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Chapter 7: the shadow of slavery

  • Dana and Lincoln
  • -- “human Restlessness and divine Providence” -- early views of the tribune -- lecture on slavery at Chicago -- Ericsson's caloric engine -- principles of Dana and Greeley -- the blue pencil

It is said that a few years before the beginning of this decade, Abraham Lincoln, in his first speech at New Salem announcing himself as a candidate for the legislature, defined his political principles as follows: “I believe in a protective tariff, in a system of internal improvements, in a United States bank, and I am against human slavery.” This terse and comprehensive platform underlay nearly all the great controversies of the day, and curiously enough they were all definitely settled by the war between the States. That Dana had ever heard of Lincoln at the time, or for many years after his New Salem speech, is highly improbable. They were widely separated by distance as well as by occupation, and yet they stood together from the first in spirit and conviction, and this fact, as much if not more than any other, certifies the unity of the American people and their common interest in the settlement of all fundamental questions. The controversies of the day were the same everywhere, and the flux and reflux of public opinion were largely controlled by the newspapers. Public men rose and fell, as they stood for or against the popular sense of right and wrong, or as they were able or unable to make themselves heard above “the noise of the captains and the shouting.” [111] In all this the Tribune gradually rose in favor, and whatever may be said of its views on this or that subject, no one can turn over its pages in the ponderous volumes of the public library without coming to the conclusion that they constitute an interesting epitome of the country's daily history. Dana's hand is recognized on every page of the issues for 1851, here advocating a railroad to the Pacific, as the best means of controlling the trade of India, there favoring the nomination of presidents without the aid of a convention, and their election by the direct vote of the people. In one article he denounced the Democratic policy of abolishing paper money, while in another he commended the noble example of Iowa in abolishing the penalty of death. The next day we find him favorably considering Mr. Seward's doctrine of the “higher law” in connection with the return of fugitive slaves. Then follows an editorial commenting upon A. T. Stewart's marble palace as an illustration of

the tendency of commerce to concentrate into fewer and fewer hands, impelled by an unexpressed instinct that economy and reliability are thereby attained. The man who keeps a stock of goods worth hundreds of thousands and sells annually to the value of millions can afford to undersell his smaller-dealing competitor, and cannot afford to bear the reputation of dishonesty and slipperiness. Hence as trade concentrates it becomes cleaner, fairer, more upright. The great operator may be no honester intrinsically than his petty rival, but his public is far wider and its opinions more important.

But the fear of dissolution and secession had become deeply fixed even at that early day in the minds of the Southern people, and especially in those of the South-Carolinians. Greeley was abroad, and Dana had not yet come to regard our political situation as one of pressing danger. In June, 1851, he wrote with incredulity: [112]

What can South Carolina expect to do in the way of forcible secession on her own account?

Far-sighted and vigilant as he was, it is clear that the dissolution of the Union had not yet come to be the all-absorbing topic of public discussion. Evidently the widespread spirit of revolution which in 1848-49 had threatened every government in Europe, and had so impressed him during his travels abroad with the necessity for social and economic reform, still held the uppermost place in his mind.

On another occasion, only a few days later, Dana, after commenting upon the great triumph which we celebrate on the Fourth of July, declared with regret that while it put democracy into our political it failed to put it into our social institutions, and this idea it will be seen, by references to his addresses delivered on socialism and democracy many years afterwards, he never relinquished.

In August of this year the white merchants of Virginia put forth an address, in which they took strong grounds against training and instructing negroes for the trades, and this called forth Dana's most vigorous comments as follows:

... This address supposes throughout that a community composed of a servile class on the one hand, and a free class on the other, can be happy, prosperous, and progressive. And this appears not as if it was a politic reticence, but a sincere and unsuspecting conviction. Notwithstanding their talk about equity, justice, the destruction of monopolies, and the pure principles of republicanism, they are all ready to tolerate and even held perpetuate this most monstrous of monopolies, this worst form of injustice, this utmost of tyrannies. A delusion so inhumane in a class which ought to manifest some degree of independence, intelligence, and freedom from prejudice is the lost conclusive argument that [113] could be presented against slavery. When it fixes its chains even upon the minds of the free mechanics of a State the case is bad, indeed, and a reaction cannot long be delayed.

A short time afterwards the white mechanics of Georgia followed the example set by those of Virginia, and this gave Dana a further opportunity to comment upon “the essential and ineradicable antagonism between the slave and free labor,” and especially upon the degradation these mechanics would fix upon tilling the earth and menial domestic service by limiting those occupations to slaves.

Notwithstanding the frequent warnings given by the South that the discussion of the slavery question by the Northern journals was weakening the devotion of the Southern people for the Union, the Tribune, and some of the greatest statesmen of the North, notably Daniel Webster, could not be brought to recognize that there was yet any real danger. Withal, the greater editors could not confine themselves exclusively to American questions, but occasionally took a view of the whole world. While Greeley was still abroad, Dana, under the caption of “Human Restlessness and divine Providence,” wrote in the following pessimistic strain:

The restlessness of men under their present condition affords the very strongest argument that we can conceive that there is a Divine Providence. For if men could settle down quietly with the world as it is, the greater part of it uninhabited, unimproved, and unexplored, covered with pestilent marshes, foul jungles, and burning deserts; without canals or railroads, and occupied by wild beasts; the greater part of the civilized states governed in abject tyranny and brutal ignorance; great armies and navies still necessary; pauperism, crime, and prostitution universal scourges; slavery existing in the freest and most enterprising of republics; disorder, discontent, and unhappiness prevailing everywhere; [114] hardly anywhere free schools for all the population; people striving to get rich by foul means where fair will not serve; our cities centres of filth, misery, and degradation; children dying in infancy by thousands instead of growing up to vigor and usefulness; health and beauty the exception and not the rule among those who do grow up; if we say men could settle down quietly in a state of things of which these are far from all the revolting and defective features, then we might well doubt whether humanity were here on earth for any purpose but to be the sport of some infernal and atheistic chance.

During this year the Tribune advocated an international copyright “as equitable and expedient” for both sides of the ocean, opposed the Democratic policy of indefinite annexation, declared its belief that “all America will be democratic and united in our confederation of States,” though “we would not seek to anticipate that time by violent means,” and wrote strenuously for the improvement of the great rivers and harbors of the West at the expense of the Federal government.

In the next issue it expressed its belief that slavery could not be perpetuated, but would, in accordance with the universal rule of history, “end by resistless necessity, naturally, and without dangerously convulsing the state, or violently, with its destruction.” “Shall we,” it asks, with prophetic solemnity, “take the way of nature or risk the distant oncoming revolution?”

The annexation of Cuba and Mexico, which was advocated by several Southern papers at this time, received no countenance from the Tribune. While it was naturally favorable to Cuban independence, it refused to excuse filibustering or to advocate the annexation of either of those countries for the benefit of slavery, or to facilitate the return of fugitive slaves, which it contended was the principal reason for the popularity of those measures in the South. It was deaf to the appeals of all who sought [115] to silence the discussion of slavery in the free States, and served notice that such a limitation as this upon free speech and a free press could never be enforced. It admonished Mr. Clay, whom it had always admired, that he underrated the force of Northern repugnance to the fugitive-slave law.

It was during the closing month of this year, too, that the Tribune published an editorial in which we find the following:

... If we regard the several States as sovereignties and the Union as a confederacy, the right to secede from that Union in case of the perversion of its powers to the vital injury of one or more of the high contracting parties, would seem to be a legitimate inference from the premises. ...

It is not known positively who wrote those lines, but as Greeley had returned from Europe, and was again actively engaged as the responsible editor of the great antislavery journal, it is assumed that he was their author, or at least had personally permitted their utterance. It should be observed, however, that the premises as stated were never admitted by any considerable number of Northern men, but that the great majority of them contended strenuously that the Constitution provided for a perpetual and indestructible Union, from which no State had a right to withdraw. The editorial is mentioned here, not for the purpose of anticipating or discussing the great question raised by it, but merely to show the drift of opinion at that early day, and to point out the fact that it was probably Greeley and not Dana who made even this small concession to the doctrine of State rights, which was then coming so ominously to the front throughout the South.

Notwithstanding the Tribune's clear and explicit declaration [116] of principles, there is nothing in it to show that Dana had yet become an abolitionist. From a letter to James Pike, it appears that he went to Chicago on June 22, 1852, to be gone a week, and while there delivered a lecture on slavery, the manuscript of which, in his own well-known handwriting, is now in my possession. It is by far the most formal and complete statement of his opinions on that subject ever made by him. It was prepared with great care after much study, and while it cannot be claimed that it shows his exact state of mind for any date later than the last of June or the first of July of that year, it raises a strong presumption that it contains the matured and settled views which he always held on that important .subject.

After a careful recital of the historical facts, Dana reached the conclusion that through the action of the slave-holding States themselves and the growth of public opinion, slavery would ultimately come to a peaceful and not a violent end, that neither revolt nor outside interference were probable, that there was no case in all history where revolt had been able to sustain itself, or had succeeded in abolishing slavery. He dismissed the idea of violent emancipation in this country as chimerical, but declared, with prophetic confidence

the United States will extinguish slavery before slavery can begin to extinguish the United States.

Nowhere in this admirable disquisition is there a touch of sectionalism or of dislike to the Southern people. While the author does not conceal his sympathy with freedom, or his hope that the time will come, by natural and peaceable steps, when every American will be free, he suggests no sort of outside interference with the institution where it then legally existed. He recognized the ultimate tendencies [117] of the modern world towards the elevation of the human family in all its branches, and discouraged impatience and violence as alike ineffective and undesirable. No one at this day can read this lecture without interest and approval. The most radical pro-slavery man of the war period, if living now, would find in it no suggestion of unlawful interference, or of anything else but the operation of economic laws and moral processes for the suppression of slavery and the elevation of both the white and colored race.

It concludes with the suggestion that as slavery had been entirely given up in the Northern States, become less and less dense in the border States, and had shown a decided tendency to become more and more dense in the cotton, rice, and sugar lowlands of the South, where negro labor was not only more profitable, but better in every respect than white labor, the negroes would gradually gather into those regions and finally become confined to them permanently.

It may not be improper to state here that during all my association with Dana in the South, where we were constantly face to face with slavery and those who upheld it, I never heard him utter a word in opposition to the sentiments and opinions contained in his Chicago lecture. He had no word of blame or even of criticism for the Southern people who had inherited slavery from their ancestors. He was always kind and considerate of their feelings and interests, and while with the rest of us, who were fighting to re-establish and perpetuate the Union, he approved the Emancipation Proclamation as a war measure, I never heard him utter a word in its behalf as a means of bringing about the abolition of slavery had not the slave States undertaken to secede.

Long years afterwards in discussing the negro question, which it will be observed is altogether different from the [118] slavery question, he expressed the belief that all proposals looking to the return of the negroes to Africa, or to colonizing them in any other part of the world, would be found to be unsound and impracticable. He regarded them as destined to remain forever in America, and either die out in the struggle for existence, or be absorbed through the slow processes of nature in the remote ages of the future, into the ultimate composite human race.

But to return to Dana's work on the Tribune. In October, 1852, that journal, resenting the intimation of its Democratic contemporaries, declared:

General Scott is not an abolition candidate. and no action is to be expected from him looking to the overthrow of slavery. He is simply a Whig candidate. ...

Earlier in the year it praised Seward for favoring a subsidy for the Collins line of transatlantic steamers, and when the election was over and Scott defeated, it stood by the antislavery Senator as against the coalition of hostile elements for his overthrow. It adds:

If an antislavery Whig must give up his antislavery or his Whiggery, we choose to part with the latter.

It is to be noted that the custom of signing editorials in the Tribune with the initials of the writer having ceased, at least for the time being, it becomes henceforth more difficult if not impossible to say with certainty who wrote this or that article, but from the known opinions of the two principal editors, it may be safely assumed that they stood absolutely as one on all the great issues of the year.

But on November 12th an article appeared which was probably written by Dana, and as it shows a distinct step forward in his social and economic views, I give it as follows: [119]

An invention may give the rich capitalist who buys it and applies it a degree of profit which no other individual derives therefrom, but compared with the advantages it yields society at large that profit is the merest trifle. Socialism or the establishment of co-operative institutions is, then, not reform strictly speaking. It is not the patent remedy for a disease, but the more complete development of a healthy growth. It is not the negation of society as now or heretofore existing, but the more thorough inauguration of its vital principle. It is not to be attained through the warfare of labor and capital, but as the crowning glory of the wealth, power, and prosperity with which invention, industry, and science are endowing the family of man.

While there is a noticeable increase of interest throughout the whole of 1853 in the agitation of the slavery question, one novel and important fact in regard to it was clearly pointed out by the Tribune as follows:

... Whoever has marked the progress of the discussion respecting slavery in our day must be aware of a radical change in the fundamental assumptions upon which it is defended. Formerly all who spoke as statesmen or philanthropists on the side of slavery admitted its iniquitous origin, its essential injustice, and the impossibility of rashly and suddenly abolishing it without unsettling, hazarding, and destroying very much and vital good that had in process of time become inextricably involved with it. The new pro-slavery boldly assumes that slavery is essentially good. Because the negro race is incapable of material improvement it ought to be held in slavery.

Other subjects of greater interest came to the front, and among them the application of Ericsson's caloric engine to marine navigation about this time began to attract great attention. An ocean steamer, two thousand tons burden, named after the inventor, had been constructed, [120] furnished with engines of this type, and pronounced a success. All the leading editors of New York had witnessed the trial trip, and the Tribune made haste to declare:

The demonstration is perfect, The age of steam is closed; the age of calorie opens.

The next day it added:

Hot air will produce a deep and far-reaching change in human affairs. It will enrich and emancipate the poor without injuring any.

But it is worthy of note that this great promise was never realized. The Eric.,son kept afloat for ten years or more, and was used as a transport by the government in the Port Royal expedition, but was never a success. The caloric engine was found to be unsuitable for sea-going ships or large power-plants, but when perfected passed into extensive use for pumping and other stations, where the maximum requirement did not exceed three or four horse-power. This instance serves to emphasize the fact that editorial prophecy is infallible neither in the world of mechanics nor in that of politics.

The Tribune returned with increased fervor this year to the advocacy of a railroad, and also of an independent telegraph line to the Pacific, as the most effective means of binding California and Oregon to the Union. And it never ceased to advocate these measures, no matter under what form they were proposed, till they had become accomplished facts. Always in favor of sound money, on February 7th it came out with this interesting suggestion:

... Let it now be solemnly enacted that gold is the national standard of value, and that our present gold coin shall nevermore be debased nor interfered with.

[121] Then, with prophetic wisdom, it added:

If silver becomes more or less plentiful, let the silver coinage be altered to conform to the fact.

We are accustomed to regard the utterances of our daily newspapers with indifference, or as unworthy of serious consideration, but surely no one can read even this hasty and incomplete summary of the Tribune's course without admitting that it at least was inspired and controlled by men who embodied a very high order of ability and altruism in their contributions to its columns. Nothing seems to have been too trivial, or too great, for that matter, for their consideration. Standing, as it were, like sentinels on a watch-tower, they caught the first signs of every social or political disturbance, and took cognizance of every event which promised to affect the public interest. So far as one can now see, they viewed nothing with selfishness, and expressed no opinions except for the guidance of their readers and the enlightenment of mankind at large. That Greeley, who was older and better known than Dana, was bitterly hated by the entire white population of the South, and also by the Northern Democrats, cannot now be denied. That the Tribune was looked upon as an incendiary sheet in many parts of the country, and that all who wrote for it were regarded with cruel intolerance as rabid radicals and abolitionists, is now difficult to understand. It is especially so when it is remembered that twenty years afterwards Greeley, without any change or recantation of principle, became the favorite candidate of the Southern States for the presidency, and Dana his most powerful advocate. They stood side by side for twelve years in support of every good and humane cause: for freedom as against slavery, for liberty as against tyranny, for peace as against war, for [122] education as against ignorance, for the elevation of labor as against oppression, for a free press as against a servile one, for free schools as against parochial schools, for tolerance as against bigotry, for liberty of conscience against ecclesiastical tyranny, for the elevation of the many against the oppression of the few, for the development of our own resources in preference to those of other countries, for the open shop against the closed shop, for the right of every man to put a price upon his own labor, and work at his job or leave it against the right of any one to prevent another from taking it. When it is remembered, besides, that they stood for good conduct, right living, correct morals, patriotic citizenship, sound scholarship, and, indeed, for everything good as against everything bad, and were generally able to give enlightened reasons for the faith that was in them, or for the course they advocated on every question, the reader must come to the conclusion, in spite of their personal peculiarities, that they were not only most worthy men, but that they exerted a powerful influence in the right direction upon the affairs of their day and generation.

They were leaders, not followers, of public opinion. They were teachers, not always wise or infallible, but always deeply in earnest and full of enthusiasm; always striving mightily after the truth as they saw it, and endeavoring to draw correct conclusions from it, and in this noble work no opposition silenced, no danger daunted them.

Dana, as managing editor, had long since become the arbiter of what should appear in the columns of the great journal. He accepted or rejected the contributions sent to him, and, not content with that, edited them with an unsparing hand. The blue pencil was never out of use. No writer was too great, no subject too important to escape its rapid and unerring stroke. During this entire [123] decade, James S. Pike, of Maine, afterwards minister to the Netherlands, was one of the principal correspondents and contributors to the Tribune. He wrote much and well, but, like the rest, he came under the correcting influence of Dana's criticism. This is well illustrated by a letter from Dana having reference to Pike's “Campaign life of General Scott,” and to the assignment of Bayard Taylor as secretary to Commodore Perry in the Japanese expedition. Having taken liberties with Pike's proofs, he wrote:

... If you don't like this swear all you wish, but you can't help it. The thing is put through, and what you may say is a matter of perfect indifference.

And then, as though to soothe the wounded feelings of his friend, he added in the next paragraph:

... I have discovered that I am necessary to you. Without me who would take the devil out of your letters, and add a genteel air of moderation to their contents? Nobody. You would be a done — up man, ruined by your own exuberant greatness. Now I foresee your destiny. It is to be president, which I shall make you. Be grateful then beforehand.

A few weeks later, when it began to become apparent that all the confident anticipations with which the campaign for the election of General Scott had been pushed were to end in disappointment, he wrote Pike again:

Here's a letter for you which I hope will be consoling, for somehow I fancy you must stand in need of comfort. For my part, I have got myself into a state of true philosophy, but you, with those horrid Calvinistic notions oppressing your soul, and the dread of wrath to come blazing before your eyes, can hardly hope for such tranquillity of mind. [124]

I don't know how it is, but my presentiments all favor our being licked, and no ciphering and no argufying can make them any better. So I am ready for that, and have set about sharpening my knives and getting out my war-paint, and practising the battle-yell for the sharp work and joyous which is to come after. And so God bless you.

And thus it ever was with Dana through life. Never cast down, never discouraged, and never accepting defeat as final, but sharpening his knives and freshening his war-paint, he threw himself into the next campaign with all the joyous love of battle that a Viking chieftain could have displayed.

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