The leader in this revolution was Sam Houston, a Virginian of massive frame – energetic, audacious, unscrupulous – in no mean degree fitted to direct the storm he had helped to raise. For Houston was a Southerner, and it was his ambition to gain Texas for the purposes of the slave-owners. Mexico had abolished slavery. Texas could be no home for the possessor of slaves till she was severed from Mexico.
When independence was declared, Texas had to defend her newly-claimed liberties by the sword. General Houston headed the patriot forces, not quite four hundred in number, and imperfectly armed. Santa Anna came against them with an army of five thousand. The Texans retreated, and having nothing to carry, easily distanced their pursuers. At the San Jacinto, Houston was strengthened by the arrival of two field-pieces. He turned like a lion upon the unexpectant Mexicans, whom he caught in the very act of crossing the river. He fired grape-shot into their quaking ranks. His unconquerable Texans clubbed their muskets – they had no bayonets – and rushed upon the foe. The Mexicans fled in helpless rout, and Texas was free. The grateful Texans elected General Houston President of the republic which he had thus saved.
1837 A.D. No sooner was Texas independent than she offered to join herself to the United States. Her proposals were at first declined. But the South warmly espoused her cause and urged her claims. Once more North and South met in fiery debate. Slavery had already a sure footing in Texas. If Texas entered the Union, it was as a Slave State. On that ground avowedly the South urged the annexation; on that ground the North resisted it. “We all see,” said Daniel Webster, “that Texas will be a slave-holding country; and I frankly avow my unwillingness to do anything which shall extend the slavery of the African race on this continent, or add another Slave-holding State to the Union.” “The South,” said the Legislature of Mississippi, speaking of slavery, “does not possess a blessing with which the affections of her people are so closely entwined, and whose value is more highly appreciated. By the annexation of Texas an equipoise of influence in the halls of Congress will be secured, which will furnish us a permanent guarantee of protection.”
It was the battle-ground on which all the recent great battles of American political history have been fought. It ended, as such battles at that time usually did, in Southern victory. In March 1845 Texas was received into the Union. The slave-power gained new votes in Congress, and room for a vast extension of the slave-system.
Mexico was displeased with the annexation of Texas, but did not manifest so quickly as it was hoped she would any disposition to avenge herself. Mr. Polk, a Southern man, was now President, and he governed in the interest of the South. A war with Mexico was a thing to be desired, because Mexico must be beaten, and could then be plundered of territory which the slave-owners would appropriate.
President Polk hastened to announce to Congress that the Mexicans had “invaded our territory, and shed the blood of our fellow-citizens.” Congress voted men and money for the prosecution of the war, and volunteers offered themselves in multitudes. Their brave little army was in peril – far from help, and surrounded by enemies. The people were eager to support the heroes, of whose victory they were so proud. And yet opinion was much divided. Many deemed the war unjust and disgraceful. Among these was a young lawyer of Illinois, destined in later years to fill a place in the hearts of his countrymen second only to that of Washington. Abraham Lincoln entered Congress while the war was in progress, and his first speech was in condemnation of the course pursued by the Government.
The war was pushed with vigour at first under the command of General Taylor, who was to become the next President; and finally under General Scott, who, as a very young man, had fought against the British at Niagara, and, as a very old man, was Commander-in-Chief of the American Army when the great war between North and South began. Many officers were there whose names became famous in after years. General Lee and General Grant gained here their first experience of war. They were not then known to each other. They met for the first time, twenty years after, in a Virginian cottage, to arrange terms of surrender for the defeated army of the Southern Confederacy!
The Americans resolved to fight their way to the enemy’s capital, and there compel such a peace as would be agreeable to themselves. The task was not without difficulty. The Mexican army was greatly more numerous. They had a splendid cavalry force and an efficient artillery. Their commander, Santa Anna, unscrupulous even for a Mexican, was yet a soldier of some ability. The Americans were mainly volunteers who had never seen war till now. The fighting was severe. At Buena-Vista the American army was attacked by a force which outnumbered it in the proportion of five to one. The battle lasted for ten hours, and the invaders were saved from ruin by their superior artillery. The mountain passes were strongly fortified, and General Scott had to convey his army across chasms and ravines which the Mexicans, deeming them impracticable, had neglected to defend. Strong in the consciousness of their superiority to the people they invaded – the same consciousness which supported Cortes and his Spaniards three centuries before – the Americans pressed on. At length they came in sight of Mexico, at the same spot where Cortes had viewed it. Sept. 14, 1847 A.D. Once more they routed a Mexican army of greatly superior force; and then General Scott marched his little army of six thousand men quietly into the capital. The war was closed, and a treaty of peace was with little delay negotiated.
America exacted mercilessly the penalty which usually attends defeat. Mexico was to receive fifteen million dollars; but she ceded an enormous territory stretching westward from Texas to the Pacific.
One of the provinces which composed this magnificent prize was California. The slave-owners had gone to war with Mexico that they might gain territory which slavery should possess for ever. They sought to introduce California into the Union as a Slave State. But Providence interposed to shield her from a destiny so unhappy.
1848 A.D. Just about the time that California became an American possession, it was discovered that her soil was richly endowed with gold. On one of the tributaries of the Sacramento river an old settler was peacefully digging a trench – caring little, it may be supposed, about the change of citizenship which he had undergone – not dreaming that the next stroke of his spade was to influence the history, not merely of California, but of the world. Among the sand which he lifted were certain shining particles. His wondering eye considered them with attention. They were Gold! Gold was everywhere – in the soil, in the river-sand, in the mountain-rock; gold in dust, gold in pellets, gold in lumps! It was the land of old fairy tale, where wealth could be had by him who chose to stoop down and gather!
Fast as the mails could carry it the bewildering news thrilled the heart of America. To the energetic youth of the Northern States the charm was irresistible. It was now, indeed, a reproach to be poor, when it was so easy to be rich.
The journey to the land of promise was full of toil and danger. There were over two thousand miles of unexplored wilderness to traverse. There were mountain ranges to surmount, lofty and rugged as the Alps themselves. There were great desolate plains, unwatered and without vegetation. Indians, whose dispositions there was reason to question, beset the path. But danger was unconsidered. That season thirty thousand Americans crossed the plains, climbed the mountains, forded the streams, bore without shrinking all that want, exposure, and fatigue could inflict. Cholera broke out among them, and four thousand left their bones in the wilderness. The rest plodded on undismayed. Fifty thousand came by sea. From all countries they came – from quiet English villages, from the crowded cities of China. Before the year was out California had gained an addition of eighty thousand to her population.
These came mainly from the Northern States. They had no thought of suffering in their new home the evil institution of the South. 1850 A.D. They settled easily the constitution of their State, and California was received into the Union free from the taint of slavery.
It was no slight disappointment to the men of the South. They had urged on the war with Mexico in order to gain new Slave States, new votes in Congress, additional room for the spread of slavery. They had gained all the territory they hoped for; but this strange revelation of gold had peopled it from the North, and slavery was shut out for ever. To soothe their irritation, Henry Clay proposed a very black concession, under the disgrace of which America suffered for years in the estimation of all Christian nations. The South was angry, and hinted even then at secession. The North was prosperous. Her merchants were growing rich; her farmers were rapidly overspreading the country and subduing waste lands to the service of man. Every year saw vast accessions to her wealth; and her supreme desire was for quietness. In this frame of mind she assented to the passing of the Fugitive Slave Law. Heretofore it had been lawful for the slave-owner to reclaim his slave who had escaped into a Free State; but although lawful, it was in practice almost impossible. Now the officers of the Government, and all good citizens, were commanded to give to the pursuer all needful help. In certain cases Government was to defray the expense of restoring the slave to the plantation from which he had fled. In any trial arising under this law, the evidence of the slave himself was not to be received; the oath of his pursuer was almost decisive against him. Hundreds of Southern ruffians hastened to take vile advantage of this shameful law. They searched out coloured men in the Free States, and swore that they were escaped slaves. In too many instances they were successful, and many free negroes as well as escaped slaves were borne back to the miseries of slavery. The North erred grievously in consenting to a measure so base. It is just, however, to say, that although Northern politicians upheld it as a wise and necessary compromise, the Northern people in their hearts abhorred it. The law was so unpopular that its execution was resisted in several Northern cities, and it quickly passed into disuse.
The great Louisiana purchase from Napoleon was not yet wholly portioned off into States. Westward and northward of Missouri was an enormous expanse of the richest land in the Union, having as yet few occupants more profitable than the Indians. Two great routes of travel – to the west and to the south-west – traversed it. The eager searcher for gold passed that way on his long walk to California. The Mormon looked with indifference on its luxuriant vegetation as he toiled on to his New Jerusalem by the Great Salt Lake. In the year 1853 it was proposed to organize this region into two Territories, under the names of Kansas and Nebraska. Here once more arose the old question – Shall the Territories be Slave or Free? The Missouri Compromise had settled that slavery should never come here. But the slave-owners were able to cancel this settlement. 1854 A.D. A law was enacted under which the inhabitants were left to choose between slavery and freedom. The vote of a majority would decide the destiny of these magnificent provinces.
And now both parties had to bestir themselves. The early inhabitants of the infant States were to fix for all time whether they would admit or exclude the slave-owner with his victims. Everything depended, therefore, on taking early possession.
The South was first in the field. Missouri was near, and her citizens led the way. Great slave-owners took possession of lands in Kansas, and loudly invited their brethren from other States to come at once, bringing their slaves with them. But their numbers were small, while the need was urgent. The South had no population to spare fitted for the work of colonizing, but she had in large numbers the class of “mean whites.” In the mean white of the Southern States we are permitted to see how low it is possible for our Anglo-Saxon humanity to fall. The mean white is entirely without education. His house is a hovel of the very lowest description. Personally he walks in rags and filth. He cannot stoop to work, because slavery has rendered labour disreputable. He supports himself as savages do – by shooting, by fishing, by the plunder of his industrious neighbours’ fields and folds. The negro, out of the unutterable degradation to which he has been subjected, looks with scorn upon the mean white.
1855 A.D. The mean whites of Missouri were easily marshalled for a raid into Kansas. The time came when elections were to take place – when the great question of Slave or Free was to be answered. Gangs of armed ruffians were marched over from Missouri. Such a party – nearly a thousand strong, accompanied by two pieces of cannon – entered the little town of Lawrence on the morning of the election day. The ballot-boxes were taken possession of, and the peaceful inhabitants were driven away. The invaders cast fictitious votes into the boxes, outnumbering ten or twenty times the lawful roll of voters. A legislature wholly in the interests of slavery was thus elected, and in due time that body began to enact laws. No man whose opinions were opposed to slavery was to be an elector in Kansas. Any man who spoke or wrote against slavery was to suffer imprisonment with hard labour. Death was the penalty for aiding the escape of a slave. All this was done while the enemies of slavery were an actual majority of the inhabitants of Kansas!
And then the Border ruffians overran the country – working their own wicked will wherever they came. The outrages they committed read like the freaks of demons. A man betted that he would scalp an abolitionist. He rode out from the little town of Leavensworth in search of a victim. He met a gentleman driving in a gig, shot him, scalped him, rode back to town, showed his ghastly trophy, and received payment of his bet. Men were gathered up from their work in the fields, ranged in line, and ruthlessly shot to death, because they hated slavery. A lawyer who had protested against frauds at an election was tarred and feathered; thus attired, he was put up to auction and sold to the highest bidder. The town of Lawrence was attacked by eight hundred marauders, who plundered it to their content – bombarding with artillery houses which displeased them – burning and destroying in utter wantonness.
But during all this unhappy time the steady tide of Northern immigration into Kansas flowed on. From the very outset of the strife the North was resolute to win Kansas for freedom. She sought to do this by colonizing Kansas with men who hated slavery. Societies were formed to aid poor emigrants. In single families, in groups of fifty to a hundred persons, the settlers were promptly moved westward. Some of these merely obeyed the impulse which drives so many Americans to leave the settled States of the east and push out into the wilderness. Others went that their votes might prevent the spread of slavery. There was no small measure of patriotism in the movement. Men left their comfortable homes in the east and carried their families into a wilderness, to the natural miseries of which was added the presence of bitter enemies. They did so that Kansas might be a Free State. Cannon were planted on the banks of the Missouri to prevent their entrance into Kansas. Many of them were plundered and turned back. Often their houses were burned and their fields wasted. But they were a self-reliant people, to whom it was no hardship to be obliged to defend themselves. When need arose they banded themselves together and gave battle to the ruffians who troubled them. And all the while they were growing stronger by constant reinforcements from the east. There were building, and clearing, and ploughing, and sowing. In spite of Southern outrage Kansas was fast ripening into a free and orderly community. 1859 A.D. In a few years the party of freedom was able to carry the elections. A constitution was adopted by which slavery was excluded from Kansas. 1861 A.D. And at length, just when the great final struggle between slavery and freedom was commencing, Kansas was received as a Free State. Her admission raised the number of States in the Union to thirty-four.
The conflict deepened as years passed. The Abolitionists became more irrepressible, the Slave-holders more savage. There seemed no hope of the law becoming just. The American people have a deep reverence for law, but here it was overborne by their sense of injustice. The wicked law was habitually set at defiance, and plans were carefully framed for aiding the escape of slaves. It was whispered about among the negroes that at certain points they were sure to find friends, shelter, and safe conveyance to Canada. Around every plantation there stretched dense jungles, swamps, pathless forests. The escaping slave fled to these gloomy solitudes. They hunted him with bloodhounds, and many a poor wretch was dragged back to groan under deeper brutalities than before. If happily undiscovered, he made his way to certain well-known stations, a chain of which passed him safely on to the protection of the British flag. This was the Underground Railway. Now and then its agents were discovered. In that miserable time it was a grave offence to help a slave to escape. The offender was doomed to heavy fine or long imprisonment. Some died in prison of the hardships they endured. But the Underground Railway never wanted agents. No sooner had the unjust law claimed its victim than another stepped into his place. During many years the average number of slaves freed by this agency was considerably over a thousand.
The slave-holders made it unsafe for Northerners of anti-slavery opinions to remain in the South. Acts of brutal violence – very frequently resulting in murder – became very common. 1860 A.D. During one year eight hundred persons were robbed, whipped, tarred and feathered, or murdered for suspected antipathy to slavery. The possession of an anti-slavery newspaper or book involved expulsion from the State; and the circulation of such works could scarcely be expiated by any punishment but death. In Virginia and Maryland it was gravely contemplated to drive the free negroes from their homes, or to sell them into slavery and devote the money thus obtained to the support of the common schools! Arkansas did actually expel her free negroes. The slave-holders were determined that nothing which could remind their victims of liberty should be suffered to remain.
1858 A.D. It was well said by Mr. Seward that they greatly erred who deemed this collision accidental or ephemeral. It was “an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces.” All attempts at compromise would be short-lived and vain.
The most influential advocate of the numerous compromises by which the strife was sought to be calmed, was Henry Clay of Kentucky. Clay was much loved for his genial dispositions, much honoured and trusted in for his commanding ability. For many years of the prolonged struggle he seemed to stand between North and South – wielding authority over both. Although Southern, he hated slavery, and the slave-holders had often to receive from his lips emphatic denunciations of their favourite system. But he hated the doctrines of the abolitionists, too, and believed they were leading towards the dissolution of the Union. He desired gradual emancipation, and along with it the return of the negroes to Africa. His aim was to deliver his country from the taint of slavery; but he would effect that great revolution step by step, as the country could bear it. At every crisis he was ready with a compromise. His proposals soothed the angry passions which were aroused when Missouri sought admission into the Union. 1850 A.D. His, too, was that unhappy compromise, one feature of which was the Fugitive Slave Bill. If compromise could have averted strife, Henry Clay would have saved his country. But the conflict was irrepressible.