Letter from Gideon Allen to Annie Cox

Gideon Allen. February 10, 1863.

Image of Letter from Gideon Allen to Annie Cox

Gideon Allen, a lawyer from Wisconsin, wrote this letter to his future wife, Annie Cox, in 1863. Sympathetic to the Copperheads, he wrote of the challenges he faced due to his political beliefs and his efforts to avoid the draft.

Note: The passage starts at the bottom of page 3 and continues through page 7. This is not the complete passage, but includes both beginning and end

Well, I have still room for politics. I hope you did not think me exclusive in argument; my intention was to say simply that there were reasons which lay deeper than those on which Republicans ground their faith; and which in my mind had a controlling influence, and turned my convictions all in the opposite directions. I do not deny the right of any one to think independently; nor will I, because he differs from me, call in question the purity of his motives, or the sincerity of his convictions. There is room in this, as in other things, for good and wise men to differ; and I have no desire to be Procrustean in my views of the matter. Indeed it is from this very fact that I derive one of my favorite, and, as I think, most formidable arguments.

There is no absolute universal right, no absolute universal wrong; and for the simple reason that there is no infallible criterion by which to judge of the moral quality of human actions. Right and wrong are, in one sense, mere relative terms, and depend entirely upon education. …. What is right in one age in motive, may be wrong in another; and especially is this true in political matters. Society must be so constituted as to secure the end of its formation, and in order to do this government must keep pace with the progress of civilization. Hence it often happens that governments, once mild, become harsh and oppressive, and no longer suited to the genius of the people. What was right, and even necessary, in the ruder stages of society, become, as civilization advances, absolutely wrong, unjust, and even intolerable. The history of Christendom is in evidence of this fact. In this world, whatever is truly useful, is right; and however much moralists may speculate, it is policy after all which determines all these questions. Our fathers did not ignore this fact, and, if we are not too degenerate, we may reap the fruits of their wisdom. If it was right to form a union, it was right to employ the only means by which that end could be effected. If it is right to preserve that union, is right to employ the only means by which that end can be effected. Our fathers hated slavery; yet for the sake of union they consented to let it remain. We, the Democratic party–and in this I believe I truly rep[ose?]–[sent?] a large majority of that party, hate slavery; yet for the sake of union we are willing to let it remain, and leave the government as our fathers made it. True if we were to confine our ideas exclusively to the slaves, the intent, or even the effect, of a war upon slavery might be good; but we should take a wider view of the matter, and endeavor to comprehend, not merely its effect upon slavery, but upon the nation and the world. It is a false philanthropy which seeks the good of four millions of negroes, at the expense of the peace and happiness of twenty-five millions of white people. We are not in favor of slavery; but we are in favor of the Union. A union without slavery would be desirable; but the founders of our government could not make such a one; they tried but tried in vain. And have we not sufficient evidence that our efforts will be as fruitless as theirs? I would that they might also be as harmless. Disunion we cannot think of. Our only resort then is a union with slavery. “The Union as it was,” is the only safe, practical, ground for loyal men to occupy. ‘But this would involve a compromise with slavery that “some of all human villainies”.’ Yes, and just here I wish to make the application of my argument. If we will lay aside our prejudices, we cannot doubt that there are men who believe slavery right, and who desire its continuance. We think it wrong, and desire its discontinuance. Now, who is to determine this question of right and wrong? If we were directly, and even remotely, responsible for slavery, it might be a question for us to determine. But such is not the case; we are in nowise responsible for its existence; nor have we any right or power to control it. The whole matter was left, by the founders of our government, exclusively to control of the local authorities. It was only by compromise that the general government, after the expiration of twenty years, was given the power to abolish the foreign slave trade; and this, together with the power to provide for the rendition of fugitives, is the only power conferred upon the government to interfere with slavery. These powers it has exercised, and its authority is at an end. What, then, are we to do? Surely you will not claim that one State has a right to interfere with, and regulate, the affairs of another; that would be subversive of all law and all government. But you may still argue, “Have we not a right, as individuals, to argue the question with them and convince them of their error?” Yes, if they are willing; but we have no right to force them to a discussion; free speech and free discussion is a privilege, and, more properly, a right, and not an obligation. And the fact is, they do not wish to discuss the question; they pretend, and doubtless justly, to understand the matter as well as we, and are not obliged to us for our advice. Well what now? simply mind our own business, and let them alone. And I tell you if we had observed this little piece of advice, we should have avoided all our difficulties, and the peace and prosperity of our nation would have been secure. The curse is upon us: if this be treason, I can’t help it, it is truth–. Plainly, then, this question of the right or wrong of slavery, it is not incumbent upon us to determine, at least, for anybody but ourselves. But we could not be easy; we must interfere; and the present deplorable condition of the country, is the legitimate result of our unjust and unlawful interference in a matter, which in nowise pertained to us. If slavery be a sin, they alone are answerable for it. They are answerable to the same God for their sins, to whom we are for ours; and we have no right, in opposition to law and government, to get ourselves up as the keepers and regulators of their consciences. We must learn to be respectful and tolerent [sic] of the opinions of others, if we would enjoy the fruits of wisdom and the blessings of free government.

Metadata Details
Item Type Letter
Title Letter from Gideon Allen to Annie Cox
Short Title Gideon Allen to Annie Cox, 1863
Creator Gideon Allen
Publication Date February 10, 1863
Call Number Midwest MS Allen Box 1, Folder 3
Location Special Collections 4th floor