The Wrong Argument
Wabash Plain Dealer, April 5, 1861
Among the many arguments advanced by the South in support of their peculiar institution, is, that society demands as a necessity demands, as a necessity, to work in its various departments of labor men of every capacity, running from statesmen down to ditch-diggers. The fallacy lies not in the assertion that society must have[,] like the human body, feet and hands to do menial service, as well as an intellect to guide and direct and control, but rather in using these facts as an argument in behalf of slavery. No one, we think, who has exercised the slightest observation in reference to the formation of society, will for a moment deny that its great and magnificent purposes are and must be reached by the instrumentality of men of inferior mental endowments as well as of men of the most transcendant genius. Inferior men are a society necessity. Society must have a foundation, a basis, men to do its drudgery, dig its ditches, build its railroads and canals; and let us remark here, en passant, that labor in the humblest walks of life is as honorable as labor in the highest. If God has seen fit to deny us the endowments with which He has gifted others, our honest efforts are as commendable as those of the most brilliant and daring genius. There is, there can be nothing criminal in the decrees of Providence.—The poor Irishman, who follows his wheel-barrow and gains but an humble livelihood by the sweat of his brow, is as noble an object in the sight of Him in whose hands are the sublime destinies of the world, as he who sits imperious and enthroned at the head of a kingdom.
But to return. Because society must have a basis, because there must be cotton cultivators in the South, does it logically follow; is it a legitimate conclusion, that Slavery in the South is right? Or is it, therefore, even a matter of political necessity? We are persuaded that it is neither. It neither establishes the morality of servitude, nor does it dictate its necessity. The North demands railroad builders. Is this want ground for the servitude of all railroad builders? Heaven has left this question as to who shall be the head and who the feet of society, to the comparative capacities of men. It is the pride, the boast of free institutions to throw nothing—no obstacle, no law—in the way of a fair and honorable solution of this question. The boat hand may rise to be a judge. He who to-day splits rails for an humble support, tomorrow rules the destiny of a mighty nation.—But the institution of slavery, indiscriminately, without regard to capacity, fixes forever the condition of men, as soon as they are one by one ushered into the world. Heaven has declared that all of these men may grasp after, and some of them reach the noble purposes of life.—The law with a profane assertion of superiority, declares that all shall be slaves! and all die the death of vagabonds!
But it will be urged that the hot, sultry climate of the South forbids white labor, and that black labor will not exist except by compulsion. Let us admit this with referance to a narrow strip of country running across the extreme South—Mississippi, Alabama, and those extreme Southern States. The proposition is, that society in the Cotton States cannot exist without the cultivation of cotton, and that cotton cannot be cultivated without slave labor. Suppose this all be true. Does it justify human bondage? Is the liberty of innocent human beings to be balanced in the scale with bales of cotton? We, of the boasted European caste, are accustomed, in the toasts and orations of our Fourth of July celebrations, to prize our liberty next to honor and life. Is this merely declamatory extravagance, or is it truth; and if truth, is it not so as applied to all races of men? Or, is the Caucasian face the passport to political freedom—the royal stamp which distinguishes the freeman from the bondman? The regaining of our liberties justifies the spilling of human blood, excuses the terrors of revolution and the crash of empires.—But the liberty of the African must be measured by the loss of a single paltry product of the earth! Stating the position is sufficient to refute it.
All this demonstrates that slavery in the South has but one excuse. The institution has grown by time and ingenuity combined, into the permanency and stability of an establishment. Those in possession of it now inherited it. They are in no manner responsible for its being engrafted upon the political tree of the South. It was morally wrong at first; it is morally wrong now. To cut away suddenly, however, from the parent tree, would no doubt bring about a greater wrong than now exists. We are persuaded that these considerations are a sufficient apology for Southern slavery, without attempting to sustain it on the ground that it was originally right, and is now, and also that it is necessary to the successful growth of cotton, inasmuch as its cultivation is a drudgery, and beneath the scorching rays of a tropical sun.
Let the idea of fixed conditions and caste never creep into our text book of beneficial, political principles. The Chinese and the Indian Empires are stupendous examples of warning to us in this respect. They demonstrate, in terms not to be mistaken, that if the conditions of man are fixed and unchanged—that if the hope of rising and the fear of falling in the world, are not permitted to operate upon their minds, life is an unceasing inactivity, a dull monotony, without progress, and society an unending, eternal rest!