Cup of wrath and fire

He all but thanked the se­ces­sion­ists for "pre­fer­ring to be a large piece of noth­ing, to be­ing any longer a small piece of some­thing."

The Pak Banker - - Editorial - David Blight

Few peo­ple in the North wel­comed South Carolina's se­ces­sion in De­cem­ber 1860, but Fred­er­ick Dou­glass, Amer­ica's most prom­i­nent for­mer slave and AfricanAmer­i­can abo­li­tion­ist, was one of them. From his ed­i­to­rial desk in Rochester, N.Y., Dou­glass heaped scorn on the Palmetto State's rash act, but he also rel­ished it as an op­por­tu­nity. He all but thanked the se­ces­sion­ists for "pre­fer­ring to be a large piece of noth­ing, to be­ing any longer a small piece of some­thing."

To Dou­glass, se­ces­sion­ists pro­vided what he ini­tially hoped would be the long-awaited open­ing for the an­ti­slav­ery cause: disunion, po­lit­i­cal cri­sis, and some form of sanc­tioned mil­i­tary ac­tion against slav­ery and the South. He would get his wish, but only af­ter the tremen­dous con­fu­sion and fear of the se­ces­sion win­ter of 1860 and '61.

Dou­glass's re­ac­tions to se­ces­sion rep­re­sented nearly 20 years of pent-up per­sonal tra­vail and abo­li­tion­ist strug­gle as slav­ery had grown across the cot­ton king­dom and into the Amer­i­can West, and as the an­ti­slav­ery cause seem­ingly failed in elec­toral pol­i­tics, the Supreme Court and pub­lic opin­ion. Dou­glass and many of his fel­low abo­li­tion­ists had long yearned for a pol­i­tics of dis­or­der that might force the nation to con­front, will­ingly or not, its fu­ture over slav­ery vs. free­dom in a rapidly ex­pand­ing re­pub­lic. Was that prospect now at hand? "Her peo­ple [South Carolina's]," Dou­glass de­clared with anx­ious glee in his Dou­glass Monthly, "(ex­cept those of them held in slav­ery, which are more than half her pop­u­la­tion) have hailed the event as an­other and far more glo­ri­ous Fourth of July, and are cel­e­brat­ing it with plenty of gun­pow­der and bad brandy, but as yet no balls, ex­cept those where per­fumed ladies and gentle­men move their feet to the in­spir­ing notes of the fid­dle." With no veiled in­tent, Dou­glass wished for a fight. "Other balls may yet come," he wrote, "and un­less South Carolina shall re­treat, or the Fed­eral Govern­ment shall ab­di­cate its func­tions, they must come." And he lam­pooned what South Carolini­ans imag­ined as "peace­ful se­ces­sion," cel­e­brated by "bon­fires, py­rotech­nics . . . mu­sic and danc­ing." He cau­tioned Carolini­ans over their con­fi­dence about "a thing as eas­ily done," so he main­tained they be­lieved, "as the leav­ing of a so­ci­ety of Odd Fel­lows, or bid­ding good night to a spir­i­tual cir­cle."

Not that Dou­glass be­lieved that South Carolina had a right to se­cede. The state, he wrote within a week of its ac­tions, was "out of the Union" only "on paper" and in "res­o­lu­tions and tele­grams." Gov­ern­ments, he con­tin­ued, "rest not upon paper, but upon power. They do not so­licit obe­di­ence as a fa­vor, but com­pel it as a duty." Dou­glass ac­knowl­edged the "right of revo­lu­tion" for a state or a po­lit­i­cal group, but no con­sti­tu­tional "right of se­ces­sion."

As a re­sult, he be­lieved, con­flict was in­evitable: "But revo­lu­tion in this coun­try is re­bel­lion," he main­tained, "and re­bel­lion is trea­son, and trea­son is levy­ing war against the United States, with some­thing more than paper res­o­lu­tions . . . there must be swords, guns, pow­der, balls, and men be­hind them to use them." Se­ces­sion, there­fore, was no ab­stract de­bate over fed­er­al­ism or states' rights, but a mat­ter of power and guns. "The right of South Carolina to se­cede," de­clared the abo­li­tion­ist, "de­pends upon her abil­ity to do so, and to stay so." An un­fold­ing his­tory of the Civil War with pho­tos and ar­ti­cles from the Times ar­chive and on­go­ing com­men­tary from Disunion con­trib­u­tors.

Dou­glass's sen­ti­ments were those of an an­ti­slav­ery ac­tivist who in­sisted that se­ces­sion was in­ti­mately about slav­ery. He be­lieved, as many rea­son­able Amer­i­cans have ever since, that the sig­nif­i­cance of any ex­er­cise of states' rights doc­trine is in the is­sue for which it is em­ployed. The prospect of civil war fright­ened him, but by Jan­uary and Fe­bru­ary 1861, he cast the dreaded prospect in pos­i­tive and apoc­a­lyp­tic lan­guage: The "God in his­tory ev­ery­where pro­nounc­ing the doom of those na­tions which frame mis­chief by law," he de­clared, had caused a "con­cus­sion . . . against slav­ery which would now rock the land." Na­tional will and in­sti­tu­tions had not solved the prob­lem. "If there is not wis­dom and virtue enough in the land to rid the coun­try of slav­ery," he claimed, "then the next best thing is to let the South go . . . and be made to drink the wine cup of wrath and fire, which her long ca­reer of cru­elty, bar­barism and blood shall call down upon her guilty head." From the snowy iso­la­tion of up­state New York, Dou­glass could not eas­ily de­fine the course of dis­or­der he sought as he watched sev­eral more Deep South states fol­low South Carolina out of the Union by Feb. 1.

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