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Chapter 7: Greeley's part in the antislavery contest

  • Acknowledgments of his influence
  • -- Why he was not an early Abolitionist -- his opinion of conservatism -- status of the slavery question during his early years -- need of arousing the Northern conscience -- illustrations of public feeling -- value of the Tribune as an ally -- Greeley's views as set forth in the New Yorker -- his aroused feelings -- influence of the Texas question -- effect of his devotion to Clay -- defense of Clay as a slaveholder -- the Tribune's position stated -- Disgust over Taylor's nomination -- defiance of the “business interests” of New York city -- position regarding the compromise of 1850 -- Rejection of the fugitive slave law -- no yielding to the “god cotton” -- the Kansas -- Nebraska struggle and the John Brown raid -- organization of the Republican party

In the tributes paid to Greeley's memory at the time of his death by fellow journalists in New York city, two, from the pens of men who had bitterly opposed him in many things, stand out prominent. “The colored race,” said the World, “when it becomes sufficiently educated to appreciate his career, must always recognize him as the chief author of their emancipation from slavery, and their equal citizenship;” and the Evening Post conceded that, in the history of the American antislavery contest, “one of the most prominent places must be given to the sturdy, unflinching, and persistent assaults of the Tribune newspaper.” His own estimate of the part he took in this contest was indicated in a speech at his reception in the Lincoln Club rooms in New York city, in June, 1871, when, referring to the Democratic “new departure” and the possibility of the Republicans going out of power, he said: “If it were my fate to [124] go out at this moment, and every year of my life thereafter to be in the minority, prostrate and powerless, I should still thank God most humbly and heartily that he allowed me to live in an age, and to be a part of the generation, that witnessed the downfall and extinction of American slavery.” To understand the value of Greeley's services in the antislavery contest it is necessary to examine the nature of that contest, the diverse views of the opponents of slavery, the public opinion in the North which had to be educated and directed, and the part taken in this work by the New York Tribune.

The early opponents of slavery in the United States were of two classes-first, the Abolitionists, technically so-called, who regarded slavery as a moral wrong so monstrous that their consciences demanded its immediate extinction; and, second, those who condemned slavery, but recognized the rights of the slaveholders under the Federal Constitution, and confined their efforts to opposition to the extension of slave territory, hoping for the gradual extinction of the institution where it was established. Greeley belonged to the second of these classes.

In view of Greeley's inclination to associate himself actively with reforms, regardless [125] of hostile criticism or the effect of such association on his personal welfare, it seems somewhat curious that we do not find him enrolled in the ranks of the early Abolitionists. He says that one of the incidents of his sojourn in East Poultney, Vt., which made a great impression on him, was the rescue of a slave who had fled there from New York State, and who, under the law of that State, was beholden to his master until he was twenty-eight years old. “Our people hated injustice and oppression,” was the only explanation he thought it necessary to give of their action. The early Abolitionists, too, were in sympathy with him on many subjects. E. Rogers, in the Herald of Freedom, said: “Abolitionists are generally as crazy in regard to rum and tobacco as in regard to slavery. Some of them refrain from eating flesh and drinking tea and coffee. . . . They do not embrace these newfangled notions as Abolitionists, but their one fanaticism leads to another, and they are getting to be monomaniacs, as the Rev. Brother Purchard calls us, on every subject.”

But Greeley was naturally a politician, and his early editorial career educated him in the belief that, in a republic, political parties must be the means through which political [126] reforms must be accomplished. His one political idol, Henry Clay, was a slaveholder, and his zeal in Clay's behalf, while the Kentuckian was a presidential possibility, as well as his devotion to a protective tariff, assisted in securing his acceptance of slavery as it existed, so long as the South was not actively striving to extend the slave power.

Moreover, Greeley classed himself as a conservative, and some of his definitions of that term further explain his attitude toward the Abolitionists. Defining in his autobiography Clay's position as a slaveholder, he wrote: “He was a conservative in the true sense of that word-satisfied to hold by the present until he could see clearly how to exchange it for the better.” “Radicalism,” he said in a lecture, “is the tornado, the earthquake, which comes, acts, and is gone for a century. Conservatism is the granite, which may be chipped away here and there to build a new house or let a railroad pass, but which will substantially abide forever.” The Abolitionists, of whom Garrison was the leading exponent, were radicals of the most ultra type. Not only did they demand the immediate emancipation of all slaves, but they pronounced the compact between North and South which countenanced slavery, “a covenant [127] with death and an agreement with hell,” and refused to vote for any public officer under it, no matter how strongly the platform on which he stood opposed slavery; and they declared, in the language of the Liberator, that “if the bodies and souls of millions of rational beings must be sacrificed as the price of the Union, better, far better, that a separation took place.” Of the constitution of the Non-resistance Society, whose tenet was that no man or government has the right to take the life of a man on any pretext, drawn by a committee of which he was chairman, Garrison wrote: “It swept the whole surface of society, and upturned almost every existing institution on earth,” one plank opposing the completion of the Bunker Hill monument. Many Abolitionists did not, it is true, follow the Garrisonians in their extreme views, and Giddings and Chase took part in the Free Soil convention of 1848 which nominated Van Buren for President; but it was the radicals who were the type in the public eye.

Greeley was a boy ten years old when the Missouri compromise was adopted by Congress in 1821. Under that compromise the slavery question remained quiescent for many years. Slavery had not long been abolished in all the Northern States, and it existed [128] in the Southern States by permission of the Constitution, which specifically required that slaves escaping into another State should be delivered up. The few Abolitionists who were then declaiming against this constitutional status were tolerated even in the North solely because of their insignificance. “Had it been imagined,” says Greeley, “that the permanence of slavery was endangered by their efforts, they would scarcely have escaped with their lives from any city or considerable village wherein they attempted to hold forth.” Greeley's own position, during the years of quiescence, he thus explained in his autobiography: “Slavery, as a local institution, was primarily the business of the States which saw fit to uphold it. ... Only when it sought to involve us in a common effort, a common responsibility, with its upholders and champions, did it force us into an attitude of active, determined antagonism.”

While he could not withhold from the Abolitionists “a certain measure of sympathy for their great and good object,” he failed to see how they were assisting to secure the end in view-how the conversion of all the people of Vermont to Abolitionism would overthrow slavery in Georgia. Hence, “conservative [129] by instinct, by tradition, and disinclined to reject or leave undone the practical good within reach, while straining after the ideal good that was clearly unattainable, I clung fondly to the Whig party, and deprecated the Abolition, or third, party in politics, as calculated fatally to weaken the only great national organization which was likely to oppose an effective resistance to the persistent exactions and aggressions of the slave power.” But before this was written, Greeley had witnessed the death of the Whig party, because it did not make its resistance effective, and had read, if not written, in the Tribune (November 24, 1847): “As to the Abolition party, its movements and fulminations have doubtless had the evil effect observed by Mr. Clay, of irritating and alarming the masters generally, and rendering most of them impervious to the arguments for emancipation. But, on the other hand, their efforts have served to awaken and fix public attention, and, though their immediate influence has been unfavorable, we are not sure that the existence of slavery has been protracted by their labors as a whole.”

The vastness of the task required of those who were to educate public opinion in the Northern States to accept slavery as a moral [130] wrong, and thus to array itself against slavery extension,, can be understood by an examination of the popular opinion on the subject in the years following the Missouri compromise. For many of these years the opposition, not only to antislavery agitation, but to negro education and any approach to negro equality, was quite as strong in the Northern States as it was below Mason and Dixon's line. The Liberator, in its salutatory, said that “a greater revolution was to be effected in the Free States-and particularly in New England-than at the South. I [Garrison] found contempt more bitter, opposition more active, detraction more relentless, prejudice more stubborn and apathy more frozen than among slaveholders themselves.”

The list of antislavery societies in the United States in 1826 shows that there were none in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, or Connecticut, and only one each in Rhode Island and New York, while there were forty-one in North Carolina, twenty-three in Tennessee, four in Maryland, and two in Virginia. Edward Everett Hale recollects when black boys were not, except on one day, allowed by the bigger white boys to have the freedom of Boston Common; and [131] when he was graduated from Harvard College in 1839, William Francis Channing was the only one of his classmates who would have allowed himself to be called an Abolitionist. When, in October, 1835, the Female Antislavery Society of Boston proposed to hold a public meeting, at which an address would be made by George Thompson, an eloquent assailant of slavery, handbills were circulated announcing that a purse of $100 had been raised by patriotic citizens “to reward the individual who shall first lay violent hands on Thompson so that he may be brought to the tar-kettle before dark. Friends of the Union, be vigilant!” and the meeting was broken up by a mob which the mayor confessed himself unable to control. A meeting of Abolitionists in Philadelphia, on July 4, 1834, was made the occasion of mob violence, in which Lewis Tappen's house was gutted, and other buildings, including churches, were damaged, and unoffending negroes were assaulted in the streets; these disorders continued for several days, and extended into New Jersey.

The public animosity shown to the Abolitionists in the North was quite as determined against any attempt to better the condition of negroes. The “Jim Crow” cars of [132] the Southern States to-day were common on Massachusetts railroads in 1840, and Higginson remembers when a colored woman was put out of an omnibus near Cambridge Common. When, in 1831, it was proposed by the free people of color to establish a school on the manual labor plan, and New Haven, Conn., was selected as its site, a meeting of citizens there resolved to resist it by every lawful means. Because of the admission of colored students to Noyes's Academy, at Canaan, N. H., in 1835, three hundred men and one hundred yokes of oxen moved the building from its foundation. When Miss Crandall, a Quakeress, advertised in 1832 that colored pupils would be admitted to her school in Canterbury, Conn., a town meeting was called to abate “the nuisance,” and the town authorities induced the Legislature to pass an act forbidding any school in the State for the education of colored persons not residents of the State, without the consent of the selectmen. When Miss Crandall persisted in teaching her colored pupils, she was arrested and confined overnight in a cell whose last occupant had been a murderer. Failing to secure her conviction, her neighbors, in 1834, first tried to burn her house, and later so nearly demolished it with stones and clubs [133] that it was left uninhabitable. It was twenty years later than this that Boston witnessed the scenes which accompanied the surrender of Anthony Burns. In 1835 the notes of a clergyman who tried to preach against slavery in Worcester, Mass., were torn up; an academy in Concord, N. H., was demolished because colored pupils were admitted; a clergyman was arrested in the same State while delivering an antislavery lecture, and sentenced to three months imprisonment as a disorderly person; and in 1834 an antislavery celebration in the Chatham Street chapel in New York city was broken up, and three days rioting followed.

The most potent agent that could have been enlisted in the work of changing this public opinion, and building up a bulwark against slavery extension, was a newspaper that was not affiliated with the radicals, that was the leading mouthpiece (Greeley said it was not the organ) of one of the controlling political parties of the day, that was edited by a man who possessed in a large degree the confidence of his readers, and that had a circulation which gave his words a wide hearing. This matter of circulation is an important one in gaging the Tribune's part in the overthrow of slavery. The Abolition journals, [134] aside from the fact that they addressed, for the most part, readers who were already convinced, addressed few of these. Garrison's Liberator had only between 150 and 2,500 subscribers during its entire career, and the National Antislavery Standard, whose paying circulation in 1846 was 1,400, was kept alive by annual bazaars. The Tribune's circulation grew with the intensity of its antislavery views, and in January, 1854, it had a circulation of 96,000 for its weekly, and of 130,000 for its total issues. How Horace Greeley led on his readers, step by step, to face the great issue, we may now learn from the words he addressed to them.

When conducting the New Yorker, in 1834, Greeley, while believing slavery “to be at the bottom of most of the evils which affect the communities of the South,” accepted and defended the right to be let alone, as regards this question, for which the South was contending. His paper said in July of that year: “The Union was formed with a perfect knowledge, on the one hand, that slavery existed in the South, and, on the other, it was utterly disapproved and discountenanced at the North. But the framers of the Constitution saw no reason for distrust and dissension in this circumstance. Wisely avoiding [135] all discussion of a subject so delicate and exciting, they proceeded to the formation of ‘a more perfect union,’ which, leaving each section in possession of its undoubted right of regulating its own internal government and enjoying its own speculative opinions, provided only for the common benefit and mutual well-being of the whole. And why should not this arrangement be satisfactory and perfect? Why should not even the existing evils of one section be left to the correction of its own wisdom and experience when pointed out by the unerring finger of experience?”

The New Yorker supplies expressions of the editor's views of the agitation stirred up by the Abolitionists. On May 21, 1836, condemning an attack on an antislavery convention at Granville, Ohio, it expressed a hope that, on the next occasion of this kind, “the real and substantial opponents of the antislavery agitation” would repress the mob pretending to act in their behalf, and said: “It is quite enough to have some hundreds of Abolitionist declaimers exciting the public mind with regard to this subject, without obliging us to look with complaisance on such suicidal outrages committed in the name of the cause of moderation, right, reason, and the compromises of the Constitution.” In [136] May, 1838, referring to anti-abolition riots in Philadelphia which resulted in the burning of Penn Hall, it said, “The Abolitionists, we doubt not, would like the fun of having their hall burned every year, and their chance to make ten or twenty thousand converts out of the outrage and excitement. Let no one suppose us inclined to treat such criminal outrages with levity. Such humors of the body politic should be corrected by an application of grape and canister.”

Greeley says in his autobiography that the two events which “materially modified” his preconceptions of the slavery question were the attempts of the South to annex Texas, and the killing of Elijah P. Lovejoy at Alton, Ill., in 1837, because he insisted on publishing there a religious newspaper which condemned slavery as one of the evils opposed to godliness. The New Yorker of November 25 in that year contained an editorial two columns long giving an account of the murder, and saying:

We dare not trust ourselves to speak of this shocking affair in the language which our indignation would dictate. It forms one of the foulest blots on the page of American history. . . . We loathe and abhor the miserable cant of those who talk of Mr. Lovejoy as [137] guilty of ‘resisting public opinion.’ Public opinion, forsooth! What right have five hundred or five thousand to interfere with the lawful expression of a freeman's sentiments because they happen to number more than those who think with him? We spurn the base tyranny-this utter denial of all rights save as the tender mercies of a mob shall vouchsafe them .... Lovejoy's errors, or those of Abolitionists generally, have nothing to do in any shape with the turpitude of this outrage.

This protest was uttered when the Boston authorities were refusing the Rev. Dr. Channing the use of Faneuil Hall in which to hold a meeting to condemn Lovejoy's murder, and when the Attorney-General of Massachusetts was declaring on the platform that Lovejoy died as the fool dieth, and that his murderers stood for what the men stood who threw the tea into Boston harbor!

The Texas question played so important a part in the antislavery contest that a brief summary of the events involved is necessary to an understanding of Greeley's attitude. Americans who had received grants of land in Texas from Mexico adopted a constitution in 1833, and in 1836 declared their independence. The massacre of the Alamo, avenged [138] in the battle of San Jacinto, followed. The constitution of the independent State of Texas gave its sanction to the institution of slavery, which was contrary to the law of Mexico, and the news of the victory at San Jacinto was received with joy in the Southern States, from which petitions were sent to Congress asking for the recognition of Texan independence. Webster held that our Government ought to recognize a de facto government in Texas, if one had been established, and Clay reported a resolution acknowledging that obligation whenever our Government received satisfactory information that such a government was in operation, and his resolution was adopted by both Houses. Meanwhile, claims against the Mexican Government, made by Americans, were piling up and were disregarded. In December, 1836, the United States charge d'affaires at the city of Mexico asked for his passports and departed, and in February, 1837, President Jackson, who had tried in vain to purchase Texas of Mexico, in a special message to Congress asked for power to make reprisals if the Mexican Government refused to meet its obligations.

Webster made a speech in Niblo's Garden, New York city, on March 15, 1837, which, in [139] Greeley's view, expressed “the more considerate Northern view of the [Texas annexation] subject” at that time. In that speech he said:

On the general question of slavery a great portion of the community is already strongly excited. The subject has not only attracted attention as a question of politics, but it has started a far deeper-toned chord. It has arrested the religious feeling of the country; it has taken strong hold on the consciences of men. He is a rash man, indeed, and little conversant with human nature, and especially has he a very erroneous estimate of the character of the people of this country, who supposes that a feeling of this kind is to be trifled with or despised. It will assuredly cause itself to be respected. It may be reasoned with; it may be made willing-I believe it is entirely willing — to fulfill all existing engagements and all existing duties, to uphold and defend the Constitution as it is established, with whatever regrets about some provisions which it does actually contain. But to coerce it into silence, to endeavor to restrain it from expression, to seek to compress and confine it, warm as it is, and more heated as such endeavors would inevitably render it — should this be attempted, I know [140] nothing, not even in the Constitution or in the Union itself, which would not be endangered by the explosion which might follow.

President Van Buren in his message of December, 1837, informed Congress of his failure to adjust the American claims. The Texas Government had proposed annexation to our Government in August of that year, but Van Buren refused to entertain a proposition that was certain to involve us in a war with Mexico. This action of Texas aroused the country. The Legislatures of eight Northern States made formal protests against annexation, and Senator Preston, of South Carolina, offered a resolution favoring it, but no direct issue was reached. Van Buren continued attempts to secure a settlement with Mexico, and in 1839, by means of a treaty, the matter was referred to the King of Prussia as arbitrator; but when the time at which the arrangement was to expire (1842) arrived, many claims remained unsettled. It was charged then that these claims were allowed to remain unadjusted in order to keep the Texas question open.

Tyler's elevation to the presidency, through the death of Harrison, gave the country an executive who was ready to make Texas annexation a part of his policy, no [141] matter how the party that had elected him viewed the matter. Six months after his inauguration he hinted to Webster the possibility of securing Texas by treaty, and asked, “Could the North be reconciled to it? Slavery — I know that is the objection, and it would be well founded if it did not already exist among us.” But when, in March, 1842, Texas made another offer of annexation, Webster strongly opposed it, and in May, 1843, he left the Cabinet-too late to escape the criticisms of his warmest party friends. The new Secretary of State-Upshur, of Virginia--was a strong annexationist, and the administration began at once secretly to take steps to carry out its policy. The elections of 1842 had given the Democrats a big majority in the House, but the Senate had to be reckoned with in securing the ratification of an annexation treaty. The administration made a direct proposal of such a treaty to Texas, and, after the Texas Government had received from the United States' diplomatic agent an assurance that no power would be permitted by the United States to invade Texas territory because of such a treaty, an envoy from Texas was sent to Washington to complete the negotiations. Before his arrival Upshur had been killed by the explosion on [142] the frigate Princeton; in March, 1844, Calhoun took his place; and on April 12 the treaty was signed and ten days later sent to the Senate, where, on June 8, it was defeated by a vote of sixteen yeas to thirty-five nays. Tyler at once, in a special message, urged the House to secure annexation by “some other form of proceeding,” but Congress adjourned without carrying out the scheme.

The year 1844 was a presidential year, and the most probable candidates for the heads of the two tickets were Clay and Van Buren. Both of these leaders looked on the Texas question as a dangerous one, and two years earlier, when Van Buren visited Clay at Ashland, it was said that they had agreed to place themselves in opposition to annexation. Clay found himself forced to define his position before the Whig convention met, and he did so in his “Raleigh letter” of April 17. In this he stated his belief that any title to Texas which our Government had received under the Louisiana purchase had been ceded to Spain by subsequent treaty; that the United States should not go to war with Mexico to secure Texas, and that he was not in favor of acquiring new territory simply to maintain a balance of power between the North and South. Van Buren also wrote a [143] letter, in which he did not admit the constitutionality of acquiring Texas by treaty, and pointed out that annexation meant war with Mexico, but said that he was not to be “influenced by local or sectional feelings” in dealing with such a question as slavery. Clay's nomination followed, but Van Buren was thrown over by the Democrats for Polk, although he had a majority on the first ballot, a resolution requiring a two-thirds vote to nominate having been carried. Some Abolitionists, under the name of the Liberty party, had in August, 1843, nominated James G. Birney as their candidate.

Greeley was educated by the Texas controversy step by step. The New Yorker in October, 1836, opposed annexation as likely to cause a revival of the slavery controversy “so happily adjusted” by the Missouri compromise. On February 18, 1837, announcing the vote of the House denying to slaves the right of petition, it expressed a hope that thus “the Abolition question, which has so considerably misimproved the time and temper of the House of Representatives, was put to rest, we trust, for the remainder of the session.” On the twenty-third of December following, it headed an account of the excitement in Congress over the presentation of [144] petitions for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, “By our latest advices from Washington we learn that the event which we have long anticipated — a disruption of the ties which bind us together as a nation, through the influence of the Abolition question-seems on the brink of occurrence.”

Before the Tribune was a year old its editor's patience was tried by a decision of the United States Supreme Court (Prigg vs. Pennsylvania) that the right of a slaveholder to capture a fugitive slave anywhere was absolute, State laws to the contrary notwithstanding, and it said, “The effect of this decision will be to deepen the impression on the public mind that the existence of slavery for some is inconsistent with, and fatal to, the preservation of perfect freedom for any.”

Greeley's greatest effort in behalf of a presidential candidate was made for Clay, whose name he had kept at the head of his editorial page throughout 1843, and for whose election he labored the next year as he never labored again. Clay's status as a slave-owner was the subject of attacks (which the Tribune called “a foul conspiracy” ) by the Democrats and the Liberty men, both before and after his nomination, and on January 16, [145] 1843, the Tribune stated its own view of the matter thus:

Let no one pervert our position. We do not say the citizens of the free States have no means, no power, no right to act adversely upon slavery. They have means and powers which existed antecedently to the Constitution, and were not affected by it. The right to speak and write and labor, as men, against any moral wrong, is anterior (might we not say superior) to all government . . . We can excuse the thoroughgoing Abolitionist who, declaring the Constitution an iniquitous compact, refuses to vote or exercise any franchise under it. But he who uses the power granted by the Constitution in violation of its essential conditions, is guilty of a deep and moral wrong. .... To abandon Clay on such [slavery] grounds would be a breach of faith to the Whigs, and treason to the Constitution.

After the nominations were made the Tribune defended Polk in the same way.

Greeley's early objection to the annexation of Texas was based on the view that it would be a glaring assumption of Federal power, rather than that it would furnish new territory to slavery; and after Clay's nomination the Tribune (May 16, 1844) “deprecated, [146] for reasons of policy, any Northern commingling of the questions of annexation and slavery for the present.” In other words, Greeley as well as Clay would have been glad to keep the slavery question out of the pending campaign. But Tyler's Texas scheme so aroused the editor's indignation that no question of “policy” could quiet his “abhorrence” of the President, whose impeachment for moving troops to the Sabine he suggested. When warned of the effect of its opposition to annexation on the Whig ticket, the Tribune (June 12), while conceding that the annexation question would cause Clay to lose Louisiana, and make Georgia and Tennessee very close, replied, “Nay, friends, we always say what we think when we speak at all.” The slavery question was, however, “commingled” with Texas annexation, and Greeley was soon forced to recognize this, and to change his front. This he did in an editorial on August 31, in which he thus expressed himself:

We see in this Texas iniquity, from its first secret and fraudulent inception in Tennessee and at the White House ten years ago to its present maturity, a conspiracy to circumvent ‘ the inevitable laws of population,’ and thereby secure a prolonged and unnatural [147] duration of slavery. To this conspiracy the free States can not become parties, even by a skulking connivance, without fearful guilt. They ought to have taken their stand against any extension of their responsibility for slavery when Louisiana was acquired, but they neglected it, and thereby prolonged the existence of slavery in the Union at least half a century.

On November 28, following Clay's defeat, the Tribune set forth its views on Texas and slavery in an editorial nearly two columns long. Still deprecating all sectional agitation, it reaffirmed its belief that the Government had no right to meddle with slavery in the existing slave States, but the danger of the disposition of those States to grasp for power was indicated, and its summing up (with its own italics) was as follows: “Briefly, then, we stand on the ground of Opposition to the Annexation of Texas so long as a vestige of slavery shall remain within her borders.” This marked the throwing down of the Tribune's gantlet to the slave power.

The Texas annexation resolution passed the House on January 25, 1845 (with the aid of eight Southern Whig votes, twenty-seven Democrats voting nay), and the Senate on February 27 (three Whigs voting yea). The [148] Tribune's comment was: “The mischief is done, and we are now involved in war. We have adopted a war ready-made, and taken upon ourselves its prosecution to the end.” It was not ready, however, to join the Abolitionists, and when a Western Whig journal proposed, in the following spring, that the party raise the standard of emancipation, it declared that, for itself, it should continue to act in good faith with all, North and South, who supported Whig principles; “if we shall ever feel that this is no longer possible, the Federal Union will for us exist no longer.”

Greeley was a zealous advocate of Clay's nomination as the Whig presidential candidate again in 1848, while conceding that it was just that the head of the Whig ticket should be a citizen of a free State, and he came home from the convention cast down. The convention had given the nomination to General Taylor, and had laid on the table and refused to vote on a resolution pledging the delegates “to abide the nomination with the understanding that the nominee, in good faith, accepts of it, and adheres to the great principles of the Whig party--no extension of slavery, and in favor of American industry.” Greeley had stated in advance his objections [149] to General Taylor--the fact that his views on public questions were not known, that he was supported as a slave-owner, and that his election would stimulate the war spirit, and set a bad example to young men. He did not place the ticket at the head of the Tribune's columns, but in a long editorial reviewed the situation, and said: “We shall take time for reflection. If it shall appear to us that the support of General Taylor is the only course by which the election of Cass can be prevented, we shall feel bound to concur in that support.” The Free-soil Democrats called a convention to meet in Buffalo on August 9, and on July 31 the Tribune restated its objections to Taylor, and refused to come out for him until the Buffalo convention and the August elections made it certain that Taylor or Cass must be chosen. On June 27 a Taylor ratification meeting was held in New York city, which adopted the following among other resolutions:

Resolved, That we deprecate sectional issues in a national canvass, as dangerous to the Union and injurious to the public good; that we look with confidence to a Whig administration to remove all causes for such issues, and that we will countenance no faction of the Whig party, and no coalition with any [150] faction out of it, which shall threaten to array one section of our common country in angry hostility against another.

This was the voice of those Northern “business interests” which gave so much encouragement to the slave power, and Greeley seized the opportunity to rebuke it. The Tribune the next day declared that the simple meaning of the resolution was that “strenuous and consistent hostility to the extension of slavery is factious,” and continued:

Gentlemen of Wall Street, and sharp, shrewd calculators generally! be entreated to understand this matter aright. The hearts of the people are fully set in them to stop the passage of the Rio Grande by Human Slavery, and they will not be turned aside. They may be cajoled, deluded, and betrayed; but if they shall be, then woe to their betrayers. The Whigs of the North want to vote with their party, for President and all, if they can do so without voting to favor the extension of slavery, and that you must not ask them to do unless you wish to upset your dish altogether. . . . Over and over again this State has said, through her Legislature and her delegation in Congress, ‘ There must be no planting of slavery on free soil.’ Do you [151] think you can stifle this by your babble of ‘ faction’ and ‘ sectional issues ’ ?

Of the Van Buren-Adams ticket, nominated at Buffalo, it said that it presumed that that ticket would receive the votes of nearly all who regarded resistance to slavery extension as the paramount duty of the day, and indicated that it was among those so defined by declaring that, while it did not lose sight of the importance of the protection of home industries, internal improvements, a sound financial policy, etc., it deemed “the limitation of slavery to its present legal domain more imminent than any or all of them.” It gave more attention to Irish than American politics in August and September; but the Whig hold on Greeley was a strong one, and at a meeting in Vauxhall on September 27 he confessed his belief that only by supporting Taylor could Cass be defeated, and the Taylor ticket appeared on his editorial page two days later. He never, however, became enthusiastic over the candidate, and, writing from Washington to the Tribune about the inauguration ball, he said: “Had the dancing part of my education been less shockingly neglected, I should not have felt like dancing now.”

While a member of Congress (Greeley [152] was elected that year) he took every opportunity to oppose the slave power. He did not obtain the floor to speak in favor of the resolution (which was passed) declaring the traffic in human beings as chattels in Washington “a notorious reproach to our country throughout Christendom,” and directing the reporting of a bill prohibiting the slave-trade in the District of Columbia, but he wrote to the Tribune, “I could have wished that it had occurred on Forefathers' Day; but perhaps it is better as it is. The sons of the Pilgrims throughout the Union, as they assemble tomorrow to celebrate their fathers' landing on these shores, may greet each other on the decision of to-day.” He opposed the introduction of slavery in New Mexico, and, when it was proposed to refer the Texas boundary question to the United States Supreme Court, he objected on the ground that a majority of the court were slave-owners.

The next great slavery contest that engaged the attention of the country was over the famous Clay “Compromise of 1850.” In his autobiography Greeley says, “Mr. Clay's proffer seemed to me candid and fair to the North, so far as it related to the newly acquired territories.” But even this guarded statement does not give a fair presentation [153] of Greeley's part in this struggle. He did not accept any part of the compromise at the start. He announced open rebellion against his old leader's position. He repudiated the argument of Webster in the 7th of March speech. He did ally himself, later in the contest, with the compromisers, but only to find that the so-called compromise was an apple of discord, which did as much as anything else preceding the war to arouse Northern opinion, make clear the aim of the slave power, and elect an antislavery President.

Clay's compromise and Webster's famous speech had their origin in the fear that the South would attempt to destroy the Union, and Henry Wilson almost excuses Webster in view of the picture which the orator drew of the conflict that such an attempt would incite. The South had been growing more and more restless under the continued opposition to the introduction of slavery in California and New Mexico, the activity of the Northern Abolitionists, and such an indication of the Northern temper as was seen in the vote concerning slavery in the District of Columbia. Greeley did not believe that the body politic in the South would ever mean disunion, and he was not to be coerced by the threats of what he considered to be the voice [154] of only the actual slave-owners. With a speech by Calhoun in the Senate as a text, the Tribune said on June 29, 1848:

Thanks to a kind providence, and the manly straightforwardness of John C. Calhoun, the great question of the extension or non-extension of human slavery under the flag of this republic is to be pressed to a decision now. . . . Human slavery is at deadly feud with the common law, the common sense, and the conscience of mankind; nobody pretends to justify it but those who share in its gains and its guilt. God, Man, Nature, Religion, Law, Reason, are all against it. ... If the slavery propagandists are ready for the inevitable struggle, let no retreat be beaten by the champions of universal Freedom. The people are looking on.


On December 23, 1848, a secret conference of the Senators and Representatives from the Southern States was held in the Senate chamher, [155] and, after a number of adjourned meetings, a long address to their constituents was adopted, a motion to table the subject being lost by a vote of yeas, 28; nays, 60. This address, after reviewing the constitutional provision concerning slavery, asserted the right of slave-owners to recover their slaves in free States, set forth the obstacles devised thereto and the existence of “secret combinations” in Northern States to induce slaves to escape; and complained of the “systematic agitation of the [slavery] question by the Abolitionists,” which it pronounced “dangerous to the rights of the South, and subversive of one of the ends for which the Constitution was established.” Regarding slavery in the Territories, it laid down this doctrine: “We ask not for the extension of slavery .... What we do insist on is that we shall not be prohibited from migrating, with our property, into the Territories of the United States because we are slaveholders.” The enactments proposed in Congress to abolish slavery and the slave-trade in the District of Columbia were cited, and it was declared that these “measures of aggression” must be met. Finally, the address strenuously urged “united action” on the part of the South, closing thus: “As the assailed, you would stand justified [156] by all laws, human and divine, in repelling a blow so dangerous without looking to consequences, and to resort to all means necessary for that purpose. Your assailants, and not you, would be responsible for the consequences.”

The proceedings of these caucuses were published on January 30, and the Tribune with them printed an editorial in which it asserted that nothing was ever “better adapted to the great work of arousing and fixing the North,” and added: “Then, as to the other monstrous grievance, the free States--shamed into manhood by the Abolitionists of various species2--will not permit the extension of slavery. The vast regions that came to us free must remain so.”

In October, 1849, a State convention in California adopted unanimously a constitution which excluded slavery, and this was ratified by the people by a vote of 12,066 to 811. At the instance of Mississippi, a convention of the Southern people was called to meet in Nashville, Tenn., in June, 1850, to deliberate on the threatened rights of the South, and [157] talk of disunion became more wide-spread. In the North public opinion was quite as emphatic, and by July, 1849, the Legislature of every free State but Iowa had instructed its representatives in Congress to vote against the introduction of slavery in territories where it was not already authorized. In January, 1850, President Taylor recommended to Congress the admission of California.

On January 29 of that year Clay introduced his famous compromise resolutions. They favored the admission of California, and the establishment of territorial governments in lands acquired from Mexico, without any conditions as to slavery; declared it inexpedient to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, while it continued in Maryland, and without the consent of the people of the District, but opposed the slave-trade therein; pronounced in favor of a more efficient provision for the restitution of fugitive slaves, and asserted that Congress had no power to prohibit or abolish trade in slaves between slaveholding States.

The Tribune parted from its leader at once, and on January 31 compared Clay's effort to secure peace to the man who rushed between a fighting husband and wife, and was whipped by both. “No,” it declared, “we are [158] not yet ready for compromise on either side. Thus far our side has lost by compromise, and gained by struggles. We know well that Mr. Clay's heart is right, and that his views are temperate and far-seeing. But their adoption by the North as its own, in the present state of the case, is quite another affair.” On February 1 it added to this protest, “To countermarch in the face of a determined and formidable foe is peril if not ruin. Our tower of strength and of safety is the Wilmot proviso.” “Let the Union be a thousand times shivered,” it said two weeks later, “rather than we should aid you to plant slavery on free soil.”

Greeley devoted a column on March 9 to the notable speech of Daniel Webster made two days previous. The following citations will show his spirit:

At such a crisis as the present there is no safe light but that of principle. He who tries to be guided by any other will err in the fruitless vague, or land his followers in the ditch. Expediency may debate the steps to be taken, but it must be principle that determines the end. ... It takes courage to face an enemy in battle; it takes more courage to confront a great enemy in politics. ... The position that Northern States and their [159] citizens are morally bound to recapture fugitive slaves may be good for a lawyer, but it is not good for a man. ... But the Union! Preserve the Union .... We say that it is not in danger Thank God, it does not exist by the pleasure of politicians, but by an overruling necessity of things. It can not be dissolved. It is not only the enactment of Nature and God, but it is fortified by an admirable Constitution, by the whole power of the American people, and by the clear-headed, true-hearted, and strong-handed administration which now guides our destiny.

But Greeley abandoned the vital part of the views he had thus set forth. When, after a debate of three months, a bill, reported by a special committee of which Clay was chairman, and known as the “omnibus bill,” containing the substance of Clay's resolutions, was reported, Greeley went to Washington, and in his correspondence with the Tribune classed himself among the compromisers. This bill was in itself a further compromise, as it omitted Clay's original declaration that “slavery does not exist by law.” The Tribune even abandoned that “tower of strength and safety,” the Wilmot proviso, saying on August 5: “Our opinion of the propriety and legality of the Wilmot proviso has not [160] changed one hair, but the necessity for it is now far less than it has been. Give us California admitted, and territorial governments for New Mexico and Utah, and we will forego the Wilmot proviso, though we think we ought to have this and all the others besides.”

Even the “omnibus bill” was a failure, and it seemed probable that no legislation on the subject would be secured. Then came the elevation of Fillmore to the presidency through Taylor's death, and after that Congress passed four separate bills, which Fillmore signed. The first of these admitted California as a free State. The second adjusted the Texas boundary, giving the State $10,000,000 as an indemnity, and also organized New Mexico as a Territory, the State or States formed from which should be admitted “with or without slavery, as their constitutions may prescribe.” The third bill amended the fugitive slave law of 1793 by providing new machinery for the capture of such slaves, and imposing a fine not exceeding $1,000 and imprisonment for not more than six months on any one who obstructed the enforcement of the law, or concealed a fugitive. A fourth bill forbade the traffic in slaves in the District of Columbia.

The Tribune realized at once that the [161] slave power had won in this great contest, and it refused to accept the result as a Whig victory. When, in October, it was proposed to hold in New York city a great meeting to indorse the peace measures, the Tribune said: “Forty Abolition meetings will not advance the antislavery sentiment so much as one grand mercantile city meeting to put down Free-soilism and make a finish of antislavery excitement.” Greeley was not even to be won over by an appeal to the peril there might be to the tariff in Whig discord, and, replying to an article in the Richmond (Va.) Whig, he said: “If it [the Tribune] can only procure protection to the labor of New York by conspiring to rob the laborers of Virginia of their just earnings, it will spurn the bargain.”

All that there was in the nature of pacifying compromise in the act of 1850 was overshadowed by the practical effect of the attempts to enforce the new fugitive slave law. Greeley early declared that the existence of this law might be “endured” so long as it was rarely enforced, “but no longer,” and he openly expressed his sympathy with every effort made in the North to obstruct it. When a “Union and Safety Committee,” representing “commercial interests” in New [162] York city, in September, 1851, circulated a petition declaring that a further agitation of the slavery question would be “fraught with incalculable danger to our Union,” and urging that no one should vote for a Congressional candidate opposed to the new peace measures, the .Tribune vigorously opposed this pledge, and on November 6 it thus restated its position:

For our own part, living within the very shadow of the temple wherein the god Cotton is worshiped, we defy the priests who officiate at the altar to do their worst. We tell them that from the depths of our soul we hate and abhor human slavery, and every institution, law, or usage whereby the poor and feeble are racked and lashed to make them minister to the pomp and luxury of the wealthy and powerful. We tell them that we feel that the soil we tread is desecrated, the air we breathe polluted, by the inhuman slave-hunts which an ill-considered compact, made when our fathers were themselves virtually slaveholders, compels us not to oppose by any other than a moral resistance. We tell them that we will not be instrumental in forcing back into bondage those who have escaped therefrom; but, while we would dissuade all from violent resistance to any legal [163] mandate, we will ourselves cheerfully go to prison, or bear any penalty which our refusal may invoke, rather than aid to consign an innocent fellow being to perpetual bondage.

The Tribune favored the nomination of General Scott for President in 1852, but said of the declaration of the Whig platform in favor of the compromise of 1850, and deprecating further agitation of the slave question, “If there be any five thousand Whigs whose voting for the Whig candidate depends on our agreeing not to speak in reprehension of slavery, or our agreeing to give any ‘ aid and comfort’ to the hunting and catching of fugitive slaves, they may as well take up their beds and walk, for we mean to stay in the Whig party, and not to keep silence about slavery, nor ‘acquiesce’ in fugitive-slave hunting. So if this is to drive Whigs into the Loco-foco camp, they may as well go now as any time.”

Of the result of this campaign Greeley said in his autobiography, “The Whig party had been often beaten before; this defeat proved it practically defunct, and in an advanced stage of decomposition.”

On January 4, 1854, Stephen A. Douglas reported to the Senate, with amendments, a bill introduced by Dodge, of Iowa, to organize [164] the Territory of Nebraska. This was the practical beginning of the contest known in our history as the Kansas-Nebraska struggle. Douglas's report set forth that the compromise measures of 1850 rested on the principle that all questions pertaining to slavery in the Territories, and the States formed from them, were to be decided by the people thereof, and his bill provided that Nebraska, when admitted, should be received with or without slavery, as its constitution should provide.

The Tribune attacked this position at once, spoke of Douglas as “down on his marrow-bones at the feet of slavery,” and added:

Although antislavery is weak in political circles, it was never stronger with the masses of the people. The great heart of the country is sound. Thousands and millions of true men all over the North wait but the occasion for a practical demonstration of their power, to show how firm is their attachment to the principle of freedom, and how deeply they scorn the shallow fools who have the impertinence to talk about ‘crushing out’ those principles.

The Tribune fought the proposed legislation step by step, but in vain, and when the bill passed the House (after midnight on May 23), it said “The revolution is accomplished, [165] and slavery is king. How long shall this monarch reign? This is now the question for the Northern people to answer. . . . Conspiracy has done its worst. Treason has done its worst. Who comes to the rescue . . . Perhaps some such gigantic outrage upon the living sentiment of the North as the defeat of the Missouri compromise was necessary to arouse and consolidate the hosts of freedom in the free States.”

The Kansas-Nebraska question created a new alinement of parties. Greeley credited Douglas and Pierce with having made more Abolitionists in three months than Garrison and Phillips could have made in fifty years. The purpose of the slave power was rendered clearer, and the Northern determination to resist it was strengthened. The Tribune's files are a sufficient demonstration of the part it took in the formation of the new Northern sentiment, and Greeley's willingness to accept the compromise measures when they were in process of formation increased his authority when he interpreted the actual result. Now Whigs like Greeley and Seward, Free-soilers like Sumner and Chase, Abolitionists like Owen Lovejoy and Giddings, and Democrats like Trumbull and Blair saw a common ground on which they could fight [166] under the same banner; and on this ground the foundation of the new Republican party was laid in 1854. Henry Wilson says:

At the outset, Mr. Greeley was hopeless, and seemed disinclined to enter upon the contest. So often defeated by Northern defection therein, he distrusted Congress, nor had he faith that the people would reverse the verdict of their representatives. He told his associates that he would not restrain them, but, as for himself, he had no heart for the strife. But they were more hopeful. . . . Even Mr. Greeley himself became inspired by the growing enthusiasm, and some of the most trenchant articles were from his practised and powerful pen. Rise and Fall of the Slave Power, II, p. 407.

Greeley was in Washington during the contest which, in 1855-1856, resulted finally in the election of N. P. Banks, of Massachusetts, as Speaker of the House. While the outcome was uncertain, Albert Rust, of Arkansas, introduced a resolution declaring it the sentiment of the House that Banks (who lacked only three or four votes of election) and the three other leading candidates should forbid the use of their names any longer. Greeley considered this attempt to dictate to the [167] House a gross outrage, and called it, in his correspondence with the Tribune, “a more discreditable proposition than I had ever known gravely submitted to a legislative body.” Thereupon Rust, on January 23, struck Greeley several blows with his fist as the editor was walking through the Capitol grounds, and repeated the assault when Greeley came up with him on his way to his hotel, breaking a cane over his critic's arm and inflicting on him a severe bruise. Greeley refused to prosecute his assailant, saying that he “did not choose to be beaten for money,” and that he did not think an antislavery editor could get justice in a Washington court.

It was in 1856 also that the Tribune was indicted in Harrison County, Virginia, on a charge of publishing in New York, and circulating in Virginia, a newspaper which incited negroes to insurrection, and “inculcated resistance to the rights of property of masters in their slaves” ; and its agent there was indicted for getting up a club of the paper. Neither indictment ever came to trial.

After the nomination of Fremont for President, in 1856, the Tribune conceded that the odds were greatly in favor of the Democrats, and in announcing his defeat it said, “We have lost a battle. The Bunker Hill of [168] the new struggle for freedom is past; the Saratoga and Yorktown are yet to be achieved.”

The great political events between the presidential years 1856 and 1860 were the Dred Scott decision in 1857, allowing slaveholders to take their slaves into the Territories; the Lecompton (Kan.) contest in Congress, and the Lincoln-Douglas debate in 1858, and John Brown's raid in Virginia in 1859. The Tribune held that Taney's decision was “entitled to just so much moral weight as would be the judgment of a majority of those congregated in any Washington bar-room” ; it fought for free Kansas, and of the John Brown incident it said:

There will be enough to heap execration on the memory of these mistaken men. We leave this work to the fit hands and tongues of those who regard the fundamental axioms of the Declaration of Independence as ‘glittering generalities.’ Believing that the way to universal emancipation lies not through insurrection, civil war, and bloodshed, but through peace, discussion, and the quiet diffusion of sentiments of humanity and justice, we deeply regret this outbreak. But, remembering that, if their fault was grievous, grievously have they answered it, we will not [169] by one reproachful word disturb the bloody shrouds wherein John Brown and his compatriots are sleeping. They dared and died for what they felt to be the right, though in a manner which seems to us fatally wrong. Let their epitaphs remain unwritten until the not distant day when no slave shall clank his chains in the shades of Monticello or by the groves of Mt. Vernon.


1 The New York Evening Post, on January 4, 1850, charged that the editor of the Tribune, before he got home from Congress, was willing to divide the new territories with the slaveholders upon equitable terms. Greeley was out of town when this appeared, but on his return, in the Tribune of January 12, he made his oft-quoted reply: “You lie, villain! wilfully, wickedly, basely lie! The editor of the Tribune was never willing to divide the territories with the slaveholders on any terms whatever.”

2 This was anticipatory of Lincoln's declaration: “I have been only the instrument. The logic and moral power of Garrison and the antislavery people of the country, and the army, have done all.”

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