Views on politics and war

Daily Reading for April 8 • William Augustus Muhlenberg, Priest, 1877

The election of Abraham Lincoln as president of the United States, was an event of great interest to Dr. Muhlenberg, and through some of its issues formed a rather remarkable episode, both in his own life and in that of the Hospital.

He never gave himself to politics, as such. But the cause of the slave had always been sacred with him, though not to taking part in the methods of the early abolitionists. The Dred-Scott decision, and the passing of the Fugitive Slave Law, moved him deeply. He had been used, from time to time, to help over the border one and another poor fugitive who found him out, and of late years had been assisted in this by a noble-minded Sister, who, having inherited a fortune from slave-holding ancestors, delighted in an opportunity of anything like restitution. So when this law passed, commanding all good citizens to aid in the arrest of all such fugitives, he, in company with many others, was disgusted and indignant.

From his youth he entertained a deep-seated abhorrence of slavery. In a sermon preached in Philadelphia in 1820, on the death of two missionaries from African fever, though only twenty-four years old, and long before slavery had become the subject of political agitation, or even of secular discussion, he condemns it on high moral grounds as “an immense national evil,” at the same time glancing at the danger of the element in the event of civil discord. . . .

His journal has the following minutes of the election:

“Tuesday, Nov. 6th, 1860. Went early to vote for Lincoln at Sixty-first Street and Second Avenue, but finding I should have to wait some hours before my turn would come, returned. In the afternoon W—– came for me, and I tried it again. By the favor of the police, I got in by the exit door, the crowd assenting to this in that I was an ‘old man.’ So I did my duty, as I felt and believed it was. I am no party politician, but I am much interested in the success of the Republicans as opposed to slavery. I have not voted for years before, and but seldom in my life.”

“Wednesday, Nov. 7th. Lincoln elected! huzza! I am glad I share in the victory. And why? I have no interest in the Republican success, save that I believe it a triumph of humanity–of principle–over mammon.” . . .

Later, he writes: “This war, this war! How do I feel about it? Alternately with horror, and then with a conviction that it is so righteous, I am glad to have my boys in it. It ought not to cost me nothing. . . . The whole city is wild with a military delirium. I have always been almost a Quaker; but I have fallen into the universal sentiment—that there must be fighting, at least in defence of the government, the Capital must be held. . . . But oh, the demoniacal passions which the war spirit engenders—I falter in the thought. But if ever there was a just war, this is one. For our country, and against the slave power—that curse which proclaims that it means to be perpetual! If the war relieves the country of that, I shall rejoice, should all my boys fall in battle.”

From The Life and Work of William Augustus Muhlenberg, Doctor in Divinity by Anne Ayres (New York: T. Whittaker, 1889).

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