Ernestine L Rose

The Necessity for the Utter Extinction of Slavery - May 14, 1863

Ernestine L Rose
May 14, 1863— New York City
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Rose delivered this speech at the national convention of the Women's National Loyal League.

Louis Kossuth told us it is not well to look back for regret, but only for instruction. I therefore intend slightly to cast my mind's eye back for the purpose of enabling us, as far as possible, to contemplate the present and foresee the future. It is unnecessary to point out the cause of this war. It is written on every object we behold. It is but too well understood that the primary cause is Slavery; and it is well to keep that in mind, for the purpose of gaining the knowledge how ultimately to be able to crush that terrible rebellion which now desolates the land. Slavery being the cause of the war, we must look to its utter extinction for the remedy. (Applause).

We have listened this evening to an exceedingly instructive, kind and gentle address, particularly that part of it which tells how to deal with the South after we have brought them back. But I think it would be well, at first, to consider how to bring them back!

Abraham Lincoln has issued a Proclamation. He has emancipated all the slaves of the rebel States with his pen, but that is all. To set them really and thoroughly free, we will have to use some other instrument than the pen. (Applause). The slave is not emancipated; he is not free. A gentleman once found himself of a sudden, without, so far as he knew, any cause, taken into prison. He sent for his lawyer, and told him. "They have taken me to prison." "What have you done?" said the lawyer. "I have done nothing," he replied. "Then, my friend, they can not put you in prison." "But I am in prison." "Well, that may be; but I tell you, my dear friend, they can not put you in prison." "Well," said he, "I want you to come and take me out, for I tell you, in spite of all your lawyer logic, I am in prison, and I shall be until you take me out." (Great laughter). Now the poor slave has to say, "Abraham Lincoln, you have pronounced me free; still I am a slave, bought and sold as such, and I shall remain a slave till I am taken out of this horrible condition." Then the question is, How? Have not already two long years passed over more than a quarter of a million of the graves of the noblest and bravest of the nation? Is that not enough? No; it has proved not to be enough. Let us look back for a moment. Had the Proclamation of John C. Fremont been allowed to have its effect; had the edict of Hunter been allowed to have its effect, the war would have been over. (Applause). Had the people and the Government, from the very commencement of the struggle, said to the South, "You have openly thrown down the gauntlet to fight for Slavery; we will accept it, and fight for Freedom," the rebellion would long before now have been crushed. (Applause). You may blame Europe as much as you please, but the heart of Europe beats for freedom. Had they seen us here accept the terrible alternative of war for the sake of freedom, the whole heart of Europe would have been with us. But such has not been the case. Hence the destruction of over a quarter of a million of lives and ten millions of broken hearts that have already paid the penalty; and we know not how many more it needs to wipe out the stain of that recreancy that did not at once proclaim this war a war for freedom and humanity.

And now we have got here all around us Loyal Leagues. Loyal to what? What does it mean? I have read that term in the papers. A great many times I have heard that expression to-day. I know not what others mean by it, but I will give you my interpretation of what I am loyal to. I speak for myself. I do not wish any one else to be responsible for my opinions. I am loyal only to justice and humanity. Let the Administration give evidence that they too are for justice to all, without exception, without distinction, and I, for one, had I ten thousand lives·, would gladly lay them down to secure this boon of freedom to humanity. (Applause). But without this certainty, I am not unconditionally loyal to the Administration. We women need not be, for the law has never yet recognized us. (Laughter). Then I say to Abraham Lincoln, "Give us security for the future, for really when I look at the past, without a guarantee, I can hardly trust you." And then I would say to him, "Let nothing stand in your way; let no man obstruct your path."

Much is said in the papers and in political speeches about the Constitution. Now, a good constitution is a very good thing; but even the best of constitutions need sometimes to be amended and improved, for after all there is but one constitution which is infallible, but one constitution that ought to be held sacred, and that is the human constitution. (Laughter). Therefore, if written constitutions are in the way of human freedom, suspend them till they can be improved. If generals are in the way of freedom, suspend them too; and more than that, suspend their money. We have got here a whole army of generals who have been actually dismissed from the service, but not from pay. Now, I say to Abraham Lincoln, if these generals are good for anything, if they are fit to take the lead, put them at the head of armies, and let them go South and free the slaves you have announced free. If they are good for nothing, dispose of them as of anything else that is useless. At all events, cut them loose from the pay. (Applause). Why, my friends, from July, 1861, to October, 1862—for sixteen long months—we have been electrified with the name of our great little Napoleon! And what has the great little Napoleon done? (Laughter). Why, he has done just enough to prevent anybody else from doing anything . (Great applause). But I have no quarrel with him. I don't know him. I presume none of you do. But I ask Abraham Lincoln—I like to go to headquarters, for where the greatest power is assumed, there the greatest responsibility rests, and in accordance with that principle I have nothing to do with menials, even though they are styled Napoleons—but I ask the President why McClellan was kept in the army so long after it was known—for there never was a time when anything else was known—that he was both incapable and unwilling to do anything? I refer to this for the purpose of coming, by and by, to the question, "What ought to be done?" He was kept at the head of the army on the Potomac just long enough to prevent Burnside from doing anything, and not much has been done since that time. Now, McClellan may be a very nice young man—I haven't the slightest doubt of it—but I have read a little anecdote of him. Somebody asked the president of a Western railroad company, in which McClellan was an engineer, what he thought about his abilities. "Well," said the president, "he is a first-rate man to build bridges; he is very exact, very mathematical in measurement, very precise in adjusting the timber; he is the best man in the world to build a good, strong, sound bridge, but after he has finished it, he never wishes anybody to cross over it." (Great laughter). Well, we have disposed of him partially, but we PAY him yet, and you and I are taxed for it. But if we are to have a new general in his place, we may ask, what has become of Sigel? Why does that disinterested, noble-minded, freedom-loving man in vain ask of the Administration to give him an army to lead into the field?

A VOICE: Ask Halleck.

Halleck! If Halleck is in the way, dispose of him. (Applause). Do you point me to the Cabinet? If the Cabinet is in the way of freedom, dispose of the Cabinet—(applause) some of them, at least. The magnitude of this war has never yet been fully felt or acknowledged by the Cabinet. The man at its head—I mean Seward—has hardly yet woke up to the reality that we have a war. He was going to crush the rebellion in sixty days. It was a mere bagatelle! Why, he could do it after dinner, any day, as easy as taking a bottle of wine! If Seward is in the way of crushing the rebellion and establishing freedom, dispose of him. From the cause of the war, learn the remedy, decide the policy, and place it in the hands of men capable and willing to carry it out. I am not unconditionally loyal, until we know to what principle we are to be loyal. Promise justice and freedom, and all the rest will follow. Do you know, my friends, what will take place if something decisive is not soon done? It is high time to consider it. I am not one of those who look on the darkest side of things, but yet my reason and reflection forbid me to hope against hope. It is only eighteen months more before another Presidential election—only one year before another President will be nominated. Let the present administration remain as indolent, as inactive, and, apparently, as indifferent as they have done; let them keep generals that are inferior to many of their private soldiers: let them keep the best generals there are in the country—Sigel and Fremont—unoccupied— (applause); let them keep the country in the same condition in which it has been the last two years, and is now, and what would be the result, if, at the next election, the Democrats succeed—I mean the sham Democrats? I am a democrat, and it is because I am a democrat that I go for human freedom. Human freedom and true democracy are identical. Let the Democrats, as they are now called, get into office, and what would be the consequence? Why, under this hue-and-cry for Union, Union, UNION, which is like a bait held out to the mass of the people to lure them on, they will grant to the South the meanest and the most contemptible compromises that the worst slaveholders in the South can require. And if they really accept them and come back—my only hope is that they will not—but if the South should accept these compromises, and come back, slavery will be fastened, not only in the South, but it will be nationally fastened on the North. Now, a good Union, like a good Constitution, is a most invaluable thing; but a false Union is infinitely more despicable than no Union at all; and for myself, I would vastly prefer to have the South remain independent, than to bring them back with that eternal curse nationalized in the country. It is not enough for Abraham Lincoln to proclaim the slaves in the South free, nor even to continue the war until they shall be really free. There is something to be done at home; for justice, like charity, must begin at home. It is a mockery to say that we emancipate the slaves we can not reach and pass by those we can reach. First, free the slaves that are under the flag of the Union. If that flag is the symbol of freedom, let it wave over free men only. The slaves must be freed in the Border States. Consistency is a great power. What are you afraid of? That the Border States will join with the now crippled rebel States? We have our army there, and the North can swell its armies. But we can not afford to fight without an object. We can not afford to bring the South back with slavery. We can not compromise with principle. What has brought on this war? Slavery, undoubtedly. Slavery was the primary cause of it. But the great secondary cause was the fact that the North, for the sake of the Union, has constantly compromised. Every demand that the South made of the North was acceded to, until the South came really to believe that they were the natural and legitimate masters, not only of the slaves, but of the North too.

Now, it is time to reverse all these things. This rebellion and this war have cost too dear. The money spent, the vast stores destroyed, the tears shed, the lives sacrificed, the hearts broken are too high a price to be paid for the mere name of Union. I never believed we had a Union. A true Union is based upon principles of mutual interest, of mutual respect and reciprocity, none of which ever existed between the North and South. They based their institutions on slavery; the North on freedom.

I care not by what measure you end the war, if you allow one single germ, one single seed of slavery to remain in the soil of America, whatever may be your object, depend upon it, as true as effect follows cause, that germ will spring up, that noxious weed will thrive, and again stifle the growth, wither the leaves, blast the flowers, and poison the fair fruits of freedom. Slavery and freedom can not exist together. Seward proclaimed a truism, but he did not appreciate its import. There is an irrepressible conflict between freedom and slavery. You might as well say that light and darkness can exist together as freedom and slavery. We, therefore, must urge the Government to do something, and that speedily to secure the boon of freedom, while they yet can, not only in the rebel States, but in our own States too, and in the Border States. It is just as wrong for us to keep slaves in the Union States as it ever was in the South. Slavery is as great a curse to the slaveholder as it is a wrong to the slaves; and yet while we free the rebel slaveholder from the curse, we allow it to continue with our Union-loving men in the Border States. Free the slaves in the Border States , in Western Virginia, in Maryland, and wherever the Union flag floats, and then there will be a consistency in our actions that will enable us to go to work earnestly with heart and hand united, as we move forward to free all others and crush the rebellion. We have had no energy yet in the war, for we have fought only for the purpose of reuniting, what has never been united, restoring the old Union—or rather the shadow as it was. A small republic, a small nation, based upon the eternal principle of freedom, is great and powerful. A large empire based upon slavery, is weak and without foundation. The moment the light of freedom shines upon it, it dis­ closes its defects, and unmasks its hideous deformities. As I said before, I would rather have a small republic without the taint and without the stain of slavery in it, than to have the South brought back by compromise. To avert such calamity, we must work. And our work must mainly be to watch and criticise and urge the Administration to do its whole duty to freedom and humanity.

As transcribed in Anderson, J. (1984). Outspoken Women: Speeches by American Women Reformers. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company.