Viewing page 11 of 16

NOVEMBER, 1861.      DOUGLASS' MONTHLY.      555

them that you should blindly follow them; but simply that you should see how in times past defeat has been stayed and victory won by a generous word for freedom.——Men die and disappear; but the human family continues the same in passions and tears as when Philip was frightened back from Athens, and when Marius was borne in triumph to Rome.

To these historic instances, let me add an admitted principle of the ancient Roman law.  According to that law, the state of slavery might be terminated in three different manners: First, by manumission; secondly, by way of reward to the slave; and thirdly, by way of punishment to the master.  If the master had failed to be a good citizen, he was punished, so that at the same time he should suffer in property and others should gain what is more than property——freedom.  But I do not cite even this principle of a time honored jurisprudence for your Government.  I will not doubt that, in the unparalleled circumstances by which we are now encompassed, justice will be done.

Already the way is easy.  A simple declaration that all men coming within the lines of the United States troops shall be regarded as free men, will be in strict conformity to the Constitution, and also with precedents.  The Constitution knows no man as a slave.  It treats all within its jurisdiction as persons, while the exceptional provision for the rendition of persons held to service or labor, you will observe, is carefully confined to such as have escaped into another State.  It is clear, therefore, that there can be no sanction under the Constitution for turning a camp into a slave-pen, or for turning military officers into slave-hunters.  Let this plain construction be adopted, and then, as our lines advance, Freedom will be established, and our national flag in its march will wave with new glory.

A brave General, whom Massachusetts has given to the country——though commencing his career with prejudices derived from the pro-slavery school of politicians——has known how to see this question in its true light.  I mean, of course, General Butler.  He has declared in his letter to the Secretary of War, dated Fortress Monroe, 30th July, 1861, with reference to fugitive slaves, that it is his duty 'to take the same care of these men, women and children, houseless, homeless, and unprovided for, as he would of the same number of men, women and children who for their attachment to the Union, had been driven or allowed to flee from the Confederate States.'  These words are better for his reputation than a victory.

Another General, born in Kentucky, and living and dying in the South——Maj.-General Gaines of the Army of the United States——laid down the same rule as long ago as 1838.  It will be found in the documents of Congress.  'The military officer,' said he, 'can enter into no judicial examination of the claim of one man to the bone and muscle of another as property.  Nor could he, as a military officer, know what the laws of Florida were while engaged in maintaining the Federal Government by force of arms.  In such case, he could only be guided by the laws of war; and whatever may be the laws of any State, they must yield to the safety of the Federal Government.'

This proposition, though of seeming simplicity, would be of incalculable efficacy if honestly and sincerely enforced.  Then would our camps become nurseries of freemen, and every common soldier would be a chain-breaker.

But there is another agency that may be invoked, which is at the same time under the Constitution, and above the Constitution; I mean Martial law.  It is under the Constitution, because it is distinctly recognized by the Supreme Court among the functions of our Government.  It is above the Constitution, because, when set in motion, like necessity, it knows no other law.  For the time it is law and Constitution.  All other agencies, small and great, executive, legislative, and even judicial, are absorbed in this transcendent triune power, which for the time declares its absolute will, while it holds alike the scales of justice and the sword of the executioner.  The existence of this power——nobody questions.  If it has been rarely exercised in our country, and never on an extended scale, the power none the less has a fixed place in our political system.  As well strike out the kindred law of self-defence, which belongs alike to States and individuals.  Martial law is only one form of self-defence.

That this law might be employed against slavery was first proclaimed in the House of Representatives by a Massachusetts statesman, who was a champion of Freedom, John Quincy Adams.  His authority is such that I content myself with placing the law under the sanction of his name, which becomes more authoritative when we consider the circumstances under which the doctrine was put forth, repeated and then again vindicated.

It was early as 25th of May, 1836, that Mr. Adams first expounded what he called 'The war power and treaty-making power of the Constitution.'  Then it was that he declared:

'From the instant that your slaveholding States become the theatre of war, civil, servile or foreign, from that instant the war powers of Congress extend to interference with the institution of slavery in every way in which it can be interfered with, from the claim of indemnity for slaves taken or destroyed to the cession of the State burdened with slavery to a foreign power.'

Again, on the 7th of June, 1841, after many years of reflection, and added experience in public life, he terrified slave-masters by showing that universal emancipation might be accomplished through this extraordinary power.

Afterward, on the 14th of April, 1842, for the third time he stated the doctrine in the House of Representatives, and challenged criticism or reply.  I forbear to read the whole speech, though it is worthy of constant repetition.  An extract will suffice:

'I lay this down as law of nations.  I say that the military authority takes, for the time, the place of all municipal institutions, slavery among the rest.  Under that state of things, so far from its being true that the States where slavery exists have the exclusive management of the subject, not only the President of the United States but the Commander of the army has power to order the universal emancipation of the slaves.'

And then again, he asks, in words applicable to the present hour:

'If civil war come——if insurrection come——is this beleaguered capital, is this besieged Government to see millions of its subjects in arms, and have no right to break the fetters which they are forging into swords?  No!  The war power of the Government can sweep this institution into the Gulf.'

The representatives of slavery fumed and raged at these words and at their venerable author; but nobody answered them; and they have stood ever since in the records of Congress, firm and impregnable as adamant.

In the protracted controversy which is now drawing to its close, Massachusetts has done much.  She first gave the example of Universal Freedom within her borders; and ever since that early day she has borne a leading part in all efforts against slavery.  It is her children who have never failed in this cause, where anything was to be done, whether by word or deed.  Massachusetts has for years borne the burden of this discussion, and also the heavier burden of obloquy which has long rested upon all who pleaded for the slave.——It is Massachusetts who, with patriotic ardor, first leaped to the rescue when the Capital was menaced by slavery, and, by a happy coincidence, on the 19th of April of this year, consecrated herself anew by the blood of her children; thus being at the same time first to do and first to suffer.  It was also a Massachusetts General who first in this conflict proclaimed that our camps could not contain a slave; and it was an illustrious Massachusetts statesman who first unfolded the beneficent principle by virtue of which, constitutionally, legally, and without excess of any kind, the President, or a Commanding General, may become more than a conqueror, even a Liberator.

Massachusetts will be false to herself, if she fails at this moment.  And yet I would not be misunderstood.  Feeling most profoundly that there is now an opportunity, such as rarely occurs in human annals, for incalculable good——seeing clearly that there is one spot, like the heel of Achilles, where this great rebellion may be wounded to death——I calmly deliver the whole question to the judgment of those on whom the responsibility rests, contenting myself with reminding you that there are times when not to act carries with it a greater responsibility than to act.  It is enough for us to review the unquestioned power of the Government, to handle for a moment its mighty weapons, which are yet allowed to slumber without assuming to declare that the hour has come when they shall flash against the sky.

But may a good Providence save our Government from that everlasting regret which must ensue if a great opportunity is lost by which all the bleeding wounds of war shall be staunched——by which prosperity shall be again established, and peace be linked forever with liberty.  Saul was cursed for not hewing Agag in pieces when in his hands, and Ahab was cursed for not destroying Benhadad.  Let no such curses ever descend upon our Government.

'So many slaves, so many enemies!'  Unless this ancient proverb has ceased to be true, there are now 4,000,000 of enemies intermingled with the rebels; being 4,000,000 of allies to the National Government.  Can we afford to reject this natural alliance, inspired by a common interest, and consecrated by humanity?  There is another motive to such an alliance which cannot be forgotten.  Without it insurrection will be inevitable, and when it comes it will be wild and lawless.——This should be prevented, if possible.  But if Liberty does not come from the tranquil and beneficent action of the Government, it will come in blood, amid the confusion of families.  All this was foreseen by the Emperor of Russia, when, on the 21st of September, 1858, he called upon his nobles to unite with him in Emancipation, 'which,' he nobly declared, 'ought to begin from above  to the end that it may not come from below:' and now this very year 20 000,00 of Russian serfs have peacefully passed out of the house of bondage.  Cheered by this great example, let us not forget that it began from above.

There is another practical advantage where the action proceeds from the Government.——The interests of loyal citizens can be protected.  Compensation may relieve the hardships of individual cases; nor can I object.  Never should any question of money be allowed to interfere with human freedom.  Better an empty Treasury than a single slave.  A bridge of gold would be cheap, if demanded by the retreating fiend.

Fellow citizens, I have spoken frankly; for such has always been my habit.  And never was there greater need for frankness.  Let patriots understand each other, and they cannot widely differ.  All will unite in sustaining the Government, and in driving back the rebels.  But this cannot be done by any halfway measures, or by any lukewarm conduct.  Do not hearken to the voice of slavery, no matter what its tones of persuasion.  Believe me, its friendship is more deadly than its enmity.  If you are wise, prudent, conservative, practical, you will strike quick and hard——strike, too, where the blow will be most felt——strike at the mainspring of the Rebellion.  Strike in the name of the Union, which only in this way can be restored——in the name of Peace, which is vain without Union, and in the name of Liberty also, which will bring both Peace and Union in her glorious train.

Hen. Gerrit Smith delivered a lecture in the Church of the Puritans, New York, on Wednesday evening last, to a large audience.  The subject was 'The State and Needs of the Country.'

Transcription Notes:
formatting not included per Smithsonian instructions

Please note that the language and terminology used in this collection reflects the context and culture of the time of its creation, and may include culturally sensitive information. As an historical document, its contents may be at odds with contemporary views and terminology. The information within this collection does not reflect the views of the Smithsonian Institution, but is available in its original form to facilitate research. For questions or comments regarding sensitive content, access, and use related to this collection, please contact