The Historical Text Archive: Electronic History Resources, online since 1990 Bringing you digitized history, primary and secondary sources
HTA Home Page | E-books | United States/Civil War | The Crisis

4: The Crisis

<< 3: The Politicians and the New Day || 5: Secession >>

The Southern moderates in 1859 form one of those political groups, numerous enough in history, who at a crisis arrest our imagination because of the irony of their situation. Unsuspecting, these men went their way, during the last summer of the old regime, busy with the ordinary affairs of state, absorbed in their opposition to the Southern radicals, never dreaming of the doom that was secretly moving toward them through the plans of John Brown. In the soft brilliancy of the Southern summer when the roses were in bloom, many grave gentlemen walked slowly up and down together under the oaks of their plantation avenues, in the grateful dusk, talking eagerly of how the scales trembled in Southern politics between Toombs and Yancey, and questioning whether the extremists could ride down the moderate South and reopen the slave trade. In all their wondering whether Douglas would ever come back to them or would prove the blind Samson pulling down their temple about their ears, there was never a word about the approaching shadow which was so much more real than the shades of the falling night, and yet so entirely shut away from their observation.

In this summer, Stephens withdrew as he thought from public life. With an intensely sensitive nature, he had at times flashes of strange feeling which an unsophisticated society would regard as prophetic inspirations. When he left Washington "on the beautiful morning of the 5th of March, 1859, he stood at the stern of the boat for some minutes gazing back at the capital." He had announced his intention of not standing again as a Representative, and one of his fellow-passengers asked jokingly whether he was thinking of his return as a Senator. Stephen's reply was full of emotion, "No, I never expect to see Washington again unless I am brought here as a prisoner of war." During the summer he endeavored to cast off his intuition of approaching disaster. At his plantation, "Liberty Hall," he endeavored to be content with the innumerable objects associated with his youth; he tried to feel again the grace of the days that were gone, the mysterious loveliness of the Southern landscape with its immense fields, its forests, its great empty spaces filled with glowing sunshine. He tried to possess his troubled soul with the severe intellectual ardor of the law. But his gift of second sight would not rest. He could not overcome his intuition that, for all the peace and dreaminess of the outward world, destiny was upon him. Looking out from his spiritual seclusion, he beheld what seemed to him complete political confusion, both local and national. His despairing mood found expression a little later in the words: "Indeed if we were now to have a Southern convention to determine upon the true policy of the South either in the Union or out of it, I should expect to see just as much profitless discussion, disagreement, crimination, and recrimination amongst the members of it from different states and from the same state, as we witness in the present House of Representatives between Democrats, Republicans, and Americans."

Among the sources of confusion Stephens saw, close at home, was the Southern battle over the reopening of the slave trade. The reality of that issue had been made plain in May, 1859, when the Southern commercial congress at Vicksburg entertained at the same time two resolutions: one, that the convention should urge all Southern States to amend their constitutions by a clause prohibiting the increase of African slavery; the other, that the convention urge all the Legislatures of Southern States to present memorials to Congress asking the repeal of the law against African slave trade. Of these opposed resolutions, the latter was adopted on the last day of the convention*, though the moderates fought hard against it.

*It is significant that the composition of these Southern commercial congresses and the Congress of the whole Southern people was strikingly different in personnel. Very few members of the commercial congresses reappear in the Confederate Congress.

The split between Southern moderates and Southern radicals was further indicated by their differing attitudes toward the adventurers from the United States in Central America. The Vicksburg Convention adopted resolutions which were thinly veiled endorsements of southward expansion. In the early autumn another Nicaraguan expedition was nipped in the bud by the vigilance of American naval forces. Cobb, prime factor in the group of Southern moderates as well as Secretary of the Treasury, wrote to Buchanan expressing his satisfaction at the event, mentioning the work of his own department in bringing it about, and also alluding to his arrangments to prevent slave trading off the Florida coast.

But the spirit of doubt was strong even among the moderates. Douglas was the target. Stephens gives a glimpse of it in a letter written during his last session in Congress. "Cobb called on me Saturday night," he writes. "He is exceedingly bitter against Douglas. I joked him a good deal, and told him he had better not fight, or he would certainly be whipped; that is, in driving Douglas out of the Democratic party. He said that if Douglas ever was restored to the confidence of the Democracy of Georgia, it would be over his dead body politically. This shows his excitement, that is all. I laughed at him, and told him he would run his feelings and his policy into the ground." The anger of Cobb, who was himself a confessed candidate for the Democratic nomination, was imperiling the Democratic national machine which Toombs was still struggling so resolutely to hold together. Indeed, as late as the autumn of 1859 the machine still held together.

Then came the man of destiny, the bolt from the blue, the end of the Chapter. A marvelous fanatic—a sort of reincarnation of the grimmest of the Covenanters—by one daring act shattered the machine and made impossible any further coalition on the principle of "nothing doing." This man of destiny was John Brown, whose attack on Harper's Ferry took place October 16th, and whose execution by the authorities of Virginia on the charges of murder and treason occurred on the 2nd of December.

The incident filled the South with consternation. The prompt condemnation of it by many Republican leaders did not offset, in the minds of Southerners, the fury of praise accorded by others. The South had a ghastly tradition derived chiefly from what is known as Nat Turner's Rebellion in Virginia, a tradition of the massacre of white women and children by negroes. As Brown had set opt to rouse a slave rebellion, every Southerner familiar with his own traditions shuddered, identifying in imagination John Brown and Nat Turner. Horror became rage when the Southerners heard of enthusiastic applause in Boston and of Emerson's description of Brown as "that new saint" who was to "make the gallows glorious like the cross." In the excitement produced by remarks such as this, justice was not done to Lincoln's censure. In his speech at Cooper Institute in New York, in February, 1860, Lincoln had said: "John Brown's its philosophy corresponds with the many attempts related in history at the assassination of kings and emperors. An enthusiast broods over the oppression of a people, until he fancies himself commissioned by Heaven to liberate them. He ventures the attempt which ends in little else than in his own execution." A few months afterwards, the Republican national convention condemned the act of Brown as "among the gravest of crimes."

An immediate effect of the John Brown episode was a passionate outburst from all the radical press of the South in defense of slavery. The followers of Yancey made the most of their opportunity. The men who voted at Vicksburg to reopen the slave trade could find no words to measure their hatred of every one who, at this moment of crisis, would not declare slavery a blessing. Many of the men who opposed the slave traders also felt that, in the face of possible slave insurrection, the peril of their families was the one paramount consideration. Nevertheless, it is easy for the special pleader to give a wrong impression of the sentiment of the time. A grim desire for self-preservation took possession of the South, as well as a deadly fear of any person or any thing that tended directly or indirectly to incite the blacks to insurrection. Northerners of abolitionist sympathies were warned to leave the country, and in some cases they were tarred and feathered.

Great anger was aroused by the detection of book-agents who were distributing a furious polemic against slavery, "The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It", by Hinton Rowan Helper, a Southerner of inferior social position belonging to the class known as poor whites. The book teemed with such sentences as this, addressing slaveholders: "Do you aspire to become victims of white non-slave-holding vengeance by day and of barbarous massacres by the negroes at night?" It is scarcely strange, therefore, that in 1859 no Southerner would hear a good word of anyone caught distributing the book. And yet, in the midst of all this vehement exaltation of slavery, the fight to prevent a reopening of the slave trade went bravely on. Stephens, writing to a friend who was correspondent for the "Southern Confederacy", in Atlanta, warned him in April, 1860, "neither to advocate disunion or the opening of the slave trade. The people here at present I believe are as much opposed to it as they are at the North; and I believe the Northern people could be induced to open it sooner than the Southern people."

The winter of 1859-1860 witnessed a famous congressional battle over the speakership. The new Congress which met in December contained 109 Republicans, 101 Democrats, and 27 Know-Nothings. The Republican candidate for speaker was John Sherman of Ohio. As the first ballot showed that he could not command a majority, a Democrat from Missouri introduced this resolution "Whereas certain members of this House, now in nomination for speaker, did endorse the book hereinafter mentioned, resolved, That the doctrines and sentiments of a certain book, called 'The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It', are insurrectionary and hostile to the peace and tranquillity of the country, and that no member of this House, who has indorsed or recommended it, is fit to be speaker of the House."

During two months there were strange scenes in the House, while the clerk acted as temporary speaker and furious diatribes were thundered back and forth across the aisle that separated Republicans from Democrats, with a passage of fisticuffs or even a drawn pistol to add variety to the scene. The end of it all was a deal. Pennington, of the "People's Party" of New Jersey, who had supported Sherman but had not endorsed Helper, was given the Republican support; a Know-Nothing was made sergeant-at-arms; and Know-Nothing votes added to the Republican votes made Pennington speaker. In many Northern cities the news of his election was greeted with the great salute of a hundred guns, but at Richmond the papers came out in mourning type.

Two great figures now advanced to the center of the Congressional stage—Jefferson Davis, Senator from Mississippi, a lean eagle of a man with piercing blue eyes, and Judah P. Benjamin, Senator from Louisiana, whose perpetual smile cloaked an intellect that was nimble, keen, and ruthless. Both men were destined to play leading roles in the lofty drama of revolution; each was to experience a tragic ending of his political hope, one in exile, the other in a solitary proscription amid the ruins of the society for which he had sacrified his all. These men, though often spoken of as mere mouthpieces of Yancey, were in reality quite different from him both in temper and in point of view.

Davis, who was destined eventually to become the target of Yancey's bitterest enmity, had refused ten years before to join in the secession movement which ignored Calhoun's doctrine that the South had become a social unit. Though a believer in slavery under the conditions of the moment, Davis had none of the passion of the slave baron for slavery at all costs. Furthermore, as events were destined to show in a startlingly dramatic way, he was careless of South Carolina's passion for state rights. He was a practical politician, but not at all the old type of the party of political evasion, the type of Toombs. No other man of the moment was on the whole so well able to combine the elements of Southern politics against those more negative elements of which Toombs was the symbol. The history of the Confederacy shows that the combination which Davis now effected was not as thorough as he supposed it was. But at the moment he appeared to succeed and seemed to give common purpose to the vast majority of the Southern people. With his ally Benjamin, he struck at the Toombs policy of a National Democratic party.

On the day following the election of Pennington, Davis introduced in the Senate a series of resolutions which were to serve as the Southern ultimatum, and which demanded of Congress the protection of slavery against territorial legislatures. This was but carrying to its logical conclusion that Dred Scott decision which Douglas and his followers proposed to accept. If Congress could not restrict slavery in the territories, how could its creature, a territorial legislature do so? And yet the Douglas men attempted to take away the power from Congress and to retain it for the territorial legislatures. Senator Pugh of Ohio had already locked horns with Davis on this point, and had attempted to show that a territorial Legislature was independent of Congress. "Then I would ask the Senator further," retorted the logical Davis, "why it is he makes an appropriation to pay members of the territorial legislature; how it is that he invests the Governor with veto power over their acts; and how it is that he appoints judges to decide upon the validity of their acts."

In the Democratic convention which met at Charleston in April, 1860, the waning power of political evasion made its last real stand against the rising power of political positivism. To accept Douglas and the idea that somehow territorial legislatures were free to do what Congress could not do, or to reject Douglas and endorse Davis's ultimatum—that in substance was the issue. "In this convention where there should be confidence and harmony," said the "Charleston Mercury", "it is plain that men feel as if they were going into a battle." In the committee on resolutions where the States were equally represented, the majority were anti-Douglas; they submitted a report affirming Davis's position that territorial legislatures had no right to prohibit slavery and that the Federal Government should protect slavery against them. The minority refused to go further than an approval of the Dred Scott case and a pledge to abide by all future decisions of the Supreme Court. After both reports had been submitted, there followed the central event of the convention—the now famous speech by Yancey which repudiated political evasion from top to bottom, frankly defended slavery, and demanded either complete guarantees for its continued existence or, as an alternative, Southern independence. Pugh instantly replied and summed up Yancey's speech as a demand upon Northern Democrats to say that slavery was right, and that it was their duty not only to let slavery alone but to aid in extending it. "Gentlemen of the South," he exclaimed, "you mistake us—you mistake us—we will not do it."

In the full convention, where the representation of the States was not equal, the Douglas men, after hot debate, forced the adoption of the minority report. Thereupon the Alabama delegation protested and formally withdrew from the convention, and other delegations followed. There was wild excitement in Charleston, where that evening in the streets Yancey addressed crowds that cheered for a Southern republic. The remaining history of the Democratic nominations is a matter of detail. The Charleston convention adjourned without making nominations. Each of its fragments reorganized as a separate convention, and ultimately two Democratic tickets were put into the field, with Breckinridge of Kentucky as the candidate on the Yancey ticket and Douglas on the other.

While the Democrats were thus making history through their fateful break-up into separate parties, a considerable number of the so-called best people of the country determined that they had nowhere politically to lay their heads. A few of the old Whigs were still unable to consort either with Republicans or with Democrats, old or new. The Know-Nothings, likewise, though their number had been steadily melting away, had not entirely disappeared. To unite these political remnants in any definite political whole seemed beyond human ingenuity. A common sentiment, however, they did have—a real love of the Union and a real unhappiness, because its existence appeared to be threatened. The outcome was that they organized the Constitutional Union Party, nominating for President John Bell of Tennessee, and for Vice President Edward Everett of Massachusetts. Their platform was little more than a profession of love of the Union and a condemnation of sectional selfishness.

This Bell and Everett ticket has a deeper significance than has generally been admitted. It reveals the fact that the sentiment of Union, in distinction from the belief in the Union, had become a real force in American life. There could be no clearer testimony to the strength of this feeling than this spectacle of a great congregation of moderate people, unable to agree upon anything except this sentiment, stepping between the sectional parties like a resolute wayfarer going forward into darkness along a perilous strand between two raging seas. That this feeling of Union was the same thing as the eager determination of the Republicans, in 1860, to control the Government is one of those historical fallacies that have had their day. The Republican party became, in time and under stress of war, the refuge of this sentiment and proved sufficiently far-sighted to merge its identity temporarily in the composite Union party of 1864. But in 1860 it was still a sectional party. Among its leaders Lincoln was perhaps the only Unionist in the same sense as Bell and Everett.

Perhaps the truest Unionists of the North, outside the Constitutional Union Party, in 1860, were those Democrats in the following of Douglas who, after fighting to the last ditch against both the sectional parties, were to accept, in 1861, the alternative of war rather than dissolution. The course of Douglas himself, as we shall see hereafter, showed that in his mind there was a fixed limit of concession beyond which he could not go. When circumstances forced him to that limit, the sentiment of Union took control of him, swept aside his political jugglery, abolished his time-serving, and drove him into cooperation with his bitterest foes that the Union might be saved. Nor was the pure sentiment of Union confined to the North and West. Though undoubtedly the sentiment of locality was more powerful through the South, yet when the test came in the election of 1860, the leading candidate of the upper South, in Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, was John Bell, the Constitutional Unionist. In every Southern State this sentiment was able to command a considerable part of the vote.*

*A possible exception was South Carolina. As the presidential electors were appointed by the legislature, there is no certain record of minority sentiment.

Widely different in temper were those stern and resolute men whose organization, in perfect fighting trim, faced eagerly the divided Democrats. The Republicans had no division among themselves upon doctrine. Such division as existed was due to the ordinary rivalry of political leaders. In the opinion of all his enemies and of most Americans, Seward was the Republican man of the hour. During much of 1859 he had discreetly withdrawn from the country and had left to his partisans the conduct of his campaign, which seems to have been going well when he returned in the midst of the turmoil following the death of John Brown. Nevertheless he was disturbed over his prospects, for he found that in many minds, both North and South, he was looked upon as the ultimate cause of all the turmoil. His famous speech on the "irrepressible conflict" was everywhere quoted as an exultant prophecy of these terrible latter days.

It was long the custom to deny to Seward any good motive in a speech which he now delivered, just as it was to deny Webster any good motive for his famous 7th of March speech. But such criticism is now less frequent than it used to be. Both men were seeking the Presidency; both, we may fairly believe, were shocked by the turmoil of political currents; each tried oiling the waters, and in the attempt each ruined his candidacy. Seward's speech in condemnation of John Brown in February, 1860, was an appeal to the conservative North against the radical North, and to many of his followers it seemed a change of front. It certainly gained him no new friends and it lost him some old ones, so that his star as a presidential candidate began its decline.

The first ballot in the Republican convention surprised the country. Of the votes, 233 were necessary for a choice. Seward had only 173 1/2. Next to him, with 102 votes, stood none of the leading candidates, but the comparatively obscure Lincoln. A gap of more than 50 votes separated Lincoln from Cameron, Chase, and Bates. On the second ballot Seward gained 11 votes, while Lincoln gained 79. The enemies of Seward, finding it impossible to combine on any of the conspicuous candidates, were moving toward Lincoln, the man with fewest enemies. The third ballot gave Lincoln the nomination.

We have seen that one of the basal questions of the time was which new political group should absorb the Whig remainder. The Constitutional Union party aimed to accomplish this. The Republicans sought to out-maneuver them. They made their platform as temperate as they could and yet consistent with the maintenance of their opposition to Douglas and popular sovereignty; and they went no further in their anti-slavery demands than that the territories should be preserved for free labor.

Another basal question had been considered in the Republican platform. Where would Northern capital stand in the reorganization of parties? Was capital, like men, to become frankly sectional or would it remain impersonal, careless how nations rose or fell, so long as dividends continued? To some extent capital had given an answer. When, in the excitement following the John Brown incident, a Southern newspaper published a white list of New York merchants whose political views should commend them to Southerners, and a black list of those who were objectionable, many New Yorkers sought a place in the white list. Northern capital had done its part in financing the revived slave trade. August Belmont, the New York representative of the Rothschilds, was one of the close allies of Davis, Yancey, and Benjamin in their war upon Douglas. In a word, a great portion of Northern capital had its heart where its investments were—in the South. But there was other capital which obeyed the same law, and which had investments in the North; and with this capital the Republicans had been trafficking. They had succeeded in winning over the powerful manufacturing interests of Pennsylvania, the pivotal State that had elected Buchanan in 1856.

The steps by which the new party of enthusiasm made its deal with the body of capital which was not at one with Belmont and the Democrats are not essential to the present narrative. Two facts suffice. In 1857 a great collapse in American business—"the panic of fifty-seven"—led the commercial world to turn to the party in power for some scheme of redress. But their very principles, among which was non-intervention in business, made the Democrats feeble doctors for such a need, and they evaded the situation. The Republicans, with their insistence on positivism in government, had therefore an opportunity to make a new application of the doctrine of governmental aid to business. In the spring of 1860, the Republican House of Representatives passed the Morrill tariff bill, consideration of which was postponed by the Democratic Senate. But it served its purpose: it was a Republican manifesto. The Republicans felt that this bill, together with their party platform, gave the necessary guarantee to the Pennsylvania manufacturers, and they therefore entered the campaign confident they would carry Pennsylvania nor was their confidence misplaced.

The campaign was characterized by three things: by an ominous quiet coupled with great intensity of feeling; by the organization of huge party societies in military form—"Wide-awakes" for Lincoln, numbering 400,000, and "Minute Men" for Breckenridge, with a membership chiefly Southern; and by the perfect frankness, in all parts of the South, of threats of secession in case the Republicans won.

In none of the States which eventually seceded were any votes cast for Lincoln, with the exception of a small number in Virginia. In almost all the other Southern States and in the slave-holding border States, all the other candidates made respectable showings. In Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky, Bell led. But everywhere else in the other slave-holding States Breckinridge led, excepting in Missouri where Douglas won by a few hundred. Every free State except New Jersey went for Lincoln. And yet he did not have a majority of the popular vote, which stood: Lincoln, 1,866,459; Douglas, 1,376,957; Breckinridge, 849,781; Bell, 588,8791. The majority against Lincoln was nearly a million. The distribution of the votes was such that Lincoln had in the Electoral College, 180 electors; Breckinridge, 72; Bell, 39; Douglas, 12. In neither House of Congress did the Republicans have a majority.

1The figures of the popular vote are variously given by different compilers. These are taken from Stanwood, A History of the Presidency.

<< 3: The Politicians and the New Day || 5: Secession >>