The Life of Stephen A. Douglas
by William Gardner
De mortuis nil nisi bonum, (of the dead speak nothing but good), is the rule which governed the friends of Stephen A. Douglas after his death. "Of political foes speak nothing but ill," is the rule which has guided much of our discussion of him for forty years. The time has now arrived when we can study him dispassionately and judge him justly, when we can take his measure, if not with scientific accuracy, at least with fairness and honesty.
Where party spirit is as despotic as it is among us, it is difficult for any man who spends his life amid the storms of politics to get justice until the passions of his generation have been forgotten. Even then he is generally misjudged—canonized as a saint, with extravagant eulogy, by those who inherit his party name, and branded as a traitor or a demagogue by those who wear the livery of opposition.
Douglas has perhaps suffered more from this method of dealing with our political heroes than any other American statesman of the first class. He died at the opening of the Civil War. It proved to be a revolution which wrought deep changes in the character of the people. It was the beginning of a new era in our national life. We are in constant danger of missing the real worth of men in these ante-bellum years because their modes of thought and feeling were not those of this generation.
The Civil War, with its storm of passion, banished from our minds the great men and gigantic struggles of the preceding decade. We turned with scornful impatience from the pitiful and abortive compromises of those times, the puerile attempts to cure by futile plasters the cancer that was eating the vitals of the nation. We hastily concluded that men who belonged to the party of Jefferson Davis and Judah P. Benjamin during those critical years were of doubtful loyalty and questionable patriotism, that men who battled with Lincoln, Seward and Chase could hardly be true-hearted lovers of their country. Douglas died too soon to make clear to a passion-stirred world that he was as warmly attached to the Union, as intensely loyal, as devotedly patriotic, as Lincoln himself.
The grave questions arising from the War, which disturbed our politics for twenty years, the great economic questions which have agitated us for the past fifteen years, bear slight relation to those dark problems with which Douglas and his contemporaries grappled. He was on the wrong side of many struggles preliminary to the War. He was not a profound student of political economy, hence is not an authority for any party in the perplexing questions of recent times. The result is that the greatest political leader of the most momentous decade of our history is less known to us than any second-rate hero of the Revolution.
It is not of much importance now to any one whether Douglas is loved or hated, admired or despised. It is of some importance that he be understood.
I have derived this narrative mainly from original sources. The biography written during his life-time by his friend Sheahan, and that published two years after his death by his admirer, Flint, are chiefly drawn on for the brief account of his early life. The history of his career in Congress has been gathered from the Congressional record; the account of Conventions from contemporary reports, and the Debates with Lincoln from the authorized publication.
I have not consciously taken any liberty with any text quoted, except to omit superfluous words, which omissions are indicated by asterisks. I have not attempted to pronounce judgement on Douglas or his contemporaries, but to submit the evidence. Not those who write, but those who read, pass final judgement on the heroes of biography.
Chapter I. Youth.
Stephen Arnold Douglas was born at Brandon, Vermont, on the 23rd of April, 1813. His father was a physician, descended from Scotch ancestors, who had settled in Connecticut before the Revolution. his mother was the daughter of a prosperous Vermont farmer. Before he was three months old his father, whose only fortune was his practice, suddenly died. A bachelor brother of the widow took the family to his home near Brandon, where they lived for fifteen years. When not needed at more important work Stephen attended the common school. but the serious business of life was tilling his uncle's fields.
At fifteen he sought help to prepare for college. His uncle declined to assume the burden of his education and advised him to shun the perils of professional life and adopt the safe and honorable career of a farmer. The advice was rejected and he obtained permission to earn his way and shape his future. He walked to Middlebury, a distance of fourteen miles, and apprenticed himself to a cabinet maker. He worked with energy and enthusiasm, became a good mechanic and bade fair to win success at his trade, but owning to delicate health he abandoned the shop after less than two years' service, and entered the academy at Brandon, where he pursued his studies for about a year, when his mother married again and moved to Canandiagua, New York. He there entered an academy and continued an industrious student for nearly three years, devoting part of his time to law study. This ended his preliminary training. He quit the schools and applied himself to the work of practical life.
In June, 1833, he left home to push his fortune in the West. His health was delicate, his stock of money scant. He went to Cleveland, Ohio, where he became acquainted with a lawyer named Andrews, who, pleased with the appearance of the youth, invited him to share his office and use his library, with the promise of a partnership when admitted to the bar. The offer was accepted and he began his duties as law clerk. A week later he was taken seriously sick, and at the end of his long illness the doctors advised him to return home. He rejected the advice and in October took passage on a canal boat for Portsmouth, on the Ohio river, and went thence to Cincinnati. For a week he sought employment. Unable to find it he went to Louisville, where another week was spent in vain quest of work. He continued his journey to St. Louis, where he landed in the late autumn. An eminent lawyer offered him free use of his library, but an empty purse compelled him to decline the offer and seek immediate work. He went to Jacksonville, Illinois, arriving late in November, and addressed himself to the pressing problem of self-support. The remnant of his cash amount to thirty-seven cents.
Chapter II. Apprenticeship.
In those days Illinois was a frontier State with about 200,000 population, chiefly settled in its southern half. A large part of the people were from the South and, in defiance of the law, owned many negro slaves. The Capital was at Vandalia, although Jacksonville and Springfield were the towns of highest promise and brightest prospects. Chicago contained a few score of people to whom the Indians were still uncomfortably close neighbors. Railroads and canals were beginning to be built, with promise of closer relations between the villages and settlements theretofore lost in the solitudes.
Finding no employment at Jacksonville, he sold his few books to keep off hunger and walked to Winchester. On the morning after his arrival he found a crowd assembled on the street where a public sale was about to open. Delay was occasioned by the want of a competent clerk and he was hired for two dollars a day to keep the record of the sale. He was then employed to teach a private school in the town at a salary of forty dollars a month. Besides teaching he found time to read a few borrowed law books and try an occasional case before the village justice.
Having been admitted to the bar in March, 1834, he opened a law office at Jacksonville. His professional career, though successful, was so completely eclipsed by the brilliancy of his political achievements that it need not detain us. The readiness and agility of his mind; the adaptability of his convictions to the demands of the hour; his self-confident energy, were such that he speedily developed into a good trial lawyer and won high standing at the bar. That the profession was not then as lucrative as it has since become, is evidenced by the fact that he traveled from Springfield to Bloomington and argued a case for a fee of five dollars.
But his time and energy were devoted to politics rather than law. The strategy of parties interested him more than Coke or Justinian. Jacksonville was a conservative, religious town, whose population consisted chiefly of New England Puritans and Whigs. But the prairies were settled by a race of thoroughly Democratic pioneers to whom the rough victor at New Orleans was a hero in war and a master in statecraft.
Douglas was an enthusiastic Democrat and an ardent admirer of President Jackson. The favorite occupation of the young lawyer, not yet harassed by clients, was to talk politics to the farmers, or gather them into his half furnished office and discuss more gravely the questions of party management.
A few days after his arrival the opportunity came to distinguish himself in the field of his future achievements. A mass meeting was called at the court house for the purpose of endorsing the policy of the President in removing the deposits of public money from the United States bank and vetoing the bill for its recharter. The opposition was bitter. In the state of public temper it was a delicate task to present the resolutions. The man who had undertaken it lost courage at the sight of the multitude and handed them to Douglas, and the crowd looked with amused surprise when the young stranger, who was only five feet tall, appeared on the platform. He read the resolutions of endorsement and supported them in a brief speech.
When he sat down, Josiah Lamborn, an old and distinguished lawyer and politician, attacked him and the resolutions in a speech of caustic severity. Douglas rose to reply. The people cheered the plucky youngster. The attack had sharpened the faculties and awakened his fighting courage. He had unexpectedly found the field of action in which he was destined to become an incomparable master. For an hour he poured out an impassioned harangue, without embarrassment or hesitation. Astonishment at what seemed a quaint freak soon gave way to respect and admiration, and at the close of this remarkable address the hall and courtyard rang with loud applause. The excited crowed seized the little orator, lifted him on their shoulders and bore him in triumph around the square.
The young adventurer in the fields of law and politics was thenceforth a man of mark—a man to be reckoned with in Illinois. There were scores of better lawyers and more eminent politicians in the State, but a real leader, a genuine master of men had appeared.
In January, 1835, the legislature met at Vandalia. Early in the session it elected Douglas State's Attorney of the First Judicial District—an extraordinary tribute to the professional or political ability of the young lawyer of less than a year's standing. He held the office a little more than a year and resigned to enter the legislature.
This was a really memorable body. Among its members were James Shields, afterwards United States Senator, John Calhoun of Lecompton fame, W. A. Richardson, afterwards Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, John A. McClernand, destined also to distinguish service in Congress and still more distinguished service as a major general and rival in arms of Grant and Sherman, Abraham Lincoln, an awkward young lawyer, from Springfield, and Douglas, whose fate it was to give Lincoln his first national prominence and then sink eclipsed by the rising glory of his great rival. The only memorable work of the session was the removal of the Capital from Vandalia to Springfield, and the authorization of twelve millions of debt, to be contracted for government improvements.
Douglas, who had opposed these extravagant appropriations, having distinguished himself as a debater, an organizer and a leader, was, a few days after the adjournment, appointed Register of the United States Land Office at Springfield, to which place he at once removed.
In the following November he was nominated for Congress. The district, which included the entire northern part of the State, was large enough for an empire, with sparse population and wretched means of communication. The campaign lasted nine months, during which, having resigned the office of the Register, he devoted himself to the task of riding over the prairies, interviewing the voters and speaking in school houses and village halls. The monotony was relieved by the society of the rival candidate, John T. Stuart, who as Lincoln's law partner. Stuart was declared elected by a doubtful majority of five, and Douglas, after soothing his wounded feelings by apparently well founded charges of an unfair count and threats of a contest, abandoned it in disgust and returned to his law office. He announced his determination to quit politics forever.
But in December, 1838, the legislature began a session at the old Capital. The Governor declared the office of Secretary of State vacant and appointed John A. McClernand to fill it. Field, the incumbent, questioned the power of the Governor to remove him and declined to surrender the office. Quo warranto proceedings were instituted by McClernand, with Douglas and others as counsel. The Supreme Court denied the Governor's power of removal. The Court became involved in the partisan battle which raged with genuine Western fervor for two years.
In the early weeks of 1841, a bill was passed, reorganizing the Judiciary, providing for the election by the legislature of five additional Supreme Judges, and imposing the duties of trial Judges upon the members of the Court. Meanwhile, Field had grown weary of the struggle with a hostile Governor and legislature, and, being threatened with a sweeping change of the Court, resigned in January, 1841. The Governor appointed Douglas his successor. Five weeks later the legislature chose him Justice of the Supreme Court and presiding Judge of the Fifth District. He resigned the office of Secretary and began his judicial career, establishing his residence at Quincy.
This appointment to the bench was one of the most fortunate incidents in his busy and feverish life. He was not twenty-eight years old. Adroit, nimble-witted and irrepressibly energetic as he was, he had not yet developed much solid strength. His stock of knowledge was scanty and superficial. From force of circumstances he had devoted little time to calm thought or serious study. Early convinced that all truth lay on the surface, patent to him who had eyes to see, he had plunged into the storm of life and, by his aggressive and overmastering energy, had conquered a place for himself in the world. He was an experienced politician, a famous campaign orator, and a Justice of the Supreme Court at a period when most boys are awkwardly finding their way into the activities of the world. The younger Pitt was Chancellor of the Exchequer at twenty-three; but he was the son of Chatham, nurtured in statesmanship from the cradle. the younger Adams was Minister to the Hague at twenty-five; but he was already a ripe scholar and heir to his father's great fame. Douglas was a penniless adventurer, a novus homo, with none of those accidents of fortune which sometimes give early success to gifted men.
The opportunity afforded the young Judge to extend his knowledge and mingle on terms of equality with the masters of his profession was such as rarely falls to the lot of a half-educated man of twenty-eight. He did not become an eminent Judge, yet he left the bench, after three years' service, with marked improvement in the solidity and dignity of his character.
Chapter III. Member of Congress.
The legislature met in December, 1842, to chose a Senator. Douglas still lacked six months of the thirty years required, but came within five votes of the election.
In the following spring he received the Democratic nomination for Congress and resigned his judgeship to enter the campaign. The District included eleven large counties in the western part of the State. O. H. Browning of Quincy, a lawyer of ability, destined to a distinguished political career and to succeed to Douglas' vacant seat in the Senate twenty years later, was the Whig candidate. They held a long series of joint discussions, addressed scores of audiences and so exhausted themselves that both were prostrated with serious sickness after the campaign. The questions discussed are as completely obsolete as the political issues of the ante-diluvians. Douglas was elected by a small majority.
He was in Washington at the opening of Congress and entered upon his eventful and brilliant career on that elevated theatre, though he was as yet only the crude material out of which a statesman might be evolved. He was a vigorous, pushing Western politician, with half developed faculties and vague, unlimited ambition, whose early congressional service gave small promise of the great leader of after years.
The famous description of him contained in the Adams diary relates to this period of his life. The venerable ex-President, then a Member of the House, mentions him as the homunculus Douglas and with acrid malevolence describes him as raving out his hour in abusive invectives, his face convulsed, his gesticulation frantic, and lashing himself into such heat that if his body had been made of combustible matter it would have burned out.
"In the midst of his roaring," he declares, "to save himself from choking, he stripped off and cast away his cravat, unbuttoned his waistcoat and had the air and aspect of a half-naked pugilist." With all its extravagance and exaggeration, it is impossible to doubt the substantial truth of this charicature. Adams did not live to see the young Member become the most powerful debater, the most accomplished political leader and most influential statesman of the great and stirring period that ensued.
The time was strange, as difficult of comprehension to the generation that has grown up since the War as the England of Hengist and Horsa is to the modern Cockney, or the Rome of Tiberius to the present inhabitant of the Palentine Hill. Only sixty years have passed, but with them has passed away civilization, with its modes of thought and sentiment, its ethics and its politics. The country had but one fifth of its present population. A third of our area was still held by Mexico. Wealth was as yet the poet's dream or the philosopher's night-mare. Commerce was a subordinate factor in our civilization. Agriculture was the occupation of the people and the source of wealth. Cotton was king not only in the field of business, but in that of politics. The world still maintained its attitude of patronizing condescension or haughty contempt toward the dubious experiment of "broad and rampant democracy." Dickens had just written his shallow twaddle about Yankee crudeness and folly. Macaulay was soon to tell us that our Constitution was "all sail and no anchor." DeTocqueville had but recently published his appreciative estimate of the New World civilization. Americans knew they had less admiration than they claimed and had lurking doubts that there was some ground for the ill-concealed contempt of the Old World toward the swaggering giant of the New, and a fixed resolve to proclaim their supreme greatness with an energy and persistence that would drown the sneers of all Europe. It was a time of egotism, bluster and brag in our relation to the foreign world, and of truckling submission in our home politics to a dominant power, long since so completely whirled away by the storm of revolution, that it is hard to realize that half a century ago the strongest bowed to its will.
Douglas was in no sense a reformer or the preacher of a crusade. He was ready to cheerfully accept the ethics of the time without criticism or question. Political morality was at its nadir. The dominant power of slavery was not alone responsible for this depravity. The country was isolated from the world and little influenced by foreign thought. Its energies were devoted to material aggrandizement, to the conquest of Nature on a gigantic scale, to the acquisition of wealth. Since the settlement of the Constitution moral problems had dropped out of political life and the great passions of the heroic age had died away. Education was superficial. Religion was emotional and spasmodic. Business ethics was low.
Party politics was in a chaotic condition. The Whig organization was not in any proper sense a party at all. It was an ill-assorted aggregation of political elements, without common opinions or united purposes, whose only proper function was opposition. It was so utterly incoherent, its convictions so vague and negative, that it was unable even to draft a platform. Without any formal declaration of principles or purposes it had nominated and elected Harrison and Tyler, one a distinguished soldier and respectable Western politician, the other a renegade Virginia Democrat, whose Whiggism consisted solely of a temporary quarrel with his own party. The one unanimous opinion of the party was that it was better for themselves, if not for the country, that the Whigs should hold the offices. The Democrats had been in control of the Government for forty years. Their professed principles were still broadly Jeffersonian. Their platform consisted mainly of a denial of all power in the Federal Government to do anything or prevent anything, the extravagant negations borrowed from the republican philosophers of England and the French Revolutionists.
But a half century of power had produced a marked diversion of practice from principles, and, in spite of its open abnegation of power, the Government had become a personal despotism under Jackson, which had vainly struggled to perpetuate itself through the Administration of VanBuren. But notwithstanding the absurd discrepancy of their practical and theoretical politics, the Democrats had one great advantage over the Whigs in having a large and influential body of men united in interest, compelled to defend themselves against aggression, prepared unflinchingly to take the initiative, to whom politics was not a philosophic theory but a serious matter of business.
The slave-holding aristocracy of the South was the only united, organized, positive political force in the country. With the personal tastes of aristocrats and the domestic habits of despots, they were staunchly Democratic in their politics and had full control of the party. They had positive purposes and aggressive courage. A crisis had come which they only had the ability and energy to meet. The control of affairs was in the hands of the timid Whigs. Decisive measures were needed. By a peaceful revolution they seized the Government out of the hands of the Whigs in the midst of the Administration and embarked on a career of Democratic conquest.
President Tyler, having quarreled with his party, eager to accomplish something striking in the closing hours of his abortive Administration, with unseemly haste rushed through the annexation of Texas under a joint resolution of Congress. Mr. Polk, the new President, did not hesitate in carrying out the manifest will of the people and the imperious behest of his party. The South was clamoring for more territory for the extension of slavery. The West was aggressive and eager for more worlds to conquer. New England, impelled by hatred of slavery and jealousy of the rising importance of the West, opposed the entire project and earnestly protested against annexation.
In the feverish dreams of the slavery propagandists rose chimerical projects of conquest and expansion at which a Caesar or an Alexander would have stood aghast. Mexico and Central America were contemplated as possible additions to the magnificent slave empire which they saw rising out of the mists of the future. They began to talk of the Caribbean Sea as an inland lake, of Cuba and the West Indies as outlying dependencies, of the Pacific as their western coast, and of the States that should thereafter be carved out of South America. The enduring foundation of this tropical empire was to be African slavery, and the governing power was to rest permanently in the hands of a cultured aristocracy of slave-holders. The people of the North-Atlantic States and heir descendents in the Northwest, who churlishly held aloof from these intoxicating dreams, were to be treated with generous justice and permitted to go in peace or continue a minor adjunct of the great aristocratic Republic. Already the irrepressible conflict had begun.
Douglas heartily accepted the plans of his party. He was by temperament an ardent expansionist, a firm believer in the manifest destiny of his country to rule the Western Continent, a pronounced type of exuberant young Americanism. He was an unflinching partisan seeking to establish himself in the higher councils of his party, which was committed to this scheme of conquest. On May 13th, 1846, he delivered in the House a speech, in which he defended the course of the Administration in regard to the Mexican War and, in a spirited colloquy, instructed the venerable John Quincy Adams in the principles of international law. He based his defense of the war upon the treaty with Santa Anna recognizing the independence of Texas. Adams suggested that at the time of its execution Santa Anna was a prisoner incapable of making a treaty. Douglas insisted that, even though a captive, he was a de facto government whose acts were binding upon the country, and to establish his proposition cited the case of Cromwell who, during his successful usurpation, bound England by many important treaties. The niceties of international law were not very punctiliously observed. His arguments were warmly received by men already resolved on a career of conquest.
The war was a romantic military excursion through the heart of Mexico. There were battles between the triumphant invaders and the demoralized natives, which were believed entitled to rank among the supreme achievements of genius and courage. Americans had not yet acquired that deep knowledge of carnage, those stern conceptions of war, which they were destined soon to gain. Military glory and imperial conquest have rarely been so cheaply won. The war gave enduring fame to the commanding generals and shed a real luster over the lives of thousands of men.
The material results were stupendous. We acquired nearly twelve hundred thousand square miles of territory—a region one-third larger than the area of the United States at the close of the Revolution. The extravagant dream of making the Pacific the western boundary of the Republic was realized and no one seriously doubted that this vast domain was surrendered to slavery.
Chapter IV. The Compromise of 1850.
Douglas served two terms in the House and was again elected in 1846, but in January following was chosen Senator, taking his seat on March 4th, 1847. In April following he married Martha Denny Martin, daughter of a wealthy North Carolina planter and slave-owner.
The Senate, during the early years of his service, was in its intellectual gifts altogether the most extraordinary body ever assembled in the United States. Rarely, if ever, in the history of the world, have so many men of remarkable endowment, high training and masterful energy been gathered in a single assembly. It was the period when the generation of Webster, Clay and Calhoun overlapped that of Seward, Chase and Sumner, when the men who had set at the feet of the Revolutionary Fathers and had striven to settle the interpretation of the Constitution met the men who were destined to guide the Nation through the Civil War and settle the perplexing questions arising from it.
Webster was now an old man, his face deep lined with care, disappointment and dissipation. Though sixty-eight years old and the greatest orator of the century, his heart was still consumed with unquenchable thirst of the honor of succeeding John Tyler and James K. Polk. Calhoun, now sixty-five years old, a ghastly physical wreck, still represented South Carolina and dismally speculated on the prospect of surviving the outgrown Union. Cass, equal in years with Calhoun, still held his seat in the Senate and cherished the delusive hope of yet reaching the Presidency. Benton was closing his fifth and last term in the Senate, and Clay, the knightly leader of the trimming Whigs, though now in temporary retirement, was soon to return and resume his old leadership.
Within the first four years of Douglas' service, Salmon P. Chase, William H. Seward and Charles Sumner made their appearance in the Senate. A new generation of giants seemed providentially supplied as the old neared the end of their service. Douglas, though serving with both these groups of statesmen, belonged to neither. Running his career side by side with the later school of political leaders and sharing in the great struggles on which their fame, in large part, rests, his character and ideals were those of the older generation.
The questions confronting Congress were of transcendent interest and incalculable importance. A sudden and astounding expansion had occurred, calling for the highest, wisest and most disinterested statesmanship in providing governments for the newly acquired domain. A million and a half miles of new territory, extending through sixteen degrees of latitude, was now to be organized; the future destiny of this vast territory, and indirectly that of free institutions generally, was supposed to depend on the decision of Congress. Above all, the fate of the American apple of discord, human slavery, was understood to be involved in the construction of territorial and State governments for these new possessions. It was deemed by the South indispensable to the safety and permanence of slavery to plant it in them.
For that half-disguised purpose they had been acquired at great expense of blood and money. New States, it was hoped, might now be created south of the line below which slavery flourished, balancing those to be admitted from the growing Northwest. Thus far the adventurous West had powerfully supported the South in its schemes of conquest, but had no sympathy with slavery. The old North, thought ready to submit to its continued existence in the States where already established, was implacably hostile to its further spread.
It was not a question of ethics or of sober statesmanship, but one of practical politics, that divided the North and the South at this period. Each hoped to secure for itself the alliance and sympathy of the new States thereafter admitted. Each applied itself to the task of shaping the Territories and moulding the future States to serve its ulterior views.
When Congress attempted to organize territorial governments, the people of the North insisted on the exclusion of slavery from Oregon and the territory acquired from Mexico. The people of the South made no resistance to its exclusion from Oregon. It was already excluded by "the ordinance of Nature or the will of God." But that the vast territory torn from Mexico, acquired by the common blood and treasure, should now be closed to their institution, was intolerable. To secure it they had sinned deep. After the conquest their position was peculiarly awkward. The laws of Mexico excluding slavery continued in force. Hence in all this territory slavery was as effectually prohibited as in Massachusetts until Congress could accomplish the odious work of introducing it by express enactment. Calhoun strenuously argued the novel proposition that, on the overthrow of the authority of the Mexican government by American arms, the laws and constitution of Mexico were extinguished and those of the United States, so far as applicable, occupied the vacant field; that the Federal Constitution carried slavery with it wherever it went, except where by the laws of a sovereign State it was excluded.
He announced the proposition afterwards established by the Supreme Court, that, as the Constitution proprio vigore carried slavery into all the Territories, neither the territorial legislatures nor Congress itself had power to interfere with the right of holding slaves within them.
Webster conclusively answered this refined sophistry, pointing out that slavery was merely a municipal institution, in derogation of the common right of mankind, against the native instincts of humanity, dependent wholly for its right of existence upon local legislation, and that the real demand of the people of the South was not to carry their slaves into the new Territories, but to carry with them the slave codes of their several States.
While the venerable leaders who had ruled Congress and swayed public opinion for thirty years were uttering philosophic disquisitions on constitutional law or the ethics of slavery, Douglas had with practical sagacity offered an amendment to the Oregon bill, extending the line of the Missouri Compromise to the Pacific. This would not decide the great moral question between those who believed slavery an unmixed good and those who believed it the sum of all villainies. But he thought that moral ideas had no place in politics. It would not decide the great question of constitutional law between those who, like Calhoun, believed slavery the creature of the Federal Constitution, and those, who, like Webster, believed it the creature of local municipal law. But it promised a temporary respite to the vexed question. He had already, in the House, advocated the extension of this line through the Western Territories. He believed that adhesion to this venerable Compromise, now as sacred as the Constitution itself, was the hope of the future and succeeded in persuading the Senate to adopt his amendment as the final solution of the vexed problem. It was rejected in the House and the question indefinitely postponed.
In the Territories, meanwhile, events moved fast. While Congress had been wrangling over the new possessions, gold was discovered in California. A tumultuous rush of people, unparalleled since the Crusades, at once began by all routes from every region to the new El Dorado. More than 80,000 settlers arrived in 1849. A spontaneous movement of the people resulted in a Constitutional Convention, which met at Monterey on September 3d of that year, and adopted a Constitution which forever prohibited slavery. It was submitted to a vote and adopted in November.
Congress met on December 3d and resumed the Sisyphean labors of the last session. Douglas was chairman of the Committee on Territories, to which were referred all measures affecting the recent acquisitions—altogether the most momentous of the session—which stirred the deepest passions of Congress and held the keenest attention of the people. In the early days of December he submitted to his Committee two bills. One provided for the immediate admission of California; the other for the establishment of governments for Utah and New Mexico and the adjustment of the Texas boundary. On March 25th they were reported to the Senate. Meanwhile Taylor, in a special message, had recommended the immediate admission of California. Senator Mason had introduced a bill providing more effective means for the summary return of fugitive slaves, in effect converting the population of the free States into a posse comitatus charged with the duty of hunting down the fugitive sand returning him to bondage. The clash of arms had begun. Both sides were passionately in earnest and resolved to encounter the utmost extremity rather than yield. The Democrats had a small majority in the Senate, while in the House neither party had a majority.
The Free Soilers held the balance of power, but by a refusal to cooperate with the conservative opponents of slavery extension left the control of the House in the hands of the Democrats. The chief business of the early weeks of the session was the delivery of defiant speeches and the presentation of resolutions defining the opinions of various segments of distracted parties and revealing the chasm that was opening between the friends and opponents of slavery.
On the 21st of January the rival Whig chiefs of the Senate held a confidential conference. Clay submitted a plan of compromise covering the whole field of controversy. Webster promised his cordial support. A week later Clay presented the first draft of his famous slavery Compromise. He was under the sincere illusion that he had been spared by Providence that he might save his country in this great exigency and that his bill would secure long years of peace and harmony. At least, as many of them were old men, it would postpone the evil day until they had been safely gathered to their fathers, and, according to the political morals of the age, the next generation must take care of itself. Douglas moved to refer the resolutions to the Committee on Territories; but, on motion of Foote of Mississippi, they were referred to a select Committee of Thirteen, consisting of three Northern Whigs, three Southern Whigs, three Southern and three Northern Democrats, with Clay as chairman. Douglas was not on this Committee. It was composed of old Senators whose established reputations were expected to give credit to any proposition of compromise.
On May 8th the Committee reported, recommending the immediate admission of California, the establishment of territorial governments in New Mexico and Utah with no mention of the slavery question, the settlement of the Texas boundary dispute and the enactment of a law providing for the more effectual return of fugitive slaves. Substantially it was Douglas' two bills joined together, with Mason's Fugitive Slave bill annexed. It was a mass of unrelated measures, jumbled together for the illegitimate purpose of compelling support of the whole from friends of the several parts.
Clay spoke for two days in support of his great masterpiece of compromising statesmanship. He insisted that it should be accepted by all for the reason that "neither party made any concession of principle, but only of feeling and sentiment," and ingeniously sought to soothe the anger of the North by the assurance that the principle of popular sovereignty embodied in the bill was not only eminently just and in harmony with the spirit of our institutions but entirely harmless, inasmuch as the North had Nature on its side, facts on its side and the truth staring it in the face that there was no slavery in the Territories, proving that the law of Nature was of paramount force.
On March 4th Calhoun attempted to speak, but found himself unable and handed his speech to Mason who read it for him. He rejected Clay's Compromise as futile and denied utterly the right of the inhabitants of a Territory to exclude slavery. He accused the North of having pursued a course of systematic hostility to Southern institutions since the close of the Revolution, and cited the Ordinance of 1787, the Missouri Compromise and the exclusion of slavery from Oregon as instances of Northern aggression; and now, he said, the final and fatal act of exclusion was attempted. He denounced the action of the people of California in organizing a State without congressional authority as revolutionary and rebellious. He grimly announced that the South had no concessions to make, even to save the poor wreck of a once glorious Union. He plainly told them that if the Union was to be saved the North must save it. It must open the Territories to slavery. It must surrender fugitive slaves. It must cease agitating the slavery question. The Constitution must be amended so as to restore to the South the power of protecting itself. If they were not willing to do these acts of justice, nor that the South should depart in peace, let them say so, that it might know what to do when the question was reduced to one of submission or resistance.
Three days later Webster delivered his famous 7th of March speech. He criticized with severity the Northern Democracy for its eager and officious subserviency to the South throughout the whole controversy arising out of the Mexican War, hinting that it had been even more eager to server than the South had been to accept its service. He said that the Mexican War had been prosecuted for the purpose of the acquisition of territory for the extension of slavery, but that the nature of the country had defeated, in large part, the hopes of the South. He declared that the whole question of slavery was settled by a higher law than that of Congress and that there was not then a foot of territory whose status was not already fixed by the laws of the several States or the decree of the Almighty; that, by the irrepealable laws of physical geography, slavery was already excluded from California and New Mexico. He "would not take pains uselessly to reaffirm an ordinance of Nature, nor to reenact the will of God." He denounced the Abolitionists and urged upon the Northern States the duty of faithfully and energetically enforcing the abhorred Fugitive Slave Law.
Seward, speaking a few days later, insisted that it was their clear duty to admit California under any Constitution adopted by it, republican in form, and assured then that had its Constitution permitted slavery he would still have deemed it his duty to vote for its admission. He protested against the Fugitive Slave Law as necessarily nugatory and utterly impossible of execution because unanimously condemned by the public sentiment of the North. In answer to the crushing argument that the Constitution carried slavery into the Territories and that cheerful obedience must be yielded to the supreme law, he announced the startling doctrine that there was a HIGHER LAW than the Constitution, to which their first duty was due; that slavery was a violation of this HIGHER LAW and hence the Constitution itself was powerless to establish it in the Territories.
On the 13th and 14th Douglas spoke. The speech was able and adroit. It was marred by the introduction of party-politics into a discussion of such gravity. He was always prone to lapse from statesmanlike dignity to the level of the politician and viewed most matters primarily in their relation to he transient questions of party politics. He undertook the ambitious task of replying to the speeches of Webster, Seward, and Calhoun. He repelled the charge made by Webster that the Northern Democracy had surrendered to the slave power in supporting the annexation of Texas and the Mexican War, declaring that they had supported those measures from patriotic motives, and that he was "one of those Northern Democrats who supported annexation with all the zeal of his nature." "With a touch of the Northwest—the Northwestern Democracy," sneered Webster, who contemptuously looked upon him as a crude blustering youth from the far West. But Webster, whose contempt for his coarse taste was justified, had misjudged his resources and power.
"Yes, sir," replied Douglas, "I am glad to hear the Senator say 'With a touch of the Northwest'; I thank him for the distinction. We have heard so much talk about the North and South, as if those two sections were the only ones necessary to be taken into consideration * * * that I am gratified to find that there are those who appreciate the important truth that there is a power in this Nation, greater than either the North or the South—a growing, increasing, swelling power, that will be able to speak the law to this Nation and to execute the law as spoken. That power is the country known as the great West, the Valley of the Mississippi, one and indivisible from the Gulf to the Great Lakes, stretching on the ones side and the other to the extreme sources of the Ohio and the Missouri—from the Alleghenies to the Rocky Mountains.
"There, sir, is the hope of this Nation, the resting-place of the power that is not only to control but to save the Union. We furnish the water that makes the Mississippi and we intend to follow, navigate and use it until it loses itself in the briny ocean. So with the St. Lawrence. We intend to keep open and enjoy both of these great outlets to the ocean, and all between them we intend to take under our especial protection and keep and preserve as one free, happy, and united people. This is the mission of the great Mississippi Valley, the heart and soul of the Nation and the continent. We know the responsibilities that devolve upon us, and our people will show themselves equal to them. We indulge in no ultraism, no sectional strifes, no crusades against the North and the South. * * * We are prepared to fulfill all our obligations under the Constitution as it is, and determined to maintain and preserve it inviolate in its letter and spirit. Such is the position, the destiny and purpose of the great Northwest."
He told Webster that, according to the doctrine of his 7th of March speech, to permit Texas to be divided into several States would be harmless, because slavery was excluded from a large part of it by the ordinance of Nature, the will of God. He taunted him for not having discovered his now celebrated principle of the ordinance of Nature and will of God until after Taylor's election, and reminded him that prior to the election Cass and Buchanan, the recognized heads of the Democratic party, had advocated leaving the question to the decision of the settlers in the Territories or, in other words, leaving the ordinance of Nature and will of God to manifest themselves. But Webster had then opposed Cass' election and denounced his doctrines and proposed policies. The Whigs, having run counter to the overwhelming popular sentiment in their unpatriotic opposition to the Mexican War, found themselves ruined. They chose a distinguished soldier of that war President, and hoped to rally by adopting this Democratic doctrine.
He accused Seward of carrying New York for the Whigs in the late election by assuring them that Taylor, though a slave-holder, would approve the legislative monstrosity known as the Wilmot proviso, excluding slavery forever from the new Territories. But Taylor had ignored Seward's promise. New York's vote had elected Taylor and a few weeks later Seward was chosen Senator. Taylor was made President and Seward Senator by the latter's successful fraud.
Calhoun's charge of Northern aggression and encroachment he met with a sweeping denial. Neither the North nor the South as such had any right in the Territories, but all the people of the States had equal rights there. The Ordinance of 1787, denounced by Calhoun as a Northern aggression on Southern rights, was voted for by every Southern State. That Ordinance did not, in fact, exclude the South, or even slavery, from the Northwest Territory. A majority of the settlers in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois were from the South. Slavery had actually existed in Indiana and Illinois and had but recently disappeared. The Missouri Compromise was not an act of Northern aggression, but was passed by a united South which had made repeated efforts to extend it to the Pacific. The exclusion of slavery from Oregon was not an act of Northern aggression, but the work of the settlers during the period of joint occupancy under the treaty with Great Britain, and should be accepted by the anti-slavery agitators as proof of the wisdom of popular sovereignty. the objection that the people of the South were forbidden to emigrate with their property to the new Territories was simply a complaint that they could not carry the laws of their States with them, but must be governed by the laws of their new domicile. Calhoun's project of maintaining an equilibrium between free and slave States or of compelling States to accept or retain slavery against their will was impossible.
At the organization of the Government twelve of the thirteen States had slavery. but six of them voluntarily abolished it. Delaware, Maryland, Missouri, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Tennessee would yet adopt the system of gradual emancipation. Seventeen free States would soon be formed out of the territory between the Mississippi and the Pacific. Where would they find slave territory with which to balance these States? If Texas were divided into five States, three of them would be free. If Mexico were annexed, twenty of her twenty-two States would be free by the ordinance of Nature or the will of God. He urged the duty of promptly providing governments for the unorganized domain and closed with a graceful tribute to Clay and the prediction that the Territories would soon be organized, California admitted and the controversy ended forever.
There were three generically distinct groups of statesmen participating in this great debate—the aggressive, unyielding men of the South to whom slavery was dearer than the Union; the temporizing politicians of the North and the border, with their compromises and concessions, hoping to save the Union by salving its wounds; and the stern Puritans of the North, bent on rooting out the sins of the Nation, through the heavens fell.
The climax of the debate was now past, but it continued to agitate Congress until the middle of September. President Taylor, who had exerted his influence against the Compromise, died on July 9th, and was succeeded by Fillmore, who at once called Webster to the head of his Cabinet and turned the Executive influence to the support of the bill. It proved impossible, even with his help, to pass it as a whole; but after it had gone to wreck its fragments were gathered up and each of the several bills which were jumbled together in the "Omnibus" was passed. The great Compromise was accomplished and the slavery question declared settled forever.
Chapter V. Results of the Fugitive Slave Law.
In 1850 Douglas moved to Chicago, which had become the chief city of the State.
The people were greatly exasperated by the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law. The City Council, on October 21st, passed resolutions harshly condemning the Senators and Representatives from the free States who had supported it and "those who basely sneaked away from their seats and thereby evaded the question," classing them with Benedict Arnold and Judas Iscariot. This was a personal challenge to Douglas. It happened that he was absent from the Senate on private business when the bill was passed. But the charge of evading the question was grossly unjust.
On the evening of the 22nd a mass meeting was held at the city hall, attended by a great concourse of angry citizens, who, amid tumultuous applause, resolved to defy "death, the dungeon and the grave" in resisting the hated law. Douglas appeared on the platform and announced that on the following evening he would address the people in defense of the Fugitive Slave Law and the entire Compromise. The announcement was received with a storm of hisses and groans.
The next night an enormous multitude gathered to hear him. The audience was not only sullen but bitterly hostile. After a contemptuous reference to the resolutions and a brief vindication of himself against their insinuations, he plunged into the defense of the law. He insisted that the provision for the return of fugitive slaves contained in the recent act was analogous to the general provision of law for the return of fugitives from justice, and, while abuses of the process might occur and wrong occasionally inflicted, that was one of the inherent infirmities of human law, and the same objection could be urged with equal force to all extradition statutes. While free blacks might be seized in the North and carried South on the false charge of being fugitives from service, innocent white men might also be seized in Chicago and carried to California on the false charge of being fugitives from justice.
He reminded them that the law of 1850 was substantially a reenactment of that of 1793, passed by the Revolutionary Fathers, the founders of the Constitution, and approved by President Washington. He did not argue, but assumed the justice of the old law; nor did he allude to the increased ardor of pursuit of fleeing slaves since their increase in value. He rested his case on the close resemblance of the letter of the new law to that of the old. He told them that the duty of returning fugitive slaves was created not by THIS law, but by the Constitution, and that the real question was not as to the existence of the duty, but which law performed it most justly and efficiently.
A listener asked him whether the Constitution was not in violation of the will of God. He warned them of the danger of that objection, arising from the difficulty of authentically ascertaining the will of God. It was not practicable to allow each citizen to determine it for himself. Hence, certain fundamental principles had been established as a Constitution, which must be assumed to be in harmony with it and from which no appeal lay. The Constitution provided for the return of fugitive slaves. The sacred duty of citizenship bound them to support it. Appeals to a higher law were impracticable and a mere evasion of duty.
Read in a the calmer light of after years the effectiveness of this speech is hard to understand. The literal difference between the recent act and the law of 1793, was not great. But the difference between the ethical views of slavery held by the people in 1850 and those held in 1793 was not to be measured. The changes in the law were vicious and in the opposite direction from the radical changes in popular sentiment. The specially odious provision of the new law, distinguishing it from general extradition statutes, was that forbidding resort to the writ of habeas corpus by the alleged fugitive at the place where seized. The fugitive from justice in California seized in Chicago could, on writ of habeas corpus issued by an Illinois court, have it judicially determined before his deportation whether the facts charged against him constituted a crime and whether thee was probable cause to believe that he had committed it.
Under the new law the Federal Commissioner of the State where the arrest was made had no power to inquire into the truth or sufficiency of the charge. He could only determine whether the person arrested was probably the one who had committed the escape, and must decline to hear the testimony of the fugitive himself. The fact of escape was judicially determined in advance, ex parte, in the State from which it had been made, and the alleged fugitive was remanded to that State for such further proceedings as its laws might provide and "no process issued by any Court, Judge, Magistrate or other person whomsoever" could molest the captor in bearing away his prize.
The speech was adroit, clever and marvelously effective. It strikingly illustrates the mental habits of the times. It sought to stem an irresistible moral current with ingenious plausibilities and appeals to precedent. It treated the question as one of political expediency. It sounded no moral depths, discussed no ethical problem, though the country was aflame with moral indignation and rising passionately against the ethics of the past. It mastered the audience by its fidelity to literal truth and sent them home dazed, troubled, doubtful and ashamed. At the close of the speech resolutions affirming the duty of Congress to pass the Fugitive Slave Law and that of citizens to obey and support it, and repudiating those of the Common Council, were presented and unanimously adopted by the subdued and humbled crowd. On the following night the Council repealed their offensive resolutions.
Meanwhile the country was enjoying the fruits of the Compromise and striving to persuade itself that it would endure. The people earnestly desired to believe that the slavery question was settled forever. So strong was the wish to be done with it that, but for the restless ambition of the politicians, the truce might have been protracted for many years. Permanent peace on the preposterous condition of maintaining on equipoise between active, aggressive and hostile forces was, of course, impossible. but it was confidently expected. Clay, Stephens and fifty-two other Members of the Senate and House issued a manifesto in January, 1851, in which they announced that the Compromise was final and, to give their manifesto the highest solemnity, gravely declared that they would not support anyone for office who was not in favor of faithfully upholding it. In the North approval for the Compromise was general and enthusiastic. It was hoped that money-making would no longer be disturbed by fanatical agitation of moral questions.
And yet there were murmurs of anger against the detested law. It was hard to compel the descendents of the Puritans to hunt down the fleeing slaves when they believed that the curse of God rested on the institution and that the rights of the fugitive were as sacred as those of his pursuers. There were outbreaks of defiance, violent rescues, occasional riots. But resistance was sporadic. The people were disposed to wash their hands of all responsibility for the law, to deprecate its existence, but, since it had been pronounced a final Compromise, to pray that it might prove so. In the South the general opinion was that the danger was past and that years of peace were in prospect. Enthusiastic meetings approving the compromise were held everywhere outside of South Carolina and Mississippi.
While the entire moral victory of the Compromise rested with the people of the South, they had won nothing substantial but the Fugitive Slave Law, which was of questionable value. The great object for which they had conspired, sinned and fought had slipped from their grasp. California was a free State. New Mexico with indecent haste had called a Convention, adopted a Constitution prohibiting slavery, and now demanded admission.
The Compromise, however, bade fair to endure. Fillmore in his annual message in December said, with perfect truth, that a great majority of the people sympathized in its spirit and purpose and were prepared in all respects to sustain it. In Congress an optimistic feeling prevailed. Clay complacently congratulated the country on the general acquiescence in the law and said that it had encountered but little resistance outside of Boston. Douglas assured the Senate that Illinois in good faith discharged its duty under the late Act. It was flanked on the east and west by the slave States of Kentucky and Missouri. It did not intend to become a free negro colony by offering refuge to the fleeing slaves of neighboring States and, not relying on the action of the Federal Government alone for protection, had enacted severe laws of its own to prevent it. When a Judge in that State he had imposed heavy penalties on citizens convicted of the offense of harboring fugitives from service. It was the duty of all citizens to sustain and execute the law, a duty imposed by patriotism and loyalty to the Constitution. But there was an organization in the North to evade and resist the law, with men of talent, genius, energy, daring and desperate purpose at its head. It was a conspiracy against the Government, and men occupying seats in the Senate were responsible for the outrages the Boston mob perpetrated in resistance of the law. The Abolitionists were arming negroes in the free States and inciting them to murder anyone who attempted to seize them under the provisions of the law.
Already he aspired to the Presidency and began to jealously guard his reputation against the sinister suspicions which in those days haunted the ambitious statesman. The great problem which then taxed the ingenuity of the aspiring politician was, how to win the South without alienating the North, or how to hold the North without losing the South. Irreconcilable differences of opinion on fundamental questions, deepening ominously into passionate hostility of sentiment, were already manifesting themselves. The task of the politician was to steer his dangerous course between this Scylla and Charybdis. If he gave color to the suspicion that he even tolerated the growing anti-slavery sentiment of the North, the South would reject him with horror. If he espoused too warmly the cause that had become so dear to the heart of the South, the North, goaded by its over-sensitive conscience, would spurn him with disgust. In the existing state of party organization the highest success was not possible without at least partial reconciliation of these irreconcilable forces. Northern statesmen could not hope to succeed by brave appeals to the passions and prejudices of the South, for they would lose their home constituencies, the worst fatality that can befall an American politician. They could not hope to succeed by brave appeals to the earnest convictions of the North, for they had not yet authority as affirmative rules of political conduct.
The charge of dodging a vote on the Fugitive Slave bill had annoyed Douglas deeply. Any doubt cast upon his fidelity to the South in its contest with the rising anti-slavery sentiment would be disastrous. It was extremely distrustful of Northern politicians and ready to take alarm on the slightest occasion. When the session was but three weeks old he spoke, defending himself against a series of political charges and boasting his partisan virtues in a way that plainly proclaimed the candidate and savored strongly of the stump. He explained that he had been called to New York on urgent private business on the day of the passage of the law and that on his return he was taken seriously ill and confined to his bed during the latter part of the session and for weeks after adjournment. He claimed credit for having written the original Compromise bills which Clay's Committee joined together with a wafer and reported as its own. He denied vehemently having favored the Wilmot Proviso, excluding slavery from all territory acquired from Mexico, and declared that he had sought to extend the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific. He said that the legislature of Illinois had instructed him to vote for the exclusion of slavery from the Territories, and that, while he had cast the vote of his State according to instructions, he had protested against it, and the vote cast was that of the legislature. He regarded the slavery question as settled forever and had resolved to make no more speeches on it. He assured them that the Democratic party was as good a Union party as he wanted, and protested against new tests of party fidelity and all interpolations of new matter into the old creed. He conjured them to avoid the slavery question, with the intimation that, if they did so, it would disappear from Federal politics forever.
Already the approaching presidential nominations were casting their shadows over the political arena. Though not yet thirty-nine, Douglas was as eager for the Democratic nomination as Webster at seventy was for that of the Whigs.
His picturesque youthfulness, energy and aggressiveness, so strikingly in contrast with the old age, conservatism and timidity of the generation of statesmen with whom he now came in competition, aroused to the highest pitch the enthusiasm of the younger Democrats. It is not impossible that he could have been nominated but for his own imprudence and that of his counselors, who seem to have been more richly endowed with enthusiasm than wisdom. To make sure of getting him before the people in the most dramatic way, and at an early stage, they brought out in the January number of the "Democratic Review" a sensational article which immediately gave him great prominence as a presidential candidate and solidified against him an opposition which assured his defeat.
This famous article said that a new time was at hand, calling for new men, sturdy, clear-headed and honest men. The Republic must have them even if it must seek them in the forests of Virginia or in the illimitable West. It was necessary to have a more progressive Democratic Administration than theretofore. The statesmen of a previous generation, with their antipathies, claims, greatness or inefficiency, must get out of the way. Age was to be honored, but senility was pitiable. Statesmen of the old generation were out of harmony with either the Northern or Southern wing of the party. Those who were not so were men incapable of grasping the difficulties of the times, of fathoming its ideas or controlling its policy. It had been in the power of these superannuated leaders to do much good; but their unfortunate lack of discreet and progressive statesmanship had ruined the party. The next nominee for the Presidency must not be trammeled with ideas belonging to an anterior age, but a statesman who could bring young blood, young ideas and young hearts to the councils of the Republic.
"Your mere general," it continued, "whether he can write on his card the battle-fields of Mexico, or more heroically boast of his prowess in a militia review; your mere lawyer, trained in the quiddities of the court, without a political idea beyond a local election; your mere wire-puller and judicious bottle-holder, who claims preeminence now on the sole ground that he once played second fiddle to better men; * * * and above all, your beaten horse, whether he ran for a previous presidential cup as first or second or nowhere at all on the ticket, none of these will do. The Democratic party expects a new man * * * * of sound Democratic pluck and world-wide ideas to use it on. * * * Let the Baltimore Convention give to this young generation of America a candidate and we are content."
The candidate thus presumptuously demanded by "Young America" was, of course, Douglas. the superannuated statesmen, incapable of grasping difficulties, trammeled by the ideas of an anterior age and sinking into pitiable senility, were clearly, Cass, Buchanan and Marcy. The description of them as the hero of a militia-review, the mere lawyer with his quiddities, the political wire-puller playing second fiddle to better men, was so clear that greater offense could not have resulted from the use of their names.
On June first, 1852, while Congress was still sweltering in the tropical heat of the Capital, the Democratic Convention met at Baltimore, and began its five days of debating and balloting. There was a general belief that the nominee was certain to be elected. The Whigs in their Compromise measures had given the Democrats substantially what they wanted. The chief desire of the latter was to hold fast what they had and secure the administration of the offices. They proposed no reforms, made no complaint against the Administration. Their platform endorsed its chief measure. It pledged the party to the Compromise, including the Fugitive Slave Act, and to "resist all attempts to renew the agitation of the slavery question in congress or out of it, under whatever shape or color the attempt might be made." Like most political platforms, it was made to win votes, not to announce moral truths; and the four statesmen who were competing for the nomination believed that platform best which would offend the fewest prejudices.
The speeches were delivered. the first ballot gave Cass 116, Buchanan 93, Marcy 37 and Douglas 20 votes. Day after day the managers of the three veteran politicians plotted and counter-plotted and "Young America" shouted for Douglas. On the fourth day he had risen to second rank among the candidates, having 91 votes, while Cass had 93. On the fifth day the four distinguished statesmen were dropped and Franklin Pierce, an inoffensive New Hampshire politician, was nominated.
The Whig convention met at Baltimore on June 16th. Already the Whigs, though in power, were demoralized. Their mission, never very glorious, was ended. In the North, tinctured with the old Puritanism and sincere reverence for the primary rights of man, there was a widely diffused feeling that a party responsible for the Fugitive Slave Law could be spared without great loss to civilization.
In the South slavery had definitely placed itself under the protection of the Democratic party as the more reliable, if not the more subservient, of the two. There was an appropriate funereal air about the Convention as it struggled with the question of who should stand on its platform of pitiful negations. The platform solemnly declared that the Compromise Acts, including the Fugitive Slave Law, were acquiesced in by the Whig party as a settlement of the dangerous and exciting questions which they embraced. It insisted upon the strict enforcement of the Compromise and deprecated all further agitation of the question thus settled. If further evidence of the collapse of the party were required, it was furnished by the attitude and character of the candidates. Fillmore was a passive candidate. Webster, his Secretary of State, was an eager competitor. General Scott, though without experience in civil affairs, was the third candidate and received the nomination.
This was the last serious appearance of the Whig party on the stage of national politics. The election resulted in the overwhelming defeat of Scott and the gradual dissolution of the party.
Chapter VI. The Repeal of the Missouri Compromise.
In January, 1853, Mrs. Douglas died. In 1856 he married Miss Adele Cutts of Washington, a Southern lady of good family.
He was reelected Senator in 1853 without serious opposition. He had hitherto been one of the most earnest defenders of the sacredness of the Missouri Compromise. He had strenuously sought to extend it to the Pacific. In 1848 he had declared it as inviolable as the Constitution, "canonized in the hearts of the American people as a sacred thing which no ruthless hand would ever be reckless enough to disturb." But events had moved fast and he moved with them, adjusting his opinions to the advancing demands of the dominant wing of his party.
During half a century the people of the South had been in control of the Government, but Nature and advancing civilization had been steadily against them. They had won a brilliant victory in the Southwest, but found it barren. The only remaining territory in which they could hope to plant slavery was that stretching westward from Missouri, Iowa and Minnesota to the borders of Utah and Oregon. It was wholly unorganized, devoted mainly to Indian reservations. The plan was to organize this region, embracing the present States of Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming, into a Territory to be called Nebraska. The final contest between freedom and slavery for the possession of the public domain was now to be waged.
The South was at this time in peculiarly favorable situation. The right to recover runaway slaves was secured. Both the political parties had declared in favor of maintaining and faithfully executing the Compromise. The people of both sections were in favor of maintaining and faithfully executing the Compromise. The people of both sections were in favor of standing by their bargain in good faith, the South enjoying its slavery and the North its freedom in peace. There is no apparent reason why this could not have lasted for many years. But the South could not rest easy under the sense of increasing hostility to slavery and wanted to entrench it more strongly against assault. It would like more Senators and was ready to stake everything on the capture of this last territory out of which new States could be carved.
Congress met for a memorable session on December 5th, 1853. Douglas was chairman of the Committee on Territories, and his trusted lieutenant, Richardson, was chairman of the Territorial Committee of the House. He was thus in position to control the legislation of deepest importance and greatest political interest. During the closing days of the last session Richardson had pushed through the House a bill to organize the Territory of Nebraska. It was reported to the Senate, referred to the Committee on Territories and Douglas attempted in vain to hurry it through.
Dodge of Iowa, now introduced in the Senate a bill for the organization of the Territory which was a copy of the House bill of the last session. It was referred to the Committee on Territories. Douglas as chairman on January 4th reported it to the Senate in an altered form, accompanied by an elaborate report. It provided that when the Territory or any part of it should be admitted as a State it should be with or without slavery as its Constitution should provide. The report justified this non-committal attitude by citing the similar provisions in the Utah and New Mexico bills. It declared it a disputed point whether slavery was prohibited in Nebraska by valid enactment. The constitutional power of Congress to regulate the domestic affairs of the Territories was doubted. The Committee declined to discuss the question which was so fiercely contested in 1850. Congress then refrained from deciding it. The Committee followed that precedent by neither affirming nor repealing the Missouri Compromise, nor expressing any opinion as to its validity. It intimated that in 1850 Congress already doubted its constitutionality. The Compromise was now doomed. The inventive genius of the Senate now applied itself to the task of shifting the odium of its repeal upon the previous Congress.
While this bill was pending in the Senate Douglas was anxiously scanning the field to ascertain what effect it was producing among the people. The South was not likely to be duped. If the Missouri Compromise was in force that alone excluded slavery, and no advantage could accrue from organizing the new Territory without mention of the subject. It did not care to take the risk of proving the law of 1820 invalid. Let it be repealed. But the thought of explicitly repealing the Missouri Compromise, which he had been wont to declare inviolably sacred, appalled him. He dreaded its effect in Illinois and throughout the Puritanical North, where moral ideas were annoyingly obtrusive. The South, though not demanding the repeal of the Compromise, would surely welcome it with joy and gratitude. The question of expediency was a hard one.
The bill, consisting of twenty sections, was printed on January 2d in the Washington Sentinel. Again, on the 10th of January, it appeared in the same paper with another section added. The new section provided that the question of slavery during the territorial period should be left to the inhabitants, that appeals to the Supreme Court should be allowed in all cases involving title to slaves or questions of personal freedom, and that the Fugitive Slave Law should be executed in the Territories as in the States. This remarkable change in the form and spirit of the bill was explained as resulting from an error of the copyist, who had omitted this vital section from it as originally printed.
On the 16th of January Senator Dixon of Kentucky offered an amendment repealing the Missouri Compromise. The next day Sumner gave notice of an amendment affirming it. The question could no longer be dodged. When Dixon's amendment was offered, Douglas, who was greatly annoyed by it, went to his seat and implored him to withdraw it. But he refused. He called upon Dixon and took him for a drive. They talked of the Nebraska bill and the amendment. The result of the conference was that Douglas said to him: "I have become perfectly satisfied that it is my duty as a fair minded national statesman, to cooperate with you as proposed in securing the repeal of the Missouri Compromise restriction. It is due to the South; it is due to the Constitution, heretofore palpably infracted; it is due to that character for consistency which I have heretofore labored to maintain. The repeal will produce much stir and commotion in the free States * * * * for a season. I shall be assailed by demagogues and fanatics there without stint. * * * * Every opprobrious epithet will be applied to me. I shall probably be hung in effigy. * * * * I may become permanently odious among those whose friendship and esteem I have heretofore possessed. This proceeding may end my political career. But, acting under the sense of duty which animates me, I am prepared to make the sacrifice. I will do it."
The bluff Kentuckian was much affected, and with deep emotion exclaimed: "Sir, I once recognized you as a demagogue, a mere party manager, selfish and intriguing. I now find you a warm hearted and sterling patriot. Go forward in the pathway of duty as you propose, and, though the whole world desert you, I never will."
He had now decided on his course. Cass, who had been forestalled by his alert rival, was understood to be ready to step into the breach if Douglas faltered. He was on perilous heights where a false step would be fatal. Already a storm of opposition was brewing in the North, which would surely break upon him with fury if he proposed the repeal. It might fail in the House and thus leave him with both the North and South angrily condemning him,—the South for his rashness and the North for his treachery. Pierce was known to be opposed to the express repeal of the Compromise. On Sunday, January 22d, Douglas called on the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, explained the proposed change and sought the help of the Administration in passing the bill. Davis was overjoyed and at once accompanied him to the White House. Pierce received his distinguished visitors, discussed the plan with them and promised his help.
The next morning Douglas offered in the Senate a substitute for the original Nebraska bill, in which two radical changes appeared. The new bill divided the proposed Territory, calling the southern part Kansas and the northern part Nebraska, and declared the Missouri Compromise superseded by the legislation of 1850 and now inoperative.
On the next day appeared the "Appeal of the Independent Democrats in Congress to the People of the United States." The paper was written by Chase and corrected by Sumner. It denounced the original Kansas-Nebraska bill as a gross violation of a sacred pledge, a criminal betrayal of precious rights, part of an atrocious plot to exclude free labor and convert the Territory into a dreary region of despotism inhabited by masters and slaves, a bold scheme against American liberty, worthy of an accomplished architect of ruin. It declared in a postscript, written after the substitute bill was offered by Douglas on January 23d, that not a man in Congress or out of it, not even Douglas himself, pretended at the time of their passage that the measures of 1850 would repeal the Missouri Compromise. "Will the people," it asked, "permit their dearest interests to be thus made the mere hazards of a presidential game and destroyed by false facts and false inferences?"
The Appeal, which (except the postscript) was written before the substitute was offered, was published in many papers in the North and produced a deep sensation. On the 30th Douglas entered the Senate Chamber angry and excited. He had already begun to hear the distant mutterings of the storm. He opened the debate on his substituted bill, but he was smarting under the cruel lash and, before beginning his argument, poured out his rage on the authors of the Appeal. He accused Chase of treacherously procuring a postponement of the consideration of the bill for a week in order to circulate their libel upon him. Chase interrupted him with angry emphasis. Douglas waxed furious and poured out his "senatorial billingsgate" upon the offenders. Yet, amidst his wrath, he kept his head and made a keen and ingenious defense of his course.
The basis of his argument was the proposition, assumed though no where stated, that while the laws of Congress were specific and enacted to meet particular demands, the PRINCIPLE embodied in each law was general, and if the philosophic principle of any law was repugnant to that of any prior law, however foreign to each other the subjects might be, the latter must be held to repeal the former by implication; that the principle of the legislation of 1850 was repugnant to that of the Missouri Compromise and hence repealed it.
Chase at once replied briefly to the fiery attack, and on February 3d delivered an elaborate speech against the bill, which Douglas recognized as the strongest of the session. As a legal argument it was a complete and crushing answer to the quibbling sophistry of the advocates of implied repeal. But it was not merely the argument of a great lawyer. It was the earnest remonstrance of a moralist who believed in the eternal and immeasurable difference between right and wrong.
He reminded them that the Missouri Compromise was a Southern measure, approved by a Southern President, on the advice of a Southern Cabinet. While in form a law, it had all the moral obligation of a solemn contract. The considerations for the perpetual exclusion of slavery in the Territories north of 36 degrees and 30 minutes were the admission of Missouri with slavery, the permission of slavery in the Territories south of 36 degrees and 30 minutes, and the admission of new States south of that line with slavery if their constitution should so provide. The North had honorably performed its contract by the admission of Missouri and prompt consent to the admission of all other slave States that had sought it. The South had yielded nothing to the North under the contract, except the admission of Iowa and the organization of Minnesota. The slave States, having received all the contemplated benefits under the contract and yielded none, proposed to declare it ended without the consent of the free States. He closed with an appeal to the honor of the South, earnestly imploring the Senators to reject the bill as a violation of the plighted faith and solemn compact which their fathers had made and which they were bound by every sacred obligation faithfully to maintain.
Seward, speaking on the 17th cautioned them that the repeal of the Compromise would be the destruction of the equilibrium between the North and the South so long maintained, the loss of which would be the wreck of the Union. He warned the North that if this territory was surrendered to slavery the South would be vested with permanent control of the Government; for every branch of it would be securely within its power. Already it had absolute sway. One slave-holder in a new Territory, with access to the Executive ear at Washington, exercised more political influence than five hundred free men. The recital of an old repeal was made for the demagogic purpose of confusing the people, but was false in fact and false in law. The Missouri Compromise was a purely local act. That of 1850 was likewise local. They affected entirely different localities. Hence the later law could not by implication repeal the former. It was an ingenious device to attain the desired end by declaring that done by a former Congress which no one then thought of doing, and which the present Congress dared not boldly do. The doctrine of popular sovereignty meant that the Federal Government should abandon its constitutional duty and abdicate its power over he Territory in favor of the first band of squatters who settled within it. It meant that the interested cupidity of the first chance settlers was more fit to guide the destinies of the infant Territory than the collective wisdom of the American people.
Sumner, speaking a week later, declared that they were about to determine forever the character of a new empire. An effort was made on false assumptions of fact, in violation of solemn covenants and the principles of the fathers, to open this immense region to slavery. The measures of 1850 could not by any effort of interpretation, by any wand of power, by an perverse alchemy, be transmuted into a repeal of that prohibition of slavery. The pending proposition was to abolish freedom. When the conscience of mankind was at last aroused, they were about to open a new market to the traffickers in flesh who haunted the shambles of the South. They had as much right to repudiate the purchase of Louisiana as this compact. Despite the temporary success of their political maneuvers, let them not forget that the permanent and irresistible forces were all arrayed against them. The plough, the steam engine, the railroad, the telegraph, the book, were all waging war on slavery. Its opponents could bide the storm of vituperation and calmly await the judgment of the future.
There was at no time the slightest doubt that the bill would pass, and the arguments against it were in the nature of protests against a wrong that could not be averted and appeals to the future to redress it.
From the beginning it had a well organized majority. But, assailed by the invectives of Chase, Seward and Sumner, it could not stand before the world undefended. There was but one man enlisted in its support at all fit to measure swords with any of these great leaders; but he was undoubtedly more than a match for them all.
At midnight on March 3rd Douglas rose to close the debate. The great arguments were delivered; a safe majority was assured. While numerous Senators still wanted to be heard in support of the bill, all conceded his right to close and yielded him the floor. The scenes of that wild night, while he charged upon his foes and stood for hours at bay like a gladiator, repelling their savage assaults, are among the most memorable in our congressional history.
He laughed at the charge that his bill had reopened the slavery question against the will of both political parties, as expressed in their platforms, and had disturbed the country at a time of profound tranquility. These men, he declared, who where singing paeans of praise over the legislation of 1850, were the same men who had most bitterly opposed it and predicted dire results from it, just as they were prophesying evil from the pending measure which simply carried to its legitimate conclusion the beneficent principle of the former law. The substance of all the opposition speeches was contained in their manifesto published in January. Chase in his speech had exhausted the entire argument. The others merely followed in his tracks.
"You have seen them," he said, "on their winding way, meandering the narrow and crooked path in Indian file, each treading close upon the heels of the other, and neither venturing to take a step to the right or left or to occupy one inch of ground which did not bear the footprint of the Abolition champion."
The repeal of the Compromise was a mere incident of the bill. He quoted his speeches in 1850 to show that he then defended the popular sovereignty principle, also resolutions of the Illinois legislature approving it. The Committee assumed in reporting the original bill that the law of 1850 had repealed the Missouri Compromise and hence did not mention it. Finding a diversity of opinion and desiring to clear the ground for the unobstructed operation of the principles of 1850 in all the Territories, they had expressly recited the repeal. Did not the bill as originally reported repeal the Missouri Compromise as effectually as the amended bill did? If so, why this clamor about the amendment? They denounced the original bill in their manifesto as a repeal of the Missouri Compromise. If they told the truth in their manifesto their speeches denouncing the amendment were false. If their speeches were true their manifesto was false. The Missouri Compromise was not a compact at all. It was simply a piece of ordinary legislation, passed like other bills, by means of compromise and concession. The statement that the North had faithfully performed all the terms of he alleged contract and, hence, the South was estopped from repudiating it, was not supported by the evidence. The North had broken it immediately by resisting the admission of Missouri with slavery. A resolution of the New York legislature had been passed a few months after the Compromise instructing their Senators and Representatives to oppose the admission of Missouri or any other State unless its Constitution prohibited slavery. Objection being made to the slavery clause of the Constitution, Missouri had not been admitted until 1821. The North having broken its alleged contract, had relieved the South from all obligation under it, if such obligation ever existed. All this moral indignation had been stirred up over the repeal of an ordinary law. By their manifesto and speeches the anti-slavery Senators had roused the people to rage in their States. The citizens of Ohio had burned him in effigy. He could be found hanging by the neck in all the towns in which they had influence.
Chase protested his sorrow that the people of Ohio had offered this insult. Douglas angrily reminded him of the vituperative epithets contained in the manifesto, which evidently wounded him more deeply than the coarser indignities. He drew Seward and Chase into debate on the literal correctness of details of their arguments, as to which he had the better of them, having fortified himself with voluminous documents, and elaborately proved the inaccuracy of their statements, and elaborately proved the inaccuracy of their statements, which gave him a brilliant opportunity to indulge in a burst of indignation and in his wrath at the errors of his adversaries' neglect, the awkward moral question which, was the core of the controversy. He intimated that Chase and Sumner had obtained their seats in the Senate by questionable compromises. Chase hotly branded the statement as false. Sumner contemptuously denied that he had even sought the position, much less bargained for it. The speech was closed with an earnest appeal to the Senators to banish the subject of slavery forever and refer it to the people to decide for themselves as they did other questions, with assurance that this would result in a satisfactory settlement of the vexed problem and bring abiding peace to all. As the day was dawning he closed.
With difficulty the presiding officer had repressed the bursts of applause in the crowded galleries. Even Seward, moved to admiration by the overwhelming power and marvelous skill of his adversary, impulsively cried out, "I never had so much respect for him as I have to-night."
Amid the solemn hush of anxious expectancy the crowd awaited the calling of the roll. While no one doubted the result, all listened in breathless silence to the voting of the Senators as though it were the voice of doom. Fourteen voted no, and were thirty-seven voted yes. The Senate adjourned amid the loud booming of cannon at the Navy Yard, which celebrated the great victory. In the chill gray dawn, as they stood on the steps of the Capitol and listened to the exultant booming of cannon, Chase said to Sumner:
"They celebrate a present victory, but the echoes they awake will never rest until slavery itself shall die."
The bill now went to the House, where its management was entrusted to Douglas' lieutenant, Richardson, chairman of the Territorial Committee. But the country was aroused. The loud storm appalled the Northern Members, whose votes were needed. Pierce hesitated until goaded on by his Southern counselors. The attempt to refer the bill to the Territorial Committee failed. It was referred to the Committee of the Whole and went to the foot of a long calendar. This alarmed Douglas, who now spent most of his time in the House assisting Richardson. The Administration brought all of its power to bear on the refractory Members, and on the 8th of May the forces were ready for the attack. The House resolved itself into a Committee of the Whole, laid aside all previous business and proceeded to the consideration of the bill. The struggle at once began between the domineering majority and the rebellious minority and continued with increasing bitterness all day, all night and until midnight of the 9th, when the session broke up in angry riot, the enraged members leaping on their desks and shrieking in frenzy or striving to assault each other with deadly weapons.