Negro and the Nation - G. S. Merriam

Three Typical Southerners

In the group of leaders of public sentiment in the '30s and '40s, as sketched in Chapter V, some of the foremost—Clay, Webster, and Birney—were influential in both sections of the country. But in the next decade the division is clear between the leaders of the South and of the North. Let us glance at two separate groups.

Jefferson Davis was in many ways a typical Southerner. He was a sincere, able, and high-minded man. The guiding aim of his public life was to serve the community as he understood its interests. Personal ambition seemingly influenced him no more than is to be expected in any strong man; and, whatever his faults of judgment or temper, it does not appear that he ever knowingly sacrificed the public good to his own profit or aggrandizement. But he was devoted to a social system and a political theory which bound his final allegiance to his State and his section. After a cadetship at West Point and a brief term of military service, he lived for eight years, 1837-45, on a Mississippi plantation, in joint ownership and control with an older brother. In these early years, and in the seclusion of a plantation, his theories crystallized and his mental habits grew. The circumstances of such life fostered in Southern politicians the tendency to logical and symmetrical theories, to which they tenaciously held, unmodified by the regard for experience which is bred from free and various contact with the large world of affairs. Davis fully accepted the theory of State sovereignty which won general favor in the South. In this view the States were independent powers, which had formed with each other by the Constitution a compact, a business arrangement, a kind of limited partnership. If the compact was broken in any of its articles, or if its working proved at any time to be unsatisfactory and injurious, the partners could withdraw at will. This theory found more or less support among the various utterances and practices of the framers of the Constitution and founders of the government. In truth, they had as a body no consistent and exact theory of the Federal bond. Later circumstances led their descendants to incline to a stronger or a looser tie, according to their different interests and sentiments. The institution of slavery so strongly differentiated the Southern communities from their Northern neighbors, that they naturally magnified their local rights and favored the view which justified them in the last resort in renouncing the authority of the Union if it should come to be exercised against their industrial system. State sovereignty was the creed, and the slavery interest was the motive.

To a man living like Davis on his own plantation, the relation of master and slave seemed a fundamental condition of the social order. Not only his livelihood rested on it, but through this relation his practical faculties found their field; his conscience was exercised in the right management and care of his slaves; there was a true sentiment of protection on his side and loyalty on theirs. His neighbors and friends were situated like himself. The incidental mischiefs of the system, the abuses by bad masters, the ignorance and low morality of the slaves,—these things they regarded, let us say, as an upright and benevolent manufacturer to-day regards the miseries of sweatshops and the sufferings of unemployed labor. Such things were bad, very bad, but they were the accidents and not the essentials of the industrial system. They resented the strictures of their critics; they were apprehensive of the growing hostility in the North to their institutions; if the national partnership was to last they must have their rights under it; and one of those rights was an equal share in the national domain.

Davis entered into active politics when he was elected to Congress in 1844. Repudiation was then in favor in Mississippi, and he opposed and denounced it. He supported the Mexican War in the most practical way, by taking command of a volunteer regiment from Mississippi. He served with distinguished gallantry, and was severely wounded at Buena Vista. After the war he entered the United States Senate. He supported the compromise of 1850, regarding it as substantially a continuance of the truce between the sections, and not now sympathizing with those who threatened disunion. Later, President Pierce made him Secretary of War; in the Cabinet he was the leading spirit; and this, with a weak President, meant large power and responsibility. He showed the extent of his partisanship by supporting with the full power of the administration the Territorial government imposed on Kansas by a palpably fraudulent vote.

In 1856 he returned to the Senate, and came to be recognized as the foremost champion of the Southern interest. He was not a leader in any such sense as Jefferson or Clay or Calhoun; but he was a representative man, thoroughly trusted by his associates, their most effective spokesman, and going by conviction in the midstream of the dominant tendency. He had that degree of ambition which is natural and normal in a strong man. He was an effective and elegant orator. When secession came he was not its originator, but one of a set of men—on the whole the most considerate and influential men of the Gulf and cotton States—who took the responsibility of leading their section into revolution, in the interest of slavery.

In this typical Southern leader, as in his class, were blended the elements of a disposition and will that would halt before no barrier to its claim of mastery. A slaveholder, accustomed to supremacy over his fellowmen as their natural superior; a planter, habituated to the practical exercise of such supremacy over hundreds of dependents; a member of an aristocracy, the political masters of their section, and long the dominant force in the nation; a theorist, wedded to the dogma of State sovereignty, and convinced of the superiority of Southern civilization; the self-confident and self-asserting temper bred by such conditions—here was a union of forces that would push its cause against all opposition, at the cost if need be of disunion, of war, of all obstacles and all perils.

By a natural exaggeration, at a later time the President of the Confederacy was regarded at the North as the very embodiment of its cause. To the unmeasured hostility on this account was added the opprobrium of deeds in which he had no part. He was charged for a time with complicity in the murder of Lincoln. He was branded with responsibility for the miseries in Andersonville and the other prison-pens in the war,—but without a particle of evidence. Admiration was yielded by the North to Stonewall Jackson even in his life-time; there was early recognition of Lee's magnanimous acceptance of defeat; but the bitterest odium was long visited upon Davis. It was heightened by the tenacity with which his intense nature clung to "the lost cause" as a sentiment, after the reality was hopelessly buried. The South itself gave its highest favor to Lee, its most effective defender, and a man of singularly impressive character; while Davis's mistakes of administration, and his reserved and over-sensitive temper chilled a little the recognition of his disinterested and loyal service. But in the retrospect of history he stands out as an honorable and pathetic figure. The single warping influence of his whole career was the mistake he shared with millions of his countrymen,—the acceptance and exaltation of slavery. He was faithful to his convictions; he was free from covetousness and meanness; and in his personality there were high and fine elements of manhood. "A very intense man and a very lovable man" was the judgment of one who was his intimate associate through the war.

"Love of power was so much weaker in him than love of his theories that when Congress passed laws enlarging his prerogatives he wrote long messages declining them on constitutional grounds." A friend described him as "a game-cock—with just a little strut." Said one who stood in close relations with him: "He was so sensitive to criticism and even to questioning that I have passed months of intimate official association with him without venturing to ask him a question." Pure in his personal morals, but never having made a religious profession, under the responsibilities of the Presidency he turned for support to religion, and was confirmed in the Episcopal Church. Under imprisonment, indignities, obloquy, long seclusion with the memories of a ruined cause, he bore himself with manly fortitude and dignity. Schooled by inexorable reality, he finally acquiesced in the established order, and his last public words were of fidelity and faith for the new America.

Before the war, Robert Toombs of Georgia played some such part to the Northern imagination as Phillips or Sumner to the Southern. He was regarded as the typical fire-eater and braggart. He was currently reported to have boasted that he would yet call the roll of his slaves at the foot of Bunker Hill monument. But in truth this ogre was made of much the same human clay as the Massachusetts Abolitionists. He is well pictured, together with Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia, in Trent's Southern Statesmen of the Old Regime,—a book admirable in its spirit and its historic fidelity. Both Toombs and Stephens represented, as compared with Davis, the more moderate sentiment of the South, until they parted company with each other on the question of secession. Trent prefaces the companion portraits with a sketch of the typical Georgian; his State, like the other Gulf States, less civilized and orderly than Virginia and South Carolina, less critical and more enthusiastic; the Georgian, "the southern Yankee," "loving success, strength, straightforwardness, and the solid virtues generally, neither is he averse to the showy ones; but above all he loves virtue in action." Among Southerners, says Trent, the Georgian is nearest to a normal American. Toombs inherited property; grew up like other Southern boys of the prosperous class; rode and hunted and studied a little in the interims. As a lawyer, he would not take a case unless satisfied of its justice. He was of robust physique, vigorous intellect, and high spirits; and he was happy in his family life.

Stephens worked his way up from poverty, and never lost an active sympathy with the struggling. He helped more than fifty young men to get an education. He was of a slight and fragile frame, and had much physical suffering, which he bore with indomitable courage. His conscientiousness was almost morbid. His temperament was melancholy, and his life was lonely. In early life he was twice in love, but poverty forbade his marriage. He was a clear and logical thinker, much given to refined exposition of constitutional theories, but deficient in large culture and philosophy. He held the doctrine of State sovereignty, but from first to last he opposed secession as against the true interest of the States. At the beginning of his career he was active in opposing the vigilance committees organized to harry anti-slavery men. He supported the annexation of Texas, though objecting to doing it in the interest of slavery,—slavery, he said, was a domestic matter, which the Federal government had no call to take care of. He and Toombs generally stood together, as Whigs and Unionists. They opposed the Mexican War, on the ground that the Union was not to be extended by force; neither, they both said later, was it to be maintained by force. But they opposed the exclusion of slavery from the Territories by the Wilmot proviso; and in the debate Stephens declared that the morality of slavery stood "upon a basis as firm as the Bible," and as long as Christianity lasted it could never be considered an offense against the divine laws. The two men did yeoman's service in carrying through the 1850 compromise, and afterward in persuading Georgia not to take part in the Nashville convention—a disunionist scheme which proved abortive. They, with Howell Cobb, held Georgia for the compromise and for the Union, and thus fixed the pivotal point of Southern politics for the next decade. They became leaders in the Constitutional Union party, which, in Georgia, succeeded the Whig. They made vigorous and successful fights against the Know-nothing folly. They accepted the gains which came to the South through Douglas's breaking down of the Missouri compromise, and, a little later, the Dred Scott decision of the Supreme Court; but they diverged from Davis, by not favoring the active intervention of Congress to protect slavery in the Territories. Toombs was accused of abetting Brooks's attack on Sumner, which he disclaimed; but he found nothing to hinder his taking part in a banquet in Brooks's honor a few months later, and on this most ill-omened occasion he joined in the threats of disunion if Fremont should be elected. But still the catastrophe lingered, and seemed improbable. Stephens left Congress in 1858. Two years more, and secession became a burning question; Stephens and Toombs took opposite sides, but, the issue decided, they both made common cause with their State. Toombs served in the Confederate Cabinet and Army. Stephens, vice-president of the Confederacy, seven years after the close of the war again became a member of the House; an attenuated figure, confined to a wheel-chair, but still vital and vigorous; respected by all; his presence a visible symbol of the spanning of "the bloody chasm."