F Heritage History | Negro and the Nation by G. S. Merriam

Negro and the Nation - G. S. Merriam




"Fremont and Freedom"

The Congress of 1855-6, divided between an administration Senate and an opposition House, accomplished little but talk. One chapter of this talk had a notable sequel. Charles Sumner, in an elaborate and powerful oration in the Senate, denounced slavery, "the sum of all villainies," and bitterly satirized one of its prominent defenders, Senator Butler of South Carolina. He compared Butler to Don Quixote, enamored of slavery as was the knight of his Dulcinea, and unconscious that instead of a peerless lady she was but a wanton. The response to the speech was made by a nephew of Senator Butler and member of the House, Preston S. Brooks of South Carolina. He entered the Senate chamber during a recess, accompanied and guarded by a friend and fellow member, Lawrence Keitt; approached Sumner as he sat writing at his desk, and without words felled him to the ground with a heavy cane, and beat him about the head till he was insensible. Sumner, a man of fine physique, was for a long time an invalid from the assault, and was unable for years to resume his place in the Senate.

It was not so much the individual act of Brooks as its treatment by his party and section that gave the deepest significance to the deed and produced the most lasting effect. A friendly magistrate sentenced Brooks to a nominal fine and so forestalled further prosecution. His party friends in Congress left all public rebuke of the deed to Republicans. A motion to expel Brooks and Keitt from the House failed of the necessary two-thirds vote. They resigned, and were promptly and triumphantly re-elected. Noisy applause of the attack came from all parts of the South, with a stack of canes marked "Hit him again." That better class of Southerners by whom the assault was felt, as one of them expressed it long afterward, "like a blow in the face," made no demonstration. So far from losing caste, as a gentleman or a public man, Brooks not only kept his place in society, but was honored a few months later with a public banquet, at which such men as Butler and Toombs and Mason joined in the laudations, and gave a background to the scene by free threats of disunion if the Republicans elected their President.

This treatment of Brooks made an impression at the North far beyond the first hot indignation at his brutal outrage. The condonation and applause of that outrage was taken as sure evidence of a barbaric state of opinion, the natural accompaniment of slavery. What made the matter worse was that the assault had a technical justification under the code of honor which it was Brooks's pride as a Southern gentleman to observe. The code called on a man who had given offense by his words to meet the offended man in a duel, and if he refused, he was fairly subject to public disgrace or even physical chastisement. Such a theory and practice, and the sentiments associated with it, stamped slavery with a heavier condemnation than orator or novelist could frame.

This one week in May, 1856, was dark with omens of impending catastrophe. On May 20 Lawrence was devastated; on the 22d, Sumner was assaulted; and on the 24th took place the Pottawatomie massacre. A shadow as of impending doom was reflected in Mrs. Stowe's second anti-slavery novel, Dred, which appeared about this time. While lacking the inspiration and power of Uncle Tom's Cabin, it had in the main a similar tone of humanity, sympathy and fairness. Again the better element of the Southern whites was portrayed, in the benevolent slave-holder Clayton; the brave Methodist preacher, Father Dickson; and the book's heroine, Nina Gordon. There were realistic and graphic pictures of the negro at his best, in Old Tiff and Milly. The sophistries and time-serving of ecclesiastics were fairly pictured. The fundamental attitude of the law in regarding the slave as the creature of his master's convenience was shown with historic fidelity. But the book took its name from a negro, half-prophetic, half-crazed, who maintained in the Dismal Swamp a refuge for slaves, and purposed an uprising to conquer their freedom. To Southern imaginations it might well recall Nat Turner and the horrors of his revolt. Mrs. Stowe inevitably idealized everything she touched; and to idealize the leader of a servile insurrection might well be regarded as carrying fire into a powder magazine. The moving expostulation of the Christian slave Milly with Dred, the death of Dred, the frustration of his plans, and the pitiful wrongs he sought to redress, veiled from the Northern reader the suggestion of other dangers and tragedies to which the Southern reader was keenly alive. As we read the book now, the glimpses of coming terror and disaster in Dred's visions seem like a presage of the war which in truth was only four years away.

But the prevailing temper of the time was as yet little clouded by any such forebodings. It was a great wave of popular enthusiasm, sane, resolute, and hopeful, which moved forward in the first Presidential campaign of the Republican party in 1856. The convention met at Philadelphia in June. Its temper was well described in a letter from Samuel Bowles to his paper, the Springfield Republican,—which which from moderate anti-slavery Whig had become ardently Republican when the Missouri compromise was repealed.[1]

"Certainly we never saw a political convention in which there was so much soul as in that at Philadelphia. It was politics with a heart and a conscience in it. Cincinnati (the Democratic convention) gathered the remains of a once powerful national party and contributed to its further sectionalization and destruction. Philadelphia called together the heart, the independence, and the brains of all parties, to establish a broader and juster nationality. Such a fusion of contradictory elements was never witnessed in this country before since the times of the Revolution. Nor could it happen now save under a great emergency, and from a controlling necessity. Such a combination of the material and mental forces of the republic as was represented in the Philadelphia convention, and united in its enthusiastic and harmonious results, has more power than any political combination ever formed before in this country, and cannot in the nature of things be long kept in the background. There is no law more certain than that which will throw such a union of the moral strength, intellectual activity, and youthful energy of the nation into supremacy, and that right speedily. It may be delayed for a season, but its course is onward and its victory is certain."

The declaration of principles dealt wholly with the slavery issue. It asserted that under the Constitution, as interpreted by the Declaration and the ordinance of 1787, slavery had no right to exist in any of the national Territories. It called on Congress to prohibit in the Territories "the twin relics of barbarism, slavery and polygamy." It dwelt with great emphasis on the wrongs of the Kansas settlers; the establishment of a Territorial Legislature by a fraudulent vote; its outrageous statute-book; the sustaining of the usurpation by the Federal government; the resulting disorder and violence. Congress was asked to admit Kansas to the Union under its Free State organization. Nothing was said as to the fugitive slave law. There was an express disclaimer of any interference with slavery in the States. The doctrine of the party was embodied in a phrase which became one of its mottoes: "Freedom national, slavery sectional."

For its Presidential candidate the convention passed by all the well-known political leaders, and chose Col. John C. Fremont of California. Fremont, after a scientific and military education, had distinguished himself by a series of brilliant exploring expeditions in the farthest Northwest, marked by scientific achievement and stirring adventure. Arriving in California at the outbreak of hostilities with Mexico, he rallied and led the American settlers and drove the Mexicans from the territory. He took a leading part in organizing the State, and establishing freedom in its Constitution; and was elected to the United States Senate as a Free-Soil Democrat. His term as Senator was too brief to win eminence, but his career as a whole had been singularly various and distinguished. He was young; he had manly beauty, and a rare personal fascination. His brilliant and charming wife won favor for him. Even his name gave aid to the cause, and "Fremont and freedom" became the rallying cry of the campaign.

But Fremont's personality was an altogether minor element in the strength with which the Republican party first took the field, and won, not yet the country, but the strongholds of the North. The new party gave expression and effect to the anti-slavery sentiment which had become so deep and wide. It was wholly dissociated from the extremists who had shocked and alarmed the conservatism of the country; and Garrison and Phillips had only impatience and scorn for its principles and measures. Its leadership included many men experienced in congressional and administrative life, men like Seward and Sumner and Chase and Wade and Fessenden and Banks, who had matched themselves against the best leaders of the South and the South's Northern allies. It brought together the best of the old Whig, Democratic, and Free Soil parties. In its rank and file it gathered on the whole the best conscience and intelligence of the North. After the election the Springfield Republican pointed out that the party's success had been exactly along the geographical lines of an efficient free-school system, and it had been defeated where public schools were deficient, as in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Indiana, and the solid South.

The immediate and burning issue of the campaign was Kansas. Whatever the exact right and wrong of its local broils, there was no question of the broad facts—the fraudulent election of the Legislature, the character of its statute-book, and its support by President Pierce's administration. It was the wrongs of the Kansas settlers far more than the wrongs of the Southern slaves on which the Republican speakers and newspapers dwelt. In truth the animus of the party was quite as much the resentment by the North of Southern political aggression as it was regard for the slaves or thought of their future condition. The policy of excluding slavery from the Territories, and thus naturally from the new States, tended ultimately to its discouragement and probable extinction where it already existed. But any such result appeared very remote.

The opposition to the Republican party was weighty in numbers, but inharmonious and with no definite creed. The Democratic platform was an equivocation. It declared for "non-interference by Congress with slavery in State or Territory." But this left it an open question whether any one could "interfere." Could the people of a Territory exclude slavery if they wished? Or did the Constitution protect it there, as Calhoun and his followers claimed? An ambiguity was left which permitted Calhoun men and Douglas men to act together against the common foe.

The Democratic candidate was James Buchanan of Pennsylvania. He was one of those men, decent and respectable, who go through a life of office-seeking and office-holding without a particle of real leadership, and are forgotten the moment they leave the stage unless circumstance throws them into a place so responsible as to reveal their glaring incompetence. He had escaped the odium which Pierce and Douglas had incurred, through his absence as Minister to England. There he had distinguished himself chiefly by his part in a conference at Ostend, in 1854,—incited by President Pierce and his Secretary of State, William L. Marcy of New York,—where he had met Mason of Virginia and Soule of Louisiana, ministers respectively to France and Spain; and they had issued a joint manifesto, declaring that the possession of Cuba was necessary to the peace and security of the United States, and the island should be obtained from Spain, with her consent if possible but without it if necessary. This became a recognized article in the Democratic and Southern policy. The Republican platform of 1856 denounced the Ostend manifesto, as the doctrine that "might makes right," "the highwayman's plea." It was left for a latter-day Republican to give to the same doctrine the politer name of "international eminent domain."

The American or Know-nothing party nominated ex-President Fillmore and adopted a platform inclining toward the Southern position. There was a secession of a Northern element, which nominated Banks, but he declined and supported Fremont. All the opponents of the Republican party laid stress on its sectional character. Both its candidates (for vice-president, William L. Dayton of New Jersey), were from the North; its creed aimed solely at the restriction of the South's peculiar institution; south of Mason and Dixon's line, it had an electoral ticket in four States only—Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and Kentucky—and cast hardly 1000 votes. But the South itself had so completely ostracized even the most moderate anti-slavery sentiment that free political action was impossible. Thus, Professor Hedrick of the University of North Carolina said in reply to a question that he favored Fremont for President; and being denounced for this by a newspaper, he wrote to it a letter, saying in a modest and straightforward way that he had made no attempt to propagate his views, but he did desire to see the slaves free. The students burned him in effigy; the college authorities forced him to resign; a mob attacked him and he was driven from the State. It was in the same State that a college professor's right to free speech on a burning social question was vindicated by his students, his colleagues, and the community, in 1903, and that Trinity College became a leader in courageous and progressive sentiment on the questions of the hour. Few were the men bold enough even to try the question of personal independence in 1856. The suppression of free speech was in itself one of the strongest possible arguments for the Republican cause. The liberty of white men was at stake.

Conservatism, apprehension, timidity, in various phases, told against the new party and its candidate. Northern commerce was largely bound up with Southern interests. The threat of disunion weighed with some; Grant, in his memoirs, says it was this that led him to vote for Buchanan. Others shrank from trusting the helm in a tempest to hands as untried as Fremont's. The mob who hated "niggers" swelled the opposition vote. Taking advantage of the Know-nothing feeling, the fiction was persistently circulated that Fremont was a Catholic. The disorder in Kansas was pacified by the dispatch of a new Governor, Geary, to reassure the North. Finally, money was spent on a scale unknown before to defeat the Republican party,—itself in the stage of poverty and virtue,—and spent probably with decisive effect in the critical October election in Pennsylvania.

Against these disadvantages the young party made head gallantly. It fired the youth of the North with an ardor unknown since the early days of the republic. It inspired the poets of the people. Great crowds sang the strains of the Marseillaise, with the refrain:

Free speech, free press, free soil, free men, Fremont and victory!

The older heads were satisfied by the moderation and wisdom of the party's principles. The reasonable element among the Abolitionists hailed this first great popular advance, and allied themselves with it. Whittier was the chief minstrel of the campaign. Of those to whom "the Union" had been the talismanic word, that part which cared for nothing better than the Union as it was, with slavery and freedom mixed, supported Buchanan or Fillmore. The part that loved the Union as a means to justice and freedom were for Fremont.

The October elections in Pennsylvania and Indiana showed that the first Presidential battle was lost. November confirmed that verdict. New England, New York, Ohio, Illinois, and the Northwest, had been outweighed by the South and its allies, and Buchanan was the next President. But never was defeat met with better courage or higher hopes for the next encounter. Some unknown poet gave the battle-song:

Beneath thy skies, November,

Thy skies of cloud and rain,

Around our blazing camp-fires

We close our ranks again.

Then sound again the bugle!

Call the battle roll anew!

If months have well nigh won the field

What may not four years do?