Sunday, August 21, 2016

Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. to John L. Motley, August 29, 1862

Boston, 21 Charles Street,
August 29, 1862.

My Dear Motley: I don't know how I can employ the evening of my birthday better than by sitting down and beginning a letter to you. I have heard of your receiving my last, and that you meant to reply to it soon. But this was not in the bond, and whether you write or not, I must let you hear from me from time to time. I know what you must endure with a non-conductor of a thousand leagues between you and this great battery, which is sending its thrill through us every night and morning. I know that every different handwriting on an envelop, if it comes from a friend, has its special interest, for it will give an impression in some way differing from that of all others. My own thoughts have been turned aside for a while from those lesser occurrences of the day which would occupy them at other times by a domestic sorrow, which, though coming in the course of nature, and at a period when it must have been very soon inevitable, has yet left sadness in mine and other households. My mother died on the 19th of this month, at the age of ninety-three, keeping her lively sensibilities and sweet intelligence to the last. My brother John had long cared for her in the most tender way, and it almost broke his heart to part with her. She was a daughter to him, she said, and he had fondly thought that love and care could keep her frail life to the filling up of a century or beyond it. It was a pity to look on him in his first grief; but time, the great consoler, is busy with his anodyne, and he is coming back to himself. My mother remembered the Revolution well, and she was scared by the story of the redcoats coming along and killing everybody as they went, she having been carried from Boston to Newburyport. Why should I tell you this? Our hearts lie between two forces — the near ones of home and family, and those that belong to the rest of the universe. A little magnet holds its armature against the dragging of our own planet and all the spheres.

I had hoped that my mother might have lived through this second national convulsion. It was ordered otherwise, and with the present prospects I can hardly lament that she was spared the period of trial that remains. How long that is to be no one can predict with confidence. There is a class of men one meets with who seem to consider it due to their antecedents to make the worst of everything. I suppose —— —— may be one of these. I met him a day or two since, and lost ten minutes in talk with him on the sidewalk — lost them, because I do not wish to talk with any man who looks at this matter empirically as an unlucky accident, which a little prudence might have avoided, and not a theoretical necessity. However, he said to me that the wisest man he knew — somebody whose name I did not know — said to him long ago that this war would outlast him, an old man, and his companion also, very probably. You meet another man, and he begins cursing the government as the most tyrannical one that ever existed. “That is not the question,” I answer. “How much money have you given for this war? How many of your boys have gone to it? How much of your own body and soul have you given to it?” I think Mr. —— —— is the most forlorn of all the Jeremiahs I meet with. Faith, faith is the only thing that keeps a man up in times like these; and those persons who, by temperament or underfeeding of the soul, are in a state of spiritual anemia, are the persons I like least to meet, and try hardest not to talk with.

For myself, I do not profess to have any political wisdom. I read, I listen, I judge to the best of my ability. The best talk I have heard from any of our home politicians was that of Banks, more than a year and a half ago. In a conversation I had with him, he foreshadowed more clearly the plans and prospects and estimated more truly the resources of the South than any one else with whom I had met. But prophets in America and Europe have been at a very heavy discount of late. Count Gasparin seems to me to have the broadest and keenest understanding of the aims and ends of this armed controversy. If we could be sure of no intermeddling, I should have no anxiety except for individuals and for temporary interests. If we have grown unmanly and degenerate in the north wind, I am willing that the sirocco should sweep us off from the soil. If the course of nature must be reversed for us, and the Southern Goths must march to the “beggarly land of ice” to overrun and recolonize us, I have nothing to object. But I have a most solid and robust faith in the sterling manhood of the North, in its endurance, its capacity for a military training, its plasticity for every need, in education, in political equality, in respect for man as man in peaceful development, which is our law, in distinction from aggressive colonization; in human qualities as against bestial and diabolical ones; in the Lord as against the devil. If I never see peace and freedom in this land, I shall have faith that my children will see it. If they do not live long enough to see it, I believe their children will. The revelations we have had from the Old World have shed a new light for us on feudal barbarism. We know now where we are not to look for sympathy. But oh, it would have done your heart good to see the processions of day before yesterday and to-day, the air all aflame with flags, the streets shaking with the tramp of long-stretched lines, and only one feeling showing itself, the passion of the first great uprising, only the full flower of which that was the opening bud.

There is a defense of blubber about the arctic creatures through which the harpoon must be driven before the vital parts are touched. Perhaps the Northern sensibility is protected by some such incasing shield. The harpoon is, I think, at last through the blubber. In the meanwhile I feel no doubt in my own mind that the spirit of hostility to slavery as the cause of this war is speedily and certainly increasing. They were talking in the cars to-day of Fremont's speech at the Tremont Temple last evening. His allusions to slavery — you know what they must have been — were received with an applause which they would never have gained a little while ago. Nay, I think a miscellaneous Boston audience would be more like to cheer any denunciation of slavery now than almost any other sentiment.

SOURCE: George William Curtis, editor, The Correspondence of John Lothrop Motley in Two Volumes, Library Edition, Volume 2, p. 267-71

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