Today in History:

by Jefferson Davis - Perhaps the best source for understanding the Confederate sentiment towards secession.


False Statements of the Grounds for Separation.—Slavery not the Cause, but an Incident.—The Southern People not "Propagandists" of Slavery.—Early Accord among the States with regard to African Servitude.—Statement of the Supreme Court.—Guarantees of the Constitution.—Disregard of Oaths.—Fugitives from Service and the "Personal Liberty Laws."—Equality in the Territories the Paramount Question.—The Dred Scott Case.—Disregard of the Decision of the Supreme Court.—Culmination of Wrongs.—Despair of their Redress.—Triumph of Sectionalism.

At the period to which this review of events has advanced, one State had already withdrawn from the Union. Seven or eight others were preparing to follow her example, and others yet were anxiously and doubtfully contemplating the probably impending necessity of taking the same action. The efforts of Southern men in Congress, aided by the coöperation of the Northern friends of the Constitution, had failed, by the stubborn refusal of a haughty majority, controlled by "radical" purposes, to yield anything to the spirit of peace and conciliation. This period, coinciding, as it happens, with the close of a calendar year, affords a convenient point to pause for a brief recapitulation of the causes which had led the Southern States into the attitude they then held, and for a more full exposition of the constitutional questions involved.

The reader of many of the treatises on these events, which have been put forth as historical, if dependent upon such alone for information, might naturally enough be led to the conclusion that the controversies which arose between the States, and the war in which they culminated, were caused by efforts on the one side to extend and perpetuate human slavery, and on the other to resist it and establish human liberty. The Southern States and Southern people have been sedulously represented as "propagandists" of slavery, and the Northern as the defenders and champions of universal freedom, and this view has been so arrogantly assumed, so dogmatically asserted, and so persistently reiterated, that its authors have, in many cases, perhaps, succeeded [pg 78] in bringing themselves to believe it, as well as in impressing it widely upon the world.

The attentive reader of the preceding chapters—especially if he has compared their statements with contemporaneous records and other original sources of information—will already have found evidence enough to enable him to discern the falsehood of these representations, and to perceive that, to whatever extent the question of slavery may have served as an occasion, it was far from being the cause of the conflict.

I have not attempted, and shall not permit myself to be drawn into any discussion of the merits or demerits of slavery as an ethical or even as a political question. It would be foreign to my purpose, irrelevant to my subject, and would only serve—as it has invariably served, in the hands of its agitators—to "darken counsel" and divert attention from the genuine issues involved.

As a mere historical fact, we have seen that African servitude among us—confessedly the mildest and most humane of all institutions to which the name "slavery" has ever been applied—existed in all the original States, and that it was recognized and protected in the fourth article of the Constitution. Subsequently, for climatic, industrial, and economical—not moral or sentimental—reasons, it was abolished in the Northern, while it continued to exist in the Southern States. Men differed in their views as to the abstract question of its right or wrong, but for two generations after the Revolution there was no geographical line of demarkation for such differences. The African slave-trade was carried on almost exclusively by New England merchants and Northern ships. Mr. Jefferson—a Southern man, the founder of the Democratic party, and the vindicator of State rights—was in theory a consistent enemy to every form of slavery. The Southern States took the lead in prohibiting the slave-trade, and, as we have seen, one of them (Georgia) was the first State to incorporate such a prohibition in her organic Constitution. Eleven years after the agitation on the Missouri question, when the subject first took a sectional shape, the abolition of slavery was proposed and earnestly debated in the Virginia Legislature, and its advocates were so near the accomplishment [pg 79] of their purpose, that a declaration in its favor was defeated only by a small majority, and that on the ground of expediency. At a still later period, abolitionist lecturers and teachers were mobbed, assaulted, and threatened with tar and feathers in New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and other States. One of them (Lovejoy) was actually killed by a mob in Illinois as late as 1837.

These facts prove incontestably that the sectional hostility which exhibited itself in 1820, on the application of Missouri for admission into the Union, which again broke out on the proposition for the annexation of Texas in 1844, and which reappeared after the Mexican war, never again to be suppressed until its fell results had been fully accomplished, was not the consequence of any difference on the abstract question of slavery. It was the offspring of sectional rivalry and political ambition. It would have manifested itself just as certainly if slavery had existed in all the States, or if there had not been a negro in America. No such pretension was made in 1803 or 1811, when the Louisiana purchase, and afterward the admission into the Union of the State of that name, elicited threats of disunion from the representatives of New England. The complaint was not of slavery, but of "the acquisition of more weight at the other extremity" of the Union. It was not slavery that threatened a rupture in 1832, but the unjust and unequal operation of a protective tariff.

It happened, however, on all these occasions, that the line of demarkation of sectional interests coincided exactly or very nearly with that dividing the States in which negro servitude existed from those in which it had been abolished. It corresponded with the prediction of Mr. Pickering, in 1803, that, in the separation certainly to come, "the white and black population would mark the boundary"—a prediction made without any reference to slavery as a source of dissension.

Of course, the diversity of institutions contributed, in some minor degree, to the conflict of interests. There is an action and reaction of cause and consequence, which limits and modifies any general statement of a political truth. I am stating general principles—not defining modifications and exceptions with the [pg 80] precision of a mathematical proposition or a bill in chancery. The truth remains intact and incontrovertible, that the existence of African servitude was in no wise the cause of the conflict, but only an incident. In the later controversies that arose, however, its effect in operating as a lever upon the passions, prejudices, or sympathies of mankind, was so potent that it has been spread, like a thick cloud, over the whole horizon of historic truth.

As for the institution of negro servitude, it was a matter entirely subject to the control of the States. No power was ever given to the General Government to interfere with it, but an obligation was imposed to protect it. Its existence and validity were distinctly recognized by the Constitution in at least three places:

First, in that part of the second section of the first article which prescribes that "representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective members, which shall be determined by adding to the whole number of free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, and, excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other persons." "Other persons" than "free persons" and those "bound to service for a term of years" must, of course, have meant those permanently bound to service.

Secondly, it was recognized by the ninth section of the same article, which provided that "the migration or importation of such persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit shall not be prohibited by Congress prior to the year one thousand eight hundred and eight." This was a provision inserted for the protection of the interests of the slave-trading New England States, forbidding any prohibition of the trade by Congress for twenty years, and thus virtually giving sanction to the legitimacy of the demand which that trade was prosecuted to supply, and which was its only object.

Again, and in the third place, it was specially recognized, and an obligation imposed upon every State, not only to refrain from interfering with it in any other State, but in certain cases to aid in its enforcement, by that clause, or paragraph, [pg 81] of the second section of the fourth article which provides as follows:

"No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due."

The President and Vice-President of the United States, every Senator and Representative in Congress, the members of every State Legislature, and "all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several States," were required to take an oath (or affirmation) to support the Constitution containing these provisions. It is easy to understand how those who considered them in conflict with the "higher law" of religion or morality might refuse to take such an oath or hold such an office—as the members of some religious sects refuse to take any oath at all or to bear arms in the service of their country—but it is impossible to reconcile with the obligations of honor or honesty the conduct of those who, having taken such an oath, made use of the powers and opportunities of the offices held under its sanctions to nullify its obligations and neutralize its guarantees. The halls of Congress afforded the vantage-ground from which assaults were made upon these guarantees. The Legislatures of various Northern States enacted laws to hinder the execution of the provisions made for the rendition of fugitives from service; State officials lent their aid to the work of thwarting them; and city mobs assailed the officers engaged in the duty of enforcing them.

With regard to the provision of the Constitution above quoted, for the restoration of fugitives from service or labor, my own view was, and is, that it was not a proper subject for legislation by the Federal Congress, but that its enforcement should have been left to the respective States, which, as parties to the compact of union, should have been held accountable for its fulfillment. Such was actually the case in the earlier and better days of the republic. No fugitive slave-law existed, or was required, for two years after the organization of the Federal [pg 82] Government, and, when one was then passed, it was merely as an incidental appendage to an act regulating the mode of rendition of fugitives from justice—not from service or labor.27

In 1850 a more elaborate law was enacted as part of the celebrated compromise of that year. But the very fact that the Federal Government had taken the matter into its own hands, and provided for its execution by its own officers, afforded a sort of pretext to those States which had now become hostile to this provision of the Constitution, not only to stand aloof, but in some cases to adopt measures (generally known as "personal liberty laws") directly in conflict with the execution of the provisions of the Constitution.

The preamble to the Constitution declared the object of its founders to be, "to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity." Now, however (in 1860), the people of a portion of the States had assumed an attitude of avowed hostility, not only to the provisions of the Constitution itself, but to the "domestic tranquillity" of the people of other States. Long before the formation of the Constitution, one of the charges preferred in the Declaration of Independence against the Government of Great Britain, as justifying the separation of the colonies from that country, was that of having "excited [pg 83] domestic insurrections among us." Now, the mails were burdened with incendiary publications, secret emissaries had been sent, and in one case an armed invasion of one of the States had taken place for the very purpose of exciting "domestic insurrection."

It was not the passage of the "personal liberty laws," it was not the circulation of incendiary documents, it was not the raid of John Brown, it was not the operation of unjust and unequal tariff laws, nor all combined, that constituted the intolerable grievance, but it was the systematic and persistent struggle to deprive the Southern States of equality in the Union—generally to discriminate in legislation against the interests of their people; culminating in their exclusion from the Territories, the common property of the States, as well as by the infraction of their compact to promote domestic tranquillity.

The question with regard to the Territories has been discussed in the foregoing chapters, and the argument need not be repeated. There was, however, one feature of it which has not been specially noticed, although it occupied a large share of public attention at the time, and constituted an important element in the case. This was the action of the Federal judiciary thereon, and the manner in which it was received.

In 1854 a case (the well-known "Dred Scott case") came before the Supreme Court of the United States, involving the whole question of the status of the African race and the rights of citizens of the Southern States to migrate to the Territories, temporarily or permanently, with their slave property, on a footing of equality with the citizens of other States with their property of any sort. This question, as we have seen, had already been the subject of long and energetic discussion, without any satisfactory conclusion. All parties, however, had united in declaring, that a decision by the Supreme Court of the United States—the highest judicial tribunal in the land—would be accepted as final. After long and patient consideration of the case, in 1857, the decision of the Court was pronounced in an elaborate and exhaustive opinion, delivered by Chief-Justice Taney—a man eminent as a lawyer, great as a statesman, and stainless in his moral reputation—seven of the nine judges who [pg 84] composed the Court, concurring in it. The salient points established by this decision were:

1. That persons of the African race were not, and could not be, acknowledged as "part of the people," or citizens, under the Constitution of the United States;

2. That Congress had no right to exclude citizens of the South from taking their negro servants, as any other property, into any part of the common territory, and that they were entitled to claim its protection therein;

3. And, finally, as a consequence of the principle just above stated, that the Missouri Compromise of 1820, in so far as it prohibited the existence of African servitude north of a designated line, was unconstitutional and void.28 (It will be remembered that it had already been declared "inoperative and void" by the Kansas-Nebraska Bill of 1854.)

Instead of accepting the decision of this then august tribunal—the [pg 85] ultimate authority in the interpretation of constitutional questions—as conclusive of a controversy that had so long disturbed the peace and was threatening the perpetuity of the Union, it was flouted, denounced, and utterly disregarded by the Northern agitators, and served only to stimulate the intensity of their sectional hostility.

What resource for justice—what assurance of tranquillity—what guarantee of safety—now remained for the South? Still forbearing, still hoping, still striving for peace and union, we waited until a sectional President, nominated by a sectional convention, elected by a sectional vote—and that the vote of a minority of the people—was about to be inducted into office, under the warning of his own distinct announcement that the Union could not permanently endure "half slave and half free"; meaning thereby that it could not continue to exist in the condition in which it was formed and its Constitution adopted. The leader of his party, who was to be the chief of his Cabinet, was the man who had first proclaimed an "irrepressible conflict" between the North and the South, and who had declared that abolitionism, having triumphed in the Territories, would proceed to the invasion of the States. Even then the Southern people did not finally despair until the temper of the triumphant party had been tested in Congress and found adverse to any terms of reconciliation consistent with the honor and safety of all parties.

No alternative remained except to seek the security out of the Union which they had vainly tried to obtain within it. The hope of our people may be stated in a sentence. It was to escape from injury and strife in the Union, to find prosperity and peace out of it. The mode and principles of their action will next be presented.

Footnote 27: (return)

"There was but little necessity in those times, nor long after, for an act of Congress to authorize the recovery of fugitive slaves. The laws of the free States and, still more, the force of public opinion were the owners' best safeguards. Public opinion was against the abduction of slaves; and, if any one was seduced from his owner, it was done furtively and secretly, without show or force, and as any other moral offense would be committed. State laws favored the owner, and to a greater extent than the act of Congress did or could. In Pennsylvania there was an act (it was passed in 1780, and only repealed in 1847) discriminating between the traveler and sojourner and the permanent resident, allowing the former to remain six months in the State before his slaves would become subject to the emancipation laws; and, in the case of a Federal officer, allowing as much more time as his duties required him to remain. New York had the same act, only varying in time, which was nine months. While these two acts were in force, and supported by public opinion, the traveler and sojourner was safe with his slaves in those States, and the same in the other free States. There was no trouble about fugitive slaves in those times."—(Note to Benton's "Abridgment of Debates," vol. i, p. 417.)

Footnote 28: (return)

The Supreme Court of the United States in stating (through Chief-Justice Taney) their decision in the "Dred Scott case," in 1857, say: "In that portion of the United States where the labor of the negro race was found to be unsuited to the climate and unprofitable to the master, but few slaves were held at the time of the Declaration of Independence; and, when the Constitution was adopted, it had entirely worn out in one of them, and measures had been taken for its gradual abolition in several others. But this change had not been produced by any change of opinion in relation to this race, but because it was discovered from experience that slave-labor was unsuited to the climate and productions of these States; for some of these States, when it had ceased, or nearly ceased, to exist, were actively engaged in the slave-trade; procuring cargoes on the coast of Africa, and transporting them for sale to those parts of the Union where their labor was found to be profitable and suited to the climate and productions. And this traffic was openly carried on, and fortunes accumulated by it, without reproach from the people of the States where they resided."

This statement, it must be remembered, does not proceed from any partisan source, but is extracted from a judicial opinion pronounced by the highest court in the country. In illustration of the truthfulness of the latter part of it, may be mentioned the fact that a citizen of Rhode Island (James D'Wolf), long and largely concerned in the slave-trade, was sent from that State to the Senate of the United States as late as the year 1821. In 1825 he resigned his seat in the Senate and removed to Havana, where he lived for many years, actively engaged in the same pursuit, as president of a slave-trading company. The story is told of him that, on being informed that the "trade" was to be declared piracy, he smiled and said, "So much the better for us—the Yankees will be the only people not scared off by such a declaration."