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Shall We Compromise? - The Atlantic

In that period of remote antiquity when all birds of the air and beasts of the field were able to talk, it befell that a certain shepherd suffered many losses through the constant depredations of a wolf. Fearing at length that his means of subsistence would be quite taken away, he devised a powerful trap for the creature, and set it with wonderful cunning. He could hardly sleep that night for thinking of the matter, and early next morning took a stout club in his hand, and set forth to learn of his success; when, lo! on drawing near the spot, there he saw the wolf, sure enough, a huge savage, fast held in the trap.

"Ah," cried he, with triumph, "now I have got you!"

The wolf held his peace until the other was quite near, and then in a tone of the severest moral rebuke, and with a voice that was made quite low and grave with its weight of judicial reprehension, said,—

"Is it you, then? Can it be one wearing the form of a man, who has laid this wicked plot against the peace, nay, as I infer from that club, against the very life, of an innocent creature? Behold what I suffer, and how unjustly!—I, of all animals, whose life,—the sad state I am now in constrains me against modesty to say it,—whose life is notoriously a pattern of all the virtues;—I, too, ungrateful biped, who have watched your flock through so many sleepless nights, lest some ill-disposed dog might do harm to the helpless sheep and lambs!"

The shepherd, one of the simplest souls that ever lived, was utterly confounded by this reproof, and hung his head with shame, unable, for a season, to utter a word in his own defence. At length he managed to stammer,—

"I pray your pardon, brother, but—but in truth I have lost a great many lambs lately, and began to think my little ones at home would starve."

"How harder than stone is the heart of man!" murmured the wolf, as if to himself.

Then, raising his voice, he went on to say,—

"I despair of reaching your conscience; nevertheless I will speak as if I had hope. You never paid me anything for protecting your flock; it was on my part a pure labor of love; and yet, because I cannot quite succeed in guarding it against all the bad dogs that are about, you would take my life!"

And the creature put on such a look of meek suffering innocence that the shepherd was touched to the very heart, and felt more guilty and abashed than ever. He therefore said at once,—

"Brother, I fear that I have done you wrong; and if you will swear to mind your own affairs, and not prey upon my flock, I will at once set you free."

"My character ought to be a sufficient guaranty," answered the quadruped, with much dignity; "but I submit, since I must, to your unjust suspicions, and promise as you require."

So, lifting up his paw, he swore solemnly, by all the gods that wolves worship, to keep his pledge. Thereupon the other set him free, with many apologies and professions of confidence and friendship. Only a few days, however, had passed before the shepherd, happening to mount a knoll, saw at a little distance the self-same wolf eagerly devouring the warm remains of a lamb.

"Villain! villain!" he shouted, in great wrath, "is this the way you keep your oath? Did not you swear to mind your own business?"

"I am minding it," said the wolf, with a grin; "it is my business to eat lambs; it should be yours not to believe in wolves' promises."

So saying, he seized upon the last fragment of the Iamb, and ran away as fast as his legs would carry him.

Moral.—Shepherds who make compromises with wolves sell their mutton at an exceedingly cheap market.

Now just such short-witted shepherds are we, the people of these free American States, invited by numbers of citizens to become. Just such, do I say? A thousand times more silly than such. Our national wolf meets us with jaws that drip blood and eyes that glare hunger for more. Instead of professing sanctity and innocence, it only howls immitigable hate and steadfast resolution to devour. "Give me," it howls, "half the pasture and flock for my own, with, of course, a supervision over the rest, and a child or two when I am dainty; and I will be content,—until I want more!"

In speaking of our "national wolf," we are using no mere rhetoric, but are, in truth, getting at the very heart of the matter. This war, in its final relations to human history, is an encounter between opposing tendencies in man,—between the beast-of-prey that is in him and is always seeking brute domination, on the one hand, and the rational and moral elements of manhood, which ever urge toward the lawful supremacy, on the other. This is a conflict as old as the world, and perhaps one that, in some shape, will continue while the world lasts; and I have tried in vain to think of a single recorded instance wherein the issue was more simple, or the collision more direct, than in our own country to-day.

That principle in nature which makes the tiger tiger passes obviously into man in virtue of the fact that he is on one side, on the side of body and temperament, cousin to the tiger, as comparative anatomy shows. This presence in man of a tiger-principle does not occur by a mistake, for it is an admirable fuel or fire, an admirable generator of force, which the higher powers may first master and then use. But at first it assumes place in man wholly untamed and seemingly tameless, indisposed for aught but sovereignty. Of course, having place in man, it passes, and in the same crude state, into society. And thus it happens, that, when the unconquerable affinities of men bring them together, this principle arises in its brutal might, and strives to make itself central and supreme.

But what is highest in man has its own inevitable urgency, as well as what is lowest. It can never be left out of the account. Gravitation is powerful and perpetual; but the pine pushes up in opposition to it nevertheless. The forces of the inorganic realm strive with might to keep their own; but organic life will exist on the planet in their despite, and will conquer from the earth what material it needs. And, in like manner, no sooner do men aggregate than there begin to play back and forth between them ideal or ascending forces, mediations of reason, conscience, soul; and the ever growing interpretations of these appear as courtesies, laws, moralities, worships,—as all the noble communities which constitute a high social state. In fine, there is that in man which seeks perpetually, for it seeks necessarily, to give the position of centrality in society to the ideal principle of justice and to the great charities of the human soul.

Hence a contest. Two antagonistic principles leap forth from the bosom of man, so soon as men come together, seeking severally to establish the law of social relationship. One of these is predaceous, brutal; the other ideal, humane. One says, "Might makes Right"; the other, "Might should serve Right." One looks upon mankind at large as a harvest to be gathered for the behoof of a few, who are confederate only for that purpose, even as wolves hunt in packs; the other regards humanity as a growth to be fostered for its own sake and worth, and affirms that superiority of strength is given for service, not for spoil. One makes the ego supreme; the other makes rational right supreme. One seeks private gratification at any expense to higher values, even as the tiger would, were it possible, draw and drink the blood of the universe as soon as the blood of a cow; the other establishes an ideal estimate of values, and places private gratification low on the scale. But the deepest difference between them, the root of separation, remains to be stated. It is the opposite climate they have of man in the pure simplicity of his being. The predaceous principle says,—"Man is in and of himself valueless; he attains value only by position, by subduing the will of others to his own; and in subjecting others he destroys nothing of worth, since those who are weak enough to fall are by that very fact proved to be worthless." The humane or socializing principle, on the contrary, says,—"Manhood is value; the essence of all value is found in the individual soul; and therefore the final use of the world, of society, of action, of all that man does and of all that surrounds him, is to develop intelligence, to bring forth the mind and soul into power,—in fine, to realize in each the spiritual possibilities of man."

True socialization now exists only as this nobler principle is victorious. It exists only in proportion as force is lent to ideal relations, relations prescribed by reason, conscience, and reverence for the being of man,—only in proportion, therefore, as the total force of the state kneels before each individual soul, and, without foolish intermeddlings, or confusions of order, proffers protection, service, succor. Here is a socialization flowing, self-poised, fertilizing; it is full of gracious invitation to all, yet regulates all; it makes liberty by making law; it produces and distributes privilege. Here there is not only community, that is, the unity of many in the enjoyment of common privilege, but there is more, there is positive fructification, there is a wide, manifold, infinitely precious evocation of intelligence, of moral power, and of all spiritual worth.

As, on the contrary, the baser principle triumphs, there is no genuine socialization, but only a brute aggregation of subjection beneath and a brute dominance of egotism above. Society is mocked and travestied, not established, in proportion as force is lent to egotism. If anywhere the power which we call state set its heel on an innocent soul,—if anywhere it suppress, instead of uniting intelligence,—if anywhere it deny, though only to one individual, the privilege of becoming human,—to such an extent it wars against society and civilization, to such extent sets its face against the divine uses of the world.

Now the contest between these opposing principles is that which is raging in our country this day. Of course, any broad territorial representation of this must be of a very mixed quality. Our best civilizations are badly mottled with stains of barbarism. In no state or city can egotism, either of the hot-blooded or cold-blooded kind,—and the latter is far the more virulent,—be far to seek. On the other hand, no social system, thank God, can quite reverse the better instincts of humanity; and it may be freely granted that even American slavery shades off, here and there, into quite tender modifications. Yet not in all the world could there possibly be found an antagonism so deep and intense as exists here. The Old World seems to have thrown upon the shores of the New its utmost extremes, its Oriental barbarisms and its orients and auroras of hope and belief; so that here coexist what Asia was three thousand years ago, and what Europe may be one thousand years hence. Let us consider the actual status.

In certain localities of Southern Africa there is a remarkable fly, the Tsetse fly. In the ordinary course of satisfying its hunger, this insect punctures the skin of a horse, and the animal dies in consequence. A fly makes a lunch, and a horse's life pays the price of the meal. This has ever seemed to me to represent the beast-of-prey principle in Nature more vigorously than any other fact. But in that system whose fangs are now red with the blood of our brave there is an expression of this principle not less enormous. It is the very Tsetse fly of civilization. That a small minority of Southern men may make money without earning it,—that a few thousand individuals may monopolize the cotton-market of the world,—what a suppression and destruction of intelligence it perpetrates I what consuming of spiritual possibilities! what mental wreck and waste! Whites, too, suffer equally with blacks. Less oppressed, they are perhaps even more demoralized. No parallel example does the earth exhibit of the sacrifice of transcendent values for pitiful ends.

In attempting to destroy free government and rational socialization in America, this system is treading no new road, it is only proceeding on the old. Its central law is that of destroying any value, however great, for the sake of any gratification, however small. Accustomed to battening on the hopes of humanity,—accustomed to taking stock in human degradation, and declaring dividends upon enforced ignorance and crime,—existing only while every canon of the common law is annulled, and every precept of morals and civilization set at nought,—could it be expected to pause just when, or rather just because, it had apparently found the richest possible prey? Could it be expected to withhold its fang for no other reason than that its fang was allured by a more opulent artery than ever before? The simple truth is—and he knows nothing about this controversy who fails to perceive such truth—that the system whose hands are now armed against us has always borne these arms in its heart; that the fang which is now bared has hitherto been only concealed, not wanting; that the tree which is to-day in bloody blossom is the same tree it ever was, and carried these blossoms in its sap long ere spreading them upon its boughs.

To this predaceous system what do we oppose? We oppose a socialization that has features,—I will say no more,—has features of generous breadth and promise, that are the best fruition of many countries and centuries. Faults and drawbacks it has enough and to spare; conspicuous among which may be named the vulgar and disgusting "negrophobia,"—a mark of under-breeding which one hopes may not disgrace us always. But let us be carried away by no mania for self-criticism. Two claims for ourselves may be made. First, a higher grade of laws nowhere exists with a less amount of coercive application,—exists, that is, by the rational and constant choice of the whole people. Secondly, it may be questioned whether anywhere in the world the development of intelligence and moral force in the whole people is to a greater extent a national aim. But abandoning all comparison with other peoples, this we may say with no doubtful voice: We stand for the best ideas of the Old World in the New; we stand for orderly-freedom and true socialization in America; we stand for these, and with us these must here stand or fall.

Now, of course, we are not about to become the offscouring of the earth by yielding these up to destruction. Of course, we shall not convert ourselves into a nation of Iscariots, and give over civilization to the bowie-knife, with the mere hope of so making money out of Southern trade,—which we should not do,—and with the certainty of a gibbet in history, to mention no greater penalty.

But refusing this perfidy, could we have avoided this war? No; for it was simply our refusal of such perfidy which, so far as we are concerned, brought the war on. The South, having ever since the Mexican War stood with its sword half out of the scabbard, perpetually threatening to give its edge,—having made it the chief problem of our politics, by what gift or concession to purchase exemption from that dreaded blade,—at last reached its ultimate demand. "Will you," it said to the North, "abdicate the privileges of equal citizenship? Will you give up this continent, territory, Free States and all, to our predaceous, blood-eating system? Will you sell into slavery the elective franchise itself? Will you sell the elective franchise itself into slavery, and take for pay barely the poltroon's price, that of being scornfully spared by the sword we stand ready to draw?" The North excused itself politely. In the softest voice, but with a soft-voicedness that did not wholly conceal an iron thread of resolution, it declined to comply with that most modest demand. Then the sword came out and struck at our life. "Was it matter of choice with us whether we would fight? Not unless it were also matter of choice whether we would become the very sweepings and blemish of creation.

"But we might have permitted secession." No, we could not. It was clearly impracticable. "But why not?" Because that would have been to surrender the whole under the guise of giving up half. Such a concession could have meant to the people of the rebellious States, and, in the existing state of national belief, could have meant to our very selves, nothing other than this:—"We submit; do what you will; we are shopkeepers and cowards; we must have your trade; and besides, though expert in the use of yardsticks, we have not the nerve for handling guns." From that moment we should have lost all authority on this continent, and all respect on the other.

The English papers have blamed us for fighting; but had we failed to fight, not one of these censuring mouths but would have hissed at us like an adder with contempt Nay, we ourselves should, as it were, soon have lost the musical speech and high carriage of men, and fallen to a proneness and a hissing, degraded in our own eyes even more than in those of our neighbors. Of course, from this state we should have risen; but it would have been to see the redness of war on our own fields and its flames wrapping our own households. We should have risen, but through a contest to which this war, gigantic though it be, is but a quarrel of school-boys.

By sheer necessity we began to fight; by the same we must fight It out. Compromise is, in the nature of the case, impossible. It can mean only surrender. Had there been an inch more of ground for us to yield without total submission, the war would have been, for the present, staved off. We turned to bay only when driven back to the vital principle of our polity and the vital facts of our socialization.

Politically, what was the immediate grievance of the South? Simply that Northern freemen went to the polls as freemen; simply that they there expressed, under constitutional forms, their lawful preference. How can we compromise here, even to the breadth of a hair? How compromise without stipulating that all Northern electors shall henceforth go to the polls in charge of an armed police, and there deposit such ballot as the slave-masters of the Secession States shall direct?

Again, in our social state what is it that gives umbrage to our antagonists? They have answered the question for us; they have stated it repeatedly in the plainest English. It is simply the fact that we are free States; that we have, and honor, free labor; that we have schools for the people; that we teach the duty of each to all and of all to each; that we respect the human principle, the spiritual possibility, in man; in fine, that ours is a human socialization, whose fundamental principles are the venerableness of man's nature and the superiority of reason and right to any individual will. So far as we are base bargainers and unbelievers, they can tolerate us, even though they despise; just where our praise begins, begin their detestation and animosity.

It is, by the pointed confession of Southern spokesmen, what we are, rather than what we have done, which makes them Secessionists; and any man of sense might, indeed must, see this fact, were the confession withheld. In action we have conformed to Southern wishes, as if conformity could not be in excess. We have conformed to an extent that—to mention nothing of more importance—had nearly ruined us in the estimation of mankind. One chief reason, indeed, why the sympathy of Europe did not immediately go with us was that a disgust toward us had been created by the football passivity, as it seemed abroad, with which we had submitted to be kicked to and fro. The rebellion was deemed to be on our side, not on theirs. We, born servitors and underlings, it was thought, had forgotten our proper places,—nay, had presumed to strike back, when our masters chastised us. Of course, we should soon be whipped to our knees again. And when we were again submissive and abject, Europe must so have demeaned itself as still to be on good terms with the conquerors. As for us, our final opinion of their demeanor, so they deemed, mattered very little. The ill opinion of the servants can be borne; but one must needs be on friendly terms with the master of the house. The conduct of Europe toward us at the outbreak of this war is to be thus explained, more than in any other way. According to European understanding, we had before written ourselves down menials; therefore, on rising to the attitude of men, we were scorned as upstarts.

The world has now discovered that there was less cowardice and more comity in this yielding than had been supposed. Yet in candor one must confess that it was barely not carried to a fatal extent. One step more in that direction, and we had gone over the brink and into the abyss. Only when the last test arrived, and we must decide once and forever whether we would be the champions or the apostates of civilization, did we show to the foe not the dastard back, but the dauntless front. And the proposal to "compromise" is simply and exactly a proposal to us to reverse that decision.

Again, we can propose no compromise, such as would stay the war, without confessing that there was no occasion for beginning it. And if, indeed, we began it without occasion, without an occasion absolutely imperative, then does the whole mountain—weight of its guilt lie on our hearts. Then in every man that has fallen on either side we are assassins. The proposal to bring back the seceded States by submission to their demands is neither more nor less than a proposal to write "Murderer" on the brow of every soldier in our armies, and "Twice Murderer" over the grave of every one of our slain. If such submission be due now, not less was it due before the war began. To say that it was then due, and then withheld, is, I repeat, merely to brand with the blackness of assassination the whole patriotic service of the United States, both civil and military, for the last two years.

If, now, such be, in very deed, our guilt, let us lose no moment in confessing the fact,—nor afterwards lose a moment in creeping to the gallows, that must, in that case, be hungering for us. But if no such guilt be ours, then why should not our courage be as good as our cause? If not only by the warrant, but by the imperative bidding of Heaven, we have taken up arms, then why should we not, as under the banner of Heaven, bear them to the end?

In this course, no real failure can await us. Obeying the necessity which is laid upon us, and simply conducting ourselves as men of humanity, courage, and honor, we shall surely vindicate the principles of civilization and Orderly society, within our own States, whether we immediately succeed in impressing them on South Carolina and her evil sisterhood or not. Let us but vindicate their existence on any part of this continent, and that alone will insure their final prevalence on the continent as a whole. Let us now but make them inexpugnable, and they will make themselves universal. This law of necessary prevalence, in a socialization whose vital principle is reverence for the nature of man, was clearly seen by the masters, or rather, one should say, by the subjects, of the slave system; and this war signifies their immediate purpose to build up between it and themselves a Chinese excluding wall, and their ulterior purpose to starve and trample it out of this hemisphere.

Finally, just that which teaches us charity toward the slaveholders teaches us also, forbearing all thought of base and demoralizing compositions, to press the hand steadily upon the hilt it has grasped, until war's work is done. These servants of a predaceous principle are nearly, if not quite, its earliest prey. Enemies to us, they are twice enemies to themselves. They are driven helplessly on, and will be so until we slay the tyrant that wrings from them their evil services. During that fatal month's siesta at Yorktown, the country was horror-stricken to hear that the enemy were forcing negroes at the point of the bayonet to work those pieces of ordnance from which the whites, in terror of our sharpshooters, had fled away. But behind the whites themselves, behind the whole disloyal South, had long been another bayonet goading heart and brain, and pricking them on to aggression after aggression, till aggression found its goal, where we trust it will find its grave, in civil war. Poor wretches! Who does not pity them? Who that pities them wisely would not all the more firmly grasp that sword which alone can deliver them?

Nor has the slave-system been any worse than it must be, in pushing us and them to the present pass. So bad it must be, or cease to be at all. All things obey their nature. Hydrophobia will bite, small-pox infect, plague enter upon life and depart upon death, hyenas scent the new-made graves, and predaceous systems of society open their mouths ever and ever for prey. What else can they do? Even would the Secessionists consent to partial compositions, as they will not, they must inevitably break faith, as ever before. They are slaves to the slave-system. As wise were it to covenant with the dust not to fly, or with the sea not to foam, when the hurricane blows, as to bargain with these that they shall resist that despotic impetus which compels them. They are slaves. And their master is one whose law is to devour. Only he who might meditate letting go a Bengal tiger on its parole of honor, or binding over a pestilence to keep the peace, should so much as dream for a moment of civil compositions with this system. Its action is inevitable. And therefore our only wisdom will be to make our way by the straightest path to this, which is our chief, and in the last analysis our only enemy, and cut it through and through. This only will be a final preservation to ourselves; this only the noblest amity to the South; this, deliverance to the captivity of two continents, Africa and America: so that here principle and policy are for once so obviously, as ever they are really, one and the same, that no man of sense should fail to perceive their unity.