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Chapter 5: the political situation

In several of his addresses before his election to the Presidency, Mr. Lincoln gave utterance to the following language: “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this Government cannot permanently remain half slave and half free. I do not expect the house to fall, but I do expect it to cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other thing.”

The same opinion had been enunciated several years before by John Quincy Adams on the floor of Congress, when, with his accustomed pungency, he declared, “The Union will fall before slavery or slavery will fall before the Union.”

But before either Adams or Lincoln spoke on the subject-away back in 1838-the same idea they expressed had a more elaborate and forcible presentation in the following words:

The conflict is becoming — has become — not alone of freedom for the blacks, but of freedom for the whites. It has now become absolutely necessary that slavery shall cease in order that freedom may be preserved in any portion of our land. The antagonistic principles of liberty and slavery have been roused into action, and one or the other must be victorious. There will be no [42] cessation of the strife until slavery shall be exterminated or liberty destroyed.

The author of the words last above quoted was James Gillespie Birney, who was the first Abolitionist, or “Liberty party,” candidate for the Presidency, and of whose career a brief sketch is elsewhere given.

That the slaveholders reached the same conclusion that Birney and Adams and Lincoln announced, viz., that the country was to be all one thing or all the other thing, is as manifest as any fact in our history. It is equally certain that they had firmly resolved to capture the entire commonwealth for their “institution,” and had laid their plans to that end. They were unwilling to live in a divided house, particularly with an occupant who was stronger in population and wealth than they were. They saw the danger in such association. Northern sentiment toward slavery was complacent enough, even servilely so, but it might change. The South thought it had too much at stake to take the chances when the opportunity for absolute safety and permanent rule was within its reach. It resolved to make the whole country, not only pro-slavery, but slaveholding. If, through any mischance, it failed in its calculation, the next step would be to tear down the house and from its ruins reconstruct so much of it as might be needed for its own occupancy. That it would be able in time to possess itself of the whole country, however, for and in behalf of its industrial policy, it did not for an instant doubt. It was not empty braggadocio on the part [43] of the celebrated Robert Toombs, of Georgia, when he uttered his famous boast.1 He voiced the practically unanimous opinion of his section.

Nor was there anything seemingly very presumptuous in that anticipation. So far, the South had been invariably victorious. In what appeared to be a decisive battle in the test case of admitting Missouri into the Union as a slave State, it had won. So pronounced was its triumph that whatever Anti-Slavery sentiment survived the conflict appeared to be stunned and helpless. All fight was knocked out of it. Its spirit was broken. While the South was not only compact and fully alive, but exultingly aggressive, the North was divided, fully one half of its population being about as pro-slavery as the slaveholders themselves, and the rest, with rare exceptions, being hopelessly apathetic. The Northern leaders of both of the old political parties-Whig and Democratic — were what the Abolitionists called “dough-faces,” being Northern men with Southern principles. The Church was “a dumb dog,” and the press simply drifted with the tide. It was not at all strange that the slaveholders expected to go on from conquest to conquest.

There were two policies they could adopt. One was to attack the enemy's citadel; or rather, the several citadels it possessed in its individual States, and force them to open their doors to the master and his human chattels. The other was to flank and cover, approaching the main point of attack by way of the Territories. These, once in possession of the slaveholders, could be converted into enough [44] slave States to give them the control of the general government, from which coigne of advantage they could proceed in their own time and way to possess themselves of such other free States as they might want.

In the matter of the Territories they had a great advantage. The North was up against a stone wall at the Canadian border. In that direction it could not advance a step, while the South had practically an unlimited field on its side from which to carve possessions as they might be wanted, very much as you would cut a pie.

In pursuance of its territorial policy-being the line of action it first resolved upon — the first movement of the South was to annex Texas--a victory. The next was to make war on Mexico, and (a joke of the day) conquer a “piece” from it large enough to make half a dozen States, all expected to be slaveholding-another victory.

By a curious irony the filching of land for slavery's uses from a neighbor, and on which the foot of a slave had never pressed, was exultingly spoken of at the time by its supporters as “an extension of the area of freedom.” The act was justified on the ground that we needed “land for the landless,” which led Benjamin F. Wade of Ohio to assert on the floor of the United States Senate, with as much truth as wit, that it was not land for the landless that was wanted, but “niggers for the niggerless.”

Then came the battle over Kansas. The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill in Congress, although involving a breach of good faith on the part of the South, was hailed as another victory for that section. [45] It was a costly victory. It was followed by defeat not only disastrous but fatal. The result in Kansas was really the turning-point in the great struggle. It broke the line of Southern victories. It neutralized the effect of the whole territorial movement up to that point. It completely spoiled the slaveholders' well-laid plans. We will always give Grant and his men all praise for victories leading up to Appomatox, but, in some respects, the most important victory of the great conflict was won on the plains of Kansas by John Brown of Ossawattomie and his Abolition associates.

The most sagacious Southern leaders saw in that result conclusive proof that the scale was turned. They realized that they were beaten within the lines of the Union, and they began to arrange for going out of it. They helped to elect a Republican President by dividing the Democratic party in 1860 between two candidates-Douglas and Breckenridge — in order that they might have a plausible pretext for secession.

But the slaveholders had not abandoned the other policy to which reference has been made — that of carrying their institution, by main force, as it were, into some, if not all, of the free States. To that end they had, in sporting parlance, a card up their sleeves which they proceeded to play. That card was the decision of the United States Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case, upon which they relied to give them the legal power to take and hold their slaves in all parts of the land. Up to the date of that decision, the current of judicial rulings had been that slavery, being a municipal institution, [46] was local, while freedom was national. Hence, when a master took his slave into a free State, at that instant he became a free man. The Dred Scott decision was intended to reverse the rule. Practically it held that slave ownership, wherever the Constitution prevailed, was both a legal and a natural right. It, as Benton forcibly expressed it, “made slavery the organic law of the land and freedom the exception” ; or, as it was jocularly expressed at the time, it left freedom nowhere.

Although at the time of its promulgation, it was claimed by some of the more conservative pro-slavery leaders that the Dred Scott dictum applied only to the Territories, giving the masters the legal authority to enter them with their slaves, that position was clearly deceptive. The principle involved, as laid down by the Court, was altogether too broad for that construction. In effect it put the proprietorship of human beings upon the same footing with other property rights,--and claimed for it the same constitutional protection. The bolder men of the South, like Toombs of Georgia, did not hesitate to give that interpretation to the Court's pronouncement, and to insist on it with brutal frankness. If they were wrong, the Court was putty in their hands and they could easily have had a supplemental ruling that would have gone to any extent.

If the Dred Scott decision had been promulgated by our highest court, and the slaveholders had insisted upon the license it was intended to give them for taking their slave property into free territory, at the time that Garrison was being dragged by a mob through Boston's streets; when Birney's printingpress [47] in Cincinnati was being tumbled into the Ohio River; when Pennsylvania Hall, the Quaker Abolitionists' forty-thousand-dollar construction, was ablaze in Philadelphia; when Lovejoy, the Abolition martyr, was bleeding out his life in one of the streets of Alton, Illinois-when, in fact, the whole land was swayed by a frenzied hatred of the men and women who dared to question slavery's right to supremacy, the writer believes the movement would have been successful. Public opinion was so inclined in States like Indiana and Illinois, and even in Ohio, that they might have been easily toppled over to the South. Indeed, at that time it is a problem how Massachusetts would have voted on a proposition to “slaveryize” her soil. The surprising thing, as we look back to that period, is that slavery did not get a foothold in some of the free States, if not in all of them.

But by the time the South was ready to play its trump card, it was too late. The game was lost. Public opinion had become revolutionized throughout the North. The leaven of Abolitionism had got in its work. The men and women, few in number and weak in purse and worldly position as they were, who had enlisted years before in the cause of emancipation, and had fought for it in the face of almost every conceivable discouragement, had at last won a great preliminary victory. Slavery, through their exertions, had become impossible, both in the Territories and in the free States of the North, the United States Supreme Court and all the forces of the slave power to the contrary notwithstanding. [48]

Then came to the South a not unanticipated, and to many of her leaders a not unwelcome political Waterloo, in the election of Lincoln. This gave the argument for secession that was wanted. The South had then to yield — which she had no idea of doing-or to go into rebellion. She went out of the Union very much as she would have gone to a frolic. She had no thought that serious fighting was to follow. She did not believe, as one of the Southern leaders expressed it, that the Northern people would go to war for the sake of the “niggers.”

1 See page 13.

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