1840-1860 Chapter VII THE CRISIS
The repeal of the Missouri Compromise was politically a remarkable epoch. It not only consolidated old anti-slavery men, but cooled, to say the least, many "silvergray," or conservative Whigs, as well as many "hards" and "hunkers" among the Democrats. But the slavocrats were blind to the risk they were running, and grew bolder than ever. There were now propositions for renewing the foreign slave-trade. Worse black laws were enacted. There was increased ferocity toward all who did not pronounce slavery a blessing, prouder domineering in politics, especially in Congress, and perpetual threat of secession in case the slave power should fail to have its way.
William Henry Harrison
From a Copy at the Corcoran Art Gallery of a painting by Beard in 1840.
There were also plans for foreign conquest in slavery's behalf, which received countenance from public and even from national authorities. The idea seemed to be that the victory and territorial enlargement consequent upon the Mexican War might be repeated in Central America and Cuba. The efforts of Lopez in 1850 and 1851 to conquer Cuba with aid from the United States had indeed been brought to an end through this adventurer's execution in the latter year by the Cuban authorities. Pierce put forth a proclamation in 1854, warning American citizens against like attempts in future. Defying this, the next year William Walker headed a filibustering expedition to the Pacific coast of Nicaragua, conquering the capital of that state and setting up a government which proceeded to re-establish slavery and invite immigration from the United States. Driven out by a coalition of other Central American states against him, Walker at once organized a new raid, and landed at Punta Arenas, Nicaragua, November 25, 1857; but he was seized by Commodore Paulding of our navy and brought to New York.
He made a similar effort the next year, and another in 1860, when he captured Truxillo in Honduras, only to be soon overwhelmed, tried and shot.
If the Government at Washington was not openly implicated in any of these movements, no more, surely, did it heartily deprecate them. Fillmore's administration had in 1852 declined to enter into an alliance with Great Britain and France disclaiming intention to secure Cuba. In 1854, inspired by Pierce, our ministers at London, Paris, and Madrid, met at Ostend and put forth the "Ostend Manifesto." The tenor of this was that Spain would be better off without Cuba and we with it, and further, that, if Spain refused to sell, the United States ought as a means of self-preservation to take that island by force, lest it should become a second San Domingo. This proposition, like everything else relating to the great Repeal, was under umbrage in 1856; but in 1858 the southern Democrats in Congress brought in a bill to purchase Cuba for $30,000,000, and the democratic platform of 1860 spoke for the acquisition thereof at the earliest practicable moment, by all "honorable and just means."
Thus an institution, barbarous, anti-democratic, sectional, an unmitigated curse even to its section, not so much as named in the Constitution, beginning with apology from all, by the zeal and unscrupulousness of advocates, the consolidation of political power at the South, and apathy, sycophancy, divided counsels, and commercial greed in the North, gradually amassed might, till, at the middle of Mr. Buchanan's term, every branch of the national Government was its tool, the Supreme Court included, enabling it authoritatively to mis-read the Constitution, declare the Union a pro-slavery compact, and act accordingly. But justice would not be mocked, and, though advancing upon halting foot, dealt the death-blow like lightning at last.
We have seen the feeble efforts of the old Liberty Party to make head against slavery, Birney and Earle being its candidates in 1840, Birney and Morris in 1844. In 1848 these "conscience Free-soilers" were re-enforced by what have been called the "political Free-soilers" of the State of New York, led by ex-President Van Buren. This astute organizer, aware that his defeat in the democratic convention of 1844 had resulted from southern and pro-slavery influences, led a bolt in the New York Democracy. His partisans in this were known as the "Barn-burners," while the administration Democrats were called the "Hunkers." In the democratic convention of 1848 at Baltimore appeared representatives of both factions, and both sets were admitted, each with half the state vote. This satisfied neither side. The Barn-burners called a convention at Utica in June, and put Van Buren in nomination for the presidency.
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The Liberty Party men had the preceding year nominated Hale for this office, but now, seeing their opportunity, they called a new convention at Buffalo for August 9, 1848, to which all Free-soilers were invited; and this convention made Van Buren and Charles Francis Adams its candidates for President and Vice-President. The platform declared against any further extension of slavery. The party was henceforth known as the "Free-soilers," the name coming from its insistence that the territory conquered from Mexico should forever remain free. Its platform denounced slavery as a sin against God and a crime against man, and repudiated the compromise of 1850. It also laid special emphasis upon the wickedness of the new fugitive slave law, of which it demanded the repeal. By 1852 the regular Democracy in New York had won back a large proportion of the Barn-burners or free-soil revolters, so that the free-soil prospect in this year was not encouraging. Only 146,149 free-soil votes were polled in all the northern states.
What quickened this drooping movement into new and triumphant life was the revocation of the Missouri Compromise. This rallied to the free-soil standard nearly all the northern Whigs, many old Barn-burners who since 1848 had returned to the democratic fold, and vast numbers of other anti-Lecompton Democrats. Most of the Know-nothings throughout the North also joined it, while of course it had in all its anti-slavery measures the hearty co-operation, directly political or other, of the Abolitionists. The first national convention of this new party, fortunately styling itself "Republican," was in 1856. Whig doctrine early appeared in the party by the demand for protection, internal improvements, and a national banking system; in fact, Republicanism may be said to have received nearly entire the whig mantle, as the Whigs did that of Federalism.
But the living soul and integrating idea of the party was new, the rigid confinement of slavery and the slave power to their narrowest constitutional limits. It denounced the repeal of the Missouri Compromise.
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In the election of this year, 1856, eleven States chose Republican electors, viz.: all New England, also New York, Ohio, Michigan, Iowa, and Wisconsin. Evidently the Democracy had at last found a foe at which it were best not to sneer. The Dred Scott decision immensely aided the growth of this new political power, as it was now quite generally believed in the North that the whole policy of the South was a greedy, selfish grasping for the extension of slavery.
Out of this conviction, apparently, grew the John Brown raid into Virginia in 1858. John Brown was an enthusiast, whom sufferings from the Border Ruffians in Kansas, where one of his sons had been atrociously murdered and another driven to insanity by cruel treatment as a prisoner, had frenzied in his opposition to slavery. He had dedicated himself to its extirpation. The intrepid old man formed the purpose of invading Virginia, and of placing himself with a few white allies at the head of a slave insurrection that should sweep the State.
Friends in the North had contributed money for the purchase of arms, and on October 16th, Brown, with fourteen white men and four negroes, seized the United States Armory at Harper's Ferry. He stopped the railway trains, freed some slaves, and assumed to rule the town.
United States troops were at once despatched to the scene, when the misguided hero, with his devoted band, fortified themselves in the engine house, surrendering only after thirteen of them, including two of Brown's sons, were killed or mortally wounded.
Brown and the other survivors were soon tried, convicted, and hung. This insane attempt was deprecated by nearly all of all parties; but the fate of Brown, with his resolute bravery, begot him large sympathy, and the false assumption of the South that he really represented northern feeling made his deed helpful to the anti-slavery movement, of which the Republican Party was now the centre.
Notwithstanding all this the Democracy might still have elected a president in 1860 had it been united. But it was now desperately at feud with itself, the cause of this, beautifully enough, lying back in that very device of Repeal which was intended to make Kansas a slave State and so to perpetuate the democratic sway. Judge Douglas, and most of the northern Democrats with him, had insisted so long and earnestly upon the doctrine of squatter sovereignty that they could not now possibly recede from it even had they desired to do so.
262 THE YEARS OF SLAVERY
The great majority of them did not so desire, but sincerely believed in that doctrine as part and parcel of the true democratic faith. But it was now obvious that the working out of the Douglas theory was absolutely sure to make free all the western States henceforth to be formed. This would, of course, remove the Senate from the domination of slavery. Hence the South was irrevocably opposed to it, and insisted with all its might upon the Calhoun-Taney contention that the national Government must protect slavery in all the Territories to which it pleased to go. In a passage at arms with Douglas as they were stumping Illinois for the senatorship in 1858, Lincoln keenly forced upon him the question whether under the Dred Scott decision any Territory could possibly be kept free from slavery. "If," said he, "Douglas answers yes, he can never be President; if no, Illinois will not again elect him senator." Douglas replied in the affirmative, and, as his antagonist prophesied, became in the South a doomed man.
The schism was fully apparent when, on April 23d, the democratic convention of 1860 began its session in Charleston. A majority of the delegates were for Douglas, voting down the Calhoun-Taney view, though willing that the party should bind itself to obey the Dred Scott decision. When the Douglas platform was adopted the delegations from Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, and Texas, with parts of those from Louisiana, North and South Carolina, Arkansas, and Delaware, seceded. Douglas had a majority vote as presidential candidate, but not two-thirds. The convention adjourned to meet at Baltimore June 18th, and when it met there Douglas was nominated by the requisite two-thirds vote. The seceders met at Richmond, June 11th, where, imitating some new seceders at Baltimore they nominated Breckenridge and Lane. The so-called Constitutional Union Party also had in the field its ticket, Bell and Everett, which secured votes from a few persistent Whigs and Know-nothings still foolish enough to suppose that further clash between the powers of slavery and freedom could somehow be averted.
The Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln, of Illinois, and Hannibal Hamlin, of Maine. Lincoln was already a marked man in his party, especially in the West, his brilliant joint debate with Judge Douglas during some months in 1858 having brought out his matchless good sense and good nature, his rare knowledge of our history and law, and his high quality as thinker and speaker. Born in Kentucky in 1809, removing to Indiana in 1816, to Illinois in 1830, reared in extreme poverty and wholly self-educated, this man had risen by his wits, his sturdy perseverance and industry, his extraordinary ability, and his proverbial honesty, to be the acknowledged peer of the "Little Giant" himself. He began political life a Whig and ably represented that party in the national Congress from 1847 to 1849, making his voice heard against the high-handed procedure of the Administration in the Mexican War.
William H. Seward.
From a photograph by Brady.
But as with Seward, Greeley, Fessenden, Thaddeus Stevens, Sherman, Dayton, Corwin, and Collamer, subsequent events had intensified his anti-slavery feeling, convincing him, as he avowed, that the Union could not "permanently continue half slave and half free." He was thus drawn to unite his fortunes with the Republicans. His nomination was received coolly in the East, where Seward had been preferred; but as men studied Lincoln's record they were convinced of the wisdom which had made him the party's leader. He swept New England, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin, California, Minnesota, and Oregon, having 180 electoral votes to Breckenridge's 72, Bell's 39, and Douglas's 12.