The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 2/Number 1/The President's Prophecy of Peace

The Atlantic Monthly  (1858) 
The President's Prophecy of Peace


There was joy in the national palace on the eve of May-day. The heart of the Chief of Thirty Millions was full of gladness. It was a high holiday at the capital of the nation. Jubilant processions crowded the streets. The boom of cannon told to the heavens that some great event, full of glory and of blessing, was just happily born into the history of the world. Strains of triumphant music at once expressed and stirred afresh the rapture which the new fruition of a deferred and doubting hope had kindled in myriad breasts. Rejoicing multitudes swarmed before the palace gate, and with congratulatory shouts compelled the presence of the Nation's Head. He stood before them proud and happy, and answered to the transports of their joy with a responsive sympathy. He rejoiced in the prospect of the peace and prosperity with which the occasion of this jubilee was to cheer and bless the land in all its borders. His chosen friends and counsellors surrounded him and echoed his prophecies of good. A kindred homage was next paid to the virtuous artificers of the new-wrought blessing, without whose shaping hands it would have perished before the sight, or taken some dreadful form of mischief and of horror. Their words of cheer and exultation, too, swelled the surging tide of patriotic emotion till it overflowed again. Thus with the thunder of artillery, with the animating sound of drum and trumpet, with the more persuasive music of impassioned words, with shoutings and with revelry, these jocund compeers, from the highest to the lowest, mingled into one by the alchemy of a common joy, chased the hours of that memorable night and gave strange welcome to the morn of May.

What great happiness had just befallen, which should thus transport with joy the chief magistrate of a mighty nation, and send an answering pulse of rapture through all the veins of his capital? The armies of the Republic had surely just returned in triumph from some dubious battle joined with a barbarian invader who threatened to trample all her cherished rights, and the institutions which are their safeguard, under his iron heel. Perhaps the Angel of Mercy had at length set again the seals upon some wide-wasting pestilence which had long been walking in darkness, with Terror going before her and Death following after. Or was it the desolating course of Famine that had been stayed, as it swept, gaunt and hungry, over the land, and consumed its inhabitants from off its face? Peradventure, the prayers of holy men had prevailed, and the heavens which had been as brass were melted, and the earth which had been but ashes revived again, a living altar, crowned afresh with flowers, and prophetic of the thank-offerings of harvests. Or it might be that a great discoverer had added a new world to the domain of human happiness, by some invention which should lighten the toils and multiply the innocent satisfactions of mankind. Or had virtue and intelligence won some signal victory over barbarism and ignorance, and blessed with liberty and knowledge regions long abandoned to despotism and to darkness? These had been, indeed, occasions on which the chief ruler of a great people might fitly lead the anthem of a nation's thanksgiving.

But the joy which thus overflowed the hearts of President and people at the metropolis of our politics, and which has sprinkled with its cordial drops kindred spirits scattered far and wide over the land, welled up from no wholesome sources such as these. It was no deliverance from barbarous enemies, from pestilential disease, from meagre famine, that moved those raptures,--no joy at ignorance dissipated, barbarism dispelled, or tyranny put down. The "peace" and the "prosperity," the prophecy of which was so sweet to the souls that took sweet counsel together on that night, were of a kind which only souls tuned to such unison and so subtly trained could fully comprehend and rightly estimate. This gentle peace, thus joyfully presaged, is to be won by the submission of an inchoate State to a form of government subjecting its inhabitants to institutions abhorrent to their souls and fatal to their prosperity, forced upon them at the point of the bowie-knife and the muzzle of the revolver by hordes of sordid barbarians from a hostile soil, their natural and necessary enemies. And the sweet harbinger of this blessed peace, the halcyon which broods over the stormy waves and tells of the calm at hand, is a bribe so cunningly devised that its contrivers firmly believe it will buy up the souls of these much-injured men, and reconcile them to the shame and infamy of trading away their lights and their honor as the boot of a dirty bargain in the land-market. And the "prosperity" which is to wait upon this happy "peace" glows with a like golden promise. It is a prosperity that shall bless Kansas into a Virginia or a North Carolina by virtue of the same means which has crowned the Slave-country with the wealth, the civilization, and the intelligence it has to brag of. It is such a prosperity as ever follows after the footsteps of Slavery,--a prosperity which is to blight the soil, degrade the minds, debauch the morals, impoverish the substance, and subvert the independence of a loathing population, if the joy of the President and his directors is to be made full. Such is the message of peace and good-will which thrilled with prophetic raptures the hearts which flowed together on that happy night, and such the blessed prospects which made the air of Washington vocal with the ecstasies of triumph.

The history of the world is full enough of illustrations of "the Art of making a Great Kingdom a Small One." The art of degrading the imperial idea of a true republic from its just preeminence among the polities of mankind, of quenching the principles of eternal right which are the star-points of its divine crown, of trailing the shining whiteness of its robes in the dust, and making it an object of contempt rather than of adoration, has never been taught more emphatically than in the examples furnished by our own later annals. If Mr. Buchanan and his predecessor had set themselves to work, of good set purpose, to bring republican institutions into derision, and to prove that the American experiment was a dead failure, they could not have proceeded more cunningly with their task. Their aim has been, as it has seemed, to give the lie to all the principles on which it has been assumed that these institutions rest, and to show that their real object is to subject the many to the government of the few, as the manner is of the nations round about. The thin veil of decent falsehood, under which the caution of earlier time had decorously hid this fact, has been torn aside by the rude intrepidity of assurance which long-continued success had fostered. The problem to be solved being to prove the chief axiom of our political science, that the people have a right to self-government and to the choice of their own institutions, to be a lie, it is worked out in the presence of an admiring world, after this fashion.

The old Ordinance--which set limits to Slavery, and which, as it preceded the Constitution, should in honor and equity be taken as a condition precedent to it, and the later pledge of the South, that this contract should be sacredly kept on the other side of a certain parallel of latitude, having both been infamously violated for the sake of extending the domain of Slavery into regions solemnly dedicated to Liberty, the entire energies of the General Government and of the political party it represented were put forth to crystallize this double lie into the institutions of Kansas, and thus take it out of the category of theory and reduce it into that of fact. The reluctance of the inhabitants of the young Territory went for nothing, and provision was soon effectually made to overcome their resistance. Every form of terrorism, to which tyrants all alike instinctively resort to disarm resistance to their will, was launched at the property, the lives, and the happiness of the defenceless settlers. Hordes of barbarians, as we have said before, from every part of the Southern hive, but especially from the savage tribes of the bordering Missouri, poured themselves over the devoted land. Murder, arson, robbery, every outrage that could be offered to man or woman, waited on their footsteps and stalked abroad with them in their forays against Freedom. When the first steps were to be taken towards the organization of a government, they precipitated themselves upon the Territory in fiercer numbers. They made themselves masters of the polling-places; they drove away by violence and threats the peaceable inhabitants and lawful voters, and by open force and unblushing fraud elected themselves or their creatures the lawgivers of the commonwealth about to be created. So outrageous were the crimes of these miscreants at this and subsequent periods, that even the very creatures of Pierce and Buchanan, chosen especially for their supposed fitness to assist in these villanies, turned away, one after another, sickened at the sight of them, and forfeited forever the favor of their masters by shrinking from an unqualified and unhesitating obedience.

The Constitution, contrived by the wretches thus nefariously clothed in the stolen sovereignty of the true inhabitants of Kansas, of course made Slavery an integral part of the institutions of the State. A code of laws was enacted absolutely without parallel in the history of the world for insolent trampling down of rights and for bloody cruelty of penalties,--laws so abominable as even to call down upon them, from his place in the Senate, the emphatic condemnation of so veteran a soldier in the service of Slavery as General Cass, now Mr. Buchanan's Secretary of State. These Territorial laws, thus infamously vile, thus made in defiance of the well-known will of the great majority of the people of Kansas, Mr. Pierce hastened to recognize as the authentic expression of the mind of the people there, and exerted all the moral and all the physical force of the government to maintain them in their authority. Since that magistrate was kicked aside as no longer available for the uses of Slavery, because of the very infamy he had won in its service, Mr. Buchanan, unlessoned by his fate, has adopted his views and carried out his policy.

We do not propose to follow this march of shameful events step by step, nor to speak of them in their exact chronological order, nor yet to specify to which of these magistrates the credit of any one of them belongs, inasmuch as the philosophy and method of the policy of the one and the other are absolutely identical. We have space only to glance at unquestionable facts, and to trace them to their necessary motives. To maintain the supremacy of this usurpation, and the Draconic laws made under it, Mr. Pierce poured in the squadrons of the Republic, to dragoon the rebellious freemen into obedience to what their souls abhorred, and what their reason told them was of no more just binding force upon them than an edict of the Emperor of China. When the actual inhabitants of the Territory had met in Convention and framed a Constitution excluding Slavery, and had adopted it, and the legislature authorized by it met, its members were dispersed by national soldiers, detailed to compel submission to the behests of the Slavemastery of the Government and of the nation. These troops have been kept on foot ever since, to intimidate the people, to assist as special police in the arrest and detention of political prisoners charged with crimes against the Usurpation, and to sustain the Federal governors and judges in carrying out their instructions for the Subjugation of the majority by legal chicane or by military violence.

Such was the genesis of the Lecompton Constitution, and such the nursing it had received at the hands of the paternal government at Washington. In due course of time it was presented to Congress as the charter under which the people of Kansas asked to receive the concession of their right of State government; and the scene of war was forthwith transferred from those distant fields to the chambers of national legislation, under the immediate eye of the chief of the state. This high officer soon dispelled any delusive doubts which, for the purpose of securing his election, he had permitted to be ventilated during the late Presidential campaign, that he would at least see fair play in the struggle between Slavery and Freedom in Kansas. With indecent zeal and unscrupulous partisanship, he concentrated all the energies of his administration, and employed the whole force of the influence and the patronage of the nation, to obtain the indorsement by Congress of the Lecompton Constitution, and thus to compel the people of Kansas to pass under the yoke of their Slaveholding invaders. The true origin and character of that vile fabrication had been made plain to every eye that was willing to see, and the abhorrence in which it was held by nearly the entire population of the Territory put beyond question by more than one trial vote. Yet it was embraced as the test measure of the Administration to prove the unbroken fealty of the President to the Power which is mightier than he. Victory was reckoned upon in advance, as certain and easy. A servile, or rather a commanding majority in the Senate,--nearly half of that body being of the class that rules the rulers,--was ready to do whatever dirty and detestable work was demanded of them. A majority of more than thirty in the House, elected as supporters of the Administration, seemed to make success there also an inevitable necessity. But by reason of the vastly larger proportion of members from the Free States in that body, and their greater nearness to their constituents, these reasonable expectations were disappointed. Men who had taken service in the Democratic ranks, and had been faithful unto that day, refused to obey the word of command when it took this tone and was informed with this purpose. And for a season the plague was stayed, and sanguine hearts trusted that it was stayed forever.

We are willing to believe that the bulk of the Democrats in both Houses of Congress, who had the virtue to defy the threats and cajolements of their party-leaders, when this great public crime was demanded at their hands, were sincere in the resistance they opposed to this subversion of all the principles in which they had been bred, and of which their party had always professed to be the special defence and guard. But the mantle of our charity is not wide enough to cover up the base treachery of those men who, acknowledging and demonstrating the right, devised or consented to the villany which was to crush or to cripple it. That the final shape which the Lecompton juggle took was an invention of the enemy, cunningly contrived to win by indirection what was too dangerous to be attempted by open violence, is a conclusion from which no candid mind can escape, after a full consideration of the case. The defection of so large a body of Northern Democrats from the side of the Slaveholding Directory was doubtless a significant and startling fact, suggestive of dangerous insubordination on the part of allies who had ever been found sure and steadfast in every jeopardy of Slavery. And it made a resort to guile necessary to carry the point which it was not prudent to press to the extremity of force. The Slaveholders are not fastidious as to the means by which they reach their end. Though they might have preferred to hew their way to their design with a high hand, and to put down all opposition by bought or bullied majorities, backed by the strong arm of the nation, yet they never refuse to compromise and palter when the path to success lies through stratagems or frauds. The skill in this instance, as in all others, by which they propose to win everything under the show of yielding somewhat, is worthy of Machiavel or of Lucifer, and is far above the capacity of the paltry Northern tool who is permitted to enjoy the infamy of the invention which he was employed to utter. The Slaveholders, like other despots, do their dirty work by proxy, and scorn the wretched instruments they use, and then fling from them in disgust.

The Lecompton cheat having been defeated in the House after it had received the indorsement of the Senate, the two coordinates were at issue, and it seemed for a brief time to have met with the fate it merited. But cunning and treachery combined to put it into the hands of a Committee of Conference to be manipulated afresh, and, if possible, moulded into a shape that might give Democratic recusants an excuse for treason to the North and submission to the Power that demanded it. And the invention was worthy of the diabolical sagacity and ingenuity which have always marked the politics of Slavery. The maxim, that every man has his price, was assumed to apply as well to men when collected into bodies corporate as to individuals; and the hook, with which the souls of the men of Kansas are to be fished for, was baited with a bribe the most tempting to their hungry needs. And to make their capture the more sure, an answering menace threatens them on the other hand, to force them to swallow the barbed treachery. They are offered no opportunity of expressing their assent or dissent as to the Constitution held over their heads. Their enemies know too well what its fate would be, if offered, pure and simple, to their acceptance or refusal. They are only to say whether or not they will accept five million acres of land that Congress munificently offers them for the construction of their railways. If they say, "Yes, thank you," to this simple question, the Chief Conjurer of the nation, the great Medicine Man of our tribe, the Head Magician of our Egypt, will only have to say, "Presto pass," and they will find themselves a Slave State in the glorious Union, under a solemn contract, struck by this same act, to endure Slavery for six years to come. If they say, "No, we won't," the door of the Union is shut in their faces, and they are told to wait without in all the bleakness of Territorial dependency, subject to the laws now afflicting them, with a satrap sent down from Washington to rule over them, and with Lecomptes and Catos to decree justice for them, until swindling swindling tools of the Administration shall be instructed to allow the presence of a sufficient population to entitle a State to a Representative.

If they consent to be erected into a Slave State by accepting the bribe, they will come into the Union by a puff of Presidential breath, though having only forty thousand inhabitants, with two Senators and a Representative, and all the advantages incident to Federal connection and patronage. Should they reject it, they will be left, it may be, to years of Territorial annoyance, and the annoyance of a Slave Territory, too, till Government officials shall discover their numbers to amount to near a hundred thousand, and possibly to much more, after the next census has newly apportioned the House. With Slavery, they have proffered to them broad lands to help cover their wide expanse with an iron reticulation of railways, developing their resources and multiplying their material prosperity, at the slight cost of their consistency and their honor. Without it, they may have to stand shivering at the gate of the Union, blasted by the "cold shade" of our American aristocracy, and far removed from the genial sunshine of national favor and bounty. Truly did Senator Wilson say that Congress approached Kansas at once with a bribe and a threat. Never was the devilish cunning of Slaveholding politics more strikingly illustrated than by the insidious vileness of this proposition. It had been bad enough, surely, had we been called upon to rejoice, as over a great triumph of the right, at the concession to Kansas of the sovereignty of settling her own institutions in her own way, had such been granted. Nothing could be more simple and natural, in a case of conflicting assertions and opposite beliefs as to the state of opinion there, than to remit the decision of the doubt to a fresh vote. Had any other interest than that in human beings been involved, such a disposition of the whole matter would have excited neither remark nor opposition. Nothing, perhaps, could exemplify the control Slavery has obtained over the affairs of the country more strongly than the power it has had to hinder this simple remedy of an alleged wrong or error,--and this, by procuring the defection of sordid Northern Representatives from what they confessed to be the right, to this corrupt evasion,--an evasion designed to fit the people of Kansas for servitude by tempting them to sacrifice their self-respect and their honor. Let these miscreants make haste to seize the price of their perfidy before popular contempt and loathing shall sweep them forever out of sight into the abyss of infamy and forgetfulness which is appointed for the traitors to Liberty. If the question of the real will of the people of Kansas had been referred back to them for settlement, it would have been humiliating enough to have had to exult over it as a victory of Freedom. With what depth of shame, then, should we contemplate the compassing of their end by the Slavocrats, through the venal surrender of the rights so long and so manfully asserted, for so paltry a temptation!

But we do not apprehend a consummation so devoutly to be deprecated. We believe that the people of Kansas will spurn the bribe and refuse to eat the dirt that is set before them for a banquet. They will reject the insulting proffer with contempt, and fall back upon their reserved right of resistance, passive or active, as their circumstances may advise. They will not be so base as to desert the post of honor they have sought in the great fight for freedom and maintained so long and so well, disappointing and throwing into confusion the distant allies who have stood behind them in their most evil hours, for all the lands that President and Congress have to give. It is, indeed, a momentous crisis for them, and we have faith to believe that they will not be wanting to its demands. The eyes of the lovers of liberty everywhere are earnestly watching to see how they will come out from the ordeal by fire and by gold to which they are subjected. What Boston was in 1775, and Paris in 1789, is Kansas now,--the field on which a great battle for the right is to be fought. Honor or infamy attends the issue of her action in the dilemma in which the crafty malice of her enemies has placed her. If she agree to take the dirty acres which are proffered to her as the price of her integrity, she consents to take the yoke of Slavery upon her neck and not even to attempt to shake herself free from it for six years to come. We know that shuffling Democrats, and even temporizing Republicans, represent that the people, after accepting the Lecompton Constitution, can forthwith summon a Convention and substitute another scheme of government in its stead. But this could be initiated only by a breach of the promise they would have just pledged, and could be carried through only by a revolution. Such a course would be a direct violation of the philosophy of Constitutional Government, which assumes as its fundamental axiom, that Constitutions can be altered only in the way and according to the conditions prescribed in themselves. Such a proceeding would be a _coup d'état_, not as flagitious certainly as that of Bonaparte, but to the full as revolutionary and illegal. And we may be sure that the arm of the United States Government would not be shortened so that it should not interpose and hinder such a defiance of itself and the Power whose instrument it is. With servile and corrupt judges at its beck and a majority in Congress within its purchase, the occasion and means of such an interference would be readily devised and supplied.

We believe that this line of policy would lead to an armed collision with the General Government. It is for the oppressed inhabitants of any country to say when their wrongs have reached the height which justifies the drawing of the civil sword. We have neither the right nor the disposition to advise the people of Kansas in a matter so emphatically their own. But there is another way of coming to this arbitrament,--inevitable, if they deviate a hair's-breadth from the strict line of law,--should they deem there is no other remedy for their wrongs. The admirable Constitution just framed at Leavenworth, one well worthy of a free people that has been tried as with fire, will be adopted before these lines are before the public eye. Let them reject the Buchanan-English swindle, put their heel on the Lecompton fraud, set up the Leavenworth Constitution, and erect a State government under it in defiance of the Territorial Usurpation, and they will soon find themselves face to face with the tyranny at Washington. But is there not reason to hope that firmness and patience may yet win the battle for freedom without resorting to so serious an alternative? Is it indeed inevitable that Kansas must remain out of the pale of the Union, under the oppression of the Territorial laws, until the hirelings of the Government shall have determined that slaves enough have been poured in to decide the complexion of the new State, and shall authorize her to ask for admission? We are told that the joy at Washington and elsewhere over this "settlement" of the Kansas difficulty was because it was taken out of Congress, and "Agitation" at an end. But what is to hinder its being brought into Congress again?--and whose fault will it be, if Agitation do not survive and grow mightier unto the victory? If the present Congress can shut its doors against this intruder, its power dies with itself, and it greatly lies with the people of Kansas to make the next Congress one that shall rehabilitate them in their rights. Their conduct at this pregnant moment may settle the proximate destiny of the Republic, and decide whether the Slave Power is to rule us by its underlings for four years more, or whether its pride is to have a fall and its insolence a rebuke in 1860.

We all remember how often the Agitation of the Slavery question has been done to death in Congress, and how sure it was to appear again to startle its murderers from their propriety. Like "the blood-boltered Banquo," it would confront again the eyes that had ho ped to look upon it no more. It would come back:

  "With twenty mortal murders on its head
  _To push them from their stools_!"

And this dreaded spectre, though a beneficent angel with healing on his wings in truth, will push yet many traitorous or cowardly sycophants from the stools they disgrace, and substitute in their stead men who will quiet Agitation by Justice. Let the men of Kansas remember that a yet greater trust than that of providing for their own interests and rights is in their hands. The battle they are to fight in this quarrel is for the whole North, for the whole country, for the world. Let them address themselves unto it with calmness, with prudence, with watchfulness, with courage. They are beset on every side by crafty and desperate enemies. Greedy land-jobbers, in haste to be rich, will try to persuade them that not to be innocent is to be wise. Timid timeservers will urge a submission which promises peace, though it be but a solitude that is called so. Rampant Pro-slavery will exalt its horn against Righteousness and try again the virtue of ruffianism to prevail against civilization. The barbarians will hang anew upon the borders, ready to complete the conquest they began so well. And above all, a majority of the men who are to pass upon the votes are the creatures of the Administration, who know, by the example of their predecessors, that the suspicion of honesty will be fatal to all their hopes of preferment, and that they can purchase reward only by procuring, _quocunque modo_, the acceptance of the proposition of Congress. But still the power is in the hands of the Free-State men, if they choose to put it forth. Let them organize such a scrutiny everywhere, that fraud and violence cannot escape detection and exposure. Let them observe most rigidly all the technical rules imposed upon the electors, that no vote may be lost. Let them come to the polls by thousands, and trample under their feet the shabby bribe for which they are asked to trade away their independence and their virtue. Let them be thus faithful, and never be weary of maintaining the Agitation, which is proved, by the very dread their enemies have of it, to be the way to their victory. Thus they will be sure to triumph, conquering their right to create their own government, and erect a free commonwealth on the ruins of the tyranny they have overthrown. And Kansas, at no distant period, will be welcomed by her Free Sisters to her place among them, with no stain of bribes in her hands, and with no soil of meanness upon her garments. And then the "peace" and "prosperity," which President Buchanan saw in vision on the eve of May-day, will indeed prevail and be established, while the blackness of infamy will brood forever over the memory of the magistrate who used the highest office of the Republic to perpetuate the wrongs of the Slave by the sacrifice of the rights of the Citizen.

This work was published before January 1, 1926, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.