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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

A Prophecy

By Tristam Burges (1770–1853)

[Born in Rochester, Mass., 1770. Died at Providence, R. I., 1853. From a Speech in the U. S. H. of R., January, 1829.—Memoir of Tristam Burges. 1835.]

WE have no right—we claim no right—we wish for no right—to decide the question of slavery. Men from the free States have already decided the question for themselves, within their own State jurisdiction; and such men, to decide it here for other States, must first be renegade from the Constitution, or oblivious of its high and controlling principles. When has this question been raised, and not by men interested in its eternal slumber? The Missouri Question was, as it has truly been said on this floor, no triumph. It was no triumph of policy; it was no triumph of humanity. To contract, and not extend, the theatre of it, is the true policy of every statesman, as well in the slave-holding, as in those States uncursed by this moral and political mischief. On this matter of slavery, singular and ominous political events have, within the last forty years, transpired in the great community of the New World. What another half century will exhibit, is known to Him only who holds in his hand the destiny of nations. This kind of population is rapidly increasing; and, should any large and united number of them make a desperate struggle for emancipation, it will then indeed be found that the policy which had placed aid and relief at any greater distance, was cruelly and fatally unwise. Humanity surely did not triumph in that decision. It widened the mart of slavery. Southern men have nobly aided in driving from the ocean a traffic which had long dishonored our country, and outraged the best feelings of our nature. The foreign slave-trade is now piracy. Would to God, the domestic might, like his barbarous brother of the seas, be made an outlaw of the land, and punished on the same gibbet.

The Constitution, we know, does not permit one class of the States to legislate on the nature or condition of the property of the other class. Why tell us, for we already know, that neither our religion nor our humanity can reach or release that condition? Humanity could once bathe the fevered forehead of Larazus—she could not bring to his comfort so much as a crumb from the sumptuous and profuse table of Dives. Religion may weep, as the Saviour of the World wept over the proud city of Herod: but her tears will fall like the rain-drops on the burning ploughshare, and serve only to render the stubborn material more obdurate.

We are called and pressed to decide this question, and yet threatened that the decision will dissolve the Union. “The discussion and the Constitution will terminate together.”—“Southern gentlemen will, in that event, leave this Hall.” Who makes this menace, and against whom? It cannot be a war-cry; can it be a mere party watchword? On what event of immeasurable moment are we thus adjured? In a paltry claim of two hundred and nine and “thirty” pieces of silver, shall we, who have in this Hall lifted the hand, or “kissed” the hallowed gospel of God, in testimonial of high devotion to its requirements, shall we now, in the same place, “deliver up” this our great national charter? This event cannot come with safety to our country, and wisdom would admonish us to inquire what concomitants may attend it; and whom they will visit most disastrously! Must we be schooled on the benefits of the Union? It were wise for such scholars to take some lessons on the evils of separation. The Hebrew, when fed by the bread of Heaven, murmured at his God; looked over the sea, and pined for the luxurious slavery of Egypt. Is it a vain imagining; or may there be a charm in foreign alliance, more potent than the plain simplicity of domestic independence? England can, indeed, make lords. The United States can make none. She, too, can, and has in the last century, made more slaves than all other nations, Pagan or Christian.

We are surrounded, protected, and secured by our Constitution. By this we are in safety from the power and violence of the world; as some wealthy regions are, by their own barriers, sheltered from the ravages of the ocean. Do not forget, for they never forget, that a small, insidious, persevering reptile, may, unseen, bore through the loftiest and broadest mound. The water follows its path, silently and imperceptibly at first, but the rock itself is worn away by the continual attrition of a perpetually running stream. A ravine, a breach, is made; and the ocean rushing in, flocks, and herds, and men, are swept away by the deluge. Pause, before you peril such a country; pause, before you place in jeopardy so much wealth, and life, and intellect, and loveliness. Those of us, whose sun is far in the West, may hope to be sheltered before the storm. Be not deceived. Sparsed and blanched as are our hairs, they may be defiled in the blood of our sons; and to you, who in the pride of manhood feel the warm blood flowing at your hearts, while you stand joyously in the blooming circle of household loveliness, the day may come, unless the all-merciful God pours into the bosom of this nation the hallowed and healing spirit of mutual confidence and mutual conciliation—to you the tremendous day may come, when you shall sigh for the sad consolation of him, who, before that hour, shall have sheltered his very last daughter in the sanctuary of the tomb. Do not understand me as I do not mean to be understood. Those who would avert the events of that catastrophe do not stand here in mercy, or to menace, or to deprecate. They stand here amidst all the muniments of the Constitution. They will not desert the ship, leave her who may; they will perform the voyage, and to the very letter, and in the full spirit of all and singular the shipping articles; and they, too, will, by the blessing of God, perform it without fear—prosperously, as they trust, and with triumphant success.