The Magnificent Activist: The Writings of Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823-1911)by Howard Meyer, Thomas Wentworth Higginson
Thomas Wentworth Higginson is little known today, but during his own lifetime his remarkable activism put him at the very heart of the pivotal social movements reshaping America for the nineteenth century and beyond. Born in Cambridge, he was a fervent abolitionist, running guns to anti-slavery settlers and financing John Brown's raid. During the Civil War,/b>
Thomas Wentworth Higginson is little known today, but during his own lifetime his remarkable activism put him at the very heart of the pivotal social movements reshaping America for the nineteenth century and beyond. Born in Cambridge, he was a fervent abolitionist, running guns to anti-slavery settlers and financing John Brown's raid. During the Civil War, he commanded the first black unit to fight for the Union, and their achievements (publicized in his classic Army Life in a Black Regiment) opened the way for further black enlistment. He also championed women's rights for sixty years, lecturing and agitating for suffrage. His lifelong correspondence with Emily Dickinson led to his editing her verse for publication, which some have called his greatest literary legacy. But in fact that legacy is here, in the essays he wrote about the many causes to which he dedicated his life. With this volume Meyer has guaranteed the rediscovery of a major American figure whose ideas made him a radical in his society but a visionary in ours.
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Not by Bread Alone
There are two kinds of what may be called Thanksgiving.
There is a gratitude which, showing itself in thought and works, as love for the giver of all good things, temporal and things spiritualshows itself whenever occasion is found, in love for man and unfailing service in the unrestrained imparting to others of whatever good is given, in wide philanthropy, in remembering those in bonds as "bound with them," the poor as having them always with us,and this Thanksgiving, whether it show itself in its practical attitude, or its devotional, is especially bestowed and accepted.
There is another kind which is less worthy. Its gratitude is superficial, or at least self-deceptive. Recognizing temporal goods as the beginning and the end of all blessing, the one thing needful in life, it dwells on its happiness in securing them, if it does secure them with such intense vividness that it seems like thankfulness; it calls itself grateful because it is glad, and exults that it is not as other men are. It forgets that Christ said "a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of things which it possesseth," and values itself above others by comparative worldly possessions. It forgets that we are "not to live by bread alone," and by bread alone, that is by the body, its comforts and luxuries, by material acquisitions and triumphs does it live. This kind of Thanksgiving is in fact vainglory, material enslavement of the mind.
Yet it is the ordinary vice of our society ... this avarice, this materialism, this money-getting, this "living by bread alone," is our peculiar sin and must be recognized as such and especially today, because, as I said, it comes so close to our Thanksgiving, as often to counterfeit it, intercept it, and take its place. And this temptation to to fall in with the popular estimate, and sacrifice conscience to comfort, the soul to "bread" is very terribly strong.
It takes many shapes.
It comes to the mechanic in the form of poor work and mind puffing; it comes to the merchant in the form of buying too cheap and selling too dear; it comes to the lawyer and the preacher in the form of supporting bad causes and opposing good ones; it comes finally, to the majority of the community in their political relations, just now in a peculiar form, which, because it is very important and very apparent, I shall take as the illustration of my text. Another presidential election has just passed. The plans I spoke of long since (a year ago, last August, you may remember) as being made to place another slaveholding president at the head of this nominally free republic, have been developed, consummated, carried through, with the consent and approval, nay the enthusiasm, of a majority of you.
If the fact seemed important enough to allude to it then when I was here as an occasional preacher, and had no ties with you, you can hardly think it is strange if I hold it enough so to speak of it now, when the majority of you have defined your position on it, and that position, so widely different (as you know) from mine.... do you not see that by your expressions of delight at at the result of the election, you have voluntarily foregone all the defense you had when you endlessly lamented for the "necessary evil, ..." you have accepted the triumph as your triumph, and rejoiced over it and for that you are now to be held accountable.... you knew that the ultra slave men of the South electioneered for and chose him on this groundbargaining, however, for as many northern votes as they wanted. You knew that he was a man professedly of not the smallest political knowledge, a mere warrior, a mere slaveholder and never could have been nominated or chosen but by this ultra slave influence.
Excerpted from THE MAGNIFICENT ACTIVIST by . Copyright © 2000 by Howard N. Meyer. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meet the Author
Howard N. Meyer is the author of numerous articles on civil rights and peace history. Books he edited include the 1962 and 1984 editions of Higginson's Army Life in a Black Regiment and a biography of Higginson, Colonel of the Black Regiment and a biography of Ulysses S. Grant. His book The Amendment That Refused to Die was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1974. He lives in New York City.
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