Chapter 17: the disunion Convention.—1857.The Massachusetts Anti-slavery Society celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary. Garrison takes part in a disunion Convention held at Worcester under the auspices of T. W. Higginson and other residents of that city. Another and more representative Convention at Cleveland is projected, but is abandoned in view of the financial panic. The Dred Scott decision of the U. S. Supreme Court intervenes.
The opening number of the twenty-seventh volume of1 the Liberator contained two notices, significant in themselves, but more particularly from their juxtaposition. The one appointed a festival at Faneuil Hall on January 2, 1857, to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the founding of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in2 Belknap-Street Church; the other, a State Disunion Convention to be held at Worcester, Mass., on January 15. Two only of the twelve founders of the anti-slavery organization were visible at the festival—Mr. Garrison, who (with Edmund Quincy's aid) presided, and Oliver Johnson among the speakers. Two, if not four, were numbered with the dead, as Joshua Coffin recorded in a3 letter to the festival. Arnold Buffum regretfully offered4 his old age and his infirmities and distance from the scene as an excuse for non-attendance. Moses Thacher wrote that he had in his possession the original draft of the5 Address which he was commissioned to prepare for the6 new-born Society. Samuel J. May, as he had been compelled in 1831 to leave Boston before the agreement to7 form a society was reached, so now was drawn homeward8 from the same city on the very eve of the festival. His cousin, Samuel E. Sewall, who, like himself, participated9 in the first counsels from which the Society sprung, and whose importance to the anti-slavery agitation in its10 infancy could hardly be overestimated, took his place upon the platform as one of the vice-presidents of the festival.  ‘The new chapter in the history of America which was11 opened twenty-five years ago by the organization of the New England Anti-Slavery Society—may it soon be closed with the record of the accomplishment of its object, the complete, peaceful, unconditional abolition of American slavery.’ To this toast, proposed by Quincy, Mr. Garrison responded in an historical retrospect, mingled with12 tributes to his departed co-laborers, whether steadfast or alienated. Had the division in the anti-slavery ranks in 1840 not taken place, he thought emancipation might already have been achieved. T. W. Higginson thanked the abolitionists of Massachusetts, “not alone that they first told the secret of slavery, twenty-five years ago, to the astonished nation, but that they have told another secret, more recently, more daringly, to a nation yet more astonished—told the secret of anti-slavery, and told it in one word—disunion!” Lib. 27.9. ‘As God is in heaven,’ he continued, ‘our destiny and our duty are to be found there. It is our only hope.’ With the thought of Kansas weighing heavily on his mind, he concluded his remarks by saying: ‘To-morrow may call us to some work so stern that the joys of this evening will seem years away. To-morrow may make this evening only the “sound of revelry by night” before Waterloo.’ Theodore Parker, sending a letter in13 lieu of a speech, was likewise in no ‘festal mood.’ He found “the Republican Party in Congress which carried eleven of the States at the last election, apologizing, and ‘defining its position,’ declaring it is ‘not an abolition party,’ ‘not an anti-slavery party,’ ‘not even hostile to the extension of bondage,’ ‘only opposed to spreading it into Kansas,’ but ‘never intending to interfere with slavery in the States,’ and ‘ does not propose to discuss the relation between master and slave,’ or ‘the right to hold property in man.’ ” Cf. 27.24. ‘Twenty-five years ago,’ he said, ‘I thought this terrible battle might be fought with the pen, and our victories written only in ink. Now, it seems quite otherwise. . . . Absent in body, I send you a word as a sentiment for the festivity: The triumph of Free-  dom in America—peaceably if we can, forcibly if we1415 must.’ The call for a State Convention “to consider the practicability, probability, and expediency of a separation between the Free and Slave States, and to take such other measures as the condition of the times may require,” Lib. 27.2. was issued by citizens of Worcester, with T. W. Higginson and Thomas Earle at their head—
Believing the result of the recent Presidential election to16 involve four years more of pro-slavery government, and a rapid increase in the hostility between the two sections of the Union; Believing this hostility to be the offspring, not of party excitement, but of a fundamental difference in education, habits, and laws; Believing the existing Union to be a failure, as being a hopeless attempt to unite under one government two antagonistic systems of society, which diverge more widely with every year; And believing it to be the duty of intelligent and conscientious men to meet these facts with wisdom and firmness.The Convention met on January 15, with Frank W.17 Bird of Walpole in the chair, Mr. Garrison being one of the vice-presidents. To the latter it was no disappointment to find it “ ‘nothing more than a Garrisonian meeting,’ with the exception of a very few others hitherto acting with the Republican Party.” Lib. 27.19. Nor could Mr. Higginson have been surprised. At the anti-slavery festival he had complained—“I talk with my Republican friends in vain to know whence comes this wondrous change which has altered their whole horizon since election. I talk with a man who said, before election: ‘If Buchanan is elected, I am with you henceforward—I am a Disunionist,’ and I find he thinks there must have been some mistake about that remark; he thinks it must have been his partner who said it, not he. They all have their partners!” Lib. 27.9. The Rev. Samuel May, Jr., was painfully aware that, on the subject of disunion, public opinion outside the abolition body had retrograded in the past decade. He recalled another18 gathering in the same hall in 1845, representing Worcester  County without distinction of party, which received1920 with acclamation—even if, alarmed at its own boldness, it presently reconsidered and rejected—a resolution, ‘That the annexation of Texas to the Union would be a just and sufficient cause for a dissolution of the Union.’ The letters addressed to the Convention by the most eminent Republican politicians of the day revealed their irresolution and utter impotency before the unchecked advance of the Slave Power. Charles Francis Adams, who in 1843 had incurred the charge of being a21 disunionist by his simple proposal of an amendment to the Constitution abolishing slave representation, still found the greatest defect in the Constitution to be the “antirepub-lican preponderance which it gives to the slaveholding class.” Lib. 27.20. He was of opinion that ‘the notion of no union with slaveholders is founded on a mistaken theory of morals,’ compelling the good to withdraw altogether from the society of the bad. On the basis of ‘honoring the former, and endeavoring as far as possible to reclaim the latter,’ he said: ‘I am willing to continue to live indefinitely with slaveholders, even though some of them should trench a little upon my rights.’ Amasa Walker22 saw clearly enough that ‘slavery and freedom are absolute and irreconcilable antagonisms, that cannot by any human possibility co-exist,’ but his disunionism was confined to the non-extension of slavery. Joshua R. Giddings wrote that the South had notoriously for thirty years cherished the hope of forming a Confederacy:
Editors and politicians now announce their determination to secede from the Union as soon as the Republicans shall obtain control of the Federal Government, which they generally expect to take place in 1860. Preparatory to this event, they are collecting arms, establishing magazines of powder and military supplies, strengthening their defences, organizing and disciplining their militia, and forming associations and combinations to effect a separation from our free States. Lib. 27.14.In spite of all this, Mr. Giddings was for holding on to23 ‘the Union as it now is’ (i. e., with indefinite possible  encroachments to strengthen the Slave Power so long as2425 its policy was to postpone secession), believing that the Union could be wielded for the benefit of liberty. In the event of Republican success, ‘we will then say to the slaveholders of those [slave] States, Unbind the heavy burdens and let the oppressed go free; or, if you prefer to maintain that institution, “perish with it!” ’ The one letter to the Convention which astonished and offended its recipients by its tone came from Sumner's colleague in the U. S. Senate, Henry Wilson. He had read the call with profound regret, believing that the26 movement could have no other effect than to put a burden on the Republican Party, by arraying against it ‘that intense, passionate, and vehement spirit of nationality which glows in the bosoms of the American people.’ He frankly avowed his want of sympathy with it, and refusal to be connected with it. ‘The logic of the head and the logic of the heart,’ he declared, ‘teach me to regard all such movements, either in the North or [in] the South, as crimes against liberty.’ He hoped the Convention would ‘conclude to leave all the impotent and puerile threats against the Union to the Southern slave-propagandists; and proclaim their readiness to follow, in the conflicts of the future, the banner of Liberty and Union! ’ Mr. Garrison's speech at the Convention was, in part, as follows:
Mr. President, it was my intention to have prepared, with27 some care and deliberation, the views I desired to express on this grave occasion; but, having been ill for the last two weeks, I have not been able to give a moment to the preparation of a set speech. It is true, sir, with me, the subject is familiar; nevertheless, this is no ordinary gathering, and nothing should be hastily uttered on a question so vast, so solemn, and so revolutionary. Sir, I do not marvel at the general hesitancy which I find in the community to come up to the high position of demanding a dissolution of the Union. I remember how men are born, and how they are bred. I know, in regard to my own case, with what tenacity I clung to this Union, inspired by the patriotic  feelings of my early days, and never dreaming that anything would ever separate me from it, or lead me to desire its dissolution. Men do not change the institutions which have come down to them from the past lightly, or for transient reasons. They must be placed in a trying emergency,—they must feel a strong moral obligation pressing upon them,—they must clearly perceive some great impending evil to be shunned, some great good to be gained,—before they will go into revolution; whether it be a physical revolution, attended with the shedding of human blood, or a moral revolution, attended with the loss of friends and popularity, and the sacrifice of worldly interests. If the great mass of the people were ready to respond at once in favor of the dissolution of the Union, with no more light on the subject than they now enjoy, I would give little or nothing for the response, because I should be certain it was but the mere impulse of the moment; but when they hesitate, and hold back, and forbear to the last, trusting that there may be some way of escape; when they beg for a little longer time to look at a question involving such momentous consequences, before openly committing themselves, I say: “Well, that is all right and proper—it is human nature.” When such men move, it is with the force of the thunderbolt; they are as reliable as the everlasting hills. If, therefore, Disunion be a matter of slow growth—as it is—I am sure it is a true growth, and that everything is gained thereby. I expect it will go on, slowly gathering to itself friends and advocates, until at last it shall culminate in an all-pervading Northern sentiment, and the great work be easily accomplished. Our Revolutionary fathers hesitated long before they threw off the yoke of the mother country. How many years did they hope, and pray, and struggle for redress of their wrongs, trusting to the justice of England—that Parliament would give heed to their petitions, and that they might be spared the necessity of raising the banner of independence—all the while avowing their loyalty to the British throne! Yet the hour came when, in spite of their veneration for the past, in spite of their feebleness in regard to numbers and resources, and in spite of the colossal power of Great Britain, they said, We will submit no longer! The time has come for us to throw off the yoke, and declare ourselves free and independent. The men who, after that time, through cowardice or selfishness, sided with the mother country, were justly branded as Tories. Sir, the race of Tories did not die off with the Revolutionary  struggle. In our day, we are passing through the same ordeal. We are engaged in a revolution more far-reaching, more sublime, more glorious than our fathers ever dreamed of. I know that there are honest men yet struggling with conscientious doubts, who sincerely ask, “Has the time for separation come? May we not be pardoned if we wait a little longer? Is there not some turn of the wheel whereby Freedom will come uppermost and Slavery go down?” Such men are to be respected, for they are not animated by a craven spirit. In due time they will assuredly be with us. But there are others who are not honest; who are actuated by the old Tory spirit which was so hostile to the struggle for colonial independence; and these are to be branded as the enemies of mankind. . . . The air is filled with objections to a movement of this kind. I am neither surprised nor disquieted at this. One of these is of a very singular nature, and it is gravely urged as conclusive against Disunion. It is to this effect: We must remain in the Union because it would be inhuman in us to turn our backs upon the millions of slaves in the Southern States, and leave them to their fate! Men who have never been heard of in the anti-slavery ranks, or who are ever submitting to a compromise of principle, have their bowels wonderfully moved all at once with sympathy for the suffering slave! Even our esteemed friend, Theodore Parker (who deals in no cant), says, in his letter,28 that he cannot consent to cut himself off from the slave population. Now, we who are engaged in this movement claim to be equally concerned for the liberation of the slave. If we have not yet proved our willingness to suffer the loss of all things, rather than to turn and flee, God knows that we are prepared to bear any new cross that He, in his providence, may be disposed to lay upon us. For one, I make no parade of my anxiety for the deliverance of those in bondage; but I do say that it strikes me as remarkable that those who, for a quarter of a century, have borne the heat and burden of the day, should have the imputation cast upon them of intending to leave four millions of slaves in their chains, by seeking the overthrow of this Union! . . . Now, all I have to say is, that this is a man of straw! I have no idea of forsaking the slave, under any circumstances. The slaveholder knows it, and the country knows it; and I am sure that those who are associated in this movement intend to continue the conflict till every yoke is broken. I declare that this talk of leaving the slave to his fate is not a true representation  of the case; and it indicates a strange dulness of comprehension with regard to our position and purpose. What! is it to forsake the slave when I cease to be the aider and abettor of his master? What! when the North is pressing down upon four millions of slaves like an avalanche, and we say to her, “Take off that pressure—stand aside—give the slave a chance to regain his feet and assert his freedom!” is that turning our backs upon him? Here, for example, is a man engaged in highway robbery, and another man is acting as an accessory, without whose aid the robber cannot succeed. In saying to the accomplice, “Hands off! Don't aid the villain!” shall I be told that this is enabling the highwayman to rob with impunity? What an absurdity! Are we not trying to save the pockets of all travellers from being picked, in seeking to break up all connection with highway robbery. . . . What is the American Union? Has it form and substance, or is it something which belongs to the imagination—a mere piece of dough, which every man may mould and fashion as he thinks proper, without regard to its original design or positive provisions? Men talk of interpreting the Constitution as they understand it. Does it never occur to them that this is a game at which wo can play? If they may interpret it ad libitum, so may the slaveholders. Now, sir, I assume that we have such a thing as the American Union; that it has height and breadth and exact dimensions; that the nation understands what it is and has been from its origin, in regard to its slaveholding conditions. Now let us see who are for its perpetuity. I turn to the Southern slaveholders and ask, “Are you for a dissolution of the Union ” and they are for hanging me up by the neck for raising the question. True, they threaten, in case certain things shall be done, that they will separate from us; but, mark you! they are in favor of perpetuating “the Union as it is,” and as our fathers made it. I turn to all that remains of the Whig Party, and ask, “Are you in favor of preserving the Union?” and they exclaim, “Yes, to the end of time!” I turn to the Democratic Party, and ask, “Are you in favor of preserving the Union?” and they reply, “Accursed be he who is not!” I turn to the American Party, and ask, “Are you for this ‘glorious’ Union” “Yes, until the crack of doom.” Finally, I turn to the Republican Party, and say, “And you, also, go for the Union?” and they make the loudest noise, and throw up their caps the highest in its behalf. Now, either these parties mean by “Union” the same thing,  or they do not. Henry Wilson, when he says, “I am for perpetuating the Union,” means by it what the South means, or he does not. All these parties mean the same thing, or they do not. If they do, then I stain them all with the blood of four millions of slaves, who lie crushed and bleeding beneath the Union. If they do not, then I say, there is treachery somewhere; because they are using the same word, representing the old idea of the Union as understood and carried out by our fathers. Who is it that is playing falsely? My reasons for leaving the Union are, first, because of the nature of the bond. I would not stand here a moment, were it not that this is with me a question of absolute morality—of obedience to the “ higher law.” By all that is just and holy, it is not optional whether you or I shall occupy the ground of Disunion. It is not a matter of political expediency or policy, or even of incongruity of interests between the North and the South. It strikes deeper, it rises higher, than that. This is the question: Are we of the North not bound in a Union with slaveholders, whereby they are enabled to hold four millions of our countrymen in bondage, with all safety and impunity? Is not Massachusetts in alliance with South Carolina, Rhode Island with Georgia, Maine with Alabama, Vermont with Mississippi, giving the strength of this nation to the side of the dealer in human flesh? My difficulty, therefore, is a moral one. The Union was formed at the expense of the slave population of the land. I cannot swear to uphold it. As I understand it, they who ask me to do so, ask me to do an immoral act—to stain my conscience—to sin against God. How can I do this? I care not what consequences may be predicted. It is a sin to “strike hands with thieves, and consent with adulterers.” I aver that the compact made by our fathers, in relation to its slaveholding guarantees, is a compact more wicked than was ever made since the world began. . . . Again, I am for the speedy overthrow of the Union because, while it exists, I see no end to the extension of slavery. I see everything in the hands of the Slave Power now. I see the national Government for four years to come—all the resources of the country—every dollar in the treasury—the army, the navy, the judiciary, everything—in its grasp; and I know that, with all these means and facilities, and the disposition to use them, nothing can successfully contend against it. I am sure of another thing—that when the North shall withdraw from the Union, there will be an end to Southern  filibustering and schemes of annexation. Then the tables will be turned, and we shall have the slaveholders at our doors, crying for mercy. Rely upon it, there is not an intelligent slaveholder at the South who is for a dissolution of the Union. I do not care what the folly or insanity of the Southern nullifiers may be; I do not care how much they hate the North, and threaten to separate from us; they are contemptible numerically, and only make use of these threats to bring the North down on her knees, to do their bidding, in order to save the Union. Not one of them is willing to have the cord cut, and the South permitted to try the experiment. If it be otherwise, God grant that she may soon take this step, and see whether she will be able to hold a single slave one hour after the deed is done!Mr. Higginson reported the resolutions of the29 Convention. The last only need be quoted:
Resolved, That the sooner the separation takes place, the30 more peaceful it will be; but that peace or war is a secondary consideration, in view of our present perils. Slavery must be conquered, peaceably if we can, forcibly if we must.It was further resolved to form a State Committee of Seven, to direct the propaganda of the new movement. Of this, Mr. Higginson was made chairman. ‘A general convention of the free States during the current year’ was recommended. The prospect of such a convention being treated with less ridicule or less vituperation by the press seemed to31 improve as the year grew older. In Kansas, the bogus Legislature carried out a bogus census; its creature, the32 bogus Constitutional Convention, met and performed its work, submitting to the popular vote for ratification not33 the Constitution as a whole, but the instrument (a) with the pro-slavery clauses, or (b) without them. This exemplification of ‘squatter sovereignty,’ though entirely satisfactory to President Buchanan, drew an ominous34 protest from Senator Douglas, that cost the latter at once35 his standing in the Democratic Party and his favor both with the Administration and at the South.36 But the  disunion spirit was still more developed by the Dred Scott37 decision, delivered by the U. S. Supreme Court on March 6, through the mouth of Chief-Justice Taney. Scott had been the slave of an army surgeon, who took38 him to a military station in Illinois for two years, and thence to Fort Snelling in Nebraska (now Minnesota), where he was married to the slave woman of another officer. The sojourn in Illinois (being voluntary on the master's part) would have freed him, as this State was embraced in the Northwest Ordinance. The Territory of Nebraska was in the tract covered by the Missouri Compromise, prohibiting slavery north of 36° 30′. Scott and his wife were sold to a common owner, and returned voluntarily—or at least without resistance—to Missouri, where the husband brought suit for their freedom. The State court denied the suit, in default of evidence that their owners meant to manumit them by taking them on to free soil. Appeal was then made to the Federal Supreme Court, a body of nine members, of whom five were39 slaveholders. ‘The article in the Westminster [for July, 1857, by Harriet40 Martineau, on the ‘Manifest Destiny of the American Union’],’ wrote Mrs. M. W. Chapman to Mr. Garrison,
was,41 I find by comparison of dates, written at a time when no two papers in the United States agreed as to what the Dred Scott decision did mean—all the A. S. papers agreeing that if it meant anything, it meant the extension of slavery throughout the States. . . . I should really like to read the decision, with all the different ideas as to what it means—if I had a month's leisure. I must confess to not having yet done so, whatever the Westminster Review may have done. One thing seems clear—they made it, like the Constitution of the United States, of india-rubber: to read one way in one State, a second way in another, and a third out of the United States, and are frightened when its intentions are exposed.Scott's suit was dismissed for want of jurisdiction, the power of the State court in the premises being upheld; but the incidental doctrines enunciated were of the most alarming character. First, the Constitution recognizes no  distinction between slaves and other property, but42 expressly confers the right of property in slaves, and guarantees it to every State. Secondly, as an historical fact, citizenship under the Constitution was denied to the black race, which had, “for more than a century, been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and unfit associates for the white race, either socially or politically, and had no rights which white men were bound to respect.” Lib. 27.45.43 Thirdly, the44 control of Congress over the Territory of the United States was limited, under the Constitution, to the territory possessed at the time of the adoption of that instrument, and the clause in question had, in fact, a special reference to the territory ceded under the Northwest Ordinance. Fourthly, in consequence, so much of the45 Missouri Compromise as related to the exclusion of slavery from a certain part of the Louisiana purchase was inoperative and void. Fifthly, the legal condition of a slave46 returning from a free to a slave State was unaffected by his sojourn in the former, but depended upon the law of the latter. As, by the law of Missouri, Dred Scott was47 not a citizen, but still a slave, he could not sue in a United States court. Whatever the intention of Judge Taney and the majority of the court, their deliverance was taken to mean both that Kansas and all other future embryo States were freely open to slaveholding immigration, and that the slaveholder would be protected by the Federal judiciary in carrying his human as well as his ordinary goods and chattels into the free States—a right already asserted by Judge Kane in the Passmore Williamson case. The48 steadily deepening feeling of wrath and resistance which the Kansas iniquity had evoked, now flamed out anew at the North. The decision was met by legislative resolutions49 and acts vindicating the freedom of all men—save the unhappy fugitive from slavery; by fresh obstacles to kidnappers,  in the shape of Personal Liberty laws. Massachusetts would issue passports to her own colored citizens.50 The New York Court of Appeals, in the long-pending51 Lemmon case, decided against the right to bring slaves into that State. This revolt against the Slave Power was neither against the Constitution nor the Union. Nevertheless, the promoters of the Northern disunion movement determined to proceed with their proposed convention of the free States. The circular call was issued in July. It was52 signed by T. W. Higginson, Wendell Phillips, Daniel Mann,53 W. L. Garrison, and F. W. Bird—the editor of Liberator going far beyond the language of it, since54 it proposed merely an inquiry into the practicability and expediency of disunion, and committed no one signing it to the doctrine. The date of the Convention was fixed in October, and the place selected was Cleveland,55 Ohio. In that State, the abolitionists had in January petitioned the Legislature to take steps to withdraw from56 the Union; with the result at least of precipitating a very edifying debate, in which the Republican members57 solemnly reaffirmed their ‘affection and fidelity to the Union.’ Convention. 464] expenditures in all their departments. Mr. Garrison's support was naturally rendered more precarious than ever, while some special burdens were laid upon him. In the just-quoted letter to Mr. May, he wrote: “After a wasting sickness of nine months duration (more than six of which were passed under my roof), my aunt Charlotte saw ‘the last of earth’ on the 2d inst. I rejoice that I was able to give her every attention, and to do all in my power to relieve and save her; but her illness has thrown upon me a heavy pecuniary load,—some hundreds of dollars additional.” Charlotte E. Newell; Lib. 27.163. Mrs. Newell was the youngest and much loved sister of Fanny Lloyd. On her losing her employment in 1854, Mr. Garrison wrote to his widowed relative, offering her a71 home for the remainder of her days. ‘While I have a place to shelter my own head,’ he said, ‘or a crust of bread to eat, you shall share it with me.’ On the very eve of her dissolution, a curious discovery was made, after more than thirty years, of a few hundred dollars belonging to Mr. Garrison's mother in a Baltimore savings-bank. This sum, by the friendly intervention of John Needles, was paid over to the rightful heir, and served to discharge a part of the expense of Mrs. Newell's medical attendance and burial. “It looks almost like a providential occurrence,” Ms. Sept. 22, 1857. wrote Mr. Garrison to Mr. Needles. ‘If my mother can take cognizance of what I am doing in this matter, her heart will thrill with delight to perceive to what a use her bequest is put.’ But the charity of Mr. Garrison and his wife neither72 began nor ended at home. Straitened themselves for means in this gloomy time, their active sympathy was extended to various forms of poverty and distress—from a reduced Irish family to refugees from Napoleon's prisonhouse at Cayenne.