Secession Era Editorials Project

Furman University Department of History


The True Lesson.

New Orleans, Louisiana, Times-Picayune [Democratic]

(30 October 1859)

It is a very careless use of words to describe the Harper's Ferry outbreak as a "negro insurrection," or "slave insurrection," as is frequently done by presses, which are really disposed to speak of it in the proper tone of indignation at the outrage, the actors, and their prompters. But these epithets give a false impression, which is well calculated to do mischief, by spreading perversions of the nature of the transaction in its Southern bearings. It was not a negro insurrection at all -- a slave insurrection at all; scarcely an insurrection at all, inasmuch as insurrection implies a rising of revolters against their own Government. There were no Virginians, bond or free, engaged in it; there were no slaves at all, except one or two, who were seized and held under terror; not one negro or mulatto, except some intruding free negroes, loafing vagabonds from other States, and no whites but such as came over the line from various points in the free States, to stir up a dissaffection which they did not find. Instead of a Virginia insurrection, or a slave rebellion in Virginia, it should be more properly described as an invasion of Virginia by a gang of abolitionists, dupes or emissaries of a treasonable fanaticism, going into a peaceful country to scatter "firebrands, arrows and death."

It is important to a right understanding of these transactions, their true character and effects, that this view should be kept steadily in mind. There is great power in words, and the familiar use of words which imply that there has been a dangerous domestic demonstration within the State of Virginia, against the slave institutions, is very apt to carry with it the associated idea of internal weakness -- the liability to such outbreaks among the slaves -- and , by easy transition, to a general doubt of the strength of slave institutions within the slave States themselves. It has been so used in the Northern journals; and even rational and conservative presses speak of the "insurrection" as a sign of the general weakness of the institution -- an eruption by rupture of an organic disease. The rabid Abolitionists speak of it in a tone of exultation, and tauntingly proclaim the approach of speedy emancipation, extorted from the fears and demonstrated necessities of the South.

But the facts and the logic are both perniciously false. As a demonstration against slavery, the Harper's Ferry foray was a total failure. The slaves on the border, among whom eager proselytes were expected to welcome the invaders, were found to be unshakenly faithful. Among the whole population not a pulse, except that of alarm for themselves from the fatal friendship of the ruffian liberator, was found to respond. Not a willing slave came out to welcome the conspirator -- even in the darkness, to which he confided his secret approaches. When the end came, and the white desperadoes were all shot or captured, the survivors were constrained to avow that they were self-invited -- missionaries of a creed to which they had disciples yet to find. They were not liberators of a complaining race. They meant to camp somewhere, in secrecy, and propagate the sedition, by degrees, out of which they might construct a civil war here after, and occupy themselves in the meantime with stealing away as many as they could seduce or corrupt.

They found no insurgents. They made no converts, and the revolt they attempted which depended for its success on the hope of an accession of multitudes of their own sort from other States, left them abandoned and helpless, suddenly overwhelmed by numbers, slain in the heat of a just wrath by an outraged community, or reserved for the death of unpitied felons on the gallows. They will die without having freed a single slave or made an impression on the loyalty of the slave population, or demonstrated for the use of successors in villainy a weak spot or a hopeful chance for renewing the mad enterprise hereafter.

Such an abortive foray is erroneously and mischievously misrepresented when it is heralded as a slave insurrection and made the text of abolitionists triumphing, as having demostrated the weakness and the terror of the South for its internal safety.

It is not therefore is in its Southern aspect and its present influences on the South that this affair is to be studied. The South is strong and capable of making itself stronger if not invulnerable against this class of assaults; it is for the North to consider whether we shall have their co-operation, or be constrained to take measures for self-protection, on the faith that the whole North is an enemy against whom we must guard ourselves, without reserve or discrimination. The aggression comes from the North. The whole body of invaders of Southern soil comes from the North. The leaders are all of the school of popular fanaticism taught in Northern pulpits; inculcated by Northern orators; laid down in the platforms of Northern parties; promulgated and enforced in fervent harangues by favorite Northern statesmen. The men, the promptings, the theories, the money, and the applause for their deeds, come from the North. The South stands on her defence to repel these assaults, and although she may treat this irruption with disregard as a feeble and impotent demonstration, it becomes essential to her future conduct, to her sense of self-respect, and her assurance of self protection, that she should know the extent of the combinations, the power of the sentiment, and the degree of co-operation for or against her, which she is to look for, and be guarded by in her policy for herself and towards the North.

It is not that that outbreak gives us present alarm for the spread among us of the disorders forcibly obtruded into Virginia; but the spirit that prompted this is a monster to be met and throttled, or there can be no peace between us and our adversaries. And it is, above all things, necessary for us to know who are our enemies, and how many and strong they are. Here is a demoniac plot discovered, which daringly undertakes to propagate discord by bloodshed and riot, into peaceful communities, and though it be baffled, and the leaders crushed out, rumor connects with the plot the names of several potent public men of the North. They generally disclaim and denounce the insurrection, but there is a mystery still unexplained, as to the degree of complicity, the source of the of the means, and the amount of guilty confidence, which a thorough exposure of all the ramifications of the conspiracy would develop. But what we do know is that violent journals at the North do sympathise with these ruffians; and what we cannot fail to see is, that this incendiary attempt, though rejected as unwise, and bewailed as a blunder, is the legitimate result of the teachings of Northern pulpits, the platforms of Northern politicians, and the fervent declamations of favorite Northern statesmen.

Now it is not of so much importance to know who favored directly the plot that has failed, and is repudiated as a failure, as it is to know who is for the continuance of this warfare, in its widest sense, who are disposed to go on, and how far, in this anti-Southern crusade, which heats up desperate minds to such shocking excesses; how far the judgment, the conscience, and the patriotism of the North will permit them to tolerate the class of men as their leaders who have voluntarily, by participation, or connivance, by actual aid or criminal silence, encouraged the atrocious scheme of robbery, sedition and murder, the saturnalia of blood and rapine, which Brown sought to create in Virginia; and how far they will continue to permit themselves to be misled by the demagogues of the pulpit, the stump, and the legislative chambers, by whose visionary doctrines, wild, exhortations, and fiery denunciations, the popular mind has been heated to a frenzied hatred of the South, and their ignorant and desperate followed made to believe that they are doing a righteous work, and earning great rewards, besides the little private gains they can pick up for themselves in the disorders they create.

Here is the real lesson to be drawn from the Harper's Ferry outbreak: It is a solemn appeal to the North to consider well what it owes to the South, to the constitution, and to our common country, in its dealings with the Harper's Ferry rioters, and their councellors, abettors and teachers.

The response thus far, to this inquiry, is encouraging to the hope that the great body of the Northern people are awaking to the peril of the position into which they have been unwittingly drawn, by unprincipled and selfish men. May the event justify the hope, in the dismissal of the mischief makers from the post of leaders, and the restoration of a constitutional rule of order, for the faction and frenzy which has brought the country into its present state of discord of danger.

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