September, 1861: Douglass — “Cast Off the Mill-Stone” of slavery

Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass

The official Union policy was still that the war was to be fought solely to preserve the Union, and that the government had no intention of abolishing slavery in the states where it existed. Lincoln, though his personal feeling leaned toward the abolitionists, believed that there was no Constitutional power to end slavery in the states. Just this September he had forced Fremont to rescind a proclamation freeing the slaves of secessionists in Missouri, holding that it was essential to take a conciliatory stance in order to keep the border states in the Union. Frederick Douglass, in this essay, takes on all the arguments against abolishing slavery and finds them wanting. The essay is worth reading.

Douglass’ Monthly, September, 1861

CAST OFF THE MILL-STONE

We are determined that our readers shall have line upon line and precept upon precept. Ours is only one humble voice; but such as it is, we give it freely to our country, and to the cause of humanity. That honesty is the best policy, we all profess to believe, though our practice may often contradict the proverb. The present policy of our Government is evidently to put down the slaveholding rebellion, and at the same time protect and preserve slavery.

This policy hangs like a mill-stone about the neck of our people. It carries disorder to the very sources of our national activities. Weakness, faint heartedness and inefficiency is the, natural result. The mental and moral machinery of mankind cannot long withstand such disorder without serious damage. This policy offends reason, wounds the sensibilities, and shocks the moral sentiments of men. It forces upon us inconsequent conclusions and painful contradictions, while the plain path of duty is obscured and thronged with multiplying difficulties. Let us look this slavery-preserving policy squarely in the face, and search it thoroughly.

Can the friends of that policy tell us why this should not be an abolition war? Is not abolition plainly forced upon the nation as a necessity of national existence? Are not the rebels determined to make the war on their part a war for the utter destruction of liberty and the complete mastery of slavery over every other right and interest in the land? — And is not an abolition war on our part the natural and logical answer to be made to the rebels? We all know it is.

But it is said that for the Government to adopt the abolition policy, would involve the loss of the support of the Union men of the Border Slave States. Grant it, and what is such friendship worth? We are stronger without than with such friendship. It arms the enemy, while it disarms its friends. The fact is indisputable, that so long as slavery is respected and protected by our Government, the slaveholders can carry on the rebellion, and no longer.

Slavery is the stomach of the rebellion. The bread that feeds the rebel army, the cotton that clothes them, and the money that arms them and keeps them supplied with powder and bullets, come from the slaves, who, if consulted as to the use which should be made of their hard earnings, would say, give it to the bottom of the sea rather than do with it this mischief. Strike here, cut off the connection between the fighting master and the working slave, and you at once put an end to this rebellion, because you destroy that which feeds, clothes and arms it. Shall this not be done, because we shall offend the Union men in the Border States?

But we have good reasons for believing that it would not offend them. The great mass of Union men in all those Border States are intelligently so. They are men who set a higher value upon the Union than upon slavery. In many instances, they recognize slavery as the thing of all others the most degrading to labor and oppressive towards them. They dare not say so now; but let the Government say the word, and even they would unite in sending the vile thing to its grave, and rejoice at the opportunity. Such of them as love slavery better than their country are not now, and have never been, friends of the Union. They belong to the detestable class who do the work of enemies in the garb of friendship, and it would be a real gain to get rid of them.

Then look at slavery itself—what good thing has it done that it should be allowed to survive a rebellion of its own creation? Why should the nation pour out its blood and lavish its treasure by the million, consent to protect and preserve the guilty cause of all its troubles?

The answer returned to these questions is, that the Constitution does not allow the exercise of such Power. As if this were a time to talk of constitutional power! When a man is well, it would be mayhem to cut off his arm. It would be unconstitutional to do so. But if the arm were shattered and mortifying, it would be quite unconstitutional and criminal not to cut it off. The cause is precisely so with Governments. The grand object, end and aim of Government is the preservation of society, and from nothing worse than anarchy. When Governments, through the ordinary channels of civil law’ are unable to secure this end, they are thrown back upon military law, and for the time may set aside the civil law precisely to the extent which it may be necessary to do so in order to accomplish the grand object for which Governments are instituted among men. The power, therefore, to abolish slavery is within the objects sought by the Constitution. But if every letter and syllable of the Constitution were a prohibition of abolition, yet if the life of the nation required it, we should be bound by the Constitution to abolish it, because there can be no interest superior to existence and preservation.

A very palpable evil involved in the policy of leaving slavery untouched, is that it holds out the idea that we are, in the end, to be treated to another compromise, and the old virus left to heal over, only to fester deeper, and break out more violently again some time not far distant, perhaps, to the utter destruction of the Government for which the people are now spilling their blood and spending their money. If we are to have a compromise and a settlement, why protract the war and prolong the bloodshed? Is it said that no compromise is contemplated? It may be so; but while slavery is admitted to have any right to be protected by our army, it will be impossible not to recognize its right to be protected by Congress; and already we see a leading Republican journal in this State urging the acceptance of the Crittenden Compromise, by which the system of slavery shall be established in all territory south of 36° 30 min. of north latitude. The way to put an end to any further sham compromises is to put an end to the hateful thing itself, which is the subject of them; and whatever the slave-driving rebels may say, the plain people of the country will accept the proposition of emancipation with the utmost satisfaction.

Another evil of the policy of protecting and preserving slavery, is that it deprives us of the important aid which might be rendered to the Government by the four million slaves. These people are repelled by our slave-holding policy. They have their hopes of deliverance from bondage destroyed. They hesitate now; but if our policy is pursued, they will not need to be compelled by Jefferson Davis to fight against us. They will do it from choice, and with a will—deeming it better

“To endure those ills they have,
Than fly to others they know not of.”

If they must remain slaves, they would rather fight for than against the masters which we of the North mean to compel them to serve. Who can blame them? They are men, and like men governed by their interests. They are capable of love and hate. They can be friends, and they can be foes. The policy of our Government serves to make them our foes, when it should endeavor by all means to make them our friends and allies.

A third evil of this policy, is the chilling effect it exerts upon the moral sentiment of mankind. Vast is the power of the sympathy of the civilized world. Daniel Webster once said that it was more powerful than “lightning, whirlwind or earthquake.”—This vast and invisible power is now evidently not with us. On the briny wing of every eastern gale there comes a depressing chill to the North, while to the South it brings encouragement and hope.

Our policy gives the rebels the advantage of seeming to be merely fighting for the right to govern themselves. We divest the war on our part of all those grand elements of progress and philanthropy that naturally win the hearts and command the reverence of all men, and allow it to assume the form of a meaningless display of brute force. The idea that people have a right to govern themselves, whether true or false, has a very strong hold upon the minds of men throughout the world. They naturally side with those who assert this right by force in any part of the world. The example of America has done much to impress this idea upon mankind, and the growing sympathy of the world seems now far more likely to bring some Lafayette with an army of twenty thousand men to aid the rebels, than some Garibaldi to aid the Government in suppressing the rebels. Our slaveholding, slave- catching and slave insurrection policy gives to the South the sympathy which would naturally and certainly flow towards us, and which would be mightier than lightning, whirlwind or earthquake in extinguishing the flames of this momentous slaveholding war.

Another evil arising from this mischievous slaveholding policy, is that it invites the interference of other Governments with our blockade. Break up the blockade, and the war is ended, and the rebels are victorious, and the South is independent. It is already evident that France and England will not long endure a war whose only effect is to starve thousands of their people, slaughter thousands of our own, and sink millions of money. If they are to suffer with us, they will demand—and they have a perfect right to demand—that something shall be gained to the cause of humanity and civilization. Let the war be made an abolition war, and no statesman in England or France would dare even, if inclined, to propose any disturbance of the blockade. Make this an abolition war, and you at once unite the world against the rebels, and in favor of the Government.

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