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Negro Minstrel Origins in the North

The Northern army adopted a Southern song” “Say, brothers will you meet us, On Canaan’s happy shore?” – with the refrain “Glory, glory hallelujah, Forever, evermore.” This was written by a Charlestonian, used at many Southern camp meetings and no doubt had it origins in Negro congregations. It made its way north and was corrupted into “John Brown’s Body.”

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.org

 

Negro Minstrel Origins in the North

“In 1842 Negro minstrelsy had its birth in a northern theater in a mixed performance made up largely of songs and dances typical of Negro life and character; as a scientific presentation of plantation folk lore (as was never intended) it was faulty, still it served to introduce some phases of Negro folk-lore to the attention of a public ready to find amusement in it; and this prepared the way for the work of Stephen C. Foster, who is justly considered the folk song genius of America; and it also prepared the way for a later popular appreciation of Uncle Remus when his time should come.

Foster, although born in the North was the son of a Virginian, and he trained himself for the production of his peculiar style of song by attending Negro camp-meetings. He wrote in all about one hundred and sixty songs including “Old Susannah,” “Old Uncle Ned,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Massa’s in de Cold, Cold Ground,” and “De ‘Ol Folks at Home,” or “Suwanee Ribber,” the latter being a Negro corruption of San Juan, the Spanish name for the St. John’s River in Florida.

These are not folk-lore, excepting as they have received folk-adoption, so to speak, but it would be impossible to complete this survey of the subject of folk-lore in the South without mentioning this phase, the approximately good imitation of the best folk song of the country. Nor should another folk song by adoption be overlooked.

On the Fourth of July, 1861, while the Confederate army in Virginia was drawn up within hearing distance of the Federal army, General Kirby Smith wrote that the booming of the Federal guns had been ringing a national salute. Powder was too scarce in the Confederate army . . . to be wasted in salutes, “but,” wrote the general, “our bands have played “Dixie” from one end of the line to the other.”

“Dixie” would appear to have all the characteristics of a folk song. The name is undoubtedly a Negro corruption of Mason and Dixon’s Line, and it is thoroughly a Negro conception of the land south of that line as a “land of cotton” with cinnamon seas and sandy bottoms.” But the truth is that the senseless words were written by a white man in the North, Dan Emmett, the son of a Virginian, for the use of the Negro minstrels of which he was one of the founders; and the tune was probably appropriated from an old Negro air.

The people and the soldiers of the South liked it. It outlived the Southern Confederacy and now bids fair to become national.”

(Folklore, Arthur Howard Noll; History of the Literary and Intellectual Life of the Southern States, Volume VII, Southern Publication Society, 1909, excerpts pp. 68-70)

German Patriots of the South

In late antebellum years German immigrants were found in Virginia, North Carolina, New Orleans, and Texas. The German-language New Orleans Zeitung wrote that the war was “indeed of conquest and subjugation,” and called Lincoln the “personification of despotism.” Wilmington’s “German Volunteers,” which became Company A of the Eighteenth North Carolina Regiment, was led by Captain Christian Cornehlson. All but 30 of the 102 men in the company were natives of Germany; 26 of the 30 were born in North Carolina of German parentage.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.org

 

German Patriots of the South

“The Germans felt it wrong that the North, after selling its slaves to the South, should attempt to force the slaveholders to free their slaves without compensation. Furthermore on the question of commercial independence many of the Germans shared the free-trade principles of their Anglo-Saxon Southern neighbors.

They resented the high tariff, firmly believing that Northern manufacturers under its protection extorted tribute from every inhabitant of the South on almost every article he purchased, and demanded that the wrong should be corrected.

Like other residents of the South, they could not escape the fear, aroused by the John Brown raid, of possible Negro insurrections. It must not be forgotten that, while opposed to slavery, they, like [Robert E.] Lee, preferred to see it abolished in a lawful, peaceable manner.

Where the Germans took up arms voluntarily, they did do for the perpetuation of liberty, as they saw it through the lens of Confederate constitutionalism, not for the striking of the chains from the Negro, but for the casting off of political and economic shackles from the limbs of the whites.

On [November 30, 1860 the editor of the Richmond Anzeiger] spoke out on the political crisis which he called “long anticipated” and declared that Lincoln’s election “on a platform which openly mocks Southern rights guaranteed by the Constitution must lead to a decision of the pending crisis.” He later pointed to various fugitive slave laws of the Northern States as proof it was the North which had produced the crisis by its disregard of the Federal laws.

He asserted that if the Northern States would repeal those obnoxious laws, the conservative elements of the South would seize the hand of friendship thus expended and would regard a secessionist as a high traitor to the common fatherland.”

(Foreigners in the Confederacy, Ella Lonn, UNC Press, 1940, excerpts pp. 41-44)

Sen. Robert Toombs Cornerstone Speech

Address before the General Assembly of Georgia, November 13, 1860.

“GENTLEMEN OF THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY: I very much regret, in appearing before you at your request, to address you on the present state of the country, and the prospect before us, that I can bring you no good tidings.

We have not sought this conflict; we have sought too long to avoid it; our forbearance has been construed into weakness, our magnanimity into fear, until the vindication of our manhood, as well as the defence of our rights, is required at our hands. The door of conciliation and compromise is finally closed by our adversaries, and it remains only to us to meet the conflict with the dignity and firmness of men worthy of freedom.

We need no declaration of independence.  Above eighty-four years ago our fathers won that by the sword from Great Britain, and above seventy years ago Georgia, with the twelve other confederates, as free, sovereign, and independent States, having perfect governments already in existence, for purposes and objects clearly expressed, and with powers clearly defined, erected a common agent for the attainment of these purposes by the exercise of those powers, and called this agent the United States of America.

The basis, the corner-stone of this Government, was the perfect equality of the free, sovereign, and independent States which made it. They were unequal in population, wealth, and territorial extent – they had great diversities of interests, pursuits, institutions, and laws; but they had common interests, mainly exterior, which they proposed to protect by this common agent – a constitutional united government – without in any degree subjecting their inequalities and diversities to Federal control or action.

The Executive Department of the Federal Government, for forty- eight out of the first sixty years under the present Constitution, was in the hands of Southern Presidents . . . no advantage was ever sought or obtained by them for their section of the Republic. They never sought to use a single one of the powers of the Government for the advancement of the local or peculiar interests of the South, and they all left office without leaving a single law on the statute-book where repeal would have affected injuriously a single industrial pursuit, or the business of a single human being in the South.

But on the contrary, they had acquiesced in the adoption of a policy in the highest degree beneficial to Northern interests. We can to-day open wide the history of their administrations and point with pride to every act, and challenge the world to point out a single act stained with injustice to the North, or with partiality to their own section. This is our record; let us now examine that of our confederates.

The instant the Government was organized, at the very first Congress, the Northern States evinced a general desire and purpose to use it for their own benefit, and to pervert its powers for sectional advantage, and they have steadily pursued that policy to this day. They demanded a monopoly of the business of ship-building, and got a prohibition against the sale of foreign ships to citizens of the United States, which exists to this day.

They demanded a monopoly of the coasting trade, in order to get higher freights than they could get in open competition with the carriers of the world. Congress gave it to them, and they yet hold this monopoly. And now, to-day, if a foreign vessel in Savannah offer[s] to take your rice, cotton, grain or lumber to New-York, or any other American port, for nothing, your laws prohibit it, in order that Northern ship-owners may get enhanced prices for doing your carrying.

This same shipping interest, with cormorant rapacity, have steadily burrowed their way through your legislative halls, until they have saddled the agricultural classes with a large portion of the legitimate expenses of their own business. We pay a million of dollars per annum for the lights which guide them into and out of your ports.

The North, at the very first Congress, demanded and received bounties under the name of protection, for every trade, craft, and calling which they pursue, and there is not an artisan . . . in all of the Northern or Middle States, who has not received what he calls the protection of his government on his industry to the extent of from fifteen to two hundred per cent from the year 1791 to this day. They will not strike a blow, or stretch a muscle, without bounties from the government.

No wonder they cry aloud for the glorious Union . . . by it they got their wealth; by it they levy tribute on honest labor. Thus stands the account between the North and the South. Under its . . . most favorable action . . . the treasury [is] a perpetual fertilizing stream to them and their industry, and a suction-pump to drain away our substance and parch up our lands.

They will have possession of the Federal executive with its vast power, patronage, prestige of legality, its army, its navy, and its revenue on the fourth of March next. Hitherto it has been on the side of the Constitution and the right; after the fourth of March it will be in the hands of your enemy.

What more can you get from them under this Government? You have the Constitution – you have its exposition by themselves for seventy years – you have their oaths – they have broken all these, and will break them again. They tell you everywhere, loudly and defiantly, you shall have no power, no security until you give up the right of governing yourselves according to your own will – until you submit to theirs. For this is the meaning of Mr. Lincoln’s irrepressible conflict – this is his emphatic declaration to all the world.

But we are told that secession would destroy the fairest fabric of liberty the world ever saw, and that we are the most prosperous people in the world under it. The arguments of tyranny as well as its acts, always reenact themselves. The arguments I now hear in favor of this Northern connection are identical in substance, and almost in the same words as those which were used in 1775 and 1776 to sustain the British connection. We won liberty, sovereignty, and independence by the American Revolution – we endeavored to secure and perpetuate these blessings by means of our Constitution.

We are said to be a happy and prosperous people. We have been, because we have hitherto maintained our ancient rights and liberties – we will be until we surrender them. They are in danger; come, freemen, to the rescue. Withdraw yourselves from such a confederacy; it is your right to do so – your duty to do so. As for me, I will take any place in the great conflict for rights which you may assign. I will take none in the Federal Government during Mr. Lincoln’s administration.”

Oct 1, 2018 - Antebellum Realities, Emancipation, Freedmen and Liberty, Race and the South, Southern Culture Laid Bare    Comments Off on Robert Carter’s Deed of Gift

Robert Carter’s Deed of Gift

The Virginia House of Burgesses in 1769 petitioned the King to curtail his importation of slaves to the colony, arguing that slavery “greatly retards the Settlement of the Colonies.” With no other means of dependable labor for their plantations, Virginia slaveholders like Robert Carter rewarded those who worked on Sunday when needed, provided them measured independence, and allowed them to build their own quarters and supervise his plantation enterprises. The reward for faithful service was often emancipation by deed and will.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.org

 

Robert Carter’s Deed of Gift

“On September 5, 1791, Robert Carter III of Nomony Hall, one of Virginia’s wealthiest slaveholders, delivered to the Northumberland District Court a document he called a “Deed of Gift.” It was a dry document . . . [which] signaled Carter’s intent to free his slaves, more than four hundred fifty in number, more American slaves than any American slaveholder had ever freed, more American slaves than any American slaveholder would ever free.

Carter lived next to the Washington’s and the Lee’s on the Northern Neck of Virginia, he was friend and peer to Jefferson, George Mason, Patrick Henry, and other members of the Revolutionary elite.

No monuments honor him, nor the Deed of Gift. No published map exists that can direct you to the patchwork ruins of his house and plantation; no stone wall tells exactly where his body lies. Sweep through the great bestselling histories of the Revolution and the founders, and you will rarely find even a footnote mentioning Robert Carter.

Eugene D. Genovese, in his classic “Roll, Jordan, Roll,” refers to Carter three times, once as an example of a slaveholder who consulted his slaves on the performance of their overseers, once as an example of a slaveholder who allowed his slaves to practice medicine, and once as a slaveholder who believed that slavery was unprofitable.

In the summer of 1791 . . . as Robert Carter composed the Deed of Gift, the private emancipation of slaves in the State of Virginia had been lawful for almost a decade. Such emancipations were difficult financial propositions, but certainly feasible: before Robert Carter freed his slaves, small slaveholders across Virginia had liberated almost ten thousand of their black servants, and entire States with significant slave populations, such as New Jersey, were learning how to finance emancipations on a public scale.

Similarly, like many slaveholders before him, Carter provided financial support and sponsorship that eased the transition to freedom, provided for disabled and indigent freed slaves, and laid the groundwork for an interracial republic, challenging in numerous small instances the notion that young America would fall apart if blacks and whites were free at the same time.”

(The First Emancipator: Slavery, Religion and the Quiet Revolution of Robert Carter, Andrew Levy, Random House, 2005. Excerpts pp. xi-xviii)

The Republican’s Avenue to Power

The following passage refers to Lincoln’s “lost speech” at the 1856 Bloomington, Illinois Republican party convention, where he reportedly fixated on keeping slaves in States where they lived while keeping the Kansas-Nebraska violence inflamed – the issues which his new party fed upon. The politically-ambitious Lincoln narrowly lost the vice-presidential nomination to William Dayton of New Jersey shortly after the Illinois convention, but then became what the author below refers to as a “Messiah-in-waiting” and coveting the presidency.  His plurality election in 1860 was the death knell of the United States Constitution.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.org

 

The Republican’s Avenue to Power

“The 1856 presidential election was pivotal in Lincoln’s formation as a foe of the South. It now appeared that the Republicans, not the “Know-Nothings,” would inherit the Northern Whig voters. Illinois Republicans [organized in Bloomington with] . . . all sorts of political leaders gathered there. Their common attribute was non-membership in the Democratic Party. They were Whigs, abolitionists, Free-Soilers, anti-Douglas Democrats, bolting Democrats, Know-Nothings – a collection of politicians of any stripe outside the Democratic Party. It was a political gathering . . . a group of people clubbed together to seek power.

They had only one common issue – the need, as they saw it, to attack slavery. The people they represented did not want slaves (or free Negroes) admitted to their State or territory of interest. The Northern and foreign immigrants did not want Negroes where they lived. They wanted to keep them out, to make them stay in the South. The politicians were going to use that popular attitude as an avenue to power.

In 1856, [Lincoln] accepted election as a delegate to the convention in Bloomington . . . meant to organize a State Republican party. He stood up with a show of reluctance . . . [and] spoke from scribbled notes. When he finished, and hour and a half after beginning, “a mob of frenzied men churned around him, congratulating him, praising him, pumping his hand.”

(Lincoln As He Really Was, Charles T. Pace, Shotwell Publishing, 2018, excerpts pp. 139-140)

Intolerant Mountaineers

While the North Carolina mountains are normally described as antislavery and Unionist during the war, it was also strongly resistant to foreigners and a hotbed of Know-Nothingism imported from the North in the mid-1850s. Originally a secret, anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic and anti-party fraternal order, the “Know-Nothings” was a response to “the vast influx of immigrants” who would drive native-born Americans from northeastern cities toward the West. This immigrant invasion affected the North and was changing the electorate there from those who understood the Framers’ vision of America, to those born in European kingdoms ruled by royalty. The American South remained mostly free of such threats to the republic, and enjoyed many immigrant groups who assimilated; the new, sectional Republican party absorbed the intolerant Know-Nothings.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.org

 

Intolerant Mountaineers

“At first glance, the North Carolina mountain region might have seemed infertile soil for a party dedicated to curbing the political influence of Catholics and foreigners, both of who were practically nonexistent in [the mountain] district. Nevertheless, many westerners proved susceptible to dire warnings that their democratic system of government was being threatened by hordes of immigrant criminals and paupers who owed primary allegiance to the Pope.

With their rallying cry of “Americans should rule America,” the Know-Nothings made impressive gains not only among the Whigs and boasted that their party had “arisen upon the ruins, and in spite of the opposition, of the Whigs and Democratic parties.”

But as the congressional elections of 1857 approached, the Know-Nothings – seemingly so formidable just two years earlier – now found themselves “weak, broken down, and scattered.” The party had been thoroughly demoralized by its abysmal showing in 1856 . . .”

(Thomas Lanier Clingman: Fire Eater From the Carolina Mountains, Thomas E. Jeffrey, excerpt pp. 105-107; 115)

Creating Engines for Political Security

The “glittering prize” of political party victory was control of the distribution of political offices, and Lincoln astutely arranged the patronage to control his party as well as keep jealous competitors at bay. The Collectors of Customs posts were most important, and were decisive in Lincoln’s decision for war rather than lose his tariff money and appointing powers.  Count Gurowski, the Polish immigrant and political gadfly mentioned below, believed in the European tradition that “treason” was simple opposition to royalty. In the United States, however, Article III, Section 3, defines treason only as waging war against “them,” the States, or adhering to their enemies.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.org

 

Creating Engines for Political Security

“The arduous task of cabinet-making was far from completed before Lincoln was beset with a swarm of office-seekers. Indeed, Washington was a veritable mecca for patronage mongers bent upon securing consulships, Indian agencies, postmaster-ships, or anything else in the gift of the appointing power [of the President].

Those who witnessed the rush of job hunters could not easily forget the spectacle. Wrote home a Michigan Congressman: “The City is overwhelmed with a crowd of rabid, persistent office-seekers – the like never was experienced before in the history of the Government.”

An Indiana member reminisced later: “I met at every turn a swarm of miscellaneous people, many of them looking as hungry and fierce as wolves, and ready to pounce upon members [of Congress] as they passed, begging for personal intercessions, letters of recommendations, etc. . . . the scuffle for place was unabated.”

And the eccentric Count Adam Gurowski, viewing the scene, confided to his diary in this same month of March 1861 his impressions:

“What a run, a race for offices. This spectacle likewise new to me. The Cabinet Ministers, or, as they call them here, the Secretaries, have old party debts to pay, old sores to avenge or to heal, and all this by distributing offices, or by what they call it here, the patronage. They, the leaders, hope to create engines for their own political security, but no one seems to look over Mason and Dixon’s line to the terrible and with lightning-like velocity spreading fire of hellish treason.”

Politically and financially, the collectors of customs posts were among the most important at the disposal of the Administration. That at the metropolis of the Empire State was the most lucrative. “There is no situation in the U. States which enables the incumbent to exert such influence . . . as the Collectorship of New York,” one political observer had written in the 1840’s; to another this position was second only in influence to that of Postmaster-General.”

Under the caption “Fat Offices of New York,” Horace Greeley’s Tribune informed its readers in 1860 that ranking first in importance and revenue was the collectorship, with its fixed salary of $6,340, and some $20,000 more in the form of “pickings and fees.” Before Lincoln’s first administration had run its four years, the Surveyor of the Port estimated the number of employees in the New York Custom House at 1,200 and the assessment on their salaries for political party purposes at 2 percent.”

(Lincoln and the Patronage, Harry J. Carman & Reinhard H. Luthin, Peter Smith, 1864, excerpts pp. 53-54; 59-60)

 

Mission of Peace and Goodwill Comes to Naught

The prime object in establishing the Constitution in 1787 was to insure domestic tranquility, and even the New York Tribune itself editorialized in November and December 1860 that: “We hold with Jefferson to the inalienable right of communities to alter or abolish forms of government that have become oppressive or injurious . . . we insist on letting them go in peace.” New York, in its ratification of the Constitution in 1787, expressly reserved the right to secede should it determine the need. The author below rightly sums up the Southern peace initiatives: “Well might the Southern leaders have adopted for their own the language of the Psalmist, “I am for peace: but when I speak, they are for war.” It is then clear the immediate cause of the war was the Republican Party, and its refusal to pursue peaceful solutions.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.org

 

Mission of Peace and Goodwill Comes to Naught

“Nor did [President Jefferson Davis] content himself with mere words of peace. He acted promptly on the resolution from Congress and appointed three commissioners from our government to the government of the United States. “These commissioners,” says Mr. Stephens, “were clothed with plenary powers to open negotiations for the settlement of all matters of joint property, forts, arsenals, arms, or property of any kind within the limits of the Confederate States, and all joint liabilities with their former associates, upon principles of right, justice, equity and good faith.”

Let me ask, could anything have been fairer?

These commissioners promptly proceeded on their way. A few days after the inauguration of Mr. Lincoln at Washington they formally notified his Secretary of State, Mr. Seward, that “the President, Congress and people of the Confederate States earnestly desire a peaceful solution” of pending questions between the two governments.

Suffice it to say that it was through no fault of these commissioners, or of the people and government they represented, that their mission of peace and goodwill to their late allies of the North came to naught.

Yet another effort for peace was made from a Southern official quarter in those portentous, ominous months following the sectional victory at the polls in November 1860. The Border Southern States were yet within the old union, hoping against hope for continued union, peace and justice. Among these Border States was Virginia, the oldest, most powerful of them all. By unanimous vote of her Legislature all the States of the union were invited to send delegates to a conference, to devise a plan for preserving harmony and constitutional union.

This conference met in Washington, February 4, 1861, the very day on which the Congress of the seceded Cotton States assembled in Montgomery. The demands or suggestions of the South in this Peace Congress were only that constitutional obligations should be observed by all parties; nay, that certain concessions to the North would be agreed to, by means of constitutional amendment, if only the constitution, as thus amended, might be obeyed.

This did not suit commissioners from the Northern States, as was bluntly stated by one of them, then and there. Salmon P. Chase, of Ohio, who was slated for a portfolio in Lincoln’s cabinet, and therefore spoke at least quasi ex cathedra. So the Peace Congress proved of no avail.

We find a similar situation in the Congress of the United States at its regular session that winter. Of the condition there Mr. Pollard says, in his book “The Lost Cause”: “It is remarkable that of all the compromises proposed in this Congress for preserving the peace of the country, none came from the Northern men; they came from the South and were defeated by the North.”

(Living Confederate Principles, Lloyd T. Everett, Southern Historical Society Papers, No. II, Volume XL, September 1915; Broadfoot Publishing Co., 1991, excerpts pp. 26-28)

 

 

Peaceable Americans Form a More Perfect Union

In President Jefferson Davis’ inaugural address he pointed out that “sovereign States here represented have proceeded to form this Confederacy; and it is an abuse of language that their act has been denominated a revolution. They formed a new alliance, but within each State its government remained.” He added simply, “The agent through which they communicated changed.” Thus there was no “destruction of the Union” as was charged by the North, but merely a reduction in the number of constituent States forming the union of 1787.

Bernhard Thuersam www.Circa1865.org

 

Peaceable Americans Form a More Perfect Union

“On February 15, 1861, before the arrival of Mr. Davis at Montgomery to take the oath of office, the Congress passed a resolution providing “that a commission of three persons be appointed by the President-elect as early as may be convenient after his inauguration and sent to the government of the United States, for the purpose of negotiating friendly relations between that government and the Confederate States of America, and for the settlement of all questions of disagreement between the two governments, upon principles of right, justice, equity and good faith.”

Truly, as Mr. [Alexander] Stephens, of Georgia, one of the delegates to this Montgomery Congress, says . . . “[the Confederate Congress] were no such men as revolutions or civil commotions usually bring to the surface . . . Their object was not to tear down, so much as it was to build up with the greater security and permanency.” And we may add that they meant to build up, if so permitted, peaceably.

In this spirit of amity and justice, the first act of the Louisiana State convention, after passing the ordinance of secession [from union with the United States], was to adopt, unanimously, a resolution recognizing the right to free navigation of the Mississippi River (which flows down from Northern States of the great inland basin and empties into the sea within the confines of Louisiana), and further recognizing the right of egress at that river’s mouth and looking to the guaranteeing of these rights.

President Davis’ inaugural address, delivered February 18, 1861, breathe the same spirit of friendship toward our brothers of the North. He said in part:

“Our present political situation . . . illustrates the American idea that governments rest on the consent of the governed, and that it is the right of the people to abolish them at will whenever they become destructive of the ends for which they were established.”

(Living Confederate Principles, Lloyd T. Everett, Southern Historical Society Papers, No. II, Volume XL, September 1915; Broadfoot Publishing Co., 1991, excerpts pp. 24-25)

 

A Minority Party Blunders into War

William H. Seward lost the Republican presidential nomination to a political novice from Illinois, and was quietly licking his wounds while that novice was ignoring the secession crisis in Springfield. As Seward was the creation and protégé of New York newspaperman Thurlow Weed, he might have exerted party leadership to bring on a constitutional convention of the States to properly settle the issues. Weed was no friend of secession, but saw signs that the conservative South was open to negotiation – as the Crittenden Compromise offered. Seward deferred to Lincoln, and Lincoln stumbled into war.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.org

 

A Minority Party Blunders into War

“Aside from misconceiving the importance of the secession movement, the Republicans were also placed at a great disadvantage by their lack of experience as a majority party and their lack of a leader to chart their course for them. The crisis overtook them before they could remedy these defects.

It demanded that they produce a formula to save the Union, and made this demand at a time when they had never even borne the responsibility of appointing a postmaster. They were yet a minority party, not destined to assume office for three months to come.

They had never been anything other than a minority party, skilled in opposition tactics, steeped in opposition psychology, unused to responsibility, unaccustomed to the formulation of policy. Unprepared as they were to cope with a crisis, they clung to their nominal position as a minority group and shrank from taking affirmative action. The future belonged to them; they alone could pledge it; and consequently they alone could wield the initiative.

This handicap might have been overcome by clear-cut and decisive leadership. But in the moment when an unexpected crisis and unfamiliar responsibility fell simultaneously upon Republican congressmen, they found themselves with no unquestioned leader. Abraham Lincoln was, of course, the elected chief, but he had been silent for more than half a year.

Mr. Lincoln was, in the eyes of many simply an ex-congressman from Illinois, now President-elect . . . Certainly they gave no sincere allegiance to the unknown quantity from Springfield, and if anyone held the position of leadership it was Lincoln’s rival, William H. Seward. Seward had been the leader of the Republican party, and especially of the Republicans in Congress, for nearly six years . . . and probably the most intelligent member on the Republican side of the Senate.

The moral grandeur of “lost causes” held little appeal for him. Consequently, he became a superb politician, a master of artifice, equivocation, and silence. With Lincoln silent in Springfield, the public gaze turned upon Seward, the leader in Congress, and, as rumor had it, the next Secretary of State.

Had Seward been prepared to act vigorously at this juncture, he might have exerted an enormous influence. But he was, himself, inhibited at this critical moment by his reticence in assuming leadership so soon after his defeat for the [presidential] nomination, by his underestimate of the crisis, and by his anxiety not to take any step that would impair his prospective influence with the new administration.

Amid this welter of confusion [in Republican ranks], Congress at last convened [in] joint session [to hear President James Buchanan] set forth his belief that the States cannot legally secede, but that the Federal government could not legally restrain them; in it he recommended that Congress call a constitutional convention . . .”

(Lincoln and His Party in the Secession Crisis, David M. Potter, Yale University Press, 1942, excerpts pp. 80-82)

 

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