THE HISTORY
OF THE
UNITED STATES

FROM 1492 TO 1920

BY JULIAN HAWTHORNE

P F COLLIER & SONS COMPANY, NEW YORK 1920

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CHAPTER  XXX
THE LAST OF THE WHIGS (Part 1)

 

 AS THE time of which we write draws nearer to the present, the difficulty of comprehending the meaning of events increases; we see wrongs, and marvel why they were permitted, and how they- shall be made right; for we must believe in the good purpose of. an almighty God, or else history becomes a meaningless juggle of accidents, which it would be worth no man's while to recount or disentangle. But the wrong of slavery has now passed away from us, and the steps which led- to its passing are known, if not always in their innermost secrets, yet broadly enough to enable us to draw inferences and deductions. We call begin at least to understand how events were overruled for our ultimate benefit; though doubtless the great' account is not yet fully settled; there are other kinds of slavery than that of the negro, and this country is not yet free. During the struggle between North and South before the outbreak of actual war many of the greatest minds that America has produced were bent upon the problem of the slave; and some of them lost their bearings entirely; some chose the wrong deliberately in preference to the good; some doubted and hesitated, wishing to, do right, but fearing to admit to themselves what the right truly was, until the golden moment for them was forever gone; and some few saw the right and clave to it through good and evil report, and will not fail of their meed of honor, when all is done, and men are weighed as to their motives and their acts.

That human slavery was an evil there are none now to deny; not because those who were moved to support it by the sword were conquered in the battle: for conquest does not prove right: but because, now that the burden has fallen from us,. we discover that it was never necessary to our best development, and that though, for a time, it seemed as if much of our material prosperity was to be ascribed to it, we have learned that without it we should have been a better and happier people, and that wealth also would not have been denied us, though it came through other channels. Slave labor was never a necessity to the prosperity of this Union; and that it was a detriment on other grounds is clear. But it had come upon us without our consent, and, once established, there were many practical obstacles to getting rid of it. At first all parties had loyally wished to accomplish emancipation; but gradually, as slavery bred a race of slave holders, different in training and ideas from the rest of their countrymen, these came to approve the institution for itself; they defended it, and the moral outcry against it of the rest of civilization only confirmed them in their defiant attitude. They even declared it to be a holy institution; it became almost .a point of religion with them, as well as of honor, to uphold it. Southern honor was a local phenomenon; it was, 'indeed, derived from medieval sources, and was an anachronism in the Nineteenth Century; but it existed in the South because there men had become used to holding opinions as they held a wife, and allowing no question thereupon. A Southerner's opinion, his word, his institution, all. were sacred; he would not argue about them, or if he did it was with no intention of admitting arguments on the other side. Calhoun argued in behalf of slavery; but he did not the less adhere to his conclusions after they had been shown, as they often were, to be untenable. An argument- a syllogism - is something to fight with, even though it be, unsound; and in any argument it will generally happen that nine-tenths of the words spoken are vain words, having no true relevance to the matter in hand, and serving only to make the outward show of resistance. Southerners, then, had deliberately shut the avenues of the mind through which they might be approached on the subject of the abstract right or wrong of slavery; and in Congress, as we have seen, they so far imposed their will that for many years the subject was taboo, and to refer to it was to risk a quarrel.

To this the North, or a major part of it, submitted; they were resigned to letting slavery continue to exist where it had always been-; and with this concession the only opening for quarrel was when a slave escaped into a free State, and, according to the law of the land relating to property, must be given back to the owner upon demand. Such a law was odious to the North, not because negroes were property, but because they were human beings. But, save in sporadic instances, the odious law was obeyed, because it was the law; and the way to protest against it was not to break it, but to obtain its repeal. The Abolitionists would break the law, and sever the Union; but that was to cure one wrong by another; and their course was wrong, because other means had not been exhausted. When the time came that a majority of the people wished slavery to cease, it would cease, though the will of the majority were enforced by the sword; but until it was the will of the majority, nothing but agitation within lawful and constitutional limits was justifiable. Let the Abolitionists hold up the torch of truth before the people and bid them bow to it; but. let them not use it to set fire to the foundations of the State.

The Southerners, however, would not let the matter rest here, where it might have rested indefinitely. And we may note that all evil is like a fire, which must be extinguished, or it will extend its bounds; it cannot be shut up in a given compass and there be content. The evil of slavery could not rest within its historic limits, but must needs come forth and spread over the whole continent. The general pretext given was that unless the equilibrium of free and slave States was preserved the free would obtain preponderance, and would use it to destroy the institution on its own ground. Slavery must spread, on pain of being altogether extirpated. This was the Southern plea, and it was not without plausibility. Yet it is probable that the North would never have interfered with the slave States; they had their own affairs to attend to, and were willing to let the South attend to hers-if only she would. It would presently have become obvious, too, that the slave States, occupying a limited area, would gladly have declined and expired of internal disease, if not by the revolt of their human cattle,as in San Domingo. If they would have agreed to keep themselves to themselves, the North need have done nothing more than leave them thus isolated, and the end would have been a question of time only. But to this the South would not agree; and indeed it would have been a practical impossibility under the geographical and political conditions of the Republic.

The South, then, must extend the area of slavery and how should it be done? Clay had said, Let it be done by drawing an east and west line, and assigning all south thereof to slavery, the northern division to freedom. This compromise served until the movement of emigration to the Far West and the Mexican War raised the question whether the east and west line should be continued across the continent to the Pacific. The Southerners assumed that it should, as a matter of right; but the North demurred. But the South had here the stronger logical position. What right had the North to limit the extension of that east and west line? If they allowed it to rule to the Mississippi, why ought it not to rule to the Pacific? In this was the mischief of the Missouri Compromise, as of any compromise between right and wrong, apparent. The North had forfeited the privilege of logical consistency.

Of course the true answer was that consistency itself is sometimes the worst of evils. But many of the North did not declare this; and they were at this disadvantage with the South, that whereas the latter had in slavery a positive point to urge and to fight for, the North had only an abstract and practically a negative one-that slavery ought not to extend. It was too late for them to assert that a country originally free ought never to become the seat of slaveholding; they should have made that objection at the time the Compromise was first urged. And the majority of them feared to be inconsistent; and they also feared the Constitution; and they also feared to shoulder the responsibility of severing the Union, which, in case they took the opposite course, the South threatened. For a threat it was, though disguised as an inevitable necessity. In short, the North hesitated and was weak.

The other contention of the South-that any slaveholder had the right to take his slaves with him and settle in any Northern State-though it was not carried out, was not relinquished, but was held in terrorem. It was useful as indicating how moderate, after all, was the Southern attitude-how much more troublesome they might be if they chose; and it lentcolor to their assertion that it was the North who was the aggressor. Upon the whole, therefore, it seemed, at the end of the Mexican War, as if the whole Southwest was dedicated to slavery, and no help for it. Rather than break the Union, let it go at that!

But in the midst of these very human squabbles, through which no way appeared to peace with honor, there occurred one of those events which are termed, by way of distinction, Providential; because the hand of God is manifest in them, instead of being hidden as usual. Far on the west of the continent, its fertile hills and valleys spreading broad between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific, and extending far to the north and south of the Missouri Compromise line, lay the mighty and as yet scarce known domain of California. Under ordinary circumstances it would have taken a generation at least to settle this territory; and in the ordinary course it would have been divided, at best, between slavery and freedom. But at this moment a New Jersey man who was digging the channel of a mill race for a sawmill, happened to notice, in the gravel washed down by the stream, some grains of a yellow substance, heavy and metallic; which he picked up, tested, and found to be pure gold. Those grains had lurked there since the beginning of things, waiting the time to appear, and change the course of human history. One might moralize over the fact that mortal greed should be the means of preventing a great socialcatastrophe; but such speculations are vain because the arc we can survey is so small compared with the whole sweep of the Divine round. Men are governed by their passions; a low age by low stimuli, a, higher by lofty ones. In 1849 the passion for gold, and what gold means, was sufficient to cause a shifting of the population, hitherto without parallel for its rapidity and extent.. A half-built mill became a great city; a town of two thousand inhabitants became a city of twenty thousand; and all within a year. Loose atoms of humanity from every country of the earth gathered in California during little more than the lapse of a summer vacation, and those vast solitudes suddenly became peopled with the tumultuous and lawless crowd of gold seekers. Lawless they were at first, for there was none to enforce law; and the visions and the reality of sudden and great wealth dazzled out of view all other considerations. Here was a splendid wilderness, a nearly perfect climate, no conventions, no traditions, no restraints, no women at the outset, and when women came, they were generally but another lure to disorder. Many of these gold seekers were men-of no education, of no moral perceptions, wholly unused to the idea of riches; and when such men became rich by the stroke of a pick, they knew not what to do with wealth, and in their ignorance they used it only to minister to their physical lusts. At the end of each week, at the end of each day, they were ready to spend in drunkenness and gambling what they had found; if they lost what they had gained, they had but to dig up enough to replace it; if they won, there must be more debauch. The only safeguard, 'for a while, against a-reign of universal confusion and mutual destruction was the seemingly inexhaustible amount of the treasure; it was believed that the whole extent of California was gold thinly veiled-by vegetation. Robbery was rare, and, when discovered, was terribly punished; fights were common, but they were almost always the outcome of drink, and, if. they did not result fatally, were forgotten the next day. The common causes of enmity between man and man were here absent; there was enough for all so far as gold was concerned; and there were no materials for social or political feuds. Yet such a good-humored and dissolute anarchy could not indefinitely continue; because, for one thing, the continuous rush of emigration would finally occasion personal collisions; and because a life without law is sooner or later self destructive. Even savages have their laws or their superstitions, the organization of which takes law's place. But an aggregation of savages who have become so by degradation can only issue in mutual annihilation.

This, however, was not to be the destiny of California; and the reason was that the majority of the gold seekers were Americans, or men of Anglo-Saxon lineage and instincts. That race cannot exist long without law; the sentiments of justice, equity, and order are in their marrow, and must manifest themselves. They do not need kings or prophets to rouse them from anarchy; they rally and marshal themselves by a spontaneous impulse, and therefore they are the inevitable rulers of the earth. Many of the new Californians were men of some education; and the majority were marked by that strength of character and depth of vitality which is essential to the successful pioneer or adventurer. These soon found one another out, and were united to one another by common thoughts and views. They became dominant over the chaotic mass; order cannot help dominating chaos, for it knows what it wants, and it always wants the same thing; whereas chaos knows and aims at nothing. In a surprisingly brief time therefore the Anglo-Saxon minority established laws and regulations in the midst of this roaring, seething, aimless multitude: such things might be done, such might not; this penalty waited upon this crime, that upon that. The Vigilance Committee took the place of Congress and President; the laws were liberal enough, but they were strict within their bounds. Men were hanged, flogged, or banished, as the case might be; there was no appeal, and the community perceived that the laws observed a rough impartiality, securing to each man his own, and permitting no infringements. And while the diggers thus protected themselves, the opportunity of profit which trade afforded caused an immense influx of dealers of all sorts; and trade is necessarily orderly. Houses took the place of tents; streets replaced wandering foot paths; fixed property asserted itself on all sides, and was respected. There arose a pure democracy from the whirlpool of mobocracy; and it was rigid in spite of its breadth, because mobocracy was its twin sister and might else be mistaken for it. It was an American community, and of course it was free; there could be no foothold for human slavery among such men. There were among them many who had been Southern slaveholders; but they never ventured to air their opinions there,, far less to attempt to introduce their institutions. There would have been short shrift for them had they done so. Each man must work for himself, or go, or starve. The Missouri Compromise line would serve only to hang its advocate with in California.

This vital result could, so far as we can judge, have been attained in no other way, and at no other time. Had gold been discovered before the Mexican War and the cession of territory that involved, it is hardly possible that Americans would have gained control; England anti other nations would have seized what they could; conflicting claims would have stirred up wars, California would have become a shambles, and would have been lost , to freedom even had it not become wedded to slavery. Had gold been discovered later than it was, the Missouri line would probably have been drawn, with all that it implied. But as it was, gold saved California to America and to freedom in 1849; and incidentally it bred a race of men fitted by nature and temper to occupy that outpost of our nation, and make it rich and respected; for the solid residue of merit which stands after the flotsam and jetsam of weakness and disorder have been dispersed, comprises the very pith of mankind, which nothing can uproot. The Forty-Niners and their descendants came in good season to remind America what she contained of simple strength; and to renew on the Pacific the valiant traditions which had won the Atlantic coast from Europe.

The roads by which California could be reached were three; one across the breadth of the continent, with peril of wild beasts, wild men, and wild and desolate nature; another by sea to Panama and across and up the coast to San Francisco; the third, round Cape Horn. All these routes were thronged, and all of them had their varying adventures and vicissitudes; the overland was perhaps the most picturesque and striking, and the strain and suffering were the longest drawn out. But that story cannot be even outlined here; and it has been painted again and again in unforgettable colors by masters. Indeed, nothing in our history is stranger, more stirring, or better known than this so-called episode of the Argonauts. Bret Harte has told it all, perhaps with too bizarre a mingling of cynicism and optimism; but after making allowances his pictures will stand.

General Taylor, President of the United States, had the eye of a soldier for the significance of the Carriernia emigration and the sagacity of a statesman in dealing with it. He took immediate measures to assist in the formation of a stable government, and recommended that California be admitted as a State at the earliest moment. Though a Virginian and a slaveholder, he had no wish to see California ceded to slavery, and he knew that only violence could effect such a result. Let her come in on her own terms, said he; and he would have New Mexico also determine to which side she would adhere. This liberality offended the South and surprised them; they had not thought that a President of their own section, though a Whig, would thus oppose their policy; but they feared to denounce him, for his position, and the firmness which began to appear through his friendly straightforwardness, made him formidable. He was the President of the whole nation, not of any part of it only; and he did not fear the South, as many eminent Northerners did. When a delegation of Southern Whigs called on him to ask him to pledge himself to sign no bill with the Wilmot Proviso in it, he replied that any constitutional bill should have his signature. "If you send troops to coerce Texas, Southern officers will not obey your orders," they rejoined. This made the soldier indignant. "Then I will command the army in person," thundered he; "and if any man is taken in treason against the Union, I will hang him as I did the deserters and spies at Monterey." Plainly this law-abiding, impartial, fearless President was not to be led by the nose by anyone.

California had voted itself an antislave constitution; and with that constitution she should come in, if Taylor had his way. . Nothing did he say about the Wilmot Proviso in his recommendation; there was no need for it, and he would not tread on his Southern fellow countrymen's susceptibilities wantonly. But the mass of the Southerners were against California's admission as a free State; Quitman, a New Yorker who had become a slaveholder, was especially virulent against it; he wanted both New Mexico and California for slavery; and hinted at designs against Cuba and the country farther south that- shadowy southern empire which so many Southerners dreamed of at this time, after the secession which they contemplated should have been accomplished. The two causes began to count up their several champions in Congress, and to listen to what counsels they might give.

There was not much debating power of a high order in the House; but in the Senate there was more than enough. Besides the great discordant triumvirate of Webster, Clay and Calhoun, now making their last appearances in the arena, there were Seward, who was looming larger and clearer every day, Salmon P. Chase, Sam Houston of Texas, Benton, and Bell. Clay had meant to retire from Congress; he was overpersuaded to return; and though he came, as he thought, merely to look on, he remained to offer one more great compromise. He had his own ideas as to how the impending collision might be averted; it was, not the President's idea, for Clay would take suggestions from no one; and his divergence from Taylor divided the Whigs and prepared their defeat. He brought in his proposal a week. or so after the President's suggestions, and showed it previously to Webster, whose attitude was still in doubt. The plan, on the whole, greatly favored the South; but it contained measures intended to sweeten it to the Northern palate. California was to be admitted; but only on condition that she carried New Mexico and Utah on her back, and took her chances with them, which were not States but territories. The buying and selling of slaves in the District of Columbia was to be discontinued; but the' fugitive slave law was to be enforced strictly. Texas, which had made an untenable claim to a large part of the soil of New Mexico, was to be bought off on terms favorable to her. The Wilmot Proviso was ignored, and the option of slavery or freedom was to be given to States applying for admission. It was manifestly unjust that California, which stood alone, should be saddled with territories concerning whose status as regarded slavery nothing definite was promised. The right of Congress to decide such matters was abnegated. Both South and North had objections against the bill; and Jefferson Davis demanded that the slaveholders be permitted to bring their slaves into New Mexico without reference to legislation in that territory. The extension of the Compromise line was not demanded in Clay's bill; and this opened the whole question.

Forward to The Last of the Whigs Part 2

 

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