-
can Picpublic be not suffered to fall under the same long re-
proach. Above all must we see to it that the Monks and the

Clarendons do not get the upper hand — that they be not the
men to represent us aod our history in generations to come.

There is no need to dwell further on our first great histor-
ical time. Another similar epoch, still more terrible, is yet to
have its place and character assigned to it. It is not too much
to say that we are now assigning it. This present political
canvass is to determine whether the conflict through which we
have just passed is to take its place of honor beside our first
struggle, and to go down to history in company with it, or
whether it is to be stripped, for a time at least, of all its
grander features, and reckoned among the inglorious wars of
faction, differing in no respect from a vulgar prize-fight except
in the ocean of bloodshed which it has occasioned.

A war of faction, a bloody mob-fight g -'owing out of a
presidential election, a base contest between " two sets of ex-
tremists," each equally wrong, equally deserving the reproba-
tion of the country — an ignominious strife, " swinging round
from South to North ; " such is the representation given by
Andrew Johnson, when he himself revives again these words
of faction, the North and the South — talking of extremists
w^hen, in all the proceedings that for long years were prepar-
ing this war, he himself was one of the extremes of Southern
extremists, voting with them through Kan«a«, through Le-
compton, his name standing on record wnth Davis, Mason,
Slidell, Tombs, and Wigfall, as constantly and as regularly as
the letters of the alphabet. He now sees things " swinging
round," and puts on a par with the extremists to whom he had
so long allied himself (even to the very verge of the traitorous
plunge) men who never violated a law of the land, and who
have been ever foremost in defense of our national honor.

So, Seward calls it " a civil war," as other advocates of the
rebellion have compared it to the American revolution. Be-
tween this and the unspeakable crime of the Southern leaders
there is no parallel whatever. Besides being for a most
righteous cause, our first war with Britain was a contest


Detween a mother country atid a far-distant misgoverned col-
ony. It differed in no essential aspect from a war b'etween
two distant nations. It was a separation coming in tlie natu-
ral course of things, as belonging to the very intent and idea
of colonization. As compared with the Southern war for
slavery, it presents all the difference between the necessary
pains of parturition and the most foul matricidal murder. In
like manner, Seward's deceptive term, a " civil war," is equally
out of place. It is designed to lower the whole struggle, even
as the other comparison was meant unduly to elevate the
South. But it is an utter misnomer. It was no civil war.
This term is rightly applied to contentions where two opposing
forces in a state are striving in an irregular and violent man-
ner for the mastery, neither seeking to destroy the nation, but
each, on the contrary, protesting their superior devotion to the
preservation of the national life. Such wars have been fre-
quent in the world, disastrous and bloody, though not wholly
destitute, on both sides, of some features of the heroic. Sach
were in England the wars of the Roses ; such were the
struggles between King and Parliament. They were not like
this indescribable rebellion against republicanism. So France,
too, can find redeeming elements of glory in her fierce revolu-
tions. For in none of these contests was either French or
English nationality ever assailed. Neither party thour>-ht of
harming it. AH would have united in a struggle for its pres-
ervation, one and indivisible. The CromweUian and the cav-
alier, the aristocrat and the sans culottes, held alike sacred
that precious historical idea on which we have insisted as the
radical distinction between a nation and a base, factious
league. But in our own case how utterly the reverse was the
spectacle presented ! It was the very life of the nation that
was assailed ; it was an effort by the foulest means to blot it
out of history. This was the unspeakable crime attempted by
the plotting "extremists" with whom Andrew Johnson had
been so long connected. For this there were sought the
basest foreign alliances. This vile league had its still viler


leagues abroad. Recreant to tlie name and the idea of repub-
licanism, they had their emissaries praying aid from Euro-
pean monarchies, not in defense of, but for the destruction of,
the freest and most beneficent government on earth. Men
who once sat in the Senate of the United States, men with
whose ayes and noes Andrew Johnson's voice had long
sounded in unbroken unison, lurking at foreign courts where
the very name of their country was hateful and her noble in-
stitutions of freedom were more dreaded than anything
else on earth ! This was the utterly un-American proceeding
of the Southern Confederacy ; this was the unspeakable crime
of Mason and Slidell, whom Andrew Johnson would compare
with Wilson, and Andrews, and Sumner, and Fenton, and
Stevens, and Cuvtin, "at the other end of the line." What
crimes have " these men " committed that they should be so
stigmatized ? What have they done except to defend, most
ably and manfully, opinions which, whether we call them
practical or not, every man knows to be in soul-accordance
with the Declaration of Independence, in most conservative
harmony with that great historical document which underlies
all our republican ideas, and gives us our distinctive character
among the nations of the earth. For long years had Andrew
Johnson's colleagues freely maintained opinions subversive of
all these ideas, though holding, all the time, the highest oBices
in the government. But " these men," whose only excess, if it
be excess, is in their love of freedom— " these men" the
President calls the Northern traitors. At every railway sta-
tion the same violent language is repeated. He means by this
the unbroken loyal pai-ty, including Congress and the govern-
ors of all the loyal States. He means by it just what copper-
head editors have meant by the same language throughout
the war. But strangest sight of all is what may be called the
afterpiece in this dramatic performance. At every repetition,
forth steps one who was for so many yea's an honored leader
in this party, one who gained the name of its chief " radical "
from those who now assail it. He has no confession to make.


but hardly is the intemperate harangue concluded when he
appears upon the railway stage and blandly says: This is all
just so, my fellow-citizens ; — what our great and good Presi-
dent tells you is nothing but the honest truth. Could there
well be conceived a m^re melancholy spectacle ? And yet we
would not forget the great services that this man has rendered
to the cause of right and freedom. We will rather tax our
iancy to invent palliations for his present course, than to
believe that in the past days of his high and deserved renown
he was either self-ignorant or insincere. It was not merely aid
that these Southern "extremists" sought; they endeavored to
degrade, in every possible way, the republic which Washing-
ton and Franklin had helped to found. They continually cast
the foulest reproach upon our history and our name. Men
now seeking admission to Congress, men lately sitting in the
Johnson-Philadelphia Convention, were foremost in the plan-
ning and the execution of these base anti-national embassies.
A civil war might have been waged and yet each party pre-
serve an American and a republican position. A civil war,
had it been truly such, might have had a ground for conciliation ;
this utterly traitorous and un-American proceeding excludes
every idea of harmonious action with the guilty participants.
The men who did this, the men who planned and supported it,
may have an amnesty consigning them to contempt, though
leaving to them life and property ; they may have mercy with
io-nominy, but forgiveness nsver. We mean national and polit-
ical forgiveness. They can never more be permitted to sit in
an American senate ; they can never more be trusted with the
national honor. This sinks as they rise ; the cause for which
250,000 men have died loses its historical glory just in propor-
tion as these men are suffered to emerge from their infamy.

" Our late civil war," says Secretary Seward. By such
language as this he would seem to regard it, not as a struggle
for a nation's life, but a party fight, to be cured by a little di-
plomacy. The " higher law " was forgotten in his pleasant chat
with Governor Perry about " Northern and Southern stand-


points," It all became a matter of perspective. The "irre-
pressible conflict " resolved itself into a difference of latitude,
a mere difference of style, according as a speech happened to
be made in Ch-irlestun or New York. A fight between two
parlies ! Most true, indeed, but who were the parties ? Every-
thing depends upon the right naming of the issue. It was
not North and South. It was not two factions in a nation,
each equally zealous, or professing to be, for nationality. It
was the Nation versus Rebels. It was the nation on the one
side, the whole nation, in its total political idea, a republican
nation, with its national life, struggling with men North and
South who were seeking to destroy that life, to bury the
national idea, and resorting to the most unscrupulous as well
as the most bloody means to effect their purpose.

It is here that the distinction we have made becomes of
vital importance, and that is the reason why we have so
strongly insisted upon it. It at once clears up the issue and
exposes the deceptive statement. Had we been a mere league,
there might have been some more plausible ground for char-
acterizing it as such a factious " civil war." It was, on the
other hand, the nation warring with a most mischievous idea
that long had been poisoning its vitality, and which could only
save its life by casting it out. It was not sectssion merely — a
thing which may be asserted or renounced according to the
expediencies of the times — but that from which secession inev-
itably comes. It was, we say again, a nation contending for
its life. What must we think of a man making high claims
to the reputation of a statesman who could overlook or ignore
this vital point. It was not North versus South, nor even
States against States ; that view is the product of the disor-
ganizing league idea. Even in these rebellious States the
nation existed all along — as much in Georgia as in New York.
It never ceased for a moment to be present in every part dur-
ing the hottest period of the war, the same as before and after
it. In all these seceding portions there had been, for eighty
years, the high national jurisdiction, supeiior to, yet in con-


currence with, the local, and that, too, not as a government
over States (as that of States over individuals), or coming in
contact with the individual only by means of State interven-
tion, but reaching down through the States, exercising direct
jurisdiction, having direct power over, and claiming direct
allegiance from, every man, black or white, included in their
lower geographical organizations. This national jurisdiction
was never lost, never relaxed. It was at no time a mere wait-
ing claim, or in any manner put in abeyance, but insisted
upon, and enforced every moment by the most vigorous action,
until fully and triumphantly reasserted. Mr. Lincoln's oath,
" registered in heaven,*' never lost for a moment the solemnity
and the power of its sublime attestation. As became inevit-
able in such a conflict, the opposing local governm^^nts per-
ished — perished by the very position in which they had placed
themselves— perished by their own suicidal acts. Unless we
hold that death may be a part of life, or that disorganization
may be the law of an organic structure, or that a thing may
be at, the same time in violent resistance and yet in harmonious
relation to the whole of which it forms a constituent portion,
the conclusion must follow : The State governments, taking
this position, perished ; but the nation never lost, never loosed
its hold. This is not metaphysics but common sense. What-
ever ideal States may have remained hidden away, and out of
all sight of the actual, as some have dreamed, the assumed
State governments of which McGrath, and Vance, and Letcher
claimed to be heads, were not States that the nation could ac-
knowledge ; for a State is an organization, a lawful organiza-
tion, and not a mere geographical space, or a collection of
people. They ceased to be^States — States in the Union, and
we can know no other. The lower perished, but the " higher
law" lived on; the national jurisdiction survived amid all the
tumult, and when the struggle ended this was the only polit-
ical vitality left unharmed in these rebellious portions. As
such it was the fountain, the only fountain, of any future
vitality, of any future political organization for these disorgan-


ized commuhities The nation ttill remained unbioken, "un-
impaired ;" and it was the nation, through its legislative body
constitutioually representing it in such action, that could alone
re-tore the lower and the lost jurisdiction. From it new life
must tiow to those broken, and wasted, and withered members
of the body p.^liiic. Here resided the vis medicatrix from
which alone could come the healing power. For four) ears
there had been no governors in those States, no k-gi^latures,
no judicial officers whom the nation could acknowledge
There was not one among them who had taken the national
oath essential to the validity of their action. -: It was not a par-
tial severance, a partial disorder, that might be cured by par-
tial order yet remaining. The tie of allegiance was broken
everywhere and in all. There was no political or official

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Online LibraryTayler LewisThe heroic periods in a nation's history. An appeal to the soldiers of the American armies → online text (page 1 of 5)