Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882). The Complete Works. 1904. Vol. XI. Miscellanies
IX. Speech on Affairs in Kansas
At the Kansas Relief Meeting in Cambridge Wednesday Evening, September 10, 1856
AND ye shall succor men;
T is nobleness to serve;
Help them who cannot help again:
Beware from right to swerve.
I REGRET,1 with all this company, the absence of Mr. Whitman of Kansas, whose narrative was to constitute the interest of this meeting. Mr. Whitman is not here; but knowing, as we all do, why he is not, what duties kept him at home, he is more than present. His vacant chair speaks for him. For quite other reasons, I had been wiser to have stayed at home, unskilled as I am to address a political meeting, but it is impossible for the most recluse to extricate himself from the questions of the times.
There is this peculiarity about the case of Kansas, that all the right is on one side. We hear the screams of hunted wives and children answered by the howl of the butchers. The testimony of the telegraphs from St. Louis and the border confirm the worst details. The printed letters of border ruffians avow the facts. When pressed to look at the cause of the mischief in the Kansas laws, the President falters and declines the discussion; but his supporters in the Senate, Mr. Cass, Mr. Geyer, Mr. Hunter, speak out, and declare the intolerable atrocity of the code. It is a maxim that all party spirit produces the incapacity to receive natural impressions from facts; and our recent political history has abundantly borne out the maxim. But these details that have come from Kansas are so horrible, that the hostile press have but one word in reply, namely, that it is all exaggeration, t is an Abolition lie. Do the Committee of Investigation say that the outrages have been overstated? Does their dismal catalogue of private tragedies show it? Do the private letters? Is it an exaggeration, that Mr. Hopps of Somerville, Mr. Hoyt of Deerfield, Mr. Jennison of Groton, Mr. Phillips of Berkshire, have been murdered? That Mr. Robinson of Fitchburg has been imprisoned? Rev. Mr. Nute of Springfield seized, and up to this time we have no tidings of his fate?
In these calamities under which they suffer, and the worst which threaten them, the people of Kansas ask for bread, clothes, arms and men, to save them alive, and enable them to stand against these enemies of the human race. They have a right to be helped, for they have helped themselves.
This aid must be sent, and this is not to be doled out as an ordinary charity; but bestowed up to the magnitude of the want, and, as has been elsewhere said, on the scale of a national action. I think we are to give largely, lavishly, to these men. And we must prepare to do it. We must learn to do with less, live in a smaller tenement, sell our apple-trees, our acres, our pleasant houses. I know people who are making haste to reduce their expenses and pay their debts, not with a view to new accumulations, but in preparation to save and earn for the benefit of the Kansas emigrants.
We must have aid from individuals,we must also have aid from the state. I know that the last legislature refused that aid. I know that lawyers hesitate on technical grounds, and wonder what method of relief the legislature will apply. But I submit that, in a case like this, where citizens of Massachusetts, legal voters here, have emigrated to national territory under the sanction of every law, and are then set on by highwaymen, driven from their new homes, pillaged, and numbers of them killed and scalped, and the whole world knows that this is no accidental brawl, but a systematic war to the knife, and in defiance of all laws and liberties,I submit that the governor and legislature should neither slumber nor sleep till they have found out how to send effectual aid and comfort to these poor farmers, or else should resign their seats to those who can. But first let them hang the halls of the state-house with black crape, and order funeral service to be said for the citizens whom they were unable to defend.
We stick at the technical difficulties. I think there never was a people so choked and stultified by forms. We adore the forms of law, instead of making them vehicles of wisdom and justice. I like the primary assembly. I own I have little esteem for governments. I esteem them only good in the moment when they are established. I set the private man first. He only who is able to stand alone is qualified to be a citizen. Next to the private man, I value the primary assembly, met to watch the government and to correct it. That is the theory of the American State, that it exists to execute the will of the citizens, is always responsible to them, and is always to be changed when it does not. First, the private citizen, then the primary assembly, and the government last.
In this country for the last few years the government has been the chief obstruction to the common weal. Who doubts that Kansas would have been very well settled, if the United States had let it alone? The government armed and led the ruffians against the poor farmers. I do not know any story so gloomy as the politics of this country for the last twenty years, centralizing ever more manifestly round one spring, and that a vast crime, and ever more plainly, until it is notorious that all promotion, power and policy are dictated from one source,illustrating the fatal effects of a false position to demoralize legislation and put the best people always at a disadvantage;one crime always present, always to be varnished over, to find fine names for; and we free statesmen, as accomplices to the guilt, ever in the power of the grand offender.
Language has lost its meaning in the universal cant. Representative Government is really misrepresentative; Union is a conspiracy against the Northern States which the Northern States are to have the privilege of paying for; the adding of Cuba and Central America to the slave marts is enlarging the area of Freedom. Manifest Destiny, Democracy, Freedom, fine names for an ugly thing. They call it otto of rose and lavender,I call it bilge-water. They call it Chivalry and Freedom; I call it the stealing all the earnings of a poor man and the earnings of his little girl and boy, and the earnings of all that shall come from him, his childrens children forever.
But this is Union, and this is Democracy; and our poor people, led by the nose by these fine words, dance and sing, ring bells and fire cannon, with every new link of the chain which is forged for their limbs by the plotters in the Capitol.
What are the results of law and union? There is no Union. Can any citizen of Massachusetts travel in honor through Kentucky and Alabama and speak his mind? Or can any citizen of the Southern country who happens to think kidnapping a bad thing, say so? Let Mr. Underwood of Virginia answer. Is it to be supposed that there are no men in Carolina who dissent from the popular sentiment now reigning there? It must happen, in the variety of human opinions, that there are dissenters. They are silent as the grave. Are there no women in that country,women, who always carry the conscience of a people? Yet we have not heard one discordant whisper.
In the free states, we give a snivelling support port to slavery. The judges give cowardly interpretations to the law, in direct opposition to the known foundation of all law, that every immoral statute is void. And here of Kansas, the President says: Let the complainants go to the courts; though he knows that when the poor plundered farmer comes to the court, he finds the ringleader who has robbed him dismounting from his own horse, and unbuckling his knife to sit as his judge.
The President told the Kansas Committee that the whole difficulty grew from the factious spirit of the Kansas people respecting institutions which they need not have concerned themselves about. A very remarkable speech from a Democratic President to his fellow citizens, that they are not to concern themselves with institutions which they alone are to create and determine. The President is a lawyer, and should know the statutes of the land. But I borrow the language of an eminent man, used long since, with far less occasion: If that be law, let the ploughshare be run under the foundations of the Capitol;and if that be Government, extirpation is the only cure.
I am glad to see that the terror at disunion and anarchy is disappearing. Massachusetts, in its heroic day, had no governmentwas an anarchy. Every man stood on his own feet, was his own governor; and there was no breach of peace from Cape Cod to Mount Hoosac. California, a few years ago, by the testimony of all people at that time in the country, had the best government that ever existed. Pans of gold lay drying outside of every mans tent, in perfect security. The land was measured into little strips of a few feet wide, all side by side. A bit of ground that your hand could cover was worth one or two hundred dollars, on the edge of your strip; and there was no dispute. Every man throughout the country was armed with knife and revolver, and it was known that instant justice would be administered to each offence, and perfect peace reigned. For the Saxon man, when he is well awake, is not a pirate but a citizen, all made of hooks and eyes, and links himself naturally to his brothers, as bees hook themselves to one another and to their queen in a loyal swarm.
But the hour is coming when the strongest will not be strong enough. A harder task will the new revolution of the nineteenth century be than was the revolution of the eighteenth century. I think the American Revolution bought its glory cheap. If the problem was new, it was simple. If there were few people, they were united, and the enemy three thousand miles off. But now, vast property, gigantic interests, family connections, webs of party, cover the land with a network that immensely multiplies the dangers of war.2
Fellow citizens, in these times full of the fate of the Republic, I think the towns should hold town meetings, and resolve themselves into Committees of Safety, go into permanent sessions, adjourning from week to week, from month to month. I wish we could send the sergeant-at-arms to stop every American who is about to leave the country. Send home every one who is abroad, lest they should find no country to return to. Come home and stay at home, while there is a country to save. When it is lost it will be time enough then for any who are luckless enough to remain alive to gather up their clothes and depart to some land where freedom exists.
Note 1. By an act of Congress, passed in May, 1854, the territories of Kansas and Nebraska were organized, and in a section of that act it was declared that the Constitution and all the laws of the United States should be in force in these territories, except the Missouri Compromise Act of 1820, which was declared inoperative and void. The act thereby repealed had confined slavery to the region of the Louisiana Purchase south of latitude 36°, 30' North. Foreseeing the probable success of this measure to increase the area of slavery, Emigrant Aid Societies had been formed in Massachusetts first, and later, in Connecticut, which assisted Northern emigrants to the settlement of this fertile region. Settlers from the Northwestern States also poured in, and also from Missouri, the latter bringing slaves with them. A fierce struggle, lasting for some years and attended with bloodshed and barbarities, began at once, hordes of armed men from the border state of Missouri constantly voting at Kansas elections and intimidating the free state settlers, and even driving parties of immigrants out of the state. Franklin Pierce was then President, and threw the influence and power of the administration on the side of the pro-slavery party in Kansas. Despairing of redress from Washington, the settlers from the free states appealed in their distress to their friends at home, and sent Mr. Whitman, Rev. Mr. Nute, and later, John Brown, to make known to them their wrongs, and ask moral and material aid, especially arms to defend their rights, and reinforcements of brave settlers. Meetings were held, not only in the cities, but in the country towns, and, certainly in the latter, were well attended by earnest people who gave, a few from their wealth, but many from their poverty, large sums to help bleeding Kansas. In response to the petitions of the friends of Freedom, who urged the Legislature of Massachusetts to come to the rescue, a joint committee was appointed by the General Court to consider the petitions for a state appropriation of ten thousand dollars to protect the interests of the North and the rights of her citizens in Kansas, should they be again invaded by Southern marauders. John Brown addressed this committee in February, 1856. He made a clear and startling statement of the outrages he had witnessed and the brave struggles of the settlers, and told of the murder and imprisonment and maltreatment of his sons, seven of whom were in Kansas with him during the struggle. [See the report of this speech in Redpaths Life of Captain John Brown. Boston: Thayer & Eldridge, 1860.] Mr. Emerson always attended the meetings in aid of Kansas in Concord, gave liberally to the cause, and spoke there and elsewhere when called upon. [back]
Note 2. George Bancroft, the historian, said of the conclusion of this speech: Emerson as clearly as any one, perhaps more clearly than any one at the time, saw the enormous dangers that were gathering over the Constitution . It would certainly be difficult, perhaps impossible, to find any speech made in the same year that is marked with so much courage and foresight as this of Emerson . Even after the inauguration of Lincoln several months passed away before his Secretary of State or he himself saw the future so clearly as Emerson had foreshadowed it in 1856. [Review of Holmess Life of Emerson, North American Review, February, 1885.] [back]