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

Negro and the Nation - G. S. Merriam




How Deal with the Territories?

Meanwhile, the American army,—accepting as its sole part to obey orders, not questioning why,—though such officers as Grant and Lee had no liking for the task set them,—and reinforced by volunteer regiments from the Southwest,—was steadily fighting its way to the Mexican capital; Taylor's force advancing from Texas, while Scott moved from Vera Cruz. The Mexicans resisted bravely, but were beaten again and again, and upon the capture of the city of Mexico they gave up the contest.

Spite of the ?clat of victories, the war had been so little popular in the North that the congressional election of 1846 displaced the administration majority in the House and gave the Whigs a preponderance. But, with the excitement of the complete victory over Mexico in the next year, came a fresh wave of the aggressive temper. It was freely advocated that Mexico should be annexed bodily. Against this madness Henry Clay spoke out with his old-time power. Clearly the country would tolerate no such extreme, and the annexationists contented themselves with mulcting Mexico, upon the payment of $6,000,000, of the vast territory known as California.

Then set in with full vigor the controversy over the new territory which Calhoun had foreseen. Calhoun had been left in a sort of isolation by his defection from the administration upon the war, but he did not break with President Polk; for the reason, says Von Holst, that he wanted to save his influence to oppose the tendency to a war with England. Oregon had been held in joint occupancy by the two nations for many years; now a line of demarcation was to be drawn, and there was a loud popular demand for maintaining at any cost the extreme northern line of latitude—it was "Fifty-four-forty or fight." But the sense of the country was against coming to extremities, and Calhoun—a statesman when slavery was not concerned—threw his influence with the moderate sentiment which secured the acceptance of the line of 49 degrees. But he looked with foreboding eyes on the deepening conflict of the sections and the advantage which gravitated toward the North;—from political causes, he declared, unwilling or unable to recognize that the industrial superiority lay inevitably with free labor. He met the danger with a bolder and more advanced claim. The South, he declared, had had enough of compromise over territory; it must now fall back on its ultimate right under the Constitution; and that right was that slaves, being lawful property, might be taken into any territory of the United States, and Congress had no right to forbid their introduction; neither had Congress a right to refuse admission of any State whose people desired to retain slavery. This was a claim for the nationalization of slavery; and it was not until after Calhoun's death that the South came to this position, staked its cause upon it, and when it was rejected by the popular vote broke with the Union.

But Calhoun's logic and passion had not yet brought his section up to his own position, and over the division of the newly acquired territory North and South disputed as before. While the war was still waging, President Polk asked for an appropriation to be expended as compensation for new territory; and David Wilmot, a Democratic member from Pennsylvania, moved that a proviso be added, stipulating that from any new territory acquired by purchase slavery should be excluded. This was passed by the House, but rejected by the Senate. The Senate was long the stronghold of the South, the States having an equal representation, while in the House the greater increase of free State population gave them a fresh advantage at each new census and apportionment. The "Wilmot proviso" was for some years the watchword of the anti-extensionists. To the typical Northerner, it seemed monstrous that slavery should be introduced by law in territory where it had no previous existence. To the typical Southerner it seemed no less unjust that his peculiar institutions and usages should be excluded from the common domain, for which his section had paid its share of money and more than its share of blood.

While the question of the new territory had scarcely taken definite form, there came the Presidential election of 1848. In the Whig convention Clay's ambition received its final disappointment; Webster had hardly a chance; all the statesmen of the party were set aside in favor of General Zachary Taylor of Louisiana, an upright, soldierly man, a slaveholder, entirely unversed in civil affairs, and his claim resting solely on successful generalship in the war. The Democrats nominated Lewis Cass of Michigan, a mediocre politician, regarded by the South as a trustworthy servant. The third party displayed new strength, and exchanged the name of "Liberty" for "Free Soil." Under the stimulus of recent events recruits of power and promise came to its standard. In Massachusetts it gained such men as Samuel Hoar, Charles Sumner, Charles Francis Adams, and Henry Wilson from the Whigs; and from the Democrats, Robert Rantoul and N. P. Banks. Wilson and Charles Allen, delegates to the Whig convention, declared,—when that body in its resolutions absolutely ignored the question of slavery extension, and sank all principles in a hurrah for "Old Rough and Ready,"—that they would no longer support the party. They went home to work with their old friends, the "Conscience Whigs," for the success of the Free Soil party, whose convention was to meet at Buffalo. To that convention came strong allies from Ohio. There were Joshua Giddings, for years one of the few congressmen classed distinctly as anti-slavery, and Salmon P. Chase. New York State offered a reinforcement strong in numbers, but in some respects questionable. The anti-slavery Democrats in the State, nicknamed "Barnburners"—because "they would burn the barn to get rid of the rats"—were ready to break with their party, but their quarrel was partly a personal one. They were welcomed, however, and from their ranks was selected the Presidential candidate—of all men, ex-President Martin Van Buren, known of old as "the Northern man with Southern principles," but willing now to Northernize his principles with the Presidency in view. Such a nomination went far to take the heart out of the genuine anti-slavery men; and the strong name of Charles Francis Adams for vice-president could not make good the weakness of the head of the ticket. Should a real Free Soiler vote for Van Buren,—the probable effect being to improve Cass's chances over Taylor, just as the Birney vote four years earlier had beaten Clay and brought in Polk and all his consequences—or vote for Taylor, trusting to his personal character and the influences surrounding him for a practical advantage to the side of freedom? The latter alternative was the choice of many, including Horace Greeley and his associates, Thurlow Weed and William H. Seward. With such help, and mainly on his strength as a military hero, Taylor was elected. In the result there was considerable hope for the anti-slavery cause. For Seward, who had been chosen to the Senate from New York, was very influential with the new President, and Seward was one of the coming men, clearly destined to be a leader among those who were to succeed the great triumvirate of Clay, Calhoun, and Webster. He was high-minded, cultivated, and united lofty ideals with practical wisdom. A thorough constitutionalist, he believed there were legitimate ways of advancing freedom under the Constitution; and in a speech at Cleveland he had declared: "Slavery can be limited to its present bounds; it can be ameliorated; it can be abolished; and you and I must do it." Ohio sent to the Senate another of the coming men, Salmon P. Chase, resembling Seward in his broad and philosophical views and his firm but constitutional opposition to slavery.