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Chapter 8:

  • Conference with the Governor of Mississippi
  • -- the author Censured as “too slow” -- summons to Washington -- interview with the President -- his message -- movements in Congress -- the triumphant majority -- the Crittenden proposition -- speech of the author on Green's resolution -- the Committee of thirteen -- failure to agree -- the “Republicans” responsible for the failure -- proceedings in the House of Representatives -- Futility of efforts for an adjustment -- the old year closes in clouds.

In November, 1860, after the result of the presidential election was known, the governor of Mississippi, having issued his proclamation convoking a special session of the legislature to consider the propriety of calling a convention, invited the Senators and Representatives of the state in Congress, to meet him for consultation as to the character of the message he should send to the legislature when assembled.

While holding, in common with my political associates, that the right of a state to secede was unquestionable, I differed from most of them as to the probability of our being permitted peaceably to exercise the right. The knowledge acquired by the administration of the War Department for four years, and by the chairmanship of the Military Committee of the Senate at two different periods, still longer in combined duration, had shown me the entire lack of preparation for war in the South. The foundries and armories were in the Northern states, and there were stored all the new and improved weapons of war. In the arsenals of the Southern states were to be found only arms of the old and rejected models. The South had no manufactories of powder, and no navy to protect our harbors, no merchant ships for foreign commerce. It was evident to me, therefore, that, if we should be involved in war, the odds against us would be far greater than what was due merely to our inferiority in population. Believing that secession would be the precursor of war between the states, I was consequently slower and more reluctant than others, who entertained a different opinion, to resort to that remedy.

While engaged in the consultation with the governor just referred to, a telegraphic message was handed to me from two members of Buchanan's cabinet, urging me to proceed “immediately” to Washington. This dispatch was laid before the governor and the members of Congress from the state who were in conference with him, and it was decided that [51] I should comply with the summons. I was afterward informed that my associates considered me “too slow,” and they were probably correct in the belief that I was behind the general opinion of the people of the state as to the propriety of prompt secession.1

On arrival at Washington I found, as had been anticipated, that my presence there was desired on account of the influence which it was supposed I might exercise with the President (Buchanan) in relation to his forthcoming message to Congress. On paying my respects to the President, he told me that he had finished the rough draft of his message, but that it was still open to revision and amendment, and that he would like to read it to me. He did so, and very kindly accepted all the modifications which I suggested. The message was, however, afterward somewhat changed, and with great deference to the wisdom and statesmanship of its author, I must say that, in my judgment, the last alterations were unfortunate—so much so that, when it was read in the Senate, I was reluctantly constrained to criticise it. Compared, however, with documents of the same class which have since been addressed to the Congress of the United States, the reader of presidential messages must regret that it was not accepted by Buchanan's successors as a model, and that his views of the Constitution had not been adopted as a guide in the subsequent action of the federal government.

The popular movement in the South was tending steadily and rapidly toward the secession of those known as “planting states”; yet, when Congress assembled on December 3, 1860, the representatives of the people of all those states took their seats in the House, and they were all represented in the Senate, except South Carolina, whose Senators had tendered their resignation to the government immediately on the announcement [52] of the result of the presidential election. Hopes were still cherished that the Northern leaders would appreciate the impending peril, would cease to treat the warnings, so often given, as idle threats, would refrain from the bravado, so often and so unwisely indulged, of ability “to whip the South” in thirty, sixty, or ninety days, and would address themselves to the more manly purpose of devising means to allay the indignation, and quiet the apprehensions, whether well founded or not, of their Southern brethren. But the debates of that session manifest, on the contrary, the arrogance of a triumphant party, and the determination to reap to the uttermost the full harvest of a party victory.

Crittenden of Kentucky, the oldest and one of the most honored members of the Senate,2 introduced into that body a joint resolution proposing certain amendments to the Constitution—among them the restoration and incorporation into the Constitution of the geographical line of the Missouri Compromise, with other provisions, which it was hoped might be accepted as the basis for an adjustment of the difficulties rapidly hurrying the Union to disruption. But the earnest appeals of that venerable statesman were unheeded by Senators of the so-called Republican party. Action upon his proposition was postponed from time to time, on [53] one pretext or another, until the last day of the session—when seven states had already withdrawn from the Union and established a confederation of their own—and it was then defeated by a majority of one vote.3

Meantime, among other propositions made in the Senate were two introduced early in the session, which it may be proper specially to mention. One of these was a resolution offered by Powell of Kentucky, which, after some modification by amendment, when finally acted upon, had taken the following form:

Resolved, That so much of the Presdent's message as relates to the present agitated and distracted condition of the country, and the grievances between the slaveholding and the non-slaveholding States, be referred to a special committee of thirteen members, and that said committee be instructed to inquire into the present condition of the country, and report by bill or otherwise.

The other was a resolution offered by Green of Missouri, to the following effect:

Resolved, That the Committee on the Judiciary be instructed to inquire into the propriety of providing by law for establishing an armed police force at all necessary points along the line separating the slaveholding States from the nonslave-holding States, for the purpose of maintaining the general peace between those States, of preventing the invasion of one State by citizens of another, and also for the efficient execution of the fugitive-slave laws.

In the discussion of these two resolutions I find, in the proceedings of the Senate on December 10th, as reported in the Congressional Globe, some remarks of my own, the reproduction of which will serve to exhibit my position at that period—a position which has since been often misrepresented:

Mr. President, if the political firmament seemed to me dark before, there has been little in the discussion this morning to cheer or illumine it. When the proposition of the Senator from Kentucky was presented—not very hopeful of a good result—I was yet willing to wait and see what developments it might produce. This morning, for the first time, it has been considered; and what of encouragement have we received? One Senator proposes, as a cure for the public evil impending over us, to invest the Federal Government with such physical power as properly belongs to monarchy alone; another announces that his constituents cling to the Federal Government, if its legislative favors and its Treasury secure works of improvement and the facilities which they desire; while another rises to point out that the evils of the land are of a party character. Sir, we have fallen upon evil times indeed, if the great convulsion which now shakes the body-politic [54] to its center is to be dealt with by such nostrums as these. Men must look more deeply, must rise to a higher altitude; like patriots they must confront the danger face to face, if they hope to relieve the evils which now disturb the peace of the land, and threaten the destruction of our political existence.

First of all, we must inquire what is the cause of the evils which beset us? The diagnosis of the disease must be stated before we are prepared to prescribe. Is it the fault of our legislation here? If so, then it devolves upon us to correct it, and we have the power. Is it the defect of the Federal organization, of the fundamental law of our Union? I hold that it is not. Our fathers, learning wisdom from the experiments of Rome and of Greece—the one a consolidated republic, and the other strictly a confederacy—and taught by the lessons of our own experiment under the Confederation, came together to form a Constitution for “a more perfect union,” and, in my judgment, made the best government which has ever been instituted by man. It only requires that it should be carried out in the spirit in which it was made, that the circumstances under which it was made should continue, and no evil can arise under this Government for which it has not an appropriate remedy. Then it is outside of the Government—elsewhere than to its Constitution or to its administration—that we are to look. Men must not creep in the dust of partisan strife and seek to make points against opponents as the means of evading or meeting the issues before us. The fault is not in the form of the Government, nor does the evil spring from the manner in which it has been administered. Where, then, is it? It is that our fathers formed a Government for a Union of friendly States; and though under it the people have been prosperous beyond comparison with any other whose career is recorded in the history of man, still that Union of friendly States has changed its character, and sectional hostility has been substituted for the fraternity in which the Government was founded.

I do not intend here to enter into a statement of grievances; I do not intend here to renew that war of crimination which for years past has disturbed the country, and in which I have taken a part perhaps more zealous than useful; but I call upon all men who have in their hearts a love of the Union, and whose service is not merely that of the lip, to look the question calmly but fully in the face, that they may see the true cause of our danger, which, from my examination, I believe to be that a sectional hostility has been substituted for a general fraternity, and thus the Government rendered powerless for the ends for which it was instituted. The hearts of a portion of the people have been perverted by that hostility, so that the powers delegated by the compact of union are regarded not as means to secure the welfare of all, but as instruments for the destruction of a part—the minority section. How, then have we to provide a remedy? By strengthening this Government? By instituting physical force to overawe the States, to coerce the people living under them as members of sovereign communities to pass under the yoke of the Federal Government? No, sir; I would have this Union severed into thirty-three fragments sooner than have that great evil befall constitutional liberty and representative government. Our Government is an agency of delegated and strictly limited powers. Its founders did not look to its preservation by force; but the chain they wove to bind these States together was one of love and mutual good offices. They had broken the fetters of despotic power; they had separated themselves from the mother-country upon the question of community independence; and their [55] sons will be degenerate indeed if, clinging to the mere name and forms of free government, they forge and rivet upon their posterity the fetters which their ancestors broke. . . .

The remedy for these evils is to be found in the patriotism and the affection of the people, if it exists; and, if it does not exist, it is far better, instead of attempting to preserve a forced and therefore fruitless Union, that we should peacefully part and each pursue his separate course. It is not to this side of the Chamber that we should look for propositions; it is not here that we can ask for remedies. Complaints, with much amplitude of specification, have gone forth from the members on this side of the Chamber heretofore. It is not to be expected that they will be renewed, for the people have taken the subject into their own hands. States, in their sovereign capacity, have now resolved to judge of the infractions of the Federal compact, and of the mode and measure of redress. All we can usefully or properly do is to send to the people, thus preparing to act for themselves, evidence of error, if error there be; to transmit to them the proofs of kind feeling, if it actuates the Northern section, where they now believe there is only hostility. If we are mistaken as to your feelings and purposes, give a substantial proof, that here may begin that circle which hence may spread out and cover the whole land with proofs of fraternity, of a reaction in public sentiment, and the assurance of a future career in conformity with the principles and purposes of the Constitution. All else is idle. I would not give the parchment on which the bill would be written that is to secure our constitutional rights within the limits of a State, where the people are all opposed to the execution of that law. It is a truism in free governments that laws rest upon public opinions, and fall powerless before its determined opposition.

The time has passed, sir, when appeals might profitably be made to sentiment. The time has come when men must of necessity reason, assemble facts, and deal with current events. I may be permitted in this to correct an error into which one of my friends fell this morning, when he impressed on us the great value of our Union as measured by the amount of time and money and blood which were spent to form this Union. It cost very little time, very little money, and no blood. It was one of the most peaceful transactions that mark the pages of human history. Our fathers fought the war of the Revolution to maintain the rights asserted in their Declaration of Independence.

Mr. Powell: The Senator from Mississippi will allow me to say that I spoke of the Government, not of the Union. I said time and money and blood had been required to form the Government.

Mr. Davis: The Government is the machinery established by the Constitution; it is the agency created by the States when they formed the Union. Our fathers, I was proceeding to say, having fought the war of the Revolution, and achieved their independence—each State for itself, each State standing out an integral part, each State separately recognized by the parent Government of Great Britainthese States as independent sovereignties entered into confederate alliance. After having tried the Confederation and found it to be a failure, they, of their own accord, came peacefully together, and in a brief period made a Constitution, which was referred to each State and voluntarily ratified by each State that entered the Union; little time, little money, and no blood being expended to [56] form this Government, the machine for making the Union useful and beneficial. Blood, much and precious, was expended to vindicate and to establish community independence, and the great American idea that all governments rest on the consent of the governed, and that the people may at their will alter or abolish their government, however or by whomsoever instituted.

But our existing Government is not the less sacred to me because it was not sealed with blood. I honor it the more because it was the free — will offering of men who chose to live together. It rooted in fraternity, and fraternity supported its trunk and all its branches. Every bud and leaflet depends entirely on the nurture it receives from fraternity as the root of the tree. When that is destroyed, the trunk decays, and the branches wither, and the leaves fall; and the shade it was designed to give has passed away for ever. I cling not merely to the name and form, but to the spirit and purpose of the Union which our fathers made. It was for domestic tranquillity; not to organize within one State lawless bands to commit raids upon another. It was to provide for the common defense; not to disband armies and navies, lest they should serve the protection of one section of the country better than another. It was to bring the forces of all the States together to achieve a common object, upholding each the other in amity, and united to repel exterior force. All the custom-house obstructions existing between the States were destroyed; the power to regulate commerce transferred to the General Government. Every barrier to the freest intercourse was swept away. Under the Confederation it had been secured as a right to each citizen to have free transit over all the other States; and under the Union it was designed to make this more perfect. Is it enjoyed? Is it not denied? Do we not have mere speculative questions of what is property raised in defiance of the clear intent of the Constitution, offending as well against its letter as against its whole spirit? This must be reformed, or the Government our fathers instituted is destroyed. I say, then, shall we cling to the mere forms or idolize the name of Union, when its blessings are lost, after its spirit has fled? Who would keep a flower, which had lost its beauty and its fragrance, and in their stead had formed a seed-vessel containing the deadliest poison? Or, to drop the figure, who would consent to remain in alliance with States which used the power thus acquired to invade his tranquility, to impair his defense, to destroy his peace and security? Any community would be stronger standing in an isolated position, and using its revenues to maintain its own physical force, than if allied with those who would thus war upon its prosperity and domestic peace; and reason, pride, self-interest, and the apprehension of secret, constant danger would impel to separation.

I do not comprehend the policy of a Southern Senator who would seek to change the whole form of our Government, and substitute Federal force for State obligation and authority. Do we want a new Government that is to overthrow the old? Do we wish to erect a central Colossus, wielding at discretion the military arm, and exercising military force over the people and the States? This is not the Union to which we were invited; and so carefully was this guarded that, when our fathers provided for using force to put down insurrection, they required that the fact of the insurrection should be communicated by the authorities of the State before the President could interpose. When it was proposed to give to Congress power to execute the laws against a delinquent State, it was refused [57] on the ground that that would be making war on the States; and, though I know the good purpose of my honorable friend from Missouri is only to give protection to constitutional rights, I fear his proposition is to rear a monster, which will break the feeble chain provided, and destroy rights it was intended to guard. That military Government which he is about to institute, by passing into hostile hands, becomes a weapon for his destruction, not for his protection. All dangers which we may be called upon to confront as independent communities are light, in my estimation, compared with that which would hang over us if this Federal Government had such physical force; if its character was changed from a representative agent of States to a central Government, with a military power to be used at discretion against the States. To-day it may be the idea that it will be used against some State which nullifies the Constitution and the laws; some State which passes laws to obstruct or repeal the laws of the United States; some State which, in derogation of our rights of transit under the Constitution, passes laws to punish a citizen found there with property recognized by the Constitution of the United States, but prohibited by the laws of that State.

But how long might it be before that same military force would be turned against the minority section which had sought its protection; and that minority thus become mere subjugated provinces under the great military government that it had thus contributed to establish? The minority, incapable of aggression, is, of necessity, always on the defensive, and often the victim of the desertion of its followers and the faithlessness of its allies. It therefore must maintain, not destroy, barriers.

I do not know that I fully appreciate the purpose of my friend from Missouri; whether, when he spoke of establishing military posts along the borders of the States, and arming the Federal Government with adequate physical power to enforce constitutional rights (I suppose he meant obligations), he meant to confer upon this Federal Government a power which it does not now possess to coerce a State. If he did, then, in the language of Mr. Madison, he is providing, not for a union of States, but for the destruction of States; he is providing, under the name of Union, to carry on a war against States; and I care not whether it be against Massachusetts or Missouri, it is equally objectionable to me; and I will resist it alike in the one case and in the other, as subversive of the great principle on which our Government rests; as a heresy to be confronted at its first presentation, and put down there, lest it grow into proportions which will render us powerless before it.

The theory of our Constitution, Mr. President, is one of peace, of equality of sovereign States. It was made by States and made for States; and for greater assurance they passed an amendment, doing that which was necessarily implied by the nature of the instrument, as it was a mere instrument of grants. But, in the abundance of caution, they declared that everything which had not been delegated was reserved to the States, or to the people—that is, to the State governments as instituted by the people of each State, or to the people in their sovereign capacity.

I need not, then, go on to argue from the history and nature of our Government that no power of coercion exists in it. It is enough for me to demand the clause of the Constituton which confers the power. If it is not there, the Government does not possess it. That is the plain construction of the Constitution—made plainer, if possible, by its amendment. [58]

This Union is dear to me as a Union of fraternal States. It would lose its value if I had to regard it as a Union held together by physical force. I would be happy to know that every State now felt that fraternity which made this Union possible; and, if that evidence could go out, if evidence satisfactory to the people of the South could be given that that feeling existed in the hearts of the Northern people, you might burn your statute-books and we would cling to the Union still. But it is because of their conviction that hostility, and not fraternity, now exists in the hearts of the people, that they are looking to their reserved rights and to their independent powers for their own protection. If there be any good, then, which we can do, it is by sending evidence to them of that which I fear does not exist— the purpose of your constituents to fulfill in the spirit of justice and fraternity all their constitutional obligations. If you can submit to them that evidence, I feel confident that, with the assurance that aggression is henceforth to cease, will terminate all the measures for defense. Upon you of the majority section it depends to restore peace and perpetuate the Union of equal States; upon us of the minority section rests the duty to maintain our equality and community rights; and the means in one case or the other must be such as each can control.

The resolution of Powell was eventually adopted on the 18th of December, and on the 20th the Committee was appointed, consisting of Powell and Crittenden of Kentucky, Hunter of Virginia, Toombs of Georgia, Davis of Mississippi, Douglas of Illinois, Bigler of Pennsylvania, Rice of Minnesota, Collamer of Vermont, Seward of New York, Wade of Ohio, Doolittle of Wisconsin, and Grimes of Iowa. The first five of the list, as here enumerated, were Southern men; the next three were Northern Democrats, or Conservatives; the last five, Northern Republicans, so called.

The supposition was that any measure agreed upon by the representatives of the three principal divisions of public opinion would be approved by the Senate and afterward ratified by the House of Representatives. The Committee therefore determined that a majority of each of its three divisions should be required in order to adopt any proposition presented. The Southern members declared their readiness to accept any terms that would secure the honor of the Southern states and guarantee their future safety. The Northern Democrats and Crittenden generally cooperated with the State-Rights Democrats of the South; but the so-called Republican Senators of the North rejected every proposition which it was hoped might satisfy the Southern people, and check the progress of the secession movement. After fruitless efforts, continued for some ten days, the committee determined to report the journal of their proceedings, and announce their inability to attain any satisfactory conclusion. This report was made on December 31—the last day of that memorable and fateful year, 1860. [59]

Subsequently, on the floor of the Senate, Douglas, who had been a member of the committee, called upon the opposite side to state what they were willing to do. He referred to the fact that they had rejected every proposition that promised pacification; stated that Toombs of Georgia and Davis of Mississippi, as members of the committee, had been willing to renew the Missouri Compromise, as a measure of conciliation, but had met no responsive willingness on the part of their associates of the opposition; he pressed the point that, as they had rejected every overture made by the friends of peace, it was now incumbent upon them to make a positive and affirmative declaration of their purpose.

Seward of New York, as we have seen, was a member of that committee—the man who, in 1858, had announced the “irrepressible conflict,” and who, in the same year, speaking of and for abolitionism, had said: “It has driven you back in California and in Kansas; it will invade your soil.” He was to be the Secretary of State in the incoming administration, and was very generally regarded as the “power behind the throne,” greater than the throne itself. He was present in the Senate, but made no response to Douglas's demand for a declaration of policy.

Meantime the efforts for an adjustment made in the House of Representatives had been equally fruitless. Conspicuous among these efforts had been the appointment of a committee of thirty-three members-one from each state of the Union—charged with a duty similar to that imposed upon the Committee of Thirteen in the Senate, but they had been alike unsuccessful in coming to any agreement. It is true that, a few days afterward, they submitted a majority and two minority reports, and that the report of the majority was ultimately adopted by the House; even if this action had been unanimous, and had been taken in due time, it would have been practically futile on account of its absolute failure to provide or suggest any solution of the territorial question, which was the vital point in controversy.

No wonder, then, that under the shadow of the failure of every effort in Congress to find any common ground on which the sections could be restored to amity, the close of the year should have been darkened by a cloud in the firmament, which had lost even the silver lining so long seen, or thought to be seen, by the hopeful.

1 The following extract from a letter of the Hon. O. R. Singleton, then a Representative of Mississippi in the United States Congress, in regard to the subject treated, is herewih annexed:

Canton, Mississippi, July 14, 1877.
In 1860, about the time the ordinance of secession was passed by the South Carolina Convention, and while Mississippi, Alabama, and other Southern States were making active preparations to follow her example, a conference of the Mississippi delegation in Congress, Senators and Representatives, was asked for by Governor J. J. Pettus, for consultation as to the course Mississippi ought to take in the premises.

The meeting took place in the fall of 1860, at Jackson, the capital, the whole delegation being present, with perhaps the exception of one Representative.

The main question for consideration was: “Shall Mississippi, as soon as her Convention can meet, pass an ordinance of secession, thus placing herself by the side of South Carolina, regardless of the action of other States; or shall she endeavor to hold South Carolina in check, and delay action herself, until other States can get ready, through their conventions, to unite with them, and then, on a given day and at a given hour, by concert of action, all the States willing to do so, secede in a body?”

Upon the one side, it was argued that South Carolina could not be induced to delay action a single moment beyond the meeting of her Convention, and that our fate should be hers, and to delay action would be to have her crushed by the Federal Government; whereas, by the earliest action possible, we might be able to avert this calamity. On the other side, it was contended that delay might bring the Federal Government to consider the emergency of the case, and perhaps a compromise could be effected; but, if not, then the proposed concert of action would at least give dignity to the movement, and present an undivided Southern front.

The debate lasted many hours, and Mr. Davis, with perhaps one other gentleman in that conference, opposed immediate and separate State action, declaring himself opposed to secession as long as the hope of a peaceable remedy remained. He did not believe we ought to precipitate the issue, as he felt certain from his knowledge of the people, North and South, that, once there was a clash of arms, the contest would be one of the most sanguinary the world had ever witnessed.

A majority of the meeting decided that no delay should be interposed to separate State action, Mr. Davis being on the other side; but, after the vote was taken and the question decided, Mr. Davis declared he would stand by whatever action the Convention representing the sovereignty of the State of Mississippi might think proper to take.

After the conference was ended, several of its members were dissatisfied with the course of Mr. Davis, believing that he was entirely opposed to secession, and was seeking to delay action upon the part of Mississippi, with the hope that it might be entirely averted.

In some unimportant respects my memory may be at fault, and possibly some of the inferences drawn may be incorrect; but every material statement made, I am sure, is true, and if need be, can be, easily substantiated by other persons.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

(Signed) O. R. Singleton.

2 Crittenden had been a life-long Whig. His first entrance into the Senate was in 1817, and he was a member of that body at various periods during the ensuing forty-four years. He was Attorney General in the Whig cabinets of both General Harrison and Fillmore, and supported the Bell and Everett ticket in 1860.

3 The vote was nineteen yeas to twenty nays; total, thirty-nine. As the consent of two-thirds of each house is necessary to propose an amendment for action by the states, twenty-six of the votes cast in the Senate would have been necessary to sustain the proposition. It actually failed, therefore, by seven votes, instead of one.

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