The Oberlin Evangelist
February 2, 1859
Difficulties of Oppression
Tyrants are not all-unconscious of the nefariousness of their tyranny. Till in the progress of their iniquity they have seared their consciences as with a hot iron and paralyzed their human sensibilities, they are obliged to encounter the stern remonstrances and pathetic pleadings of their own souls. They are compelled to drug the amiabilities of their nature with potent opiates, and to summon to their aid all their meaner passions, infuriated perhaps by frequent resort to the intoxicating cup. The rage, which explodes upon their opponents, is often the result of the chafing of the remorseful agitations of their own minds ad the artificial infuriation of alcohol. Hence the savage ferocity which broke upon Senator Sumner, and the grim satisfaction of the moral accomplices of the assassin. The excess of fury, which sometimes manifests itself in the concoction, and execution of the worst edicts, is the desperate effort of the guilty tyrants to ease the torments of their own hearts. Seldom in the pursuit and punishment of real criminals is such terrible zeal exhibited as in hounding down and tearing to pieces the virtuous men and even women who dare to oppose themselves to oppression.
We know that murderers, before they proceed to their bloody work, often have to drink deep of the maddening bowl, and criminals of every grade keep their senses in a state of unnatural excitement or stupefaction. The object seems to be not so much to lull the fear of punishment as to stifle the voice of conscience. It is so, too, (is the persuasion unreasonable?) with those in our legislative halls, and elsewhere, who “turn judgment into hemlock.” Not a little of the heard drinking in Congress and in our State Legislatures is traceable to the endeavors found necessary to “screw the courage up to the sticking point.” Thus Fugitive Slave Bills are manufactured and passed, and then for a while they are executed with an insane ferocity, and from President down to Deputy Marshal, an impetuous zeal is displayed to drag a fugitive slave back to bondage and to “crush out” the sympathy felt for him far greater than appears in the administration of all righteous law. The misery that tears the heart-strings of the guilty men who frame and execute wicked laws words fail to tell; and they need deeper sympathy than their innocent victims.
Some of the original tyrants do not come into immediate contact with their victims, and they thus escape some of the most serious embarrassments of oppression. When a fugitive stands before a Loring, all the unextinguished feelings of his soul must mutiny against the task of sending him back to the prison-house. What is there in that nefarious miscalled law, which can appear to him otherwise than abominable? To be the minister of the most monstrous institution that disgraces a selfish would! How can it be otherwise than that he should feel degraded in his own eyes, and stand rebuked and deeply abashed before all of conscience and heart and soul left within him. One might well conclude that the Christian heart of Anthony Burns swelled with pity as he looked upon the man at whose horrible tribunal he stood to receive his doom.
What must be the embarrassments of courts before which men stand arraigned whose only crime is that they hate slavery and love the liberty for which the heroic fathers of the Republic bled and died – that not for themselves alone do they cherish these sentiments, but for every human being! Can a court, not lost to every noble and virtuous sentiment, sit to judge such men as criminals without an agitating embarrassment? It is honorable to a court to feel the embarrassment deeply, and it would be more honorable still to declare that enactments that necessarily array the sentiments of such men against them ought not to be by the courts of justice regarded as laws. When so called law is such that the sympathy of the virtuous must be with the accused, and not the law or its ministers, the courts must be degraded and debased in their own eyes, and cannot without conscious guilt consent to be the ministers of such perversion. The disastrous tendency of such enactments and their execution is to bring all law and government into contempt. When a court sits to administer such enactments, it must feel small in the presence of the arraigned in proportion to its appreciation of righteousness. All the dignity it assumes must be artificial – it must have the most uncomfortable and confounding conviction that its sentence, which punishes the virtuous, condemns itself. When Luther stood before the Diet of Worms and refused to retract his doctrines unless confuted by Scripture, he must have thrown the magnates of the empire into the most perplexing embarrassment. It was very plain that he was a good, conscientious man. To punish such a man they felt would be monstrous. To do it they would have to work themselves into an artificial rage – for how can ordinary, unexcited human nature inflict pains and penalties on innocence or virtue?
Let good men, wrongfully accursed of crime, hold fast the spirit of Christianity, and they cannot fail to heap coals of fire on the heads of their adversaries. The officials of oppression will feel the manacles more than the victims whose wrists they gall. The very felons in jail will bear witness for them, and their oppressors will be ashamed. The modest confidence of virtue will erect their forms and irradiate their countenances, as looking up with serene assurance to God’s throne, they know that, though human tribunals may condemn them, the record on high sustains their cause. A flaming transcript of that record, forever troubles the mental vision of all unrighteousness rulers, and makes their loins shake. But that the triumph of righteousness may be complete in the conscience of every ferocious Caiaphas and weak Pilate, all who suffer for righteousness’ sake must reflect the calm, meek dignity of Him who in the endurance of persecution from vengeful, enraged iniquity and from recreant weakness, as well as in all things else, is our Divine Exemplar. It is only when arraigned wisdom and virtue are free from all associations with folly and wrong that they alone appear accused. Otherwise their unseemly associates appear at least to share in the punishment, and the consciences of the oppressor and his abettor are relieved and virtue suffers loss. But let Right stand up in her sole majesty to be judged by Wrong, eve when Wrong seems to triumph, the apparent victory is defeat – the real triumph is the Right, mocked, scourged, and crucified between two thieves. n.n.