It ain't what you don't know that gets you in trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so. — Mark Twain

Negro and the Nation - G. S. Merriam




The Underlying Forces

Two master passions strove for leadership in the mind and heart of America. One was love of the united nation and ardor to maintain its union. The other was the aspiration to purify the nation, by removing the wrong of slavery. Unionist and Abolitionist stood face to face. After many years they were to stand shoulder to shoulder, in a common cause. In a larger sense than he gave the words, Webster's utterance became the final watchword: "Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable."

In the retrospect of history, our attention naturally fastens on the conspicuous and heroic figures. But we must not forget the underlying and often determining forces,—the interests, beliefs, and passions, of the mass of the community. And, while listening intently to the articulate voices, the impressive utterances, we are to remember that the life of the community as of the individual is shaped oftenest by the inarticulate, unavowed, half-unconscious sentiments:

Below the surface stream, shallow and light,

Of what we say we feel,—below the stream,

As light, of what we think we feel, there flows

With noiseless current, strong, obscure and deep,

The central stream of what we feel indeed.

The underlying human force in the slavery question was the primitive instinct in man to keep all he has got; the instinct of the man who lives at another's expense to keep on doing so. That underlay all the fine theories about differences of race, all the theological deductions from Noah's curse upon Canaan. Another great and constant factor was the absorption of men and communities, not personally concerned in a social wrong, in pursuits and interests of their own which shut out all outlook beyond. In our day we hear much about the crowding rush of material interests, but that crowd and rush was felt almost as much in the earlier generations, when hardly less than the most strident tones of the agitator could pierce the absorption of the street and market-place. There was the inertia of custom; there were the commercial interests closely interwoven of the Southern planter and the Northern manufacturer; there was the prejudice of color and race; and all these influences, open or latent, told powerfully for keeping slavery as it was.

The great default, the fatal failure, was the omission of the Southern whites, especially their leaders by education and by popular recognition, to take deliberate and systematic measures for the removal of slavery. Difficult? Yes, very. Impossible? Why, almost every other country of North and South America,—including the Spanish-Americans on whom the English-Americans look down with such superiority,—these all got rid of slavery without violence or revolution. Whatever the case required,—of preparation, compensation, new industrial arrangement,—the Southern whites had the whole business in their hands, to deal with as they pleased. Whatever cries might be raised by a few for instant and unconditional emancipation, there never was a day when the vast mass of the American people, of all sections, were not avowedly and unmistakably committed to letting the Southern States treat slavery as their own matter, and deal with it as they pleased, provided only they kept it at home. Excuses for non-action there were, of course,—the perplexities of the situation, the irritation of criticism from without,—but Nature has no use for excuses. If there is a cancer in the system it is useless to plead the expense of the surgery or the pain of the knife. The alternative is simple—removal or death.

It is always impossible to distinguish closely in the causes of events between the action of human will and the wider forces which we call Nature or Providence. But in some eras we distinguish more clearly than in others the effect of human personalities. For example, in the making of the Constitution we see a difficult situation taken wisely and resolutely in hand by a group of strong men; they made themselves a part of Fate. But in the fluctuating history of slavery, with its final catastrophe, we seem to be looking at elemental movements; masses of men drifting under impulses, with no leadership adequate to the occasion. The men who seemingly might have mastered the situation, and brought it to a peaceful and right solution, either could not or would not do it.

What happened was, that two opposite social systems, existing within the same political body, came into rivalry, into hostility, and at last into direct conflict. In the early stages, slavery had on its side the advantage of an established place under the law, the support of its local communities becoming more and more determined, the long-time indifference and inertia of the free States, custom, conservatism, timidity, race prejudice. But against all this were operating steadily two tremendous forces. In the race for industrial advantage which is at last the decisive test, free society was superior to slave society by as much as the freeman is superior to the slave. The advantage of the Northern farmer or mechanic over the negro slave was the measure of the advantage of the North over the South. In increase of wealth; in variety, intensity, and productiveness of social life; in immigration; in intellectual progress, the free States outstripped the slave States by leaps and bounds. And, again, in the conscience of humanity,—in mankind's sense of right and wrong, which grows ever a more potent factor in the world's affairs,—the tide was setting steadily and swiftly against slavery. To impatient reformers who, as Horace Mann said, were always in a hurry, while God never is,—the tide might seem motionless or refluent, as to him who looks hastily from the ocean shore; but as the sea follows the moon, the hearts of men were following the new risen luminary of humanity's God-given rights.

And so, under each special phase of the conflict, slavery had against it that dominant force which acts on one side in the material progress of society, and on the other side in the human conscience; that force—"some call it Evolution, and others call it God."