A people's literature is the great textbook for real knowledge of them. The writings of the day show the quality of the people as no historical reconstruction can. — Edith Hamilton

Negro and the Nation - G. S. Merriam




The Mexican War

We have seen that about 1832-3 a new distinctness and prominence was given to the slavery question by various events,—the substantial victory of the South Carolina nullifiers, and the leadership thenceforth of the South by Calhoun; Nat Turner's rising, and the rejection by Virginia of the emancipation policy; the compensated liberation of the West India slaves by the British Government; and the birth of aggressive Abolitionism under the lead of Garrison. We have now to glance at the main course of history for the next twenty years. Party politics had for a time no direct relation to slavery. The new organizations of Whigs and Democrats disputed on questions of a national bank, internal improvements, and the tariff. The Presidency was easily won in 1836 by Jackson's lieutenant, Van Buren; but the commercial crash of 1837 produced a revulsion of feeling which enabled the Whigs to elect Benjamin Harrison in 1840. His early death gave the Presidency to John Tyler of Virginia, who soon alienated his party, and who was thoroughly Southern in his sympathies and policy.

The newly aroused anti-slavery enthusiasm in the North found expression in petitions for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. It was not intrinsically a great matter, but it was the one point where the national authority seemed clearly to have a chance to act—questions of new territory being for the time in abeyance. Petitions poured in on Congress with thousands of signatures—then with tens, then hundreds of thousands. There was a hot struggle as to whether the petitions should be received at all by the Senate and House. John Quincy Adams, willing after his Presidency to serve in the humbler capacity of congressman, was the champion of the right of petition. Calhoun had entered the Senate in 1832 and remained there with a brief intermission until his death in 1850. He stood independent of the two great parties, with his own State always solidly behind him, and with growing influence over the whole South. He was the leader in opposing the admission of the petitions. He maintained that any discussion in Congress of such a topic was injurious and incendiary; he voiced the new sentiment of the South that all agitation of slavery was an invasion of its rights. "Hands off!" was the cry. The question was settled in 1836, after long debates, by another compromise, proposed by James Buchanan of Pennsylvania; the petitions were given a formal reception, but instantly rejected without debate.

Another burning question was the circulation of anti-slavery documents through the Southern mails. In 1835 a mob in Charleston broke open the post-office, and made a bonfire of all such matter they could find. The social leaders and the clergy of the city applauded. The postmaster-general under Jackson, Amos Kendall, wrote to the local postmaster who had connived at the act: "I cannot sanction and will not condemn the step you have taken." Jackson asked Congress to pass a law excluding anti-slavery literature from the mails. Even this was not enough for Calhoun; he claimed that every State had a right to pass such legislation for itself, with paramount authority over any act of Congress. But the South would not support him in this claim; and indeed he was habitually in advance of his section, which followed him generally at an interval of a few years. Congress refused to pass any law on the subject. But the end was reached without law; Southern postmasters systematically refused to transmit anti-slavery documents—even of so moderate character as the New York Tribune—and this was their practice until the Civil War. "A gross infraction of law and right!" said the North. "But," said the South, "would you allow papers to circulate in your postoffices tending directly to breed revolt and civil war? If the mails cannot be used in the service of gambling and lotteries, with far more reason may we shut out incitements to insurrection like Nat Turner's."

On a similar plea all freedom of speech in Southern communities on the question of slavery was practically denied. Anti-slavery men were driven from their homes. In Kentucky, one man stood out defiantly and successfully. Cassius M. Clay opposed slavery, advocated its compensated abolition, and was as ready to defend himself with pistols as with arguments. He stood his ground to the end, and in 1853 he settled Rev. John G. Fee at Berea, who established a group of anti-slavery churches and schools, which was broken up after John Brown's raid, but after the war was revived as Berea College. But as a rule free speech in the South was at an end before 1840. No man dared use language like that of Patrick Henry and Madison; and Jefferson's Notes on Virginia, if newly published, would have been excluded from the mails and its author exiled.

South Carolina passed a law under which negro seamen on ships entering her ports were put in jail while their vessel remained, and if the jail fees were not paid, they were sold into slavery. When Massachusetts seamen suffered under this law, the State government in 1844 dispatched an eminent citizen, Samuel Hoar, to try to secure a modification of the enactment. Arriving in Charleston, accompanied by his daughter, Mr. Hoar was promptly visited in his hotel by a committee of prominent men and obliged to leave the city and State at once.

The North had its share of violence. In Connecticut a school for negro children, kept by two white women, was forcibly broken up. In Illinois in 1837 an anti-slavery newspaper office was destroyed by a mob, and its proprietor, Elijah P. Lovejoy, was murdered.

In the Presidential election of 1840 slavery was almost forgotten. The Whigs were bent on overthrowing the Democratic administration, to which they attributed the hard times following 1837; and they raised a popular hurrah for the candidate of the "plain people," William Henry Harrison of Indiana, who had won a victory over the Indians at Tippecanoe. In a canvass where "log-cabins" and "hard cider" gave the watchwords and emblems, national politics played little part. But now first those resolute anti-slavery men who were determined to bring their cause before the people as a political issue, and fight it out in that arena, with solid ranks be their forces ever so small,—came together and nominated for the Presidency James G. Birney. They could give him but a handful of votes, but it was the raising of a flag which twenty years was to carry to victory. Birney, never an extremist, had grown to a full recognition of all that was at stake. He wrote in 1835: "The contest is becoming—has become—not one alone of freedom for the blacks, but of freedom for the whites. . . . There will be no cessation of the strife until slavery shall be exterminated or liberty destroyed."

For a dozen years there had been only skirmishing. Now came on a battle royal, or rather a campaign, from 1844 to 1850,—the annexation of Texas, the war with Mexico, and the last great compromise. Texas, a province of Mexico after Mexico became free from Spain, received a steady immigration from the American Southwestern States. These immigrants became restive under Mexican control, declared their independence in 1835, and practically secured it after sharp fighting. Slavery, abolished under Mexico, was re-established by the republic of Texas. From the character of its population, it seemed to gravitate toward the United States. The keen eyes of the Southern leaders were early fixed upon it. Annex Texas, and a great field of expansion for slavery was open. Its votes in the Senate and House would be added to the Southern column, and from its immense domain future States might be carved. As early as 1829 Lundy's and Garrison's Genius had protested against this scheme. The time was now ripe for carrying it out. Calhoun was again the leader. He claimed to be "the author of annexation," and with good reason. He exchanged the Senate for Tyler's cabinet as Secretary of War in 1844, the change being engineered by Henry A. Wise, one of the rising men in Virginia,—for the express purpose of bringing in Texas. A treaty of annexation was negotiated with Texas, and sent to the Senate. There were difficulties; the Texans had cooled in their zeal for annexation; and the American Senate was not over-favorable. To give the necessary impetus, Calhoun,—so says Van Holst, in his excellent and not unfriendly biography,—fell below his habitual sincerity, and misrepresented a dispatch of the English Foreign Secretary, Lord Aberdeen, as showing a disposition on England's part to get hold of Texas for herself. It was a Presidential year; the Democratic convention nominated James K. Polk of Tennessee, and passed a resolution favoring annexation. But Calhoun had now shown his motive so plainly that the country took alarm, and the Senate rejected the treaty. The Whigs nominated Clay. He was believed to be opposed to the annexation scheme, but his hunger for the great prize betrayed him into an equivocal expression, which lost him the confidence of the strong anti-slavery men. Again they nominated Birney,—taking now the name of the Liberty party—and gave him so many votes that the result was to lose New York and Michigan for Clay, and Polk was elected. The administration now claimed—though in truth the combined Whig and Liberty vote put it in a minority—that it had received a plebiscite of popular support on its annexation policy. Thus emboldened, its friends,—knowing that they could not yet count on the two-thirds vote necessary for a senatorial confirmation,—dropped the treaty altogether, and brought into Congress a joint resolution affirming the annexation of Texas to the Union. This won the necessary majority in both houses, and as the last act of Tyler's administration Texas was declared a State.

Calhoun now returned to the Senate,—his temporary substitute promptly vacating at his word. Thus far he had triumphed. But his associates in their elation were eager for another conquest. Texas is ours, now let us have California and the Pacific! But to that end, Mexico, reluctant to yield Texas, and wholly unwilling to cede more territory, must be attacked and despoiled. At that proposal Calhoun drew back. It does not appear that he had any scruples about Mexico. But, keener-sighted than his followers, he knew that any further acquisitions to the West would be stoutly and hopefully claimed by the North. His warning was in vain; he had lighted a fire and now could not check it. The next step was to force Mexico into a war. She claimed the river Nueces as her boundary with Texas, while Texas claimed the Rio Grande. Instructions were quietly given to General Taylor, in January, 1846, to throw his small force into the disputed territory, so near the Rio Grande as to invite a Mexican attack. The Mexican force did attack him, and President Polk instantly declared that "war existed by the act of Mexico"—thus allowing Congress no chance to pass on it. As is the way of nations, fighting once begun, every consideration of justice was ignored and the only word was "our country, right or wrong." Congressmen of both parties voted whatever supplies were needed for the war; and the Whigs, trying to throw the blame on the President, put no obstacles in the way of his conquest of Mexico. Only one man in Congress spoke out for justice as higher than party or country. Thomas Corwin of Ohio, in a powerful speech, denounced the whole iniquitous business, and declared that were he a Mexican facing the American invaders of his home, "I would welcome them with hospitable hands to bloody graves!"

The war called out another voice that went home to the heart of the people,—the voice of James Russell Lowell in the "Biglow Papers." In the homely Yankee vernacular he spoke for the highest conscience of New England. The righteous wrath was winged with stinging wit and lightened with broad humor. He spoke for that sentiment of the new and nobler America which abhorred slavery and detested war, and saw in a war for the extension of slavery a crime against God and man. The politician's sophistries, the respectable conventionalities current in church and state, found no mercy at his hands:

"Ez fer war, I call it murder,—

There you hev it plain and flat:

I don't want to go no furder

Than my Testyment fer that:

God hez sed so plump an' fairly,

It's ez long ez it is broad,

An' you've got to git up airly

Ef you want to take in God.


"'Tain't your eppyletts an' feathers

Make the thing a grain more right;

'Tain't a follerin' your bell-wethers

Will excuse ye in his sight;

Ef you take a sword and draw it,

An' go stick a feller thru,

Guv'ment ain't to answer for it,

God'll send the bill to you.


"Massachusetts, God forgive her,

She's a kneelin' with the rest,

She, that ought to hav' clung forever

In her grand old eagle-nest.


Let our dear old Bay State proudly

Put the trumpet to her mouth,

Let her ring this messidge loudly

In the ears of all the South:


"I'll return ye good fer evil

Much ez we frail mortals can,

But I won't go help the Devil

Makin' man the cus o' man;

Call me coward, call me traitor,

Jest ez suits your mean idees,

Here I stand a tyrant-hater,

An' the friend o' God and Peace."