CAMP ON BIG BLACK,
18 miles from Vicksburg,
Aug. 3, 1863
You and I may differ in our premises, but will agree in our conclusions. A government resting immediately on the caprice of a people is too unstable to last. The will of the people is the ultimate appeal, but the Constitution, laws of Congress, and regulations of the executive departments subject to the decisions of the Supreme Court are the laws which all must obey without stopping to inquire why. All must obey. Government, that is, the executive, having no discretion but to execute the law, must be to that extent despotic. If this be our Government, it is the “best on earth” — but if the people of localities can bias and twist the law or execution of it to suit their local prejudices, then our Government is the worst on earth. If you look back only two years, you will see the application. There are about six millions of men in this country all thinking themselves sovereign and qualified to govern. Some thirty-four governors of States who feel like petty kings, and about ten thousand editors who presume to dictate to generals, presidents, and cabinets. I treat all these as nothing, but when a case arises I simply ask: Where is the law? Supposing the pilot of a ship should steer his vessel according to the opinion of every fellow who watched the clouds above or the currents below, where would his ship land? No, the pilot has before him a little needle; he watches that, and he never errs. So if we make that our simple code, the law of the land must and shall be executed; no matter what the consequences, we cannot err. Hundreds and thousands may honestly differ as to what the law should be, but it is rarely the case; but all men of ordinary understanding can tell what the law is. We have for years been drifting towards an unadulterated democracy or demagogism, and its signs were manifest in Mob Laws and Vigilance Committees all over our country. And States and towns and mere squads of men took upon themselves to set aside the Constitution and laws of Congress and substitute therefor their own opinions. I saw it, and tried to resist it in California, but always the General Government yielded to the pressure. I say that our Government, judged by its conduct as a whole, paved the way for rebellion. The South that lived on slavery saw the United States yield to abolition pressure at the North, to pro-slavery pressure at the South, to the miners of California, the rowdies of Baltimore, and to the people everywhere. They paved the way to this rebellion. The people of the South were assured that, so far from resisting an attempt to set up an independent Government of homogeneous interests, the United States would give in and yield. They appealed to precedents, and proved it, and I confess I had seen so much of it that I doubted whether our Government would not yield to the pressure, and die a natural death. But I confess my agreeable surprise. Though full of corruption and base materials, our country is a majestic one, full of natural wealth and good people. They have risen not in full majesty, but enough to give all hopes of vitality. Our progress has been as rapid as any philosopher could ask. The resources of the land in money, in men, in provisions, in forage, and in intelligence, has surprised us all, and we have had as much success as could be hoped for. The Mississippi is now ours, not by commission but by right, by the right of manly power. . . . No great interest in our land has risen superior to Government, and I deem it fortunate that no man has risen to dictate terms to all. Better as it is. Lincoln is but the last of the old school Presidents, the index (mathematically) of one stage of our national existence. . . . Our Government should become a machine, self-regulating, independent of the man. . . .
As to the press of America, it is a shame and a reproach to a civilized people. . . . I begin to feel a high opinion of myself that I am their butt; I shall begin to suspect myself of being in a decline when a compliment appears in type. I know in what estimation I am held by my press, — those who have been with me all the time, — and they are capable to judge, from private to major-generals. I saw a move to bring Grant and myself East. No they don't. . . .
We will be in Mobile in October and Georgia by Christmas if required. . . .
I see much of the people here — men of heretofore high repute. The fall of Vicksburg has had a powerful effect. They are subjugated. I even am amazed at the effect; we are actually feeding the people. . . .
Grant and wife visited me in camp yesterday. I have the handsomest camp I ever saw, and should really be glad to have visitors come down. I don't think a shot will be fired at a boat till Jeff Davis can call his friends about him and agree upon the next campaign. I want recruits and conscripts, and shall be all ready in October.
As ever, your brother,
W. T. SHERMAN.
SOURCE: Rachel Sherman Thorndike, Editor, The Sherman letters: correspondence between General and Senator Sherman from 1837 to 1891, p. 211-3