THIRTY YEARS VIEW
1820 TO 1850
Disunion Movements : Southern Press at Washington : Southern Convention at Nashville : Southern Congress Called for by South Carolina and Mississippi.
|WHEN the future historian shall address himself to the task of portraying the rise, progress, and decline of the American Union, the year 1850 will arrest his attention, as denoting and presenting the first marshalling and arraying of those hostile forces and opposing elements which resulted in dissolution ; and the world will have another illustration of the great truth, that forms and modes of government, however correct in theory, are only valuable as they conduce to the great ends of all governmentthe peace, quiet, and conscious security of the governed.|
So wrote a leading South Carolina paper on the first day of January, 1850and not without a knowledge of what it was saying. All that was said was attempted, and the catastrophe alone was wanting to complete the task assigned to the future historian.
The manifesto of the forty-two members from the slave States, issued in 1849, was not a brutum fulmen, nor intended to be so. It was intended for action, and was the commencement of action ; and regular steps for the separation of the slave from the free States immediately began under it. An organ of disunion, entitled The Southern Press, was set up at Washington, established upon a contribution of $30,000 from the signers to the Southern manifesto, and their ardent adherentsits daily occupation to inculcate the advantages of disunion, to promote it by inflaming the South against the North, and to prepare it by organizing a Southern concert of action. Southern cities were to recover their colonial superiority in a state of sectional independence ; the ships of all nations were to crowd their ports to carry off their rich staples, and bring back ample returns ; Great Britain was to be the ally of the new United States South; all the slave States were expected to join, but the new confederacy to begin with the South Atlantic States, or even a part of them ; and military preparation was to be made to maintain by force what a Southern convention should decree. That convention was calledthe same which had been designated in the first manifesto, entitled THE CRISIS, published in the Charleston Mercury in 1835 ; and the same which had been repulsed from Nashville in 1844. Fifteen years of assiduous labor produced what could not be started in 1835, and what had been repulsed in 1844. A disunion convention met at Nashville ! met at the home of Jackson, but after the grave had become his home.
This convention (assuming to represent seven States) took the decisive step, so far as it depended upon itself, towards a separation of the States. It invited the assembling of a Southern Congress? Two States alone responded to that appealSouth Carolina and Mississippi ; and the legislatures of these two passed solemn acts to carry it into effectSouth Carolina absolutely, by electing her quota of representatives to the proposed congress ; Mississippi provisionally, by subjecting her law to the approval of the people. Of course, each State gave a reason, or motive for its action. South Carolina simply asserted the aggressions of the slaveholding States to be the cause, without stating what these aggressions were ; and, in fact, there were none to be stated. For even the repeal of the slave sojournment law in some of them, and the refusal to permit the State prisons to be used for the detention of fugitives from service, or State officers to assist in their arrest, though acts of unfriendly import, and a breach of the comity due to sister States, and inconsistent with the spirit of the constitution, were still acts which the States, as sovereign within their limits upon the subjects to which they refer, had a right to pass. Besides, Congress had readily passed the fugitive slave recovery bill, just as these Southern members wished it ; and left them without complaint against the national legislature on that score. All other matters of complaint which had successively appeared against the free States were goneWilmot Proviso, and all. The act of Mississippi gave two reasons for its action :
First. That the legislation of Congress, at the last session, was controlled by a dominant majority regardless of the constitutional rights of the slaveholding States : and,
Secondly. That the legislation of Congress, such as it was, affords alarming evidence of a settled purpose on the part of said majority to destroy the institution of slavery, not only in the State of Mississippi, but in her sister States and to subvert the sovereign power of that and other slaveholding States.
Waiving the question whether these reasons, if true, would be sufficient to justify this abrupt attempt to break up the Union, an issue of fact can well be taken on their truth : and first, of the dominant majority of the last session, ending September 1850 : that majority, in every instance, was helped out by votes from the slave States, and generally by a majority of them. The admission of California, which was the act of the session most complained of, most resisted, and declared to be a test question, was supported by a majority of the members from the slave States : so that reason falls upon the trial of an issue of fact. The second set of reasons have for their point, an assertion that the majority in Congress have a settled purpose to destroy the institution of slavery in the State of Mississippi, and in the other slave States, and to subvert the sovereignty of all the slave States. It is the duty of history to deal with this assertion, thus solemnly put in a legislative act as a cause for the secession of a State from the Unionand to say, that it was an assertion without evidence, and contrary to the evidence, and contrary to the fact. There was no such settled purpose in the majority of Congress, nor in a minority of Congress, nor in any half-dozen members of Congressif in any one at all. It was a most deplorable assertion of a most alarming design, calculated to mislead and inflame the ignorant, and make them fly to disunion as the refuge against such an appalling catastrophe. But it was not a new declaration. It was part and parcel of the original agitation of slavery commenced in 1835, and continued ever since. To destroy slavery in the States has been the design attributed to the Northern States from that day to this, and is necessary to be kept up in order to keep alive the slavery agitation in the slave States. It has received its constant and authoritative contradiction in the conduct of those States at home, and in the acts of their representatives in Congress, year in and year out ; and continues to receive that contradiction, continually ; but without having the least effect upon its repetition and incessant reiteration. In the mean time there is a fact visible in all the slave States, which shows that, notwithstanding these twenty years repetition of the same assertion, there is no danger to slavery in any slave State. Property is timid ! and slave property above all : and the market is the test of safety and danger to all property. Nobody gives full price for anything that is insecure, either in title or possession. All property, in danger from either cause, sinks in price when brought to that infallible test. Now, how is it with slave property, tried by this unerring standard ? Has it been sinking in price since the year 1835 ? since the year of the first alarm manifesto in South Carolina, and the first of Mr. Calhouns twenty years alarm speeches in the Senate ? On the contrary, the price has been constantly rising the whole timeand is still rising, although it has attained a height incredible to have been predicted twenty years ago.
But, although the slavery alarm does not act on property, yet it acts on the feelings and passions of the people, and excites sectional animosity, hatred for the Union, and desire for separation. The Nashville convention, and the call for the Southern Congress, were natural occasions to call out these feelings ; and most copiously did they flow. Some specimens, taken from the considered language of men in high authority, and speaking advisedly, and for action, will show the temper of the wholethe names withheld, because the design is to show a danger, and not to expose individuals.
In the South Carolina Legislature ; a speaker declared :
We must secede from a Union perverted from its original purpose, and which has now become an engine of oppression to the South. He thought our proper course was for this legislature to proceed directly to the election of delegates to a Southern Congress. He thought we should not await the action of all the Southern States ; but it is prudent for us to await the action of such States as Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Florida ; because these States have requested us to wait. If we can get but one State to unite with us, then we must act. Once being independent, we would have a strong ally in England. But we must prepare for secession.
The friends of the Southern movement in the other States look to the action of South Carolina ; and he would make the issue in a reasonable time, and the only way to do so is by secession. There would be no concert among the Southern States until a blow is struck. And if we are sincere in our determination to resist, we must give the South some guarantee that we are in earnest. He could not concur with the gentleman from Greenville in his expressions of attachment to the Union. He hated and detested the Union, and was in favor of cutting the connection. He avowed himself a disunionista disunionist per se. If he had the power, he would crush this Union to-morrow.
Denied the right or the power of the general government to coerce the State in case of secession. This State is sovereign and independent, so soon as she sees proper to assert that sovereignty. And when can we be stronger than we are now ? If we intend to wait until we become superior to the federal government in numerical strength, we will wait for ever. In the event of an attempt to coerce her, sacrifices might be made, but we are willing and ready to make those sacrifices. But he did not believe one gun would be fired in this contest. South Carolina would achieve a bloodless victory. But, should there be a war, all the nations of Europe would be desirous of preserving their commercial intercourse with the Southern States, and would make the effort to do so. He thought there never would be a union of the South until this State strikes the blow, and makes the issue.
Would not recapitulate the evils which had been perpetrated upon the South. Great as they have been, they are comparatively unimportant, when compared with the evils to which they would inevitably lead. We must not consider what we have borne, but what we must bear hereafter. There is no remedy for these evils in the government ; we have no alternative left us, then, but to come out of the government.
He was opposed to calling a convention, because he thought it would impede the action of this State on the questions now before the country. He thought it would impede our progress towards disunion. All his objections to a convention of the people applied only to the proposition to call it now. He thought conventions dangerous things, except when the necessities of the country absolutely demand them. He said that he had adopted the course he had taken on these weighty matters simply and entirely with the view of hastening the dissolution of this Union.
Would sustain the bill for electing delegates to a Southern Congress, because he thought it would bring about a more speedy dissolution of the Union.
In the Nashville convention a delegate said :
I shall enumerate no more of the wrongs that we have suffered, or the dangers with which we are threatened. If these, so enormous and so atrocious, are not sufficient to arouse the Southern mind, our case is desperate. But, supposing that we shall be roused, and that we shall act like freemen, and, knowing our rights and our wrongs, shall be prepared to sustain the one and redress the other, what is the remedy ? I answer secessionunited secession of the slaveholding States, or a large number of them. Nothing else will be wisenothing else will be practicable. The Rubicon is passed. The Union is already dissolved. Instead of wishing the perpetuity of any government over such vast boundaries, the rational lover of liberty should wish for its speedy dissolution, as dangerous to all just and free rule. Is not all this exemplified in our own case ? In nine months, in one session of Congress, by a great coup detat, our constitution has been completely and for ever subverted. Instead of a well balanced government, all power is vested in one section of the country, which is in bitter hostility with the other. And this is the glorious Union which we are to support, for whose eternal duration we are to pray, and before which the once proud Southron is to bow down. He ought to perish rather.
They have not, however, been satisfied with taking all (the territory). They have made that all a wicked instrument for the abolition of the constitution, and of every safeguard of our property and our lives. I have said they have made the appropriation of this territory an instrument to abolish the constitution. There is no doubt that they have abolished the constitution. The carcass may remain, but the spirit has left it. It is now a fetid mass, generating disease and death. It stinks in our nostrils.
A constitution means ex vi termini, a guarantee of the rights, liberty, and security of a free people, and can never survive in the shape of dead formalities. It is a thing of life, and just and fair proportions ; not the caput mortuum which the so-called Constitution of the United States has now become. Is there a Southern man who bears a soul within his ribs, who will consent to be governed by this vulgar tyranny, &c.
From public addresses :
Under the operation of causes beyond the scan of man, we are rapidly approaching a great and important crisis in our history. The shadow of the sun has gone back upon the dial of American liberty, and we are rapidly hastening towards the troubled sea of revolution. A dissolution of the Union is our inevitable destiny, and it is idle for man to raise his puny arm to stem the tide of events, &c.
We must form a separate government. The slaveholding States must all yet see that their only salvation consists in uniting, and that promptly too, in organizing a Southern confederacy. Should we be wise enough thus to unite, all California, with her exhaustless treasures, would be ours ; all New Mexico also, and the sun would never shine upon a country so rich, so great and so powerful, as would be our Southern republic.
By our physical power, said one of the foremost of those leaders, in a late speech to his constituents, we can protect ourselves against foreign nations, whilst by our productions we can command their peace or support. The keys of their wealth and commerce are in our hands, which we will freely offer to them by a system of free trade, making our prosperity their interestour security their care. The lingering or decaying cities of the South, which before our Revolution carried on all their foreign commerce, buoyant with prosperity and wealth, but which now are only provincial towns, sluggish suburbs of Boston and New York, will rise up to their natural destiny, and again enfold in their embraces the richest commerce of the world. Wealth, honor, and power, and one of the most glorious destinies which ever crowned a great and happy people, awaits the South, if she but control her own fate ; but, controlled by another people, what pen shall paint the infamous and bloody catastrophe which must mark her fall ?
From fourth of July toasts :
The Union : A splendid failure of the first modern attempt, by people of different institutions, to live under the same government.
The Union : For it we have endured much ; for it we have sacrificed much. Let us beware lest we endure too much ; lest we sacrifice too much.
Disunion rather than degradation.
South Carolina : She struck for the Union when it was a blessing ; when it becomes a curse, she will strike for herself.
The Compromise : The best the South can get. A cowardly banner held out by the spoilsman that would sell his country for a mess of pottage.
The American Eagle : In the event of a dissolution of the Union, the South claims as her portion, the heart of the noble bird ; to the Yankees we leave the feathers and carcass.
The South : Fortified by right, she considers neither threats nor consequences.
The Union : Once a holy alliance, now an accursed bond.
Among the multitude of publications most numerous in South Carolina and Mississippi, but also appearing in other slave States, all advocating disunion, there were some (like Mr. Calhouns letter to the Alabama member which feared the chance might be lost which the Wilmot Proviso furnished) also that feared agitation would stop in Congress, and deprive the Southern politicians of the means of uniting the slave States in a separate confederacy. Of this class of publications here is one from a leading paper :
The object of South Carolina is undoubtedly to dissolve this Union, and form a confederacy of slaveholding States. Should it be impossible to form this confederacy, then her purpose is, we believe conscientiously, to disconnect herself from the Union, and set up for an independent Power. Will delay bring to our assistance the slaveholding States ? If the slavery agitation, its tendencies and objects, were of recent origin, and not fully disclosed to the people of the South, delay might unite us in concerted action. We have no indication that Congress will soon pass obnoxious measures, restricting or crippling directly the institution of slavery. Every indication makes us fear that a pause in fanaticism is about to follow, to allow the government time to consolidate her late acquisitions and usurpations of power. Then the storm will be again let loose to gather its fury, and burst upon our heads. We have no hopes that the agitation in Congress, this or next year, will bring about the union of the South.
Enough to show the spirit that prevailed, and the extraordinary and unjustifiable means used by the leaders to mislead and exasperate the people. The great effort was to get a Southern Congress to assemble, according to the call of the Nashville convention. The assembling of that Congress was a turning point in the progress of disunion. It failed. At the head of the States which had the merit of stopping it, was Georgiathe greatest of the South-eastern Atlantic States. At the head of the presses which did most for the Union, was the National Intelligencer at Washington City, long edited by Messrs. Gales & Seaton, and now as earnest against Southern disunion in 1850 as they were against the Hartford convention disunion of 1814. The Nashville convention, the Southern Congress, and the Southern Press established at Washington, were the sequence and interpretation (so far as its disunion-design needed interpretation), of the Southern address drawn by Mr. Calhoun. His last speech, so far as it might need interpretation, received it soon after his death in a posthumous publication of his political writings, abounding with passages to show that the Union was a mistakethe Southern States ought not to have entered into it, and should not now re-enter it, if out of it, and that its continuance was impossible as things stood : Thus :
All this has brought about a state of things hostile to the continuance of this Union, and the duration of the government. Alienation is succeeding to attachment, and hostile feelings to alienation ; and these, in turn, will be followed by revolution, or a disruption of the Union, unless timely prevented. But this cannot be done by restoring the government to its federal characterhowever necessary that may be as a first step. What has been done cannot be un-done. The equilibrium between the two sections has been permanently destroyed by the measures above stated. The Northern section, in consequence, will ever concentrate within itself the two majorities of which the government is composed ; and should the Southern be excluded from all the territories, now acquired, or to be hereafter acquired, it will soon have so decided a preponderance in the government and the Union, as to be able to mould the constitution to its pleasure. Against this the restoration of the federal character of the government can furnish no remedy. So long as it continues there can be no safety for the weaker section. It places in the hands of the stronger and the hostile section, the power to crush her and her institutions ; and leaves no alternative but to resist, or sink down into a colonial condition. This must be the consequence, if some effectual and appropriate remedy is not applied.
The nature of the disease is such, that nothing can reach it, short of some organic changea change which will so modify the constitution as to give to the weaker section, in some one form or another, a negative on the action of the government. Nothing short of this can protect the weaker, and restore harmony and tranquillity to the Union by arresting effectually the tendency of the dominant section to oppress the weaker. When the constitution was formed, the impression was strong that the tendency to conflict would be between the larger and smaller States ; and effectual provisions were accordingly made to guard against it. But experience has proved this to be a mistake ; and that instead of being as was then supposed, the conflict is between the two great sections which are so strongly distinguished by their institutions, geographical character, productions and pursuits. Had this been then as clearly perceived as it now is, the same jealousy which so vigilantly watched and guarded against the danger of the larger States oppressing the smaller, would have taken equal precaution to guard against the same danger between the two sections. It is for us, who see and feel it, to do, what the framers of the constitution would have done, had they possessed the knowledge, in this respect, which experience has given to us ; that is, to provide against the dangers which the system has practically developed ; and which, had they been foreseen at the time, and left without guard, would undoubtedly have prevented the States forming the Southern section of the confederacy, from ever agreeing to the constitution ; and which, under like circumstances, were they now out of, would for ever prevent them entering into the Union. How the constitution could best be modified, so as to effect the object, can only be authoritatively determined by the amending power. It may be done in various ways. Among others, it might be effected through a re-organization of the Executive Department ; so that its powers, instead of being vested, as they now are, in a single officer, should be vested in two, to be so elected, as that the two should be constituted the special organs and representatives of the respective sections in the Executive Department of the government ; and requiring each to approve of all the acts of Congress before they become laws. One might be charged with the administration of matters connected with the foreign relations of the country ; and the other, of such as were connected with its domestic institutions : the selection to be decided by lot. Indeed it may be doubted, whether the framers of the constitution did not commit a great mistake, in constituting a single, instead of a plural executive. Nay, it may even be doubted whether a single magistrate, invested with all the powers properly appertaining to the Executive Department of the government, as is the President, is compatible with the permanence of a popular government ; especially in a wealthy and populous community, with a large revenue, and a numerous body of officers and employees. Certain it is, that there is no instance of a popular government so constituted which has long endured. Even ours, thus far, furnishes no evidence in its favor, and not a little against it : for, to it the present disturbed and dangerous state of things, which threaten the country with monarchy or disunion, may be justly attributed.
The observing reader, who may have looked over the two volumes of this View, in noting the progress of the slavery agitation ; and its successive alleged causes for disunion, must have been struck with the celerity with which these causes, each in its turn, as soon as removed, has been succeeded by another, of a different kind ; until, at last, they terminate in a cause which ignores them all, and find a new reason for disunion in the constitution itself ! in that constitution, the protection of which had been invoked as sufficient, during the whole period of the alleged aggressions and encroachments. In 1835, when the first agitation manifesto and call for a Southern convention, and invocation to unity and concert of action, came forth in the Charleston Mercury, entitled The Crisis, the cause of disunion was then in the abolition societies established in some of the free States, and which these States were required to suppress. Then came the abolition petitions presented in Congress ; then the mail transmission of incendiary publications ; then the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia ; then the abolition of the slave trade between the States ; then the exclusion of slavery from Oregon ; then the Wilmot Proviso ; then the admission of California with a free constitution. Each of these, in its day, was a cause of disunion, to be effected through the instrumentality of a Southern convention, forming a sub-confederacy, in flagrant violation of the constitution, and effecting the disunion by establishing a commercial non-intercourse with the free States. After twenty years agitation upon these points, they are all given up. The constitution, and the Union, were found to be a mistake from the beginning an error in their origin, and an impossibility in their future existence, and to be amended into another impossibility, or broken up at once.
The regular inauguration of this slavery agitation dates from the year 1835 ; but it had commenced two years before, and in this way : nullification and disunion had commenced in 1830 upon complaint against protective tariff. That being put down in 1833 under President Jacksons proclamation and energetic measures, was immediately substituted by the slavery agitation. Mr. Calhoun, when he went home from Congress in the spring of that year, told his friends, That the South could never be united against the North on the tariff questionthat the sugar interest of Louisiana would keep her outand that the basis of Southern union must be shifted to the slave question. Then all the papers in his interest, and especially the one at Washington, published by Mr. Duff Green ; dropped tariff agitation, and commenced upon slavery ; and, in two years, had the agitation ripe for inauguration on the slavery question. And, in tracing this agitation to its present stage, and to comprehend its rationale, it is not to be forgotten that it is a mere continuation of old tariff disunion ; and preferred because more available.
In June, 1833, at the first transfer of Southern agitation from tariff to slavery ; Mr. Madison wrote to Mr. Clay :
It is painful to see the unceasing efforts to alarm the South, by imputations against the North of unconstitutional designs on the subject of slavery. You are right, I have no doubt, in believing that no such intermeddling disposition exists in the body of our Northern brethren. Their good faith is sufficiently guaranteed by the interest they have as merchants, as ship-owners, and as manufacturers in preserving a union with the slaveholding States. On the other hand, what madness in the South to look for greater safety in disunion. It would be worse than jumping into the fire for fear of the frying-pan. The danger from the alarms is, that pride and resentment excited by them may be an overmatch for the dictates of prudence ; and favor the project of a Southern convention, insidiously revived, as promising by its counsels the best security against grievances of every kind from the North.
Nullification, secession, and disunion were considered by Mr. Madison as synonymous terms, dangerous to the Union as fire to powder, and the danger increasing in all the Southern States, even Virginia. Look at Virginia herself, and read in the Gazettes, and in the proceedings of popular meetings, the figure which the anarchical principle now makes, in contrast with the scouting reception given to it but a short time ago. Mr. Madison solaced himself with the belief that this heresy would not reach a majority of the States ; but he had his misgivings, and wrote them down in the same paper, entitled, Memorandum on nullification, written in his last days and published after his death. But a susceptibility of the contagion in the Southern States is visible, and the danger not to be concealed, that the sympathy arising from known causes, and the inculcated impression of a permanent incompatibility of interests between the North and the South, may put it in the power of popular leaders, aspiring to the highest stations, to unite the South on some critical occasion, in a course that will end in creating a theatre of great though inferior extent. In pursuing this course, the first and most obvious step is nullificationthe next, secessionand the last, a farewell separation. How near has this course been lately exemplified ! and the danger of its recurrence, in the same or some other quarter, may be increased by an increase of restless aspirants, and by the increasing impracticability of retaining in the Union a large and cemented section against its will.So wrote Mr. Madison in the year 1836, in the 86th year of his age, and the last of his life. He wrote with the pen of inspiration, and the heart of a patriot, and with a soul which filled the Union, and could not be imprisoned in one half of it. He was a Southern man ! but his Southern home could not blind his mental vision to the origin, design, and consequences of the slavery agitation. He gives to that agitation, a Southern originto that design, a disunion endto that end, disastrous consequences both to the South and the North.
Mr. Calhoun is dead. Peace to his manes. But he has left his disciples who do not admit of peace ! who rush, in where their master feared to tread. He recoiled from the disturbance of the Missouri compromise : they expunge it. He shuddered at the thought of bloodshed in civil strife : they demand three millions of dollars to prepare arms for civil war.
I HAVE finished the View which I proposed to take of the Thirty Years working of the federal government during the time that I was a part of ita task undertaken for a useful purpose, and faithfully executed, whether the object of the undertaking has been attained or not. The preservation of what good and wise men gave us, has been the object ; and for that purpose it has been a duty of necessity to show the evil, as well as the good, that I have seen, both of men and measures. The good, I have exultingly exhibited ! happy to show it, for the admiration and imitation of posterity : the evil, I have stintedly exposed, only for correction, and for the warning example.
I have seen the capacity of the people for self-government tried at many points, and always found equal to the demands of the occasion. Two other trials, now going on, remain to be decided to settle the question of that capacity. 1. The election of President ! and whether that election is to be governed by the virtue and intelligence of the people, or to become the spoil of intrigue and corruption ? 2. The sentiment of political nationality ! and whether it is to remain co-extensive with the Union, leading to harmony and fraternity ; or, divide into sectionalism, ending in hate, alienation, separation and civil war ?
An irresponsible body (chiefly self-constituted, and mainly dominated by professional office-seekers and office-holders) have usurped the election of President (for the nomination is the election, so far as the party is concerned) ; and always making it with a view to their own profit in the monopoly of office and plunder.
A sectional question now divides the Union ; arraying one-half against the other, becoming more exasperated dailywhich already destroyed the benefits of the Union, and which, unless checked, will also destroy its form.
Confederate republics are short-livedthe shortest in the whole family of governments. Two diseases beset themcorrupt election of the chief magistrate, when elective ; sectional contention, when interest or ambition are at issue. Our confederacy is now laboring under both diseases : and the body of the people, now as always, remain unconscious of the dangerand even become instruments in the hands of their destroyers.
If what is written in these chapters shall contribute to open their eyes to these dangers, and rouse them to the resumption of their electoral privileges and the suppression of sectional contention, then this View will not have been written in vain. If not, the writer will still have one consolationthe knowledge of the fact that he has labored in his day and generation, to preserve and perpetuate the blessings of that Union and self-government which wise and good men gave us.