Monday, December 31, 2012

"The Cost of Peace"

Robert Dale Owen

In light of the 150th anniversary of emancipation, I thought it appropriate to share not words of my own, but some wisdom from the past.  This document, written on the eve of the Emancipation Proclamation in December 1862, is Indiana politician Robert Dale Owen's open letter to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase.  Here, he offered support for the anti-slavery measure that would be enacted only days from then.  In the excerpt of his letter below, Owen testifies that the United States was a "disgraced" nation for allowing the evils of slavery and the threats of secession to endure.  This fight was not only for the four million in bondage, but for everybody else as well.  A democracy could never fully function or live up to its own ideals with the numerous threats of chattel servitude remaining intact.  The destruction of this institution was a measure for all, not for the few.  Multitudes realized this, especially free blacks and formers slaves as they gathered in churches and public spaces on New Year's Eve 150 years ago tonight.  There, they waited for the clocks to strike midnight--marking the beginning of the end of slavery.  The following excerpts of Owen's letter appeared in Pennsylvania's Altoona Tribune on December 6, 1862.

"Sir: In briefest terms I state the propositions which, as the subject of our recent conversation, I promised to reduce to writing. What are the reasonable hopes of peace?

"Not, that within the next fifty days the South, availing herself of the term of grace offered in the President's proclamation, may, to save her favorite institution, return to her allegiance.  Let us not deceive ourselves. There are no conditions, no guaranties—no, not if we proffer her a blank sheet on which to set them down, "with unrestricted pen, in her own hand—under which she will consent to reunion, except in one contingency—conquest, more or less complete, by force of arms.

"Are we likely to obtain peace by conquest?

"[W]e need emancipation far less for the material aid it affords— great, even indispensable, though It be—than because of other paramount considerations.

"We have tried the experiment of a federal Union, with a free-labor system in one portion of it and a slave-system in another, for eighty years; and no one familiar with our affairs for a quarter of a century past is ignorant that the result has been an increase—embittered year by year in ever-accelerated ratio—of dissensions, of sectional jealousies, of national heart-burnings. When, eighteen months since, these culminated in war, it was but the issue which our ablest statesmen, looking sorrowfully into the future, had long since foretold. But if, while yet at peace and with all the influence of revolutionary reminiscences pleading the cause of Union, this diversity of labor systems, producing variance of character and alienation of feeling, proved stronger to divide than all past memories and present interests to unite, what chance is there that its baneful power for evil should cease, now, when to thoughts of fancied injuries in other years are added the recollections of the terrible realities enacted on a hundred bloody battlefields, from which the smoke has scarcely passed away?

"None the remotest!

"Conceive reunion with slavery still in existence.  Imagine southern sympathizers in power among us, offering compromises. Suppose the South, exhausted with military reverses and desiring a few years' armistice to recruit, decides to accept it under the guise of peace and re-construction?  What next? Thousands of slaves, their excited hopes of emancipation crushed, fleeing across the border.  A Fugitive Slave law, revived by peace, demanding their rendition.  Popular opinion in the North opposed to the law, and refusing the demand. Renewed war the certain consequence or take, even, the alternative of recognition of an independent confederacy, still slave-holding. Are we, then—becoming the sole exception among the nations of the earth—to make ourselves aiders and abettors of the slave-system of a foreign nation, by agreeing to return to her negro refugees seeking liberty and an asylum among us? National self-respect imperatively forbids this. Public sentiment would compel the rejection, as a base humiliation, of any proposed treaty stipulation, providing for rendition of runaway slaves. Yet the South would regard such rejection in no other light than as a standing menace—a threat to deprive her of what she regards as her most valuable property. Coterminous as for hundreds—possibly thousands—of miles our boundaries would be, must not the South, in common prudence, maintain all along that endless border-line an armed slave-police? Are we to consent to this? And if we do, shall we escape border raids after fleeing fugitives?  No sane man will expect it.  Are we to suffer these? We are disgraced. Are we to resent them? It is a renewal of hostilities....

"With all the advantages of a just cause over our enemies, we have suffered them to outdo us in earnestness. We lack the enthusiasm which made irresistible the charge of Cromwell's Ironsides. We need the invincible impulse of a sentiment. We want, above all, leaders who know and feel what they are fighting for. This is a war in which mercenaries avail not. There must be a higher motive than the pay of a Swiss—a holier duty urging on, than the professional pride or the blind obedience of a soldier. By parliamentary usage a proposed measure is entrusted, for fostering care, to its friends. So should this war be. Its conduct should be confided to men whose hearts and souls are in it.  

"Eighteen months have passed. Eight hundred millions have been spent. We have a million of armed men in the field. More than a hundred thousand rest in soldiers' graves. And for all this, what result? Is it strange if sometimes the heart sinks and resolution fails at the thought that, from sheer administrative infirmity, the vast sacrifice may have been all in vain...? 

"The Future!  That is still ours to improve. Nor, if some clouds yet rest upon it, is it without bright promise. Signs of nascent activity, energy, and a resolution to hold accountable for the issue the leaders of our armies, are daily apparent. Better than all, the initiative in a true line of policy has been taken. The twenty third of September has had its effect. The path of safety is before us; steep and ragged, indeed, but no longer doubtful nor obscure. A lamp has been lit to guide our steps; a lamp that may burn more brightly before a new year dawns upon us.  The noble prayer of Ajax has been vouchsafed in our case. At last we have light to fight by.
"We shall reach a quiet haven if we but follow faithfully and perseveringly that guiding light.

"There is, at this moment, in the hearts of all good men throughout the length and breadth of the land, no deeper feeling, no more earnest longing, than for peace; peace not for the day, not to last for a few years; but peace, on a foundation of rock, for ourselves and for our children after us.  May the hearts of our rulers be opened to the conviction that they can purchase only a shambling counterfeit except at one cost! God give them to see, ere it be too late, that the price of enduring Peace is general Emancipation!

"I am, sir, your obedient servant,

Robert Dale Owen"

Happy New Year's to you all!

 "The Future....That is still ours to improve."  And it still is.

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