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Southern Historical Society Papers/Volume 01/January/Origin of the Late War

< Southern Historical Society Papers‎ | Volume 01‎ | January


Vol. I.
Richmond, Va., January, 1876.

Origin of the Late War.

By Honorable R. M. T. Hunter, of Virginia.

The late civil war which raged in the United States has been very generally attributed to the abolition of slavery as its cause. When we consider how deeply the institutions of southern society and the operations of southern industry were founded in slavery, we must admit that this was cause enough to have produced such a result. But great and wide as was that cause in its far-reaching effects, a close study of the history of the times will bring us to the conclusion that it was the fear of a mischief far more extensive and deeper even than this which drove cool and reflecting minds in the South to believe that it was better to make the death struggle at once than submit tamely to what was inevitable, unless its coming could be averted by force. Men, too old to be driven blindly by passion, women, whose gentle and kindly instincts were deeply impressed by the horrors of war, and young men, with fortune and position yet to be won in an open and inviting field, if peace could be maintained so as to secure the opportunities of liberty and fair treatment, united in the common cause and determined to make a holocaust of all that was dear to them on the altars of war sooner than submit without resistance to the loss of liberty, honor and property by a cruel abuse of power and a breach of plighted faith on the part of those who had professed to enter with them into a union of justice and fraternal affection.

When this Union was originally formed, the United States embraced too many degrees of latitude and longitude, and too many varieties of climate and production, to make it practicable to establish and administer justly one common government which should take charge of all the interests of society. To the wise men who were entrusted with the formation of that union and common government, it was obvious enough that each separate society should be entrusted with the management of its own peculiar interests, and that the united government should take charge only of those interests which were common and general. To enforce this necessary distinction, it was provided that all powers, not specially granted, should be reserved to the people and the States, and a list of the granted powers was carefully and specifically made. But two parties soon arose in regard to these limitations. Those who wielded the powers thus granted became interested to remove these limitations as far as possible, whilst the minority, who belonged to the governed rather than the governing party, early learned to regard these limitations as the best and surest defences against the abuses and oppressions of a despotic majority. A tendency soon became manifest in the non-slaveholding portion of the union to constitute themselves into that governing party. Endowed with the greater share of power in the commencement, that preponderance was increased by the course of events. The famous northwestern ordinance, to which the old Virginia fathers were driven by their abhorrence of slavery, without looking too closely to its probable consequences, made the predominance of the non-slaveholding section in the government irresistible. The abolition of the slave-trade, after a time, by the constitution and the northwestern ordinance, left the growing superiority of that section not even doubtful. But the acquisition of Louisiana made another order of growth in political power possible as between the two sections. The bare possibility of such a result kindled a violent opposition in some portions of the non-slaveholding section. In New England it was particularly angry, and there sprung up for the first time in the history of our government audible threats of separation. The "land hunger" of the Anglo-Saxon race, as Theodore Parker calls it, soon quieted the opposition to the acquisition of territory, but a far more bitter strife arose as to the equal rights of the two sections to settle the vacant territory of the Union and grow possibly pari passu in power. So fierce was the strife, and so loud its tumult, that for the first time it broke upon Mr. Jefferson's ear like "a fire bell in the night." The contest between the two sections over the limitations in the constitution upon the governing party under it began with the commencement of its history, and ended only, as I shall presently show, with the revolution which destroyed the old form and established the despotism of a majority of numbers. It is in the history of this contest we must look for the true causes of the war, and the use made of the victory by the winning party will show the object and nature of that contest. When it became obvious that the only protection of the rights of the minority against the encroachments of the majority was to be found in the limitations upon the power of the governing party, a death struggle arose between the two parties over the constitutional restraints upon this power. The struggle between the two parties commenced at the beginning of the government. These were respectively led by Hamilton and Jefferson, the one with an avowed preference for monarchy, the other the great apostle of democracy—men of signal abilities, and each conscious of what would be the consequence of complete and perfect victory on either side. The party of power showed a constant tendency to draw all important subjects of jurisdiction within the vortex of Federal control, and an equally persevering effort on the other to limit that control to the strict necessities of a common government. A great leader, who came into the contest and figured in it until it was well nigh ended, used to say that in all good governments there existed a tax-consuming and tax-paying party, between whom a constant conflict existed, and in the history of that conflict the history of party strife would be found to consist; but when the first acquired complete supremacy, the nature, if not the form of the government—if it was originally republican—was sure to change. The leaders of the States rights party, aware of this tendency, as the contest went on, became more and more anxious to preserve their constitutional defences, and loudly proclaimed the danger of yielding them up. Time and again they proclaimed that the worst of all governments was that of a majority of numbers with absolute and unrestricted powers. Despotism of all sorts was bad, but the despotism of a majority of numbers in a democratic form of government was the worst of all—particularly was that the case in regard to slavery, as was often asserted. In February, 1790, when two abolition petitions, one of them signed by Dr. Franklin, were presented to Congress, that body "resolved that Congress had no authority to interfere in the emancipation of slaves, or even the treatment of them within any of the States, it remaining with the several States alone to provide any regulations therein which humanity or true policy may require." Congress thus clearly declared its view of its power over the subject. Congress was petitioned to do all in its power to discourage slavery, of which a Massachusetts man, in an able history of the long contest, has said: "Congress could not move a hair's breadth towards discouraging it, either lawfully or honestly. The powers of Congress being defined and nominated by the constitution which framed the government, all it could do in regard to any specific subject was to act upon it, if within its province, and if otherwise, 'to touch not, taste not, handle not.'" (Lunt's Origin of the Late War, p. 25.) In the debate upon the subject, one Southern gentleman objected to the commitment of these memorials as containing "unconstitutional requests," and said, "he feared the commitment would be a very alarming circumstance to the Southern States; for if it was to engage Congress in an unconstitutional measure, it would be considered an interference with their rights, making them uneasy under the government, and causing them to lament that they had ever put additional power into their hands." Another declared, "that the States would never have entered into the confederacy unless their property had been guaranteed to them, and that we look upon this measure as an attack upon the palladium of our property"—meaning the constitution. Another said if he was to hold these slaves in eternal bondage he would feel no uneasiness on account of the present menace, "because he would rely upon the virtue of Congress that they would not exercise any unconstitutional authority." The same historian well says "the impression made upon the southern members of Congress at the earliest period is also significant. Although evidently considering it of no practical importance, they yet clearly made it known they regarded such action as in violation of the constitution, and that without the guaranty for their rights of property in slaves, permitted by that instrument, the States which they represented would not have assented to it, and hence the plan for the Union must have failed. No one can doubt that if they had deemed the guaranty afforded insufficient they could have obtained pledges of a still more precise character, either then or at a later period, since the object of the Union was one of permanent interest to all. But neither they nor their northern compatriots entertained any question of the fidelity of their successors to engagements so solemnly undertaken, both express and implied." (Lunt, p. 27.) The history of this transaction shows how early the South was taught to look to the constitution for the defences of their rights in regard to slavery; how fully, too, and clearly the Congress admitted the existence of these defences, and that the South disregarded the unauthorized menace of these "anarchic Quakers," as Carlisle calls them, because they "relied upon the virtue of Congress that they would not exercise any unconstitutional authority. "Their property in slaves was guaranteed by the constitution; they felt authorized to say so by a solemn declaration of Congress made at the time, and they had too much confidence in the northern majority, who were soon to control that body, to believe that directly or indirectly they would impair or destroy a right so solemnly guaranteed. To have anticipated such an attack upon their property and peace, would have been to suppose that they had been made the easy victims of a perfidy, which, under all the circumstances, under all the traditions of common sufferings and exertions, was characterized by a wealth of deception that would have excited the envy even of a Carthagenian. Especially would that be the case if the deceit was to be covered up by a constant course of perjury on the part of the officials of the government, who were to be sworn as a qualification for office to support the constitution which contained that pledge. How justly our fathers relied upon that instrument to protect their rights, subsequent history has shown. Nothing could be more clearly established than the right on one side to reclaim fugitive slaves, and the obligation on the other to return them—an obligation which surely ought to have rested lightly enough on those who brought them here and sold them. Nor is it easy to see how the remorse for having sold them could be relieved by inveigling them away from those who had bought them. But so it was, that during the existence of slavery there was an ever-living contest between the slave and the free States on this very subject—the former seeking to enforce, and the latter to evade, the constitutional obligation for the return of fugitive slaves. Long before the secession of the slave States, it had become almost impossible, without the assistance of armed forces, to reclaim a fugitive slave openly in the free States. Lunt, p. 320, says: "At length fourteen of the sixteen free States had provided statutes which rendered any attempt to execute the fugitive slave act so difficult as to be practically impossible, and placed each of those States in an attitude of virtual resistance to the laws of the United States." When Mr. Toombs, in the Senate of the United States, during the session in which he withdrew from that body, referred to these laws and taxed the free States with their violation of constitutional obligation, in evidence of which he produced these statutes, it was pitiful to hear the excuses by which the representatives of these States sought to squirm out of the difficulty—a difficulty for which the executives of Ohio and Iowa would scarcely have cared to apologize, if it be true, as doubtless it is, as Lunt states, that "at a somewhat later period those officers refused to surrender to justice persons charged with participation in the John Brown raid." (See note, p. 320.) At the era of secession the constitution had not only ceased to be a palladium for these rights of the slaveholder, but was hardly recognized to be binding at all.

If, then, this instrument was to be relied upon by the slave States to protect them, it was only in the event that they could arm themselves with enough political power to enforce its provisions. So obvious had this become by 1819-'20, when the State of Missouri was struggling for admission as a slave State, that the slave States at that time solemnly asserted their right to settle the unoccupied and unappropriated territory of the United States with their slave property, under the protection of its laws—a right which was as vehemently denied by the free States. So bitter and fierce was this contest, that its agitations shook the very foundations of American society. It was settled for a time by a compromise excluding slavery from the United States Territories north of a line 36° 30' north latitude, and admitting it south of that line. Even this line left the South in a condition of hopeless inferiority, which was but little helped by the acquisition of a portion of Texas as a slave State. When the vast territory obtained from Mexico at the close of the war was organized, the Missouri compromise line was set aside, and the non-intervention principle was adopted, by which it became between the sections a mere question of the ability to colonize—a question in regard to which there could scarcely be a doubt, with the superior resources in wealth and population of the free States. It had become manifest that the South had no protection for its rights but the constitution, nor could it hope to avail itself of that protection without an increase of power in the government. Its hopes for acquiring that were daily becoming less, whilst sectional animosities were constantly becoming more angry and bitter. A party had sprung up which proclaimed the constitution to be "an agreement with death and a covenant with hell." This party was daily becoming stronger and more dangerous in spirit. It began at first by taking part in the contests between Whigs and Democrats, and grew upon the agitations in Congress and the newspaper press. This war of petitions for abolition was commenced by John Quincy Adams in 1831, when he presented a petition from Pennsylvania for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, but at the same time declared that he could not vote for it. He who was so denounced when he left the Federal party, on account of its disunion tendencies, and joined the Democratic under Mr. Jefferson, became the "old man eloquent" when he fanned the smouldering spark of sectional division with the burning breath of hate and anger which was yet to burst out in flames and consume the house with the fire whose initial spark he consented to bear and apply to the family dwelling, ever nursing the fire until the building was fairly ablaze. And what was now, in 1860, the worth of the reliance which kept the South quiet in 1790, because it "relied upon the virtue of Congress that it would exercise no unconstitutional authority?" In regard to the right to recapture fugitive slaves, it was at that time obviously a dead letter. The free States had violated that obligation by their personal liberty statutes, which were consonant with the general spirit of their people. The Abolition party, which denounced the constitution as a "league with death and a covenant with hell," was fast growing in power and influence in the free States, and threatened to become the most powerful political organization within their borders. Massachusetts had adopted resolutions by her legislature, with the assent of her governor—if his message represented his opinions—resolutions which were denounced at the time as being of a disunion character. Her senator, Bates, presented them in silence, and Colonel King, of Alabama, regretted that a proposition should come from Massachusetts to dissolve the Union. (See Lunt's Origin of the War, 128-9.) All hope of acquiring any additional political strength by the South to defend their rights was gone. The free States had announced their determination to exclude slavery from the Territories of the United States, and they had the strength to do it, if they believed, as they affected to do, that the constitution was no obstacle in their path. The right of growth was thus denied to the power of the slaveholding States, and with the state of feeling then existing and cherished, they had nothing to expect but to be dwarfed and oppressed, judging of the future by the past. Indeed, an armed invasion of Virginia had been just made by John Brown, with the avowed purpose of exciting servile insurrection, and although suppressed by the United States and State forces, it excited no such outburst of horror and denunciation at the North as it might reasonably be expected to have done. On the contrary, he seemed to have been considered more as a martyr perishing in a great and holy cause, than a criminal seeking to excite a servile war, whose victims were to be women and children. The "tolling of bells and the firing of minute guns upon the occasion of Brown's funeral; the meeting houses draped in mourning, as for a hero; the prayers offered, the sermons and discourses pronounced in his honor, as for a saint all—are of a date too recent and too familiarly known to require more than this passing allusion." (Lunt, 328.) Was there anything in all this calculated to discourage such attempts for the future? On the contrary, would it not be apt to stir up still more deeply excited minds, and the next attempt would probably have caused much more suffering. To expect that the attempt to cast a lighted match into a powder magazine would fail more than once, would be chimerical indeed. In considering the value of his defences under the constitution, a Southern man could not well forget that Mr. Seward, the leader of the party in power, had not only declared the conflict between freedom and slavery to be "irrepressible," but had affirmed there was a higher law than the constitution, to which the later must yield, or that the famous Helper book, endorsed and recommended generally by the Republican members of Congress, declared that "our own banner is inscribed: 'no co-operatian with slaveholders in politics; no fellowship with them in religion; no affiliation with them in society; no recognition of pro-slavery men, except as ruffians, outlaws and criminals.'" Again: "we are determined to abolish slavery at all hazards." With such a history of the administration of the constitution by the party in power, there was no very pleasant outlook for the slaveholders in the future. Had he any hope from amendments? That no effort to save the Union should be spared, Mr. Crittenden, of Kentucky, introduced certain resolutions proposing amendments to the constitution, which would have saved the Union, and which received every Southern vote except the South Carolina senators, who had withdrawn. They proposed to adopt, in effect, the Missouri compromise line, to prohibit Congress from abolishing the slave trade between the States, or slavery in places where the United States had exclusive jurisdiction, or in the District of "Columbia, without the consent of Maryland and of the slaveholders, and proposed a more effectual provision for the recovery of fugitive slaves. For these, a substitute was offered by Mr. Clark, of New Hampshire, declaring, amongst other things, that the provisions of the constitution are ample for the preservation of the Union, and the resolutions of Mr. Crittenden were voted down, and the substitute adopted by a united vote of the Republicans. Says Lunt: "The vote of the Republican members of the Senate was a blank denial of the necessity of compromise, and showed, of course, that they had deliberately made up their minds to refuse any negotiations." (Lunt's Origin of the War, p. 411.) The adoption of Mr. Crittenden's resolutions, it was said by Mr. Douglass, would have saved every Southern State except South Carolina. Undoubtedly such would have been the effect of a general agreement upon these resolutions between the two sections. But did the Republicans desire it? It would seem not from the postscript to Mr. Chandler's letter to Governor Blair: "Some of the manufacturing States think that a fight would be awful. Without a little blood-letting, this Union will not, in my opinion, be worth a curse." This was from a senator from Michigan, a man of much influence in his party. Virginia, not yet giving up her hope of preserving the Union, interposed to call "a peace conference." Resolutions were adopted by this body, composed of able and eminent men from the different States, very similar to Mr. Crittenden's, which met with no better success. Under these circumstances, what were the slaveholding States to do? In 1790 they kept quiet, because they "relied upon the virtue of Congress that they would do nothing without constitutional authority." Was such a faith any longer rational? Had not the conduct of the free States proved that the guarantees of the constitution upon the subject of slavery were no longer of the slightest avail to them? Upon that subject the majority in Congress, who were from these States, assumed whatever power they wanted. Could the minority rely upon the constitution to protect any of their rights, if it suited the passions or the interests of the majority to invade them? Our government was fast being revolutionized, and becoming one of a despotic majority of numbers; the limitations of a written constitution fast proving themselves to be without the defence of the political power to enforce them. Had the South the slightest hope of attaining any increase of that power? It had proved itself unable to do this in the past: what was the hope for the future? Lunt (p. 363) says with justice: "That it is impossible to regard the proceedings of the Chicago convention in any other light than as equivalent to a proclamation of absolutely hostile purposes against the Southern section of the country. They were not, technically, a declaration of war, to be conducted by arms, simply because they proposed only to use the pacific force of superior numbers, in order to deprive the minority of its rights under the constitution." (Lunt's Origin of the War, p. 362.) Indeed, one of its resolutions was amended so as to declare: "When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with one another, and to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the cause which impelled them to the separation." This amendment was introduced by a Pennsylvanian (Lunt, p.358), and passed unanimously by the convention. (Ibid.) To what did this look but secession and separation? Did it not argue the consciousness of a purpose to drive the South to those extremities? What else could the South do but separate, if possible, from the majority which ruled the government, and were animated by such feelings? Mr. Webster, the great apostle of Union in 1851, had said: "I do not hesitate to say and repeat, that if the Northern States refuse wilfully or deliberately to carry into effect that part of the constitution which respects the restoration of fugitive slaves, the South would no longer be bound to keep the compact. A bargain broken on one side is broken on all sides." (Lunt, p. 321.) Had not the precise case occurred? Had not the North deliberately and persistently refused to carry into effect that part of the constitution? Was the South bound any longer to keep the compact, according to this high authority? In this opinion of Mr. Webster, Mr. Jefferson undoubtedly concurred. Says Lunt, p. 203: "Mr. Jefferson took a different view of the subject, and it is proper to give his opinion as stated by Mr. John Q. Adams (who appears to have agreed with him) in his eulogy on Mr. Madison. Mr. Adams said: 'Concurring in the doctrines that the separate States have a right to interpose in cases of palpable infractions of the constitution by the Government of the United States, and that the alien and sedition acts presented a case of such infraction, Mr. Jefferson considered them as absolutely null and void, and thought the State legislatures competent, not only to declare, but to make them so, to resist their execution within their respective borders by physical force, and to secede from the Union, rather than to submit to them, if attempted to be carried into execution by force.'" On the 2d of March, 1861, Mr. Greeley declared: "We have repeatedly said, and we once more insist, that the great principle embodied by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, 'that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed,' is sound and just, and that if the slave States, the cotton States, or the gulf States only, choose to form an independent nation, they have a moral right to do so." (Lunt, p. 388-9.)

Is it strange that those States concurred in this opinion? They believed that the government was now in hands which were fast converting it into one of a majority of numbers with unlimited powers. Did the South enter into any such Union as that? Had not her leaders constantly declared that in their opinion this was the worst of all forms of government, and if she was willing to stake life, liberty and property on the effort to escape it, did she not thereby demonstrate the earnestness of her conviction of her right to escape, and that her faith had been plighted to a very different instrument, by which she refused any longer to be bound to those who were seeking under its name to destroy the rights which it guaranteed to her, and force her to subserve the purposes of those who were seeking to ruin and degrade her own citizens, her men, women and children. Who drove the South to these extremities? The very men who accuse her of treason. When she accepted the contest, to which she was thus virtually invited in terms of contumelious threat and reproach, she was threatened with being wiped out and annihilated by the superior resources of her antagonist, with whom it was vain and foolish to contend, so unequal were the strength and resources of the two parties. It is true that the South parted in bitterness, but it was in sadness of spirit also. She did not wish it-certainly, Virginia did not desire it-if she could maintain her rights within the Union. Probably few men foresaw the extent or the bitterness of the war. Surely it was a mighty contest to have been waged by two parties of such unequal strength in numbers and resources, with such a promise of success to the weaker, for nearly four years, and doubtless there were periods during that time when those who provoked that trial by battle regretted that they had done so. The South at last fell from physical exhaustion-the want of food, clothes and the munitions of war; she yielded to no superiority of valor or of skill, but to the mere avoirdupois of numbers. Physically, she was unable to stand up under such a weight of human beings, gathered from wherever they could be called by appeals to their passions or bought by a promise to supply their necessities. It is said that after the battle of the Second Cold Harbor, where Grant so foolishly assailed Lee in his lines, and where his dead was piled in thousands after his unsuccessful attack, the northern leaders were ready to have proposed peace, but were prevented by some favorable news from the southwest. They did not propose peace except upon terms of unconditional submission. When the South was forced to accept those terms to obtain it, the North was not afraid to avow its purposes and carry them out. Slavery was abolished without compensation, and slaves were awarded equal rights with their masters in the government. It was the fear of these results which drove the South into the war. Experience proved that this fear was reasonable. The war was alleged as the excuse for such proceedings; but can any man doubt that the North would have done the same thing if all constitutional restraints upon the power of the majority had been peaceably removed. To submit peaceably to the unlimited power of the majority was plainly to submit to these consequences or any other action which this majority may strongly desire to take. It is sought to be excused, I know, by assuming that these things were done with the assent of the South. That these constitutional amendments represent the well considered opinion of any respectable party in the South, there is none so infatuated as to believe. They were accepted as the terms of the conqueror, and so let them be considered by all who desire to know the true history of their origin.

To introduce hostile and conflicting statements in the formation of the public opinion, by which the action of the South was to be regulated, might, indeed, weaken and injure that section, but how it would help or benefit the North is yet to be seen, if it should so turn out. I think I have shown that the South had good reason to believe that the North meditated the infliction of these things, and that there was but little hope of finding any defence against them in the constitution. The alacrity with which she put these designs into execution so soon as our conquest enabled her to do so, proves that we did not suspect her wrongfully. The South had either to acquiesce in this oppression tamely and submissively, or fight to avert it. According to Mr. Webster, she had the constitutional right to do this; according to Mr. Greeley she had the moral right to do this. She fought to avert these injuries, and because she was unwilling to remain under the government of a majority with unlimited powers. What this latter change threatens remains to be seen. Congress has already undertaken by her civil rights bill to regulate social intercourse amongst her people in the States. Will Congress undertake to prescribe fast days, enforce temperance and take charge of the police laws of the States and the towns? These are questions which posterity must answer. Will they have no other remedy against this despotism but to substitute for it the one-man power. They at least will be in no doubt as to the causes, and history will be equally clear as to what parties forced it upon us.

"There is no longer any room for hope. We must fight. I repeat it, sir—we must fight. An appeal to arms and to the God of battles is all that is left us." So said and thought Patrick Henry, in reply to the British exactions upon the colonies. So thought, too, the people of the Confederate States, and they did fight. They waged a war for which history has no parallel against such odds in resources and numbers. Borne down by odds, against which it was almost vain to contend, we were bound to submit, and they have taken from us that which, in my opinion, it will be found

"Not enriches them,
But leaves us poor indeed."

Had the South permitted her property, her constitutional rights and her liberties to be surreptitiously taken from her without resistance and made no moan, would she not have lost her honor with them? If the alternative were between such a loss and armed resistance, is it surprising that she preferred the latter?