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Mar 24, 1862

There’s No Reasoning with Fanatics

Charles Ingersoll's "Letter to a Friend in a Slave State," Part Three

Ingersoll chastises fanatics on either side of the Mason-Dixon: the fanatical, imperial Northerner and the paranoid, prideful Southerner.

Editor’s Note

For his next anti-war—but thoroughly Unionist—plea to peoples of both sections, Ingersoll chastises the militant for their pride. To the fanatical and uncompromising abolitionists and Republicans, he says they have forgotten the compromising meekness of Christianity. By seizing the sword to accomplish their personal policy agenda, the abolitionists transformed the United States into a crusader state, a rogue actor on the stage of nations worthy of distrust and contempt. To the proud and rash southerners, Ingersoll reiterates a common argument from the antebellum period: southern slave society was safest under the protection of a larger, more powerful government. The Constitution was slavery’s greatest protector, its surest champion; but a reckless lot of fire-eating orators and political schemers foisted secession on a prideful populace. It appeared plain enough to him that the main body of the people on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line wanted peace, but their leaders and the fanatical factions that supported them refused to give up their own aggrandizing quests for power and influence. Should southerners lay down their swords and admit the follies of secession, the abolitionists and centralizers would lose all momentum and all cohesion. Should the northern warmongers cease their attempts at conquest and social (re)engineering, the southern people would abandon their own foolhardy, power-seeking leaders. Somewhat oblivious to the many revolutions happening around him—North and South—Ingersoll preached the Second Party System’s most important creed: Compromise is progress, conciliation a way of life.

Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

LETTER TO A FRIEND IN A SLAVE STATE

By a Citizen of Pennsylvania

Why should not the strong conciliate; why should not the head of an army of seven hundred and eighteen thousand men compromise? Whoever, let him be the most passionate Republican of them all, will recollect what always has been, and now is the way of the world, must admit that compromise is not a policy, but a necessity. In religion, what we call toleration, which is compromise, has become the rule of Christendom; the opposite system being abandoned. If the Emperor of Germany had compromised with the Protestant influence, his successor, this day, would be the arbiter of Europe; but he preferred war, and after thirty years’ fighting had to come to compromise at last, with a loss of power which never has been, or can be recovered. George III was an uncompromising monarch, and lost his thirteen colonies. James II, in the same way, lost his crown. Wellington was called the Iron Duke, but he was a man of eminent good sense, and he compromised with the Catholics rather than quarrel with them. The first Napoleon ruined himself by an uncompromising foreign policy; but his papers, now in course of publication by the present Emperor, show that in the early period of his career, when everything succeeded to which he put his hand, his system was the very contrary of what, afterwards, it became. In England, where the power and influence are in the hands of the few, they retain it, by, from time to time, compromising with the many, and nobody doubts that without it, the question between the parties would have to be settled by main force. The Constitution of the United States was, in the strictest sense, a compromise, and unattainable on any other terms. The Missouri Compromise was repealed in 1854, and agitation redoubled its violence. The so-called compromise with South Carolina, in 1833, was not a compromise, it was a surrender.

Moderation is with us, who, in our career hitherto, have little consulted the opinion of others, more than a duty. We, for the first time since the achievement of our independence, bend to the judgment of foreign nations. With France and England, who have armed in jealousy of one another; who are ready for war, and in a state of preparation for naval hostilities, on a scale of unprecedented magnitude, any untoward event, such as we have seen in the Mason and Slidell difficulty – and, when blows are exchanging, and belligerent and neutral rights in constant question, another might occur at any moment – would serve as an excuse for intervention in our affairs. And what would, more than anything, in the eyes of Europe strengthen their positions, and weaken ours, would be the fact our carrying on our war, in a manner unusual among civilized nations; unaccompanied with offers of peace, and insisting on unconditional submission. The sensibilities of the world, when they desire to be shocked, are easily aroused. Rage against rebellious subjects, has been thought inhuman, when the people of Poland and Hungary were threatened with it by despotic and offended masters; but in the case of a difference among one another of citizens of a Republic, dating its recent existence from a successful revolt, there is an air about it which has already been the subject of criticism among those trans-Atlantic nations, which Mr. Seward must have satisfied himself, when he surrendered the passengers by the Trent, are masters of the game, whenever they choose to come in.

And are they not masters of it? Are we not at the mercy of foreign countries? Is it not in their power, by intervention in favor of the South, to settle our fate, and sink us? And why should they not intervene, to-morrow, to-day, at any moment? Doubtless they would prefer to find reasons for it, answering, as they do, to one another, at the bar of the world; but those are not always waited for, as we see in many instances, our own, among the rest. Our independence having been declared only nineteen months before, on the 6th of February, 1778, our excellent, and never to be forgotten friend, Louis XVI, not pausing upon a recognition, or to raise a blockade, or for any minor object, entered with our provisional government, at once, upon a treaty of alliance, offensive and defensive, which was followed, soon after, by a French fleet and army sent to our aid, there being for intervention no better reason than a desire to damage Great Britain. Nor can we have already forgotten our recent treatment of Mexico, in the case of Texas. Nations do not love one another; and we, who have added rough manners to conduct not always satisfactory, must not expect to be dealt with from the point of justice and morality.

We must bear also in mind the natural desire of aristocratically ruled countries, to witness the failure of our institutions. The sentiment of sympathy, in the United States, was loud and universal, when, in the eventful year of 1848, crowns seemed to be falling off the heads of the monarchs of Europe; and shall they not rejoice, though too well bred to say so, when, in 1862, the Republic, whose prosperous career was daily encouragement to those domestic discontents, which are their main affliction, seems crumbling to the ground? The true mode, and the only one, of considering the question of intervention, is recalling what so often has happened in the history of nations, to assure ourselves that when it becomes decidedly the interest of any foreign country to interpose between us and the South, the interposition will speedily follow.

But they say to you, shall we treat with traitors? Shall we deal with rebellion as if it were virtue? If the question lay between parties who could refer their difference to a court of justice, the reasoning might be good, but we talk of nations. We cannot punish a whole people: even Nero professed himself unable to do that. Certainly, the safest and best rule, as well for communities, as for individuals, is obedience to the laws; but the idea of dealing with rebellious millions as we would a bad citizen is inadmissible. In the days when there were no people, rebellion, which was an affair of the chiefs only, could sometimes be “crushed out;” but now the masses play their part, and to speak of millions of rebels and millions of traitors is a political misnomer. When in 1776, to start on that brilliant career, now eclipsed, perhaps forever, we shook off the British allegiance and declared our independence, George III regarded us in no other light than that of rebels and traitors. But he did not so treat us, though he hated us most thoroughly.

Practically, it matters not how unnatural the rebellion, how just the cause of the North, how indefensible the course of the south, for the question must be regarded from quite another platform; the concession, namely, that the South maintain what they believe to be their rights. We take up the argument on false principles when we take it up in anger, and make it turn on the South being wrong. The question is not, whether they are right, but whether they believe they are right, and are in earnest. Anger may be very well in the field, when the enemy is before us, but an angry government is an absurdity. Secession is a malady, which has affected Northern Churches, as well as Southern States; the Society of Friends, the Presbyterians, and other religious denominations, have had their divisions, but what is called their New School, tough schismatic, is sincere. If Mr. Jefferson Davis, in his inaugural speech at Richmond, appeals to God, to protect and bless the people who chose him to rule over them, shall Mr. Lincoln, after his own speech of 1848, in vindication of the right of insurrection, to which I will presently refer you, say he is not sincere? The Right Reverend head of the diocese of Louisiana leads in the field, a body of troops, a crime to parallel which we must go back to medieval abominations; but does any man doubt his zeal? The women and children are, in the South, everywhere on fire with secession, are we to set it down as hypocrisy? Mr. Rives, a man of the highest character, of the most conservative views, and opposed, on strong conviction, to the secession movement, is a member of the Confederate Government; is he acting unwillingly? The South, like the North, is full of citizens, sound in thinking, and pure of life, and they all unite in sustaining their government. They do not struggle against but enthusiastically support it.

How much out of the question it may be, that those who enjoy high places in the South, could be induced to listen to terms, the President and Cabinet can judge; but whoever will read the note of the 14th August, 1861, of the Southern Commissioners, at London, to Earl Russell, in which those gentlemen, late the extreme advocates of slavery, reverently approach what they call the “anti-slavery sentiment, so universally present in England,” “that high, philanthropic consideration, which undoubtedly beats in the hearts of so many in England,” can come to no other conclusion, than that the Southern statesmen, to conciliate an enemy, will pass through the eye of a needle. If the Southern masses can read that letter, by which they are made to knock under to the base bigotry of Exeter Hall, to the prejudices of the most inveterate foe of their institutions, to deprecate his haughty dislike, and, having sued in vain to one that never would touch but to ruin them, can refuse terms of restoration to this Union, which is theirs as much as ours, and which, alone can protect their negro property, the fury of civil war must have blinded them indeed. It is not to be credited that the people of the South – I speak not of those who think they have founded an Empire; leaders pledged by ambition, and oaths of office, to perpetual separation from the North, but the population generally – should prefer to shiver in the blast of the “anti-slavery sentiment, so universally prevalent in England,” rather than be reconciled to their own countrymen. Is it possible that the citizens of the South know what, already, they have come to – that their representatives wait, in English anti-chambers, to palliate their sin by laying it on the North, that they, too, are for slavery? Do they know that, at London, to propitiate the mighty “genius of universal emancipation,” it is represented, in their behalf, as matter of reproach to us of the North, “that, after the battle of Bull Run, both branches of the Congress, at Washington, passed resolutions, that the war is only waged to uphold that pro-slavery Constitution, and to enforce the laws, many of them pro-slavery, and of one hundred and seventy-two votes in the lower house, they received all but two, and in the Senate all but one vote?” If they do not, let them read this dispatch and be instructed.

Nothing could, better than this letter to the British foreign Secretary, illustrate the fact, that no country, based on negro slavery, as modern society is organized, can have a safe, independent, national existence; and how sensible those persons are, on whom has been devolved the office of providing for the fortunes of the seceding States, that they have not within themselves the elements of nationality; that the South, now little more than an aggregation of farms, to become a nation, must be born again; that to acquire that variety of articulation which goes to the national composition and quality, their whole frame of things must be renewed; that to retain their property they must restore themselves to the colonial relation with some European power, or come back to this Union.

In this paper, a study for every citizen of the South, the folly of the secession movement developes itself at its first diplomatic step, as does the weakness of our Northern position, in the diplomacy of Mr. Seward. The extreme Southern leaders delighted to call themselves fire-eaters, but what is eating fire to eating one’s words and principles? To the proud stomach, fire ought to be a less uncomfortable diet than that on which the South have put themselves. When, for the sake of slavery, they left the Union to establish a slave republic, they did not reflect, in the haste of their movement, that the prejudices of mankind would not tolerate such an establishment; just as in counting cotton as king, they missed the fact that a rich and weak nation is the poorest of all nations, and that, if their cotton were really necessary to the world, the world would come and take it, as they would come and dig their soil if gold were found under it. When we think of all this extravagance of Southern error, when we think how the North cruelly and long goaded them to it, and that it is mutual ruin; ruin to us as much as to them; that this slavery was prosperity to the North, and mischief, only to Southern masters; that the territorial rights asked by the South, though very well to quarrel about, were, to practical purposes, nothing, and in themselves, but fair and equal justice, and that, could we but have forborne family difference, and a few  years longer remained united, we might have, “confident against a world in arms,” shaken slavery and freedom, both, in their faces; - when we think what we ought to be, and see what we have come to, it is perfectly heart-breaking!

Emancipation is a word which sounds to virtue, for who can doubt that Slavery is a blight to any region in which it is tolerated? But it means with us in the United States, to say nothing of the Constitution and laws of the land, and the rights of property, that four millions of negroes, now slaves, should be freed and added to five hundred thousand already free negroes that are among us, making four million five hundred thousand emancipated Africans, to be taken up into the channels of circulation of a body now overloaded and oppressed from the inability to absorb the five hundred thousand. And, as no time or tonnage would suffice, supposing the enormous sum of money necessary to such a purpose provided, to transport a nation of negroes to foreign parts, one of two events must happen; these unhappy beings, as the inferior and degraded race, excluded from the career of life, will miserably decay, by slow degrees, in the course of ages of oppression, or be more suddenly, but not more inhumanly, butchered in a war of races.

But fanaticism which will not compromise, does not reason; nor do they, in any just sense, who, for political objects, avail themselves of it. After the death of Mr. Clay, the emancipation party, made up of New England bigots, and clouds of unscrupulous politicians of all parts of the country, which had of late made immense strides, obtaining possession of several of the State governments, and advancing in political influence generally, put forward for the lead of the opposition to the Democratic party; till then controlled and kept within bounds by Mr. Clay. They succeeded in getting it, and established themselves in 1854, for the first time, on what may be called a national footing, by the election of Mr. Banks as the Speaker of the House of Representatives, who was nominated and carried, after a desperate struggle of several weeks of balloting, as the avowed anti-slavery, abolition Candidate. It was from the Speaker’s chair, which was the prize in 1854, they went forward to their full success in 1860.

And now, it is the cue of this controlling influence to restore the country to quiet, to come to terms, and make peace with the South, on the footing of the Constitution and the Union? Is that the object with which they pursue the war? Does the anti-slavery interest, the active principle which scattering before it the less energetic particles of Republicanism, has turned to its uses Mr. Lincoln’s government, notwithstanding the wishes and prayers of a great majority of the votes which elevated him – do they want harmony? We must be credulous to think so. Would not any reader of the proceedings of Congress suppose that we were engaged in foreign war; and that the design of the government, without exposing themselves to the maledictions of the world, by proclaiming freedom to the slaves, was to damage, as much as possible, the enemy, through his vulnerable side – that of slavery? If he were shown the provisions of the Constitution of the United States, and then the acts of Congress and orders to officers in the field, on the subject of negro slaves, how small, would he suppose, were executive and legislative reverence for organic law? Could he doubt – do any of us doubt – that the present Executive and Legislature of the United States, if not checked, will come at last, to what many of them long for now, a proclamation of universal emancipation? The simple truth is that, of the men now uppermost no small number have so long and so cordially hated the government of the country, that they may be said to have hated the country itself; and under their present cry for the flag and the war, conceal a strong desire of deadly mischief.

Is there a test by which they can be judged, the diplomacy of Mr. Seward, the measures of Congress, the constant language of the members, the appointments to place, the tone of the press, which can be construed in any other way than to turn loose the negro, and injure and insult his owner, is the policy of the administration? Is there the man who does not see that the course which has been pursued on the point where the whole South, slaveholding or not, are most sensitive, and on which they are unanimous, is not only disturbing and insulting, but is meant to be – even to the gentlemen representing the border slave States in the Senate and House, who ought, of all others, to be treated with the most reconciling forbearance. Under such influences, the position of the country is a perfect dilemma; we must have victory, for if the south conquer us, the Union never will be restored; yet each military success being an addition to the strength of the abolitionists, the cry of emancipation, which is disunion, is only the louder for it.

Restore the Union, and where would these real and pretended fanatics be? Would it not be the downfall forever of all the hopes of the party now in power; would not all abolitionist be the most odious of epithets; would not Northern democratic and Southern votes be again united, no longer to be startled by the anti-slavery halloo, and is there one of them that could politically survive the return of the seceding States tot eh fold of the Constitution?

To be in favor of the Union is one thing, to be in favor of the Union and the Constitution is another. What these men want is to keep the Union and break up the Constitution; and in that sense they are all for the Union. That late respectable cut-throat, Mr. John Brown, was in favor of the Union. The high-scented negro, whom the President in his message to Congress at the opening of the present session, beckons over as Ambassador from Hayti, will be in favor of the Union; the extremest worshippers at the African altar, who in their love for the black family, or their blind hate of certain portions of the white, counselled Mr. Lincoln to solicit this accession to the diplomatic corps, to elbow his way among Senators and Secretaries at drawing-rooms and levees, are all in favor of Union. But what Union? – a Union which no eye will see!

To bring back the South as territory, not States, or without their slaves, or crippled in their condition of equality, might comport with the designs of those who drive Mr. Lincoln’s machine, but when we recollect in what light they have, from the beginning, regarded the now broken compact with the slave-holders, it would be downright simplicity to suppose that any party, controlled by them, should desire a restoration of it on terms that are either fair or possible. Is it not intelligible that, rather than it should come back, they would say in their hearts after us the deluge, and let the country go forward on its road of revolution?…

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