Negro and the Nation - G. S. Merriam

On Niagara's Brink—and Over

The election of Lincoln in November, 1860, found South Carolina expectant and ready for action. The Legislature was in session, and immediately ordered an election to be held December 6 for a convention to meet December 17, and pass on the question of Secession. The action of the convention was in no doubt.

Governor Pettus of Mississippi summoned a group of leading men to consider the question of immediate Secession. In the conclave the principal opponent of instant action was Jefferson Davis. His grounds were prudential; he knew that the arsenals, foundries, and military supplies were chiefly at the North; he foresaw a long and bloody war; he advised that further efforts be made at compromise, or at least that united action of the South be insured. This counsel prevailed, and the convention was deferred until mid-January.

In the Georgia Legislature it was proposed that the question of Secession be at once submitted to a popular vote. Toombs and Stephens threw each his whole weight respectively for and against Secession. Stephens has preserved his own speech in full. He emphasized the gravity of the South's grievances, and the need of redress from the North if the Union was to permanently endure. But he denied that the danger was so pressing as to justify immediate Secession. He pointed out that Lincoln would be confronted by a hostile majority in the Senate, the House and the Supreme Court, and could not even appoint his Cabinet officers except with the approval of a Senate in which his opponents outnumbered his friends. He urged that it was wise to wait for some overt aggression on the President's part before seceding. He dwelt on the immense advantages the Union had brought to all sections. He showed (as in our last chapter) that Toombs could allege no injuries except such as affected slavery. Georgia's wealth had doubled between 1850 and 1860. "I look upon this country," he said, "with our institutions, as the Eden of the world, the paradise of the universe. It may be that out of it we may become greater and more prosperous, but I am candid and sincere in telling you that I fear if we yield to passion, and without sufficient cause shall take that step, that instead of becoming greater or more peaceful, prosperous and happy,—instead of becoming gods we will become demons, and at no distant day commence cutting one another's throats."

Stephen's counsel was that the State should hold a convention, that with the other Southern States it should draw up a formal bill of complaint as to the personal liberty laws and the like, and if the North then refused redress, secede. But whatever the State should do, he would accept its decision, since the only alternative was civil war within the State. He succeeded in having the convention deferred till January, and the other Gulf States took similar action, while Virginia called a convention for February 13.

With the tide of secession rising swiftly in the South, and surprise, consternation, and perplexity at the North, Congress met in early December. President Buchanan, in his message, following the advice of his attorney-general, Jeremiah S. Black of Pennsylvania,—both of them honest and patriotic men, but legalists rather than statesmen—argued that Secession was wholly against the Constitution, but its forcible repression was equally against the Constitution. Thus encouraged, the Southern leaders confronted the Republicans in Congress,—how far would they recede, how much would they yield, to avert Secession? Naturally, the Republicans were not willing to undo the victory they had just won, or to concede the very principle for which they had fought. But in both Houses large committees were appointed and the whole situation was earnestly discussed. On all sides violence was deprecated; there was general dread of disruption of the Union, general doubt of the feasibility of maintaining it by force, and the wide wish and effort to find some practicable compromise.

But there was no hesitation on South Carolina's part. Her convention passed, December 20, an Ordinance of Secession; a clear and impressive statement of her complaints and the remedy she adopts. The Federal compact has been broken; the personal liberty laws violate the Constitution; the Northern people have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have elected a man who has declared that "this government cannot permanently endure half slave and half free"; they are about to exclude Southern institutions from the territories, and to make the Supreme Court sectional. "All hope of redress is rendered vain by the fact that public opinion at the North has invested a great political error with the sanction of a more erroneous religious belief." So, from a partnership of which the letter has been broken and the spirit destroyed, South Carolina withdraws.

The State was, at least on the surface, almost unanimous,—in Charleston only the venerable James L. Petigru ventured to call himself a Unionist,—and was in high heart and hope for its new venture. But, facing the palmetto flags so gayly unfurled to the breeze, still floated the Stars and Stripes over a little garrison in Fort Moultrie, commanded by Major Anderson. His supplies were low; should aid be sent him? No, said Buchanan timidly; and thereat Cass withdrew indignantly from the Cabinet, to be replaced as Secretary of State by Black, while the vigorous Edwin M. Stanton took Black's former place; and Buchanan's courage rose a little. At the request of the South Carolina authorities, Floyd, the Secretary of War, had ordered Anderson to act strictly on the defensive. Finding himself at the mercy of his opponents on the mainland, he quietly withdrew his handful of men, on the night of December 26, to Fort Sumter, whose position on an island gave comparative security. The South Carolinians instantly occupied Fort Moultrie and Castle Pinckney, and took possession of the custom-house and post-office. They cried out against Anderson's maneuver as a breach of good faith, and Secretary Floyd resigned, in sympathy with the Carolinians. The President, heartened by his new counselors, dispatched the steamer Star of the West with supplies for Anderson, but she was fired on by the South Carolinians and turned back, January 9. Resenting the President's act, Thompson of Mississippi and Thomas of Maryland left his cabinet. The President brought in General Dix of New York; Joseph Holt, now Secretary of War, was a Southern loyalist, and in its last months Buchanan's Cabinet was thoroughly Unionist. But in him there was no leadership.

Leadership was not wanting to the Secessionists. A movement like theirs, once begun and in a congenial atmosphere, advances like a glacier by its own weight, but with the pace not of the glacier but of the torrent. In the country at large and at Washington there was confusion of counsels. There was manifest disposition among the Republicans to go a long way in conciliation. Of forcible resistance to Secession there was but little talk. But that the Republicans should disown and reverse the entire principles on which their party was founded was out of the question. On the night of January 5 there met in a room at the Capitol the Senators from Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas. They agreed on a common program, and telegraphed to their homes that Secession was advisable at the January conventions and that a common convention was to be held at Montgomery, Ala., in mid-February, for the organization of the Southern Confederacy. Meantime, all United States officials were to resign, and the Federal forts, arsenals and custom-houses were to be seized.

A last formal presentation of the Southern ultimatum was made by Toombs in the Senate. It was the familiar demand—slavery in the territories; slavery under Federal protection everywhere except in the free States; fugitives to be returned; offenders against State laws to be surrendered to justice in those States; inter-State invasion and insurrection to be prohibited and punished by Congress. No partial concessions would answer: this, or nothing! "Nothing be it then!" was the answer of the Republicans: and Toombs, Davis, and their associates bade a stern and sad farewell to their fellow-congressmen and went home to organize the Confederacy. Congress took up fresh plans for reconciliation and reunion.

Mississippi, through its convention, seceded January 9, 1861. Florida followed, January 10, and Alabama, January 11. Then, in the great "keystone State" of Georgia, came deliberation and momentous debate. Against immediate Secession, the policy of patience, of conference with the other Southern States including the new "independent republics," and a united remonstrance to the North, of which the rejection would justify Secession,—this policy was embodied in a resolution presented by Herschel V. Johnson and supported by all the eloquence and persuasiveness of Stephens. Against him was the strong personal influence of Howell Cobb, and the argument—which Stephens says was decisive,—"we can make better terms out of the Union than in it." The test vote was 164 to 133 for immediate Secession. On the motion of Stephens the action was made unanimous. This accession of Georgia marked the triumph of the Secessionists' cause; and most fitly, in a speech on the evening of the same day, Stephens declared the fundamental idea of that cause. Jefferson, he said, and the leading statesmen of his day, "believed slavery wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically . . . Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the storm came and the wind blew. Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the white race—is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first in the history of the world based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth."

The Louisiana convention voted to secede January 26, and Texas February 1. The seven seceded States sent delegates to a convention which met at Montgomery, February 4. They quickly organized the Confederate States of America, with a Constitution closely resembling that of the United States. One article forbade the foreign slave trade, except that with "the United States of America," which was left subject to Congress. Davis was elected President, by general agreement. He was clearly marked for the place by ability, by civil and military experience, by unblemished character, and by his record as a firm but not extreme champion of the Secessionist cause. He disclaimed any desire for the office, preferring the position which Mississippi had given him as commander of her forces, but when the summons came to him at his plantation home he promptly accepted. Stephens was chosen Vice-President, in spite of his late and half-hearted adherence, to conciliate Georgia and the old Whigs. In the Cabinet the leading figures were Toombs of Georgia and Benjamin of Louisiana.

With this purposeful, swift, and effective action, Secession seemed to have reached its limit. The other Southern States held back. Among the plain folk, not over-heated about politics, there was wide disinclination to any such extreme measure as disunion. It was well represented by Robert E. Lee, in whom the best blood and worthiest tradition of Virginia found fit exemplar. He wrote to his son, January 23: "Secession is nothing but revolution. The framers of our Constitution never expended so much labor, wisdom and forbearance, in its formation, and surrounded it with so many guards and securities, if it was intended to be broken by every member of the Confederacy at will."

North Carolina voted against a convention by 1,000 majority. Tennessee voted against it by 92,000 to 25,000. Arkansas postponed action till August. Missouri held a convention which voted not to secede. In Maryland the governor would not convene the Legislature, and an irregular convention took no decisive action. Delaware did nothing. Virginia held a convention, which was not ready for Secession, but remained in session watching the course of events. The Kentucky Legislature refused to call a convention, but pledged assistance to the South in case of invasion.

This last declaration illustrated the second line of defense, behind the Secessionist advance. The sentiment was general throughout the South, even among Unionists, that there must be no armed repression of Secession. It rested partly on the theory of State Sovereignty, and partly on the sympathy of neighborhood and of common institutions. Even at the North there was wide disinclination to the use of force against the Secessionists. The venerable General Scott, chief of the Federal Army, gave it as his personal opinion that the wise course was to say, "Wayward sisters, depart in peace." The New York Tribune, foremost of Republican newspapers, declared: "If the cotton States wish to withdraw from the Union, they should be allowed to do so." "Any attempt to compel them to remain by force would be contrary to the principles of the Declaration of Independence, and to the fundamental ideas upon which human liberty is based." And again: "We hope never to live in a Republic whereof one section is pinned to the residue by bayonets." Such expressions were not uncommon among Republicans, and very frequent among Democrats. Garrison and Phillips were loud in welcoming a separation. But there were leaders like Wade of Ohio and Chandler of Michigan, whose temper was very different, and ominous that the West would never consent to a disruption of the nation.

The governor of Virginia invited all the States to send delegates to a Peace congress to find means to save the Union. Almost all sent delegates, and the congress held long sessions, while the Senate and House were essaying the same task. Little result came in either body, because neither party would accept the other's concessions. The favorite measure was that known as the Crittendon compromise, framed by the Kentucky senator, of which the central feature was the extension of the old Missouri compromise line of 36 degrees 30 minutes to the Pacific, with express provision that all territory north of this should be free and all south should be slave. To this the Republicans would not consent, but they went far toward it by agreeing to a plan proposed by Charles Francis Adams of Massachusetts,—that New Mexico (including all present territory south of 36 degrees 30 minutes except the Indian territory), be admitted as a State with slavery if its people should so vote. They offered also to admit Colorado, Nevada, and Dakota as territories, with no express exclusion of slavery. But neither side would leave to the other the possible future extension to the South—in Mexico and Cuba. Further, the Republicans showed a willingness to amend the Personal Liberty laws, so far as they might be unconstitutional, and to provide for governmental payment for fugitives who were not returned. They expressed entire readiness to unite in a national convention for the revision of the Constitution. And finally there was not only proposed, but actually passed by the Senate and House, by two-thirds majorities, at the very end of the session, a constitutional amendment prohibiting any future amendment that should authorize Congress to interfere with slavery in the States where it existed.

In vain, all,—in vain for the Republicans to hold out the olive branch, to mutilate their own principles, and to bar the door against any ultimate constitutional abolition of slavery. Even the slave States still in the Union were not to be satisfied by all this, and the Confederacy gave it no heed. And now, in the background, was visible a rising force, in which the temper was far other than compromise. The most significant voice came from Massachusetts. After all the old antagonism of Massachusetts and South Carolina,—after the clash of Calhoun and Hayne with Webster, the expulsion of Samuel Hoar, the assault of Brooks on Sumner,—the two commonwealths stood forth, each the leader of its own section. It was a hostility which sprung from no accident, and no remembrance of old feuds, but from the opposition of two types of society, the oligarchic idea most fully developed in South Carolina, the industrial democracy in Massachusetts. The new Governor of the State was John A. Andrew, a man of clear convictions, a great heart, and a magnanimous temper. His New Year's message to the Legislature opened with a businesslike discussion of the State's finances and other materialities. Thence he passed to national affairs; he defended the Personal Liberty law, of which his more conservative predecessor, Governor Banks, had advised the repeal, but which Andrew justified as a legitimate defense against kidnapping; while suggesting that whatever slaves South Carolina had lost from this cause were offset by Massachusetts black seamen enslaved in her ports. Then he took up the matter of disunion. "The question now is, Shall a reactionary spirit, unfriendly to liberty, be permitted to subvert democratic republican government organized under constitutional forms? . . . The men who own and till the soil, who drive the mills, and hammer out their own iron and leather on their own anvils and lapstones . . . are honest, intelligent, patriotic, independent, and brave. They know that simple defeat in an election is no cause for the disruption of a government. They know that those who declare that they will not live peaceably within the Union do not mean to live peaceably out of it. They know that the people of all sections have a right, which they intend to maintain, of free access from the interior to both oceans, and from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, and of the free use of all the lakes and rivers and highways of commerce, North, South, East and West. They know that the Union means peace and unfettered commercial intercourse from sea to sea and from shore to shore; that it secures us against the unfriendly presence or possible dictation of any foreign power, and commands respect for our flag and security for our trade. And they do not intend, nor will they ever consent, to be excluded from these rights which they have so long enjoyed, nor to abandon the prospect of the benefits which humanity claims for itself by means of their continued enjoyment in the future. Neither will they consent that the continent shall be overrun by the victims of a remorseless cupidity, and the elements of danger increased by the barbarizing influences which accompany the African slave trade. Inspired by the ideas and emotions which commanded the fraternization of Jackson and Webster on another great occasion of public danger, the people of Massachusetts, confiding in the patriotism of their brethren in other States, accept this issue, and respond in the words of Jackson, 'The Federal Union, it must be preserved.'. . . We cannot turn aside, and we will not turn back."

The crowded, anxious, hurrying months, brought the 4th of March, and Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated as President. His speeches on his way to the capital,—pacific, reassuring, but firm for national unity and liberty,—had in a degree brought him into touch with the mass of the people. But when his gaunt and homely form rose to deliver the inaugural address, it was as a little-known and untried man that he was heard. That speech gave signal that the man for the hour had come. No words could better describe its quality than "sweet reasonableness";—that, and unflinching purpose. He began by earnest reassurances as to the fidelity to the Constitution of himself and the party behind him. He suggested the means and temper by which mutual grievances might be approached. Then in his clear, logical fashion, and in the plain speech of the common man, he showed that the Union is in its nature indissoluble, older than the Constitution, unaffected by any attempted Secession. His own official, inevitable duty is to maintain the Union. But there need be no bloodshed or violence. "The power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the government, and collect the duties and imports; but beyond what may be necessary for these objects there will be no invasion, no using of force against or among the people anywhere." If resident citizens will not hold Federal offices, there is to be no intrusion of obnoxious strangers. The mails will be furnished wherever they are wanted. "So far as possible the people everywhere shall have that sense of perfect security which is most favorable to calm thought and reflection." This will be his course unless events shall compel a change. And then follows a most calm, rational, moving plea against sacrificing a great, popular, orderly self-government, to individual caprice or fancied wrongs; a demonstration, irresistible as mathematics, that "the central idea of Secession is anarchy." "Unanimity is impossible, the rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible; so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy or despotism in some form is all that is left." In the address there is not one word of heat or bitterness; it is all in the spirit of his words spoken in private, "I shall do nothing maliciously,—the interests I deal with are too vast for malicious dealings."

He does not belittle the complaints of the South, but pleads for mutual forbearance. If there are defects in the organic framework of the nation, let them be discussed and amended if necessary in a constitutional convention. No justice can be done to this inaugural in a condensation; it should be studied line by line; it is one of the great classics of American literature and history. Thus he ended: "I am loth to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot's grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

Through the weeks that followed, Lincoln was plunged in a sea of perplexities, while the nation seemed weltering in chaos, with nothing clear but the steady purpose of the Confederate leaders to maintain their position and achieve complete independence by the shortest road. Lincoln had formed a Cabinet including some very able and some ordinary men, with one—Seward—of highest promise and at first of most disappointing performance. He regarded himself as the real power in the administration; he underrated alike the gravity of the situation and the President's ability to cope with it; he trusted to conciliation and smooth assurance; and he tried to take the reins of control into his own hands—an attempt which Lincoln quietly foiled. The President and his Cabinet were as yet strangers to each other. In the Senate (the House was not in session), Douglas assailed the President's position, and declared three courses to be open: Constitutional redress of the South's grievances; the acceptance of Secession; or its forcible repression,—the first the best, the last the worst. Three commissioners of the Confederacy were in Washington, refused official recognition, but holding some indirect intercourse with Seward, which they apparently misunderstood and exaggerated. A swarm of office-seekers, like Egyptian locusts, beset the President amid his heavy cares. The border States, trembling in the balance, called for the wisest handling. Heaviest and most pressing was the problem what to do with Fort Sumter. Closely beleaguered, with failing supplies, it must soon fall unless relieved. Almost impossible to relieve or save it, said the army officers; easy to slip in supplies, contradicted the naval officers. Leave Sumter to fall and you dishearten the North, urged Chase and Blair in the Cabinet; answered Seward, Reinforce it, and you provoke instant war.

Lincoln answered the question in his own way. He was true to the principle he had laid down in his inaugural,—to maintain the essential rights of the national government, but with the least possible exercise of force. He would "hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the government, and collect the duties and imports"—that and nothing more. Practically the only "property and places" now left to the government at the South were Forts Sumter and Pickens. To yield them without effort was to renounce the minimum of self-assertion he had reserved to the nation.

As to the means of supply, he had recourse to the best instrument that offered,—a scheme proposed by Captain Fox, an energetic naval officer, who planned a relief expedition of five vessels to be privately dispatched from New York and try to run past the batteries. The expedition was quickly fitted out and sent, in early April. According to promise, in case of any such action, notice was telegraphed to the Governor of South Carolina. He communicated with the Confederate government at Montgomery. That government was bent on maintaining, without further debate, its full sovereignty over the coasts and waters within its jurisdiction. There is no need to impute a deliberate purpose to rouse and unite the South by bloodshed, any more than there is reason to impute to Lincoln a crafty purpose to inveigle the South into striking the first blow. Each acted straight in the line of their open and avowed purpose,—Lincoln, to retain the remaining vestige of national authority at the South; the Confederacy, to make full and prompt assertion of its entire independence.

Orders were telegraphed from Montgomery, and General Beauregard, commanding the Charleston forces, sent to Major Anderson a summons to surrender. It was rejected; and the circle of forts opened fire and Sumter fired back. The roar of those guns flashed by telegraph over the country. In every town and hamlet men watched and waited with a tension which cannot be described. All the accumulated feeling of months and years flashed into a lightning stroke of emotion. All day Friday and Saturday, April 12, 13, men watched the bulletins, and talked in brief phrases, and were conscious of a passion surging through millions of hearts. Saturday evening came the word,—the fort had yielded. After a thirty-four hours' fight, overmatched, the expected relief storm-delayed, his ammunition spent, his works on fire, Anderson had capitulated.

There was a Sunday of intense brooding all over the land. Next morning, April 15, came a proclamation from the President. The laws of the United States, it declared, were opposed and their execution obstructed in seven States, by combinations too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings; and the militia of the States, to the number of 75,000 were called to arms for three months to suppress the combinations and cause the laws to be duly executed.

The North rose as one man to the call. Party divisions were forgotten. Douglas went to the President and pledged his support. Regiments from Pennsylvania and Massachusetts hurried to the capital. Every Northern State hastened to fill its assigned quota of militia. No less promptly the South rallied to defend the seceding States from invasion. The Virginia convention voted Secession two days after the President's proclamation, and the people's vote ratified it by six to one. North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas joined the Confederacy. Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri, wavered and were distracted, but as State organizations remained in the Union, while their populations divided.

Constitutional logic, argumentation, distinctions between holding the national property and invasion, all vanished in the fierce breath of war. Between union and disunion, argument was exhausted, and the issue was to be tried out by force. In a day a great peaceful people resolved itself into two hostile armies.