1863: “We Have Outlived The Old Union”

December 4, 1863

But we are not to be saved by the captain this time, but by the crew. We are not to be saved by Abraham Lincoln, but by that power behind the throne, greater than the throne itself. You and I and all of us have this matter in hand.

Men talk about saving the Union, and restoring the Union as it was. They delude themselves with the miserable idea that that old Union can be brought to life again. That old Union, whose canonized bones we so quietly inurned under the shattered walls of Sumter, can never come to life again. It is dead, and you cannot put life into it. The first shot fired at the walls of Sumter caused it to fall as dead as the body of Julius Caesar when stabbed by Brutus. We do not want it again. We have outlived the old Union.

We had outlived it long before the rebellion came to tell us – I mean the Union under the old pro-slavery interpretation of it – and had become ashamed of it. The South hated it with our anti-slavery interpretation, and the North hated it with the Southern interpretation of its requirements. We had already come to think with horror of the idea of being called upon here in our churches and literary societies, to take up arms and go down South, and pour the leaden death into the breasts of the slaves, in case they should rise for liberty; and the better part of the people did not mean to do it. They shuddered at the idea of so sacrilegious a crime. They had already become utterly disgusted with the idea of playing the part of bloodhounds for slave-masters, and watch-dogs for the plantations. They had come to detest the principle upon the slaveholding States had a larger representation in Congress than the free States. They had come to think that the little finger of dear old John Brown was worth more to the world than all the slaveholders in Virginia put together. 

What business, then, have we to fight for the old Union? We are not fighting for it. We are fighting for something incomparably better than the old Union. We are fighting for unity; unity of object, unity of institutions, in which there shall be no North, no South, no East, no West, no black, no white, but a solidarity of the nation, making every slave free, and every free man a voter.

Frederick Douglass, excerpt from a speech given at the meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society on December 4, 1863.

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass: Visionary

We’ve talked about Frederick Douglass in previous posts but this speech excerpt is one of my all-time favorite Civil War quotes. Douglass was an incredible visionary and often found ways share his ideas through publication or meeting with influential people. It took time and usually others did not convert to his position or ideas as quickly as he would have liked, but eventually many of Douglass’s hopes and beliefs became part of the Lincoln administrations efforts through proclamation or legislation.

Douglass’s story and opinions are particularly powerful since he had experienced slavery firsthand, making his escape from the South in 1838. He pursued education and dedicated his life to working for the abolition of slavery and advocating for social reforms and civil rights. Douglass was a well-known orator, writer, and had power in his circle of influence which eventually became helpful to President Lincoln and the Union cause.

Anti-Slavery Society

Douglass’s speech (the above quote is an excerpt) was given at the 30th Anniversary meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society on December 4, 1863, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Formed in 1833 by William Lloyd Garrison and Arthur Tappan, the society was comprised of local chapters and had 250,000 members just five years after its founding.

Later the society split as some leaders and chapters became more radical, but the American Anti-Slavery Society continued to meet until 1870 and continued to press for civil rights as suggested by Frederick Douglass and other leaders.

1856 illustration in an abolitionist publication

Douglass references happenings that would have been familiar to the listening members. Prior to the war, legislation allowed slave catchers to hunt for escaped slaves in the north and drag those freedmen back to slavery. Also, slave insurrections in the south could technically have been put down by Federal troops or even militias from the north if ordered. These antebellum happenings or possibilities had fueled the abolition fire that had been kindled on the road to the Civil War and burst into the war’s causes and outcomes by 1862.

Historical Musings

In this speech, Douglass argued that while the union of the states must be preserved, there would be no going back to the old-style of country and government from the antebellum period. Slavery’s days were numbered in America and would not be returning when the conflict ended. More opportunities – citizenship, voting rights, and civil rights – were next on Douglass’s priority list, ensuring a unity, freedom, and equality.

The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution during the Reconstruction Era granted those rights, but – unfortunately – the Federal and State governments did not always enforce the law of the land. One can’t help wondering what might have happened if Douglass’s ideas and the amendments had been better carried out during the post-war period. Would there have been a greater chance for the grand unity of nation and people that Douglass envisioned?

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

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