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  XXXII
JOHN BROWN (Part 1)

 

JAMES BUCHANAN, in private life a bland and entertaining old gentleman of between sixty and seventy years of age, was, as President of the United States, able to command the respect and regard of neither South nor North. The difference between him and Pierce, his predecessor, and holding the same political faith, was marked. The latter was a man of rigid principle, strictly impartial between South and North, and resolved to uphold the Constitution and preserve the Union, without regard to what men or what party he might conciliate or alienate by so doing. Because he satisfied his own conscience, he forfeited the political support of party men on both sides, and went into retirement because he was too courageous and sincere to sacrifice conviction for place. Buchanan, on the contrary, though he, declared that he was no candidate for a second term, and that he therefore could have no object in view but the welfare of the country, was from the beginning an abject truckler to Southern wishes and dictation. His principles were a sickly mush of compromise, trickery, and underhand intrigue in support of slavery. His public utterances were uncandid and often prevaricating; his decisions were often cowardly, and against the dictates of morality. Yet the only reward he could hope to gain from this behavior was the regard of the Southern planter aristocracy; and even this he failed of securing; for the Southern planter was a man of spirit and honor, and though he would coedescend to use a tool like Buchanan, would kick him aside when he could no longer serve his turn. This seems an anomaly-that a man of age and experience, with some reputation to lose, should adopt a course so inexpedient, to say the least of it, with no other result than the sort of pitying ignominy which attaches to those who have done evil without being positively evil themselves. The explanation is to be sought in the fiber of the personal character: Buchanan was a sort of softnatured snob, who dreaded, stern collisions and the forcing of difficult passes; who wished everything to go with a smirk and a slide, who courted the strongest, and' who, believing the Southerners to be the stronger, paid his assiduous court to them. He tortured the unhappy Constitution to make it fit their will, and even professed his services to alter it to suit them if possible; he affronted morality, and juggled with phrases, to make the worse appear the better reason; but all his labor and sweat were in vain; he left the country on the verge of the most dangerous abyss that could ever threaten it, which might have been avoided altogether by a President of firmness and moderate genius.. He was an illustration of the familiar fact that weak men do more harm than bad men, in public as well as in private relations. Buchanan had brains, sagacity, and knowledge of affairs; and he was 'what ladies would call a nice old man; there may have been moments in our history when he might have filled the Presidential office without doing any harm; but at this supreme juncture he was no better fitted for it than would have been an English butler, suave, apologetic and jesuitical.

Hardly had he reached the steps of the White House than he began his prevarication. His inaugural address must perforce contain a reference to the burning question as to whether slave owners might carry their slaves with impunity into free States; and it happened that the case of a negro who had for several years posed as plaintiff in a typical action was about to be decided by the Supreme Court of the United States. This negro, Dred Scott by name, had so long ago as 1838 brought suit to recover his freedom on the plea that his master had taken him into a free State; he had been ever since used by. lawyers on both sides of the question as an anvil on which to hammer out their views and arguments. After having won and lost several times, the moment for the final decision had arrived. Not only was the Supreme Court about to pronouce its verdict, but it had already arrived at it; and it is not to be supposed that the President, with whose politics the majority of the Court was in sym pathy could have been ignorant of the direction in which their opinions would incline. Nevertheless, in his inaugural, he deprecated excitement on the matter, remarking that the judgment of the Court was about to be given, and that, whichever way it went, he should loyally uphold it, and trusted the country would do the same. A few days later, the judgment was pronounced, and it consigned Dred Scott to slavery. Had this conclusion been reached before the elections, it is nearly certain that Fremont instead of Buchanan would have been President; for, coming as it did on the top of the Kansas troubles, it would have warned the people against admitting a slave sympathizer to the highest office. Of the whole Bench, two judges only, McLean and Curtis, dissented. The verdict had this peculiarity, that it first disposed of the case by declaring that no negro of African descent could be entitled to be plaintiff before a court. This ended the matter; but after this the Court went on to give a gratuitous opinion as to the merits of the situation. Having denied the man's citizenship, they said that the Missouri Compromise was illegal; that a slave could be carried into any territory without thereby gaining immunity from his status as a slave; and that, in short, as the Chief Justice, Taney, expressed it (the same man who, as Secretary of the Treasury under Jackson, drew out the funds from the United States Bank), the slave had no rights which white men were bound to respect. The decision was founded on special reasoning, and ignored the true merits of the question, as well as the views of such giants of Constitutional law and the principles of human rights as Jefferson and the English Mansfield. Dred Scott, the individual, was afterward freed by the voluntary act of his master; but the precedent thus established remained as a menace to peace and freedom in America.

Governor Geary of Kansas came up to Washington after the inauguration to discover the drift of things, and perceiving that it was hostile to him, he resigned his office. R. J. Walker; an honest man, was sent out as his successor, his avowed aim being to support the will of the, majority. The indictments against the political defendants were quashed, and Robinson was set at liberty; and as a means of arriving at a satisfactory settlement, Walker advised the free State men' to abandon the Topeka principles and submit their cause to the polls under the legally established regime. Not without misgivings this was agreed to; and the result showed a large preponderance of free State votes. But the proslavery men were not going to yield so easily; and under the lead of a political scoundrel named Calhoun-no relation of the great statesman-the plan was evolved of foisting a slave constitution upon the country without submitting it to the people; thereby annulling the value of the late vote for freedom. Not all of the Legislature would agree to this, however; and a compromise finally was made by which the question should be submitted to the people whether they would have the constitution with slavery or without slavery: leaving all the rest of the articles of the constitution to be accepted in any event-and they were so framed as practically to make slavery inevitable. Walker protested against this swindle, and went to Washington to remonstrate; but Buchanan informed him that the Government would support Calhoun. When the voting day came, the free State men declined to go to the polls, and the proslavery party won by a ten to one vote. But when it came to electing State officers under this constitution, the free State supporters came out and reversed the verdict; and the final result of the whole Kansas struggle. was that the proslavery men were utterly defeated, though the result of the trial was kept as long as possible from being made known, and the admission of Kansas as a free State was postpone. until there should be a census of 93,000 inhabitants. Meanwhile Walker had resigned.

The Dred Scott decision and the Kansas muddle had created much indignation and uneasiness in the North; but during the autumn and winter of 1857 there was .another period of financial and business disaster, due to too reckless borrowing of money on all sides, relying on an impossible standard of prosperity to make money good. Banks again suspended payment, towns went bankrupt, there were widespread mercantile failures, and all looked pinched and gloomy. In this state of things, the people were disinclined to go to dangerous lengths in politics, and the election showed no very decided condemnation of the Administration. But; upon the whole, the Democrats appeared to be losing their cohesion, while in Congress there was a compact minority in opposition. Buchanan, however, was imprudent enough to urge the admission of Kansas as a slave territory, in defiance of the patent preferences of its inhabitants; and at this juncture Douglas himself, who was responsible for the whole Kansas imbroglio, came out with an unexpected protest against the conduct of the Administration. Whether or not his new attitude was sincere may be questioned; it had the appearance of being a courageous act, alienating many Southern adherents; and it was undoubtedly a step in the direction of justice. But Douglas was far from lacking in political insight, and one is disposed to ask whether he might not have thought this a good way of bringing himself again into prominence, and conciliating Northern support. But, again, it may have been a genuine impulse, which he turned to political advantage. He was an ingrained demagogue, and loved conspicuousness, and the clamor of audiences; and later on he showed symptoms of wishing. to hedge somewhat on his valiant attitude; but the secret heart of a politician is an obscure place to grope in, nor does what one finds there often reward the pain of search. The House voted for an investigation of the Kansas proceedings; but Orr, the Speaker of the House, by appointing a committee of proslavery men, succeeded in stifling the matter. There were prolonged and disorderly debates, in which drunken members from Southern States called Northerners bad names, and denounced Northerners in general as the "mud of society." This had no special bearing on the merits of the topic under discussion; but Jefferson Davis spoke to the point when he recommended keeping United States troops in Kansas, to keep down "disorder." He had perceived, before the end of Pierce's Administration, as Secretary of War, that war was likely to occur in these States, and had conducted the affairs under his supervision with an eye to preparing the South for that contingency.

Kansas did not monopolize the disorders of the country; far away on the further side of the continent the new community of Utah came into collision with the Government. Brigham Young had been the Governor chosen by the people, and accepted under the Pierce Administration; and 'he was not only the temporal ruler of the people, but their religious head as well. Buchanan, not appreciating this peculiarity, thought to supplant him by an appointee of his own; and sent out a gentleman of good character named Cumming; and apprehending that in so remote a wilderness contingencies might arise, he caused a detachment of regulars to accompany him. His only mistake was in not having sent regulars enough; Young and his Mormons defied him and the minions of oppression, and managed so to interrupt their supplies that the situation became awkward. The Mormons, indeed, in spite of their many saints, were capable of great fierceness; and terrible tales were told of the exploits of their sect of thugs known as Danites, who made away with the unfaithful. Buchanan was equal to, this emergency, however, inasmuch as politics were not concerned in it; and he sent out more troops, until the Mormons succumbed. But whatever might be their external aspect as to allegiance to the United States, their true head would always be Brigham Young, so long as life remained in his stalwart and defiant body.

As time went on, the Administration lost more and more its hold upon the country. For the first time in twenty years Pennsylvania ceased to support the South. A contest which aroused general interest was that between Douglas and Lincoln in Illinois. They were both of them picturesque men on the stump, though of very opposite styles, principles, and appearance: Lincoln being six feet four inches in height, and of comparatively rustic bearing, and homely speech; while Douglas was a manikin in height, though big enough in brain and energy. Lincoln was a humorous, but straightforward and logical reasoner; Douglas had all the tricks of the demagogue and a great gift of becoming hail-fellow-well-met with "the boys." His principles were of the laisser aller order as regarded slavery; he professed to care nothing about it one way or the other on sentimental or moral grounds; he would have it let alone where it was, but would not advocate its being violently forced upon a free majority; let it expand toward Mexico and Cuba, if it would. Lincoln finally cornered him with a question growing from the Dred Scott decision: What had he to say about the right to hold slaves in a territory by virtue of the federal compact? Douglas replied that without prejudice to the Supreme Court view, if a people or a territory wished to exclude slavery from it, they would always be able to do so. Unfriendly legislation by the local Legislature could settle it. This answered Douglas's immediate purpose of carrying his Illinois audiences; but Lincoln, in eliciting the statement from him, had had in view the far more important contest of 1860; for Douglas, by his answer, had definitely alienated Southern support for his Presidential aspirations. The South would demand perfect explicitness in the support of slavery in their candidate. Although, therefore, Lincoln lost the immediate prize of the senatorship, he prepared the way for defeating Douglas for the Presidency. But he, also, had uttered a sentiment which was remembered against him by the South: "A house divided against itself cannot stand I believe this Government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free .. . . It will become all one thing or all the other." The idea here expressed was the same as that of Seward: "the irrepressible conflict." These two men were already the most eminent in the Republicaii party Seward had the best chance of being chosen the standard hearer; but the hridge is not crossed until one comes to it.

The manifest defeat of Buchanan's effort to win Kansas for the South prompted him to seek coinpensation for them elsewhere aid in his message at the opening of the year 1859 he recommended expansion in Mexico and the South American countries. There were always disturbances there sufficient to form a pretext for military iuterference, if time United States were set upon it ; but his siggestions were not taken up. Cuba could not be got by purchase, and there was no likelihood that the Cubans would cooperate in ami attempt to shake off Spain. Moreover, England and France were opposed to our annexing any more territory. It took such measues to prevent it as migli he effective without being too obvious. But England was led into the mistake of rousing our susceptibilities as to the right of search, which they were always claiming, in season and out, and which they now sought to practice on the plea of checking the violation of the slave-trade law. The Government at once sent an American fleet to the scene, and the English made explanations ; but it was a pity that the only occasion on which Buchanan had an opportunity to show spirit in foreign policy policy should have been in a cause so discreditable as this. Beggars cannot be choosers.

The pievious year had not gone by without further advance in the line of scientific improvement; an Atlantic cable was laid, amid messages exchanged ; but the cable soon broke, and was not permanently reestablished till after the war. More important, for the moment, was the discovery of coal oil in Pennsylvania, by which great fortunes were made in record Time, and a beautiful region was, invidentally, transformed into a lurid wilderness. Horse railroads Were running in most of the great eastern towns ; Arctic exploration continued; rowing regattas were held between Yale and Harvard; Heenan and Morrisey fought in the prize ring, and Thackeray, greatest of English novelists, read his lectures on the four Georges to the desceudants of those who had thrown off their yoke and forgotten it. Music and the drama were developed, and literature had now achieved an importance. which compelled recognition outside of this country. It was a larger and richer life, though much of it assumed I trifling and frivolous forms. The people wished to he instructed in the lore of the world, and the lyceum bureaus brought information to them through the mouths of eminent lecturers. But most of this quasi intellectual activity was at the North; the South, like the English aristocracy, affected to look down upon such things with good-natured scorn. They stuck to politics as the proper pursuit for gentlemen. Three eminent Southerners, Bhett, Davis, and Alexander Stephens, made speeches advocating the enactment by Congress of a slave code directly protective of the institution ; and also demanding that the slave trade he permitted to such States as chose to practice it. They continued to seek southern enlargement of boundaries, and founded the order of the Knights of the Golden Circle to that end, of which Walker, in his final and fatal expedition, was one of the most distingiiislied members. But these movements and propositions did not attract general attention ; and it was not until October, 1899, that an event occurred which at once aroused the most intense feelings both North and South, and the echoes of which lasted through the war, and after it.

In the year 1800 there was born at the little town of Torrington, Connecticut, of a family which claimed Pilgrim origin, a clild named John Brown. When he was six years old, his family removed to Ohio, where the boy learned the tanner's and currier's trade; and when he was a man grown, he became a wool merchant. But misfortune pursued him in all his efforts to make a living; while on the other hand he bred a family of patriarchal dimensions. But he was an earnest though narrow thinker, and one who wished to carry his thought into act; he had been deeply impressed by the antislavery lucubrations of Garrison's ''Liberator," and emigrating to Kansas in 1855, he became active against the proslavery part of the community. Sorrow, disappointment and hardship, as well as the old Pilgrim strain in his blood, had made him a fanatic; and the good and bad qualities of the type were strongly accented in him. In his conflicts with the slaveholders he was helped by his sons, and saw more than one of them die; on his part, he slew without compunction, and would drag inoffensive persons out of their beds and kill them, for no other crime than holding opinions which he deemed damnable. At Osawatomie he defeated with a small band a greatly superior force of Missouri invaders; and the exploits of this action gained him the title of Osawatomie Brown, by which he was afterward known. He was a very formidable personage, inconvenient to those who were in general sympathy with his antislavery ideas, as well as terrible to his avowed enemies. He was prepared for anything; and the arts of diplomacy were beneath his contempt. Perhaps he was at this time hardly in his right mind; there was abundant reason why he should not have been. Death by violence had struck down those nearest to him, and long brooding over the-wrongs of the slave had made him implacable to those whom he held responsible for them. He was a tall, shaggy, impressive figure; a great heap of disordered hair piled up on his tall, narrow head; a long tangled beard, and a bony, athletic frame. His eyes gazed out sternly from beneath his rugged brows, and his manner was grave and harsh. But there was in him indomitable courage, and the iron fiber of the old Covenanters. His almost savage manhood, however, was not destitute of its tender side, which was noted and marked by his intimates and biographers; but it may be- said of him, as of others, that nothing in old John Brown's troubled life so well became him as did the closing scenes of it.

In 1858 he had already conceived his grotesque plan of emancipating the blacks single handed, and by force.

It is needless to say that he despised politics and politicians. He had seen slavery talked against for many years, and it was now more strongly established than ever. He understood that the moral reprobation with which the North professed to regard slavery was not strong enough to induce them to lift a hand to crush it; they would prate of the Union and the Constitution, 'and let "I dare not" wait upon "I would." But John was withheld by no constitutional scruples; he had seen those he loved die, and he had slain men in cold blood with his own band; and he pictured to himself the slaves rising at his call, and massacring their masters wholesale, while he himself led them to the slaughter and gloried in it. The slaves, he imagined, were ready to spring up like tigers at the signal, and he would be at the head of a million fighters who, should the United States Government side with the South against them, would fight the Government too, and conquer them, with the aid of the white abolitionists who would also join him; and a new republic would be established on the ashes of the present one, in which whites and blacks would be equal, man for man, and before the law. In planning thus. Brown must have imagined that all negroes and all other white abolitionists were monomaniacs like himself, who would hold their lives at a pin's fee, and fight to the. death. And if one can picture an army of John Browns, it is not difficult to surmise that all the resources of the mighty States might have been insufficient to put it down. Fanatics-monomaniacs-men who will literally die rather than yield-are more formidable than many times their number of ordinary brave soldiers, no matter how well disciplined and armed. Ordinary human courage has its well defined limits; and after ten men have been killed out of a hundred, the ninety will generally retreat; if twenty have been killed, the retreat become a flight. But what should be done with a hundred men who would fight till ninety of them were slain, and then still fight till not one was left alive? With a million men of this stamp, it was not unreasonable to believe that Brown might have conquered any army or armies in the world, and were he to lose half his million, or nine-tenths of it, or all of it, that would make no difference to him; he would have put an end to slavery.

The error Brown made, then, was not in theory, wild and almost incredible though that was, but in the belief that his army, if he could raise it, would resemble him. There happened not to be a million John Browns available in the United States; indeed so far as we know, there never was or would be but one. But even that one was enough to shake the whole nation to its. center; and had he not lived and died, it is possible that slaves would still be slaves to-day. In this world, no power equal to the one-man power has yet been found.

Brown was a practical man in ordinary respects, and he could reason out the details of his plan logically. The slaves must have arms. It world not be possible to arm them all at once; but that was not necessary; if he could put guns in the hands of a few thousand of them, that would do for a beginning; when the army got to its work, it could obtain arms from its enemies There was an arsenal at Harper's Ferry, a small village on the Virginia side of the Potomac, at the point where the river breaks asunder the barriers of the Alleghenies. There was a little Virginia farmhouse near the village, which Brown rented, ostensibly for farming purposes; but little work was done upon it; only his farm wagon made frequent visits to the railway station, and returned loaded with heavy cases, which might have contained books, or farming tools, but which really were full of rifles. With the aid of these rifles, in the hands of himself, his sons. and a few more, he meant to capture the arsenal; and the rest would be easy. Messengers should go forth to notify the slaves of the rendezvous; as fast as they came in they would receive the weapons: and then woe to the slaveholders! It was such a vision as might have risen before the mind of an opium eater, or perhaps of a dime novelist; but only John Brown would have attempted actually to take it out of the region of insane notions, and clothe it with flesh and blood.

Brown's recruits came in slowly; and by the time a dozen or more had arrived, the old man felt that he must strike. With his sons, his army numbered eighteen all told. But that, in one sense, was already more than enough; for the neighbors, though Brown had avoided all association with them as much as possible -and he was not a man easy to approach at any time-were beginning to show curiosity as to why eighteen farmers who never did any farming were living in a small cottage out there in the wilds of the hills. They must show what they were there for before they were asked, or it would be too late.

Therefore, on the evening of Sunday, October 16, 1859, John Brown took his gun. and ordered his men to fall in. Down to the village by the river they tramped, the eighteen men who were to put an end to slavery. On the way they met a negro, one of the race they were going to save; and Brown bade him fall in and enjoy the distinction of being the first recruit of his color in the emancipating army. The negro was no doubt a fool; but he may have had brains enough to make a rapid calculation of the odds between this army and ;the power of the United States; and he decided, on the instant, that the right thing for him to do was to run away. But here he showed his folly: he had not calculated on John Brown. The negro was a slave, and Brown was ready to die for him(; but meanwhile he shot him down to prevent him from hindering his emancipation. It was the first blood shed in this war; and it indicated that Brown was determined to rescue the victims of slavery even if, in order to do it, he was obliged to kill not only their tyrants, but themselves. He was what the English would call "thorough."

Forward to John Brown Part 2

 

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