George Templeton Strong was a 19th-century New York lawyer deeply involved in the civic fabric of his city, but his lasting impact extends far beyond the legal world. From 1835 to 1875, Strong meticulously recorded his observations and insights in a diary that has since become an irreplaceable chronicle of American life during those turbulent decades. From social norms to seismic shifts in the political landscape, nothing escaped his keen eye. When he wrote the following entry in 1856, Strong was grappling with the complexities and inherent injustices of the slavery system—a topic that would increasingly tear at the fabric of the nation he so carefully observed.
The Diary Entry
Our slavery system says to some three millions of people: You and your descendants are and shall be forever deprived of every privilege, right, and attribute of humanity which can be directly or indirectly reached by our legislation or our social system. Being slaves, you are, of course, not entitled to the fruit or benefits of your own labor. But in addition to that, you and your so-called wives and husbands and your offspring shall be separated by sale, and the disintegrated fragments of your pretended families shall be scattered from Maryland to Texas whenever we or our judgment creditors can make profit thereby. You shall be shut out from all that humanity has gained in past ages and is gaining still of food for the mind and the heart; you shall be denied any aid toward culture and improvement, moral or intellectual. We will imprison any person who shall give you the key to the outer vestibule of the great treasury of knowledge by teaching you to read. However trustworthy and true you may be, whatever trials your integrity may have stood, you shall in no case be believed under oath. Crimes may go unpunished, civil rights may be lost, but you are incapable of testifying to what you have seen and know as to either. Your owner is irresponsible to society for the exercise of his rights over you, and you must submit without redress to any form or amount of cruelty and oppression and wrong his caprice may dictate. Nothing of manhood or womanhood that man can take from man shall be left you. So far as we can effect it, we decree that 3,000,000 of men and women shall be three millions of brutes.
It strikes me that this institution—slavery as it exists at the South with all its “safe-guards” and “necessary legislation”—is the greatest crime on the largest scale known in modern history; taking into account the time it has occupied, the territory it covers, the number of its subjects, and the civilization of the criminals. It is deliberate legislation intended to extinguish and annihilate the moral being of men for profit; systematic murder, not of the physical, but of the moral and intellectual being; blasphemy, not in word, but in systematic action against the Spirit of God which dwells in the souls of men to elevate, purify, and ennoble them. So I feel now; perhaps it’s partly the dominant election furor that colors my notions. Of course, slaveholders are infinitely better than their system. And we have nothing to say about this system where it is established, and we have no right to interfere with it, no responsibility for it. The question for the North is whether we shall help establish it elsewhere, in the “territories” our nation owns.
George Templeton Strong’s original handwritten diaries live at the New York Historical Society, whose archivists have made them available to view online. In the 1950s they were transcribed and published in multiple volumes by Macmillan, edited by Allan Nevins and Milton Halsey Thomas:
- The Diary of George Templeton Strong, Volume I, Young Man in New York, 1835–1849
- The Diary of George Templeton Strong, Volume II, The Turbulent Fifties, 1850–1859
- The Diary of George Templeton Strong, Volume III, The Civil War, 1860–1865
- The Diary of George Templeton Strong, Volume IV, Post-War Years, 1865–1875.
Now out of print and copyright, those books can be read at the Internet Archive.