More politics and society from The Atlantic Monthly.
From the archives:
"The Freedmen's Bureau" (March 1901)
"The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.... It was a phase of this problem that caused the Civil War." By W. E. B. Dubois
"An Appeal to Congress for Impartial Suffrage" (January 1867)
"Suffrage for the negro, while easily sustained upon abstract principles, demands consideration upon what are recognized as the urgent necessities of the case." By Frederick Douglass
"Chiefly About War Matters" (July 1862)
A dispatch from the Civil War. By Nathaniel Hawthorne
"The Election in November
" (October 1860)
"In a society like ours, where every man may transmute his private thought into history and destiny by dropping it into the ballot-box, a peculiar responsibility rests upon the individual." By James Russell Lowell
From Atlantic Unbound:
Flashbacks: "Blood and Justice" (May 18, 2000)
Nat Turner and John Brown came to symbolize the radical struggle against slavery in the decades prior to the Civil War. Both were hanged for their actions. Both were at the center of intense controversy. A collection of Atlantic articles, from 1861 to 1922, commemorates the bicentennial of their births.
Flashbacks: "Denmark Vesey, Forgotten Hero" (December 1, 1999)
Who was Denmark Vesey, and why is there a sudden surge of interest in this little-known figure of American history? An Atlantic article from 1861 should help to explain.
Flashbacks: "Rhetoric of Freedom" (September 16, 1999)
"Emancipation is the demand of civilization," Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in April, 1862. "That is a principle; everything else is an intrigue." Atlantic articles by Emerson and Frederick Douglass comment on Lincoln's greatest decision, and his greatest legacy.
Interviews: "Inheriting Slavery" (February 26, 1998)
Edward Ball, the author of Slaves in the Family, set out to reckon with the legacy of his ancestors' plantations.
The Atlantic Monthly | June 1861
ad any one ventured to prophesy on the Fourth of March that the immediate prospect of Civil War would be hailed by the people of the Free States with a unanimous shout of enthusiasm, he would have been thought a madman. Yet the prophecy would have been verified by what we now see and hear in every city, town, and hamlet from Maine to Kansas. With the advantage of three months' active connivance in the cabinet of Mr. Buchanan, with an empty treasury at Washington, and that reluctance to assume responsibility and to inaugurate a decided policy, the common vice of our politicians, who endeavor to divine and to follow popular sentiment rather than to lead it, it seemed as if Disunion were inevitable, and the only open question were the line of separation. So assured seemed the event, that English journalists moralized gravely on the inherent weakness of Democracy. While the leaders of the Southern Rebellion did not dare to expose their treason to the risk of a popular vote in any one of the seceding States, the "Saturday Review," one of the ablest of British journals, solemnly warned its countrymen to learn by our example the dangers of an extended suffrage.
The Pickens-and-Stealin's Rebellion
by James Russell Lowell
Meanwhile the conduct of the people of the Free States, during all these trying and perilous months had proved, if it proved anything, the essential conservatism of a population in which every grown man has a direct interest in the stability of the national government. So abstinent are they by habit and principle from any abnormal intervention with the machine of administration, so almost superstitious in adherence to constitutional forms, as to be for a moment staggered by the claim to a right of secession set up by all the Cotton States, admitted by the Border Slave-States, which had the effrontery to deliberate between their plain allegiance and their supposed interest, and but feebly denied by the Administration then in power. The usual panacea of palaver was tried; Congress did its best to add to the general confusion of thought; and, as if that were not enough, a Convention of Notables was called simultaneously to thresh the straw
of debate anew, and to convince thoughtful persons that men do not grow wiser
as they grow older. So in the two Congresses the notables talked,—in the one, those who ought to be shelved, in the other, those who were shelved already,—While those who were too thoroughly shelved for a seat in either addressed Great Union Meetings at home. Not a man of them but had a compromise in his pocket, adhesive as Spalding's glue, warranted to stick the shattered Confederacy together so firmly, that, if it ever broke again, it must be in a new place, which was a great consolation. If these gentlemen
gave nothing very valuable to the people of the Free States, they were giving the Secessionists what was of inestimable value to them,—Time. The latter went on seizing forts, navy-yards, and deposits of Federal money, erecting batteries, and raising and arming men at their leisure; above all, they acquired a prestige, and accustomed men's minds to the thought of disunion, not only as possible, but actual. They began to grow insolent, and, while compelling absolute submission to their rebellious usurpation at home, decried any exercise of legitimate authority on the part of the General Government as Coercion,—a new term, by which it was sought to be established as a principle of constitutional law, that it is always the Northern bull that has gored the Southern ox.
During all this time, the Border Slave-States, and especially Virginia, were playing a part at once cowardly and selfish. They assumed the right to stand neutral between the Government and rebellion, to contract a kind of morganatic marriage with Treason, by which they could enjoy the pleasant sin without the tedious responsibility, and to be traitors in everything but the vulgar contingency of hemp. Doubtless the aim of the political managers in these States was to keep the North amused with schemes of arbitration, reconstruction, and whatever other fine words would serve the purpose of hiding the real issue, till the new government of Secessia should have so far consolidated itself as to be able to demand with some show of reason a recognition from foreign powers, and to render it politic for the United States to consent to peaceable secession. They counted on the self-interest of England and the supineness of the North. As to the former, they were not wholly without justification,—for nearly all the English discussions of the "American Crisis" which we have seen have shown far more of the shop-keeping spirit than of interest in the maintenance of free institutions; but in regard to the latter they made the fatal mistake of believing our Buchanans, Cushings, and Touceys to be representative men. They were not aware how utterly the Democratic Party had divorced itself from the moral sense of the Free States, nor had they any conception of the tremendous recoil of which the long-repressed convictions, traditions, and instincts of a people are capable.
Never was a nation so in want of a leader; never was it more plain, that, without a head, the people "bluster abroad as beasts," with plenty of the iron of purpose, but purpose without coherence, and with no cunning smith of circumstance to edge it with plan and helve it with direction. What the country was waiting for showed itself in the universal thrill of satisfaction when Major Anderson took the extraordinary responsibility of doing his duty. But such was the general uncertainty, so doubtful seemed the loyalty of the Democratic Party as represented by its spokesmen at the North, so irresolute was the tone of many Republican leaders and journals, that a powerful and wealthy community of twenty millions of people gave a sigh of relief when they had been permitted to install the Chief Magistrate of their choice in their own National Capital. Even after the inauguration of Mr. Lincoln, it was confidently announced that Jefferson Davis, the Burr of the Southern conspiracy, would be in Washington before the month was out; and so great was the Northern despondency, that the chances of such an event were seriously discussed. While the nation was falling to pieces, there were newspapers and "distinguished statesmen" of the party so lately and so long in power base enough to be willing to make political capital out of the common danger, and to lose their country, if they could only find their profit. There was even one man found in Massachusetts, who, measuring the moral standard of his party by his own, had the unhappy audacity to declare publicly that there were friends enough of the South in his native State to prevent the march of any troops thence to sustain that Constitution to which he had sworn fealty in Heaven knows how many offices, the rewards of almost as many turnings of his political coat. There was one journal in New York which had the insolence to speak of President Davis and Mister Lincoln in the same paragraph. No wonder the "dirt-eaters" of the Carolinas could be taught to despise a race among whom creatures might be found to do that by choice which they themselves were driven to do by misery.
Thus far the Secessionists had the game all their own way, for their dice were loaded with Northern lead. They framed their sham constitution, appointed themselves to their sham offices, issued their sham commissions, endeavored to bribe England with a sham offer of low duties and Virginia with a sham prohibition of the slave-trade, advertised their proposals for a sham loan which was to be taken up under intimidation, and levied real taxes on the people in the name of the people whom they had never allowed to vote directly on their enormous swindle. With money stolen from the Government, they raised troops whom they equipped with stolen arms, and beleaguered national fortresses with cannon stolen from national arsenals. They sent out secret agents to Europe, they had their secret allies in the Free States, their conventions transacted all important business in secret session;—there was but one exception to the shrinking delicacy becoming a maiden government, and that was the openness of the stealing. We had always thought a high sense of personal honor an essential element of chivalry; but among the Romanic races, by which, as the wonderful ethnologist of "De Bow's Review" tells us, the Southern States were settled, and from which they derive a close entail of chivalric characteristics, to the exclusion of the vulgar Saxons of the North, such is by no means the case. For the first time in history the deliberate treachery of a general is deemed worthy of a civic ovation, and Virginia has the honor of being the first State claiming to be civilized that has decreed the honors of a triumph to a cabinet officer who had contrived to gild a treason that did not endanger his life with a peculation that could not further damage his reputation. Rebellion, even in a bad cause, may have its romantic side; treason, which had not been such but for being on the losing side, may challenge admiration; but nothing can sweeten larceny or disinfect perjury. A rebellion inaugurated with theft, and which has effected its entry into national fortresses, not over broken walls, but by breaches of trust, should take Jonathan Wild for its patron saint, with the run of Mr. Buchanan's cabinet for a choice of sponsors,—godfathers we should not dare to call them.
Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 1861; The Pickens-and-Stealin's Rebellion - 1861.06; Volume 7, Issue 44; page 757-763.