The Question of the Hour
DEAN SWIFT, in a letter to Lord Bolingbroke, says that he does not “remember to have ever heard or seen one great genius who had long success in the ministry; and recollecting a great many in my memory and acquaintance, those who had the smoothest time were, at best, men of middling degree in understanding.” However true this may be in the main, — and it undoubtedly is true that in ordinary times the speculative and innovating temper of an original mind is less safe than the patience of routine and persistence in precedent of a commonplace one, - - there are critical occasions to which intellect of the highest quality, character of the finest fibre, and a judgment that is inspired rather than confused by new and dangerous combinations of circumstances, are alone equal. Tactics and an acquaintance with the highest military authorities were adequate enough till they were confronted with General Bonaparte and the new order of things. If a great man struggling with the storms of fate be the sublimest spectacle, a mediocre man in the same position is surely the most pitiful. Deserted, by his presence of mind, which, indeed, had never been anything but an absence of danger,—baffled by ihe inapplicability of his habitual principles of conduct, (if that may be called a principle, which, like the act of walking, is merely an unconscious application of the laws of gravity,) — helpless, irresolute, incapable of conceiving the flower Safety in the nettle Danger, much more of plucking it thence, — surely here, if anywhere, is an object of compassion. When such a one is a despot who has wrought his own destruction by obstinacy in a traditional evil policy, like Francis II. of Naples, our commiseration is outweighed by satisfaction that the ruin of the man is the safety of the state. But when the victim is a so-called statesman, who has malversated the highest trusts for selfish ends, who has abused constitutional forms to the destruction of the spirit that gave them life and validity, who could see nothing nobler in the tenure of high office than the means it seemed to offer of prolonging it, who knows no art to conjure the spirit of anarchy he has evoked but the shifts and evasions of a second-rate attorney, and who has contrived to involve his country in the confusion of principle and vacillation of judgment which have left him without a party and without a friend,—for such a man we have no feeling but contemptuous reprobation. Panurge in danger of shipwreck is but a faint type of Mr. Buchanan in face of the present crisis; and that poor fellow’s craven abjuration of his “ former friend,” Friar John, is magnanimity itself, compared with his almost-ex-Excellency’s treatment of the Free States in his last Message to Congress. There are times when mediocrity is a dangerous quality, and a man may drown himself as effectually in milk-andwater as in Malmsey.
The question, whether we are a Government or an Indian Council, we do not propose to discuss here ; whether there be a right of secession tempered by a right of coercion, like a despotism by assassination, and whether it be expedient to put the latter in practice, we shall not consider: for it is not always the part of wisdom to attempt a settlement of what the progress of events will soon settle for us. Mr. Buchanan seems to have no opinion, or, if he has one, it is a halting between two, a bat-like cross of sparrow and mouse that gives timidity its choice between flight and skulking. Nothing shocks our sense of the fitness of things more than a fine occasion to which the man is wanting. Fate gets her hook ready, but the eye is not there to clinch with it, and so all goes at loose ends. Mr. Buchanan had one more chance offered him of showing himself a commonplace man, and he has done it full justice. Even if they could have done nothing for the country, a few manly sentences might have made a pleasing exception in his political history, and rescued for him the fag-end of a reputation.
Mr. Buchanan, by his training in a system of politics without a parallel for intrigue, personality, and partisanship, would have unfitted himself for taking a statesmanlike view of anything, even if he had ever been capable of it. His nature has been subdued to what it worked in. We could not have expected from him a Message around which the spirit, the intelligence, and the character of the country would have rallied. But he might have saved himself from the evil fame of being the first of our Presidents who could never forget himself into a feeling of the dignity of the place he occupied. He has always seemed to consider the Presidency as a retaining-fee paid him by the slavery-propagandists, and Ins Message to the present Congress looks like the last juiceless squeeze of the orange which the South is tossing contemptuously away.
Mr. Buchanan admits as real the assumed wrongs of the South Carolina revolutionists, and even, if we understand him, allows that they are great enough to justify revolution. But he advises the secessionists to pause and try what can be done by negotiation. He sees in the internal history of the country only a series of injuries inflicted by the Free upon the Slave States; yet he affirms, that, so far as Federal legislation is concerned, the rights of the South have never been assailed, except in the single instance of the Missouri Compromise, which gave to Slavery the unqualified possession of territory which the Free States might till then have disputed. Yet that bargain, a losing one as it was on the part of the Free States, having been annulled, can hardly be reckoned a present grievance. South Carolina had quite as long a list of intolerable oppressions to resent in 1832 as now, and not one of them, as a ground of complaint, could be compared with the refusal to pay the French-Spoliation claims of Massachusetts. The secession movement then, as now, had its origin in the ambition of disappointed politicians. If its present leaders are more numerous, none of them are so able as Mr. Calhoun ; and if it has now any other object than it had then, it is to win by intimidation advantages that shall more than compensate for its loss in the elections.
In 1832, General Jackson bluntly called the South Carolina doctrines treason, and the country sustained him. That they are not characterized in the same way now does not prove any difference in the thing, but only in the times and the men. They are none the less treason because James Buchanan is less than Andrew Jackson, but they are all the more dangerous.
It has been the misfortune of the United States that the conduct of their public affairs has passed more and more exclusively into the hands of men who have looked on politics as a game to be played rather than as a trust to be administered, and whose capital, whether of personal consideration or of livelihood, has been staked on a turn of the cards. A general skepticism has thus been induced, exceedingly dangerous in times like these. The fatal doctrine of rotation in office has transferred the loyalty of the numberless servants of the Government, and of those dependent on or influenced by them, from the nation to a party. For thousands of families every change in the National Administration is as disastrous as revolution, and the Government has thus lost that influence which the idea of permanence and stability would exercise in a crisis like the present. At the present moment, the whole body of office-holders at the South is changed from a conservative to a disturbing element by a sense of the insecurity of their tenure. Their allegiance having always been to the party in power at Washington, and not to the Government of the Nation, they find it easy to transfer it to the dominant faction at home.
The subservience on the question of Slavery, which has hitherto characterized both the great parties of the country, has strengthened the hands of the extremists at the South, and has enabled them to get the control of public opinion there by fostering false notions of Southern superiority and Northern want of principle. We have done so much to make them believe in their importance to us, and given them so little occasion even to suspect our importance to them, that we have taught, them to regard themselves as the natural rulers of the country, and to look upon the Union as a favor granted to our weakness, whose withdrawal would be our ruin. Accordingly, they have grown more and more exacting, till at length the hack politicians of the Free States have become so imbued with the notion of yielding, and so incapable of believing in any principle of action higher than temporary expedients to carry an election, or any object nobler than the mere possession of office for its own sake, that Mr. Buchanan gravely proposes that the Republican party should pacify South Carolina by surrendering the very creed that called it into existence and holds it together, the only fruit of its victory that made victory worth having. Worse than this, when the Free States by overwhelming majorities have just expressed their conviction, that slavery, as he creature of local law, can claim no legitimate extension beyond the limits of that law, he asks their consent to denationalize freedom and to nationalize slavery by an amendment of the Federal Constitution that shall make the local law of the Slave States paramount throughout the Union. Mr. Buchanan would stay the yellow fever by abolishing the quarantine hospital and planting a good virulent case or two in every village in the land.
We do not underestimate the gravity of the present crisis, and we agree that nothing should be done to exasperate it; but if the people of the Free States have been taught anything by the repeated lessons of bitter experience, it has been that submission is not the seed of conciliation, but of contempt and encroachment. The wolf never goes for mutton to the mastiff. it is quite time that it should be understood that freedom is also an institution deserving some attention in a Model Republic, that a decline in stocks is more tolerable and more transient than one in public spirit, and that material prosperity was never known to abide long in a country that had lost its political morality. The fault of the Free States in the eyes of the South is not one that can be atoned for by any yieldiiig of special points here and there. Their offence is that they are free, and that their habits and prepossessions are those of Freedom. Their crime is the census of 1860. Their increase in numbers, wealth, and power is a standing aggression. It would not be enough to please the Southern States that we should stop asking them to abolish slavery,— what they demand of us is nothing less than that we should abolish the spirit of the age. Our very thoughts are a menace. It is not the North, but the South, that forever agitates the question of Slavery. The seeming prosperity of the cotton-growing States is based on a great mistake and a great wrong; and it is no wonder that they are irritable and scent accusation in the very air. It is the stars in their courses that fight against their system, and there are those who propose to make everything comfortable by Act of Congress.
It is almost incredible to what a pitch of absurdity the Slave-holding party have been brought by the weak habit of concession which has been the vice of the Free States. Senator Green of Missouri, whose own State is rapidly gravitating toward free institutions, gravely proposes an armed police along the whole Slave frontier for the arrest of fugitives. Already the main employment of our navy is in striving to keep Africans out, and now the whole army is to mount guard to keep them in. This is but a trifle to the demands that will be made upon us, it we yield now under the threats of a mob, — for men acting under passion or terror, or both, are a mob, no matter what their numbers and intelligence.
A dissolution of the Union would be a terrible thing, but not so terrible as an acquiescence in the theory that Property is the only interest that binds men together in society, and that its protection is the highest object of human government. Nothing could well be more solemn than the thought of a disruption of our great and prosperous Republic, Even it peaceful, the derangement consequent upon it would cause incalculable suffering and disaster. Already the mere threat of it, assisted by the efforts of interested persons, has caused a commercial panic. But would it be wisdom in the Free States to put themselves at the mercy of such a panic whenever the whim took South Carolina to be discontented ?
That would be the inevitable result of a craven spirit now. Let the Republican party be mild and forbearing, — for the opportunity to be so is the best reward of victory, and taunts and recriminations belong to boys; but, above all, let them be manly. The moral taint of once submitting to be bullied is a scrofula that will never out of the character.
We do not believe that the danger is so great as it appears. Rumor is like one of those multiplying-mirrors that make a mob of shadows out of one real object. The interests of three-fifths of the Slaveholding States are diametrically opposed to secession ; so are those of five-sixths of the people of the seceding States, if they did but know it. The difficulties in the way of organizing a new form of government are great, almost insuperable; the expenses enormous. As the public burdens grow heavier, the lesson of resistance and rebellion will find its aptest scholars in the non-slave-owning majority who will be paying taxes for the support of the very institution that has made and keeps them poor. Men are not long in arriving at just notions of the value of what they pay for, especially when it is for other people. Taxes are a price that people are slowest to pay for a cat in a bag. If matters are allowed to take their own course for a little longer, the inevitable reaction is sure to set in. The Hartford Convention gave more uneasiness to the Government and the country than the present movement in the South, but the result of it was the ruin of the Federal Party, and not of the Federal Union.
Even if the secessionists could accomplish their schemes, who would be the losers ? Not the Free States, certainly, with their variety of resources and industry. The laws of trade cannot be changed, and the same causes which have built up their agriculture, commerce, and manufactures will not cease to be operative. The real wealth and strength of states, other things being equal, depends upon homogeneousness of population and variety of occupation, with a common interest and common habits of thought. The cotton-growing States, with their single staple, are at the mercy of chance. India, Australia, nay, Africa herself, may cut the thread of their prosperity. Their population consists of two hostile races, and their bone and muscle, instead of being the partners, are the unwilling tools of their capital and intellect. The logical consequence of this political theory is despotism, which the necessity of coercing the subject race will make a military one. Already South Carolina is discussing a standing army. If history is not a lying gossip, the result of the system of labor will be Jamaica, and that of the system of polity, Mexico. Instead of a stable government, they will have a whirligig of pronunciamientos, or stability will be purchased at a cost that wall make it intolerable. They have succeeded in establishing among themselves a fatal unanimity on the question of Slavery, — Fatal because it makes the office of spy and informer honorable, makes the caprice of a mob the arbiter of thought, speech, and action, and debases public opinion to a muddy mixture of fear and prejudice. In peace, the majority of their population will be always looked on as conspirators ; in war, they would become rebels.
It is time that the South should learn, if they do not begin to suspect it already, that the difficulty of the Slavery question is slavery itself,—nothing more, nothing less. It is time that the North should learn that it has nothing left to compromise but the rest of its self-respect. Nothing will satisfy the extremists at the South short of a reduction of the Free States to a mere police for the protection of an institution whose danger increases at an equal pace with its wealth.
It was the deliberate intention of Mr. Calhoun that the compact should be broken the moment the absolute control of Government passed out of the hands of the slaveholding clique. He was willing to wait till we had stolen Texas and paid a hundred millions for Cuba ; but if the game seemed to be up, then secede at once. In a hasty moment, he started his revolution, when there was a stronger man than he to confront him. South Carolina was to all appearance as united then as now. But a few months brought a reaction, and no one was more relieved than Mr. Calhoun that matters stopped where they did. Whether the stirrers of the present excitement, which finds vacillation in the Executive and connivance in the Cabinet, will be wise enough to let it go out in the same way, remains to be seen ; but the greatest danger of disunion would spring from a want of self-possession and spirit in the Free States.