Negro and the Nation - G. S. Merriam
Turning now to the North, the principal leaders in its political life have already been mentioned, except Lincoln, whose star had not yet risen; but it is worth while to glance at some of those who, apart from Congress and public office, were molding public sentiment. Perhaps the man of the widest influence on public opinion was Horace Greeley. Through his New York Tribune he reached an immense audience, to a great part of whom the paper was a kind of political Bible. His words struck home by their common sense, passion, and close sympathy with the common people. A graduate of the farm and printing office, he was in close touch with the free, plain, toiling, American people, and in no man had they a better representative or a more effective advocate. There was in him something of John Bright's sturdy manhood, direct speech and devotion to human rights; something, too, of Franklin's homely shrewdness,—though little of Franklin's large philosophy or serenity. He was at first a Henry Clay Whig, and always a zealous protectionist; then in alliance with the anti-slavery element in the party, and soon the leading Republican editor. He was a lover of peace, in active sympathy with social reforms, sometimes betrayed into extravagances, but generally guarded by his common sense against extremists and impracticables. His limitations were a want of large culture, a very uncertain judgment in estimating men, and a temperament liable to such sudden ebb and flow that he fell sometimes into rashness and sometimes into panic. But he was disinterested and great-hearted. Other men broadened the Tribune's scope; its editorial tone was for its audience persuasive and convincing; and the Tribune was one of the great educational influences of the country. Beside it stood the New York Times, edited by Henry J. Raymond, an advocate of moderate anti-slavery and Republican principles, with less of masterful leadership than the Tribune, but sometimes better balanced; and the Herald, under the elder James Gordon Bennett, devoted to news and money-making, and pandering to Southern interests.
The clergy at the South were by this time generally united in the defense of slavery. At the North, there was great variety among them. Many ministers ignored slavery as apart from their province. Many spoke of it occasionally as a sin, but regarded it as little concerned with that daily life of their people which was their main concern. A few treated it as a great national wrong, speaking such denunciation as the Hebrew prophets gave to the national sins of their people; and of these some were driven from their pulpits. A few expressed open sympathy or apology for slavery,—such as Dr. Nehemiah Adams, of Boston, and Bishop Hopkins, of Vermont.
The foremost preacher in America was Henry Ward Beecher. He was above all things a preacher,—charged with a great spiritual message; of extraordinary and various eloquence, dramatic, inspiring, thrilling; impelled and sometimes controlled by a wonderful imagination. He was taking a leading part in transforming the popular belief. Theology has radically altered under two influences,—the new view of facts given by science, and a higher ethical and spiritual feeling. It was under the ethical and spiritual impulse that Beecher so altered the emphasis of the traditional theology, so dwelt on the love of God, on Christ's character as the revelation of God, on the opportunities and incitements of daily life, on all the hopeful and joyful aspects of existence,—that in the minds of his hearers the harsher elements, not only of Calvinism, but of the whole traditional orthodoxy, melted as imperceptibly and steadily as icebergs melt when they drift southward. He always avoided any avowed or precipitate break with the old system of dogma,—partly from a personal sentiment associated with the faith of the fathers; partly from an instinctive preference of practical and emotional over intellectual methods; and partly from a studied regard to the most effective results,—a shrewdness which tempered his impetuosity.
In these stirring days Beecher began to take active part in political discussion,—rarely in his pulpit, but as an occasional speaker at political meetings, or as a writer in the New York Independent. His ground was that of moderate anti-slavery and Republicanism. Shut off on the political platform from the highest flights of his pulpit oratory, he yet had large scope for his ideality, his common sense, his rich and abounding humor, his marvelous range of illustration from all things in earth and heaven. As the public questions of the day came still closer home to the business and bosoms of men, he dealt with them more freely in his preaching, though never to the subordination of the personal religious life as the paramount interest. One scene in his church comes vividly to mind; after the sermon, he stated the case of a little slave girl, allowed to come North on the chance of her being ransomed; and after a few moving words, he set her beside him—a beautiful, unconscious child—and money rained into the contribution boxes till in a few minutes the amount was raised, and the great congregation joined in a triumphant closing hymn.
Of a different type was Theodore Parker. He stood in his pulpit, the embodiment of courageous attack on every falsehood and abuse as it appeared to the lofty and luminous mind of the preacher. With his prophecy there mingled no expediency. He spoke the truth as he saw it, and let consequences take care of themselves. For a generation, the Unitarian ministers had denied the doctrine of the Trinity, but they held the founder of Christianity in such reverence that they would scarcely define his divine or semi-divine nature. Parker spoke frankly of Jesus as a man, and a man liable to imperfections and mistakes, while he honored him as the greatest leader of humanity. The Unitarians,—their intellectual radicalism kept well in check by the conservatism natural to their social and ecclesiastical traditions,—had held to a decided supernaturalism. Parker put religion on a purely natural basis, and sent home to men's consciousness the ideas of God and immortal life. His sermons were iconoclastic, but his prayers were full of reverence, aspiration, and tenderness. He was ostracized by most of the Unitarian churches, and dreaded by the orthodox, but he was a power in Boston and in America. He attacked social wrongs as fearlessly as he discussed theology. Against slavery he struck as with a battle ax. He was not greatly concerned with constitutions or tolerant of compromises. When a fugitive slave was seized in Boston, Parker took active part in a project of rescue. He roused the conscience of New England and the North. He died at fifty, just before the Civil War, consumed by his own fire.
The fable of the traveler who clung the closer to his cloak when the wind tried to strip it off but cast it aside when addressed by the sun's genial warmth, had an illustration in the many who surrendered their prejudice and selfishness, not at the bidding of the stormy reformers, but touched by the serene light of Emerson. Emerson's specific influence on slavery or any other social problem is hard to measure, for his power was thrown on the illumination and inspiration of the individual man. But in the large view his was an incomparable influence in diffusing that temper of mingled courage and sweetness, the idealist's vision and the soldier's valor, which is the world's best help and hope. He spoke out against slavery whenever he saw that his word was needed; he vindicated the right of the Abolitionists to free speech, whether they spoke wisely or not; and in some of his poems, as the "Concord Ode," and "Boston Hymn," he thrillingly invoked the best of the Puritan and Revolutionary temper to right the wrongs of the present. It was said of him that he gave to the war for the Union, "not one son, but a thousand." But he also gave watchwords that will long outlast the issues of the war and our issues of to-day. The homely yet soaring idealism of the true American will always answer to the word, "Hitch your wagon to a star."
The group of writers who gave brilliancy to this period have already been cited as champions of freedom. Most effective in his advocacy was Whittier, who, in early days, took active part in politics as a Free Soiler, and afterward did greater service by the lyrics of freedom, which like his songs of labor and poems of home life and religion, went to the heart of the common people as no other American voice has done. One who reads Whittier to-day may be allowed to wish that he had known the sunny as well as the shady side of Southern life; and that, as in a later poem he softened his fierce criticism on Webster, so he had celebrated the virtues and graces of his white countrymen below the Potomac and the Ohio, as well as the wrongs of his black countrymen. Lowell, usually a scholarly poet, spoke to the common people nobly for peace and freedom in the Biglow Papers. In 1857 the Atlantic Monthly was started under his editorship, the organ at once of the highest literary ability of New England, and of pronounced anti-slavery and Republican sentiment. After he gave up the editorship in 1862, he wrote at intervals of a few years the second series of Biglow Papers, and his "Commemoration Ode" was the noblest literary monument of the triumph of Union and freedom.
Longfellow's main vocation was away from the turmoils of the hour. He interpreted to America the art, the culture, the legends of Europe and the Middle Ages; he found the poetry in the early soil of America, as in "Hiawatha" and "Evangeline." He was not deaf to the wrongs of the slave, and gave to them some touching poems. But his finest contribution to the national idea was the apostrophe to the Union which crowns "The Building of the Ship." It was written in 1849, in the stress of the struggle over California, and it may well last as long as the nation lasts. The poem is an idyl of the ship-building folk and the sea; the consummation is the bridal of the captain and the builder's daughter, and the launching of the ship, christened "The Union"—emblem of the wife's and husband's voyage begun together on the sea of life; then,—
Thou, too, sail on, O Ship of State!
Sail on, O Union, strong and great!
Humanity with all its fears,
With all the hopes of future years,
Is hanging breathless on thy fate!
We know what Master laid thy keel,
What workmen wrought thy ribs of steel,
Who made each mast, and sail, and rope,
What anvils rang, what hammers beat,
In what forge and what a heat
Were shaped the anchors of thy hope!
Fear not each sudden sound and shock,
'Tis of the wave and not the rock;
'Tis but the flapping of the sail,
And not a rent made by the gale!
In spite of rock and tempest's roar,
In spite of false lights on the shore,
Sail on, nor fear to breast the sea!
Our hearts, our hopes, are all with thee.
Our hearts, our hopes, our prayers, our tears,
Our faith triumphant o'er our fears,
Are all with thee,—are all with thee!