The Way to Assure an Enduring Peace Not Through Perfidy and Vengeance, but through Justice and Love by Gerrit Smith.


In this speech at New York’s Cooper Institute after the end of the Civil War, abolitionist Gerrit Smith, former United States Representative from New York, argues that the rebels from the South should be dealt with according to the rules of international and civil war and not as traitors to be put to death. Smith encourages compassion in justice for men who, he claims, must have been sure of the rightfulness of their endeavors.

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[1] All over the North, there is a clamor for the blood of the leading rebels, whom we hope yet to capture. I have no sympathy with this clamor. The South fully surrendering, let bloodshed cease, and all punishment.

Let all merritted and punishment fall upon those who are guilty of these infamous and infernal crimes. My position is simply that South shall not be punished for treason. Now I do not say this because she has suffered in my judgment Enough already; because her property is wasted, and she is reduced to destitution. I do not say this because the safety of the North requires no more suffering because there is not an interest of the North to be made any more secure by any more suffering of the South. I do not say it because the South has not been guilty of treason.

But I say she is not to be punished for treason because we have agreed that she shall not be. We came into the agreement very reluctantly, I admit, to conduct this war according to the rules of war. By which I mean, the rules of international warfare.

Now I hold that our coming into that agreement was a waiver and entire surrender of our right to punish the south for seceding. That we came into this agreement to conduct the war according to the rules of war is manifest, is indisputable – that we followed other nations, and accorded the South belligerent rights. The Supreme Court of our nation unanimously acknowledge these rights of the South. We have acted upon this agreement, and instead of punishing the prisoners, trying, condemning and convicting them for treason, we have treated them as prisoners for those the enemy has taken from us and there have been truces between the enemy and ourselves for the burial of the dead and other purposes. There have been formal as well as informal negotiations for peace between the North and South.

Why on one occasion we recognized her de facto nationality and all its outgrowing rights by choosing for our commissioners of peace the President himself, and the Secretary of State himself; and these gentlemen did not wait to have the southern commissioners come to them humbly and smugly, but they honored the commissioners of the South by going more than halfway to meet them. Now, all this, and much more than this, including especially our blockading of the Southern ports, goes to show beyond all controversy that we agreed with the enemy to conduct this war according to the laws of war. But such an agreement is virtually an agreement to treat prisoners as enemies. Now how came we to consent to conduct this war according to the laws of war? In the first place, we came to do so because the laws of war required it.

Another reason why such a war, a civil war, and especially such as one of ours, should be carried out under the law of war is this; Where great masses of men take very momentous and responsible steps, it is not only charitable, but just to conclude that they had a very sincere and deep belief in the wisdom and the rightfullness of such steps. And it is proper also to believe that they had in fact no little reason for taking such steps. A third reason for conducting a civil war according to the law of war is this. Vast numbers of the best citizens who refused and would persist in refusing to go into a war which is a mere savage strife, are willing to embark in a war conducted according to the liberal and humane provisions of the law of war. Now I do not know how it is with you, but I feel confident that had our government persisted in refusing to let this war go on by the law of war, we should have lost our cause and our country, for the people of the Northern states are too civilized to go into a black flag war, a war whose motto is “no quarter.” On the other hand, the lower degree of civilization among the masses of the South, would have made them far less reluctant to embark in such a war, and they would have been triumphant in time. Here, then, we see in the second place, we had to carry this war on according to the laws of war in order to save our cause in our country.

The defeated have suffered enough, and the reason why a civil war should be conducted to the rules of war is this: Where such great numbers of men carry on a war, we may well believe that there has been suffering enough in it, especially to the defeated party, without adding additional punishment at the close of the war for treason. At the close of such a war the voice of compassion exclaims “Shall the sword devour forever? Put up thy sword.” At the close of such a war God speaks to the destroying Angel as he spoke to him in behalf of the dismayed and the trembling Jews: “It is enough, stay now thine hand.”

A word here, my friends, though it may be strange word to you. Proclamation of amnesty are in place in a revolt, in a rebellion; but proclamations of amnesty are not in place in an international war or a civil war. The proclamation of amnesty in a civil or international war is an unwarranted and offensive assumption. I know it may be very modest for me to be guilty of this singularity of hearing myself against such high authorities. But I am not alone, the truth is on my side. This order number 100, and this proclamation of amnesty, are both ex parte papers, and can have no effect whatever to amend or modify in any degree the agreement entered into between the two parties.

Least of all can they have this effect so long as we are continuing to act upon the agreement, and so long as neither party gives to the other notice of its discontinuance. Now, remember, it takes two to break, as well as to make a bargain and this bargain cannot be broken at the will of one of the parties. The current plea that this war is now coming to an end leaves the victor at liberty to punish the finally vanquished is entirely invalid, for the war has not come to an end. The war cannot be at an end so long as there are prisoners to try. The peace which follows civiil [sic] and international wars implies the entire surrender of prisoners on both sides and if either of the parties persist in holding prisoners, it persists in keeping the war open. In a revolt or a rebellion the prisoners are lawfully to be tried as traitors, but the South has been acknowledged as a party to a civil war.

In the case of the rebellion in Ireland, some 16 or 17 years ago, that rebellion not reaching the dimensions or character of a civil war, the British government had the legal right – I do not say one word about the moral right – to punish the insurgents. It is gratifying to me to know that the government had yielded so far to the progressive civilization of the age as to punish only seven of the insurgents, and not one of them with death. Had a considerable part of the people of the British islands risen up against the government party, say one-half, one-third, or one-fourth, then if the governmental party had come out the final victors, it would have had no right to punish any of the finally vanquished according to the interpretations of the law of war by her own publicist. But surely it does not become freedom-loving America to say that the finally vanquished in a civil war may be held amenable to the law of treason! Would you have had our Washington and our Franklin, and their noble associates punished for treason, if the Revolution had failed? Moreover, there be not probability many civil wars over the earth, which are not started in the interests of freedom. No what if America should set the precedent of having the vanquished in this country tried and executed as traitors? Crowned heads succeed now and then in suppressing the parties of freedom; is it for America to put it in the power of these crowned heads to plead her example in behalf of the executions of the leaders?




New York City, New York


Cooper Institute


[1] Transcription from The North Branch Democrat.  Vol. 4, No. 45. Tunkhannock, PA. 21 June, 1865. The speech would have been delivered at the Cooper Institute on June 15, 1865. 

Gerrit Smith (1797-1874) was an abolitionist, philanthropist, and former United States House Representative from New York, Free Soil Party. Smith also funded John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry prior to the start of the Civil War and was close friends with Frederick Douglass. 

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