It is natural enough that history should be mixed with myth, to make it interesting to the populace. But it is uttery unnatural that history or myth should not be interesting to the populace. — G. K. Chesterton

Negro and the Nation - G. S. Merriam




The Compromise of 1850

To win California as slave territory the Southern leaders had forced the war on Mexico. The territory was won, and no political force had developed strong enough to halt their progress. But now came a check from the realm which could not be cajoled or brow-beaten,—the world of natural and industrial forces. Gold was discovered in California. There was a rush of immigrants, and a swift opening and settlement of the country. The pioneers—hardy, enterprising and democratic—had no use nor room for slaves. They held a convention, with the encouragement of President Taylor; framed a Constitution in which slavery was excluded from the future State—this by unanimous vote, including the 15 delegates who had come from slave States; and the popular vote ratified the proposed Constitution by 10 to 1. Then they asked for admission to the Union.

The Southern faction was wrathful. The extremists were for excluding the new State unless slavery was permitted. But it was clear that slavery could not be forced on a State against the wish of its entire people. Then compensation was sought in concessions to be made by the North. The remainder of the new domain, Utah and New Mexico, was not ripe for Statehood; but let slavery, it was urged, be established as a territorial condition. Then came up another grievance of the South. Its fugitive slaves, escaping over the border line, were systematically helped, either to make their way to Canada and the protection of the British flag, or to safe homes in the Northern States. Naturally the slaves who dared the perils of escape were either the most energetic or the most wronged, and sympathy for them at the North was active and resourceful. Along their most frequented routes of flight were systematic provisions of shelter and help, known as "the underground railroad." The Federal Constitution required their return, but this task had been left to State laws and courts, and was performed slackly, if at all. The total number of fugitives was not large nor the pecuniary loss heavy, but the South was exasperated by what it considered a petty and contemptible depredation. So there was a demand that the Federal government should undertake and enforce the return of fugitive slaves.

Congress opened the session of 1849-50 amid great excitement and confusion. Once more Clay came forward to reconcile the disputants. Clay in these last days was at his best. He was no longer swayed by Presidential aspirations. When in 1849 the Kentucky Constitution was to be revised, he wrote a letter strongly favoring a gradual emancipation and colonization. This had no effect, but Clay's unshaken hold on his State was shown by his unanimous re-election to the Senate. There he at once entered upon his last great effort at national reconciliation. He introduced a bill providing for a series of concessions on both sides. California was to be admitted as a free State; and New Mexico and Utah were to be organized as territories, leaving the question of slavery for future settlement. Slavery was to continue in the District of Columbia, but the slave trade was to be forbidden there. Texas was to cede to New Mexico a disputed strip of territory, which presumably would ultimately become free; and was to be compensated by a large grant from the Federal territory. A law was to be passed for the return of fugitive slaves by Federal authority.

Over these measures the debate was long and hot. Clay pleaded that by his scheme the advantages were fairly balanced between North and South. He urged that the rising spirit of disunion at the South should be disarmed by reasonable concessions. He appealed to the North for concessions and to the South for peace. When Jefferson Davis, Senator from Mississippi, declared that the plan conceded nothing to the South, and demanded that the Missouri compromise line be extended to the Pacific (bisecting California), with the express establishment of slavery south of that line, Clay declared that no earthly power should make him vote for the establishment of slavery anywhere where it had had no previous existence. To do so, he said, would be to incur from future inhabitants of New Mexico the reproach which Americans justly applied to their British ancestors for fastening the institution on them. But he would spare Southern sensibilities by withholding an explicit exclusion of slavery from New Mexico; Nature and the future would attend to that. Against any right of secession, against any possibility of peaceful secession, he declared with strongest emphasis: "War and dissolution of the Union are identical; they are convertible terms; and such a war!" Fighting for the extension of slavery, the sympathies of all mankind would be against the South.

The venerable old man, speaking with all the sincerity and warmth of his heart and with all the powers of his mind, was heard, says Schurz, by a great and brilliant audience. His first faltering words were followed by regained power; the old elevation of sentiment, the sonorous flow of words, the lofty energy of action, were enhanced by the pathetic sense that this was the final effort.

More pathetic, tragic even, was the last speech of Calhoun, read for him while he sat in his senatorial chair; the tall form bowed by age and weakness, the gaunt, impressive face furrowed by the long strife for a doomed cause, but the old fire still alight in the dark eyes and in the resolute spirit. He recognized that the strife of the sections was radical, and that the proposed compromises and palliatives were weak and temporary. He declared that the South had been thwarted in its rights from the ordinance of 1787 until now; that the equilibrium would be destroyed past hope if California and New Mexico were to become free States; and that the only effective resource lay in some constitutional amendment to safeguard the rights of the South. What amendment could effect this, he did not say. But it transpired later that he had in mind the election of two Presidents, one from each section,—a fantastic and impossible scheme. In truth, Calhoun in this last utterance was less a statesman aiming to guide events than a prophet predicting an inevitable woe. He was too wise to share the elation with which hot-heads talked of an independent South, and it was with sad forebodings that he sank to his grave.

When on the 7th of March Webster rose to speak, the Senate and the country hung on his words. He too was drawing toward the end, but his powers were unabated. Hope was strong that in him would be found the champion of freedom. But the key of his speech was a view of the situation, not as a contest between freedom and slavery, but as an opposition of geographical sections, inflamed by extremists on both sides. The mischief, he declared, was due to Southern disunionists and Northern Abolitionists. The remedy was a calm, patriotic temper; the rebuke of fanaticism of both kinds, and the acceptance of reasonable accommodations and adjustments. He approved substantially the scheme proposed by Clay. The formal exclusion of slavery from New Mexico was an unnecessary affront to the South; natural conditions would prevent slavery there. A fugitive slave law was fairly required by the Constitution and the South had a right to claim it. He, like Clay, declared peaceable secession an impossibility, and his speech, impressive throughout by the power of a lucid and massive intellect, rose at its close to lofty eloquence in a plea for the maintenance of the Union and a warning of the catastrophe which secession would precipitate.

The defect of the speech was its complete failure to recognize the wrong and mischief of slavery. Webster had rarely shown himself a moral idealist, except as to the sentiment of patriotism. He was identified with the prosperous and "respectable" classes, and the sufferings of the poor and oppressed woke little sympathy in him. These limitations had always been apparent, and while Clay seemed to grow finer and gentler with advance of years, Webster's course was the other way. That imperial and commanding presence, with its imposing stature and Jove-like visage, was the tenement of a richly dowered nature. He had not only great powers of intellect, but warm affections, generous sentiments, and wholesome tastes for humanity and the outdoor world, but his moral fiber, never of the stanchest grain, had been sapped by prosperity. He was self-indulgent in his personal habits and heedless of homely obligations. His ambition was strong, and as the favor of the South had come to be the almost necessary condition of the Presidency, he could not escape the suspicion of courting that favor. He was in substantial agreement with Clay as to the compromise measures, but the Kentuckian rose higher than his section and his look was forward; while Webster was distinctly below the characteristic temper of New England, and his movement was retrograde. The anti-slavery men mourned his 7th of March speech as a great apostasy, and Whittier branded it in his poem of "Ichabod," which fell with Judgment-day weight. Yet it was not an apostasy, but the natural culmination of his course; and in spite of its error, he still was true to the characteristic sentiment of his best period, the love of the Union. His voice like Clay's gave inspiration—it may well have been a decisive inspiration—to the cause which triumphed at Gettysburg and Appomattox. Whittier himself, in a later poem, recognized the patriotic service of the man whom, in the heat of conflict, he had so scathingly denounced.

Congress, and especially the Senate, was at this time full of brilliant men. Among the leaders of the extreme South were Mason of Virginia, Butler of South Carolina, Davis of Mississippi, and Soule of Louisiana. From this element came plentiful threats of disunion. But these threats were met with stern answers. When President Taylor heard of them the stout old soldier answered that such language was treasonable, and if necessary he would himself take command of the army that should put down rebellion. Disunion, he said, is treason; and to one questioning him, he answered with a soldier's oath that if anyone really attempted to carry it out, they should be dealt with by law as they deserved, and executed. Clay's language was no less explicit. When Senator Rhett in Charleston proposed to raise the flag of secession, and his colleague, Barnwell in the Senate, half indorsed his words, Clay said, with a lightning flash that thrilled the audience, that if Senator Rhett followed up that declaration by overt acts "he will be a traitor, and I hope he will meet the fate of a traitor!" Clay went on to say that if Kentucky should ever unfurl the banner of resistance unjustly against the Union, "never, never will I engage with her in such a cause!"

There was in Congress a new element, of the smallest in numbers, but with the promise and potency of a great future. Four days after Webster, Seward spoke in the Senate. He advocated the admission of California as a free State, with no additions or compromises. No equilibrium between freedom and slavery was possible; if established to-day it would be destroyed to-morrow. The moral sentiment of the age would never permit the enforcement of a law requiring Northern freemen to return slaves to bondage. The entire public domain was by the Constitution devoted to union, justice, defense, welfare, and liberty; and it was devoted to the same noble ends by "a higher law than the Constitution." The extension of slavery ought to be barred by all legal means. Threats of disunion had no terrors for him. The question was "whether the Union shall stand, and slavery, under the steady, peaceful action of moral, social, and political causes, be removed by gradual voluntary effort and with compensation; or whether the Union shall be dissolved and civil war ensue, bringing on violent but complete and immediate emancipation."

Salmon P. Chase of Ohio spoke to similar effect. If, he said, the claims of freedom are sacrificed here by forms of legislation, "the people will unsettle your settlement." "It may be that you will succeed in burying the ordinance of freedom. But the people will write upon its tomb, 'I shall rise again.'"

The disunionists found that they had little popular support behind them. A convention at Nashville, held to promote the interests of the South, refused to countenance any extreme measures. General Taylor steadily favored the admission of California as a free State, with no qualifications or accompaniments. Then, while the result in Congress hung doubtful, in the summer of 1850, President Taylor died. His successor, Vice-President Millard Fillmore of New York, was a man of fair ability and cautious or timid disposition; an opponent of Seward in the politics of their State. He favored the compromise, and called Webster to his cabinet. The administration's influence seemed to turn the scale, and Clay's series of measures were adopted one by one. There was dissatisfaction at the South and indignation at the North. The territorial settlement was substantially in the North's favor. But the exasperating fact, and pregnant with consequences, was the Fugitive Slave law. Its provisions were intolerable to the popular conscience. All citizens were liable to be called to aid in the pursuit and arrest of a fugitive. He was to be tried before a United States commissioner, whose decision was final. A man accused of a crime punishable by a small fine or a brief imprisonment was entitled to a verdict from an impartial jury of twelve; but a man whose freedom for life was at stake was at the mercy of a single official.

Most of the Northern States sooner or later passed "Personal Liberty laws," which, without directly assuming to nullify the Federal statute, aimed to defeat its enforcement. They contained such provisions as the exemption of State officials and State buildings from service in the rendition of fugitives, and the right of alleged fugitives to be taken by habeas corpus before a State tribunal. So against the charge of inhumanity in the Fugitive Slave law, the South brought the counter-charge of evasion bordering on defiance of a Federal statute. Few renditions were attempted. Sometimes they were met by forcible resistance. An alleged fugitive, Jerry, was rescued by the populace in Syracuse. A negro, Shadrach, arrested as a fugitive in Boston in 1851, was set free and carried off by a mob. There was a spasm of excitement in Congress, but it was brief and resultless. Later, in 1854, when the anti-slavery tide was swiftly rising, came the rendition of Anthony Burns, who was taken through the streets of Boston under a strong guard of Federal troops and State militia, while the popular wrath and grief at the sight swelled the wave which the repeal of the Missouri compromise had started on its inevitable way.