Negro and the Nation - G. S. Merriam

A Lull and a Retrospect

After the half-year's debate over the compromise of 1850 came a time of political quiet. "The tumult and the shouting died." It seemed more than a temporary lull. In a great tide of material prosperity, the country easily forgot the slaves; if out of sight, they were, to most, out of mind. Webster's speech had a deep significance. He was identified in Massachusetts with the classes representing commercial prosperity, social prominence, and academic culture. In these classes, throughout the North, there was a general apathy as to slavery. The temper of the time was materialistic. There was indeed enough anti-slavery sentiment, stirred by the 7th of March speech and the Fugitive Slave law, to change the balance of power in Massachusetts politics. The Democrats and the Free Soilers made a coalition, and it triumphed over the Whigs. The Democrats took the State offices, with George S. Boutwell as Governor; and Charles Sumner—a scholar, an idealist, an impressive orator, and a pronounced anti-slavery man, though never an Abolitionist,—was sent to the Senate to reinforce Seward and Chase.

The Presidential election of 1852 came on. In the Whig convention Fillmore had some support, especially from the South; Webster had most of the Massachusetts votes and scarce any others; and choice was made of General Winfield Scott, in the hope of repeating the victory of 1848 with another hero of the Mexican war. It was to Webster a blow past retrieval; in bitterness of spirit he turned his face to the wall, in his old home at Marshfield, and died. The Democratic convention hesitated between several Northern politicians of trustworthy subserviency to the South,—Cass, Douglas, and Buchanan—and its choice fell upon Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire, an amiable man, of fair ability, but easy to manage; he, too, the winner of a trifle of military glory in the Mexican conquest. Both conventions professed entire content with the settlements of the compromise. The Free Soilers nominated John P. Hale of New Hampshire, and made their familiar declaration of principles. But they had lost their Democratic allies of four years earlier, and threw only 150,000 votes—less by 100,000 than at the previous election. The Whig party proved to be on the verge of dissolution. It had lost its hold on the "conscience vote" of the North, and was less trusted than its rival by the South. Pierce was chosen by a great majority; he carried every State except Vermont, Massachusetts, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

Party politics were dull; commercial and material interests seemed wholly in the ascendant, and the anti-slavery cause was at a low ebb. But many things had happened in two decades, below the surface current of public events, and, just on the threshold of a new era, we may glance back over these twenty years. All the European world had been full of movement. France had passed through three revolutions. Germany, Austria, and Italy had undergone a political upheaval and subsidence; and the liberal reverses of 1848 were the precursors of national unity and constitutional freedom in the near future.

England had gone steadily on in the path of conservative progress; had widened its suffrage by the Reform Act of 1832; had relieved distress and disarmed discontent by the free trade policy of Sir Robert Peel; her factory legislation had met a crying need of the new industrial epoch, and she had pacified and energized Canada by giving her self-government. Meanwhile American progress had been along lines of its own. The country had grown at a tremendous rate, and mainly at the North and West. Immigration had poured in from Europe, and the stream of native stock from the seaboard States to the West had hardly slackened. It was the epoch of the railroad and the telegraph. Manufactures had increased and multiplied; acres fell under cultivation by the million. In this industrial growth the North had far outstripped the South. Calhoun had urged the construction of railroads to link the eastern and western parts of the South, but the political motive could not supply the want of industrial force. The figures of the census of 1850 were more eloquent than any orator as to the relative effects of free and slave labor. Intellectually the period had been prolific. Emerson had risen, the bright morning star of American literature. Bryant, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Lowell, Whittier, were telling their stories or singing their songs. Theology was fruitful of debate and change. The Unitarian movement had defined itself. Presbyterians and Congregationalists were discussing the tenets of old school and new. For "women's rights" a strong and promising advance had been made, in the face of unpopularity and derision. Religious revivals, foreign missions, social reforms, were making active way. From all this intellectual and social movement, unless we except the emotional revivals of religion, the South stood apart. Literature it had virtually none; its theology was only conservative and defensive; at most so-called reforms it looked askance.

In two respects the South had an advantage. Its social system was aristocratic; above the slaves came the non-slave-holding whites, including a great mass of the ignorant and degraded; but at the summit the slave-holding class had a social life in many ways attractive and delightful. The slave-holders, all told, numbered some 350,000. The controlling element consisted of the large planters, with the affiliated members of the liberal professions. Plantation life at its best had a great deal of beauty and charm. A degree of improvidence and "shiftlessness," by Northern standards, was not inconsistent with free hospitality, a generous outdoor life, an old-time culture with an atmosphere of leisure and courtesy, superior in its way to what the busy and bustling North could show. The charming and chivalrous "Colonel Carter of Cartersville" had many a prototype in real life. A higher type was sometimes bred in Southern society; it was not without some reason that Virginians claimed that the mold which produced Washington was not broken when it could yield a Robert Lee. There was a somber side; plantation life was often a rank soil for passions of tyranny and license. But its better fruitage added an element to the composite American type which could not and cannot be spared.

The other advantage the South possessed was the devotion of its strongest men to political life. The loss of commerce and literature was the gain of politics. The typical Southern leader was apt to be both a planter and a lawyer, with a strong and active interest in public affairs. Political oratory was a favorite resource in the sparsely-settled districts. The personal force which in the North was scattered among twenty fields was here centered mainly in one. This feature of Southern society worked together with the fact that the section had in slavery a common interest and bond. That interest of the entire section, led by its ablest men, came naturally to be the dominant factor in American public life. When it could not rule through its own men, it found agents in subservient Northern politicians. And so it came about that in the early '50s the South, while outstripped altogether in population, wealth, industrial and intellectual achievement, was yet in substantial control of the governmental power. In the North, by the very magnitude of the commercial and industrial development the moral sentiment in public affairs seemed submerged or at least eclipsed.

It was during such a period of apathy that there was held an anti-slavery meeting at which two negroes were present, Sojourner Truth, an old woman whose shrewdness matched her fervor, and Frederick Douglass. Douglass was the son of a white father and a slave mother; he taught himself to read and write, made his escape into freedom, gained an education, and became an effective speaker for the anti-slavery cause. On this occasion he spoke with power and passion of the gloomy prospects of their people; government, wealth, social advantage, all were on the side of their oppressors; good people seemed indifferent to their wrongs; was there indeed any help or hope? Then rose Sojourner Truth, and looking at him said only, "Frederick! Is God dead?"