"The Argument of the Spelling Book," reprinted from The Independent in The American Freedman, October, 1866, 124-5.



Our duty to the black man has not been an infrequent topic in these columns. Perhaps it will be a relief to our readers if we to-day vary the theme, and while still pursuing the same subject, speak of our duty to ourselves.

Let the question then be, What do we owe to ourselves in regard to this grave question? How, in this respect, shall we, as Yankees, best promote our own interests? How shall we most surely continue our existence as a republic? How most effectively establish our national peace and advance our national prosperity? What is the practical thing which at the present moment we ought to do to accomplish these ends?

Were we speaking of our duty collectively, to be performed through the legislatures, we should say, Let the negro have the ballot. But, as we are speaking of our duty individually, to be performed without any legislative intervention, we say, Give the negro the spelling-book.

If there be one thing plainer than another, it is that, as a republic, general intelligence is the condition of our existence; that popular government supposes popular education; that universal suffrage, without universal enlightenment, would be universal anarchy.

This being so, we ask what are we going to do with the Egyptian darkness that broods over the Southern half of this country; with the stark ignorance which has sat like a nightmare on the energies of the people, and allowed a century of revel to crime and cruelty.

There are in the South four millions of blacks (less than two hundred thousand taught by the freedmen's aid societies) who do not know a letter of the alphabet; and there are perhaps a million of whites who are in a like condition. Such a mass of ignorance can only be continued at the peril of the republic. The query therefore is, not what we owe to the negro, but what do we owe to ourselves in this matter? It is a very serious question, and one which demands a prom;pt and, at the same time, well-considered answer.

Let us seek a reply to this question in a hypothesis: Suppose that these Northern States had been for the last fifty years without a system of popular instruction; without primary schools, ragged schools, mission schools, normal schools, and all the multitudinous schools which constitute our machinery for lifting up the masses; what would be the condition of these States--supposing them to be still in existence--at the present time?

Go down to the Battery, and look at the cargoes of ignorance and squalor--not unmixed with vice--which are there dumped on our shores in weekly ship-loads; and as you look, remember that this process has been going on for half a century. Remember, or, if you are too young to remember, read the current history of the day, and note the confident prophecies which used to be made of our ruin from this very cause. "Let them have our refuse, social and political," said the aristocrats of the old country. "They are a good riddance; and besides, no government can long stand such an influx." "Don't let them come so fast," said some of our own forefathers, including even Benjamin Franklin. "People ignorant of letters, ignorant of our language, unused to self-control, and strangers to our form of government, may, if they come in very large numbers, prove an unmanageable element of society." "Let them come, as many as will," said another and further-seeing class; "the more the better. There is room for all, and need for all. We want them to fell our forests, to make our roads, and dig our canals. Let them come. We will take care that the republic suffers no detriment." And they did so take care; for happily these later counsels prevailed, and encouragement to immigration became the policy of the country. And to this policy are largely due the development of our national resources, and our rapidly acquired strength and power among the nations of the earth. Some inconvenience, it is true, we have suffered from this source; but compared with the advantage, it has been as the small dust in the balance.

Why and how has this been? Simply from the fact that, as these ship-loads have come over--Celts from the bogs of Galway, and Teutons from the valleys of Swabia--we have pitched them, as so much raw material, into the mill of our public schools, and worked them up into good citizens. The adults we employ on our public works and in our fields of agriculture, turning their muscle into material wealth, and meanwhile indoctrinating their minds with the principles and accustoming their hands to the practice of our democratic self-government. their children are sent to school--day-school, Sunday-school, and sometimes the school of correction--and these now help to constitute what we boast of as the Free and Enlightened People of America. Had we done less than this, these successive cargoes of ignorance and vice would have sunk us as a nation below the reach of the plummet.

Now we are confronted with a danger not dissimilar in another part of the Republic. It is at the South this time, and not at the North, that the mass of ignorance threatens to engulf us. What are we going to do about it? It is true that democratic government is very strong. It has proved itself capable of carrying a bigger load than any other form of political rule. But no government can long stand the strain made upon it by five millions of ignorant citizens. For the blacks are now citizens, entitled by law to all the rights and soon to be invested with all the franchises of citizenship. What then are we going to do about it? What can we do, as practical men, but imitate our national strength, assimilate and incorporate it into our national existence? What but accept the methods which have proved so effective toward emigrants from abroad, many of whom have been less intelligent and most of them less friendly, and apply them to the newcomers here at home, who are now waiting on the threshold of our body politic? These are already "naturalized," and need no probationary process to determine their loyalty. While the stalwart adults are plowing our fields and hoeing our corn and cotton, let them in the intervals be taking lessons from that best of "school-marms," Democratic Liberty. No teacher in the world has power like her to "bring on" her pupils. Give her the "stump" and the usual sixty days' canvass, and the work is done, even with the most stolid.

And while we are thus teaching the adults, let the children be sent to school; let schools be placed in the populous centres of every Southern State; let the foundations be laid broad and deep for an effective system of popular education. This can be done, ought to be done, and must be done, and that without delay, if we would save our country from an imminent and deadly peril. How it should be done, and by whom, is a matter which we shall consider at a future time.--The Independent.

 

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