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Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882).  The Complete Works.  1904.
Vol. XI. Miscellanies
 
VII. The Fugitive Slave Law—Lecture at New York
 
Lecture Read in the Tabernacle, New York City March 7, 1854, on the Fourth Anniversary of Daniel Webster’s Speech in Favor of the Bill

  “OF all we loved and honored, naught
    Save power remains,—
A fallen angel’s pride of thought,
    Still strong in chains.
  
All else is gone; from those great eyes
    The soul has fled:
When faith is lost, when honor dies,
    The man is dead!”
Whittier, Ichabad!    

  “WE that had loved him so, followed him, honoured him,
  Lived in his mild and magnificent eye,
Learned his great language, caught his clear accents,
  Made him our patter to live and to die!
Shakspeare was of us, Milton was for us,
  Burns, Shelley, were with us,—they watch from their graves!
He alone breaks from the van and the freemen,
  —He alone sinks to the rear and the slaves!”
Browning, The Lost Leader.    

I DO 1 not often speak to public questions;—they are odious and hurtful, and it seems like meddling or leaving your work. I have my own spirits in prison;—spirits in deeper prisons, whom no man visits if I do not. And then I see what havoc it makes with any good mind, a dissipated philanthropy. The one thing not to be forgiven to intellectual persons is, not to know their own task, or to take their ideas from others. From this want of manly rest in their own and rash acceptance of other people’s watchwords come the imbecility and fatigue of their conversation. For they cannot affirm these from any original experience, and of course not with the natural movement and total strength of their nature and talent, but only from their memory, only from their cramped position of standing for their teacher. They say what they would have you believe, but what they do not quite know. 2
  1
  My own habitual view is to the well-being of students or scholars. And it is only when the public event affects them, that it very seriously touches me. And what I have to say is to them. For every man speaks mainly to a class whom he works with and more or less fully represents. It is to these I am beforehand related and engaged, in this audience or out of it—to them and not to others. And yet, when I say the class of scholars or students,—that is a class which comprises in some sort all mankind, comprises every man in the best hours of his life; and in these days not only virtually but actually. For who are the readers and thinkers of 1854? Owing to the silent revolution which the newspaper has wrought, this class has come in this country to take in all classes. Look into the morning trains which, from every suburb, carry the business men into the city to their shops, counting-rooms, work-yards and warehouses. With them enters the car—the newsboy, that humble priest of politics, finance, philosophy, and religion. He unfolds his magical sheets,—twopence a head his bread of knowledge costs—and instantly the entire rectangular assembly, fresh from their breakfast, are bending as one man to their second breakfast. There is, no doubt, chaff enough in what he brings; but there is fact, thought, and wisdom in the crude mass, from all regions of the world.  2
  I have lived all my life without suffering any known inconvenience from American Slavery. I never saw it; I never heard the whip; 3 I never felt the check on my free speech and action, until, the other day, when Mr. Webster, by his personal influence, brought the Fugitive Slave Law on the country. I say Mr. Webster, for though the Bill was not his, it is yet notorious that he was the life and soul of it, that he gave it all he had: it cost him his life, and under the shadow of his great name inferior men sheltered themselves, threw their ballots for it and made the law. I say inferior men. There were all sorts of what are called brilliant men, accomplished men, men of high station, a President of the United States, Senators, men of eloquent speech, but men without self-respect, without character, and it was strange to see that office, age, fame, talent, even a repute for honesty, all count for nothing. They had no opinions, they had no memory for what they had been saying like the Lord’s Prayer all their lifetime: they were only looking to what their great Captain did: if he jumped, they jumped, if he stood on his head, they did. In ordinary, the supposed sense of their district and State is their guide, and that holds them to the part of liberty and justice. But it is always a little difficult to decipher what this public sense is; and when a great man comes who knots up into himself the opinions and wishes of the people, it is so much easier to follow him as an exponent of this. He too is responsible; they will not be. It will always suffice to say,—“I followed him.”  3
  I saw plainly that the great show their legitimate power in nothing more than in their power to misguide us. I saw that a great man, deservedly admired for his powers and their general right direction, was able,—fault of the total want of stamina in public men,—when he failed, to break them all with him, to carry parties with him.  4
  In what I have to say of Mr. Webster I do not confound him with vulgar politicians before or since. There is always base ambition enough, men who calculate on the immense ignorance of the masses; that is their quarry and farm: they use the constituencies at home only for their shoes. And, of course, they can drive out from the contest any honorable man. The low can best win the low, and all men like to be made much of. There are those too who have power and inspiration only to do ill. Their talent or their faculty deserts them when they undertake anything right. Mr. Webster had a natural ascendancy of aspect and carriage which distinguished him over all his contemporaries. His countenance, his figure, and his manners were all in so grand a style, that he was, without effort, as superior to his most eminent rivals as they were to the humblest; so that his arrival in any place was an event which drew crowds of people, who went to satisfy their eyes, and could not see him enough. I think they looked at him as the representative of the American Continent. He was there in his Adamitic capacity, as if he alone of all men did not disappoint the eye and the ear, but was a fit figure in the landscape. 4  5
  I remember his appearance at Bunker’s Hill. There was the Monument, and here was Webster. He knew well that a little more or less of rhetoric signified nothing: he was only to say plain and equal things,—grand things if he had them, and, if he had them not, only to abstain from saying unfit things,—and the whole occasion was answered by his presence. It was a place for behavior more than for speech, and Mr. Webster walked through his part with entire success. His excellent organization, the perfection of his elocution and all that thereto belongs,—voice, accent, intonation, attitude, manner,—we shall not soon find again. Then he was so thoroughly simple and wise in his rhetoric; he saw through his matter, hugged his fact so close, went to the principle or essential, and never indulged in a weak flourish, though he knew perfectly well how to make such exordiums, episodes and perorations as might give perspective to his harangues without in the least embarrassing his march or confounding his transitions. In his statement things lay in daylight; we saw them in order as they were. Though he knew very well how to present his own personal claims, yet in his argument he was intellectual,—stated his fact pure of all personality, so that his splendid wrath, when his eyes became lamps, was the wrath of the fact and the cause he stood for.  6
  His power, like that of all great masters, was not in excellent parts, but was total. He had a great and everywhere equal propriety. He worked with that closeness of adhesion to the matter in hand which a joiner or a chemist uses, and the same quiet and sure feeling of right to his place that an oak or a mountain have to theirs. After all his talents have been described, there remains that perfect propriety which animated all the details of the action or speech with the character of the whole, so that his beauties of detail are endless. He seemed born for the bar, born for the senate, and took very naturally a leading part in large private and in public affairs; for his head distributed things in their right places, and what he saw so well he compelled other people to see also. Great is the privilege of eloquence. What gratitude does every man feel to him who speaks well for the right,—who translates truth into language entirely plain and clear!  7
  The history of this country has given a disastrous importance to the defects of this great man’s mind. Whether evil influences and the corruption of politics, or whether original infirmity, it was the misfortune of his country that with this large understanding he had not what is better than intellect, and the source of its health. It is a law of our nature that great thoughts come from the heart. If his moral sensibility had been proportioned to the force of his understanding, what limits could have been set to his genius and beneficent power? But he wanted that deep source of inspiration. Hence a sterility of thought, the want of generalization in his speeches, and the curious fact that, with a general ability which impresses all the world, there is not a single general remark, not an observation on life and manners, not an aphorism that can pass into literature from his writings.  8
  Four years ago to-night, on one of those high critical moments in history when great issues are determined, when the powers of right and wrong are mustered for conflict, and it lies with one man to give a casting vote,—Mr. Webster, most unexpectedly, threw his whole weight on the side of Slavery, and caused by his personal and official authority the passage of the Fugitive Slave Bill.  9
  It is remarked of the Americans that they value dexterity too much, and honor too little; that they think they praise a man more by saying that he is “smart” than by saying that he is right. Whether the defect be national or not, it is the defect and calamity of Mr. Webster; and it is so far true of his countrymen, namely, that the appeal is sure to be made to his physical and mental ability when his character is assailed. His speeches on the seventh of March, and at Albany, at Buffalo, at Syracuse and Boston are cited in justification. And Mr. Webster’s literary editor believes that it was his wish to rest his fame on the speech of the seventh of March. Now, though I have my own opinions on this seventh of March discourse and those others, and think them very transparent and very open to criticism,—yet the secondary merits of a speech, namely, its logic, its illustrations, its points, etc., are not here in question. Nobody doubts that Daniel Webster could make a good speech. Nobody doubts that there were good and plausible things to be said on the part of the South. But this is not a question of ingenuity, not a question of syllogisms, but of sides. How came he there? 5  10
  There are always texts and thoughts and arguments. But it is the genius and temper of the man which decides whether he will stand for right or for might. Who doubts the power of any fluent debater to defend either of our political parties, or any client in our courts? There was the same law in England for Jeffries and Talbot and Yorke to read slavery out of, and for Lord Mansfield to read freedom. And in this country one sees that there is always margin enough in the statute for a liberal judge to read one way and a servile judge another.  11
  But the question which History will ask is broader. In the final hour, when he was forced by the peremptory necessity of the closing armies to take a side,—did he take the part of great principles, the side of humanity and justice, or the side of abuse and oppression and chaos?  12
  Mr. Webster decided for Slavery, and that, when the aspect of the institution was no longer doubtful, no longer feeble and apologetic and proposing soon to end itself, but when it was strong, aggressive, and threatening an illimitable increase. He listened to State reasons and hopes, and left, with much complacency we are told, the testament of his speech to the astonished State of Massachusetts, vera pro gratis; a ghastly result of all those years of experience in affairs, this, that there was nothing better for the foremost American man to tell his countrymen than that Slavery was now at that strength that they must beat down their conscience and become kidnappers for it.  13
  This was like the doleful speech falsely ascribed to the patriot Brutus: “Virtue, I have followed thee through life, and I find thee but a shadow.” 6 Here was a question of an immoral law; a question agitated for ages, and settled always in the same way by every great jurist, that an immoral law cannot be valid. Cicero, Grotius, Coke, Blackstone, Burlamaqui, Vattel, Burke, Jefferson, do all affirm this, and I cite them, not that they can give evidence to what is indisputable, but because, though lawyers and practical statesmen, the habit of their profession did not hide from them that this truth was the foundation of States.  14
  Here was the question, Are you for man and for the good of man; or are you for the hurt and harm of man? It was the question whether man shall be treated as leather? whether the Negro shall be, as the Indians were in Spanish America, a piece of money? Whether this system, which is a kind of mill or factory for converting men into monkeys, shall be upheld and enlarged? And Mr. Webster and the country went for the application to these poor men of quadruped law.  15
  People were expecting a totally different course from Mr. Webster. If any man had in that hour possessed the weight with the country which he had acquired, he could have brought the whole country to its senses. But not a moment’s pause was allowed. Angry parties went from bad to worse, and the decision of Webster was accompanied with everything offensive to freedom and good morals. There was something like an attempt to debauch the moral sentiment of the clergy and of the youth. Burke said he “would pardon something to the spirit of liberty.” But by Mr. Webster the opposition to the law was sharply called treason, and prosecuted so. He told the people at Boston “they must conquer their prejudices;” that “agitation of the subject of Slavery must be suppressed.” He did as immoral men usually do, made very low bows to the Christian Church, and went through all the Sunday decorums; but when allusion was made to the question of duty and the sanctions of morality, he very frankly said, at Albany, “Some higher law, something existing somewhere between here and the third heaven,—I do not know where.” And if the reporters say true, this wretched atheism found some laughter in the company.  16
  I said I had never in my life up to this time suffered from the Slave Institution. Slavery in Virginia or Carolina was like Slavery in Africa or the Feejees, for me. There was an old fugitive law, but it had become, or was fast becoming, a dead letter, and, by the genius and laws of Massachusetts, inoperative. The new Bill made it operative, required me to hunt slaves, and it found citizens in Massachusetts willing to act as judges and captors. Moreover, it discloses the secret of the new times, that Slavery was no longer mendicant, but was become aggressive and dangerous.  17
  The way in which the country was dragged to consent to this, and the disastrous defection (on the miserable cry of Union) of the men of letters, of the colleges, of educated men, nay, of some preachers of religion,—was the darkest passage in the history. It showed that our prosperity had hurt us, and that we could not be shocked by crime. It showed that the old religion and the sense of the right had faded and gone out; that while we reckoned ourselves a highly cultivated nation, our bellies had run away with our brains, and the principles of culture and progress did not exist.  18
  For I suppose that liberty is an accurate index, in men and nations, of general progress. The theory of personal liberty must always appeal to the most refined communities and to the men of the rarest perception and of delicate moral sense. For there are rights which rest on the finest sense of justice, and, with every degree of civility, it will be more truly felt and defined. A barbarous tribe of good stock will, by means of their best heads, secure substantial liberty. But where there is any weakness in a race, and it becomes in a degree matter of concession and protection from their stronger neighbors, the incompatibility and offensiveness of the wrong will of course be most evident to the most cultivated. For it is,—is it not?—the essence of courtesy, of politeness, of religion, of love, to prefer another, to postpone oneself, to protect another from oneself. That is the distinction of the gentleman, to defend the weak and redress the injured, as it is of the savage and the brutal to usurp and use others.  19
  In Massachusetts, as we all know, there has always existed a predominant conservative spirit. We have more money and value of every kind than other people, and wish to keep them. The plea on which freedom was resisted was Union. I went to certain serious men, who had a little more reason than the rest, and inquired why they took this part? They answered that they had no confidence in their strength to resist the Democratic party; that they saw plainly that all was going to the utmost verge of licence; each was vying with his neighbor to lead the party, by proposing the worst measure, and they threw themselves on the extreme conservatism, as a drag on the wheel: that they knew Cuba would be had, and Mexico would be had, and they stood stiffly on conservatism, and as near to monarchy as they could, only to moderate the velocity with which the car was running down the precipice. In short, their theory was despair; the Whig wisdom was only reprieve, a waiting to be last devoured. They side with Carolina, or with Arkansas, only to make a show of Whig strength, wherewith to resist a little longer this general ruin.  20
  I have a respect for conservatism. I know how deeply founded it is in our nature, and how idle are all attempts to shake ourselves free from it. We are all conservatives, half Whig, half Democrat, in our essences: and might as well try to jump out of our skins as to escape from our Whiggery. There are two forces in Nature, by whose antagonism we exist; the power of Fate, Fortune, the laws of the world, the order of things, or however else we choose to phrase it, the material necessities, on the one hand,—and Will or Duty or Freedom on the other.  21
  May and Must, and the sense of right and duty, on the one hand, and the material necessities on the other: May and Must. In vulgar politics the Whig goes for what has been, for the old necessities,—the Musts. The reformer goes for the Better, for the ideal good, for the Mays. But each of these parties must of necessity take in, in some measure, the principles of the other. Each wishes to cover the whole ground; to hold fast and to advance. Only, one lays the emphasis on keeping, and the other on advancing. I too think the musts are a safe company to follow, and even agreeable. But if we are Whigs, let us be Whigs of nature and science, and so for all the necessities. Let us know that, over and above all the musts of poverty and appetite, is the instinct of man to rise, and the instinct to love and help his brother.  22
  Now, Gentlemen, I think we have in this hour instruction again in the simplest lesson. Events roll, millions of men are engaged, and the result is the enforcing of some of those first commandments which we heard in the nursery. We never get beyond our first lesson, for, really, the world exists, as I understand it, to teach the science of liberty, which begins with liberty from fear.  23
  The events of this month are teaching one thing plain and clear, the worthlessness of good tools to bad workmen; that official papers are of no use; resolutions of public meetings, platforms of conventions, no, nor laws, nor constitutions, any more. These are all declaratory of the will of the moment, and are passed with more levity and on grounds far less honorable than ordinary business transactions of the street.  24
  You relied on the constitution. It has not the word slave in it; and very good argument has shown that it would not warrant the crimes that are done under it; that, with provisions so vague for an object not named, and which could not be availed of to claim a barrel of sugar or a barrel of corn, the robbing of a man and of all his posterity is effected. You relied on the Supreme Court. The law was right, excellent law for the lambs. But what if unhappily the judges were chosen from the wolves, and give to all the law a wolfish interpretation? You relied on the Missouri Compromise. That is ridden over. You relied on State sovereignty in the Free States to protect their citizens. They are driven with contempt out of the courts and out of the territory of the Slave States,—if they are so happy as to get out with their lives, 7—and now you relied on these dismal guaranties infamously made in 1850; and, before the body of Webster is yet crumbled, it is found that they have crumbled. This eternal monument of his fame and of the Union is rotten in four years. They are no guaranty to the free states. They are a guaranty to the slave states that, as they have hitherto met with no repulse, they shall meet with none.  25
  I fear there is no reliance to be put on any kind or form of covenant, no, not on sacred forms, none on churches, none on bibles. For one would have said that a Christian would not keep slaves;—but the Christians keep slaves. Of course they will not dare to read the Bible? Won’t they? They quote the Bible, quote Paul, 8 quote Christ, to justify slavery. If slavery is good, then is lying, theft, arson, homicide, each and all good, and to be maintained by Union societies.  26
  These things show that no forms, neither constitutions, nor laws, nor covenants, nor churches, nor bibles, are of any use in themselves. The Devil nestles comfortably into them all. There is no help but in the head and heart and hamstrings of a man. Covenants are of no use without honest men to keep them; laws of none but with loyal citizens to obey them. To interpret Christ it needs Christ in the heart. The teachings of the Spirit can be apprehended only by the same spirit that gave them forth. To make good the cause of Freedom, you must draw off from all foolish trust in others. You must be citadels and warriors yourselves, declarations of Independence, the charter, the battle and the victory. Cromwell said, “We can only resist the superior training of the King’s soldiers, by enlisting godly men.” And no man has a right to hope that the laws of New York will defend him from the contamination of slaves another day until he has made up his mind that he will not owe his protection to the laws of New York, but to his own sense and spirit. Then he protects New York. He only who is able to stand alone is qualified for society. And that I understand to be the end for which a soul exists in this world,—to be himself the counterbalance of all falsehood and all wrong. “The army of unright is encamped from pole to pole, but the road of victory is known to the just.” Everything may be taken away; he may be poor, he may be houseless, yet he will know out of his arms to make a pillow, and out of his breast a bolster. Why have the minority no influence? Because they have not a real minority of one. 9  27
  I conceive that thus to detach a man and make him feel that he is to owe all to himself, is the way to make him strong and rich; and here the optimist must find, if anywhere, the benefit of Slavery. We have many teachers; we are in this world for culture, to be instructed in realities, in the laws of moral and intelligent nature; and our education is not conducted by toys and luxuries, but by austere and rugged masters, by poverty, solitude, passions, War, Slavery; to know that Paradise is under the shadow of swords; 10 that divine sentiments which are always soliciting us are breathed into us from on high, and are an offset to a Universe of suffering and crime; that self-reliance, the height and perfection of man, is reliance on God. 11 The insight of the religious sentiment will disclose to him unexpected aids in the nature of things. The Persian Saadi said, “Beware of hurting the orphan. When the orphan sets a-crying, the throne of the Almighty is rocked from side to side.”  28
  Whenever a man has come to this mind, that there is no Church for him but his believing prayer; no Constitution but his dealing well and justly with his neighbor; no liberty but his invincible will to do right,—then certain aids and allies will promptly appear: for the constitution of the Universe is on his side. It is of no use to vote down gravitation of morals. What is useful will last, whilst that which is hurtful to the world will sink beneath all the opposing forces which it must exasperate. The terror which the Marseillaise struck into oppression, it thunders again to-day,—
  “Tout est soldat pour vous combattre.”
Everything turns soldier to fight you down. The end for which man was made is not crime in any form, and a man cannot steal without incurring the penalties of the thief, though all the legislatures vote that it is virtuous, and though there be a general conspiracy among scholars and official persons to hold him up, and to say, “Nothing is good but stealing.” A man who commits a crime defeats the end of his existence. He was created for benefit, and he exists for harm; and as well-doing makes power and wisdom, ill-doing takes them away. A man who steals another man’s labor steals away his own faculties; his integrity, his humanity is flowing away from him. The habit of oppression cuts out the moral eyes, and, though the intellect goes on simulating the moral as before, its sanity is gradually destroyed. It takes away the presentiments.
  29
  I suppose in general this is allowed, that if you have a nice question of right and wrong, you would not go with it to Louis Napoleon, or to a political hack, or to a slave-driver. The habit of mind of traders in power would not be esteemed favorable to delicate moral perception. American slavery affords no exception to this rule. No excess of good nature or of tenderness in individuals has been able to give a new character to the system, to tear down the whipping-house. The plea in the mouth of a slaveholder that the negro is an inferior race sounds very oddly in my ear. “The masters of slaves seem generally anxious to prove that they are not of a race superior in any noble quality to the meanest of their bondmen.” And indeed when the Southerner points to the anatomy of the negro, and talks of chimpanzee,—I recall Montesquieu’s remark, “It will not do to say that negroes are men, lest it should turn out that whites are not.”  30
  Slavery is disheartening; but Nature is not so helpless but it can rid itself at last of every wrong. 12 But the spasms of Nature are centuries and ages, and will tax the faith of short-lived men. Slowly, slowly the Avenger comes, but comes surely. The proverbs of the nations affirm these delays, but affirm the arrival. They say, “God may consent, but not forever.” The delay of the Divine Justice—this was the meaning and soul of the Greek Tragedy; this the soul of their religion. “There has come, too, one to whom lurking warfare is dear, Retribution, with a soul full of wiles; a violator of hospitality; guileful without the guilt of guile; limping, late in her arrival.” They said of the happiness of the unjust, that “at its close it begets itself an offspring and does not die childless, and instead of good fortune, there sprouts forth for posterity ever-ravening calamity:”—
  “For evil word shall evil word be said,
For murder-stroke a murder-stroke be paid.
Who smites must smart.”
  31
  These delays, you see them now in the temper of the times. The national spirit in this country is so drowsy, preoccupied with interest, deaf to principle. The Anglo-Saxon race is proud and strong and selfish. They believe only in Anglo-Saxons. In 1825 Greece found America deaf, Poland found America deaf, Italy and Hungary found her deaf. England maintains trade, not liberty; stands against Greece; against Hungary; against Schleswig-Holstein; against the French Republic whilst it was a republic.  32
  To faint hearts the times offer no invitation, and torpor exists here throughout the active classes on the subject of domestic slavery and its appalling aggressions. Yes, that is the stern edict of Providence, that liberty shall be no hasty fruit, but that event on event, population on population, age on age, shall cast itself into the opposite scale, and not until liberty has slowly accumulated weight enough to countervail and preponderate against all this, can the sufficient recoil come. All the great cities, all the refined circles, all the statesmen, Guizot, Palmerston, Webster, Calhoun, are sure to be found befriending liberty with their words, and crushing it with their votes. Liberty is never cheap. It is made difficult, because freedom is the accomplishment and perfectness of man. He is a finished man; 13 earning and bestowing good; equal to the world; at home in Nature and dignifying that; the sun does not see anything nobler, and has nothing to teach him. Therefore mountains of difficulty must be surmounted, stern trials met, wiles of seduction, dangers, healed by a quarantine of calamities to measure his strength before he dare say, I am free.  33
  Whilst the inconsistency of slavery with the principles on which the world is built guarantees its downfall, I own that the patience it requires is almost too sublime for mortals, and seems to demand of us more than mere hoping. And when one sees how fast the rot spreads,—it is growing serious,—I think we demand of superior men that they be superior in this,—that the mind and the virtue shall give their verdict in their day, and accelerate so far the progress of civilization. Possession is sure to throw its stupid strength for existing power, and appetite and ambition will go for that. Let the aid of virtue, intelligence and education be cast where they rightfully belong. They are organically ours. Let them be loyal to their own. I wish to see the instructed class here know their own flag, and not fire on their comrades. We should not forgive the clergy for taking on every issue the immoral side; nor the Bench, if it put itself on the side of the culprit; nor the Government, if it sustain the mob against the laws. 14  34
  It is a potent support and ally to a brave man standing single, or with a few, for the right, and out-voted and ostracized, to know that better men in other parts of the country appreciate the service and will rightly report him to his own and the next age. Without this assurance, he will sooner sink. He may well say, ‘If my countrymen do not care to be defended, I too will decline the controversy, from which I only reap invectives and hatred.’ Yet the lovers of liberty may with reason tax the coldness and indifferentism of scholars and literary men. They are lovers of liberty in Greece and Rome and in the English Commonwealth, but they are lukewarm lovers of the liberty of America in 1854. The universities are not, as in Hobbes’s time, “the core of rebellion,” no, but the seat of inertness. They have forgotten their allegiance to the Muse, and grown worldly and political. I listened, lately, on one of those occasions when the university chooses one of its distinguished sons returning from the political arena, believing that senators and statesmen would be glad to throw off the harness and to dip again in the Castalian pools. But if audiences forget themselves, statesmen do not. The low bows to all the crockery gods of the day were duly made:—only in one part of the discourse the orator allowed to transpire, rather against his will, a little sober sense. 15 It was this: ‘I am, as you see, a man virtuously inclined, and only corrupted by my profession of politics. I should prefer the right side. You, gentlemen of these literary and scientific schools, and the important class you represent, have the power to make your verdict clear and prevailing. Had you done so, you would have found me its glad organ and champion. Abstractly, I should have preferred that side. But you have not done it. You have not spoken out. You have failed to arm me. I can only deal with masses as I find them. Abstractions are not for me. I go then for such parties and opinions as have provided me with a working apparatus. I give you my word, not without regret, that I was first for you; and though I am now to deny and condemn you, you see it is not my will but the party necessity.’ Having made this manifesto and professed his adoration for liberty in the time of his grandfathers, he proceeded with his work of denouncing freedom and freemen at the present day, much in the tone and spirit in which Lord Bacon prosecuted his benefactor Essex. He denounced every name and aspect under which liberty and progress dare show themselves in this age and country, but with a lingering conscience which qualified each sentence with a recommendation to mercy.  35
  But I put it to every noble and generous spirit, to every poetic, every heroic, every religious heart, that not so is our learning, our education, our poetry, our worship to be declared. Liberty is aggressive, Liberty is the Crusade of all brave and conscientious men, the Epic Poetry, the new religion, the chivalry of all gentlemen. This is the oppressed Lady whom true knights on their oath and honor must rescue and save.  36
  Now at last we are disenchanted and shall have no more false hopes. I respect the Anti-Slavery Society. It is the Cassandra that has foretold all that has befallen, fact for fact, years ago; foretold all, and no man laid it to heart. It seemed, as the Turks say, “Fate makes that a man should not believe his own eyes.” But the Fugitive Law did much to unglue the eyes of men, and now the Nebraska Bill leaves us staring. The Anti-Slavery Society will add many members this year. The Whig Party will join it; the Democrats will join it. The population of the free states will join it. I doubt not, at last, the slave states will join it. But be that sooner or later, and whoever comes or stays away, I hope we have reached the end of our unbelief, have come to a belief that there is a divine Providence in the world, which will not save us but through our own coöperation.  37
 
Note 1. Writing to his friend Carlyle on March 11, 1854, Mr. Emerson said:—
  “One good word closed your letter in September … namely, that you might come westward when Frederic was disposed of. Speed Frederic, then, for all reasons and for this! America is growing furiously, town and state; new Kansas, new Nebraska looming up in these days, vicious politicians seething a wretched destiny for them already at Washington. The politicians shall be sodden, the States escape, please God! The fight of slave and freeman drawing nearer, the question is sharply, whether slavery or whether freedom shall be abolished. Come and see.”
  Four days before thus writing, he had given this address, to a fairly large audience, in the “Tabernacle” in New York City, for, however dark the horizon looked, the very success of the slave power was working its ruin. Encouraged by the submission of the North to the passage of the evil law to pacify them, they had resolved to repeal the Missouri Compromise, which confined slavery to a certain latitude. It was repealed within a few days of the time Mr. Emerson made this address. During the debate, Charles Summer said to Douglas, “Sir, the bill you are about to pass is at once the worst and the best on which Congress has ever acted…. It is the worst bill because it is a present victory for slavery…. Sir, it is the best bill on which Congress has ever acted, for it annuls all past compromises with slavery and makes any future compromises impossible. Thus it puts Freedom and Slavery face to face and bids them grapple. Who can doubt the result?” The rendition to slavery of Anthony Burns from Boston in May wrought a great change in public feeling there. Even the commercial element in the North felt the shame.
  Though not a worker in the anti-slavery organization, Mr. Emerson had always been the outspoken friend of freedom for the negroes. Witness his tribute in 1837 to Elijah Lovejoy, the martyr in their cause (see “Heroism,” Essays, First Series, p. 262, and note). But the narrow and uncharitable speech and demeanor of many “philanthropists” led him to such reproofs as the one quoted by Dr. Bartol, “Let them first be anthropic,” or that in “Self-Reliance” to the angry bigot: “Go love thy infant; love thy wood-chopper; be good-natured and modest; have that grace; and never varnish your hard, uncharitable ambition with this incredible tenderness for black folk a thousand miles off.”
  But now the foe was at the very gate. The duty to resist was instant and commanding. Mr. Emerson wrote in his journal, soon after:—
  “Why do we not say, We are abolitionists of the most absolute abolition, as every man that is a man must be?… We do not try to alter your laws in Alabama, nor yours in Japan, or in the Feejee Islands; but we do not admit them, or permit a trace of them here. Nor shall we suffer you to carry your Thuggism, north, south, east or west into a single rod of territory which we control. We intend to set and keep a cordon sanitaire all around the infected district, and by no means suffer the pestilence to spread.
  “It is impossible to be a gentleman, and not be an abolitionist, for a gentleman is one who is fulfilled with all nobleness, and imparts it; is the natural defender and raiser of the weak and oppressed.”
  With Mr. Emerson’s indignation at Webster’s fall was mingled great sorrow. From his youth he had admired and revered him. The verses about him printed in the Appendix to the Poems show the change of feeling. He used to quote Browning’s “Lost Leader” as applying to him, and admired Whittier’s fine poem “Ichabod” (“The glory is departed,” I. Samuel, iv., 21, 22) on his apostasy.
  Mr. Emerson’s faithfulness to his sense of duty, leading him, against his native instincts, into the turmoil of politics, striving to undo the mischief that a leader once reversed had wrought in the minds of Americans, is shown in the extract from his journal with regard to this lecture:—
  “At New York Tabernacle, on the 7th March, I saw the great audience with dismay, and told the bragging secretary that I was most thankful to those that staid at home; every auditor was a new affliction, and if all had staid away, by rain or preoccupation, I had been best pleased.” [back]
Note 2. In Lectures and Biographical Sketches, in the essay on Aristocracy, and also in that on The Man of Letters, the duty of loyalty to his thought and his order is urged as a trait of the gentleman and the scholar, and in the latter essay, the scholar’s duty to stand for what is generous and free. [back]
Note 3. Mr. Emerson in his early youth did come near slavery for a short time. His diary at St. Augustine, quoted by Mr. Cabot in his Memoir, mentions that, while he was attending a meeting of the Bible Society, a slave-auction was going on outside, but it does not appear that he actually saw it. [back]
Note 4. Carlyle described Webster as “a magnificent specimen…. As a Logic-fencer, Advocate, or Parliamentary Hercules, one would incline to back him at first sight against all the extant world. The tanned complexion, that amorphous, crag-like face, the dull black eyes under their precipice of brows, like dull anthracite furnaces needing only to be blown, the mastiff-mouth, accurately closed:—I have not traced as much of silent Berserkir-rage, that I remember of, in any other man.” [Correspondence of Carlyle and Emerson, vol. i., pp. 260, 261.] [back]
Note 5. Mr. James S. Gibbons (of the New York Tribune) in a letter written to his son two days after this speech was delivered, says, referring evidently to this passage:—
  “Emerson gave us a fine lecture on Webster. He made him stand before us in the proportions of a giant; and then with one word crushed him to powder.” [back]
Note 6. Professor John H. Wright of Harvard University has kindly furnished me with the passage from Dio Cassius, xlvii. 49, where it is said of Brutus:—
  [Greek]
which he renders, “He cried out this sentiment of Heracles, ‘O wretched Virtue, after all, thou art a name, but I cherished thee as a fact. Fortune’s slave wast thou;’ and called upon one of those with him to slay him.”
  Professor Wright adds that Theodorus Prodromus, a Byzantine poet of the twelfth century, said, “What Brutus says (O Virtue, etc.) I pronounce to be ignoble and unworthy of Brutus’s soul.” It seems very doubtful whence the Greek verses came. [back]
Note 7. Just ten years earlier, Hon. Samuel Hoar, the Commissioner of Massachusetts, sent to Charleston, South Carolina, in the interests of our colored citizens there constantly imprisoned and ill used, had been expelled from that state with a show of force. See Lectures and Biographical Sketches. [back]
Note 8. The sending back of Onesimus by Paul was a precedent precious in the eyes of pro-slavery preachers, North and South, in those days, ignoring, however, Paul’s message, “Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh and in the Lord. If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself.” [Epistle of Paul to Philemon, i. 16, 17.] [back]
Note 9. The hydrostatic paradox has been before alluded to as one of Mr. Emerson’s favorite symbols, the balancing of the ocean by a few drops of water. In many places he dwells on the power of minorities—a minority of one. In “Character” (Lectures and Biographical Sketches) he says, “There was a time when Christianity existed in one child.” For the value and duty of minorities, see Conduct of Life, pp. 249 ff., Letters and Social Aims, pp. 219, 220. [back]
Note 10. This was a saying of Mahomet. What follows, with regard to the divine sentiments always soliciting us, is thus rendered in “My Garden:”
  Ever the words of the gods resound;
But the porches of man’s ear
Seldom in this low life’s round
Are unsealed, that he may hear.
 [back]
Note 11. This is the important key to the essay on Self-Reliance. [back]
Note 12. In the “Sovereignty of Ethics” Mr. Emerson quotes an Oriental poet describing the Golden Age as saying that God had made justice so dear to the heart of Nature that, if any injustice lurked anywhere under the sky, the blue vault would shrivel to a snake-skin, and cast it out by spasms. [back]
Note 13. There seems to be some break in the construction here probably due to the imperfect adjustment of lecture-sheets. It would seem that the passage should read: “Liberty is never cheap. It is made difficult because freedom is the accomplishment and perfectness of man—the finished man; earning and bestowing good;” etc. [back]
Note 14. See Lectures and Biographical Sketches, pp. 246 and 251. [back]
Note 15. The occasion alluded to was Hon. Robert C. Winthrop’s speech to the alumni of Harvard College on Commencement Day in 1852. What follows is not an abstract, but Mr. Emerson’s rendering of the spirit of his address. [back]
 
 
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