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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Defeats Before Victories

Title:     Defeats Before Victories
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

After one of the early defeats in the War of the Rebellion, the commander of a Massachusetts regiment wrote home to his father: "I wish people would not write us so many letters of condolence. Our defeat seemed to trouble them much more than it troubles us. Did people suppose there were to be no ups and downs? We expect to lose plenty of battles, but we have enlisted for the war."

It is just so with every successful reform. While enemies and half-friends are proclaiming its defeats, those who advocate it are rejoicing that they have at last got an army into the field to be defeated. Unless this war is to be an exception to all others, even the fact of having joined battle is a great deal. It is the first step. Defeat first; a good many defeats, if you please: victory by and by.

William Wilberforce, writing to a friend in the year 1817, said, "I continue faithful to the measure of Parliamentary reform brought forward by Mr. Pitt. I am firmly persuaded that at present a prodigious majority of the people of this country are adverse to the measure. In my view, so far from being an objection to the discussion, this is rather a recommendation." In 1832 the reform bill was passed.

In the first Parliamentary debate on the slave trade, Colonel Tarleton, who boasted to have killed more men than any one in England, pointing to Wilberforce and others, said, "The inspiration began on that side of the house;" then turning round, "The revolution has reached to this also, and reached to the height of fanaticism and frenzy." The first vote in the House of Commons, in 1790, after arguments in the affirmative by Wilberforce, Pitt, Fox, and Burke, stood, ayes, 88; noes, 163: majority against the measure, 75. In 1807 the slave trade was abolished, and in 1834 slavery in the British colonies followed; and even on the very night when the latter bill passed, the abolitionists were taunted by Gladstone, the great Demerara slaveholder, with having toiled for forty years and done nothing. The Roman Catholic relief bill, establishing freedom of thought in England, had the same experience. It passed in 1829 by a majority of a hundred and three in the House of Lords, which had nine months before refused by a majority of forty-five to take up the question at all.

The English corn laws went down a quarter of a century ago, after a similar career of failures. In 1840 there were hundreds of thousands in England who thought that to attack the corn laws was to attack the very foundations of society. Lord Melbourne, the prime minister, said in Parliament, that "he had heard of many mad things in his life, but, before God, the idea of repealing the corn laws was the very maddest thing of which he had ever heard." Lord John Russell counselled the House to refuse to hear evidence on the operation of the corn laws. Six years after, in 1846, they were abolished forever.

How Wendell Phillips, in the anti-slavery meetings, used to lash pro-slavery men with such formidable facts as these,--and to quote how Clay and Calhoun and Webster and Everett had pledged themselves that slavery should never be discussed, or had proposed that those who discussed it should be imprisoned,--while, in spite of them all, the great reform was moving on, and the abolitionists were forcing politicians and people to talk, like Sterne's starling, nothing but slavery!

We who were trained in the light of these great agitations have learned their lesson. We expect to march through a series of defeats to victory. The first thing is, as in the anti-slavery movement, so to arouse the public mind as to make this the central question. Given this prominence, and it is enough for this year or for many years to come. Wellington said that there was no such tragedy as a victory, except a defeat. On the other hand, the next best thing to a victory is a defeat, for it shows that the armies are in the field. Without the unsuccessful attempt of to-day, no success to-morrow.

When Mrs. Frances Anne Kemble came to this country, she was amazed to find Americans celebrating the battle of Bunker Hill, which she had always heard claimed as a victory for King George. Such it was doubtless called; but what we celebrated was the fact that the Americans there threw up breastworks, stood their ground, fired away their ammunition,--and were defeated. Thus the reformer, too, looking at his failures, often sees in them such a step forward, that they are the Bunker Hill of a new revolution. Give us plenty of such defeats, and we can afford to wait a score of years for the victories. They will come.

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: Defeats Before Victories