We have now sunk to a depth at which restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men. — George Orwell

Negro and the Nation - G. S. Merriam




Why they Fought

Now, when the issue was about to be joined, let it be noted that Secession based itself, in profession and in reality, wholly on the question of slavery. There lay the grievance, and for that alone a remedy was to be had even at the price of sundering the Union. Later, when actual war broke out, other considerations than slavery came into play. To unite and animate the South came the doctrine of State rights, the sympathy of neighborhood, and the primal human impulse of self-defense. But the critical movement, the action which first sundered the Union and so led to war,—was inspired wholly and solely by the defense and maintenance of slavery. The proposition is almost too plain for argument. But it receives illustration from the great debate in the Georgia Legislature, when Toombs advocated Secession and Stephens opposed it. Toombs, evidently unwilling to rest the case wholly on slavery, alleged three other grievances at the hands of the North—the fishery bounties, the navigation laws, and the protective tariff. Stephens easily brushed aside the bounties and navigation laws as bygone or unimportant. As to the tariff, he showed that the last tariff law, enacted in 1857, was supported by every Massachusetts member of Congress and every Georgia member, including Toombs himself. What further he said belongs to a later chapter. But he was unquestionably right, and all rational history confirms it, that the one force impelling the South to Secession was the imperilled interest of slavery.

But the resistance which Secession encountered from the North was from the outset other and wider than hostility to slavery. Anti-slavery feeling was indeed strong in the Northern heart; the restriction of slavery was the supreme principle of the Republican party; the resentment that the national bond should be menaced in the interest of slavery gave force to the opposition which Secession instantly aroused. But, on the one hand, the extreme opponents of slavery, Garrison and his followers, were now, as they had always been, willing and more than willing that the South should go off and take slavery with it. And on the other hand, the anti-secessionists of the nation included a multitude, North and South, who were either friendly to slavery or indifferent to it. Even of the Republican party the mass were more concerned for the rights of the white man than of the black man. They were impatient of the dominance of the government by the South, and meant to unseat the Southern oligarchy from the place of power at Washington.

They intended that the territories should be kept for the free immigrant, who should not be degraded by slaves at work in the next field. Only a minority of the party,—though a minority likely in the long run to lead it—looked with hope and purpose to ultimate emancipation. And when the question of Secession was at issue by the people's votes and voice, and had not yet come to the clash of arms, the rights and interests of the slave fell into the background. The supreme question of the time was felt to be the unity or the division of the nation.

The Secessionists' plea was in two clauses; that their States were aggrieved by Northern action, and that they had a legal right to leave the Union without let or hindrance. A double answer met them, from their fellow-Southerners that it was impolitic to secede, and from the North that secession was illegal, unpermissible, and to be resisted at all costs.

The Secessionists were fluent in argument that the framers of the Constitution intended only a partnership of States, dissoluble by any at will. However difficult to prove that the original builders purposed only such a temporary edifice, there was at least ground for maintaining that they gave no authority for coercing a State into obedience or submission, and indeed rejected a proposal to give such authority. If there were no legal or rightful authority to keep a State in the Union by force, then for all practical purposes its right to go out of the Union was established. But against that right, as ever contemplated by the fathers, or allowable under the Constitution, there was strong contention on legal and historic grounds.

But deeper than all forensic or academic controversy was the substantial and tremendous fact, that the American people had grown into a nation, organic and vital. That unity was felt in millions of breasts, cherished by countless firesides, recognized among the peoples of the earth.

There had developed that mysterious and mighty sentiment, the love of country. It rested in part on the recognition of material benefits. From the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the Lakes to the Gulf, the tides of commerce flowed free, unvexed by a single custom-house. The Mississippi with its traffic united the Northern prairies and the Louisiana delta like a great artery. Safety to person and property under the laws, protection by an authority strong enough to curb riot or faction at home, and with a shielding arm that reached wherever an American traveler might wander,—these benefits rooted patriotism deep in the soil of homely usefulness. And the tree branched and blossomed in the upper air of generous feeling. Man's sympathy expands in widening spheres, and his being enlarges as he comes into vital union, first with wife and children, then successively with neighborhood, community, country, and at last with humanity. The Russian peasant, in his ignorance and poverty, or facing the foe in war, is sublimated by his devotion to the White Czar and Holy Russia. Still more inspiring and profound is the patriotism of a citizen whose nation is founded on equal brotherhood. Deeper than analysis can probe is this passion of patriotism. Gladstone characterized it well, when, writing in August, 1861, he recognized among the motives sustaining the Union cause, "last and best of all, the strong instinct of national life, and the abhorrence of Nature itself toward all severance of an organized body."

This sentiment, though strained and weakened in the South, was still powerful even in that section. This was especially true of the border States, where slavery was of less account than in the Gulf and Cotton States. The spirit of Clay was still strong in Kentucky, and was represented by the venerable John J. Crittenden in the Senate. Of a like temper was John Bell of Tennessee, Presidential candidate of the Union and Constitutional party in 1860. From the same State Andrew Johnson, in the Senate, stood for the sturdy and fierce Unionism of the white laboring class. Virginia was strongly bound to the Union by her great historical traditions. North Carolina, Missouri, and Arkansas were, until the war broke out, attached to the Union rather than the Southern cause. It was in the belt of States from South Carolina to Texas, in which the planter class was altogether dominant, that the interest of slavery, and the pride of class and of State, had gradually loosened the bonds of affection and allegiance to the national idea. Calhoun himself had been an ardent lover of the Union. The clash between the national and sectional interests had been to him a tragedy. Nullification was his device for perpetuating the Union while allowing its members relief from possible oppression,—but nullification had failed, in fact as in logic.

Now the Secessionists went further than Calhoun had ever found occasion to go. They proposed to break up the nation, at first by the withdrawal of their separate States, to be followed by the organization of a Southern Confederacy. Their grievance was the restriction of their industrial system, and its threatened destruction, and the failure of the Union to serve its proper ends of justice and fraternity. But they wholly disclaimed any revolutionary action. They maintained that the withdrawal of their States was an exercise of their strictly legal and constitutional right. This is the plea which is insistently and strenuously urged by their defenders. Their foremost actors in the drama, Davis and Stephens, became at a later day its historians, not so much to record its events, as to plead with elaboration and reiteration that Secession was a constitutional right. But all their fine-spun reasoning ran dead against a force which it could no more overcome than King Canute's words could halt the tide,—the fact of American unity, as realized in the hearts of the American people.

The mass of men live not by logic, but by primal instincts and passions. Where one man could explain why the nation was an indestructible organism rather than a partnership dissoluble at will, a thousand men could and would fight to prevent the nation from being dissolved. But here and there on this planet is a man who must think things through to the end, and have a solid reason for what he does. Such a man was Abraham Lincoln. He never could rest contented till he had worked the problem out clearly in his own head, and then had stated the answer in words that the common man could understand. Such an answer to the whole Secessionist argument, quite apart from the slavery question, he gave in one brief paragraph of his inaugural. "There is no alternative for continuing the government but acquiescence on the one side or the other. If the minority in such a case will secede rather than acquiesce, they make a precedent which in turn will ruin and divide them; for a minority of their own will secede from them, whenever a majority refuses to be controlled by such a minority. For instance, why not any portion of a new Confederacy, a year or so hence, arbitrarily secede again, precisely as portions of the present Union now claim to secede from it? All who cherish disunion sentiments are now being educated to the exact temper of doing this. Is there such perfect identity of interests among the States to compose a new Union as to produce harmony only, and prevent renewed Secession? Plainly, the central idea of Secession is the essence of anarchy." That was the key-word of the situation, in the court of reason and conscience,—"the central idea of Secession is the essence of anarchy."

The system which the Secessionists proposed to break up had a part of its highest value in that very division of authority between State and nation which gave them their pretext for a separation. The Federal plan was the special contribution of America to the evolution of popular self-government. Until that step had been taken, not only did the practical difficulties of democracy increase enormously with the increase of area and population, but a vast centralized democracy was liable to be itself an oppressive despotism, as France has learned at bitter cost. The Federal plan, like most other great advances, came not as the conception of an ingenious brain, but from the growth of social facts. The thirteen colonies started and grew as individual offshoots from Great Britain. Under a common impulse they broke loose from the mother-country; then, by a common necessity, they bound themselves together in a governmental Union, each member retaining jurisdiction in such affairs as were its special concern. The resulting Federal Union was a combination of strength and freedom such as the world had never seen. With this for its organic form, with its spiritual lineage drawn from the Puritan, the Quaker and the Cavalier, with Anglo-Saxon stock for its core, yet with open doors and assimilating power for all races, and with a continent for its field of expansion,—the American people became the leader and the hope of humanity. This was the nation which the Secessionists proposed to rend asunder.

All government implies a principle of authority, and requires the occasional sacrifice of the individual's pleasure. The national bond has one strand in mutual good-will, but another strand is personal sacrifice, and another is stern command. The Union required some sacrifices, not only of material price,—as when a man pays just taxes, or acquiesces in a fiscal system which he considers unjust,—but sacrifices sometimes even of moral sentiment. Lincoln, explaining his position in 1855 to his old friend Speed, of Kentucky, repelled the suggestion that he had no personal interest in slavery. He says that whenever he crosses the border he sees manacled slaves or some similar sight which is a torment to him. "You ought to appreciate how much the great body of the Northern people do crucify their feelings in order to maintain their loyalty to the Constitution and the Union."

That acquiescence,—a costly sacrifice to the higher good; and the typical attitude of the Republicans and the moderate anti-slavery men,—seemed to Garrison and Phillips and their school a sinful compliance with evil. The extreme Abolitionists, as much as the extremists of the South, were opposed to the Union. They had no comprehension of the interests and principles involved in the preservation of the national life. One of the pleasant traits told of Garrison's private life is this: He was fond of music, especially religious music, but had little cultivation in that direction; and he would sit at the piano and pick out the air of the good old hymn-tunes with one hand, not knowing how to play the bass which makes a harmony. That was typical of his mental attitude,—he knew and loved the melody of freedom, but the harmony blended of freedom and national unity he did not comprehend.

The Southern disunionists finally carried their section, but the Abolition disunionists never made the slightest approach to converting the North. It was not merely that many at the North were indifferent to slavery, while to the whole community its interest was remote compared to what it was to the South. There was another reason for the failure of the Northern disunionists. Among the class to whom the appeal for freedom came closest home, the idealists, the men of moral conviction and enthusiasm, were many to whose ideality and enthusiasm American unity also spoke with powerful voice. Patriotism was more to them than a material interest, more than an enlarged and glowing sentiment of neighborhood and kinship,—it was devotion to moral interests of which the national organism was the symbol and the agent. They saw, as Webster saw, that "America is inseparably connected, fast bound up, in future and by fate, with these great interests,"—of free representative government, entire religious liberty, improved systems of national intercourse, the spirit of free inquiry, and the general diffusion of knowledge. They looked still higher than this,—they saw that America rightly tended toward universal personal liberty, and full opportunity and encouragement to man as man, of whatever race or class. That was what America stood for to those moral enthusiasts whose sanity matched their ardor. They saw that this ideal was still in the future, and that progress might be slow and difficult, but they were pledged in their souls to pursue it. And, with that purpose at heart, they were ready to maintain the national unity at whatever cost.

This was the composite and mighty force against which the Secessionists unwittingly set themselves,—the love of country, strong alike in the common people and the leaders, a love rooted in material interest and flowering in generous sentiment; and beyond that the moral ideals which, born in prophets and men of genius, had permeated the best part of the nation. With this, too, went the preponderance of physical resources which free labor had been steadily winning for the North. Judging even in the interest of slavery, was it not wise to acquiesce in the election, to remain under the safeguards with which the Constitution surrounded slavery in the States, to have patience, and to make the best terms possible with the forces of nature and society? So urged the wisest counselors, like Stephens of Georgia. But men rarely act on a deliberate and rational calculation of their interests. They are swayed by impulse and passion, and especially by the temper and habit which have become a second nature. The leaders in Secession acted in a spirit generated by the very nature of slavery, and fostered by their long defense of slavery. That genesis of the movement is all the more impressive when we recognize the high personal character of its leaders, and acquit them of conscious motives of personal ambition. Slavery was their undoing. The habit of absolute control over slaves bred the habit of mastery whenever it could be successfully asserted. There grew up a caste, its members equal and cordial among themselves, but self-assertive and haughty to all besides. They brooked no opposition at home, and resented all criticism abroad. They misread history and present facts, misconceived their place in the order of things, and set themselves against both the finest and the strongest forces of the time. When the political party which had been their most effective tool became difficult to handle, they broke it in two. When they could no longer rule the nation, they set out to sunder it.

Thus, after forty-five years, we try to trace the springs of action,—action which at the time moved swiftly, in cloud and storm and seeming chaos. We have endeavored to see a little of how the men of the North and of the South thought and felt. Now let us see what they did.