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Mr. Buchanan's administration.

Chapter 1:

  • The rise and progress of Anti-slavery agitation
  • -- the higher law -- Anti-slavery societies -- their formation and proceedings -- their effect destructive of State emancipation -- the case in Virginia -- employment of the post office to circulate incendiary publications and pictures among the slaves -- message of General Jackson to prohibit this bylaw -- his recommendation defeated -- the pulpit, the press, and other agencies -- abolition petitions -- the rise of an extreme Southern Proslavery party -- the Fugitive slave law of 1793, and the case of Prigg vs. Pennsylvania, and its pernicious effects -- the South threaten secession -- the course of Mr. Buchanan as Senator -- the Wilmot Proviso and its consequences -- the Union in serious danger at the meeting of Congress in December, 1849.

that the Constitution does not confer upon Congress power to interfere with slavery in the States, has been admitted by all parties and confirmed by all judicial decisions ever since the origin of the Federal Government. This doctrine was emphatically recognized by the House of Representatives in the days of Washington, during the first session of the first Congress,1 and has never since been seriously called in question. Hence, it became necessary for the abolitionists, in order to furnish a pretext for their assaults on Southern slavery, to appeal to a law higher than the Constitution.

Slavery, according to them, was a grievous sin against God, and therefore no human Constitution could rightfully shield it from destruction. It was sinful to live in a political confederacy which tolerated slavery in any of the States composing it; and if this could not be eradicated, it would become a sacred [10] duty for the free States to separate from their guilty associates. This doctrine of the higher law was preached from the pulpits and disseminated in numerous publications throughout New England. At the first, it was regarded with contempt as the work of misguided fanatics. Ere long, however, it enlisted numerous and enthusiastic partisans. These were animated with indomitable zeal in a cause they deemed so holy. They constituted the movement party, and went ahead; because, whether from timidity or secret sympathy, the conservative masses failed in the beginning to resist its progress in an active and determined spirit.

The anti-slavery party in its career never stopped to reflect that slavery was a domestic institution, exclusively under the control of the sovereign States where it existed; and therefore, if sinful in itself, it was certainly not the sin of the people of New England. With equal justice might conscience have impelled citizens of Massachusetts to agitate for the suppression of slavery in Brazil as in South Carolina. In both cases they were destitute of all rightful power over the subject.

The Constitution having granted to Congress no power over slavery in the States, the abolitionists were obliged to resort to indirect means outside of the Constitution to accomplish their object. The most powerful of these was anti-slavery agitation: agitation for the double purpose of increasing the number of their partisans at home, and of exciting a spirit of discontent and resistance among the slaves of the South. This agitation was conducted by numerous anti-slavery societies scattered over the North. It was a new and important feature of their organization that women were admitted as members. Sensitive and enthusiastic in their nature against wrong, and believing slavery to be a mortal sin, they soon became public speakers, in spite of the injunctions of an inspired apostle; and their harangues were quite as violent and extreme as those of their fathers, husbands, and brothers. Their influence as mothers was thus secured and directed to the education of the rising generation in anti-slavery principles. Never was an organization planned and conducted with greater skill and foresight for the eventual accomplishment of its object. [11]

The New England Anti-Slavery Society was organized in Boston on January 30th, 1832; that of New York in October, 1833; and the National Society was organized in Philadelphia in December, 1833. Affiliated societies soon became numerous.

After the formation of the New England society the agitation against Southern slavery proceeded with redoubled vigor, and this under the auspices of British emissaries. One of the first and most pernicious effects of these proceedings was to arrest the natural progress of emancipation under legitimate State authority.

When this agitation commenced, the subject of such emancipation was freely discussed in the South, and especially in the grain-growing border States, and had enlisted numerous and powerful advocates. In these States the institution had become unprofitable. According to the witty and eccentric Virginian, Mr. Randolph, if the slave did not soon run away from the master, the master would run away from the slave. Besides, at this period nobody loved slavery for its own sake.

Virginia, whose example has always exercised great influence on her sister States, was, in 1832, on the verge of emancipation.2 The current was then running strong in its favor throughout the State. Many of the leading men, both the principal newspapers, and probably a majority of the people sustained the policy and justice of emancipation. Numerous petitions in its favor were presented to the General Assembly. Mr. Jefferson Randolph, a worthy grandson of President Jefferson, and a delegate from one of the largest slaveholding counties of the commonwealth (Albemarle), brought forward a bill in the House to accomplish the object. This was fully and freely discussed, and was advocated by many prominent members. Not a voice was raised throughout the debate in favor of slavery. Mr. Randolph, finding the Legislature not quite prepared for so decisive a measure, did not press it to a final vote; but yet the House resolved, by a majority of 65 to 58, ‘that they were profoundly sensible of the great evils arising from the condition of the colored population of the commonwealth, and were induced by policy [12] as well as humanity to attempt the immediate removal of the free negroes; but that further action for the removal of the slaves should await a more definite development of public opinion.’

Mr. Randolph's course was approved by his constituents, and at the next election he was returned by them as a member of the House of Delegates, on this very question. Unfortunately, at this moment the anti-slavery agitation in New England began to assume an alarming aspect for the peace and security of the Southern people. In consequence, they denounced it as a foreign and dangerous interference with rights which the Constitution had left exclusively under their own control. An immediate and powerful reaction against emancipation by State authority was the result, and this good cause, to which so many able and patriotic Southern men had been devoted, was sacrificed.

Mr. Randolph himself a short time thereafter, expressed a confident belief to the author, that but for this interference, the General Assembly would, at no distant day, have passed a law for gradual emancipation. He added, so great had been the revulsion of public sentiment in Virginia, that no member of that body would now dare to propose such a measure.

The abolitionists became bolder and bolder as they advanced. They did not hesitate to pervert the Post Office Department of the Government to the advancement of their cause. Through its agency, at an early period, they scattered throughout the slaveholding States pamphlets, newspapers, and pictorial representations of an incendiary character, calculated to arouse the savage passions of the slaves to servile insurrection. So alarming had these efforts become to the domestic peace of the South, that General Jackson recommended they should be prohibited by law, under severe penalties. He said, in his annual message of 2d December, 1835: ‘I must also invite your attention to the painful excitement produced in the South by attempts to circulate, through the mails, inflammatory appeals addressed to the passions of the slaves, in prints, and in various sorts of publications, calculated to stimulate them to insurrection and to produce all the horrors of a servile war.’3 And he also commended to the special attention of Congress ‘the propriety of passing such a [13] law as will prohibit, under severe penalties, the circulation in the Southern States, through the mails, of incendiary publications intended to instigate the slaves to insurrection.’4

A bill for this purpose was reported to the Senate, but after a long and animated debate, it was negatived, on the 8th of June, 1836, by a vote of 19 to 25.5 It is worthy of remark, that even at this early period not a single Senator from New England, whether political friend or opponent of General Jackson, voted in favor of the measure he had so emphatically recommended. All the Senators from that portion of the Union, under the lead of Messrs. Webster and Davis, of Massachusetts, denied to Congress the Constitutional power of passing any law to prevent the abolitionists from using our own mails to circulate incendiary documents throughout the slaveholding States, even though these were manifestly intended to promote servile insurrection and civil war within their limits. The power and duty of Congress to pass the bill were earnestly urged by Mr. Buchanan, then a Senator from Pennsylvania, in opposition to the objections of Mr. Webster.

This anti-slavery agitation in New England was prosecuted by other and different agencies. The pulpit, the press, State Legislatures, State and county conventions, anti-slavery societies, and abolition lectures were all employed for this purpose. Prominent among them were what were called, in the language of the day, abolition petitions.

Throughout the session of 1835-6, and for several succeeding sessions, these petitions incessantly poured in to Congress. They prayed for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, and in the forts, magazines, arsenals, and dockyards of the United States within the slaveholding States. They also protested against the admission of any new slaveholding State into the Union, and some of them went even so far as to petition for a dissolution of the Union itself

These petitions were signed by hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children. In them slavery was denounced as a national sin and a national disgrace. Every epithet was employed [14] calculated to arouse the indignation of the Southern people. The time of Congress was wasted in violent debates on the subject of slavery. In these it would be difficult to determine which of the opposing parties was guilty of the greatest excess. Whilst the South threatened disunion unless the agitation should cease, the North treated such threats with derision and defiance. It became manifest to every reflecting man that two geographical parties, the one embracing the people north and the other those south of Mason and Dixon's line, were in rapid process of formation—an event so much dreaded by the Father of his Country.

It is easy to imagine the effect of this agitation upon the proud, sensitive, and excitable people of the South. One extreme naturally begets another. Among the latter there sprung up a party as fanatical in advocating slavery as were the abolitionists of the North in denouncing it. At the first, and for a long time, this party was small in numbers, and found it difficult to excite the masses to support its extreme views. These Southern fanatics, instead of admitting slavery to be an evil in itself, pronounced it to be a great good. Instead of admitting that it had been reluctantly recognized by the Constitution as an overruling political necessity, they extolled it as the surest support of freedom among the white race. If the fanatics of the North denounced slavery as evil and only evil, and that continually, the fanatics of the South upheld it as fraught with blessings to the slave as well as to his master. Far different was the estimation in which it was held by Southern patriots and statesmen both before and for many years after the adoption of the Constitution. These looked forward hopefully to the day when, with safety both to the white and black race, it might be abolished by the people of the slaveholding States themselves, who alone possessed the power.

The late President, as a Senator of the United States, from December, 1834, until March, 1845, lost no opportunity of warning his countrymen of the danger to the Union from a persistence in this anti-slavery agitation, and of beseeching them to suffer the people of the South to manage their domestic affairs in their own way. All they desired, to employ their ofted [15] language, was ‘to be let alone.’ With a prophetic vision, at so early a period as the 9th March, 1836, he employed the following language in the Senate: ‘Sir,’ said Mr. B., ‘this question of domestic slavery is the weak point in our institutions. Tariffs may be raised almost to prohibition, and then they may be reduced so as to yield no adequate protection to the manufacturer; our Union is sufficiently strong to endure the shock. Fierce political storms may arise—the moral elements of the country may be convulsed by the struggles of ambitious men for the highest honors of the Government—the sunshine does not more certainly succeed the storm, than that all will again be peace. Touch this question of slavery seriously—let it once be made manifest to the people of the South that they cannot live with us, except in a state of continual apprehension and alarm for their wives and their children, for all that is near and dear to them upon the earth—and the Union is from that moment dissolved. It does not then become a question of expediency, but of self-preservation. It is a question brought home to the fireside, to the domestic circle of every white man in the Southern States. This day, this dark and gloomy day for the Republic, will, I most devoutly trust and believe, never arrive. Although, in Pennsylvania, we are all opposed to slavery in the abstract, yet we will never violate the Constitutional compact which we have made with our sister States. Their rights will be held sacred by us. Under the Constitution it is their own question, and there let it remain.’6

A new source of anti-slavery agitation was about this time opened against the execution of the old Fugitive Slave Law, passed in February, 1793.

This was greatly increased by the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States, at the January term, 1842, in the case of Prigg vs. the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.7 It is true, the opinion of the Court, delivered by Mr. Justice Story, explicitly affirmed the Constitutional right of the master to recover his fugitive slave in any State to which he had fled. It even went so far as to clothe the master himself ‘with full [16] authority, in every State of the Union, to seize arid recapture his slave, wherever he can do it without a breach of the peace or any illegal violence.’ After these strong affirmations it becomes necessary to state the reason why this decision became the occasion of increased anti-slavery agitation.

The act of 17938 authorized and required State judges and magistrates, in common with judges of the United States, to carry its provisions into effect. At the date of its passage no doubt was entertained of the power of Congress to direct this duty to be performed by appropriate State authorities. From the small number of Federal judges in each State, and their distance from each other, the masters, in almost every instance, resorted to the magistrate of the ‘county, city, or town corporate,’ where the slave had been arrested. Before him the necessary proof was made, and, upon being satisfied, he granted a certificate to the master, which was a sufficient warrant under the law ‘for removing the said fugitive from labor to the State or Territory from which he or she fled.’ These State magistrates were familiar to the people of the respective localities, and their duties were performed in a satisfactory manner, and with but little complaint or commotion. This continued to be the practice until the opinion of the Court in the case of Prigg was pronounced. In this it was decided that State magistrates were not bound to perform these duties; and the question whether they would do so or not, was left entirely to their own discretion.

It was thus rendered competent for State Legislatures to prohibit their own functionaries from aiding in the execution of the Fugitive Slave Act.

Then commenced a furious agitation against the execution of this so-called ‘sinful and inhuman’ law. State magistrates were prevailed upon by the abolitionists to refuse their agency in carrying it into effect. The Legislatures of several States, in conformity with this decision, passed laws prohibiting these magistrates and other State officials from assisting in its execution. The use of the State jails was denied for the safekeep-ing of the fugitives. Personal Liberty Bills were passed, interposing [17] insurmountable obstacles to the recovery of slaves. Every means which ingenuity could devise was put in operation to render the law a dead letter. Indeed, the excitement against it rose so high that the life and liberty of the master who pursued his fugitive slave into a free State were placed in imminent peril. For this he was often imprisoned, and, in some instances, murdered.

The Fugitive Slave Law, although passed under the administration of Washington for the purpose of carrying into effect a plain, clear, and mandatory provision of the Constitution, was set at naught. And this was done in the face of a well-known historical fact, that without such a provision the Constitution itself never could have existed. Without this law the slaveholder would have had no remedy to enforce his Constitutional right. There would have been no security for his property. If the slave, by simply escaping across a State line, could make himself free, the guarantees of the Constitution in favor of the master would be effectually abolished. These very guarantees were rendered practically of little or no avail, by the decision of the Court in the case of Prigg vs. Pennsylvania, declaring that the Congress of 1793 had violated the Constitution by requiring State magistrates to aid in executing the law.

We have no disposition to dispute the binding force of this decision, although made by a bare majority against the opinion of Chief-Justice Taney and three other judges. It was nevertheless pronounced by the Constitutional tribunal in the last resort, and therefore challenges the obedience, if not the approval, of every law-abiding citizen.

Mr. Justice Story himself seems to have clearly and complacently foreseen the injurious consequences to the rights of the slaveholder which would result from his decision. In his biography, written by his son (vol. II., p. 392), it is stated: ‘But in establishing, contrary to the opinion of four of the judges, that the extradition of fugitive slaves is exclusively within the jurisdiction of the Federal Government, and that the State Legislatures are prohibited from interfering, even to assistin giving effect to the clause in the Constitution on this subject; he (Judge Story) considered that a great point had been gained for liberty; [18] so great a point, indeed, that, on his return from Washington, he repeatedly and earnestly spoke of it to his family and his intimate friends as being “a triumph of freedom.” ’

Again (page 394): ‘Nor were these views contradicted by subsequent experience. From the day of the decision of Prigg vs. the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the act of 1793 was,’ says his biographer, ‘a dead letter in the free States.’

The slaveholders, thus deprived of their rights, began to threaten secession from the Union. They contended that, the people of the Northern States having violated the Constitution in a fundamental provision necessary to their peace and safety, they of the South, according to the settled rules governing the construction of all contracts, whether between States or individuals, had a right to rescind it altogether.

In 1846, in the midst of the agitation against the Fugitive Slave Law, came that on the Wilmot Proviso. This asserted it to be the right and duty of Congress to prohibit the people of the Southern States from emigrating with their slave property to the common territory of the United States, which might be acquired by the war with Mexico. Thus was raised anew the question in regard to slavery in the territories, which has since proved so fatal

In May, 1846, the existence of war with Mexico, by the act of that Republic, was recognized by Congress, and measures were adopted for its prosecution.9

On the 4th of August, 1846, near the close of the session,10 President Polk, desirous of restoring peace as speedily as possible, and of adjusting the boundaries between the two Republics in a satisfactory manner, asked Congress for a small contingent appropriation, to be applied to this purpose, which it might or might not become necessary to employ before their next meeting. Accordingly, on the 8th of August a bill was presented to the House granting the President $2,000,000.

To this bill Mr. Wilmot offered his proviso as an amendment.11 The proviso declared ‘That, as an express and fundamental condition to the acquisition of any territory from the [19] Republic of Mexico by the United States, by virtue of any treaty which may be negotiated between them, and to the use by the Executive of the moneys herein appropriated, neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall ever exist in any part of said territory, except for crime, whereof the party shall first be duly convicted.’

Had this proviso been never so proper in itself, it was both out of time and out of place. Out of time, because, whether any treaty could be made acquiring territory from Mexico, was future and contingent; and in fact that of Guadalupe Hidalgo, under which we acquired Upper California and New Mexico, was not concluded until almost eighteen months thereafter.12 But Mr. Wilmot was so eager to introduce this new subject for anti-slavery agitation, that he could not await the regular course of events.

The proviso was also out of place in an appropriation bill confined to a single important object, because it was calculated to defeat, as it actually did defeat, the appropriation. It was a firebrand recklessly and prematurely cast among the free and slave States, at a moment when a foreign war was raging, in which all were gallantly fighting, side by side, to conquer an honorable peace. This was the moment selected, long in advance, to announce to the people of the slaveholding States that if we should acquire any new territory by our common blood and treasure, they should forever be prohibited from entering any portion of it with by far the most valuable part of their property.

The introduction of this proviso instantly caused the flames of fanaticism to burn with more intense ardor, both North and South, than they had ever done before. How wise is the Divine maxim, that ‘sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof’!

The new territory afterwards acquired from Mexico, being outside of the ancient province of Louisiana, was not embraced by the Missouri Compromise. The late President, then Secretary of State, strongly urged the extension of the line of 36° 30′ through this territory to the Pacific Ocean, as the best mode of adjustment. He believed that its division by this ancient line, [20] to which we had been long accustomed, would be more just in itself, and more acceptable to the people, both North and South, than any new plan which could be devised.13

This proposal was defeated by the Wilmot Proviso. That ill-starred measure continued to be forced upon the consideration of Congress, as well as of State Legislatures, session after session, in various forms. Whilst Northern Legislatures were passing resolutions instructing their Senators and requesting their Representatives. to vote for the Wilmot Proviso, Southern Legislatures and conventions were passing resolutions pledging themselves to measures of resistance.

The interposition of the proviso, in season and out of season, and the violent and protracted debates to which it gave rise, defeated the establishment of territorial governments in California and New Mexico throughout the whole of the thirtieth Congress (1847-8 and 1848-9). Meanwhile it placed the two sections of the Union in hostile array against each other. The people of the one, instead of regarding those of the other as brethren, were converted into deadly enemies. At the meeting of the thirty-first Congress (December, 1849) serious apprehensions were everywhere entertained, among the most enlightened and purest patriots, for the safety of the Union. The necessity was admitted by all that measures should be adopted to ward off the impending danger.

1 Annals of Congress, vol. II, p. 1474, Sept 1, 1789-90.

2 Letter of Geo. W. Randolph to Nahum Capen, of 18th April, 1851.

3 2 Statesman's Manual, 1018.

4 2 Statesman's Manual, p. 1019.

5 Senate Journal, June 2, 1886, pp. 899,400, and Con. Globe of June 8, 1836.

6 Gales and Seaton's Register of Debates, vol. XII., part 1, 1835-6, p. 781.

7 16 Peter, 689.

8 1 U. S. L. 302.

9 Act of 18th May, 1846; 9 U. S. S. at Large, p. 9.

10 8 Statesman's Manual, 1610.

11 Con. Globe, 1845-6, p. 1217.

12 Treaty, Feb. 2, 1848; 9 U. S. Statutes at Large, 922.

13 Letter to Berks County, Aug. 25, 1847.

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