Negro and the Nation - G. S. Merriam

Face to Face

To understand the meaning of secession and the Civil War which followed it, we must fathom the thoughts and feelings of the opposing parties. Let us suppose two representative spokesmen to state their case in turn.

Let the Secessionist speak first. The Secessionists were not at first a majority of the people of the Southern States, but it was their view which prevailed. What that view was we know certainly and from abundant evidence,—the formal acts of secession, the speeches of the leaders in Congress and at home, the histories since written by the President and Vice-President of the Confederacy, and countless similar sources. This, substantially, was the Secessionist's position:—

"This Union is a partnership of States, of which the formal bond is the Constitution; the vital principle is the enjoyment by each section and community of its rights; and the animating spirit is the mutual respect and good-will of all members of the Union. The Northern people have violated the provisions of the Constitution; they have infringed the essential rights of the Southern communities, and threatened to invade them still further; and they have displaced the spirit of mutual good-will by alienation, suspicion, and hostility. The formal bond of the Union being thus impaired, and its vital spirit lost, we propose explicitly and finally to dissolve this partnership of States, and reorganize our Southern communities in a new Confederacy.

"We charge you of the North with explicit violation of the Constitution in the matters of the territories, the Supreme Court and the fugitive slaves.

"You deny our right to carry a part of our property,—our unquestioned property under the Constitution,—into the territories which belong equally to the whole nation, and which have been acquired by our treasure and our blood not less than by yours. You prevent slave-holders from participating in the colonization of this domain, and thus determine in advance that its future States shall exclude our institutions. You thus unfairly build up a political preponderance, which you use for the discouragement and injury of our industrial system.

"Against this wrong we have appealed to the Supreme Court, and secured its express affirmation of the right to carry slave property, equally with any other property, into the territories. This solemn decree of the highest judicial authority you set at naught and defy. You say you will reorganize the court and reverse the decision. You do not even wait for that; you assume in party convention to reverse the mandate of the Supreme Court. You not only contradict its declaration that slavery in the territories is protected by the Constitution; you go farther, and affirm that Congress has no authority to protect it there.

"The Constitution affirms that fugitives from labor must be returned to their masters. A Federal statute provides for such return. That statute is not only decried by your orators and resisted by your mobs; it is contravened and practically nullified by statutes in all the free States.

"These specific wrongs against us are inspired by a disposition which in itself dissolves the bond of friendship between you and us,—a spirit of open and avowed hostility to our social and industrial system. The Union as our fathers established it, and as alone it has any value, is not a thing of mere legalities,—it must be a true union of hearts and hands, a spirit of mutual confidence and respect among the various communities of one people. But for many years our most characteristic Southern institution has been widely and loudly denounced among you as wicked and inhuman. It has been proclaimed as 'the sum of all villainies.' We have been held up to the reprobation of the world as tyrants and man-stealers. Those at the North who disapproved of such abuse have failed to silence or repress it. This denunciation has spread until apparently it has won the preponderating sentiment of the North. A national household in which we are thus branded as sinners and criminals is no longer a home for us.

"This hostility has borne its natural fruit in open attack. A peaceful Virginia village has been assailed by armed men, its citizens shot down while defending their homes, and the summons given for servile insurrection with all its horrors. The leader in this crime, justly condemned and executed under Virginia's laws, has been widely honored throughout the North as a hero and martyr. By the light of that applause we must interpret the real feeling of the North, and its probable future course toward us.

"The Presidential election has now been won by a party whose avowed principle is the restriction of slavery, while its animating spirit is active hostility to slavery. We cannot trust the Republican party in its profession of respect for the Constitution. Even in its formal declaration it ignores a Supreme Court decision, and advances a revolutionary doctrine as to slavery in the territories. Its elected candidate has declared that 'this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.' The party's only reason for being is opposition to slavery, and there is every probability that this opposition will, with growing power and opportunity, be directed against the system as it now exists in our Southern States.

"The spirit of the American Union is dissolved already, when its chief magistrate has been elected by the votes of one section and by a party animated solely by hostility to the industrial and social system of the other section. The formal bond of the Union can hereafter be only an instrument to harass and destroy our liberties. We therefore propose that that bond be at once and finally cancelled. It is and has been from the beginning the right of any State to withdraw from the national partnership at its own pleasure. We call on our brethren of the South to take prompt action for the deliberate, legal and solemn withdrawal of their States from the Union, and their organization in a new Confederacy."

So in effect spoke the leading spirits of the Gulf and Cotton States as soon as Lincoln was elected in November, 1860. Less promptly, coming only gradually into unison, but with growing clearness and emphasis, spoke the dominant spirit of the North in the months between Lincoln's election and inauguration. This in substance was the Northern reply to the Secessionist:—

"We deny that we have violated the Constitution, that we have wronged you, or that we intend to wrong you. We have taken no advantage of you beyond the legitimate victories of political controversy. We are loyal to the Constitution, and to that which is deeper and higher than the Constitution,—the spirit of American nationality.

"Taking up your specific charges,—the status of slavery in the various territories has been debated and battled in Congress and among the people for seventy years, and as now one decision and now another has been reached it has been accepted by all until peaceably changed. For six years past it has been the cardinal question in national politics. Within that period three views have been urged,—that slavery goes by natural and constitutional right into all the territories, that the matter is to be settled in each territory by the local population, and that slavery should be excluded by national authority from all the territories. For this last view we have argued, pleaded, waited, until at last the supreme tribunal of all—the American people in a national election—has given judgment in our favor.

"You cite the Dred Scott decision of the Supreme Court as establishing slavery in the territories. But you wrest from that decision a force which it does not legally carry. The best lawyers are with us as to this. The court at the outset dismissed the case for want of jurisdiction, because Dred Scott, being a negro, could not be an American citizen, and therefore had no standing before the court. This being said, the court by its own decision could go no farther with the case. When a majority of the judges went on to discuss the status of slavery in the territories,—as it might have come up if they had gone on to try the case on its merits—they were uttering a mere obiter dictum,—a personal opinion carrying no judicial authority. The attempt to make these side-remarks a decisive pronouncement on the supreme political question of the time is beyond law or reason. It is preposterous that the court's incidental opinion, on a case which it had disclaimed the power to try, should invalidate that exclusion of slavery by national authority which had been affirmed by the great acts of 1787 and 1820, and had been exercised for seventy years.

"As to fugitive slaves, the Personal Liberty laws are designed to safeguard by the State's authority its free black citizens from the kidnapping which the Federal statute, with its refusal of a jury trial, renders easy. If they sometimes make difficulty in the rendition of actual fugitives,—you must not expect a whole-hearted acceptance of the r?le of slave-catchers by the Northern people. You have the Federal statute, and may take what you can under it,—but if under the bond Shylock gets only his pound of flesh, there is no help for him.

"Come now to your broader complaint, that the spirit of the Union has been sacrificed by Northern hostility toward your peculiar institution. True, you have had to put up with harsh words, but we have had to put up with a harsh fact. You have had to tolerate criticism, but we have had to tolerate slavery under our national flag. It is an institution abhorrent to our sense of right. We believe it contrary to the law of God and the spirit of humanity. We consider it unjust in its essential principle, and full of crying abuses in its actual administration. Its existence in one section of the Union is a reproach to us among the nations of the earth, and a blot on the flag. Yet we so thoroughly recognize that our national principle allows each State to shape its own institutions that we have not attempted and shall not attempt to hinder you from cherishing slavery among yourselves as long as you please. If, for the vast and vital interests bound up with the unity of this nation, we can tolerate the presence within it of a system we so disapprove, cannot you on your part tolerate the inevitable criticism which it calls out among us?

"If mutual grievances are to be rehearsed, we have our full share. What has become of the constitutional provision which guarantees to the citizens of every State their rights in all the States? When black seamen, citizens of our commonwealths, enter South Carolina ports, they are thrown into jail or sold into slavery. If we send a lawyer and statesman to remonstrate, he is driven out. Our newspapers are excluded from your mails. You have extinguished free speech among your own citizens. If the Republican party is sectional, it is because any man who supports it, south of the Ohio, is liable to abuse and exile. You have shaped our national policy in lines of dishonor. With your Northern allies you have forced war on a weak neighbor and despoiled her of territory. You have poured thousands of fraudulent voters into Kansas, have supported their usurping government by Federal judges and troops, and have tolerated the ruffians who harried peaceful settlers. One of your congressional leaders has answered a senator's arguments by beating him into insensibility, and you have honored and re?lected the assailant. And now, when we have fairly won the day in a national election, and for purposes peaceful, constitutional, and beneficent,—you propose to break up the nation, and reorganize your part of it expressly for the maintenance and promotion of slavery.

"With such complaints on your part, and such complaints on ours, what is the manly, the patriotic, the sufficient recourse? That which we offer is that you and we, the whole American people, go forward loyally and patiently with the familiar duties of American citizens. Let Time and Providence arbitrate our controversies. Let us trust the institutions under which for seventy years our nation has grown great; let us, now and hereafter, acquiesce in that deliberate voice of the people which our fathers established as the sovereign authority. For thirty years you have had in the Presidency either a Southerner or a Northern man with Southern principles,—and we acquiesced. Now we have chosen a genuine Northerner,—will not you acquiesce? Four years ago the Presidential contest was held on the same lines as this year; you won, and we cheerfully submitted,—now we have won, will not you loyally submit? We disclaim any attack on your domestic institutions. The invasion by John Brown was repudiated by practically the entire North. Honor for a brave, misguided man meant no approval of his criminal act. For the advance of our distinctive principles,—inimical, we own, to your system of slave labor,—we look only to the gradual conversion of individual opinion, and to the ultimate acceptance by your own people of the principles of universal liberty. We believe that civilization and Christianity must steadily work to establish freedom for all men. On that ground, and in that sense, do we believe that 'this government cannot permanently endure half slave and half free.' Pending that advance, we propose only to exclude slavery from the common domain; to tolerate slavery as sectional, while upholding freedom as national. If you are still dissatisfied, yet is it not better to bear the evils that we have than fly to others that we know not of? Nay, do we not too well know, and surely if dimly foresee, the terrific evils which must attend the attempted disruption of this nation?

"A nation it is, and not a partnership. A nation, one and inseparable, we propose that it shall continue. We deny that the founders and fathers ever contemplated a mere temporary alliance dissoluble at the caprice of any member. To the Union, established under the Constitution, just as earnestly as to the cause of independence, they virtually pledged 'their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.' With every year the nation has knitted its texture closer, as its benefits increased and its associations grew. A nation is something other than a pleasure party, or a mutual admiration society,—it includes a principle of rightful authority and necessary submission. The harmony vital to national unity is not merely a mutual complacence of the members,—at its root is a habitual, disciplined obedience to the central authority, which in a democracy is the orderly expressed will of the majority. You cannot leave us and we cannot let you go. And if you attempt to break the bond, it is at your peril."