January 31, 1861: Edgerton: “the first blast of war will be the trumpet-signal of emancipation.”

Rep. Sidney Edgerton of Ohio
Sidney Edgerton

I have often said that the North did not fight to end slavery, and certainly that was not Lincoln’s primary goal in the war. However, we should not forget that there were Northern abolitionists who fought precisely for that. Representative Sidney Edgerton of Ohio, spoke in the House on January 31, 1861 about the report of the committee of 33. The speech is rather long; I’ve excerpted bits to represent the arguments he presented.

We hear much said on this floor about southern rights and southern wrongs. It would raise a smile of derision should we talk about eastern rights or western rights, as rights independent of and paramount to our rights as American citizens. But what are these wrongs of which the South complain, of which we hear so much in vague generalities? Is it the election of Lincoln? That we had an unquestionable constitutional right to do, and for it we owe no apology; and I, for one, shall make none. But he differs with you on the subject of slavery. That he has a right to do, and a majority of the people and of the civilized world are with him, and opposed to you.

If it has come to this, that a minority can dictate what shall be the peculiar views of a presidential candidate on the subject of slavery or any other subject, then we are slaves; and if we submit to such dictation, we ought to be slaves. It is said — and this I believe is the chief cause of complaint — that slaveholders are not permitted to go into the common territory with their slaves. Our slaves are our property, you say, and we have or should have the same right to take them into the territory and hold them there, as you of the North to take your cattle and other property. If it be true that slaves are property as cattle are property, then you have the right, and should be protected in that right. How, then are slaves property? Not by virtue of any natural law.

In that great primal law of Jehovah which gave man dominion over the fowls of the air, the fish of the sea, and the beasts of the field, I find no provision for slavery. By the common law — that law which is everywhere acknowledged and which grows out of the fitness of things — slaves are not property.

He then goes into a discussion of whether slavery is established by local laws or by Federal law.

But there is nothing of the kind in the Constitution. It sedulously guards even against such a suspicion; and whenever it speaks of slaves, it speaks of them as persons, not as things. Your slaves must be property, then, (if indeed they are property at all,) by virtue of some local State legislation. And will gentlemen tell me by what process slavery, the creature of local law, is made national? It is a well-established proposition in law, that property made so by local legislation, is only property while within the local jurisdiction.

He ridicules the idea that the South is oppressed by the North.

Mr. Speaker, the South, which complains of oppression and wrong, has had the control of this Government for twenty years. It has made every department intensely sectional. No man could hold office under it for one hour unless he was pro-slavery. If from the North, he was expected to abjure the faith of his fathers, and swear fealty to slavery; and yet they have been oppressed. This cry of southern wrong is a subterfuge under which treason has sought to hide its wicked designs. It has been most loudly proclaimed by those who, living upon this Government, swearing to support it, have nevertheless dared to plot its overthrow. The South has been the favored section under this Government; it has no real cause to complain. All its rights have been carefully secured; and all our obligations to the South we have faithfully observed. You ask for protection to your peculiar property. You get all that the Constitution gives, and more. But the North has cause of complaint. We ask, and ask in vain, for protection to our persons in your slave States. Unoffending northern men are scourged, branded, murdered and they have no protection from your laws. How can men who have encouraged these things, and who now justify the theft, robbery, and treason in the southern States, talk of that fiction of fictions — southern wrongs? How the South has been oppressed — oppressed with patronage and office; and whenever it has felt power slipping from its grasp, it has raised the howl of disunion!

Finally, he comes to the discussion of the Crittenden Compromise itself.

We are called upon to compromise with slavery — to give it new guarantees. If guarantees are to be given, I demand them for freedom. Now, when the souls of men are stirred as with the inspiration of liberty; when Italy — long oppressed, down-trodden, classic Italy — has risen from her night of enthrallment, and, vindicating her ancient renown, has wrung from the bloody hands of the Hapsburgs her long-lost freedom; when the autocrat of Russia strikes from the limbs of his serfs the corroded fetters ; when disenthralled millions on the banks of the Oder, the Lena, the Volga, and the Dnieper, are singing their songs of deliverance, it is no time in this nation, which begun by avowing the sublime doctrine of man’s inalienable rights — it is no time, I say, to talk of new guarantees to slavery.

He gives three reasons against compromise — he explained each at some length, but I have just given the first two statements themselves.

1. I will not compromise, because I have no faith that any compromise we could make would stand one hour longer than it ministered to slavery.

2. I will not compromise, because I would not further strengthen slavery.

3. I will not compromise, finally, because slavery is a sin, an outrage against humanity, and an insult to God. Disguise it as you will, it is still the crowning iniquity, the most ghastly atrocity. Beginning in violence, it can neither be hallowed by time nor sanctified by law. With my consent, it shall never curse another foot of God’s fair earth. By no vote of mine shall it ever be strengthened or countenanced. You may dissolve this Union, if you can. If its existence depends upon supporting, strengthening, and extending slavery, then the sooner dissolved the better. It was formed for the noble purpose of promoting justice and securing liberty; and when your Union and Constitution fail to promote these ends, they are no longer the Union and Constitution of our fathers; they are no longer worthy the support of freemen. It is not the formula of words in our Constitution which I reverence, but the animating spirit — the guarantees to freedom.

But, Mr. Chairman, we are threatened with war, unless we yield to this new demand. Very well; if war must come, let it come. Peace is not the first interest of a people. Better encounter war, with all its manifold horrors, than suffer the sense of justice and humanity to die out of the hearts of the people.

War — fierce, bloody, and relentless war, is better than the perpetual war of despotism, which slowly but surely drags nations down to ruin. And gentlemen should know that the first blast of war will be the trumpet-signal of emancipation.

Finally, he discusses the threat of war at some length, and the claims of the South that states should not be “coerced” to stay in the union.

Citizens are seized, scourged, murdered; armed bands of traitors capture forts and arsenals; they fire upon our flag, and flaunt defiance in our very faces; and yet Government, we are told — and told, too, by northern men on this floor — Government is powerless; we cannot enforce the laws.

I will confess, I feel humiliated and disgraced in this humiliation of my country. I lament its fallen greatness, and blush for its recreancy and shame. Our nation is now on trial before the nations of the earth and posterity. How it will pass the trying ordeal, impartial history will record. If we dare be true, relying upon justice, which is ever strong, then all will be well; the brightest page of our history is yet to be written. But if, for material considerations or for peace, we barter away truth and right, then will history record our downfall and infamy, because we knew our duty and we did it not. But whether in war or in peace,whether in the Union or out of the Union, I trust that that which is more than Union, more than Constitution — the rights of man — will come out of this struggle vindicated and unimpaired. Though the clouds hang heavily around us, narrowing our vision, yet I have an abiding faith that beyond the murky cloud, in the calm, serene majesty of Omniscience, ” standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.”

Edgerton was later a colonel of the “squirrel hunters” militia in Ohio that defended Cincinnati against Confederate invasion during the Civil War.

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