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 2)

 

 Three great speeches were made on the question, be sides that great one of Clay's in which he introduced his measure. Calhoun's was written out, and was delivered for him by Mason, Calhoun listening to its delivery. He wished California to return to her territorial condition; he supported neither Taylor nor Clay, but hinted at secession as the probable solution of the problem. Unless South and North were given equal rights in the new territory, agitation of the slavery question stopped, and the Constitution amended to favor the South, then the South must leave the Union. The speech was able, but it was not creative, and it determined nothing. It was followed on the 7th of March by the famous speech of Webster, in which he took the course that brought upon him the hostility of the North, while failing to secure for him the full measure of Southern confidence. The true significance of Webster's attitude has been a bone of contention ever since; but it is certain that it destroyed his influenee, during the short remainder of his life. He never retracted the views he then expressed; and whether in his heart he believed that he had been mistaken cannot be known. He tried to achieve the impossible, and failed.

He professed to speak for the cause of the Union and of the Constitution; and as an American without party, and without reference to sections. He gave Clay's bill his support; he granted all the demands of the South, while denouncing as visionary Calhoun's idea of a peaceable secession. He would give no countenance to free-soil doctrines, and scoffed at the Wilmot Proviso. He left slavery where it was, though with indications that he had no objection to its extension. For him the Union and the Constitution were paramount; no law of morality or of right and wrong could take precedence of them. In speaking, his eloquence was as great as ever; but the substance of what he said was profoundly disappointing. Upon a review of all the circumstances and conditions it does not appear likely that Webster intended any wrong; rather did he aim at a mark which seemed to be above mortal limitations, only because in truth it did not exist at all. Shooting his arrow in the air, he wounded his own friend. He wished to be an American; he would stand on equal ground between South and North, recognizing only his fellow countrymen. He thought that by owning no leaning to partisan rancors on either side he was asserting impartiality and independence. But what he really did was to confound morality with geography. A man's country is not its topographical particulars. but its highest spirit: its approximation to the ideal. good and true. If the South were wrong, it made no difference that they were Southerners; if the North were, right, it was no narrow partiality that should declare them so to be. If wrong seemed to be buttressed by the Constitution, that only proved that the Constitution was not infallible; if to champion the right imperiled the Union, that could only imply that the terms of our Union should be purified. Webster sought to be national; but he succeeded only in declaring a cynicism profounder even than Calhoun's. The powers of his great brain had been too strong for his moral integrity; for the sake of an outward good he had refined away the barriers which divide between good and evil in the soul.

This error was not committed by the young Seward, who followed him in the debate, and introduced that consideration for "the higher law" which has made the phrase famous. Beginning with symptoms of embarrassment, he warmed to his theme and became eloquent, and announced doctrines which one would wish to have heard in Webster's organ tones. They were novel doctrines in that chamber; sublime and seemingly impracticable, though time has shown them to be as practicable as they were true. Seward would have no dealings with unrighteousness; he would not believe that this people needed for their safety to compromise with evil; rather did he have faith that their only real safety lay in doing right and trusting to God for the consequence. There is a higher law, he affirmed, than that of worldly prudence; and to that law he summoned us to be loyal. 'But he was heard with ears which for the most part were unbelieving. Calhoun, who made his last appearance in the Senate on this occasion, left it anathematizing this new man with his Promethean sword; and died within the month.

The immediate upshot of the debate was that no one except Benton stood by the President; Clay and Webster, standing together against Taylor, divided the Whigs; it seemed an opportunity for the Democrats. A committee was got together to discuss the subject, Clay being chairman; it consisted of thirteen members, six Northerners and six Southerners. besides Clay himself. Webster, though appointed, did not serve. While the committee was discussing, the treaty was signed which Clayton and Sir Henry Bulwer negotiated regarding a proposed Nicaragua canal'; the terms of which were that neither England nor the United States were to have exclusive control of it, and that no colonizing should take place; but it later transpired that England was secretly holding in reserve her alleged protectorate rights. The canal, however, still remains in the limbo of projects unachieved.

Clay's committee, reported in May; it inspired no enthusiasm, and the President was against it, though not demonstratively so. Congress showed a disposition to disentangle the California matter from the rest, and pass it independently. Southern extremists wished Texas to accomplish her designs on New Mexico by force; but the sturdy President was standing square in the way. The boundary must be settled, he said, not by Texas nor by New Mexico, but by the United States, which was New Mexico's guardian during her minority as a territory. He sent Colonel Monroe with troops to oppose the attempt at invasion of the Texans. When Crawford, the son of the Crawford of Jackson's era, refused to sign the order as Secretary of War, "Then I'll sign it myself," said the old soldier. And events were drawing to an interesting climax, when Taylor, stricken by cholera, suddenly died. Never did an American President, so far as one can humanly judge, die at a moment apparently so inopportune. "I've tried to do my duty," was his last utterance, on that 9th of July which was his last on earth. He had surely done his duty, with a purity and firmness never surpassed. He had done it well, as well as faithfully, and he was daily learning how to do it better. He loved the Union as much as Clay and Webster professed to do, but he would defend it not by compromises, but by putting down treason with the strong hand. He saw things in the large and the mass, and understood the right course to steer. Had he lived another year, either the war of secession would have taken place with him in the saddle for the Union, or-it would have never taken place at all. But he died, because his time was come; and so made way for the immortal career of Lincoln.

Millard Fillmore, a good Whig, took the oath as President the same day that Taylor died. He was under the Webster-Clay influence, and Seward found his weight with the administration correspondingly decreased. The entire Cabinet resigned, and were replaced by Clay men. They were good men, and Webster was Secretary of State; but they made a cipher of the President. They favored compromise and conciliation; and the fate of Clay's bill, which had lately seemed so precarious, now bloomed with promise. But an unlooked-for spasm of virility in the Senate upset the "Omnibus" and from the dejected members framed new bills. It was found easier to pass the several parts when thus separated than the whole in a lump; but of course the separation also modified the effect of the parts. To the outside mind the difference might seem like that historic one 'twist Tweedledum and Tweedledee; but the Congressional mind is on the inside always. The Clay Omnibus was set up, and patched together, and set agoing on its appointed course, looking quite the same as before the accident. Texas was bought off with a good slice of New Mexico and ten million dollars (of which Congress got its share); New Mexico and Utah were admitted territories, with option as to slavery; California was admitted on her own basis; and so on. Filimore signed the bills as fast as they came in, the fugitive slave bill along with the rest. Clay retired, satisfied that he had saved the Union. Fillmore countermanded Taylor's military orders regarding the Texan revolt; and Webster was busy arguing down plain morality. But all his cringing under the Southern whip seemed to leave the South still unsatisfied; a convention of slave States to agree upon secession was called for; but either because they had no obvious leader to unite under, or because they began to think that they could get all they wanted without secession, no overt act of disloyalty was carried out. Give us back our runaway slaves, and never mention the word slavery in our hearing, and we may condescend to live with you was the -gist of the Southern dictum to the North. Still if a Northerner but ventured to look hard at a Southern gentleman, the threat of secession rang in his ears. Clay alone was superior to this petulance; "Never," he declared before the Kentucky Legislature, "would I consent to a dissolution of the Union. If Congress ever usurps the power to abolish slavery in the States where it exists-but I am sure it will never do so-I will yield." This was manly on Clay's part, and all very well; but the fugitive slave act could not fail to breed serious trouble at once; and the law giving new States the option of slavery or freedom would do- so later on. By the fugitive slave law Federal officers became slave hunters throughout the free States; they could arrest any negro without recourse or need of identification, and under any circumstances. That their action was legal, and that the South could get back its fugitives in no other way, were facts which had no effect in reconciling the North to the edict; there were many cases of resistance and rescue in Boston and elsewhere; and Webster was sedulous in prosecuting them, while the Attorney General, Crittenden, declared the act to be constitutional. There is no question that the South and the Administration were in the right in enforcing the law, since it existed; and if it ought not to have existed, why did not the North prevent it in Congress? If slavery were to be tolerated at all, then fugitive slaves were like runaway cattle, and honest folk were bound to return them to their owners. One of the plainest lessons of the situation was that the people were no longer represented by Congress. But that was the people's fault. Webster arraigned Seward for venturing to set private conscience above law; a New York Whig convention split, some adhering to Fillmore and Webster, with the title of "silver grays," the others to Seward. Fusion with Democrats began. Boutwell was elected Governor of Massachusetts by a coalition of Democrats and Free-Boilers. Hamilton Fish, a Seward Whig, was elected to the House in New York. In Ohio, a free-soil State, Ben Wade, strongly antislavery, took the place of the veteran Ewing. Charles Sumner beat Winthrop for the Senate. Sumner was a big, good-looking, voluble Boston Brahmin, with high pretensions to culture, and hyperion hair; but he was a good offset to the arrogance of the Southern slaveholders in the Senate, being able, so far as words went, to give them quite as good as they brought. No one could exasperate them as he could; no one heeded their sensibilities so little as he; until the memorable time when they succeeded in getting rid of him for a while by other arguments than those of reason. But in fact reason's rule was over in America for the present. There were party fighting and transformation scenes all over the country. At this juncture, Fillmore's message cried "Peace-Peace!" when there was no peace; and Congress did nothing, nor was anything intelligible heard, except the tones of Clay's voice, preaching mutual forbearance.

But the people were tired of contention on the one monotonous point of slavery, and were also bewildered by the spectacle of men in whose integrity they could hardly help confiding, exhorting them to submission to the law, whether or not it conformed to what had vulgarly been considered morality. They needed- a rest; and if persons more intellectual and better informed than they assured them that rest was not only compatible with honor, but essential to the preservation thereof, why should they not believe it? Secessionists at the South and Abolitionists at the North were alike reproved, not too violently; and the Government sought to interest the nation in matters of commonplace business. The irreconcilables in the South amused themselves with plans of Central American and Cuban acquisitions, which took form in numerous filibustering expeditions, which met with uniform disaster; the final attempt on the part of the adventurer Lopez to stampede Cuba being extinguished by the killing or shooting of the entire band of five hundred men, and the "garotting" of the leader. Meanwhile the work of the country went on; railways were vigorously developed; the Collins Line of American steamers rivaled the Cunarders as an Atlantic ferry; the telegraph was extended, and the hum of industry was everywhere heard. Webster toured about the land making "compromise" speeches, and extolling the sanctity of the Constitution and the Union; meeting with applause everywhere save in stern Massachusetts, where the Boston aldermen voted to close Faneuil Hall against him. Jenny Lind came to add her matchless voice to the chorus of harmony; and Louis Kossuth, picturesque and heroic, and charmingly eloquent even in the English tongue, tried to woo us to come across the ocean and fight for Hungarian independence against Austria. We cheered him, caressed him, passed resolutions and made speeches supporting his plea; but in the end, of course, were fain to let him depart with his mission unaccorriplished. The gift that he lacked was the sense of humor which should have prevented him from expecting aid to freedom from a country which had just given its indorsement to slavery. But we could .console ourselves, if not him, by celebrating the victory of our yacht America over the Queen's fleet at Cowes Regatta-the race in which there was no second." We could build fast ships, at any rate All this while the Democrats, in one way or another, had been pushing to the front, or toward--it; and the apparent disposition at the South to let a Northern man have the Presidency gave them a better outlook than the Whigs. It was this campaign which first identified the Democratic party with the South; although the Whigs were the party of wealth and aristocracy, the South trusted more in the loyalty of the Democrats to those principles which they deemed vital. The Whigs omitted no act or profession of subservience which might ingratiate them with the South in the premises, and men like Cass and Buchanan tried to out-Herod Herod in their protestations; but that sort of thing may be overdone. The conventions of the two parties met in June, 1852, the fatal last year of Whigism. They had had the greatest statesmen in them ranks that America had produced; they had every opportunity to leave a record commensurate with their ability; but they had been timid and timeserving, and full of misfortunes. Now they were to suffer a crushing defeat, and their two chief champions were to die within five months of each other. Such were the contents of the immediate future; but the party went on hoping and scheming, if not rejoicing; and the coming event did not cast its shadow before. They had three chief candidates Fillmore, Webster, and Winfield Scott. It was Webster's final effort, and as such he recognized it; and he would certainly not have entered the race had he not hoped to win. He could not but believe that the invaluable support he had given the South would earn their gratitude; and he had omitted no means of persuading the North that the compromise was their salvation as well. If he was not the representative American, who was?=and should not the representative American be the Americans' leader? Certainly Webster had one of the greatest brains of his century; and we may believe that he had at heart almost solely the welfare of his country, vitiated in a degree though that may have been with a deep-seated, life-long, passionate desire for his own personal triumph. But nothing is better established than that brains do not win the suffrages for the highest office of the brainiest people in the world-if we indeed are that. What exactly is sure to win their suffrages is another and far more abstruse question, into the intricacies of which we will not enter; but a predominating brain is not trusted; its possessor is too clever for common people to be sure what he may do. Had Lincoln's great brain not been balanced by a heart even greater, he would never have led this country through the Civil War; nor, of course, would he have been Lincoln.

The Democratic Convention met first, on the 1st of June, and after five days' warm work, gave up the attempt to win with either Cass, Buchanan, Douglas, or Marcy, and under the Jacksonian two-thirds rule, unexpectedly united upon the comparatively unknown Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire and of the Mexican War. He was a man who, without having committed himself one way or the other, had made no enemies, but was liked by all. A fortnight later the Whigs came together. Their platform was substantially the same as the Democrats-support of the Compromise of 1850; but with the delicate modifications, which they tried to refine to its least substantiality,' that should time and experience demand further legislation-why, it might be effected. Gentle though the hint was, the South caught it up at once, and grew savagely suspicious. Nevertheless, their array of candidates was so imposing that one could hardly believe that they could all fail. The first votes showed Fillmore leading with 133 votes, Scott second with 131, and Webster almost out of sight in the rear with 29 only. But Webster believed that Fillmore would retire in his favor; he had also hoped that Clay, whose word was still potent in the party, would have declared for him; but in both expectations he was disappointed. Fillmore would not retire, and Clay had given his preference for Scott; and in the end, the vote stood, Scott 159, Fillmore 112, and Webster 21. That vote broke Webster's heart. Yet lie survived Clay, who died soon after the Whig Convention adjourned. There is deep pathos, if not tragedy, in the story of these two great men, who lost the crown for which they strove for the very reason that they strove for it so hard. Theirs was a noble ambition, but it sometimes stooped to means that were not noble to win. Of the two Clay perhaps has the purer fame; but when we look for the benefits which Clay and Webster actually accomplished, we cannot but be amazed to find them so small. They concentrated the gaze of their contemporaries; they reached the topmost heights of oratory; they advocated and opposed many measures; but after all we cannot deny that the country might have been better off politically if neither of them had entered public life.

At the polls Pierce defeated Scott by a vote of 254 to 42. The Free-soilers showed no strength. The great Whig party disappeared from history, and left behind it no lasting or valuable achievement. It had tried to do things impossible, and had shrunk from doing what it might have done. But it sowed the seeds of a successor which was to win the greatest glory that had ever fallen to an American party.

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