Action and Reaction

New York Journal of Commerce, June 19, 1861

It is perhaps an inevitable, while it is a very painful characteristic of American politics in the present times, that differences of opinion beget violent personal animosities. Hitherto there has been no time when Americans, differing from each other however remotely, could not peacefully and quietly discuss the most radical questions; and now there is no trouble in talking freely one's opinions of direct taxation, or the tariff; but when any line of policy relating to the war is brought up as a subject of discussion, the excited state of men's minds becomes manifest, and if there be any great difference of opinion, the result is apt to be a pretty severe use of words, if not actually a resort to blows. Only a few weeks ago, the newspapers abounded in accounts of men being knocked down in the street for what was styled "treasonable sympathies"; and some of the newspapers endeavored to fan the flame by heading such statements with "served him right," or something similar. This state of affairs is fortunately past; but men's minds are still strongly influenced by their feelings, and too many are impatient of any voice that speaks of peace. The newspaper press has been greatly to blame in this matter. Some weeks ago the word "treason" had acquired a new and broad signification in the columns of the Republican papers. It was bandied about with a freedom that was appalling. The "liberty of the press," which here means the right to call any man a scoundrel, a thief or a traitor that you dare take that liberty with, this liberty of the press has had the freest exercise. The rule has been, "if any man differs from you as to the propriety of war, call him a traitor; if any man thinks the South not starving, call him a traitor; if any man says there is a Christian south of Virginia, call him a traitor; if any man does anything to calm the public excitement, call him a traitor; if any man says this war is an anti-slavery war, call him a traitor; if any man says this war is not a war for the extermination of slavery, call him a traitor."

In short, whatever is said, whatever is proposed, whatever is advocated that does not meet the views of the war newspapers, is treason. There are exceptions, it is true. It depends very much on who says the thing. Thus, for a Republican editor to propose to "supersede the President," is not treason. For a man of the salve sort to say that General Scott is too old and too slow, and that we want John C. Fremont, or some such man, in his place, and that we want the Pennsylvanians to march on Harper's Ferry without waiting for Washington orders,—this is not objectionable. For an out and out Abolition sheet to print daily in its head-line that "the Constitution of the United States is a covenant with Hell," is not treason. For Republican papers to argue that in war times the letter of the Constitution is to be disregarded, and the President of the United States ought to assume and exercise the powers of a dictator, is not treason.

We might extend the illustrations, but these are sufficient. Instead of the former frank and hearty style of discussion, if perchance a peace-loving newspaper treads on the toes of these warlike editors, the vocabulary of epithets is exhausted in the present style of reply. We counted the word "liar" repeated some ten times in the editorials of one paper a few days since.

We are not censors of the press or people, but we record with hopefulness the change that is coming over our people in this respect, and the disgust which good men everywhere are beginning to feel at the amount of vituperation which has been made use of. One of the New York papers a few days since devoted an editorial to rousing the North to vengeance, even to wiping out in blood the insults of the Southern newspapers in calling us bad names,—utterly forgetful that it had been for years steadily calling slavery "the sum of all villanies," and charging every slaveholder with being guilty of a violation of every command in the decalogue! Thus its own call to vengeance seemed a quasi justification of the rebellion.

But with time comes reason. Time conquers all things. The most bitter vengeance will finally fail. The strongest passions sleep calmly after a little. The more terrible the tide or the flood, the more swift is the ebb. Already, though violent and passionate men continue to call names and abuse men's reputations, already the effect is past, and the argument that a good cause requires no such assistance, is beginning to be felt. Let not the reaction be too strong. Coming, as it is now very rapidly, the danger which experience teaches is, that in reactions men too frequently lose all sense of right, and only remember their own wrongs. The inventor of the guillotine is said to have suffered by it. The promoters of the maddest Republicanism in France, went in hordes to the block. But we trust that the American mind will reach its old balance-point without those great reactions which ordinarily occur in such cases.

Three months ago the immense majority of Americans in the North believed and advocated the idea that the peaceable acknowledgment of the Southern Confederacy was preferable to war. The leading Republican newspaper in this city even pronounced the right of the Southern States to establish their own form of government to be as clear as that of the American Colonies to revolt from England in 1776. The same paper declared that Fort Sumter was only built for the protection of Charleston, and not for offensive purposes against that city, and advocated the evacuation of the Fort. The universal American mind was averse to the idea of war. Even among men who favored a war against the Cotton States, it was common to hear conversation like this: "If Virginia secedes, are you in favor of war?" "Virginia will never secede; you cannot kick her out." "But if she does, and North Carolina with her, what then?" "Why, I am not a fool; if so large a portion of the Union as that secedes, then I think we may as well give it up and acknowledge them." This was the accepted doctrine of the entire Democratic party, and large numbers of Republicans openly advocated it. Truths are omnipotent. That is truth to-day which was truth a month or three months ago to-day. What process will men's mind have to go through after the late convulsions? How many oscillations shall we see, before they settle back upon the truth they believed, in their former calm and sober moments?