“Great sacrifices have been made by the people; yet, greater still are demanded ere atonement can be made for our national sins. Eternal justice holds heavy mortgages against us and will require the payment of the last farthing. We have involved ourselves in the sin of unrighteous gain, stimulated by luxury and pride and the love of power and oppression; and prosperity and peace can be purchased only by blood and with tears of repentance. We have paid some of the fearful installments, but there are other heavy obligations to be met.
“The great day of the nation's judgment has come, and who shall be able to stand?”— Rev. Henry Highland Garnet, “Let the Monster Perish” (address in the House of Representatives, Feb. 12, 1865), from Lift Every Voice: African American Oratory, 1787-1900, edited by Philip S. Foner and Robert J. Branham (1998)
The circumstances surrounding this address by Rev. Henry Highland Garnet, pastor of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., were extraordinary in and of themselves: Not only had the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in the U.S. just passed less than two weeks before, but now an ex-slave had become the first African-American to address the U.S. House of Representatives.
But I was interested in this speech for additional reasons, all involving Abraham Lincoln. The address to the crowded House chamber was delivered on the President’s 56th birthday; the President himself had asked that Garnet speak, at the behest of the Republican-controlled Congress; and, most of all, I think, the two men shared a belief in the Civil War as atonement for cross-sectional complicity in the sin of slavery.
Consider, for instance, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, given less than a month after Garnet’s fiery sermon. In a prior post, I discussed how this profoundly moving speech directly identified slavery as the cause of the Civil War. But one passage I did not cite—but which certainly harks back to Garnet’s vision of divine repayment for a foul national crime against humanity (and, the preacher said, perhaps even more shockingly to his listeners, slaveholders "fastened upon Christianity a crime and stain at the sight of which it shudders and shrieks”)—came when the President spoke these sorrowful words:
“If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
After Lincoln’s assassination two months later, Mary Todd Lincoln presented to Garnet, as a token of the President’s high regard for him, one of Lincoln’s walking sticks.