An Anti-Slavery Hero
| Resources Relating to|
AN ANTI-SLAVERY HERO.
By Sidney H. Morse.
NO one devoted to the Anti-Slavery cause offered a more earnest, unstinted service than George Luther Stearns. His labors were incessant and untiring. Wendell Phillips said of him:
"He crowded forty-eight hours into twenty-four."
"The characteristics of Major Stearns were his singleness of heart, his modesty of self-assertion, and his remarkable freedom from all pride of opinion. In his devotion to the causes he espoused, he ever gave more than he asked others to give. While many gave of money as an expiation for not throwing themselves into the service, he gave as an expression of the entireness with which he consecrated all that he had and all that he was to country and humanity. To name the philanthropic enterprises of New England would only be to enumerate the objects to which he devoted himself. His deeds and activity were worth ten thousand men to the cause of liberty. What disheartened others seemed to stimulate him. He was no boaster, but a man for uphill work, — not waiting for the morning, but beginning at midnight, while only the stars were in the sky. When the sun rose and the work was accomplished, he male haste to depart, as if to escape from our thanks. Measured by his work, his was one of the longest lives. We ought to be thankful that nature and heaven sent us such a man, and that, we had the privilege of living with him."
In a tender, appreciative tribute, Whittier wrote:
"Ah, well, the world is discreet, There are plenty to pause and wait; But here was a man who set his feet Sometimes in advance of fate."
If it is thought I strange that a life so honored should be passed in comparative obscurity, the general public unfamiliar even with Steam's name, the reason may be sought in the character of the man, and in the nature of the work he chose to do. It will be discovered that his previsions and quietly constructed advance work prepared the way for the success of others. It does not appear that he made the slightest effort to publish any act of his own, or in any manner sought to impress upon the public mind a sense of his own importance. Apparently he had no occasion even to consider the question, "What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?" His soul had taken possession of him. He was not, however, rash and impulsive. He acted upon conviction, resolutely carrying his ripe judgment into swift execution. "When
FROM A BUST BY SIDNEY H. MORSE.
the work was done, he made haste to depart." To the bringer of praise he seemed to say, "Somewhat else demands attention." He was preoccupied. "I felt his grip on the time," said Theodore Weld, " and admired him, but never ventured to tell him so." There was one verdict, — he was quiet, industrious, farseeing, praising no man,
"Blazoning not himself;
Nor thereto conspired with others."
Such, in brief, is the apology, if one be needed, for Stearns not having gained, living and dead, a more extended fame. The object of this paper is to provide in fuller detail than hitherto has been done an account of the part Major Stearns bore in the Anti-Slavery struggle.
Of his earlier life it will suffice to say that by the death of his father he was left, at the age of eleven, dependent on his own exertions for a livelihood. He soon displayed that aptitude for affairs which stood him in such good stead in the historic days to come. Making his way onward and upward, he became a manufacturer of "lead pipe and sheet iron." Though conducting an extended enterprise, he was unwilling that it should wholly occupy his time. "With marveilous ease, by a system peculiarly his own, he managed so as to be always a man of leisure, and ready at any moment's warning to give days, weeks, months to any good cause. Few imagined that the man who flung himself so exclusively for months into recruiting negroes for the army, taking up his residence at different and distant points, was at the same time at the head of a large and busy house." Machinery of his own invention aided him in securing the wealth he so lavishly bestowed. He was a lover and patron of music and of art. In busiest days he found time for the symphony at the Music Hall, contributing liberally to its support. Nothing ever detained him from Emerson's lectures. He could not afford to miss Emerson or Beethoven.
FROM A BUST BY SIDNEY H. MORSE.
His charming residence in Medford, opposite College Hill, soon became known to the poor and unfortunate, no less than to the gifted and illustrious, as the abode of refined, yet generous hospitality. There Kossuth found earnest sympathy and a welcome of " material aid." There
John Brown breathed the atmosphere of aims and purposes as lofty as his own. An anecdote illustrates the spirit of the family. On one occasion, Brown had described the suffering of the Free State settlers in Kansas. Young Harry Stearns, a lad of some ten years, listening, impressed by the recital, made his way to the captain's side, bearing in his hands the contents of his toy bank, exclaiming, "I want you to buy something with this for those Kansas sufferers, and I want you to write to me, Captain Brown, and tell me what sort of a little boy you was." Brown promised. Months later, Harry received the coveted letter, since several times published as "Brown's Autobiography."
At the exciting and critical period when Webster's zeal for Union seemed to have outstripped his love of liberty, Stearns gave himself unreservedly to the cause of the slave. The call for personal service became imperative. He was ready, if need be, to quit the counting-room forever. He believed the time had arrived for the Anti-Slavery sentiment to become politically aggressive. Slavery could never be persuaded out of existence; it must be defeated. "Moral suasion" must be reinforced.
As far back as '47 he had spoken with Charles Sumner in regard to the successor of Webster, urging that a strong effort should be made to have Massachusetts represented in the Senate by a thorough going Free Soiler. Would Sumner permit the use of his name? The proposition was a surprise to Sumner, but he was persuaded by Stearns to waive a personal conviction that he had no fitness for politics and a public life, and leave it to the judgment of his Anti-Slavery friends. When the time came for the senatorial contest, the party of liberty confirmed the choice thus early made. Sumner entered the Senate as the apostle of a new era. The evil his predecessor had done he was expected to undo. His supporters were ardent, not to say impatient. They demanded immediate action. When weeks passed and the new senator sat silent in his seat, there was not wanting an intimation that he had been " bought off." Among those who felt no anxiety, but on the contrary approved his deliberate course, Mr. Stearns was conspicuous. He wrote: "Do nothing until you feel thoroughly prepared." At length the trumpet gave no uncertain sound. ProSlavery was enraged; Anti-Slavery stood on tiptoe, delighted and expectant of great results.
Of this first speech, "The Crime of Slavery," Stearns issued pamphlet editions, circulating it by thousands. Subsequent speeches he also published at his own cost, distributing them over the country. It must be remembered that the Boston press of those times fought shy of the new senator's utterances, and little else but garbled extracts, calculated to prejudice popular feeling, were given to the public.
Through the exasperating period of the federal hunt for fugitive slaves, Stearns lost no opportunity to serve the cause he had espoused. Many a runaway under his supervision found shelter in the Queen's dominion, denied him in the northern states. The fate of negroes stored away in vessels arriving from southern ports often fell to his hands. After his death the captain of a merchant vessel told Mrs. Stearns, that on one occasion Mr. Stearns and himself had done some lively work in the fugitive line. Arriving in port one day he found the city in great commotion over the fate of Thomas Sims. Chains were around the Court house, and the Marines filled the square. Things looked ugly. He sought Stearns and told him he had a "fugitive" for him.
The crew were given a holiday; and that night at eight o'clock, while Boston brooded in suspense over the fate of Sims, his more fortunate brother, washed, clothed, fed, in strict violation of "law," was put on board a train of cars that went speeding to a land where that "law" was of none effect.
The repeal of the Missouri compromise in 1854 precipitated the struggle on the plains of Kansas. The "Cradle of Liberty" rocked with a new agitation. A Kansas Aid Committee was formed, with Stearns as chairman. Stearns gave to this work his whole time, devoting the summer and fall of 1856 to that object alone. Canvassing the state, he raised something over forty-eight thousand dollars. He was fully alive to the emergency. The invaded territory must be held for freedom, at all hazards.
It was about this time, or early in 1857, that John Brown came to Boston and was introduced to Mr. Stearns. The meeting of these two men was an event fraught with far-reaching results. Their intercourse meant a concentration of powers. Unlike, they were yet kindred spirits. Brown remained in Boston and vicinity during the winter and early spring of 1857, making the acquaintance of leading men, and seeking aid for his cherished work. He was suffering at the time severely with fever and ague contracted by exposures enforced in the border war of the previous year. This alone was sufficiently depressing, but more difficult to bear were the apathy and indifference to coming events encountered in Boston as elsewhere. He had expected much and realized little. One stormy Saturday Stearns called and found him much distressed in spirit. But he had on his mind a little plan in which he believed Mrs. Stearns would be interested, and desired to see her. It transpired that he wished to consult her in regard to the since famous "Farewell to Plymouth Rocks, Bunker Hill Monuments, Charter Oaks, and Uncle Tom's Cabins." Would Theodore Parker read that address to his congregation the next Sunday morning? Mrs. Stearns, while heartily approving the document for herself, doubted the propriety of Parker's reading it to his people. To be properly understood, a more intimate knowledge of the circumstances under which it was written was required than even congregations at Music Hall could be credited with. After Parker's death the manuscript was found among his papers. On the occasion of this same visit, Brown exclaimed, "Oh, if I only had the money smoked away in Boston in a single day, I would strike a blow at slavery that would make it totter from its foundation." The tone and manner of the man left no doubt on the mind of his auditor but that he was wholly competent to keep his word.
But while thus brooding over his straightened circumstances, longing for "sinews of war," one more fortunate in that respect came to his relief. George Stearns called to say good-by, and placed in his hand a bit of paper, entitling the bearer to seven thousand dollars. No question was asked, no pledge was given. "He will make as wise use of it as I should," Stearns quietly remarked on returning home. Other sums were as freely given at later periods.
On the night of Oct. 17, 1859, this consecrated captain took possession of Harper's Ferry. He had entered the Old Dominion, the venerable home of slavery. With unsuspecting heroism, he had given the emphasis of a great deed to Garrison's stalwart cry for "Unconditional and Immediate Emancipation." The startling news flew through the states. The whole land rocked as with the throes of an earthquake. 'Twas the beginning of the end. Freedom's prophet stood face to face with slavery, proclaiming the inevitable new time. Wounded, lying on the ground a prisoner, a bystander asks him: "Upon what principle do you justify your acts?" "Upon the principle of the Golden Rule. I pity the poor in bondage that have none to help them." To Governor Wise he says, " You can easily dispose of me. I am nearly disposed of now. But you must dispose of it — I mean slavery — or it will soon dispose of you." The long-dreaded, long-avoided hour had come — would the Union survive or perish?
We see clearly enough now, but at that disturbed time only prophetic eyes could see the converging lines of fate.
- "Great men in the Senate sate,
- Sage and hero, side by side,
- Building for their sons the State,
- Which they shall rule with pride.
- They forebore to break the chain
- Which bound the dusky tribe.
- Checked by the owner's fierce disdain,
- Lured by Union as a bribe.
- Destiny sat by and said : —
- 'Pang for pang your seed shall pay.
- Hide in false peace your coward head,
- I bring round the harvest day.'"
It is a striking commentary on the time, that this act of Brown's inspired at first only terror and misgiving even among the Abolitionists. "The cause is set back thirty years," cried one, who thirty days later saw in it the deliverance of the nation. "The severest blow the slave has received," others said. The Liberator pronounced the attempt, while honoring the motive of Brown, "an insane one." It is no secret that Brown was at no time a congenial spirit to Garrison. The latter's peace proclivities were as rudely shocked by Brown's faith in an armed crusade, as was his devotion to freedom by the crime of the slave-owner. Yet at Tremont Temple, on the day of Brown's execution, he made a speech that commanded the applause of Brown's most ardent defenders. It will not be amiss to quote here a paragraph. He said:
"I not only desire but have labored unremittingly to effect the peaceful abolition of slavery by appealing to the reason and conscience of the slaveholder; yet, as a man of peace, an ultra peace man, I am prepared to say, success to every slave insurrection at the South, and in every slave country. I thank God when men who believe in the right and duty of wielding carnal weapons are so far advanced that they will take those weapons out of the scales of despotism and throw them on the side of freedom. It is an indication of progress and a positive moral growth; it is one way to get up to the sublime platform of nonresistance; it is God's method of dealing retribution on the head of tyrants."
Brown placed emphasis on "doing." He despised " mere talk." He would do for others what he would have others do for him. The character of his " doing" in Virginia, considered from a military point of view, struck the country generally as it did the young Virginian who asked in amazement, "What on earth did you think you could do here with nineteen men?" The "folly of the thing" was the phrase everywhere tossed about. It is by no means certain that there was so much folly in it as was generally supposed. It is claimed that a strong defence can be made of Brown's original plan. He said that he betrayed himself by a too tender regard for the feelings of the inhabitants. But, to wander in uncertain speculations of this sort, is to lose sight of the whole significance of the deed as it stands confessed in history. . What is of consequence is to follow along the train of events his action marshalled into victorious motion, swelling the party opposed to slavery by millions of hearts, fixing, as the succeeding months illustrated his deed, the signature of the North to the proclamation of the emancipation of which Lincoln was but the scribe. "A new saint," said Emerson, "than whom none purer or more brave was ever led by love of man into conflict or death, — a new saint waiting yet his martyrdom, and who, if he shall suffer, will make the gallows glorious like the cross." When his body lay in the grave at North Elba, New England's orator, casting the horoscope of the future, uttered these thrilling words: "Men walked Boston Common when night fell on Bunker Hill, and pitied Warren, saying, ' Foolish man! Thrown his life away! Why didn't he measure his means better?' We see him standing colossal that day on that blood-stained soil, and severing the tie that bound Boston to Great Britain. That night George III. ceased to rule in New England. History will date Virginia Emancipation from Harper's Ferry. True, the slave is still there. So, when the tempest uproots a pine on your hill, it looks green for months, a year or two. Still it is timber, not a tree. John Brown has loosened the roots of the slave system; it only breathes; it does not live hereafter."
Blind to the light within the shadow coming events were casting, the Senate of the United States appointed a committee of investigation, impressed with the idea that there were many others in the North, deserving the fate of Brown. Witnesses were summoned in great number, and the name of Stearns was not forgotten. His appearance, when he came before this committee, is said to have much surprised the southern members of it. They beheld a man of gentlemanly bearing, faultlessly attired, an exaggerated account of whose wealth had been furnished. How a man of so much character and sense could lavish time and pour out his thousands upon a cause so despised and apparently hopeless was to their minds a veritable mystery. Governor Andrew had instructed Stearns to be sure and let the southern men know of the large sums of money he supplied, for that would "open their eyes wider than all else." The fact that the cause had a financial backbone as well as a moral one gave it a new significance. Mason is said to have closed the examination of Stearns with these words:
"If there are many more at the North like you, Mr. Stearns, there, is nothing left for us but war."
Stearns stood three hours before the committee, making frank confession of extended pecuniary relations with Brown, and stating his Anti-Slavery convictions without reserve. To the question, "Do you disapprove of such a transaction as that at Harper's Ferry?" he replied:
"I shouldn't had I known of it at the time when it was contemplated; but I now consider John Brown the representative man of this century as Washington was of the last — the Harper's Ferry affair and the capacity the Italians have shown for self-government, the great events of the age. One will free Europe; the other, America."
Samuel Johnson writes:
"It was not accident that made George Stearns unintentionally provide the money and arms for the Harper's Ferry raid. We hear the ring of those rifles in his swift indorsement of them, not more courageous than it was prophetic."
Stearns returned home convinced that stirring events were near at hand.
It is now 186o. Following the execution of Brown has come the election of Abraham Lincoln, amid the ominous mutterings of the South. Union and liberty are taking serious hold of the northern mind. Freeman Clarke, in a lecture referring to this time, says:
"Garrison and Phillips and the other old Abolitionists were abstaining from voting, and arguing that the only way to abolish slavery was to dissolve the Union. We now see they were mistaken. At any rate, slavery was abolished by those who did not believe in the dissolution of the Union."
Stearns does not appear to have been either a Union-saver or a Union-destroyer. His only aim was to make all things converge to the emancipation of the enslaved ract. If he voted, it was for the slave's freedom. When he enlisted regiments for the war he had no other purpose in view. No partisan — save of liberty — it was his mission to see the serviceable side of each occasion and event that came within range of his alert vision. As Whittier wrote:
- "He plucked off the old hark when the inner
- Was slow to renew it,
- And put to the Lord's work the sinner
- When saints failed to do it."
With malice toward none and charity for all, he waived unfruitful controversies and passed on to the tasks nearest him. His relation to the state might have inspired the verse:
- "Let man serve law for man,—
- Live for friendship, live for love,
- For truth and harmony's behoof;
- The state may follow how it can
- As Olympus follows Jove."
We find him actively engaged in promoting the election of John A. Andrew to the governorship. That was one effective way for the Bay State to let its light so shine that the slave would take courage. Andrew was a man of sterling qualities, and became the most efficient of the war-governors. In December after his election he invited Stearns .to accompany him to Washington. Stearns's attendance on the Harper's Ferry committee had brought him in contact with leading southern men, on whom he called, with Andrew, to get their view of the situation. With Mason and others they held protracted conversations. Stearns thought he would also learn something of the sentiment of the southern people. He accordingly sent into Maryland and Virginia an intelligent agent, who after some days returned and reported:
"The old men and boys are drilling. There is one unvarying voice for war. Plans are discussed for the invasion of the North. They count on easy victories, and calculate the amount of wealth that can be seized in northern cities."
Thus he gathered in many ways the drift of the southern mind. The situation was undoubtedly critical. The South was awake ; the North, asleep. On the way home he urged Andrew to put Massachusetts at once on a war footing.
"Events are hastening which will be your ample justification. Let your soldiers be ready to march at a moment's warning."
While thus employed in Washington, Stearns incidentally heard that Senator Sumner had been approached on several occasions by suspicious characters, and was in receipt of many threatening letters. Sumner was not disturbed. He had "lost no sleep." But Stearns was convinced that the Capitol was not then a place of safety for men of pronounced Anti-Slavery views. He made it his business to quietly provide against danger. He called into service the same man he had sent into Virginia — a man well drilled in the border campaigns of Kansas. From September, 1860, to April, 1861, this trusty man drew his pay from Stearns and faithfully carried out his instructions to "guard Sumner in all his goings to and from the Capitol, nor relax in vigilance until the Senator is safely indoors for the night." Of this watchful providence provided by his friend, Sumner never knew.
The war came and Andrew was ready. His troops held the way to the Capitol, and the first danger was passed. With the war came, to use Moncure Conway's phrase, the "golden hour for emancipation." The war power gave the President the opportunity. Stearns was among the first to urge the propriety and the necessity of this step. One other step Stearns quickly saw to be fated — the arming of the emancipated negroes. They must' bear a part in the struggle that had its chief justification in the fact that it would encompass their deliverance. So sure had he been that both of these events were foreordained in the very exigencies of the case, that he had sought the acquaintance of leading colored men in the northern states with a view to prepare the way for the enlistment of the colored troops, when .the hour for their service arrived. It was not long after the proclamation of emancipation that Governor Andrew began to cast about for the formation of a colored regiment. A committee to raise funds was selected, with Stearns as chairman. Several weeks passed. Only some three hundred enlistments had been secured. Early in the war many negroes had volunteered their service and been rejected. Their zeal, notwithstanding emancipation, had not been rekindled. Much depended on the effort, and Andrew could not afford to fail. He sent for Stearns and confessed that he was about discouraged. The interview closed by Stearns asking for and obtaining authority to act upon his own judgment and complete the regiment. A little over two months, and the 54th marched through the streets of Boston, Colonel Shaw commanding. Few people in Massachusetts knew how this colored regiment had sprung into being. At the great meeting in Tremont Temple in honor of the event, Wendell Phillips gave the public the first intimation. "Massachusetts," he cried, "owes this regiment to the energy and unfailing hope of one mm, George L. Stearns." Under date of Miy 2 3, 1863, Phillips writes Stearns as fallows:
"I cannot let this day close without writing to you.- To-day the 54-th passed through our streets to their boat for South Carolina. Every square foot was crowded, like a Fourth of July, and State Street roared with cheers. Isn't that triumph? The regiment, all agree, looked remarkably well. I could not but think of you, an! last Monday I hal the pleasure of linking your name with Andrew's, giving the credit to vour energy, sagacity, and unfailing hope, that we had a 54th mustered in and a 55th filling up. Trem int Temple cheers lustily for the Buffalo King."
Stearns had made his headquarters at Buffalo, from whence he sent his agent into Canada and through the West. To fill the 54th, he sent Andrew six hundred men. He had worked from fourteen to eighteen hours a day. He writes:
"When you reflect that two hundred thousand or two hundred and fifty thousand blacks are scattered among a population of twenty millions you can understand how much more difficult this work is than the recruiting of whites."
To meet his payments, he had borrowed on his own responsibility $10,000.
Andrew, satisfied with the work accomplished, now telegraphed Stearns to return. But Stearns had two hundred men towards the 55th. What should he do?
"Complete the regiment if you can-do so in thirty days."
"Thank God," Stearns responds:
"Your telegram gave me great joy. If we had stopped, the colored race would have been thrown back into their old but reasonable distrust of the whites, and no more regiments could have been raised."
The 55th was reported within the specified time. There now appeared a special order of the war department, assuming control of the service, forbidding states or individuals to raise colored troops. Stearns writes:
"I was obliged to decide w hat should be done with my recruiting organization. I could not well disband a force so perfect in its operation, and at the same time the only sufficient agency in the country for raising colored troops. The order of the secretary decided my course. I at once proceeded to Washington to offer my agency to the government, and then retire as soon as officers appointed by the department should be sufficiently instructed in the detail of its management."
To his surprise Stanton proposed that he should go on with the work. Would he not take charge of the recruiting service for colored troops, North, and South? Stearns had planned a trip to Europe, the health of Mrs. Stearns causing such a course to seem imperative. For a moment he was in doubt. He would consult with his family. Word came without delay that he must forego all else and accept Stanton's proposal. He reported for duty, and was invested with the title of assistant adjutant-general, with rank of major. He had accepted the position on the explicit understanding that the colored men should enter the service on the same terms with white men, " the same pay, the same uniform, arms, and equipment." For his own services he declined remuneration. "No amount of money would compensate me for leaving my home; but I am glad to serve the country in its need."
He was ordered to Philadelphia, where he established Camp William Perm. He had hardly got to work when he heard that the pay of the negro soldiers was likely to be cut down to ten dollars, without clothing. He had a hundred or more men enlisted, and was determined not to go on under the least misapprehension. If he could not keep faith with his soldiers, he resolved not to enlist them. The report turned out to be true, and when he sought an explanation he was roughly told the matter was settled, and if negroes did not like government terms they need not enlist.
It would be interesting to discover just what "considerations of state" entered into the secretary's sudden change of mind. Something was said about the want of adequate funds. It seems to have been taken for granted that there was no constitutional provision for the payment of the colored troops. Stanton undertook to get over the difficulty by regarding their enlistment as a "war measure," and told Stearns their pay would come out of the contingent fund of the war department. Stearns at once discharged the men he had engaged, but was too much in earnest to retire from the work, defeated. Deliberating one night, he took the morning train to Boston. There he at once opened a subscription for recruiting colored soldiers, and soon returned to Washington with a fund of fifty thousand dollars. The astonished secretary may have congratulated him; but he manifested little interest in the matter beyond that. Giving Steams a letter to General Rosecranz, he ordered him to Nashville in the department of the Cumberland. Two months passed without further instructions, save the telegrams that cautioned Stearns to be careful and not quarrel with Governor Andrew Johnson. Weary at length of this reiterated and seemingly unnecessary bit of advice, he gathered up a handful of such despatches and carried them to the State House, to inquire of Johnson what it all meant. The Governor was as much in the dark as Stearns himself, and was greatly amused. Stearns related at Johnson's request what he had been doing in Massachusetts and had attempted in Philadelphia. He had been sent to Nashville, he supposed, on the same business. Johnson gave him the heartiest assurance that he approved his whole course, and volunteered to render him all the aid in his power. He was disposed to place the whole negro population of Tennessee under Stearns's management. Johnson had already discovered that Stearns had not been idle during his few months' residence in Nashville. He had made the acquaintance of the leading colored men of the city, and won their confidence. When he arrived there, he found a cruel system of impressment in force. The colored people, slave or free, found in the streets were seized and put to work on the roads and fortifications without pay, and with no adequate provision for food or shelter. Toiling in the hot sun by day, sleeping on the ground, exposed to the dews, at night, they sickened and died by hundreds. Stearns appealed and remonstrated in vain. Despatches sent to Washington brought no response. He called a mass meeting in one of the negro churches and stated the peril of the situation. The fortifications must be completed, and it was for the interest of the colored people quite as much as anybody's that the work should go on. The success of the Union troops would undoubtedly bring freedom to the slave. This had been a white man's country so far; they could help make it the black man's country as well. If they would volunteer for the work, he would be personally responsible for their food and shelter, and the payment of wages. The next day two hundred and more came to his headquarters, singing the John Brown hymn and cheering for "the man who stopped impressments." They flocked to their hard task with zeal. It must be remembered that Nashville at that time was "the goal of both armies," and its possession of vast importance to the Federal side. Stearns received from Governor Johnson from that time forth the heartiest sympathy and cooperation. Two months later, ten black regiments had been put into the field at the cost of a little more than ten thousand dollars.
In vain, however, were all of Stearns's efforts to persuade the government to deal honestly by the negroes. Returning to Washington to procure, if possible, a more satisfactory arrangement, he received instead a reprimand for not having returned to their masters the fugitive slaves escaping to him from Kentucky.
"It would greatly strengthen us in that state,"
said Stanton. Stearns had learned to expect almost any proposition from the administration, as it was then drifting under the "border state " policy. This last demand, however, overwhelmed him with astonishment. He was now convinced that the time had come for him to resign. But he would put no obstacle in the way of the government. He writes to his wife:
"The administration needs all the support it can get, and must be supported in spite of its shortcomings. It has the reputation of being Anti-Slavery and will be compelled to be so ere long, in fact."
So he surrendered his commission and without betraying the least personal grievance.
From this on to the close of the war, he found abundant opportunity for keeping himself well employed. He felt that the administration was not acting as thoroughly as he was upon the idea that slavery made the war, and freedom must end it. "God has bound up justice to the negro with the end of this war," he exclaimed, "and the sooner the fact is recognized, the sooner the war will be over." In the final issue of the struggle he bated no jot of heart or hope. When the end finally came, it was no secret that the victory of the North was the result of its reinforcement by the liberated negro race. Were it possible to have eliminated from the Union cause the slave's freedom, who doubts that the cause would have been shorn of its chief glory?
Looking back, the impartial mind sees, however, how the northern conscience was weighed down by the sense of plighted faith and obligations to the constitution. It is clear that the feeling remained far into the war that there was this obstacle to any meddling with the peculiar institution of the southern states. This is the secret of Seward's despatch that it was "not the purpose of the government to disturb slavery." The doctrine of the state's right to regulate its domestic affairs in its own way was not easily cancelled even by that state's deadly war upon the federal government. In this spirit Lincoln wrote to Greeley that it was his business to "save the Union with slavery if possible and without it if necessary." But he was careful to add that he in no way surrendered his "desire that all men should be free." In his mind it was simply a question as to what he could officially do. Now this "desire" was without doubt uniform throughout the North. But it was a desire regulated and controlled by a supposed superior obligation to respect the limitations of the Constitution of the United States. Lincoln's avowal was the frank expression of a yet widely spread survival of this American worship of legality. It is not the first or only time when respect for "law and order" has crowded out or driven the moral sentiment to the wall. Lincoln had the reputation of being "shrewd." It seems quite in keeping with his character to suppose that when he said he would save the Union — out of regard for his duty under the Constitution— with slavery if possible, he knew in his heart that he could do nothing of the sort. He could not but have shared the belief of the millions of the North that, despite all constitutional barriers, the gun fired on Sumter would prove to be the South's farewell to slavery. This faith lent energy, and patience as well, to such men as Stearns. And the sublime faith of the black race, held under dire cause for much misgiving until that memorable First of January that proclaimed their "Jubilee," will forever insure for it a consecrated chapter in the history of the great struggle.
The end of desolating war was the beginning of reconstruction — a difficult, not to say bewildering problem. Sumner's plan of territorial government for the southern states, by which the negroes could be guided through a course of initial education up to suffrage, under the supervision of the national government, met with Stearns's approval; and very soon, to advance this idea, The Right Way appeared. This small sheet, filled with earnest discussion of the absorbing topic, found its way into unexpected hospitality. The attorney-general of Texas wrote Governor Andrew, "I have seen a little paper called The Right Way, published in Boston, that presents my idea perfectly. I wish cartloads of it could be sent here for distribution." For two years, upwards of fifty thousand copies of this paper were every week scattered over the country, at an expense of sixty thousand dollars.
Other, if not wiser counsels prevailed. But it is not to be noticed that in the gradual settlement of the question, the negro has been steadily brought to the front in equality of opportunity of education and political privileges.
It was evident to many friends of Mr. Stearns in the winter of 1866, though not to himself, that his health had been undermined. Sharer of ideas
- "Which always find us young,
- And always keep us so,'
he clung to his work with a tenacious spirit. He seemed yet endowed with the heart and courage of youth. The slave question had engrossed and absorbed him, but he does not appear to have thought that with its downfall came the millennial dawn. While yet urging his view of reconstruction, he was also turning his thoughts to a broader horizon.
Chattel slavery swept from sight, he descried the mightier problem that lay just beyond. The labor question in its universal aspect opened before him. His epigramatic declaration, "The capitalist may be as bad as the slaveholder," shows him to have been quite as ready to face the evils conspicuous nearer home, as he had been those far removed. The Anti-Slavery record was not yet complete. But it was only a look that Stearns was permitted to give in this direction. Death closed the windows, and he quickly obeyed another summons.
A word more to call attention to the cheerful, constant faith he preserved in human nature, despite whatever record of inhumanity. He placed himself in harmony with that which keeps the world to its upward and onward purpose. Leave the past; accept the future — work. He was himself a worker, but was no less a seer. Knowing and doing to-day's business, he could also divine the new task of to-morrow. He had no one panacea for the world's redemption. The steps were many and successive. He folded his arms over no achievement. He was never in love with his victories. So well did he know the meaning of the lines:
- "Time makes ancient good uncouth,
- They must up and onward
- Who would keep abreast of truth."
His optimism included his own energy. He felt himself allied to the power that ever returns from whatever seeming defeat or divergence to the one only plan — the improvement of mankind. He lived to help broaden and deepen the channel of the River of Life.
"Stainless Soldier on the wall,
Knowing this, — he knows no more,— Whoever fights, whoever falls,
- Justice conquers evermore,
- Justice after as before, —
- And he who battles on her side,
- God, though he were ten times slain,
- Crowns him victor glorified."
- Sidney H. Morse, “An Anti-Slavery Hero,” The New England Magazine 4, no. 4 (June 1891): 486-496.