The Question of the Hour

James Russell Lowell

(From Atlantic Monthly, VII (1861), pp. 120-21). Taken from Kenneth Stampp, The Causes of the Civil War, pp. 142-43)

We do not underestimate the gravity of the present crisis, and we agree that nothing should be done to exasperate it; but if the people of the Free States have been taught anything by the repeated lessons of bitter experience, it has been that submission is not the seed of conciliation, but of contempt and encroachent . . . It is quite time that it should be understood that freedom is also an institution deserving some attention in a Model Republic, that a decline in stocks is more tolerable and more transient than one in public spirit, and that material prosperity was never known to abide long in a country that had lost its political morality. The fault of the Free States in the eyes of the South is not one that can be atoned for by any yielding of special points here and there. Their offence is that they are free, and that their habits and prepossessions are those of Freedom. Their crime is the census of 1860. Their increase in number, wealth, and power is a standing aggresssion. It would not be enough to please the Southern States that we should stop asking them to abolish slavery, -- what they demand of us is nothing less than that we should abolish the spirit of the age. Our very thoughts are a menace. It is not the North, but the South, that forever agitates the question of Slavery. The seeming prosperity of the cotton-growing States is based on a great mistake and a great wrong; and it is no wonder that they are irritable and scent accusation in the very air. It is the stars in their courses that fight against their system . . .

It is time that the South should learn, if they do not begin to suspect it already, that the difficulty of the Slavery question is slavery itself, -- nothing more, nothing less. It is time that the North should learn that it has nothing left to compromise but the rest of its self-respect. Nothing will satisfy the extremists at the South short of a reduction of the Free States to a mere police for the protection of an institution whose danger increases at an equal pace with its wealth.