What Are We Fighting For?

Philadelphia Public Ledger, June 7, 1861

The English papers affect to see no principle in the present internecine strife in the United States, and sneeringly ask, "What are they fighting for?" Blinded by their own selfish interests, and prejudiced by their own political views and feelings, there is probably some apology for their obtuseness, though none at all for their manifest sympathy for a cause, which undertakes to break up one of the established governments of the world, not for any injury which is received by association with that government, but prompted by an insane ambition to establish an empire whose groundwork is that labor should be owned by its employer, or, in other words, that there shall be, as of old, but two classes in society—the master and the bondsman.

Setting aside the moral aspects of the case as involved in such a contest, it will be seen, by a little consideration, that there are important political and social principles at stake also, in this issue. When our Constitution was framed, it was adopted as the fundamental law, for the protection of the natural and political rights of each individual citizen residing in the republic. All distinctions of classes were set aside; all titles resting upon supposed honor or acquired wealth were abolished; each individual citizen was clothed with the same political rights, and stood the equal of his fellow-citizen under the laws, no matter what his wealth or the social consideration in which he was held. With no artificial barriers interposed between him and his welfare, there was no bar to his enterprise and his ambition; and the immense development of the physical resources of this country, and the prosperity which everywhere is exhibited, are the practical benefits. arising from this political equality. But under this theory of equality which has benefitted so much the enterprising white race in America, there was also, unfortunately, a system of labor existing which was directly antagonistic, and which asserted the right of property in man if his skin was black. That system, socially encouraged for so many years, and protected under our constitution for three-fourths of a century, could not exist without producing essential changes in the social bearing and political instincts of the people among whom it existed. Labor, from being the employment of menials only, was looked upon as the badge of servitude, and from holding property in laborers of one color, it was very natural that the property owners should regard all labor as the just object of ownership, and with this barbarous dogma, should seek to establish such changes in the political government of the country as would take from labor the power of controlling its own destiny. Under the constitution of the United States this could not be done. Hence we have a revolution to establish a "Southern Confederacy on a military basis, with suffrage largely restricted." This is the leading idea of the revolutionists—the avowed object of South Carolina, the moving spirit in this rebellion—though, for prudential reasons, the Montgomery Congress has seen proper to ignore it temporarily.

"What are we fighting for?" We are fighting for everything for which this Government was established. We are fighting to preserve our republican institutions in their purity; to maintain our Union in its integrity; to establish the authority of the Constitution and laws over violence and anarchy; to secure popular rights against aristocratic assumption; and to prove to the other nations of the earth whether we have a Government or not. The fundamental principle which is assailed in the present rebellion is the principle of equal rights as recognized under our Constitution. It is the underlying principle of our republic, and when that is destroyed, the principle which gives vitality to our democratic representative government is gone also, and with it the faith of mankind in popular government. We are fighting, therefore, to preserve the Government as it was established, on pure republican principles, in which artificial distinctions merely, shall not impair political rights.

But if the principle of republican government is assailed by the aristocratic pretensions now put forth by the leaders who inaugurated this rebellion, the Government established upon it is fatally endangered by the attempt to break up the Union, and the changes of policy and interests which will be created by its rupture. Cotemporaneous with the establishment of the Government was the avowed policy that no European Government should be permitted to meddle with the political institutions of this country, or to establish the principle of aristocratic or monarchical rule upon the soil which has been devoted to democratic representative government. To maintain this policy, union is indispensable. To keep this Northern division of the continent as the field for millions of the white race to claim their natural birthright in, and exercise their energies and their talents for their own advantage and the general prosperity, it is essential that but one Government shall exercise authority from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada, and from the Atlantic to the Pacific. What would this country be, broken up into pieces, and divided into different confederacies, with rival interests, and rival institutions? How could the enterprise and industry of the free North develope itself with another and rival government, based on principles so entirely opposite to free labor, limiting its expansion southwardly, and holding three-fourths of the line of sea coast of the country in its own possession? If there is anything which distinguishes the labor of the free white men of the North, it is its enterprise and its energy, and these flourish alike on land and on the ocean. The whole commercial activity of the nation equaling that of England, arises from the entire freedom with which the labor of the North is allowed to extend its operations. To be cut off at one blow from this privilege, and to be deprived of the freedom of the coasting trade, would be ruinous to our commercial interests, and crippling to every other pursuit on which our prosperity is founded. It would be dwarfing energies which require a whole continent as the field of their operations, and driving the people back again into poverty and misery.

But independently of these conditions, we are fighting for another great fundamental principle of republican Government—the right of the majority to rule. When the ballot-box was substituted for revolution, it was thought that all violent changes in established governments, all sudden overthrowing of political structures, would be obviated, for the will of the people could be peacefully known through the ballot, and their legally established rule be patiently submitted to. So long as it answered the purpose of maintaining power in the hands of the would-be-oligarchs, its decrees were acknowledged as binding; but so soon as it threatened to put power really in the hands of the majority, those who labor for their living, then the discovery is made that our institutions rest on a wrong basis, and that political equality is neither desirable for social prosperity, nor practicable for political permanency. We are fighting to expunge this great political error, and to prove to the world, that the free Democratic spirit which established the government, is equal to its protection and its maintenance. If this is not worth fighting for, then our revolt against England was a crime, and our republican Government a fraud.