Saturday, October 29, 2016

Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. to John L. Motley, December 15, 1862

December 15, 1862.

. . . Mrs. Holmes, who is a judge, I can tell you (being President of the Industrial Association), tells me that your Mary is a most excellent worker and a most agreeable young lady. “She never stops, she goes right ahead,”' are the precise words of Mrs. President, who always means exactly what she says. Also Mrs. H. tells me that Mary is looking particularly well.

As I am in the vein of saying things that ought to please you, let me say that my heart always swells with pride, and a glitter comes over my eyes, when I read or hear your denunciations of the enemies of liberty at home and abroad, and your noble pleas for the great system of self-government now on its trial in a certain sense — say, rather, now putting our people on trial to Bee whether they are worthy of it. There were many reasons why you might have lost your passion for a republican government. The old civilizations welcome you as an ornament to their highest circles; at home you of course meet in the upper political spheres much that is not to your taste. But you remain an idealist, as all generous natures do and must. I sometimes think it is the only absolute line of division between men — that which separates the men who hug the actual from those who stretch their arms to embrace the possible. I reduce my points of contact with the first class to a minimum. When I meet them I let them talk for the most part, for there is no profit in discussing any living question with men who have no sentiments, and the non-idealists have none. We don't talk music to those who have no ear. Why talk of the great human interests to men who have lost all their moral sensibilities, or who never had any?

You know quite as well as I do that accursed undercurrent of mercantile materialism which is trying all the time to poison the fountains of the national conscience. You know better than I do the contortions of that detested horde of mercenary partizans who would in a moment accept Jeff Davis, the slave-trade, and a Southern garrison in Boston to get back their post-offices and their custom-houses, where the bread they had so long eaten was covered with slime, like that of their brother serpents, before it was swallowed. The mean sympathizers with the traitors are about in the streets in many aspects: you can generally tell the more doubtful ones by the circumstance that they have a great budget of complaints against the government, that their memory is exceedingly retentive of every reverse and misfortune, and that they turn the small end of their opera-glasses toward everything that looks encouraging. I do not think strange of this in old men — they wear their old opinions, like their old clothes, until they are threadbare, and we need them as standards of past thought which we may reckon our progress by, as the ship wants her stationary log to tell her headway. But to meet young men who have breathed this American air without taking the contagious fever of liberty, whose hands lie as cold and flabby in yours as the fin of a fish on the morning of a victory, this is the hardest thing to bear. Oh, if the bullets would only go to the hearts that have no warm human blood in them! But the most generous of our youth are the price that we must pay for the new heaven and the new earth which are to be born of this fiery upheaval. . . .

Let us keep up our courage for our country and ourselves. It is harder for you, I have no doubt, than for me at home, and getting the news two or three times daily. Many things that may sound ill do not worry me long, for I am a man of large faith, and though the devil is a personage of remarkable talents, I think the presiding Wisdom is sure to be too much for him in the end. We are nervous just now and easily put down; but if we are to have a second national birth, it must be purchased by throes and agonies, harder perhaps than we have yet endured. I think of you all very often; do remember me and my wife (who is giving all her time to good deeds) most kindly to your wife and daughters.

Yours always in faith and hope,
O. W. H.

SOURCE: George William Curtis, editor, The Correspondence of John Lothrop Motley in Two Volumes, Library Edition, Volume 2, p. 296-8

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