Aye or Nay

“There are some periods of great conflagration where a whole epoch is lighted up with one great flame of idea, which takes perhaps a few decades to arise, blaze, and fall; during which time it shows all men in its glare. Willy nilly they can be and are seen by this light and by no other. Willy nilly their chief interest for the future lies in their relation to this idea. In spite of themselves they are thrilling, illustrative figures, seen in lurid and logical distortion, — abstracts and epitomes of human life. Nay, they stand forever as creatures that have been caught and held, cracked open, thrown living upon a screen, burned alive perhaps by a searching and terrible bonfire and recorded in the act — as the citizens of Pompeii were recorded by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.”

“It happened that a period of this kind passed over the United States between the years 1830 and 1865. There is nothing to be found in that epoch which does not draw its significance, its interest, its permanent power from the slavery question. There is no man whose life falls within that epoch whose character was not controlled by that question, or whose portrait can be seen by any other light than the light of that fire. Subtract that light and you have darkness; you cannot see the man at all. In the biographies of certain distinguished conservatives of that time you may often observe the softening of the portrait by the omission of unpleasant records, the omission by the biographers of those test judgments and test ordeals with which the times were well supplied. By these omissions the man vanishes from the page of his own book. The page grows suddenly blank. You check yourself and wonder who it was that you were reading about. Now the reason of this disappearance of the leading character from your mind is that the biographer has drawn someone who could not have existed. The man must have answered aye or nay to the question which the times were putting. And, in fact, he did so answer. By this answer he could have been seen. Without it he does not exist.” (John Jay Chapman, William Lloyd Garrison)