The United States, prompt in other matters to take part with the foremost and freest nations in asserting the principles of liberty and human rights, have held back behind Europe on the subject of negro emancipation.
The chief reason is, that a regard for law conflicted with a regard for liberty. To the American citizen the Constitution stands in the place occupied, under the monarchical system, by the sovereign in person. It is the object of his loyalty. His veneration for that instrument went so far as to influence his perceptions of justice. A majority in the North have always held it to be a great wrong that human beings and their descendants forever should be held in bondage. Up to the time when this war made the slave-holders in eleven States our enemies, we acquiesced in that wrong, lest, in the endeavor to remedy it, greater evils might follow. Though it be true that, before the war, the legality of the slave-holders" claim to service or labor was denied, on humanitarian grounds, yet a construction of the Constitution adverse to such denial, and acquiesced in by the Nation throughout two generations, was held by most men to be sufficient reason why the claim in question should be regarded as private property and respected as such. The majority held to the opinion that it could not be taken except by a violation of the Constitution; in other words, by a revolutionary act. They felt that though revolutionary acts become a justifiable remedy upon great occasions, as in 1776, yet they are usually replete with peril that it is easy to pass the limit of regulated authority, but impossible to estimate the dangers we may encounter when that guardian limit is once transgressed.
That in the minds of many, cupidity, excited sometimes by supposed commercial advantages, sometimes, by selfish political calculations came in aid of constitutional scruple, may not be denied, and,so far as that motive prevailed, our complicity as a people is without palliation. But cupidity, commercial or political, was not the dominant motive, nor, but for the restraint of the Constitution, would sordid considerations have prevented the Nation from shaking off the incubus which oppressed it.
Slavery, therefore, moral wrong as it is, was tolerated by the majority as one of the articles in a great national compromise which it was unlawful and perilous to violate. If, before the South had trampled under foot compromise and Constitution, those who directed the Federal Government, taking the initiative, had striven to eradicate the growing evil, the effort would have been vain, for they could not have carried the people with them. To human eyes there seemed, in this generational least, no way out.
But God, who overrules evil for good, opened the way. They, the chief architects of the great wrong of the age, in whose hands alone seemed to have been left the power to hasten its downfall, have madly persisted in the very course swiftly and inevitably to that result. In the early stage of the war Congress proposed, and the majority of the Nation expected, as the issue of this contest a mere rehabilitation with Southern laws and Southern institutions reacknowledged in their pristine form. Again and again warning was given, and the return of the insurgents to their loyal duty on these conditions was urged upon them. But their hearts were hardened, and they would not. By their obstinate perversity they closed the door against themselves. They preserved in their conspiracy against public law until emancipation became an imperative measure of self-defense. They preserved until public opinion,