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Chapter 44: Charleston Convention, 1860.

In 1790, the sections were so nearly equal in numbers that they felt able to protect their own interests by parliamentary resistance, but in 1860 the admission of many States in which the prohibition of slave property had been the principal clause requisite to their acceptance, had changed the face of things for the South. The large excess of territory belonging to the Southern States was decreased by portions ceded by Louisiana, Florida, and Texas. Virginia ceded the Northwest territory to the United States. The Missouri Compromise surrendered all the new territory except Missouri north of thirty-six degrees and thirty seconds. The compromise of 1850 gave up the northern part of Texas, and the North took, by vote of a majority, all the territories acquired by Mexico. A determined and preconcerted stand was made by the North and West against the admission of any Territory in the benefits of which the South had any participation, except by the sacrifice of its right of property in slaves. [668] Mr. Davis, in 1886, wrote on this subject to a friend:

In 1860, Mr. Douglas, as chairman of the Senate Committee on Territories, introduced a number of bills which were referred to a select committee, of which Mr. Clay was chairman. These bills, with little modification, were united and reported as what is familiarly known as the ‘ Omnibus Bill.’ Your compliment to Mr. Clay on page eleven is, I believe, just in so far as his influence secured the passage of the bills, the result which was otherwise doubtful. I opposed the measure with all the power I possessed, and after my return to Mississippi, advised the protest and such action as the united South might take to secure then a settlement which would guarantee our constitutional rights, and in many speeches stated the belief that if the occasion was allowed to pass, any future assertion of our rights must be written in blood.

The lease it gave was, as you say, of short duration, because it was a ‘compromise’ only in name. It had no element of permanent pacification. The refusal to extend the line of thirty-six degrees and thirty minutes to the Pacific Ocean, with all its political significance, was, in 1850, a denial of the obligation to recognize the existence of a compact between the North and South for a [669] division upon that line; therefore it was illogically argued in 1854, by Mr. Douglas, chair. man of the Committee on Territories, and others, that the political line of 36°, 30‘ had been obliterated by the legislation of 1850, and that the bill introduced by him declared it to be the true intent and meaning of said bill neither to legislate slavery into the Territory, nor exclude it therefrom, but to leave it to the people, when they came to form a State government, to decide that question for themselves.

This was the measure about which, as I wrote to you, the two committees of Congress came to me to obtain for them an interview with President Pierce on Sunday. You do great injustice to the President when you assign to him a selfish motive for his concurrence with the measure when presented to him. With entire confidence I say the President knew nothing of the measure until it was explained to him in that Sunday interview. Then he gave his assent, because it was in conformity with his opinion of the constitutional power of Congress, and because the Missouri Compromise was regarded as virtually repealed by the refusal to recognize its binding force in the division of recently acquired territory in 1850. To this extent, and this only, was it an Administration measure, [670] and the committee left the President with the ability to say he concurred with the propriety of the measure.

President Pierce was a man of the nicest sense of honor, incapable either for his own advancement, or for that of another, of entering into any indirect scheme. That he was a strict constructionist of the Constitution was sufficiently shown in 1837-38, when Mr. Calhoun's resolutions were under discussion in the Senate.

Then, not considering the prejudice which might exist among the people of the State he represented, he stood more firmly on the ground of your creed and mine than many who represented Southern States.

The often quoted expression of the President, that he ‘ knew no North, no South, no East, no West,’ was uniformly exemplified, and in the division of the officers for the new territories, like those for the new regiments, his policy was in accordance with that famous declaration.

I think, therefore, that you are mistaken in the view you take of that subject. If the repeal of the Missouri Compromise line occurred in 1850, then the unprecedented change which you notice as resulting in the legislation of 1854, must be construed as in the first case, as being injurious to the South, [671] and in the second case, as stripping the case to exclusiveness.

The first conclusion involves the question of date, and by which section the repeal was made.

Second, the motive was certainly higher and more worthy of those who were restoring constitutional right against usurpation and wrong, committed in 1820.

Third, to contend for a principle, a right attaching to equality in the Union, was a duty apart from any political benefit, and above even the consideration of interest to be affected by establishing a dangerous precedent.

Messrs. Douglas and Atchison are both dead. So far as I know and believe, they never were in such relation to each other as would have caused Douglas to ask Atchison's help in preparing the bill, and I think the whole discussion shows that Douglas originated the bill, and for a year or two vaunted himself on its paternity. As you are aware, I was not in the Senate between 1853-57.

In 1835 the first bugle call was heard to summon the crusaders against slavery. An English emissary led the reprobated party then, and they met with a sharp reception at the hands of the worthy citizens of the North. These men believed their cause to be that of [672] freedom and humanity, and their strength consisted in the fact that they were zealots and willing to die in defence of their faith. Sincerity always commands a certain respectful following. This movement offered a tempting weapon to the eager hands stretched out for political power and office, but designing politicians joined the standard of “Free soil” without either the faith or the enthusiasm of the abolitionists, and kept up a factious opposition to everything that tended to benefit the Southern people or to extend their borders.

The view of the sources of power over a Territory, held by Mr. Davis and those who acted with him, that “The climate and will of the community should determine their institutions when they should meet to form a constitution, and as a State be admitted into the Union; and that no legislation by Congress should be permitted to interfere with the free exercise of that will when so expressed,” was but the announcement of the fact clearly recognized in the Constitution, that sovereignty resided alone in the States, and that the General Government had only delegated powers. The Southern men also held that the ordinances of the Congress of Confederation of 1787, prohibiting involuntary servitude in all the Northwestern Territory, were not binding upon, or precedents for the [673] Congress of the United States, the right of which had been defined and permanently settled by a later instrument — the Constitution of the Union. “The assumption of power would avail nothing as to the Congress under the Constitution, the power of which is expressly limited to what had been delegated.”

Mr. Buchanan, in his “Administration,” attributed the sudden culmination of the dispute over the property in the Territories between the North and the South to the repeal of the Missouri Compromise of 1820; but this opinion is hardly tenable in view of the fact that the Missouri Compromise had been rendered and declared “inoperative and void” by the refusal of the North to apply it to the territory acquired from Mexico south of the geographical line established by that instrument. Whenever the effort was made to claim our rights under it, the Wilmot proviso was pressed upon the two houses and defeated all efforts at a peaceful adjustment. The fact that it was inoperative was declared, but no new act was consummated by the vote of Southern men to repeal the Missouri Compromise bill. They took this means to arrive at some understanding of what were the admitted rights of the South over the Territories in which both parties were acknowledged to be the joint owners, and also from a manly [674] determination to settle the dispute in their time, instead of transmitting it to posterity. They were willing to make concessions and waive rights, in order to put an end to internal strife, though denying the authority of Congress to interfere with their State affairs, or legislate on the rights inherent to them.

When the Missouri Compromise was repealed, if the right in the property of the several territories reverted to the original owners, Kansas and Nebraska would, by the absence of compromises, revert to the States in common, and thus be left open to the whole country, whose property they were, to decide by actual occupation whether its system of labor should be by freemen or by slaves.

While the two sections were thus hotly engaged in Congress, a Territorial government was organized in a regular manner and the Territories applied for admission, but the antislavery men established their headquarters at Lawrence, and brought in squatters by the thousands, elected another so-called Legislature at Topeka by these votes, and asked to be recognized as the legal government, alleging fraud on the part of the regularly elected Territorial body.

This lawless condition of things had caused the administration of Mr. Pierce to send out an officer of the army, who was believed to [675] be sturdily honest, to report on the true state of affairs in Kansas. Strict orders were given to the officers stationed there to insist upon impartial justice between the settlers from the two sections.

Secretary Davis also appointed an officer of high moral qualities to command the troops, a man of strong free soil proclivities, frankly announced, whose courage, honor, and sincerity were never doubted. He went to his honored grave as he had lived, with the esteem of all who knew him and the love of many Colonel Edwin V. Sumner, of the United States Army.

When Mr. Buchanan came into office he recognized the Lecompton Legislature, having satisfied himself that it was the legally elected body.

There was an election for a State convention held on September 4th, which adjourned on November 7th, after ordering an election to be held on December 21, 1857, when the vote should be taken on the sole issue of free or slave labor. The ballots were endorsed I “Constitution without slavery, and Constitution with slavery,” but the advocates of the Topeka Legislature and Constitution as a party again failed to vote, though a considerable portion availed themselves of the opportunity. The result was 6,226 votes for slavery, [676] 596 against it. The constitution thus adopted provided for an election on the first Monday of January, 1858, for governor, lieutenant-governor, secretary of State, State treasurer, and members of the Legislature, and also a member of Congress. A large majority of the anti-slavery men seeing their error voted for these officers, and thus reversed the majority of the pro-slavery men and placed the State in the hands of the antislavery men.

This was the condition of Kansas when Mr. Davis returned to the floor of the Senate, and the sectional excitement was kept up until the admission of Kansas as a free State on January 29, 1861.1 “And now,” wrote Mr. Davis,

the Northern indignation was aroused by the absurd accusation that the South had destroyed ‘ that sacred instrument, the compromise of 1820.’ For the fratricide which dyed the virgin soil of Kansas with the blood of those who should have stood shoulder to shoulder in subduing the wilderness; for the frauds which corrupted the ballot-box, and made the name of election a misnomer, let the authors of ‘ Squatter Sovereignty’ and the fomenters of sectional hatred answer to the [677] posterity, for whose peace and happiness the Fathers formed the Federal compact.

In these scenes of strife were trained the incendiaries who afterward invaded Virginia under the leadership of John Brown, and at this time germinated the sentiments which led men of high position to sustain with their money this murderous incursion into the South.

In reviewing this same period, Mr. Buchanan very pertinently inquires: “But even admitting slavery to be a sin, have the adherents of John Brown never reflected that the attempt by one people to pass beyond their jurisdiction, and to extirpate by force of arms whatever they may deem sinful among another people, would involve the nations of the earth in perpetual hostilities? We Christians are thoroughly convinced that Mahomet was a false prophet — shall we, therefore, make war upon the Turkish Empire to destroy Islamism? If we would preserve the peace of the world and avoid much greater evils than we desire to destroy, we must act upon the wise principles of international law, and leave each people to decide domestic questions for themselves.”

On April 23d, the National Democratic Convention was held in Charleston, S. C., to nominate their candidate for President. [678]

There was a wide divergence of opinion on the subject of admitting slavery into the new Territories. Mr. Stephen Douglas was the leader of the party of “squatter sovereignty,” and to his standard came the Northern, Southern, and Western men who opposed the extension of slavery. The old organization composed of the strict constructionists of the Constitution, sometimes called “the old line Democrats,” stood in solid phalanx ready to insist upon the equal rights of the South under the Constitution, and the men of the South generally stood firmly upon the decisions of the Supreme Court, and notably upon the Dred Scott decision, which placed slave property on exactly the same basis with that in lands, houses, and all other property. This decision was rendered by the venerable Chief Justice Taney, whose stainless ermine will never grace a nobler or more irreproachable judge, or one more worthy to sit in the most august body in the civilized world.

In this convention, after balloting for several days, the first formally defined sectional line was made manifest.

The majority report resolved that it was the duty of the Federal Government to protect all citizens in their rights of property and person in the Territories, and it was the duty of the Government to admit the Territory, when the [679] government should be lawfully organized, whether slavery should be permitted or abolished.

The minority report recognized the differences of opinion between the two wings of the party, and resolved to abide by the decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States upon questions of constitutional law. They thus ignored the decisions of the Supreme Court previously made and promulgated upon this question, and promised to abide by some future decision. Those who looked at the animus of the minority saw they merely declared their dissonance with the majority, and stood ready to annul the opinion of the judiciary by one stratagem or another.

The South wanted a distinct expression of opinion and a pledge that the decisions of the court already promulgated should be accepted as final. There was no regular rule observed in the vote. Some States voted. as units, others voted by individuals, and by a parliamentary juggle the individual votes of Pennsylvania made of the minority a majority. The cotton States saw the inexpediency of voting that in future the Democrats would abide by the decisions of the Supreme Court, for that was to acknowledge that the decisions of that court already announced were not final. They [680] therefore refused to vote at all, as did the old line Democrats, and the resolution was lost. The Cincinnati platform was not satisfactory to the Southern States, as they wanted the sectional matter settled, and felt their strength would not increase with procrastination. They therefore withdrew from this political shibboleth. A vote to observe the two-thirds rule destroyed the hopes of Mr. Douglas's friends, but they were irreconcilable, for with them it was aut Douglas aut Nullus.

The seceding delegates did not return, though had they been willing to do so, their right to take their seats had been referred to the Committee on Credentials, that their departure from the meeting vacated their seats. The majority of this committee insisted that the seats of the seceders were made vacant by their departure, and the minority were helpless to re-occupy them. The Douglas men had in several instances elected new men to the convention in lieu of the old ones, and as an Alabama free-soiler said, speaking to me of the convention, “It was pieded, very much pieded, and not much of anything.”

New York coquetted a while with the South, and then went over to the majority. When the motion, without affirmation or guarantee of the rights of the Southern States in the Territories, was made to proceed [681] to an election for President, on April 30th, Louisiana, Alabama, South Carolina, Florida, and Texas withdrew in orderly procession; Tennessee, Kentucky, California, and Oregon followed. The president of the convention, General Caleb Cushing, then withdrew; a part of the Massachusetts delegation followed. Some few delegates from five of the eight seceding States remained, and the convention passed a resolution to recommend the Democratic party of the several States to supply the vacancies so created. On the strength of this resolution the remnant of the convention definitely refused admission or the right to vote to the seceding delegates.

Mr. Russell, of Virginia, a man as pure in heart as he was elevated in character, against whose patriotism and sincerity no allegation could ever have for a moment gained credence, arose, and in a speech that moved the hearts of the convention, used this remarkable expression. “Virginia stands in the midst of her sister States, in garments red with the blood of her children slain in the first outbreak of the irrepressible conflict. But, sir, not when her children fell at midnight beneath the weapons of the assassin, was her heart penetrated with so profound a grief as that which will wring it when she is obliged to choose between a separate destiny [682] with the South, and her common destiny with the entire Republic.”

On the next day, May 1st, Georgia withdrew, followed by Tennessee and Kentucky. Virginia presented a test-resolution “that the citizens of the United States have an equal right to settle with their property in the Territories of the United States; and that under the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States, which we recognize as the correct exposition of the Constitution of the United States, neither the rights of persons nor of property can be impaired by Congressional or Territorial legislation.” When this reaffirmative resolution was submitted, it was smothered by cries of “not in order.” Virginia then retired.

With astonishing inconsistency, half of the retiring delegates from Georgia, and half of the newly elected delegates were admitted; the same course was pursued toward those from Arkansas. The resolutions of the majority, except the nine relating to the Georgia delegation, were adopted in succession. When the minority report in favor of admitting the delegates came up, New York stepped to the front, and with her thirty-five votes made of the minority the majority.

The balloting proceeded, New York forced the two-thirds rule on the convention, but Mr. [683] Douglas's friends stood a solid phalanx around him, and would vote for no person or thing but him, and Squatter Sovereignty was his shibboleth. No conclusion could be reached, and the convention adjourned to meet at Baltimore on June 18th.

It was always a proud memory to Mr. Davis that Massachusetts gave him forty-nine votes, in unbroken succession, a testimonial of confidence and respect that cannot be lost or, like his name on Cabin John Bridge, be chiselled out of the work. Perhaps, had he stood among the citizens of other Northern States with his heart and hand open to them as he did in Massachusetts, his services might have been more potent to preserve peace. Years before the feud between the States had culminated in bitterness, I had a theory which perhaps, like Black Hawk's plan for abolishing slavery, was at least original if not practicable — that was to send the boys and girls of the North to schools in the South, and send our boys and girls to the North. The people of the two sections are not the same people, but are the complement of each other, and their extreme opinions would have thus been modified by the education of each in the other's sphere.

In Baltimore. June 18th, the convention met again with General Cushing again in the [684] chair. Everyone who could find standing room went from the adjacent cities. It put one in mind of the old Scotch song, “O little wot ye wha's coming.” New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina-indeed, the anxious, thoughtful men from all the States poured in with propositions of pacification. They talked in groups of twos and threes in subdued tones, and listened to the proceedings of the convention as to their doom. In the galleries there were extraordinary scenes and by-plays. A Western lady was criticising most severely the South and all things Southern, when an old man, who was supposed to be a preacher, looked at her and said, in a persuasive tone, “Oh, lady, please don't do and talk so ugly, we are not as bad as you think.”

The balloting continued until June 18th, when Mr. Howard introduced a resolution that the original delegates to Charleston should receive tickets of admission, but it was defeated by Mr. Douglas's friends. The new delegates elected to fill the vacant seats were admitted, though they represented a very small minority of their States; the motion was made to refer the seceding delegates' application for admission to the Committee on Credentials, from which, now that the Southern [685] element had been eliminated, there could be no hope of a favorable action.

That remnant of the Southern party was again divided by the candidacy of the Honorable John Bell, of Tennessee. “Spent by the fury of the shock,” the different Democratic candidates each sustained a defeat, as was to have been expected, until the party united on the nomination and election of handsome, knightly Mr. Breckenridge, who told me immediately after it, “I trust I have the courage to lead a forlorn hope.”

Thus Mr. Lincoln was finally elected over the divided household of our faith on issues antagonistic to our institutions. To the South he represented nothing but the embodiment of the enmity of his party. He was the candidate of a part only of the people of the United States, elected with the express understanding that he would rule in hostility over the minority, while ostensibly acting as the guardian of the whole country.

1 For a fuller statement refer to the Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, by Jefferson Davis.

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