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Wise, Henry Alexander 1806-1876

Diplomatist; born in Drummondtown, Va., Dec. 3, 1806; was admitted to the bar at Winchester, Va., in 1828; settled in Nashville, Tenn., but soon returned to Accomack, where he was elected to Congress in 1833, and remained a member until 1843, when he was appointed minister to Brazil. He was a zealous advocate of the annexation of Texas. He was a member of the State constitutional convention in 1850, and was governor of Virginia from 1856 to 1860. He approved the pro-slavery constitution (Lecompton) of Kansas, and in 1859 published a treatise on territorial government, containing the doctrine of

Henry Alexander wise.

the right of Congress to protect slavery. The last important act of his administration was ordering the execution of John Brown (q. v.), for the raid on Harper's Ferry. In the Virginia convention, early in 1861, he advocated a peaceful settlement of difficulties with the national government; but after the ordinance of secession had been passed he took up arms against the government, became a Confederate brigadier-general, was an unsuccessful leader in western Virginia, and commanded at Roanoke Island, but was sick at the time of its capture. He died in Richmond, Va., Sept. 12, 1876. Among his publications is Seven decades of the Union: memoir of John Tyler.

Speech against know-nothingism.

During the know-nothing agitation (q. v.), before the party was organized, [421] Mr. Wise delivered the following speech in Congress, Sept. 18, 1852:

The laws of the United States-federal and State laws—declare and defend the liberties of our people. They are free in every sense—free in the sense of Magna Charta and beyond Magna Charta; free by the surpassing franchise of American charters, which makes them sovereign and their wills the sources of constitutions and laws.

In this country, at this time, does any man think anything? Would he think aloud? Would he speak anything? Would he write anything? His mind is free; his person is safe; his property is secure; his house is his castle; the spirit of the laws is his body-guard and his house-guard; the fate of one is the fate of all measured by the same common rule of right; his voice is heard and felt in the general suffrage of freemen; his trial is in open court, confronted by witnesses and accusers; his prison-house has no secrets, and he has the judgment of his peers; and there is naught to make him afraid, so long as he respects the rights of his equals in the eye of the law. Would he propagate truth? Truth is free to combat error. Would he propagate error? Error itself may stalk abroad and do her mischief, and make night itself grow darker, provided truth is left free to follow, however slowly, with her torches to light up the wreck! Why, then, should any portion of the people desire to retire in secret, and by secret means to propagate a political thought, or word, or deed, by stealth? Why band together, exclusive of others, to do something which all may not know of, towards some political end? If it be good, why not make the good known? Why not think it, speak it, write it, act it out openly and aloud? Or is it evil, which loveth darkness rather than light? When there is no necessity to justify a secret association for political ends, what else can justify it? A caucus may sit in secret to consult on the general policy of a great public party. That may be necessary or convenient; but that even is reprehensible if carried too far. But here is proposed a great primary, national organization, in its inception—What? Nobody knows. To do what? Nobody knows. How organized? Nobody knows. Governed by whom? Nobody knows. How bound? By what rites? By what test oaths? With what limitations and restraints? Nobody, nobody knows! All we know is that persons of foreign birth and of Catholic faith are proscribed; and so are all others who don't proscribe them at the polls. This is certainly against the spirit of Magna Charta. . . .

A Prussian born subject came to this country. He complied with our naturalization laws in all respects of notice of intention, residence, oath of allegiance, and proof of good moral character. He remained continuously in the United States the full period of five years. When he had fully filled the measure of his probation and was consummately a naturalized citizen of the United States, he then, and not until then, returned to Prussia to visit an aged father. He was immediately, on his return, seized and forced into the Landwehr, or militia system of Prussia, under the maxim: “Once a citizen, always a citizen!” There he is forced to do service to the King of Prussia at this very hour. He applies for protection to the United States. Would the Knownothings interpose in his behalf or not? Look at the principles involved. We, by our laws, encouraged him to come to our country, and here he was allowed to become naturalized, and to that end required to renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to the King of Prussia, and to swear allegiance and fidelity to the United States. The King of Prussia now claims no legal forfeiture from him—he punishes him for no crime—he claims of him no legal debt—he claims alone that very allegiance and fidelity which we required the man to abjure and renounce. Not only so, but he hinders the man from returning to the United States, and from discharging the allegiance and fidelity we required him to swear to the United States. The King of Prussia says he should do him service for seven years, for this was what he was born to perform; his obligations were due to him first, and his laws were first binding him. The United States say—true, he was born under your laws, but he had a right to expatriate himself; he owed allegiance first to you, but he had a right to forswear it [422] and to swear allegiance to us; your laws first applied, but this is a case of political obligation, not of legal obligation; it is not for any crime or debt you claim to bind him, but it is for allegiance; and the claim you set up to his services on the ground of his political obligation, his allegiance to you, which we allow him to abjure and renounce, is inconsistent with his political obligation, his allegiance, which we required him to swear to the United States; he has sworn fidelity to us, and we have, by our laws, pledged protection to him.

Such is the issue. Now, with which will the Know-nothings take sides? With the King of Prussia against our naturalized citizen and against America, or with America and our naturalized citizen? Mark, now, Know-nothingism is opposed to all foreign influence—against American institutions. The King of Prussia is a pretty potent foreign influence—he was one of the holy alliance of crowned heads. Will they take part with him, and not protect the citizen? Then they will aid a foreign influence against our laws! Will they take sides with our naturalized citizen? If so, then upon what grounds? Now, they must have a good cause of interposition to justify us against all the received dogmas of European despotism.

Don't they see, can't they perceive, that they have no other grounds than those I have urged? He is our citizen, nationalized, owing us allegiance and we owing him protection. And if we owe him protection abroad, because of his sworn allegiance to us as a naturalized citizen, what then can deprive him of his privileges at home among us when he returns? If he be a citizen at all, he must be allowed the privileges of citizenship, or he will not be the equal of his fellow-citizens. And must not Know-nothingism strike at the very equality of citizenship, or allow him to enjoy all its lawful privileges? If Catholics and naturalized citizens are to be citizens and yet to be proscribed from office, they must be rated as an inferior class—an excluded class of citizens. Will it be said that the law will not make this distinction? Then are we to understand that Know-nothings would not make them equal by law? If not by law, how can they pretend to make them unequal, by their secret order, without law and against law? For them, by secret combination, to make them unequal, to impose a burden or restriction upon their privileges which the law does not, is to set themselves up above the law, and to supersede by private and secret authority, intangible and irresponsible, the rule of public, political right. Indeed, is this not the very essence of the “higher law” doctrine? It cannot be said to be legitimate public sentiment and the action of its authority. Public sentiment, proper, is a concurrence of the common mind in some conclusion, conviction, opinion, taste, or action in respect to persons or things subject to its public notice. It will and it must control the minds and actions of men, by public and conventional opinion. Count Mole said that in France it was stronger than statutes. It is so here. That it is which should decide at the polls of a republic. But here is a secret sentiment, which may be so organized as to contradict the public sentiment. Candidate A may be a native and a Protestant. and may concur with the community, if it be a Know-nothing community, on every other subject except that of proscribing Catholics and naturalized citizens; and candidate B may concur with the community on the subject of this proscription alone, and upon no other subject; and yet the Know-nothings might elect B by their secret sentiment against the public sentiment. Thus it attacks not only American doctrines of expatriation, allegiance, and protection, but the equality of citizenship, and the authority of public sentiment. In the affair of Koszta, how did our blood rush to his rescue? Did the Know-nothing side with him and Mr. Marcy, or with Hulseman and Austria? If with Koszta, why? Let them ask themselves for the rationale, and see if it can in reason abide with their orders. There is no middle ground in respect to naturalization. We must either have naturalization laws and let foreigners become citizens, on equal terms of capacities and privileges, or we must exclude them altogether. If we abolish naturalization laws, we return to the European dogma: “Once a citizen, always a citizen.” If we let foreigners be naturalized and don't extend to them equality of privileges, we set up classes [423] and distinctions of persons wholly opposed to republicanism. We will, as Rome did, have citizens who may be scourged. The three alternatives are presented: Our present policy, liberal, and just, and tolerant, and equal; or the European policy of holding the noses of native-born slaves to the grindstone of tyranny all their lives; or odious distinctions of citizenship tending to social and political aristocracy. I am for the present laws of naturalization.

As to religion, the Constitution of the United States, art. VI., sec. 3, especially provides that no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States. The State of Virginia has, from her earliest history, passed the most liberal laws, not only towards naturalization, but towards foreigners. But I have said enough to show the spirit of American laws and the true sense of American maxims.

Know-nothingism is against the spirit of Reformation and of Protestantism.

What was there to reform?

Let the most bigoted Protestant enumerate what he defines to have been the abominations of the Church of Rome. What would he say were the worst. The secrets of Jesuitism, of the auto da fe, of the monasteries and the nunneries. The private penalties of the Inquisition scavenger's daughter. Proscription, persecution, bigotry, intolerance, shutting up of the Book of the Word. And do Protestants now mean to out-Jesuit the Jesuits? Do they mean to strike and not be seen? To be felt and not to be heard? To put a shudder upon humanity by the masks of mutes? Will they wear the monkish cowls? Will they inflict penalties at the polls without reasoning together with their fellows at the hustings? Will they proscribe? Persecute? Will they bloat up themselves into that bigotry which would burn Nonconformists? Will they not tolerate freedom of conscience, but doom dissenters, in secret conclave, to a forfeiture of civil privileges for a religious difference? Will they not translate the scripture of their faith? Will they visit us with dark lanterns and execute us by signs, and test oaths, and in secrecy? Protestantism! forbid it!

If anything was ever open, fair, and free —if anything was ever blatant even—it was the Reformation. To quote from a mighty British pen: “It gave a mighty impulse and increased activity to thought and inquiry, agitated the inert mass of accumulated prejudices throughout Europe. The effect of the concussion was general, but the shock was greatest in this country” (England). “It toppled down the full grown intolerable abuses of centuries at a blow; heaved the ground from under the feet of bigoted faith and slavish obedience; and the roar and dashing of opinions, loosened from their accustomed hold, might be heard like the noise of an angry sea, and has never yet subsided. Germany first broke the spell of misbegotten fear, and gave the watchword; but England joined the shout, and echoed it back, with her island voice, from her thousand cliffs and craggy shores, in a longer and louder strain. With that cry the genius of Great Britain rose and threw down the gauntlet to the nations. There was a mighty fermentation: the waters were out; public opinion was in a state of projection; liberty was held out to all to think and speak the truth; men's brains were busy, their spirits stirring, their hearts full and their hands not idle. Their eyes were opened to expect the greatest things, and their ears burned with curiosity and zeal to know the truth, that the truth might make them free. The death-blow which had been struck at scarlet vice and bloated hypocrisy loosened tongues and made the talismans and love-tokens of popish superstitions with which she had beguiled her followers and committed abominations with the people, fall harmless from their necks.”

The translation of the Bible was the chief engine in the great work. It threw open, by a secret spring, the rich treasures of religion and morality, which had then been locked up as in a shrine. It revealed the visions of the prophets, and conveyed the lessons of inspired teachers to the meanest of the people. It gave them a common interest in a common cause. Their hearts burned within them as they read. It gave a mind to the people by giving them common subjects of thought and feeling. It cemented their union of character and sentiment; it created endless [424] diversity and collision of opinion. They found objects to employ their faculties, and a motive in the magnitude of the consequences attached to them, to exert the utmost eagerness in the pursuit of truth, and the most daring intrepidity in maintaining it. Religious controversy sharpens the understanding by the subtlety and remoteness of the topics it discusses, and braces the will by their infinite importance. We perceive in the history of this period a nervous, masculine intellect. No levity, no feebleness, no indifference; or, if there were, it is a relaxation from the intense activity which gives a tone to its general character. But there is a gravity approaching to piety, a seriousness of impression, a conscientious severity of argument, an habitual fervor of enthusiasm in their method of handling almost every subject. The debates of the schoolmen were sharp and subtle enough; but they wanted interest and grandeur, and were besides confined to a few. They did not affect the general mass of the community. But the Bible was thrown open to all ranks and conditions, “to own and read.” with its wonderful table of contents, from Genesis to the Revelation. Every village in England would present the scene so well described in Burns's Cotter's Saturday night. How unlike this agitation, this shock, this angry sea, this fermentation, this shout and its echoes, this impulse and activity, this concussion, this general effect, this blow, this earthquake, this roar and dashing, this longer and louder strain, this public opinion, this liberty to all to think and speak the truth, this stirring of spirits, this opening of eyes, this zeal to know—not nothing—but the truth, that the truth might make them free. How unlike to this is Know-nothingism, sitting and brooding in secret to proscribe Catholics and naturalized citizens! Protestantism protested against secrecy, it protested against shutting out the light of truth, it protested against proscription, bigotry, and intolerance. It loosened all tongues, and fought the owls and bats of night with the light of meridian day. The argument of Know-nothings is the argument of silence. The order ignores all knowledge. And its proscription can't arrest itself within the limit of excluding Catholics and naturalized citizens. It must proscribe natives and Protestants, both, who will not consent to unite in proscribing Catholics and naturalized citizens. Nor is that all; it must not only apply to birth and religion, it must necessarily extend itself to the business of life as well as to political preferments.

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