The slave-power grew very bold during the later years of its existence. The re-opening of the slave-trade became one of the questions of the day in the Southern States. The Governor of South Carolina expressly recommended this measure. Southern newspapers supported it; Southern ruffians actually accomplished it. Numerous cargoes of slaves were landed in the South in open defiance of law, and the outrage was unrebuked. 1859 A.D. Political conventions voted their approval of the traffic, and associations were formed to promote it. Agricultural societies offered prizes for the best specimens of newly imported live Africans. It was even proposed that a prize should be offered for the best sermon in favour of the slave-trade! Advertisements like this were frequent in Southern newspapers – “For sale, four hundred negroes, lately landed on the coast of Texas.” It was possible to do such things then. A little later – in the days of Abraham Lincoln – a certain ruffianly Captain Gordon made the perilous experiment of bringing a cargo of slaves to New York. He was seized, and promptly hanged, and there was no further attempt to revive the slave-trade. Thus appropriately was this hideous traffic closed.
The hatred of the North to slavery was rapidly growing. In the eyes of some, slavery was an enormous sin, fitted to bring the curse of God upon the land. To others, it was a political evil, marring the unity and hindering the progress of the country. To very many, on the one ground or the other, it was becoming hateful. Politicians sought to delay by concessions the inevitable crisis. Simple men, guiding themselves by their conviction of the wickedness of slavery, were growing ever more vehement in their abhorrence of this evil thing.
John Brown was such a man. The blood of the Pilgrim Fathers flowed in his veins; the old Puritan spirit guided all his actions. From his boyhood he abhorred slavery; and he was constrained by his duty to God and man to spend himself in this cause. There was no hope of advantage in it; no desire for fame; no thought at all for himself or for his children. He saw a huge wrong, and he could not help setting himself to resist it. He was no politician. He was powerless to influence the councils of the nation, but he had the old Puritan aptitude for battle. He went to Kansas with his sons to help in the fight for freedom; and while there was fighting to be done, John Brown was at the front. He was a leader among the free settlers, who felt his military superiority, and followed him with confidence in many a bloody skirmish. He retired habitually into deep solitudes to pray. He had morning and evening prayers, in which all his followers joined. He would allow no man of immoral character in his camp. He believed that God directed him in visions; he was God’s servant, and not man’s. The work given him to do might be bitter to the flesh, but since it was God’s work he dared not shrink from it.
When the triumph of freedom was secured in Kansas, John Brown moved eastward to Virginia.
Harper’s Ferry was a town of five thousand inhabitants, nestling amid steep and rugged mountains, where the Shenandoah unites its waters with those of the Potomac. The National Armoury was here, and an arsenal in which were laid up enormous stores of arms and ammunition. Brown resolved to seize the arsenal. It was his hope that the slaves would hasten to his standard when the news of his success went abroad. And he seems to have reckoned that he would become strong enough to make terms with the Government, or, at the worst, to secure the escape to Canada of his armed followers.
1859 A.D. One Sunday evening in October he marched into Harper’s Ferry with a little army of twenty-two men – black and white – and easily possessed himself of the arsenal. He cut the telegraph wires; he stopped the trains which here cross the Potomac; he made prisoners of the workmen who came in the morning to resume their labours at the arsenal. His sentinels held the streets and bridges. The surprise was complete, and for a few hours his possession of the Government works was undisputed.
When at length the news of this amazing rebellion was suffered to escape, and America learned that old John Brown had invaded and conquered Harper’s Ferry, the rage and alarm of the slave-owners and their supporters knew no bounds. The Virginians, upon whom the affront fell most heavily, took prompt measures to avenge it. By noon on Monday a force of militiamen surrounded the little town, to prevent the escape of those whom, as yet, they were not strong enough to capture. Before night fifteen hundred men were assembled. All that night Brown held his conquest, till nearly all his men were wounded or slain. His two sons were shot dead. Brown, standing beside their bodies, calmly exhorted his men to be firm, and sell their lives as dearly as possible. On Tuesday morning the soldiers forced an entrance, and Brown, with a sabre-cut in his head, and two bayonet-stabs in his body, was a prisoner. He was tried, and condemned to die. Throughout his imprisonment, and even amid the horrors of the closing scene, his habitual serenity was undisturbed. He “humbly trusted that he had the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, to rule in his heart.”
To the enraged slave-owners John Brown was a detestable rebel. To the abolitionists he was a martyr. To us he is a true, earnest, but most ill-judging man. His actions were unwise, unwarrantable; but his aims were noble, his self-devotion was heroic.
In this year America made her decennial enumeration of her people and their possessions. The industrial greatness which the census revealed was an astonishment, not only to the rest of the world, but even to herself. The slow growth of the old European countries seemed absolute stagnation beside this swift multiplication of men and of beasts, and of wealth in every form.
The three million colonists who had thrown off the British yoke had now increased to thirty-one and a half million! Of these, four million were slaves, owned by three hundred and fifty thousand persons. This great population was assisted in its toils by six million horses and two million working oxen. It owned eight million cows, fifteen million other cattle, twenty-two million sheep, and thirty-three million hogs. The products of the soil were enormous. The cotton crop of this year was close upon one million tons. It had more than doubled within the last ten years. The grain crop was twelve hundred million bushels – figures so large as to pass beyond our comprehension. Tobacco had more than doubled since 1850 – until now America actually yielded a supply of five hundred million pounds. There were five thousand miles of canals, and thirty thousand miles of railroad – twenty-two thousand of which were the creation of the preceding ten years. The textile manufactures of the country had reached the annual value of forty million sterling. America had provided for the education of her children by erecting one hundred and thirteen thousand schools and colleges, and employing one hundred and fifty thousand teachers. Her educational institutions enjoyed revenues amounting to nearly seven million sterling, and were attended by five and a half million pupils. Religious instruction was given in fifty-four thousand churches, in which there was accommodation for nineteen million hearers. The daily history of the world was supplied by four thousand newspapers, which circulated annually one thousand million copies.
There belonged to the American people nearly two thousand million acres of land. They had not been able to make any use of the greater part of this enormous heritage. Only four hundred million acres had as yet become in any measure available for the benefit of man. The huge remainder lay unpossessed – its power to give wealth to man growing always greater during the long ages of solitude and neglect. The ownership of this prodigious expanse of fertile land opened to the American people a future of unexampled prosperity. They needed only peace and the exercise of their own vigorous industry. But a sterner task was in store for them.
During the last few years the divisions between North and South had become exceedingly bitter. The North was becoming ever more intolerant of slavery. The unreasoning and passionate South resented with growing fierceness the Northern abhorrence of her favoured institution. In the Senate House one day a member was bending over his desk, busied in writing. His name was Charles Sumner, of Massachusetts. He was well known for the hatred which he bore to slavery, and his power as an orator gave him rank as a leader among those who desired the overthrow of the system. While this senator was occupied with his writing, there walked up to him two men whom South Carolina deemed not unworthy to frame laws for a great people. One of them – a ruffian, although a senator – whose name was Brooks, carried a heavy cane. With this formidable weapon he discharged many blows upon the head of the unsuspecting Sumner, till his victim fell bleeding and senseless to the floor. For this outrage a trifling fine was imposed on Brooks. His admiring constituents eagerly paid the amount. Brooks resigned his seat, and was immediately re-elected. Handsome canes flowed in upon him from all parts of the slave country. The South, in a most deliberate and emphatic manner, recorded its approval of the crime which he had committed.
To such a pass had North and South now come. Sumner vehemently attacking slavery; Brooks vehemently smiting Sumner upon his defenceless head – these men represent with perfect truthfulness the feeling of the two great sections. This cannot last.
A new President fell to be elected in 1860. Never had an election taken place under circumstances so exciting. The North was thoroughly aroused on the slave question. The time for compromises was felt to have passed. It was a death-grapple between the two powers. Each party had to put forth its strength and conquer, or be crushed.
The enemies of slavery announced it as their design to prevent slavery from extending to the Territories. They had no power to interfere in States where the system already existed. But, they said, the Territories belong to the Union. The proper condition of the Union is freedom. The Slave States are merely exceptional. It is contrary to the Constitution to carry this irregularity where it does not already exist.
The Territories, said the South, belong to the Union. All citizens of the Union are free to go there with their property. Slaves are property. Slavery may therefore be established in the Territories, if slave-owners choose to settle there.
On this issue battle was joined. The Northern party nominated Abraham Lincoln as their candidate. The Southerners, with their friends in the North – of whom there were many – divided their votes among three candidates. They were defeated, and Abraham Lincoln became President.
Mr. Lincoln was the son of a small and not very prosperous farmer. He was born in 1809 in the State of Kentucky, but his youth was passed mainly in Indiana. His father had chosen to settle on the farthest verge of civilization. Around him was a dense, illimitable forest, still wandered over by the Indians. Here and there in the wilderness occurred a rude wooden hut like his own, the abode of some rough settler regardless of comfort and greedy of the excitements of pioneering. The next neighbour was two miles away. There were no roads, no bridges, no inns. The traveller swam the rivers he had to cross, and trusted, not in vain, to the hospitality of the settlers for food and shelter. Now and then a clergyman passed that way, and from a hasty platform beneath a tree the gospel was preached to an eagerly-listening audience of rugged woodsmen. Many years after, when he had grown wise and famous, Mr. Lincoln spoke, with tears in his eyes, of a well-remembered sermon which he had heard from a wayfaring preacher in the great Indiana wilderness. Justice was administered under the shade of forest trees. The jury sat upon a log. The same tree which sheltered the court, occasionally served as a gibbet for the criminal.
In this society – rugged, but honest and kindly – the youth of the future President was passed. He had little schooling; indeed there was scarcely a school within reach, and if all the days of his school-time were added together they would scarcely make up one year. His father was poor, and Abraham was needed on the farm. There was timber to fell, there were fences to build, fields to plough, sowing and reaping to be done. Abraham led a busy life, and knew well, while yet a boy, what hard work meant. Like all boys who come to anything great, he had a devouring thirst for knowledge. He borrowed all the books in his neighbourhood, and read them by the blaze of the logs which his own axe had split.
This was his upbringing. When he entered life for himself, it was as clerk in a small store. He served nearly a year there, conducting faithfully and cheerfully the lowly commerce by which the wants of the settlers were supplied. Then he comes before us as a soldier, fighting a not very bloody campaign against the Indians, who had undertaken, rather imprudently, to drive the white men out of that region. Having settled in Illinois, he commenced the study of law, supporting himself by land-surveying during the unprofitable stages of that pursuit. Finally he applied himself to politics, and in 1834 was elected a member of the Legislature of Illinois.
He was now in his twenty-fifth year; of vast stature, somewhat awkwardly fashioned, slender for his height, but uncommonly muscular and enduring. He was of pleasant humour, ready and true insight. After such a boyhood as his, difficulty had no terrors for him, and he was incapable of defeat. His manners were very homely. His lank, ungainly figure, dressed in the native manufacture of the backwoods, would have spread dismay in a European drawing-room. He was smiled at even in the uncourtly Legislature of Illinois. But here, as elsewhere, whoever came into contact with Abraham Lincoln felt that he was a man framed to lead other men. Sagacious, penetrating, full of resource, and withal honest, kindly, conciliatory, his hands might be roughened by toil, his dress and ways might be those of the wilderness, yet was he quickly recognized as a born king of men.
During the next twenty-six years Mr. Lincoln applied himself to the profession of the law. During the greater portion of those years he was in public life. He had part in all the political controversies of his time. Chief among these were the troubles arising out of slavery. From his boyhood Mr. Lincoln was a steady enemy to slavery, as at once foolish and wrong. He would not interfere with it in the old States, for there the Constitution gave him no power; but he would in noway allow its establishment in the Territories. He desired a policy which “looked forward hopefully to the time when slavery, as a wrong, might come to an end.” He gained in a very unusual degree the confidence of his party, who raised him to the presidential chair, as a true and capable representative of their principles in regard to the great slavery question.
South Carolina was the least loyal to the Union of all the States. She estimated very highly her own dignity as a sovereign State. She held in small account the allegiance which she owed to the Federal Government. Twenty-eight years ago Congress had enacted a highly protective tariff. 1832 A.D. South Carolina, disapproving of this measure, decreed that it was not binding upon her. Should the Federal Government attempt to enforce it, South Carolina announced her purpose of quitting the Union and becoming independent. General Jackson, who was then President, made ready to hold South Carolina to her duty by force; but Congress modified the tariff, and so averted the danger. Jackson believed firmly that the men who then held the destiny of South Carolina in their hands wished to secede. “The tariff,” he said, “was but a pretext. The next will be the slavery question.”
1860 A.D. The time predicted had now come, and South Carolina led her sister States into the dark and bloody path. A convention of her people was promptly called, and on the 20th of December an Ordinance was passed dissolving the Union, and declaring South Carolina a free and independent republic. When the Ordinance was passed the bells of Charleston rang for joy, and the streets of the city resounded with the wild exulting shouts of an excited people. Dearly had the joy of those tumultuous hours to be paid for. Four years later, when Sherman quelled the heroic defence of the rebel city, Charleston lay in ruins. Her people, sorely diminished by war and famine, had been long familiar with the miseries which a strict blockade and a merciless bombardment can inflict.
The example of South Carolina was at once followed by other discontented States. Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Florida hastened to assert their independence, and to league themselves into a new Confederacy. They adopted a Constitution, differing from the old mainly in these respects, that it contained provisions against taxes to protect any branch of industry, and gave effective securities for the permanence and extension of slavery. They elected Mr. Jefferson Davis President for six years. They possessed themselves of the Government property within their own boundaries. It was not yet their opinion that the North would fight, and they bore themselves with a high hand in all the arrangements which their new position seemed to call for.
After the Government was formed, the Confederacy was joined by other Slave States who at first had hesitated. Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Texas, after some delay, gave in their adhesion. The Confederacy in its completed form was composed of eleven States, with a population of nine million; six million of whom were free, and three million were slaves. Twenty-three States remained loyal to the Union. Their population amounted to twenty-two million.
It is not to be supposed that the free population of the seceding States were unanimous in their desire to break up the Union. On the contrary, there is good reason to believe that a majority of the people in most of the seceding States were all the time opposed to secession. In North Carolina the attempt to carry secession was at first defeated by the people. In the end that State left the Union reluctantly, under the belief that not otherwise could it escape becoming the battle-ground of the contending powers. Thus, too, Virginia refused at first by large majorities to secede. In Georgia and Alabama the minorities against secession were large. In Louisiana twenty thousand votes were given for secession, and seventeen thousand against it. In many cases it required much intrigue and dexterity of management to obtain a favourable vote; and the resolution to quit the Union was received in sorrow by very many of the Southern people. But everywhere in the South the idea prevailed that allegiance was due to the State rather than to the Federation. And thus it came to pass that when the authorities of a State resolved to abandon the Union, the citizens of that State felt constrained to secede, even while they mourned the course upon which they were forced to enter.
It has been maintained by some defenders of the seceding States that slavery was not the cause of secession. On that question there can surely be no authority so good as that of the seceding States themselves. A declaration of the reasons which influenced their action was issued by several States, and acquiesced in by the others. South Carolina was the first to give reasons for her conduct. These reasons related wholly to slavery, no other cause of separation being hinted at. The Northern States, it was complained, would not restore runaway slaves. They assumed the right of “deciding on the propriety of our domestic institutions.” They denounced slavery as sinful. They permitted the open establishment of anti-slavery societies. They aided the escape of slaves. They sought to exclude slavery from the Territories. Finally, they had elected to the office of President, Abraham Lincoln, “a man whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.”