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1861 June 1: The “Peculiar Institution”

June 2, 2011

A lengthy editorial from The Prescott Transcript of June 1, 1861, addresses slavery.

The Question.

Among the many questions which have sprung into life, during the progress of this Great Rebellion, and at once assumed a relation of vital importance to the future happiness of our country, none has arrogated to  itself more of the attention of the North, or which has risen to such magnitude, or seems more hopelessly insoluble, than the one which owes its origin to the “peculiar institution,” and the policy necessary for our government to adopt in relation to it. Nothing within the confines of the possible but ought to be made the subject of occasional thought, and nothing within the limits of the probable, which affects the interest or well being of ourselves should be left undiscussed. Various are the consequences which are liable to result from the present relation which our Government sustains to this institution, and some of them are highly probable. We deem it, therefore, a matter which ought to be throughly understood, and its importance clearly seen. It is one which if the war should continue for a length of time and under the present aspect of affairs it seems certain, will as sume [sic] a gravity, that will call for a most vigorous and decided policy by our Government. Let the subject be fairly presented. The Confederate States are at open war with the United States; they have declared themselves independent of the Government; have broken its laws, defied the Government, and boldly declared themselves our enemies, – and pursued a course of conduct in every way consistent with that declaration: having seized on the Government property, and attacked the forces stationed for its defence. They are in every sense, enemies to the United States, and as such must be dealt with accordingly. Different, it is true, from a foreign enemy, but that difference lies in the degree of its offence. The government of the Confederate States have beside the white population, some four millions of slaves at its command, from whom a large and powerful army might be easily raised and equiped [sic]. That our enemies will not scruple to avail themselves of their help is proven by the fact that they are already pressing them into service. They do the entire work of coustructing [sic] the fortifications, nearly all the batteries which surrounded Fort Sumter, were built by them; such service being as injurious to our forces as if they were on the battle field. Now, it is well known that the least encouragement extended to the slaves by the Government would end in a general stampede; scores are escaping daily, some fly to our army for protection. It is reported that while Lieut. Slemmer was fortifying Fort Pickens that several slaves came to him and offered their services to aid him in his labor, if he would secure them from capture; he refused to do so, and in every instance returned them to their owners, although at the time he was in great need of help. He said that if he had thus encouraged them, he would shortly have had all the slaves in Florida for his workmen. Some instances of the same character have occurred at Fortress Menroe, and, as in the former case, they were returned. It is not customary for nations at war, and more especially where a lawfully constituted government is endeavoring to suppress rebellion, for the army to become recruiting officers for the enemy. Should the war continue, and it become necessary for our troops to invade the Confederate States, they will unavoidably come in contact with the negroes, and if our army remains neutral, that is, does not interfere in behalf of the master, there will be a general secession on the part of the slaves, Thousands will embrace the opportunity, thus offered, to make good their escape from the thraldrom of servitude. And more, if nothing is done to prevent it, hundreds will enlist under the flag of our Union to avenge them of their long accumulated wrongs; in short, there will be a general assumption of their right to secede, and their masters will be impotent to avert the consequences. That the encouragement of such a revolt would quickly crush out rebellion is well known to the South; they thus presume upon the forbearance of our government to shield them from a just retribution for their crimes, whilst they pursue their course of high-banded wickedness. They are well aware that such is the case, and the least intimation that such might be the course of the government creates the greatest horror in the minds of the Confeds.

Yet, what right have they to expect anything else? What right have they who show no mercy to expect mercy at our hands? Can they, who advocate the most detestable methods of warfare, expect to be dealt gently with? How they can plead for gentle usage who resort to such devilish cruelty as covering our citizens with tar and then setting them on fire, we fail to comprehend.

But what policy shall our government adopt? It is evident that hundreds will escape to our army and claim protection; and if thus protected, thousands more will follow in their wake; and it is equally certain that every one returned gives strength to the rebels, and thus help to protract the war, and cost the lives of thousands of our soldiers. But what will be the result of allowing the slaves to enlist, or aiding them to escape? Simply, it will terminate in the speedy abolishment of slavery.

As much as we detest slavery, we do endorse the wiping out theory which is advocated so strongly by some; believing it to be alike inimical to the best interests of the white and black. – While the effect of harboring and refusing to return the slaves who escape would be, to say the least, very inconvenient to the North, the consequences to the South would be fatal beyond conception. There must, and will be, risings, and it may end in a servile war. Shall cur troops be converted into blood hounds for the enemies of our land? or be made the instruments in saving the lives of traitors, and then be killed by those whom they have saved? If the South are wise they will refrain from using a weapon that cuts both ways. They may , by their conduct, drive our government to pursue a policy which will prove most disastrious [sic]to them. The question is one which will necessitate the exercise of all wisdom and prudence which our President and his counselors possess for its solution.



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