With the settlement of the Missouri question, the anti-slavery agitation subsided as rapidly as it had arisen. This was a second surprize to thinking men. The result can, however, be readily explained. The Northern States felt that they had absolutely secured to freedom a large territory west and north of Missouri. The Southern States believed that they had an implied and honorable understandingoutside and beyond the explicit letter of the lawthat new States south of the Missouri line could be admitted with slavery if they desired. The great political parties then dividing the country accepted the result and for the next twenty years no agitation of the slavery question appeared in any political convention, or affected any considerable body of the people.
Within that period, however, there grew up a school of anti-slavery men far more radical and progressive than those who had resisted the admission of Missouri as a slave State. They formed what was known as the Abolition party, and they devoted themselves to the utter destruction of slavery by every instrumentality which they could lawfully employ. Acutely trained in the political as well as the ethical principles of the great controversy, they clearly distinguished between the powers which Congress might and might not exercise under the limitations of the Constitution. They began, therefore, by demanding the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, and in all the national forts, arsenals, and dock-yards, where, without question or cavil, the exclusive jurisdiction belonged to Congress; they asked that Congress, under its constitutional authority to regulate commerce between the States, would prohibit the inter-State slave-trade; and they prayed that our ships sailing on the high seas should not be permitted by the government to carry slaves as part of their cargo, under the free flag of the United States, and outside the local jurisdiction that held them in bondage. They denied that a man should aid in executing any law whose enforcement did violence to his conscience and trampled under foot the Divine commands. Hence they would not assist in the surrender and return of fugitive slaves, holding it rather to be their duty to resist such violation of the natural rights of man by every peaceful method, and justifying their resistance by the truths embodied in the Declaration of Independence, and, still more impressively, by the precepts taught in the New Testament.
While encountering, on these issues, the active hostility of the great mass of the people in all sections of the Union, the Abolitionists challenged the respect of thinking men, and even compelled the admiration of some of their most pronounced opponents. The party was small in number, but its membership was distinguished for intellectual ability, for high character, for pure philanthropy, for unquailing courage both moral and physical, and for a controversial talent which has never been excelled in the history of moral reforms. It would not be practicable to give the names of all who were conspicuous in this great struggle, but the mention of James G. Birney, of Benjamin Lundy, of Arthur Tappan, of the brothers Lovejoy, of Gerrit Smith, of John G. Whittier, of William Lloyd Garrison, of Wendell Phillips, and of Gamaliel Bailey, will indicate the class who are entitled to be held in remembrance so long as the possession of great mental and moral attributes gives enduring and honorable fame.
Nor would the list of bold and powerful agitators be complete or just if confined to the white race. Among the colored menoften denied the simplest rights of citizenship in the States where they residedwere found many who had received the gift of tongues, orators by nature, who bravely presented the wrongs and upheld the rights of the opprest. Among these Frederick Douglas2 was especially and richly endowed not only with the strength, but with the graces of speech; and for many years, from the stump and from the platform, he exerted a wide and beneficial influence upon popular opinion.
In the early days of this agitation, the Abolitionists were a proscribed and persecuted class, denounced with unsparing severity by both the great political parties, condemned by many of the leading churches, libeled in the public press, and maltreated by furious mobs. In no part of the country did they constitute more than a handful of the population, but they worked against every discouragment with a zeal and firmness which bespoke intensity of moral conviction. They were in large degree recruited from the Society of Friends, who brought to the support of the organization the same calm and consistent courage which had always distinguished them in upholding before the world their peculiar tenets of religious faith. Caring nothing for prejudice, meeting opprobrium with silence, shaming the authors of violence by meek non-resistance, relying on moral agencies alone, appealing simply to the reason and the conscience science of men, they arrested the attention of the nation by arraigning it before the public opinion of the world, and proclaiming its responsibility to the judgment of God. . . .
Profoundly opposed as were many citizens to a denial of the right of petition, very few wished to become identified with the cause of the Abolitionists. In truth it required no small degree of moral courage to take position in the ranks of that despised political sect forty-five years ago. Persecutions of a petty and social character were almost sure to follow, and not infrequently grievous wrongs were inflicted, for which, in the absence of a disposition among the people to see justice done, the law afforded no redress. Indeed, by an apparent contradiction not difficult to reconcile, many of those who fought bravely for the right of the Abolitionists to be heard in Congress by petition, were yet enraged with them for continually and, as they thought, causelessly, raising and pressing the issue. They were willing to fight for the right of the Abolitionists to do a certain thing, and then willing to fight the Abolitionists for aimlessly and uselessly doing it. The men who were governed by these complex motives were chiefly Whigs. They felt that an increase of popular strength to the Abolitionists must be at the expense of the party which, continuing to make Clay its idol, was about to make Harrison its candidate. The announcement, therefore, on the eve of the national contest of 1840, that the Abolitionists had nominated James G. Birney of Michigan for President, and Francis J. Le Moyne of Pennsylvania for Vice-President, was angrily received by the Whigs, and denunciations of the movement were loud and frequent. The support received by these candidates was unexpectedly small, and showed little ground, in the judgment of the Whigs, for the course taken by the Abolitionists. Their strength was almost wholly confined to New England, western New York, and the Western Reserve of Ohio. It was plainly seen, that, in a large majority of the free States, the Abolitionists had as yet made no impression on public opinion.
1 From Blaine's "Twenty Years of Congress." By permission of Mrs. Walter Damrosch and James G. Blaine, owners of the copyright. Copyright, 1884.
2 A negro orator and journalist, son of a white man and black woman, born a slave in 1817, escaped to Massachusetts in 1838, lived afterward in Rochester, where he edited a newspaper; served as United States Marshal for the District of Columbia, 1876-1881.
Toward the close of Jackson's administration, slavery for the first time made its permanent appearance in national politics; altho for some years yet it had little or no influence in shaping the course of political movements. In 1833 the Abolition societies of the North came into prominence; they had been started a couple of years previously.
Black slavery was such a grossly anachronistic and un-American form of evil, that it is difficult to discuss calmly the efforts to abolish it, and to remember that many of these efforts were calculated to do, and actually did, more harm than good. We are also very apt to forget that it was perfectly possible and reasonable for enlightened and virtuous men, who fully recognized it as an evil, yet to prefer its continuance to having it interfered with in a way that would produce even worse results. Black slavery in Hayti was characterized by worse abuse than ever was the case in the United States; yet, looking at the condition of that republic now, it may well be questioned whether it would not have been greatly to her benefit in the end to have had slavery continue a century or so longerits ultimate extinction being certainrather than to have had her attain freedom as she actually did, with the results that have flowed from her action. When an evil of colossal size exists, it is often the case that there is no possible way of dealing with it that will not itself be fraught with baleful results. Nor can the ultra-philanthropic method be always, or even often, accepted as the best. If there is one question upon which the philanthrophists of the present day, especially the more emotional ones, are agreed, it is that any law restricting Chinese immigration is an outrage; yet it seems incredible that any man of even moderate intelligence should not see that no greater calamity could now befall the United States than to have the Pacific slope fill up with a Mongolian population.
The cause of the Abolitionists has had such a halo shed round it by the after-course of events, which they themselves in reality did very little to shape, that it has been usual to speak of them with absurdly exaggerated praise. Their courage, and for the most part their sincerity, cannot be too highly spoken of, but their share in abolishing slavery was far less than has commonly been represented; any single non-Abolitionist politician like Lincoln or Seward, did more than all the professional Abolitionists combined really to bring about its destruction. The Abolition societies were only in a very restricted degree the causes of the growing feeling in the North against slavery; they are rather to be regarded as themselves manifestations or accompaniments of that feeling.
The anti-slavery outburst in the Northern States over the admission of Missouri took place a dozen years before there was an Abolition society in existence; and the influence of the professional Abolitionists upon the growth of the anti-slavery sentiment as often as not merely warped it and twisted it out of proper shapeas when at one time they showed a strong inclination to adopt disunion views, altho it was self-evident that by no possibility could slavery be abolished unless the Union was preserved. Their tendency toward impracticable methods was well shown in the position they assumed toward him who was not only the greatest American, but also the greatest man, of the nineteenth century; for during all the terrible four years that sad, strong, patient Lincoln worked and suffered for the people, he had to dread the influence of the extreme Abolitionists only less than that of the Copperheads.2 Many of their leaders possest no good qualities beyond their fearlessness and truthqualities that were also possest by this Southern fire-eaters. They belonged to that class of men that is always engaged in some agitation or other; only it happened that in this particular agitation they were right. Wendell Phillips may be taken as a very good type of the whole. His services against slavery prior to the war should always be remembered with gratitude; but after the war, and until the day of his death, his position on almost every public question was either mischievous or ridiculous, and usually both.
When the Abolitionist movement started it was avowedly designed to be cosmopolitan in character; the originators looked down upon any merely national or patriotic feeling. This again deservedly took away from their influence. In fact, it would have been most unfortunate had the majority of the Northerners been from the beginning in hearty accord with the Abolitionists; at the best it would have resulted at that time in the disruption of the Union and the perpetuation of slavery in the South.
But after all is said, the fact remains, that on the main issue the Abolitionists were at least working in the right direction. Sooner or later, by one means or another, slavery had to go. It is beyond doubt a misfortune that in certain districts the bulk of the population should be composed of densely ignorant negroes, often criminal or vicious in their instincts; but such is the case, and the best, and indeed the only proper course to pursue, is to treat them with precisely the same justice that is meted out to whites. The effort to do so in time immediately past has not resulted so successfully as was hoped and expected; but nevertheless no other way would have worked as well.
1 From Roosevelt's "Life of Thomas H. Benton." By permission of, and by arrangement with, the authorized publishers, Houghton, Mifflin Company. Copyright 1886.
2 An opprobrious term applied during the Civil War to men in the North, chiefly Democrats, who were actively opposed to the prosecution of the war.
This Abolition agitation was carried on with singular devotion, but its startling radicalism did not at first enlist large numbers of converts, or result in the organization of a political force that might have made itself felt at the polls. It did, however, have the effect of exciting great irritation and alarm among the slaveholders, and among those in the North who feared that a searching discussion of the slavery question might disturb the peace of the country; and thus it started a commotion of grave consequences.
About that time the South was in an unusually nervous state of mind. In 1831 an insurrection of slaves broke out in Virginia under the leadership of Nat Turner, a religious fanatic. It was easily supprest, but caused a widespread panic. In 1833 the emancipation of the slaves in the British West Indies made the slaveholders keenly sensible of the hostility of public opinion in the outside world, and increased their alarm.
Events like these gave the agitation of the Abolitionists a new significance. The slave power found it necessary to assert to the utmost, not only its constitutional rights, but also its moral position. Abandoning its apologetic attitude, it proclaimed its belief that slavery was not an evil, but economically, politically, and morally a positive good, and "the corner-stone of the republican edifice." It fiercely denounced the Northern Abolitionists as reckless incendiaries, inciting the slaves to insurrection, rapine, and murderas enemies to the country, as fiends in human shape, who deserved the halter. What disturbed the slaveholders most was the instinctive feeling that now they had to meet an antagonist who was inspired by something akin to religious enthusiasm, which could neither be argued with nor cajoled nor frightened, but could be supprest only with a strong hand, if it could be supprest at all. They imperiously demanded of the people of the North that the abolitionists be silenced by force; that laws be made to imprison their orators, to stop their presses, to prevent the circulation of their tracts, and by every means to put down their agitation. They said that, unless this were done, the Union could not be maintained.
In the North their appeal did not remain unheeded. A fierce outcry arose in the Free States against the Abolitionists. Turbulent mobs, composed in part of men of property and prominent standing, broke up their meetings, destroyed their printing-offices, wrecked their houses, and threatened them with violent death. There were riotous attacks upon anti-slavery gatherings in Philadelphia, New York, Utica, and Montpelier. In Boston, William Lloyd Garrison2 was dragged through the streets with a halter round his body. In Connecticut and New Hampshire, schools which received colored pupils were sacked.3 In Cincinnati, a large meeting of citizens resolved that an antislavery paper published there must cease to appear, and that there must be "total silence on the subject of slavery." An excited mob executed the decree, threw the press into the Ohio, and looted the homes of colored people. Some time later, Pennsylvania Hall, the meeting-house of the Abolitionists, was burned in Philadelphia, and Elijah P. Lovejoy4 was murdered in Illinois.
It was a strange commotion. There was the timid citizen, who feared that the anti-slavery agitation might split the Union, and believed that the Abolitionists were bent upon inciting slave insurrection; there was the politician, intent upon currying favor with the South; there was the merchant and manufacturer, anxious to protect his Southern market against disturbance, and to please his Southern customer; there was the fanatic of stability, cursing everybody who, as he thought, "wanted to make trouble"; there was the man who "had always been opposed to slavery as much as anybody," but who detested the Abolitionists because they would sacrifice the country to their one idea, presumed to sit in judgment upon other good people's motives, and accused them of "compounding with crime"; there was the rabble, bent upon keeping the negro still beneath them in the social scale, and delighting in riotous excesses as a congenial pastimeall these elements cooperating in the persecution of a few men, who in all sincerity followed the dictates of their consciences, and, somewhat ahead of their time, demanded the general and immediate application of principles which, at the North, almost everybody had accepted in the abstract. . . .
The number of Abolition societies grew, not rapidly, but steadily. The leading Abolitionists themselves never became popular with the multitude. With many men, the intrusive admonition of conscience is peculiarly irritating. But the immediate effect of their work has frequently been much underrated. The Abolitionists served to keep alive in the Northern mind that secret trouble of conscience about slavery which later, in a ripe political situation, was to break out as a great force.
1 From Schurz's "Life of Henry Clay." By permission of, and by arrangement with, the authorized publishers, Houghton, Mifflin Company. Copyright, 1887.
3 One of these schools was kept by Prudence Crandall in Canterbury, Conn. She was arrested, tried, convicted and imprisoned. Her house was afterward attacked and partially destroyed.
CALHOUN'S VIEWS OF SLAVERY, HIS CHARACTER, AND HIS PERSONALITY