Abolitionist Demonstrations in America

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Author(s) Karl Marx
Written August 1862

Published in Die Presse, August 30, 1862

Published in Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 19
Collection(s): Die Presse

IT was previously observed in these columns that President Lincoln, legally cautious, constitutionally conciliatory, by birth a citizen of the border slave state of Kentucky, escapes only with difficulty from the control of the “loyal” slaveholders, seeks to avoid any open breach with them and precisely thereby calls forth a conflict with the parties of the North which are consistent in point of principle and are pushed more and more into the foreground by events. The speech that Wendell Phillips delivered at Abington, Massachusetts, on the occasion of the anniversary of the slaves’ emancipation in the British West Indies, may be regarded as a prologue to this conflict.

Together with Garrison and G. Smith, Wendell Phillips is the leader of the Abolitionists in New England. For 30 years he has without intermission and at the risk of his life proclaimed the emancipation of the slaves as his battlecry, regardless alike of the persiflage of the press, the enraged howls of paid rowdies and the conciliatory representations of solicitous friends. Even by his opponents he is acknowledged as one of the greatest orators of the North, as combining iron character with forceful energy and purest conviction. The London Times—and what could characterize this magnanimous paper more strikingly—today denounces Wendell Phillips’ speech at Abington to the government at Washington. It is an “abuse” of freedom of speech.

Anything more violent it is scarcely possible to image—says The Times—and anything more daring in time of Civil War was never perpetrated in any country by any sane man who valued his life and liberty. In reading the speech … it is scarcely possible to avoid the conclusion that the speaker’s object was to force the government to prosecute him.[1]

And The Times, in spite of or, perhaps, because of its hatred of the Union government, appears not at all disinclined to assume the rôle of public prosecutor! In the present state of affairs Wendell Phillips’ speech is of greater importance than a battle bulletin. We therefore epitomize its most striking passages.[2]

The government,[3] [he says among other things,] fights for the maintenance of slavery, and therefore it fights in vain. Lincoln wages a political war. Even at the present time he is more afraid of Kentucky than of the entire North. He believes in the South. The Negroes on the Southern battlefields, when asked whether the rain of cannon-balls and bombs that tore up the earth all round and split the trees asunder, did not terrify them, answered: “No, massa; we know that they are not meant for us!” The rebels could speak of McClellan’s bombs in the same way. They know that they are not meant for them, to do them harm. I do not say that McClellan is a traitor; but I say that if he were a traitor, he must have acted exactly as he has done. Have no fear for Richmond; McClellan will not take it. If the war is continued in this fashion, without a rational aim, then it is a useless squandering of blood and gold. It would be better were the South independent today than to hazard one more human life for a war based on the present execrable policy. To continue the war in the fashion prevailing hitherto, requires 125,000 men a year and a million dollars a day.

But you cannot get rid of the South. As Jefferson said of slavery: “The Southern states have the wolf by the ears, but they can neither hold him nor let him go.” In the same way we have the South by the ears and can neither hold it nor let it go. Recognize it tomorrow and you will have no peace. For eighty years it has lived with us, in fear of us the whole time, with hatred for us half the time, ever troubling and abusing us. Made presumptuous by conceding its present claims, it would not keep within an imaginary border line a year—nay, the moment that we speak of conditions of peace, it will cry victory! We shall never have peace until slavery is uprooted. So long as you retain the present tortoise at the head of our government, you make a hole with one hand in order to fill it with the other. Let the entire nation endorse the resolutions of the New York Chamber of Commerce[4] and then the army will have something for which it is worth while fighting. Had Jefferson Davis the power, he would not capture Washington. He knows that the bomb that fell in this Sodom would rouse the whole nation.

The entire North would thunder with one voice: “Down with slavery, down with everything that stands in the way of saving the republic!” Jefferson Davis is quite satisfied with his successes. They are greater than he anticipated, far greater! If he can continue to swim on them till March 4, 1863, England will then, and this is in order, recognize the Southern Confederacy.… The President has not put the Confiscation Act into operation. He may be honest, but what has his honesty to do with the matter? He has neither insight nor foresight. When I was in Washington, I ascertained that three months ago Lincoln had written the proclamation for a general emancipation of the slaves and that McClellan blustered him out of his decision and that the representatives of Kentucky blustered him into the retention of McClellan, in whom he places no confidence. It will take years for Lincoln to learn to combine his legal scruples as an attorney with the demands of the Civil War. This is the appalling condition of a democratic government and its greatest evil.

In France a hundred men, convinced for good reasons, would carry the nation with them; but in order that our government may take a step, nineteen millions must previously put themselves in motion. And to how many of these millions has it been preached for years that slavery is an institution ordained by God! With these prejudices, with paralyzed hands and hearts, you entreat the President to save you from the Negro! If this theory is correct, then only slaveholding despotism can bring a temporary peace.… I know Lincoln. I have taken his measure in Washington. He is a first-rate second-rate man. He waits honestly, like another Vesenius, for the nation to take him in hand and sweep away slavery through him.… In past years, not far from the platform from which I now speak, the Whigs fired off small mortars in order to stifle my voice. And what is the result?

The sons of these Whigs now fill their own graves in the marshes of Chickahominy! Dissolve this Union in God’s name and put another in its place, on the cornerstone of which is written: “Political equality for all the citizens of the world.…” During my stay in Chicago I asked lawyers of Illinois, among whom Lincoln had practiced, what sort of man he was. Whether he could say No. The answer was: “He lacks backbone. If the Americans wanted to elect a man absolutely incapable of leadership, of initiative, then they were bound to elect Abraham Lincoln … Never has a man heard him say No!…” I asked: “Is McClellan a man who can say No?” The manager of the Chicago Central Railroad, on which McClellan was employed, answered: “He is incapable of making a decision. Put a question to him and it takes an hour for him to think of the answer. During the time that he was connected with the administration of the Central Railroad, he never decided a single important controversial question.”

And these are the two men who, above all others, now hold the fate of the Northern republic in their hands!

Those best acquainted with the state of the army assure us that Richmond could have been taken five times, had the do-nothing at the head of the army of the Potomac allowed it; but he preferred to dig up dirt in the Chickahominy swamps, in order ignominiously to abandon the locality and his dirt ramparts. Lincoln, out of cowardly fear of the border slave states, keeps this man in his present position; but the day will come when Lincoln will confess that he has never believed in McClellan.… Let us hope that the war lasts long enough to transform us into men, and then we shall quickly triumph. God has put the thunderbolt of emancipation into our hands in order to crush this rebellion.…

  1. The Times, August 22, 1862.—Ed.
  2. For the complete speech see W. Phillips, Speeches, Lectures and Letters, Series 1 (Boston, 1864), pp. 448–463. The address is entitled “The Cabinet.”—Ed.
  3. The original text does not mark this passage as a quotation, but the boundary of Phillips’ words is inferred from the use of first person in describing the situation in America.
  4. (Reference Note) In the resolutions referred to, the New York Chamber of Commerce declared: “Better every rebel die than one loyal soldier.”