Mr. Taylor to Mr. Seward.
Sir: In the St. Petersburgh Védomosti, (Gazette,) one of the principal daily papers in the Russian language, there has just appeared a leading editorial article on the President’s proclamation of emancipation. After reading it, (with some little difficulty, owing to my incomplete knowledge of Russian,) I find it so just and sagacious as to warrant me in translating and forwarding it to you. You will doubtless be all the more interested in perusing an article from this source, as it represents the sentiments of the middle classes of the Russian people. The press here is really freer than it is at present in Prussia, and its utterances in regard to foreign affairs are subjected to very slight restraint. The following article may therefore be taken as an independent expression of opinion, neither suggested nor modified by the known attitude of the imperial government towards that of the United States.
“Mr. Lincoln’s proclamation of the emancipation of the slaves has invoked, as was to be expected, an entire series of accusations and reproaches, more or less pathetic, more or less passionate, but in substance much the same, and, in our opinion, equally unjust. We have heard the echo of these reproaches in society, in private conversation, from persons who are not at all interested in the termination of the American war, or the solution of the questions it involves. The accusations to which Mr. Lincoln is subjected may be reduced to two principal heads. First of all, they assert that his proclamation is called forth not by principle, but by interest; not from conviction, but from necessity; that he promulgated it only when he had lost every hope of seeing the southern States voluntarily return to the Union; that he retains slavery where he might have abolished it, and abolished it only where it is out of his power to do so; that its abolition is meant, (according to the London Times,) as a punishment for rebellion, and its preservation as a reward for loyalty to the Union. In these accusations, the mere personal question is curiously mixed up with the real substance of the act. It is of no great importance for us to know by what successive convictions Mr. Lincoln was guided to its accomplishment. The act of emancipation itself is the only important thing, viewed with reference to the reasons which finally led to its promulgation. A pure, benevolent deed may spring from an impure impulse, and the action called forth by necessity may be at the same time perfectly just. What would be said of the historian who should condemn the Magna Charta, because it was granted by the miserable King John? or the declaration of the “Jeu de Paume,” because it was the production of the venal Mirabeau?
“By his motives we may judge of the services of the reformer, but not of the value of the reform. Mr. Lincoln never was an abolitionist, and it is true that during the first year of his government, his policy was by no means favorable to immediate emancipation. But among his advisers and friends, upon whom the Times almost invokes damnation, many have been for years devoted to the cause of emancipation, and to them, certainly, the proclamation of January 1 has a deeper significance than a mere measure of public safety. They co-operated in preparing the proclamation, and therefore it cannot be considered as only the result of a calculation. For the benefit as well as for the honor of the federal government, it would have been better if the war against the south had taken the character of a war against slavery at its very outset, but the emancipationists were yet too weak, the desire to preserve the Union and the prejudice against the negro too strong. Time and circumstances have changed the state of the case, and the services of Mr. Lincoln consist in his having ventured to make use of the opportunity. We do not see anything especially heroic in the [Page 859] fact, but still less can we call it shameful. We may perhaps be asked, Why has not Mr. Lincoln liberated the slaves in the States remaining loyal to the Union? Here we find, in the arguments of the Times and other pro-slavery papers, a very singular contradiction. They incessantly repeat that the proclamation, of January 1 is a clearly unjust and treacherous (Sic Morning Post) violation of the Constitution, and at the same time they blame Mr. Lincoln for not having committed a violation ten times more glaring and unjust. The Constitution of the United States does not allow the central power to interfere in the local institutions of the separate States, and slavery is one of these institutions. The southern States having seceded from the Union, having declared the Constitution as invalid for them, have naturally lost all the rights which it guaranteed to them. Therefore, the abolition of slavery in these States may be proclaimed without violating the Constitution. But the border States, which remained loyal to the Union, are still under its protection. In reference to them, the President and Congress have only such rights as the central power possesses in ordinary times of peace. The federal government may and should use every possible means to induce them, voluntarily, to adopt emancipation, but so long as the Constitution remains unchanged, it has no right to force them. The President has manifested his determination to use every means in his power to promote the voluntary abolition of slavery in the border States; to demand of him more than this would be unjust, as the Times well understands. It is to be hoped that the same force of circumstances which gave rise to the proclamation, will lead the border States to emancipation; and this, in our opinion, is the best result of Mr. Lincoln’s policy.
“Let us now refer to the other accusation, which we have already noticed, but which is repeated so often in the newspapers, and in conversation, that we do not think it useless to add a few words on the subject. Mr. Lincoln is charged with inciting the slaves to rebellion against their masters, by his proclamation. Then follows a series of eloquent phrases about innocent wives and children, torrents of blood, each drop of which will fall on Mr. Lincoln’s head, &c., &c. Here, again, we notice a few contradictions and inconsistencies. At one time, the proclamation is represented as a dead letter, not worth the pen with which it was signed; but now it is the all-powerful word, whose utterance shall bring forth thunders and convulsions. But we leave these contradictions, which testify only to the blind partisanship of the friends of the south.
“Let us place ourselves on any plantation whatever, in Georgia or Arkansas, on the shores of the Mississippi or the Gulf of Mexico; let us suppose, although it would probably not be an isolated case, that the proclamation of Lincoln penetrated thither; that in spite of its ‘barbarous language,’ it was read from beginning to end and understood by the slaves. They are accustomed from their infancy to obey the whites; they know what the very smallest attempt at resistance costs the negro; they have the district inspection, now especially rigorous—which at no time allows of any combination whatever among the negroes of the different plantations—thus removing every possibility of reciprocal consultation, preliminary to the deliberation and unanimous execution of their plan. Is it possible that the word ‘freedom,’ pronounced at the same time with various explanations and warnings of rights scarcely known to the negroes, of power which they have never felt—is it possible, that one word would compel them to forget their helplessness, to overcome their cowardice, and rise without the chance of success against an implacable enemy, powerful to destroy them in the very moment of their rising? We may be answered that the meaning of the explanation is destroyed by the phrase, granting to the negro the right of indispensable personal defence in emergency, and advising him to work for a proper compensation; that the proclamation commands the military authority to proclaim and protect the freedom of the negroes, and in this manner stimulates the worst of them to insurrection, wherever they may be sustained by the federal armies. [Page 860] ‘The opportunity of indispensable defence,’ writes the New York correspondent of the London Times, ‘will present itself every time when the slaves, demanding their own labor, shall be restrained from possessing it.’ We do not think that the opinion of the correspondent conforms to the judicial idea of indispensable defence. Not thus do these people, accustomed to labor, born and brought up to it, understand the opportunity presented. The absolute necessity of defence appears much further off to them than to us, and the words of Mr. Lincoln will refer to them only in cases where the slaveholders shall menace their lives, when resistance shall be the least of two evils offered to their choice. To advise them to work faithfully for a proper compensation, is not to advise them not to work at all without compensation; but even if it is understood in this manner, then from the explanations already given, it remains without influence on the negro, because it does not give him the possibility of following it.
“Where the immediate presence of the federal troops encourages the negroes, they may certainly be expected to resist their masters; but the interference of these very troops will always keep the revolution within proper linits, and prevent it from attaining those excesses which might be feared from the passions of the slaves. The presence of a federal army, in a revolted State, has already had the effect of a de facto liberation of the slaves, and the proclamation of Mr. Lincoln only embodies the fact in a legal form. We repeat, that wherever circumstances favor a revolution, it will always take place, even without the proclamation; but wherever the negroes are powerless and unprotected, the latter cannot incite them to rebellion. Perhaps we may be mistaken; perhaps deplorable facts may prove the correctness of the fears expressed; but the probabilities are all against it, as Mr. Lincoln was aware before he took the step. Must we describe the extremes to which the friends of the south are carried? Must we state that there are newspapers (The Morning Post and La France) which dare to justify the brutal proclamation of Jefferson Davis? But we prefer the frankness of even these papers to the hypocrisy of the Times, which solemnly asserts its profound repugnance to slavery and at the same time endeavors to prove in the same article that the negro can only be happy under the paternal care of his owner.”
There are some slight misconceptions in this article, and some views which are more novel here than in the United States; but its tone is earnest, temperate, and just. Independent of the subject, it chronicles the growth of a public opinion in Russia, and may interest you, at least, as a specimen of an influential portion of the press here, which is never read and never quoted outside of the empire.
I have the honor to be, with the highest respect, your obedient servant,
Hon. William H. Seward, Secretary of State.