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"Union and Liberty."

Many persons have a sort of religious faith that the American Union and American Liberty are one and the same thing; at least, so nearly so, that, should the former be ruptured, the latter would die. The sentiment is a favorite one with our northern statesmen, and perhaps no phrase or scintillation of rapturous eloquence which sprang from Webster's lips has given him more reputation than his celebrated "Union and Liberty--one and inseparable, now and forever." It is the "harp of a thousand strings" which our politicians play on, and no matter whether they gracefully bring out luscious harmony by their skillful manipulation of all the strings, or boorishly knock with a sled-stake on a single sub-base, the instrument is so well known that every sound from it starts an answering throb in each heart. Recently one of the lecturers before the Library Association in this village, called this instrument into service, and sang to it a delightful song of glowing eloquence of words and thoughts. It was a performance worthy of a great subject, and the subject was truly a great one. Undoubtedly the preservation of the Union is of great importance in many respects, and should not be foolishly hazarded for trifling considerations and it is well enough for orators and speechmakers in their efforts to give rotundity to their eloquence, to so link the Union with Liberty as to represent the loss of the one the loss of the other also. But after all, this is only a "glittering generality"-- a bit of glass upon the saddle of the ring to deceive the careless into the belief that a diamond presides there.

It is not in human ken to foretell all the results of a dissolution of this Union; but it is quite clear that there is no natural necessity that Massachusetts should sink into a despotism because South Carolina should see fit to take charge of her own slaves instead of compelling us to guard them, to see that they do not wander from her cotton fields, and force them back when they, in their incipient dreams of astronomy, set chase after the north star to see whether it is a spark stuck upon the under side of the sky or a gimlet hole "to let the glory through." We fully believe that a release from the ennobling functions of slave-catcher might be endured by all the Free States without the stringent rule of king or dictator. We cannot conceive why the letting go of the chains which bind other men in interminable bondage should subject us to like bondage. It might be that the slave states, left to watch the peregrinetic bipeds which they employ to raise their cotton and tobacco, being left without "foreign aid" from the Free States, would find a necessity for a more vigorous and prompter form of government than that of a republic, and hence it would not be a very great wonder if they should establish a government having the force if not the form of a monarchy, or a despotism. It is actually such now. Nothing better than Austrian liberty prevails there now--not even as good, for a man is treated less barbarously in Austria for the expression of a liberal sentiment than he is in our slave states. They have the germ of despotism there now, and it would be no wonderful transmutation if the nut itself should soon appear, if they should be left to take sole care of themselves.

But suppose they should withdraw from the Union and try to do business on their own responsibility, and should become a despotism. Is that any reason why the North should be simple enough to do the same? Not at all. The people of the Free States have been not only educated, but practised, in the principles of freedom. These principles are not theory, they are every day life with them. Instead of having those principles so blunted by a severance from slavery that we should plunge into a despotism, they have already been blunted by connection with it. Let these states be disconnected with slavery, and we should witness a purer spirit of liberty among the people,--one which would care for the interests of all and not suffer the hundredth part of the population to rule with iron rod the ninety-nine hundredths. Put slavery and freedom together, and the result must be a dilution of the latter from its natural strength, just as adding water to wine will dilute the wine. It is not mere dilution either, but nearer what wine diluted with strychnine water would be. Now to separate freedom from such contaminations would not kill it, surely. It would rather fit it to shine more resplendently. And we have no doubt that, should the South secede, Liberty would thrive at least as vigorously as ever in the states unpolluted by slavery. There is no reason why it should not. These states now secure what we have of freedom; and if relieved of the charge of keeping some show of freedom in the slave states they would have at least as much consideration and care to bestow on themselves as they now do; and they would exhibit the spectacle of a nation truly free, instead of one only nominally so. The oppressed in other nations would not shriek in sorrow at the setting of the sun of liberty, for it would not set. The same advantages would remain for them, and whoever should come from despot-ridden Europe, would find at least quite as much of human liberty here as he does now.

But suppose the Union to be preserved,--is it not possible that the government may become despotic and oppressive? We can conceive that it might, and that our people might be as fettered as any in Europe. No dissolution is necessary for this, but simply a corruption of the spirit of the people, and an enterprising man shall be a usurper. It is not in Union , it is in the spirit of the people, that liberty finds support. A pro-slavery spirit pervading a people is not the best safeguard of freedom. And what if the spirit, which has lately become so wide-spread and rampant, should grow till it has actually converted us into a despotism? Where then is your "free nation" for the oppressed of other nations to point to as a beacon, and an evil omen to their oppressors? Will there not then be a "setting of the sun of liberty," and "a black pall of expired and expiring hopes" settling down to the nations?

We pen not these observations as an attack on the Union. We are no disunionists. Undoubtedly the Union has advantages great enough to render its continuance desirable, and therefore we uphold it. But is has seemed to us that some of our patriotic orators misjudge as to what forms the basis of liberty, and we desire merely to show the absurdity of their position. They say it is the Union we say it is the spirit of the people, and that, Union or no Union, a people with a free spirit will have a free government ; while a people without it, will be oppressed, and just as much oppressed in the Union as out of it. Let the people be fired with the spirit of true freedom, and we will risk them for a free government whether they have South Carolina fettered to their ankles or not. Such a spirit we believe pervades the general heart of the people of the Free states and they will be a free people in spite of any dissolution but that of the world itself.

(c) Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, Deerfield MA. All rights reserved.
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This speech was given in February, 1860, just before the presidential campaign for that year began to be fully engaged. But the rumblings of what was to come were already being heard. The preceding fifteen years had been full of struggle over the character of slavery and whether it should be restricted or allowed to expand. Just five months before this speech, in October, 1859, John Brown raided the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, hoping to spark a slave insurrection. Even though he had failed completely, southerners saw him as representative of almost all northern opinion. In the south talk of secession was in the air. This opinion piece from the Greenfield, Massachusetts, Gazette & Courier debates whether the south should be allowed to secede. It argues that the slaveowning states already had drifted far from the ideals of American democracy and that their societies were suffering from "Austrian liberty," state repression and a loss of freedom. Consequently it argues that they should be allowed to leave the Union, that the Union would be better off without them. This opinion was not at all uncommon in the north but it was not a majority opinion. For many northerners though, the question of whether to go to war with the south was settled when troops in South Carolina fired on the federal Fort Sumter in April, 1861.


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"Union and Liberty"

publisher   Greenfield Gazette and Courier
date   Feb 13, 1860
location   Greenfield, Massachusetts
height   24.0"
width   2.5"
process/materials   printed paper, ink
item type   Periodicals/Newspaper
accession #   #L02.107

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