Mr. Buchanan came into power with the prestige of experience; he was known to have been long in public life; he had been a senator, a secretary, a diplomatist, and almost everything else which is supposed to fit a man for the practical conduct of affairs.
This presumed fitness for office greatly assisted his chances in the Presidential campaign; and it assisted him especially with those timid and conservative minds, of which there are many, apt to conceive that a familiarity with the business and details of government is the same as statesmanship, and to confound the skill and facility acquired by mere routine with a genuine ability in execution. Had these men, however, looked more closely into Mr. Buchanan’s official career, they would have found causes for suspecting the validity of their judgment, in the very length and variety of his services. They would have discovered, that long as these had been and various as they had been, they were quite undistinguished by any peculiar evidences of capacity or aptitude.
He had been senator, secretary, and diplomatist, it is true; but in no one of these positions had he achieved any remarkable successes. The occasion could not he indicated on which he had risen above the average level of respectability as a public man. There were no salient points in his course, — no splendid developments of mastery, — no great reports, or speeches, or measures, to cause him to be remembered, — and no leading thoughts or acts, to awaken a high and general feeling of admiration on the part of his countrymen. He was never such a senator as Webster was, nor such a secretary as Clay, nor such a diplomatist as Marcy. Throughout his protracted official existence, he followed in the wake of his party submissively, doing its appointed work with patience, and vindicating its declared policy with skill, but never emerging as a distinct and prominent figure. He never exhibited any peculiar largeness of mind or loftiness of character; and though he spoke well and wrote well, and played the part of a cool and wary manager, he was scarcely considered a commanding spirit among his fellows. Amid that array of luminaries, indeed, which adorned the Senate, where his chief reputation was made, — among such men as Calhoun, Clay, Webster, Benton, and Wright, — he shone with a diminished lustre.
Now, forty years of action, in the most conspicuous spheres, unillustrated by a single incident which mankind has, or will have, reason to cite and applaud, were not astonishing evidence of fitness for the chief magistracy; and the event has shown, that Mr. Buchanan was to be regarded as an old politician rather than a practised statesman, — that the most serviceable soldier in the ranks may prove to be an indifferent general in command, — and that the experience, for which he was vaunted and trusted, was not that ripening discipline of the mind and heart,
— which doth attain
To something of prophetic strain, —
but that other unlearning use and wont, which
— chews on wisdom past,
And totters on in blunders to the last.
His administration has been a series of blunders, and worse: it has evinced no mastery; on the other hand, it may be arraigned for inconsistencies the most palpable, for proceedings the most awkward, for a general impotence which places it on a level with that of Tyler or Pierce, and for signal offences against the national sense of decorum and duty.
It is scarcely a year since Mr. Buchanan assumed the reins at Washington. He assumed them under circumstances by which he and his party and the whole country had been taught a great lesson of political duty. The infamous mismanagement of Kansas, by his immediate predecessor, had just shattered the most powerful of our party organizations, and caused a mighty uprising of the masses of the North in defence of menaced freedom. His election was carried amid the extremest hazards, and with the utmost difficulty. Two months more of such ardent debate and such popular enlightenment as were then going forward would have resulted in his defeat. As it was, nearly every Northern State—no matter how firm its previous adherence to the Democratic party—was aroused to a strenuous opposition. Nearly every Northern State pronounced by a stupendous majority against him and against his cause. Nothing but a systematic disguise of the true questions at issue by his own party, and a gratuitous complication of the canvass by means of a foolish third party, saved his followers from the most complete and shameful rout that had been given for many years to any political array. Men of every class, of every shade of faith, joined in that hearty protest against the spirit which animated the Democratic administration, and joined in it, that they might utter the severest rebuke in their power, of its meanness and perfidy.
Mr. Buchanan ought to have read the warning which was thus blazed across the political skies, like the hand-writing upon the wall. He ought to have discerned in this general movement the signs of a deep, earnest, and irrepressible conviction on the part of the North. It is no slight cause which can start such general and enthusiastic expressions of popular feeling; they cannot be manufactured; they are not the work of mere party excitement ; there is nothing spurious and nothing hollow in them; but they well up from the deep heart of nations, showing that a chord of sympathy has been touched, with which it is fatal to tamper or to sport. Call it fanaticism, if you will; call it delusion; call it anything; but recollect also that it is out of such feelings that revolutions are born, and by them that awful national crises are determined.
But Mr. Buchanan has not profited, as we shall see, by the monition. His initial act, the choice of a cabinet, in which the only man of national reputation was superannuated, and the others were of little note, gave small hope that he would do so; and his subsequent mistakes might have been augured from the calibre of the counsellors by whom he chose to be surrounded. — But let the men pass, since our object is to discuss measures.
The questions with which the President and his cabinet have had to deal, without following them in the order either of time or importance, may be classified as the Mormon question, the Financial question, the Filibuster question, and the Kansas question. All these required, for a proper adjustment of them, firmness rather than ability, — a clear perception of the principles of right, rather than abstruse policy, — and vigor of execution, rather than profound diplomatic skill. Yet we do not perceive that our government has displayed, in regard to the treatment of any of these questions, either firmness or ability. It has employed policy enough and diplomacy enough, but the policy has been incoherent and the diplomacy shallow. At the end of the first year of its rule, the most striking result of its general management is the open defection of many of its most powerful friends, and the increased earnestness and energy of all its foes.
The difficulty with the Mormons originated, before the accession of the present administration, in a hasty and improper extension of the Federal authority over a people whose customs and religious opinions were utterly incompatible with those of our own people. The inhabitants of Utah were averse from the outset to the kind of government provided for them at Washington. Having adopted a form of society more like that of Congo and Dahomey than of the United States, and having accepted too literally the prevalent dogma, that every community has the right to form its own institutions for itself, — they preferred the polygamy of barbarism to the monogamy of civilization, and the rod of the priest-prophet Brigham or the seal of Elder Pratt to the sceptre of Governor Steptoe or the sword of Colonel Johnston. Under these circumstances, the duty of the government of the United States was to relinquish its pretensions to supremacy over a nation opposed to its rule, or to maintain that supremacy, if it were necessary, with a strong and unflinching hand. Mr. Buchanan, on his own principles of popular sovereignty, as far as we can understand them, ought, logically, to have adopted the former course, but (as the interests of Slavery were not involved) he elected to pursue the latter; and he has pursued it with an impotence which has cost the nation already many millions of dollars, and which has involved the “army of Utah” in inextricable embarrassments, allowing them to be shut up in the snows of the mountains before they could strike a blow or reach the first object of their expedition. Not very well appointed in the beginning, this little force was despatched to the Plains when it was too late in the season; a part of it was needlessly delayed in assisting to choke down freedom in Kansas; and when it attained the hills which guard the passages to the valley of the Salt Lake, it found the cañons obstructed by snow, and the roads impassable. The supplies required for its subsistence were scattered in useless profusion from Leavenworth to Fort Laramie, and assistance and action were alike hopeless until the arrival of the spring.1
The same feebleness, which left the poor soldier to perish in the desert, has brought an overflowing treasury nearly to default. Mr. Buchanan, in his Message, discussed the existing financial crisis with much sounding phrase and very decided emphasis. He rebuked the action of the banks, which had presumed to issue notes to the amount of more than three times that of their specie, in a tone of lofty and indignant virtue. He commended them to the strictest vigilance and to the exemplary discipline of the State legislatures, while descanting at large upon the safety, the economy, the beauty, and the glory of a sound hard-money currency. When he entered upon his office, be found the Treasury replete with eagles and dimes; it was so flush, that, in the joy of his heart, he ordered the debts of the United States to be redeemed at a premium of sixteen per cent.; and he and his followers were disposed to jubilate over the singular spectacle, that, while all other institutions were failing, the Treasury of the United States was firm and resplendent in its large possession of gold. It was deemed a rare wisdom and success, indeed, which could utter a note of triumph in the midst of so universal a cry of despair; it was deemed a rare piece of liberality, that the government should come to the aid of society in an hour of such dark distress. The stocks of the United States, which had been originally sold at a small advance, were bought back on a very large advance; the usurers and the stock-jobbers received sixteen per cent. for what they had bought at a premium of but two or three per cent.; and an unparalleled glory shone around the easy vomitories of the Treasury. The foresight and the sagacity of the proceeding were marvellous! In less than a quarter by the moon, the coffers of the government were empty, — the very clerks in its employ went about the streets borrowing money to pay their board-bills, — and the grand-master of the vaults, Mr. Cobb, counting his fingers in despair over the vacant prospect, was compelled, in the extremity of his distress, to fill his limp sacks with paper. Of the nineteen millions of gold which in September distended the public purse, little or nothing remained in December, while in its place were paper bills, — founded, not upon a basis of one-third specie, but upon a basis of We promise to pay! It was a sad application of the high-sounding doctrines of the Message, — a dreadful descent for a pure bard-money government, — and a lamentable conversion of the pompous swagger of October into the shivering collapse of January!
It may be said, that, by this pre-purchase of its own stocks, running at an interest of six per cent., the government has saved the amount of interest which would else have accrued between the time of the purchase and the time of ultimate redemption. And this is true to some extent, — and it would show an admirable economy, if the Treasury had had no other use for its money. A government, like an individual, having a large balance of superfluous cash on hand, can do no better with it than to pay off its debts; but to do this, when there was every prospect of a Mormon war to raise the expenditure, little prospect of retrenchment in any branch of service, and a daily diminishing revenue at all points, — it was purely a piece of folly, a want of ordinary forecast, to get rid of the cash in hand. Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Cobb were guilty of this folly, and, for the sake of the poor éclat of coming to the relief of the money-market, (which was no great relief, after all,) they sacrificed the hard-money pretensions of the government, and sunk its character to the level of that of the needy “kiteflier” in Wall Street. Their true course, in the existing condition and aspect of affairs, was to retain their capital, and to institute a most rigid economy, a most searching reduction, in every branch of the public service. We have, however, yet to learn whether any such economy and reduction have been effected.
All this was simply weakness; but in turning from the conduct of the Finances by the administration, to consider its management of Filibusterism, we pass from the consideration of acts of mere debility to the consideration of acts which have a color of duplicity in them. On the Filibusters, as on the Finances, the First Annual Message of the President was outspoken and forcible. It characterized the past and proposed doings of William Walker and his crew, as the common sense and common conscience of the world had already characterized them, as nothing short of piracy and murder. Recognizing the obligations of fraternity and peace as the rule of right in international relations, it pledged the utmost vigilance and energy of the Federal powers against every semblance of freebootery. In pursuance of this promise, orders were issued to the various civil and naval authorities, (orders not very clear, it is true, but clear enough to bear but one meaning in honest and simple minds,) to the effect that they should maintain a sharp watch, and execute a summary arrest of every person suspected of or discovered in unlawful enterprises. The authorities on land, to whom it was easy to hold secret communication with Washington, were found to have very blind eyes and very slippery hands. General Walker and his confederates were taken at New Orleans, but they passed through the courts far more rapidly than goods are apt to pass through the custom-houses. Under a merely nominal recognizance, he sailed away with flying colors, and amid the plaudits of an admiring crowd, among whom, it is to be presumed, the authorities took care to be only not too conspicuous.
But the authorities on the sea, who could not so readily get a cue from Washington, with the directness, in construing orders, which is the habit of the military mind, took their instructions at the word. Commanded to intercept all marauders and pirates, they kept a lookout for Walker. He eluded the guns of Captain Chatard, but Commodore Paulding seized him in the very act of invading a friendly soil. Hoisting him on board of a warship, he returned him in pressing haste to the President. Commodore Paulding, who had read the Message, and read the instructions of Secretary Cass, doubtless supposed that black meant black, and white, white. Perhaps, also, in the unsophisticated pride with which he contemplated the promptitude and decision of his action, in saving an innocent people from a sanguinary ruffian, and in maintaining the honor of his country unsullied, dim visions crossed his mind of a letter of thanks from the President, and of the vote of a sword by Congress. Alas for such hopes! Commodore Paulding was clearly not a politician; he did not know that black meant white and white meant black, — nor that the present of a filibuster, which he sent to the President, was the present of something worse than an elephant. It was the present of a herd of elephants, — of a sea of troubles. Mr. Buchanan’s fine denunciations of freebooters had only been fine words for the public ear; secretly he cherished a penchant for freebooters, or rather for the friends of freebooters; and, under those circumstances, to be presented, by his own agent, with the very chief of the freebooters, as a criminal and a scamp, was the most unheard-of simplicity of understanding, and the most astounding literalness of obedience, in any subordinate. What to do was the question. He had menaced Chatard with a cashiering for allowing Walker to escape; and here was Paulding, who did not allow him to escape, — so he menaced Paulding likewise; and by way of capping the climax of absurdities, he set Walker himself at large, to go about the country clamoring to be sent back, at the expense of the government, to the scenes of his late innocent occupations and virtuous designs, whence he had been ruthlessly torn by an over-officious sailor.
The history of the farce is both argument and comment. Walker was either a citizen of the United States, levying war upon a friendly foreign state, and as such amenable to the penalties of our neutrality laws, — or he was a citizen of Nicaragua., as he pretended to be, abusing our protection to organize warlike enterprises against his fellow-citizens, and as such also amenable to our neutrality laws. In either capacity, and however taken, he should have been severely dealt with by the President. But, unfortunately, Mr. Buchanan, not left to his own instincts of right, is surrounded by assistants who have other than great public motives for their conduct. Walker’s schemes were not individual schemes, were not simple projects of piracy and plunder, got up on his own responsibility and for his own ends. Connected with important collateral issues, they received the sympathy and support of others more potent than himself. He was, in a word, the instrument of the propagandist slave-holders, the fear of whom is ever before a President’s eyes. As the old barbarian Arbogastes used to say to the later Roman emperors, whom he helped to elevate, “The power which made you is the power which can break you,” so these modern masters of the throne dictate and guide its policy. Mr. Buchanan was their man as much as Walker was, and, however grand his speeches before the public, he must do their bidding when things came to the trial.
But this allusion brings us, by an obvious transition, to the last and most important question submitted to the administration, — the question of Kansas, — in the management of which, we think, it will be found that all the before-noted deficiencies of the government have been combined with a criminal disregard of settled principles and almost universal convictions. In reference to Kansas, as in reference to the other topics, the President began with fair and seductive promises. He did not, it is true, either in his Message or anywhere else, that we know of narrate the actual history of the long contest which has divided that Territory, but he did hold up for the future the brightest hopes of an honest and equitable adjustment of all the past difficulties. He selected and commissioned Robert J. Walker, as Governor, for the express purpose of “pacifying Kansas.” Pretending to overlook the past causes of trouble, he announced that everything would now be set right by new elections, in which the whole people should have full opportunity of declaring their will. Mr. Walker went to Kansas with a full determination to carry out this amiable promise of the President. Both he and his secretary, Mr. Stanton, labored strenuously to convince the people of the Territory of his honest purposes, and, by dint of persuasions, pledges, assurances, and oaths, at length succeeded in procuring a pretty general exercise of the franchise. The result was a signal overthrow of the minority which had so long ruled by fraud and violence; and the sincerity of the President is tested by the fact, avouched by both Walker and Stanton, that, from the moment of the success of the Free-State party, he was wroth towards his servants. Stanton was removed and Walker compelled to resign, though their only offence was a laborious prosecution of the President’s own policy. Ever since then, he has strained every nerve, and at this moment is straining every nerve, to defeat the well-known legally demonstrated wish of the majority. In the face of his own plighted word, and of the emphatic assurances of his agents, sanctioned by himself, he insists upon imposing on them officers whom they detest and an instrument of government which they spurn. These people of Kansas, — who were to be “pacified,” — to be conciliated, — to be guarantied a just administration, — are denounced in the most virulent and abusive terms as refractory, and are threatened with the coercion of a military force, because they are unwilling to submit to outrage!
The excuse offered by the President for this perfidious course is the Lecompton Constitution, which he professes to consider a legal instrument, framed by a legal Convention, and approved by a legal election of the people, — and which is therefore not to be set aside except by the same sovereign power by which it was created. It would be a good excuse, if it were not a transparent and monstrous quibble from beginning to end. The Lecompton Constitution has no one element of legality in it; from the Whereas, to the signatures, it is an imposture; — for neither had the Legislature, that called the Convention in which it was made, lawful authority to do so, — nor was that Convention lawfully constituted, — nor was the alleged adoption of it by the people more than a trick.
A Territory is an inchoate and dependent community, which can be erected into a State only in two ways: first, formally, by an enabling act of Congress, giving permission to the inhabitants to set up for themselves; and second, informally, by a spontaneous and general movement of the people, which Congress must afterwards legitimate. In either case, the consent of Congress, first or last, is necessary to the validity of the proceeding. But a Territorial Legislature, which is the mere creature of Congress, having no powers but what are strictly conveyed to it in the Organic Act instituting the Territorial government, cannot originate a movement to supersede itself, and also to abrogate the authority of Congress. The attempt to do so, as declared by General Jackson’s cabinet, in the case of Arkansas, would be, not simply null and void, but unlawful, rebellious; and the President would be obliged to suppress it, if called upon, by force of arms. The Organic Act is the supreme law of the Territory, which can be altered or revoked only by the authority from which it emanated; and every measure commenced or prosecuted with a design to annul that law, to subvert the Territorial government, or to put in force in its place a new government, without the consent of Congress, is a flagrant usurpation.
Now the Lecompton Convention was called not merely without the consent of Congress, but against its consent; it was called by and under the arrangements of the Territorial Legislature; it was not the spontaneous act of the people, a large majority of whom condemned the movement and refused to participate in it; and thus, in its inception, it was unlawful. It was neither regularly nor irregularly proper; — the supreme legislature had not acknowledged it; the masses of society had not acknowledged it; and the entire project possessed no other character than that of a factious scheme for perpetuating the power of a few pro-slavery demagogues.
But, if we grant the right of the Territorial Legislature to originate such a movement, the manner in which it was carried into effect would still brand it with the marks of illegality. A census and registry of voters had been provided for in the law authorizing the Convention, as the basis of an apportionment of the delegates, and that provision was not complied with. In nineteen out of the thirty-eight counties no registry was made, and in the others it was imperfectly made. “In some of the counties,” according to the evidence of Mr. Stanton, then acting Governor, “the officers were probably deterred and discouraged by the people from their duty of taking the census,” (although he adds that he does not know that such was the fact,) while in others the officers utterly refused to do their duty. “I know,” he says, “that the people of some of those counties ardently desired to be represented in the Convention, for they afterwards, under the statements of Governor Walker and myself, that they would probably be admitted, elected delegates and sent them up to the Convention; but they were not admitted to seats.” In consequence of this failure or refusal to do their duty, only the geographical half or the numerical fourth of the Territory was represented in the Convention. Nor is it any excuse for the defaulting officers, even if it had been true, that some of the people opposed the execution of their duty. They professed to be acting under law; their functions were plainly prescribed to them; and they were bound to make the census and registry, whatever the disposition of the people. In a land of laws, it is the law, and not any mere prevailing sentiment, which prescribes and limits official duty. There is, however, no evidence that the discharge of their task was rendered impossible by the popular opposition, while there is evidence that they were very willing to neglect it, and very willing to allow any obstacle, no matter how trivial, to obstruct their performance of it. They were, in truth, as everybody knows, the simple tools of the faction which started this Convention movement, and not at all desirous to secure a fair and adequate representation of the inhabitants.
That many of the people should be careless of the registration, and even unfriendly to it, is natural, because they disapproved the plan, and were hostile to the ends of the Convention. They doubted the authority by which it had been summoned; they doubted both the validity and the probable fairness of an election under such authority; and, moreover, they were indifferent as to its proceedings, because they had been assured that they would be called upon to pronounce pro or con upon its results. The Convention, as actually constituted when assembled, consisted of sixty delegates, representing about 1,800 voters, in an electoral body of 12,000 in all, — or one delegate to thirty voters! A convention so composed ought to have been ashamed of the very pretence of acting in the name of the whole people. It would have been ashamed of it, if it had contained men sincerely anxious to reflect the will of the great body of the citizens. It would have been as much ashamed of it, as any honest man would be to pass himself off as the agent of a person whom he had never known, or who openly derided and despised him. But this precious body—each man of whom represented thirty men besides himself, in a voting population of 12,000—was not sensible to such considerations. By a miserable chicane, it had got into a position to do mischief, and it proceeded to do it, with as much alacrity and headlong zeal as rogues are apt to exhibit when the prize is great and the opportunity short. An election for the Legislature, held subsequently to that for the Convention, showing a public opinion decidedly adverse to it, the sole study of its members thenceforth seemed to be, how they could most adroitly and effectively nullify the ascendency of the majority. For this end alone they consulted, and caballed, and calculated, and junketed; and the Lecompton Constitution, with the Schedule annexed, was the worthy fruit of their labors.
It is monstrous in Mr. Buchanan to assume that a body so contrived and so acting expressed in any sense the sovereign will of the people. But, not to dwell upon this point, let us suppose that the Convention had been summoned by a competent authority, that it had been fairly chosen by its small constituency, and that its proceedings had been managed with ordinary decorum, — would the Constitution it framed be valid, in the face of a clear popular condemnation? We hold that it would not, because, in our estimation, and in the estimation of every intelligent American, the very essence of republicanism is “the consent of the governed.” It is the highest function of political sovereignty to devise and ordain the organic law of society, the vital form of its being; and the characteristic difference between the despotic or oligarchical and the republican government is, that in the one case the function is exercised by a monarch or a class, and in the other by the body of the citizens. This distinctive feature of our politics, as opposed to all others, regards the will of the people, directly or indirectly expressed, as alone giving validity to law; our National Constitution, and every one of our thirty-one State Constitutions, proceeds upon that principle; every act of legislation in the Congress and the State Assemblies supposes it; and every decision of every Court has that for its basis. Constitutions have been adopted, undoubtedly, without a distinct submission of them to the ratification of the people; but in such cases there has been no serious agitation of the public mind, no important conflict or division of opinion, rendering such ratification necessary, — and, in the absence of dispute, the general assent of the community to the action of its delegates might fairly be presumed. But in no case, in which great and debatable questions were involved, has any Convention dared to close its labors without providing for their reference to the popular sanction; much less has there been any instance in which a Convention has dared to make own work final, in the face of a known or apprehended repugnance of the constituency. The politicians who should have proposed such a thing would have been overwhelmed with unmeasured indignation and scorn. No sentiment more livingly pervades our national mind, no sentiment is juster in itself, than that they who are to live under the laws ought to decide on the character of the laws, — that they whose persons, property, welfare, happiness, life, are to be controlled by a Constitution of Government, ought to participate in the formation of that government.
Conscious of this truth, and of its profound hold on the popular heart, Mr. Buchanan instructed Governor Walker to see the Kansas Constitution submitted to the people, — to protect them against fraud and violence in voting upon it, — and to proclaim, in the event of any interference with their rights, that the Constitution “would be and ought to be rejected by Congress.” Walker was voluble in proclamations to that end. The framers of the Constitution, aware of its invalidity without the sanction of the people, provided for its submission to “approval” or “disapproval,” to “ratification” or “rejection”; and yet, by the paltriest juggle in recorded history, devised, in the same breath, a method of taking the vote, which completely nullified its own terms. No man was allowed to “disapprove” it, no man was allowed to “reject” it, — except in regard to a single section, — and before he could vote for or against that, he was obliged to vote in favor of all the rest. If there had been a hundred thousand voters in the Territory opposed to the Constitution, and but one voter in its favor, the hundred thousand voters could not have voted upon it at all, but the one voter could, — and the vote of that one would have been construed into a popular approval, while the will of all the others would have been practically void. By this pitiful stratagem, it was supposed, the double exigency of Mr. Buchanan’s often repeated sentiments, and of the pro-slavery cause, which dreaded a popular vote, was completely satisfied; and the President of the United States, reckless of his position and his fame, lent himself to the shameless and despicable palter. He not only lent himself to it, but he has openly argued its propriety, and is now making the adherence of his friends to such baseness the test of their party fidelity. In the name of Democracy, — of that sacred and sublime principle into which we, as a nation, have been baptized, — which declares the inalienable rights of man, — and which, as it makes the tour of the earth, hand and hand with Christianity, is lifting the many from the dust, where for ages they have been trampled, into political life and dignity, — he converts a paltry swindle into its standard and creed, and prostitutes its glorious mission, as a redeeming influence among men, into a ministry of slavery and outrage.
Mr. Buchanan knows—we believe better than any man in the country—that the Lecompton Constitution is not the act of the people of Kansas. By the election of the 4th of January—an election which was perfectly valid, because it was held under the authority of a Territorial Legislature superior to the Convention—it was solemnly and unequivocally condemned. This of itself was enough to demonstrate that fact. But all the Democratic Governors of the Territory with the single exception of Shannon, and the recently appointed acting Governor, Denver, who is prudently silent—testify urgently to the same truth. Reeder, Geary, and Walker, together with the late acting Governor, Stanton, asseverate, in the most earnest and emphatic manner, that the majority in Kansas is for making it a Free State, — that the minority which has ruled is a factious minority, and that they have obtained and perpetuated their ascendency by a most unblushing series of crimes and frauds. Yet, in the teeth of this evidence, — of repeated elections, — of his own witnesses turning against him, — the President adheres to the infamous plans of the pro-slavery leaders; and, if not arrested by the rebukes of the North, he will insist on imposing their odious measures upon their long-suffering victims.
* * *
Looking at the administration of Mr. Buchanan simply from the point of view of an enlightened statesmanship, we find nothing in it that is not contemptible; but when we regard it as the accredited exponent of the moral sense of a majority of our people, it is saved from contempt, indeed, but saved only because contempt is merged in a deeper feeling of humiliation and apprehension. Unparalleled as the outrages in Kansas have been, we regard them as insignificant in comparison with the deadlier fact that the Chief Magistrate of the Republic should strive to defend them by the small wiles of a village attorney, — that, when the honor of a nation and the principle of self-government are at stake, he should show himself unconscious of a higher judicature or a nobler style of pleading than those which would serve for a case of petty larceny, — and that he should be abetted by more than half the national representatives, while he brings down a case of public conscience to the moral level of those who are content with the maculate safety which they owe to a flaw in an indictment, or with the clingy innocence which is certified to by the disagreement of a jury.
These things are the logical consequences of that profound national demoralization which followed the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Bill and alone made its execution possible, — a demoralization wilfully brought about, for selfish ends, in that sad time which saw our greatest advocates and our acutest politicians spending all their energy of mind and subtlety of argument to persuade the people that there was no higher law than that rule of custom and chicane woven of the split hairs of immemorial sophistry, and whose strongest fibre is at the mercy of an obstinate traverse juror, — no law higher than the decree of party, ratified by a popular majority achieved by the waiters on Presidential providence, through immigrant voters whom the gurgling oratory of the whiskey-barrel is potent to convince, and whose sole notion of jurisprudence is based upon experience of the comparative toughness of Celtic skulls and blackthorn shilalahs. And such arguments were listened to, such advocates commended for patriotism, in a land from whose thirty thousand pulpits God and Christ are preached weekly to hearers who profess belief in the Divine government of the world and the irreversible verdicts of conscience!
The capacity of the English race for self-government is measured by their regard as well for the forms as the essence of law. A race conservative beyond all others of what is established, averse beyond all others to the heroic remedy of forcible revolution, they have yet three times in the space of a century and a half assumed the chances of rebellion and the certain perils of civil war, rather than submit to have Right infringed by Prerogative, and the scales of Justice made a cheat by false weights that kept the shape but lacked the substance of legitimate precedent. We are forced to think that there must be a bend sinister in the escutcheon of the descendants of such men, when we find them setting the form above the substance, and accepting as law that which is deadly to the spirit while it is true to the letter of legality. It is a spectacle portentous of moral lapse and social disorganization, to see a statesman, who has had fifty years’ experience of American politics, quibbling in defence of Executive violence against a free community, as if the conscience of the nation were no more august a tribunal than a police justice sitting upon a paltry case of assault. Yet more portentous is it to see a great people consenting that fraud should be made national by the voice of a Congress in which the casting vote may be bought by a tide-waitership, and then invested with the solemnity of law by a Court whose members are selected, not for uprightness of character or breadth of mind, but by the inverse test of their capacity for cringing in subservience to party, and for narrowing a judgment already slender as the line of personal interest, till it becomes so threadlike as to bend at the touch, nay, at the breath, of sectional rapacity. Have we, then, forgotten that the true prosperity of a nation is moral, and not material? that its strength depends, not on the width of its boundaries, nor the bulk of its census, but on its magnanimity, its honor, its fidelity to conscience? There is a Fate which spins and cuts the threads of national as of individual life, and the case of God against the people of these United States is not to be debated before any such petty tribunal as Mr. Buchanan and his advisers seem to suppose. The sceptre which dropped successively from the grasp of Egypt, Assyria, Carthage, Greece, Rome, fell from a hand palsied by the moral degeneracy of the people; and the emasculate usurper or the foreign barbarian snatched and squandered the heritage of civilization which escheated for want of legitimate heirs of the old royal race, whose divine right was the imperial brain, and who found their strength in a national virtue which individualized itself in every citizen. The wind that moans among the columns of the Parthenon, or rustles through the weeds on the palaces of the Cæsars, whispers no truer prophecies than that venal breath which, at a signal from the patron in the White House, bends all one way the obsequious leaves of a partisan press, ominous of popular decadence.
Do our leading politicians, and the prominent bankers and merchants who sustain them, know what a dangerous lesson they are setting to a people whose affairs are controlled by universal suffrage, when they affirm that to be right which can by any false pretence be voted so? Does not he who undermines national principle sap the foundations of individual property also? If burglary may be committed on a commonwealth under form of law, is there any logic that will protect a bank-vault or a strong-box? When Mr. Buchanan, with a Jew broker at one elbow and a Frenchman at the other, (strange representatives of American diplomacy!) signed his name to the Ostend circular, was he not setting a writing lesson for American youth to copy, and one which the pirate hand of Walker did copy in ungainly letters of fire and blood in Nicaragua?
The vice of universal suffrage is the infinitesimal subdivision of personal responsibility. The guilt of every national sin comes back to the voter in a fraction the denominator of which is several millions. It is idle to talk of the responsibility of officials to their constituencies or to the people. The President of the United States, during his four years of office, is less amenable to public opinion than the Queen of England through her ministers; senators, with embassies in prospect, laugh at instructions; representatives think they have made a good bargain when they exchange the barren approval of constituencies for the smile of one whom a lucky death, perhaps, has converted into the Presidential Midas of the moment; and in a nation of adventurers, success is too easily allowed to sanctify a speculation by which a man sells his pitiful self for a better price than even a Jew could get for the Saviour of the world. It cannot he too often repeated, that the only responsibility which is of saving efficacy in a Democracy is that of every individual man in it to his conscience and his God. As long as any one of us holds the ballot in his hand, he is truly, what we sometimes vaguely boast, a sovereign, — a constituent part of Destiny; the infinite Future is his vassal; history holds her iron stylus as his scribe; Lachesis awaits his word to close or to suspend her fatal shears; — but the moment his vote is cast, he becomes the serf of circumstance, at the mercy of the white-livered representative’s cowardice, or the venal one’s itching palm. Our only safety, then, is in the aggregate fidelity to personal rectitude, which may lessen the chances of representative dishonesty, or, at the worst, constitute a public opinion that shall make the whole country a penitentiary for such treason, and turn the price of public honor to fairy-money, whose withered leaves but mock the possessor with the futile memory of self-degradation. Let every man remember, that, though he may be a nothing in himself, yet every cipher gains the power of multiplying by ten when it is placed on the right side of whatever unit for the time represents the cause of truth and justice. What we need is a thorough awakening of the individual conscience; and if we once become aware how the still and stealthy ashes of political apathy and moral insensibility are slipping under our feet and hurrying us with them toward the craters irrevocable core, it may be that the effort of self-preservation called forth by the danger will make us love the daring energy and the dependence on our individual strength, that alone can keep us free and worthy to be freemen.
While we hold the moral aspect of the great question now before the country to be cardinal, there are also some practical ones which the Republican party ought never to lose sight of. To move a people among whom the Anglo-Saxon element is predominant, we will not say, with Lord Bacon, that we must convince their pockets, but we do believe that moral must always go hand in hand with common sense. They will take up arms for a principle, but they must have confidence in each other and in their leaders. Conscience is a good tutor to tell a man on which side to act, but she leaves the question of How to act to every man’s prudence and judgment. An over-nice conscience has before now turned the stomach of a great cause on the eve of action. Cromwell knew when to split hairs and when skulls. The North has too gene rally allowed its strength to be divided by personal preferences and by-questions, till it has almost seemed as if a moral principle had less constringent force to hold its followers together than the gravitation of private interest, the Newtonian law of that system whereof the dollar is the central sun, which has hitherto made the owners of slaves unitary, and given them the power which springs from concentration and the success which is sure to follow concert of action. We have spent our strength in quarrelling about the character of men, when we should have been watchful only of the character of measures. A scruple of conscience has no right to outweigh a pound of duty, though it ought to make a ton of private interest kick the beam. The great aim of the Republican party should be to gain one victory for the Free States. One victory will make us a unit, and is equal to a reinforcement of fifty thousand men. The genius of success in politics or war is to know Opportunity at first sight. There is no mistress so easily tired as Fortune. We must waste no more time in investigating the motives of our recruits. Have we not faith enough in our cause to believe that it will lift all to its own level of patriotism and devotion? Let us, then, welcome all allies, from whatever quarter, and not inquire into their past history as minutely as if we were the assignees of the Recording Angel and could search his books at pleasure. When Soult was operating in the South of France, the defection of two German regiments crippled all his combinations and gave the advantage to Wellington. Ought Wellington to have refused their aid? For our own part, if Mr. Douglas be the best tactician, the best master of political combination, we are willing to forget all past differences and serve under him cheerfully, rather than lose the battle under a general who has agreed with us all his life. When we remember, that, of the two great cathedrals of Europe, one is dedicated to Saint Peter who denied his Lord under temptation, and the other to Saint Paul who spent his early manhood in persecuting true believers, and that both these patrons of the Church, differing as they did in many points of doctrine, were united in martyrdom for their belief, we cannot but think that there is room even for repentant renegades in the camp of the faithful.
While we insist that Morals should govern the motives of political action, and that no party can be permanently strong which has not the reserve of a great principle behind it, we affirm with no less strength of conviction that the details of our National Housekeeping should be managed by practical sense and worldly forethought. The policy of states moves along the beaten highways of experience, and, where terrestrial guideposts are plenty, we need not ask our way of the stars. The advantage of our opponents has been that they have always had some sharp practical measure, some definite and immediate object, to oppose to our voluminous propositions of abstract right. Again and again the whirlwind of oratorical enthusiasm has roused and heaped up the threatening masses of the Free States, and again and again we have seen them collapse like a water-spout, into a crumbling heap of disintegrated bubbles, before the compact bullet of political audacity. While our legislatures have been resolving and re-resolving the principles of the Declaration of Independence, our adversaries have pushed their trenches, parallel after parallel, against the very citadel of our political equality. A siege, if uninterrupted, is a mere matter of time, and must end in capitulation. Our only safety is in assuming the offensive. Are we to be terrified any longer by such Chinese devices of warfare as the cry of Disunion, — a threat as hollow as the mask from which it issues, as harmless as the periodical suicides of Mantalini, as insincere as the spoiled child’s refusal of his supper? We have no desire for a dissolution of our confederacy, though it is not for us to fear it. We will not allow it; we will not permit the Southern half of our dominion to become a Hayti. But there is no danger; the law that binds our system of confederate stars together is of stronger fibre than to be snapped by the trembling finger of Toombs or cut by the bloodless sword of Davis; the march of the Universe is not to be stayed because some gentleman in Buncombe declares that his sweet-potato-patch shall not go along with it. But we have no apprehension. The sweet attraction which knits the sons of Virginia to the Treasury has lost none of its controlling force. We must make up our minds to keep these deep-descended gentlemen in the Union, and must convince them that we have a work to accomplish in it and by means of it. If our Southern brethren have the curse of Canaan in their pious keeping, if the responsibility lie upon them to avenge the insults of Noah, on us devolves a more comprehensive obligation and the vindication of an elder doom; — it is for us to assert and to secure the claim of every son of Adam to the common inheritance ratified by the sentence, “In the sweat of thy brow shalt thou earn thy bread.” We are to establish no aristocracy of race or complexion, no caste which Nature and Revelation alike refuse to recognize, but the indefensible right of man to the soil which he subdues, and the muscles with which he subdues it. If this be a sectional creed, it is a sectionality which at least includes three hundred and fifty-nine degrees of the circle of man’s political aspiration and physical activity, and we may well be easy under the imputation.
But so rapid has been the downward course of our national politics under the guidance of our oligarchical Democracy, that the question on which we take issue, whatever it may once have been, is no longer a sectional one, and concerns not the slavery of the negro, but that of the Northern white man. Whatever doubt there may be about the physical degeneration of the race, it is more than certain that the people of the Northern States have no longer the moral stature of their illustrious ancestry; that their puny souls could find room enough in but the gauntlet finger of that armor of faith and constancy and self-devotion which fitted closely to the limbs of those who laid so broad the foundations of our polity as to make our recreancy possible and safe for us. It wellnigh seems as if our type should suffer a slave-change, — as if the fair hair and skin of those ancestral non Angli sed angeli should crisp into wool and darken to the swarthy livery of servility. No Northern man can hold any office under the national government, however petty, without an open recantation of those principles which he drew in with his mother’s milk, — those principles which, in the better days of the republic, even a slave-holder could write down in the great charter of our liberties, — those principles which now only the bells and cannon are allowed to utter on the Fourth of July or the Seventeenth of June, — bells that may next call out the citizen-soldiery to aid in the rendition of a slave, — cannon whose brazen lips may next rebuke the freedom whose praises they but yesterday so emptily thundered.
When we look back upon the providential series of events which prepared this continent for the experiment of Democracy, — when we think of those forefathers for whom our mother England shed down from her august breasts the nutriment of ordered liberty, not unmixed with her best blood in the day of her trial, — when we remember the first two acts of our drama, that cost one king his head and his son a throne, and that third which cost another the fairest appanage of his crown and gave a new hero to mankind, — we cannot believe it possible that this great scene, stretching from ocean to ocean, was prepared by the Almighty only for such men as Mr. Buchanan and his peers to show their feats of juggling on, even though the thimble-rig be on so colossal a scale that the stake is a territory larger than Britain. We cannot believe that this unhistoried continent, — this virgin leaf in the great diary of man’s conquest over the planet, on which our fathers wrote two words of epic grandeur, Plymouth and Bunker Hill, — is to bear for its colophon the record of men who inherited greatness and left it pusillanimity, — a republic, and made it anarchy, — freedom, and were content as serfs, — of men who, born to the noblest estate of grand ideas and fair expectancies the world had ever seen, bequeathed the sordid price of them in gold. The change is sad ’twixt Now and Then: the Great Republic is without influence in the councils of the world; to be an American, in Europe, is to be the accomplice of filibusters and slave-traders; instead of men and thought, as was hoped of us, we send to the Old World cotton, corn, and tobacco, and are but as one of her outlying farms. Are we basely content with our pecuniary good-fortune? Do we look on the tall column of figures on the credit side of our national ledger as a sufficing monument of our glory as a people? Are we of the North better off as provinces of the Slave-holding States than as colonies of Great Britain? Are we content with our share in the administration of national affairs, because we are to have the ministry to Austria, and because the newspapers promise that James Gordon Bennett shall be sent out of the country to fill it?
We of the Free States are confessedly without our fair share of influence in the administration of national affairs. Its foreign and domestic policy are both directed by principles often hostile to our interests, sometimes abhorrent to our sense of right and honor. Under loud professions of Democracy, the powers of the central government and of the Executive have increased till they have scarcely a match among the despotisms of Europe, and more than justify the prophetic fears of practical statesmen like Samuel Adams and foresighted politicians like Jefferson. Unquestionably superior in numbers, and claiming an equal preeminence in wealth, intelligence, and civilization, we have steadily lost in political power and in the consideration which springs from it. Is the preponderance of the South due to any natural superiority of an Aristocracy over a Democracy? to any mental inferiority, to lack of courage, of political ability, of continuity of purpose, on our own part? We should be slow to find the cause in reasons like these; but we do find it in that moral disintegration, the necessary result of that falsehood to our own sense of right forced upon us by the slave-system, and which, beginning with our public men, has gradually spread to the Press, the Pulpit, nay, worse than all, the home, till it is hard to find a private conscience that is not tainted with the contagious mange.
For what have we not seen within the last few years? We have seen the nomination to office made dependent, not on the candidates being large enough to fill, but small enough to take it. Holding the purity of elections as a first article of our creed, we have seen one-third of the population of a Territory control the other two-thirds by false or illegal votes; hereditary foes of a standing army, we have seen four thousand troops stationed in Kansas to make forged ballots good by real bullets; lovers of fair play, we have seen a cowardly rabble from the Slave States protected by Federal bayonets while they committed robbery, arson, and Sepoy atrocities against women, and the Democratic party forced to swallow this nauseous mixture of force, fraud, and Executive usurpation, under the name of Popular Sovereignty. We have seen Freedom pronounced sectional and Slavery national by the highest tribunal of the republic. We have seen the legislatures of Southern States passing acts for the renewal and encouragement of the slave-trade. We have seen the attempted assassination of a senator in his seat justified and applauded by public meetings and the resolutions of State Assemblies. We have seen a pirate, for the hanging of whom the conscious Earth would have produced a tree, had none before existed, threaten the successor of Washington with the exposure of his complicity, if he did not publicly violate the faith he had publicly pledged. — But enough, and more than enough.
It lies in the hands of the people of the Free States to rescue themselves and the country by peaceable reform, ere it be too late, and there be no remedy left but that dangerous one of revolution, toward which Mr. Buchanan and his advisers seem bent on driving them. But the reform must be wide and deep, and its political objects must be attained by household, means. Our sense of private honor and integrity must be quickened our consciousness of responsibility to God and man for the success of this experiment in practical Democracy, in order to which the destiny of a hemisphere has been entrusted to us, must be roused and exalted; we must learn to feel that the safety of universal suffrage lies in the sensitiveness of the individual voter to every abuse of delegated authority, every treachery to representative duty, as a stain upon his own personal integrity; we must become convinced that a government without conscience is the necessary result of a people careless of their duties, and therefore unworthy of their rights. Prosperity has deadened and bewildered us. It is time we remembered that History does not concern herself about material wealth, — that the lifeblood of a nation is not that yellow tide which fluctuates in the arteries of Trade, — that its true revenues are religion, justice, sobriety, magnanimity, and the fair amenities of Art, —that it is only by the soul that any people has achieved greatness and made lasting conquests over the future. We believe there is virtue enough left in the North and West to infuse health into our body politic; we believe that America will reassume that moral influence among the nations which she has allowed to fall into abeyance; and that our eagle, whose morning-flight the world watched with hope and expectation, shall no longer troop with unclean buzzards, but rouse himself and seek his eyrie to brood new eaglets that in time shall share with him the lordship of these Western heavens, and shall learn of him to shake the thunder from their invincible wings.
- More recently the energy and wisdom of Col. Johnston have repaired some of the mischiefs produced by the dilatoriness of his superiors. ↩