America’s Long Journey: “A Firebell in the night”

Jefferson’s views on slavery were much like those that Abraham Lincoln would form half a century later – disapproval, and a hope that it would gradually die out, mixed with a strong belief that Congressional interference in the domestic institution of the slave states would lead to an end to the Union. But Jefferson, in his old age, did not think that geographically containing the “peculiar institution” was practical or wise or just. Writing to a northern congressman on April 22, 1820, a month after passage of the Missouri Compromise, Jefferson produced this prophetic and much-quoted analysis.

“I had for a long time ceased to read newspapers, or pay any attention to public affairs, confident they were in good hands, and content to be a passenger in our bark to the shore from which I am not distant. But this momentous question, like a firebell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed, indeed, for the moment. But this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper. I can say, with conscious truth, that there is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would to relieve us from this heavy reproach, in any practicable way.

“The cession of that kind of property, for so it is misnamed, is a bagatelle which would not cost me a second thought, if, in that way, a general emancipation and expatriation could be effected; and gradually, and with due sacrifices, I think it might be. But as it is, we have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other. Of one thing I am certain, that as the passage of slaves from one state to another would not make a slave of a single human being who would not be so without it, so their diffusion over a greater surface would make them individually happier, and proportionally facilitate the accomplishment of their emancipation, by dividing the burden on a greater number of coadjutors. An abstinence too, from this act of power, would remove the jealousy excited by the undertaking of Congress to regulate the condition of the different descriptions of men composing a state. This certainly is the exclusive right of every state, which nothing in the Constitution has taken from them and given to the general government. Could Congress, for example, say that the non-freemen of Connecticut shall be freemen, or that they shall not emigrate into any other state?

“I regret that I am now to die in the belief that the useless sacrifice of themselves by the generation of 1776, to acquire self-government and happiness to their country, is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and that my only consolation is to be that I live not to weep over it. If they would but dispassionately weigh the blessings they will throw away against an abstract principle more likely to be effected by union than by scission, they would pause before they would perpetrate this act of suicide on themselves, and of treason against the hopes of the world. To yourself, as the faithful advocate of the Union, I tender the offering of my high esteem and respect.”

Sad words, those. Think of having to say, after spending a lifetime in public service for which you did not necessarily have any more enthusiasm than Washington had, that you could see that all you and your remarkable generation had sacrificed to accomplish was doomed to fail. It amounts to saying that he had lost faith in the people’s ability to govern themselves. And what else had the revolution been about?

One thought on “America’s Long Journey: “A Firebell in the night”

  1. Wowwwww. VERY powerful….very applicable even today. I never knew Jefferson felt this way – it was certainly not taught in school. Sad…if it had, it might be a very different, and better, world today.

    Thanks for posting this!

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