Life of Henry Clay/26 The Compromise of 1850
THE COMPROMISE OF 1850.
When during the presidential campaign Clay entreated his friends to leave him undisturbed in his retirement, he meant undoubtedly what he said. But after a short rest his interest in public affairs naturally revived to new activity.
The strife about slavery growing constantly more embittered and threatening, some thinking men in the South, who in the general excitement had kept their temper, asked themselves whether slavery was really the economical, moral, and political blessing its hot-blooded devotees represented it to be; and here and there, mainly in the border Slave States, voices in favor of emancipation began to be heard again, some in mere whispers, some in more courageous utterance. Especially in Kentucky, where in the spring of 1849 a convention to revise the state constitution was to be elected, the subject became the theme of public discussion. It was the same cause which fifty years before had called forth young Henry Clay's first efforts; and now the old statesman of seventy-two lifted up his voice for it once more. In January, 1849, he went to New Orleans, and from there he sent a letter on emancipation, addressed to Richard Pindell of Lexington, but intended for the people of Kentucky. That part of the letter which exposed the absurdity of the reasons usually brought forward to justify slavery might well have come from the pen of a life-long abolitionist. If slavery were really a blessing, he reasoned, "the principle on which it is maintained would require that one portion of the white race should be reduced to bondage to serve another portion of the same race, when black subjects of slavery could not be obtained; and that in Africa, where they may entertain as great a preference for their color as we do for ours, they would be justified in reducing the white race to slavery in order to secure the blessings which that state is said to diffuse." In the same style he punctured the argument that the superiority of the white race over the black justified the enslavement of the inferior. "It would prove entirely too much," said he. "It would prove that any white nation which had made greater advances in civilization, knowledge, and wisdom than another white nation would have the right to reduce the latter to a state of bondage. Nay, further, if the principle be applicable to races and nations, what is to prevent its being applied to individuals? And then the wisest man in the world would have a right to make slaves of all the rest of mankind." There was in this something of Benjamin Franklin's manner of pointing an argument. Clay had evidently written it with zest.
He deeply lamented that emancipation had not been accomplished before, and hoped it might not long be delayed. In his opinion, emancipation should be gradual. He proposed that all slave children born after 1855 or 1860 should be free when reaching the age of twenty-five years, then to be hired out under the authority of the state for a period of not exceeding three years, in order to earn a sum sufficient to pay the expenses of their transportation to Liberia, and to provide them an outfit for six months after their arrival there. Their offspring were to be free from their birth, but to be apprenticed until the age of twenty-one, and also to go to Liberia.
This, surely, was a very slow process; and his favorite scheme of transportation to Liberia, based upon his firm belief that the two races could not possibly live together in a state of freedom, could hardly bear examination in point of practicability as well as of justice. The advanced anti-slavery men of the time criticised the plan with great severity. But the principal merit of the letter lay in the fact that Clay, as a slave-holder, and as the foremost citizen of a Slave State, proposed a plan of emancipation in any form, accompanying it with such radical reasoning on the general subject of slavery; and that merit was great. As to the practical effect of the plan, had it been adopted, Clay was certainly not wrong in suggesting that, the work once begun, a general disposition would exist to accelerate and complete it. But it was not adopted. On the contrary, the discussion served only to intensify the determination of the slave-holding interest to maintain itself at any cost, and to rally the South in the struggle against the growing anti-slavery tendency in the North.
But Clay's public activity was not to be confined to the writing of letters. There could scarcely have been a stronger proof of the hold he had upon the people of Kentucky than that the legislature elected him by a unanimous vote to a seat in the Senate of the United States for a full term, at the time when the discussion on emancipation was beginning, and he was known to cherish sentiments so distasteful to a majority of those whom he was to represent. He forgot his vows of retirement and accepted the charge. It was after all natural that, to a man so accustomed to the excitements of public activity and to leadership, quiet retirement, especially at a period of life when it threatened to be final, should have had its horrors.
There seems to have been a feeling in Kentucky as if he, in a position of power, could avert the dangers threatening the country. He himself, however, did not then appreciate the seriousness of the coming crisis. He did not yet understand that the slavery question was overshadowing all else. On December 19, 1848, when his return to the Senate began to be spoken of, he wrote to Thomas B. Stevenson: —
"Greeley writes me from Washington that the Free Soil question will be certainly adjusted at this session, on the basis of admitting the newly acquired territory as one or two states into the Union. Should that event occur, it will exercise some influence on my disposition to return to the Senate, should the office be within my power. It would leave none but the old questions of tariff, internal improvements, etc., on which I have heretofore so often addressed both houses of Congress."
But the Free Soil question was not so easily adjusted. When Congress met in December, 1848, the last session under Polk's presidency, it had to confront a state of things unexpected a year before. The discovery of rich gold mines in California had attracted thither from all parts of the country a sudden and unexampled emigration, increasing in volume from day to day. In a few months a population gathered there strong enough in numbers to authorize the organization of a state government. In any event, the character of that population and the adventurous nature of its pursuits rendered the establishment of some legal authority peculiarly pressing. Polk, therefore, strongly urged that the provisional military rule in New Mexico and California, which ought to have ceased with the war, should be superseded by legally organized territorial governments. As to the slavery question, he recommended the extension of the Missouri Compromise line. Various schemes were proposed in Congress, provoking hot debates between pro-slavery and anti-slavery men. The excitement was increased by vigorous protests from the inhabitants of New Mexico and California against the introduction of slavery there; by an attempt on the part of Calhoun to organize a distinctively Southern party; and by threats that the Union would be dissolved in case the North insisted upon the exclusion of slavery from the new conquests; until finally, the impossibility of an agreement becoming evident, the thirtieth Congress adjourned, leaving the decision of the great question to its successor.
President Taylor's inaugural address did not announce a distinct policy with regard to the absorbing problem. His Cabinet consisted of four Whigs from slave-holding states, of whom only one, Crawford of Georgia, the Secretary of War, belonged to the extreme pro-slavery faction; and of three Northern Whigs, one of whom, Collamer of Vermont, the Postmaster-General, was known as an anti-slavery man. The composition of the Cabinet, therefore, indicated no settled purpose. But in April, 1849, Taylor sent a confidential agent to California to suggest to the people the speedy formation of a state constitution and government, without, however, advising what should be done with regard to slavery. Upon his arrival that agent found that the inhabitants of California, following the call of General Riley, the Military Governor, had already taken the matter in hand. A convention to frame a state constitution met on September 1, 1849, and completed its work on October 13. The Constitution contained a prohibition of slavery, which had been adopted by a unanimous vote of the convention, including fifteen members who had migrated to California from the Slave States. The Constitution was ratified by a popular vote of 12,066 against 811. President Taylor, who wished to meet Congress with the governments to be instituted in the newly acquired territories as accomplished facts, and hoped that the people of New Mexico too would take the task into their own hands, instructed the military officers commanding there not to obstruct, but rather to advance, popular movements in that direction.
The slave-holding interest watched these proceedings with constantly increasing alarm. The territories taken from Mexico were eluding its grasp. Instead of adding to the strength of the South, they would increase the power of the Free States. It was a terrible shock. The mere anticipation of it had brought forth suggestions of desperate remedies. In May, 1849, a meeting at Jackson, Mississippi, had resolved that a state convention be held to consider the threatened rights and interests of the South. That state convention met, and issued an address to the Southern people proposing a Southern "popular convention," to be held on the first Monday in June, 1850, at Nashville. The cry of disunion was raised with increasing frequency and violence. Many meant it only as a threat to frighten the North into concession. But there were not a few Southern men also who had regretfully arrived at the conclusion that the dissolution of the Union was necessary to the salvation of slavery. On the other hand, while every Southern legislature save one denounced the exclusion of slavery as a violation of Southern rights, every Northern legislature save one passed resolutions in favor of the Wilmot Proviso.
This was the state of things when, in December, 1849, Clay arrived at Washington to take his seat in the Senate. His relations with Taylor were those of formal civility. Clay did not expect, as he wrote, to "find much favor at court;" but the President had offered his son, James Clay, the mission to Portugal "in a handsome manner," and the offer had been accepted. Clay sternly resented the insinuation which was reported to have been made by a member of the Cabinet, that the appointment of his son would make him, as a Senator, obedient to the administration. His reappearance in Washington was by no means welcome to all. It seems to have been especially dreaded by some Southern statesmen. When Clay's election to the Senate began to become probable, in December, 1848, Alexander H. Stephens wrote to Crittenden, then governor of Kentucky: "That ought to be averted if it can be done; more danger to the success of General Taylor's administration is to be dreaded from that source than from all others." Jefferson Davis, too, then a Senator from Mississippi, feared it no less. "I regret exceedingly," he wrote to Crittenden in January, 1849, "to see that Mr. Clay is to return to the Senate. Among many reasons is one in which I know you will sympathize, — the evil influence he will have on the friends of General Taylor in the two houses of Congress." Clay's disposition, on the other hand, when he went to Washington, was not belligerent. "I shall go there," he wrote to Stevenson, "with a determination to support any Whig measures for which I have heretofore contended, and in a state of mind and feeling to judge fairly and impartially of the measures of the administration. I shall not place myself in any leading position either to support or oppose it. But I shall rather seek to be a calm and quiet looker-on, rarely speaking, and, when I do, endeavoring to throw oil upon the troubled waters." He did not foresee that he would at once be in a position of leadership, speaking more than ever before during any session, not at all about old Whig measures, but constantly on the one great question which the old statesman was so reluctant to recognize as the controlling question of the day.
Clay was at heart in favor of the Wilmot Proviso. In August, 1848, he explained in a letter to Stevenson how he thought the newly acquired territories ought to be treated. The retrocession of Mexico and California, which was urged by some Whigs and anti-slavery men, he did not think practicable. But, as to slavery in the territories, the South, he thought, should "yield the point in dispute." The same idea he elaborated at length in a letter to James E. Harvey written a few days later. The North, in his opinion, was over-apprehensive, because, whether admitted or excluded, slaves could not be kept in the new territories. But, even if the South were right in its demand, it ought to yield for other reasons. "The South," he said, "has had the executive government in its hands during the most part of the time since the Constitution was adopted. Its public policy has generally prevailed. The annexation of Texas, and the consequent war with Mexico, were results of Southern counsels. The very exceptionable mode of that annexation was exclusively Southern. From the commencement of the government, we had, prior to the last acquisition, obtained Louisiana, Florida, and Texas, and all these (with the exception of the least valuable part of Louisiana) were theatres of slavery, and augmented the political power arising from slavery. Large portions of the Northern population also feel and believe that their manufacturing interests have been sacrificed by Southern domination." In consideration of all this, he thought, the South ought "magnanimously to assent" to the exclusion of slavery from the new territories.
But of what would happen, if the South refused to accept the interdiction of slavery in the territories, this was Clay's conception: "It [the interdiction of slavery] will nevertheless prevail; and the conflict, exasperated by bitter contention and mutual passions, will either lead to a dissolution of the Union, or deprive it of that harmony which alone can make the Union desirable. It will lead to the formation of a sectional and Northern party, which will, sooner or later, take permanent and exclusive possession of the government." These were the ideas Clay brought with him to Washington, in December, 1849.
The opening of the session was inauspicious. For three weeks a struggle about the speakership convulsed the House of Representatives. The slavery question formed the subject of furious debates, during which members almost came to blows. At last Cobb of Georgia was elected. President Taylor sent his message to Congress on December 24. As to the burning question, he simply announced the fact that the people of California, "impelled by the necessities of their political condition," had framed a state constitution and would soon apply for admission as a state, and he recommended their wish to the favorable consideration of Congress. He expected the people of New Mexico would shortly take the same course, and hoped that, "by awaiting their action, all causes of uneasiness might be avoided, and confidence and kind feeling preserved." In other words, California and New Mexico should be received without further question, even as Free States, if the people thereof so desired. In a special message of January 21, 1850, Taylor declared that he had favored prompt action by the people of the new territories, without attempting to exercise any influence as to what that action should be concerning slavery. He again urged as prompt as possible a disposition of the matter, in order to put an end to the prevailing excitement, adding that any attempt to deny to the Californians the right of self-government, in a matter peculiarly affecting themselves, would inevitably be regarded by them as an invasion of their rights, and, upon the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the great mass of the American people would sustain them.
General Taylor was a slave-holder, and his sympathies had always been with his class. In 1847 he had written a letter to his son-in-law, Jefferson Davis, in which he declared that he would respect the feelings of the Free States, but not permit, if he could prevent, any encroachments upon the rights of the slave-holding states; that he would be willing to have the slavery question freely discussed, but, if any practical attempts were made to deprive the Slave States of their constitutional rights, he was also willing that the South should "act promptly, boldly, and decisively, with arms in their hands if necessary, as the Union in that case will be blown to atoms, or will be no longer worth preserving." But Taylor was also a thoroughly honest and simple-minded man; and, when the Southern hotspurs now told him that the constitutional rights of the slave-holding states were actually encroached upon by the proposed admission of California as a free state, he demurred. He had not fathomed Calhoun's metaphysics. If he understood that the interest of slavery required a larger number of Slave States, he felt also that there were other rights involved in the question. He could not be persuaded that, if California and New Mexico desired to come into the Union as states without slavery, it would, if they were otherwise qualified to become states, be right to refuse them admission.
The attitude of the President was severely censured, not only by Southern Democrats, but also by Southern Whigs. They fiercely charged him with an unconstitutional assumption of power in suggesting to the Californians and New Mexicans to take steps preparatory to the formation of state governments, and not a few of them denounced him as a "traitor to the South." Instead of allaying the excitement, Taylor's message rather increased it. The slavery question affected the consideration of almost all other subjects, however seemingly remote. In the Senate, for instance, a motion was made to accord the privilege of the floor to the famous temperance apostle, Father Mathew. This compliment to a distinguished foreigner found fierce opposition on the ground that, years ago, he had put his name, together with that of Daniel O'Connell, to an anti-slavery appeal, — an opposition which Clay earnestly deprecated, saying that the advocates of slavery would rather hurt than help their cause by pushing it forward on every possible occasion. The threats of disunion became so frequent and so loud, that the Republic seemed to be actually in immediate danger of disruption.
Clay, upon his arrival at Washington, found "the feeling for disunion among some intemperate Southern politicians" stronger than he had expected; but he thought the masses were still sound, and he therefore urged his friends in Kentucky to "get up large, powerful meetings of both parties to express in strong language their determination to stand by the Union." Early in January he wrote that, in case of the adoption of the Wilmot Proviso, for which he thought there was a large majority in the House and a small one in the Senate, the hotspurs of the South declared themselves openly for a dissolution of the Union, and that he was considering "some comprehensive scheme of settling amicably the whole question in all its bearings." The purpose to attempt a settlement by a plan of his own became confirmed as his anxiety grew lest the disunion sentiment should spread by contagion, and as the bills and propositions brought forward in a disjointed way appeared only still more to increase the prevailing confusion. What happened to him now was what had happened to him so frequently before. Where he was, the minds of his associates seemed to turn instinctively to him for leadership; and the old man who had come to the Senate with the intention of remaining "a calm and quiet looker-on," and of "rarely speaking," soon found himself engaged in the most arduous parliamentary campaign of his life, those in Jackson's time not excepted.
Never had there been a Senate with so splendid an array of talent, and so great a number of names that were then, or were destined to become, famous throughout the land. The three stars of the first magnitude, Clay, Webster, and Calhoun, met once more, and for the last time, on the same theatre of action, and around them Benton, Mangum, Badger, Berrien, Sam Houston, Rusk, King of Alabama, Jefferson Davis, Henry S. Foote, Cass, Butler of South Carolina, Hunter and Mason of Virginia, Daniel S. Dickinson, Stephen A. Douglas, Pierre Soulé, Jesse D. Bright, John Davis of Massachusetts, Thomas Corwin, Hannibal Hamlin, Truman Smith, John P. Hale, and two men who owed their election to the campaign of 1848, — William H. Seward of New York and Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, who grasped the slavery question, in all its moral, social, and political aspects, with a breadth of understanding, and treated it with an enthusiastic but calm fearlessness of spirit, startling and puzzling the old statesmen before them. It was the anti-slavery statesmanship of the rising generation.
To this Senate Clay, on January 29, 1850, unfolded his "comprehensive scheme of adjustment." His object was to save the Union, and he reasoned thus: The Union is threatened by the disunion spirit growing up in the South. That disunion spirit springs from an apprehension that slavery is not safe in the Union. The disunion spirit must be disarmed by concessions calculated to quiet that apprehension. These concessions must be such as not to alarm the North. In planning his compromise, he had these troubles to deal with: 1. The South was bitterly opposed to the admission of California as a Free State, because it would break that rule by which formerly new states had been admitted only in pairs, one Free State and one Slave State. It would thus disturb the balance of power between Free and Slave States in the Senate, and substantially give the North the benefit of the conquests made in the Mexican war. But the admission of California as a Free State, its people having declared themselves against the introduction of slavery, was so clearly right in itself that it could hardly be put in question. 2. As to New Mexico and Utah, the remainder of the territory obtained by conquest, the North insisted upon the application of the Wilmot Proviso, the absolute exclusion of slavery. But the Southern hotspurs declared that if the Wilmot Proviso were adopted, the Union should be dissolved at once. 3. Texas claimed as her western boundary the course of the Rio Grande. This would have included the larger part of New Mexico; and, as Texas was a Slave State, while New Mexico under the Mexican law had no slavery, the recognition of the Rio Grande boundary would have transformed a large free territory into a part of a Slave State, to be used in the future for the formation of new Slave States. A much narrower boundary was insisted upon by Northern, and also, upon historical grounds, by some Southern men; but the Texans proclaimed their determination to enforce their claim by the sword if necessary. 4. The South complained that the constitutional obligation to return fugitive slaves from one state to another was not fulfilled by the North, and that, therefore, more stringent legislation must be insisted upon, while the catching of fugitive slaves was especially odious to the Northern people. 5. The North continued to agitate the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, and of the slave-trade between the different Slave States, while the South insisted that such measures would be subversive of their rights and dangerous to their security.
To meet these difficulties Clay proposed, in a set of resolutions to be followed by appropriate bills, a series of measures intended to compromise all conflicting interests and aspirations. The first declared that California should be speedily admitted as a state, — of course with her free-state constitution; the second, that, as slavery did not by law exist and was not likely to be introduced in any of the territories acquired from Mexico, Congress should provide territorial governments for New Mexico and Utah, without any restriction as to slavery, — thus sacrificing the Wilmot Proviso, — without, however, authorizing slave-holders to take their slaves there, — thus adjourning the slavery question as to those territories to a future day; the third and fourth, that a boundary line between Texas and New Mexico should be fixed, giving to Texas but little of the New Mexican territory she claimed, but granting her a certain sum of money for the payment of that part of her public debt for which, during her independent existence, her customs revenue had been pledged; the fifth, that it was inexpedient to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia without the consent of Maryland, etc.; the sixth, that the slave-trade in the District should be prohibited; the seventh, that a more effectual fugitive-slave law should be enacted; and the eighth, that Congress had no power to prohibit or obstruct the trade in slaves between the slave-holding states. The preamble declared the purpose of these resolutions to be "for the peace, concord, and harmony of these states, to settle and adjust amicably all existing questions of controversy between them, arising out of the institution of slavery, upon a fair, equitable, and just basis."
This was Clay's plan of compromise. The admission of California was to be made acceptable to the South by giving slavery a chance in Utah and New Mexico, and by the enactment of a more efficient fugitive-slave law. The Northern people were to be reconciled to the abandonment of the Wilmot Proviso as to Utah and New Mexico, and to a more efficient fugitive-slave law, by the admission of California as a Free State, and by the abolition of the slave-trade in the District of Columbia. With the South, said Clay in a short speech accompanying the resolutions, the question was one of interest, with the North one of sentiment, and on neither side would there be any sacrifice of principle; but, he added, it was easier to make a concession of sentiment than of interest, — an utterance which plainly proved that Clay indulged in pleasing delusions, not, perhaps, as to the enactment of the compromise, but as to its ultimate effects, if enacted.
Although he deprecated immediate debate, and admonished Senators to consider his plan calmly before forming their opinion, there was at once a rattling fusillade of objections and protests from Southern men, Whigs as well as Democrats. Jefferson Davis, who thought that the scheme conceded nothing to the South, and demanded as a minimum the extension of the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific Ocean, with a provision establishing slavery to the south of that line, called forth from Clay a remarkable answer. "Coming from a Slave State, as I do," said Clay, "I owe it to myself, I owe it to truth, I owe it to the subject, to say that no earthly power could induce me to vote for a specific measure for the introduction of slavery where it had not before existed, either south or north of that line. Sir, while you reproach, and justly too, our British ancestors for the introduction of this institution upon the continent of America, I am, for one, unwilling that the posterity of the present inhabitants of California and New Mexico shall reproach us for doing just what we reproach Great Britain for doing to us." This was a noble declaration, no doubt sincere; and yet, by his second resolution, he proposed to open the way for the introduction of slavery into Utah and New Mexico, where it did not exist. It is true, he did not believe it would ever go there, but, by providing for territorial governments without the exclusion of slavery, he gave it a chance, and that chance was to commend the acceptance of the compromise to the South. He either deceived the South or he deceived himself. In fact, he deceived himself, for the chance he gave to slavery led to an act of the territorial legislature in 1859 sanctioning slavery in New Mexico.
On February 5 Clay supported his plan of adjustment with a great speech. The infirmities of old age began to tell upon him. Walking up to the Capitol, he asked a friend who accompanied him, "Will you lend me your arm? I feel myself quite weak and exhausted this morning." He ascended the long flight of steps with difficulty, being several times obliged to stop in order to recover his breath. The friend suggested that he should defer his speech, as he was too ill to exert himself that day. "I consider our country in danger," replied Clay; "and if I can be the means in any measure of averting that danger, my health and life is of little consequence." When he arrived at the Senate chamber, he beheld a spectacle well apt to inspire an orator. For several days his intention had been known to address the Senate on February 5, and from far and near from — Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and places still more distant — men and women had come in great numbers to hear him. The avenues of the Senate chamber were buzzing with an eager multitude who in vain struggled to gain access to the thronged galleries and the equally crowded floor. When Clay arose to speak, an outburst of applause in the chamber greeted him. The noise was heard without, and the great crowd assembled there raised such a shout that the orator could not make himself heard until the officers of the Senate had gone out and cleared the entrances. Clay's speech occupied two days. With a faltering voice he began, but gradually he recovered his strength; and the elevation of his sentiments, the sonorous flow of his words, and the lofty energy of his action, enchanted his audience to the last. There was a pathetic interest added to the old charm; for his hearers felt that this manifestation of strength was owing only to a supreme effort of a strong will over failing powers, and that this effort might be his last. On the second day of the speech some of his fellow-Senators, observing that he overtaxed himself, interrupted him repeatedly with suggestions of an adjournment, but he declined, feeling uncertain whether he would be able to go on the next day. When he had concluded, a great throng of friends, men and women, rushed toward him to shake his hand and to kiss him.
His speech was an appeal to the North for concession, and to the South for peace. He asked the North whether the enactment of the Wilmot Proviso would not be an unnecessary provocation, since there was no slavery existing in the territories acquired from Mexico, and no probability of its introduction. Why not, then, give it up for the sake of harmony? He reminded his Southern friends that all the great acquisitions of territory — Louisiana, Florida, and Texas — had "redounded to the benefit of the South," and pointed out the injustice of their "pressing matters to disastrous consequences," when, for the first time, the attempt was made to introduce acquired territories without slavery. He emphatically denied the right of any state to secede from the Union, and the possibility of peaceable secession. "War and dissolution of the Union are identical," he exclaimed; "they are convertible terms; and such a war!" With prophetic words he foretold them their isolation in case of an armed conflict.
"If the two portions of the confederacy should be involved in civil war, in which the effort on the one side would be to restrain the introduction of slavery into the new territories, and on the other side to force its introduction there, what a spectacle should we present to the contemplation of astonished mankind! An effort to propagate wrong! It would be a war in which we should have no sympathy, no good wishes, and in which all mankind would be against us, and in which our own history itself would be against us!"
His feelings told him the truth. Southern men indeed, counted upon British support in case of secession; and it may be said that, when eleven years later secession came, in a certain sense they had such support. But it is nevertheless true that, when the governments of Great Britain and France were inclined to recognize the Southern Confederacy as an independent power, it was the abhorrence of slavery prevailing among civilized mankind, their own people included, more than any other influence, that restrained them, and kept the Southern Confederacy in its fatal isolation.
The debate which followed called forth all the great men of the Senate. On March 4 Calhoun appeared, gaunt and haggard, too ill to speak, but still full of that grim energy with which he had been for so many years defending the interests of slavery, calling them the rights of the South. His oration was read to the Senate by Mason of Virginia. Calhoun's mind was narrow, but within its narrow sphere acute. He saw with perfect clearness that slavery could not be saved within the Union, and that every compromise putting off the decisive crisis only made its final doom all the more certain. A year or two before, he had written to a member of the Alabama legislature that, instead of shunning the issue with the North on the slavery question, it should be courted. "I would go even one step farther," he wrote, "and add that it is our duty to force the issue on the North. We are now stronger than we shall be hereafter, politically and morally. Unless we bring on the issue, delay to us will be dangerous indeed. It is the true policy of those who seek our destruction." From the pro-slavery point of view, Calhoun was unquestionably right. The slave-holding states would have been more able to hold their own in 1820 than in 1850, and more in 1850 than they proved to be in 1861.
Calhoun's speech against Clay's plan of adjustment was his last great manifesto. He argued that the Union could not endure without a perfect equilibrium between the slave-holding and the Free States; that this equilibrium had been disturbed by the growth of the Free States; that this growth had been brought about by legislation favorable to the North and inimical to the South, — the anti-slavery Ordinance of 1787, the Missouri Compromise, the revenue laws oppressive to the planting interest; that the equilibrium would be lost beyond all hope by the admission of California and the exclusion of slavery from the newly acquired territories; that the admission of California was the test as to whether the South ever could expect justice; that, unless the South received justice, the Union would fall to pieces; that to preserve the Union the equilibrium must be restored, and that this could be done only by an amendment to the Constitution restoring to the South the power of protecting herself. As to what that amendment to the Constitution should be, Calhoun did not express himself clearly. It was subsequently revealed that he meant an amendment providing for the election of two presidents, one from the slave-holding and one from the Free States, each one to have the veto power with regard to the legislation of Congress, — a fantastic, impossible scheme.
There he sat, the old champion of slavery, himself the picture of his doomed cause, — a cause at war with the civilization of the age, vainly struggling against destiny, — a cause which neither union nor disunion, neither eloquence in council, nor skill in diplomacy, nor bravery in battle, could save: there he sat, motionless like a statue, with the hand of death upon him; his dark eyes flashing with feverish lustre from beneath his knitted brows; listening to his own words from another's mouth, and anxiously watching on the faces of those around their effect, — words of mournful despair, heralding the coming fate, and, without hope, still trying to avert it by counseling impossible expedients. Four weeks later Calhoun closed his eyes forever, leaving his cherished cause to its doom. Clay and Webster were among those who strewed flowers of eulogy upon his grave.
On March 7 Webster spoke. His speech was one of the sensations of the time. The anti-slavery men of New England had hoped that Webster would take in Congress the leadership of the opponents of slavery extension. Webster's past career gave good reasons for this hope, but the expectation was disappointed. Webster had always condemned slavery; now he paraded an array of excuses for its continued existence. He had opposed the annexation of Texas because of slavery; now he laid great stress upon the right of Texas to form out of its territory four new Slave States. He had claimed the Wilmot Proviso as his thunder; now he opposed its application to Utah and New Mexico, because he thought slavery was excluded from them by the laws of nature and the ordinance of God, and he censured those insisting upon the Proviso because they offered to the South a needless taunt and humiliation. He denounced the abolitionists because they had done nothing useful or good, but only aggravated the evils of slavery. He admitted that the Free States had not done their duty in returning fugitive slaves, and declared himself ready to support an effective fugitive-slave law. He denounced peaceable secession as an impossibility, and closed with an appeal for the Union.
The effect produced by the "seventh-of-March speech" on the anti-slavery men, especially in New England, was painful in the extreme. They saw in it the fall of an archangel. They denounced it as a flagrant abandonment of principle, and a profligate bid for the presidency. Their indignation was still more inflamed when Webster shortly afterwards visited Boston, sneered at the anti-slavery movement as an agitation based upon a "ghastly abstraction," and told his constituents that Massachusetts should "conquer her local prejudices." But those went too far who charged Webster with having originated a pro-slavery reaction at the North. Webster's speech was rather a symptom than a moving cause. While the excitement among that portion of the Northern people who took a constant interest in public affairs remained as great as ever, it had for some time been abating among those who became publicly active only on occasion. This did not escape the observation of Southern men. Already, on December 5, 1849, Alexander H. Stephens wrote to his brother: "The North is beginning to count the cost, — not the Free Soilers, but the mercantile class. I shall not yet despair of the Republic." He judged correctly. The country was prosperous. The flow of gold from California, present and prospective, seemed to increase the opportunities of enterprise and gain. The field of profitable operations was constantly expanding on all sides. Thus grew from day to day the number of those who feared to see these opportunities disturbed by a great national crisis. The threats of disunion and civil war, so vociferously put forth by the Southern hotspurs, had their effect. Timid patriotism was frightened, and the commercial spirit wanted some settlement of the pending difficulties, without being very exacting.
Such a current of feeling is apt to work by a sort of atmospheric contagion, and could not fail to make itself felt in Congress. Of the Democratic Free Soilers, many sought the sheltering roof of the party whose main force was Southern, and the Whigs were divided. In January the Wilmot Proviso had still a majority in the House of Representatives; in February a resolution embodying it was laid on the table by a majority still larger. The anti-slavery tide was manifestly receding, Webster's speech being, not the origin of the backward movement, but only a part of it — indeed a helping, but not a starting force. The disunion declamations of Southern men, too, gradually lost much of their fierceness, and the general temper of the public mind in both sections of the country grew steadily more favorable to a compromise. The anti-slavery men were as unable to prevent it as the hotspurs of the South. But what they could do was, to answer Calhoun's parting cry of despair with the proclamation that the future was surely theirs.
On March 11, Seward spoke. He insisted upon the prompt and unconditional admission of California, emphatically declaring that he would consent to no compromise upon a question of right. He would not hamper the statesmanship of the future by any compromise whatever. No political equilibrium between freedom and slavery, he maintained, was possible, because if apparently restored to-day it would be destroyed again to-morrow. The moral sense of the age, he boldly proclaimed, would never permit the enforcement of a law making it the duty of Northern freemen to catch the fugitive slaves of Southern slave-holders. He denied that the Constitution recognized property in man. The Constitution, he affirmed, devoted the public domain to union, justice, defense, welfare, and liberty, and it was devoted to the same noble ends by "a higher law than the Constitution." How could wise and patriotic men, he asked, when founding institutions, social and political, for countless millions, contemplate the establishment of human bondage as one of them? If slavery, limited as it then was, threatened to subvert the Constitution, how could wise statesmen think of enlarging its boundaries and increasing its influence? He would therefore bar its expansion by all legal means. Climatic conditions were not sufficient to prevent attempts at the introduction of slavery; and wherever he found a law of God or of nature disregarded, he would vote to reaffirm it with all the sanction of civil authority. He put the final issue clearly before the slave-holders and the compromisers. The threats to dissolve the Union did not dismay him. The question was "whether the Union shall stand, and slavery, under the steady, peaceful action of moral, social, and political causes, be removed by gradual voluntary effort and with compensation, or whether the Union shall be dissolved and civil war ensue, bringing on violent but complete and immediate emancipation." "I feel assured," he added, "that slavery must give way, and will give way, to the salutary instructions of economy, and to the ripening influences of humanity; that emancipation is inevitable, and is near; that it may be hastened or hindered; and that, whether it shall be peaceful or violent depends upon the question whether it be hastened or hindered; that all measures which fortify slavery or extend it, tend to the consummation of violence; all that check its extension and abate its strength, tend to its peaceful extirpation."
A fortnight later Chase followed in a similar strain. "It may be," he said, "you will succeed here in sacrificing the claims of freedom by some settlement carried through the forms of legislation. But the people will unsettle your settlement. It may be that you will determine that the territories shall not be secured by law against the ingress of slavery. The people will reverse your determination. It may be that you will succeed in burying the ordinance of freedom. But the people will write upon its tomb, 'I shall rise again.' And the same history which records its resurrection may also inform posterity that they who fancied they killed the Proviso, only committed political suicide."
Such utterances were received by Southern men with explosions of anger, or an affectation of contempt; by the compromisers, with emphatic protests. Even some of the more timid among the opponents of slavery were frightened by words so bold. About Seward's "higher law," of which the Democrats took advantage to brand him as a traitor to the Constitution, many Northern Whigs shook their heads in alarm. Clay was very indignant at so high-handed a way of dealing with his "comprehensive scheme of adjustment," and spoke, in a letter to a friend, of "Seward's late abolition speech" as likely to cut him off from all intercourse with the administration, as it had "eradicated the respect of almost all men from him." Webster mentioned it sneeringly as Governor Seward's "great and glorious speech," and complained to his friends of the slavery discussion obstructing the consideration of the tariff and other important measures, adding that he thought no history showed "a case of such mischief arising from angry debates and disputes, both in the government and the country, on questions of so very little real importance." This appears amazingly short-sighted by the lights of to-day. But it was by no means surprising that the old statesmen should have recoiled from the startling predictions of Seward and Chase. They had all their lives moved in a circle of ideas in which the alternative of speedy emancipation by a peaceable process, or speedy, violent, and complete emancipation as a result of civil war, had hardly been thought of. That alternative had always appeared to them as a choice between an impossibility on one side and a horror on the other; and when now in their old age they were told that the choice must be made, and that without much delay, it was but natural that they should struggle against the new idea with desperation, determined that the dreaded final crisis should at least not be permitted to come while they were alive, and that they should fall back once more upon the statesmanship of anodynes and palliatives. History has demonstrated that Seward and Chase understood the nature of the distemper and read the future, which Clay and Webster did not. This time, however, the old statesmen were still to have their way.
On February 13 President Taylor had laid before Congress the Constitution of California. On the 14th Foote of Mississippi had offered in the Senate a resolution to refer the case of California and all pending propositions concerning slavery, among them Clay's resolutions and a similar set introduced by Bell of Tennessee, to a select committee of thirteen Senators who were to report a plan of settlement. Foote's resolution, withdrawn once and then renewed after two months of debate, embracing the whole slavery question, was adopted on April 18. Clay was elected chairman of the committee, which had among its members the foremost men of the Senate, excluding however the leading representatives of the anti-slavery sentiment. On May 8 the committee submitted a report consisting of three bills and an elaborate argument.
Clay's course with regard to the admission of California had been very unsteady. His resolutions embodying his "comprehensive plan of adjustment" were certainly open to the construction that all the essential points contained in them were, as parts of a great compromise, to form one legislative measure. But when the Constitution of California was received, Clay declared himself ready to vote for the admission of California separately and immediately. He "did not think it right" that this admission should be confounded or combined with other things. He did not even think that the different resolutions he had offered should be referred to one committee. It was his plan, he said, that they should be acted upon one by one. From this position he gradually drifted away, moved by the pressure brought upon him by Southern men, who insisted that the admission of California as a Free State, uncoupled with other measures, would be highly offensive to the South, and might lead to the immediate dissolution of the Union; in any event, it would meet with bitter, perhaps unconquerable, opposition. By April 5 Clay was so far staggered that he thought the coupling of the admission of California with provisions for territorial governments, and for the adjustment of the Texas boundary, would not be improper; and soon afterwards he found the combination not only desirable, but necessary for harmony and peace. To the objection that to make the admission of California dependent upon extraneous conditions would be an indignity to the state, he replied that California should be proud of the opportunity to contribute to the pacification of the country by a little patience on her part.
In accordance with this idea, the first of the bills reported by the committee provided for the admission of California, the organization of territorial governments for New Mexico and Utah without any restriction as to slavery, and a proposition to Texas of a northern and western boundary with a compensation in money; the second, originally drawn by Mason of Virginia, provided for the capture and delivery of fugitive slaves; and the third bill prohibited the introduction of slaves from adjacent states into the District of Columbia for sale, or to be placed in depot for the purpose of subsequent sale or transportation to other and distant markets. The report also contained a declaration that any new states to be formed out of the territory of Texas should, when fit for admission, be received with or without slavery, as their constitutions might determine. There had been grave disagreements in the committee. Scarcely any member was fully satisfied with the report; but the accompanying argument promised that the adoption of the measures submitted would effect an amicable settlement of all the pending controversies, and "give general satisfaction to an overwhelming majority of the people of the United States."
But no sooner was the first of the three bills, on account of the multiplicity of its subjects derisively called "the Omnibus Bill," before the Senate, than it turned out that the combination of different propositions in one measure, apparently necessary to give the bill the character of a compromise, was also an element of weakness. There were those who would vote for the admission of California, but not for the territorial governments without the exclusion of slavery; there were those who would vote for the territorial governments, but not for the Texan boundary; and those who would not vote for the admission of California in any combination. In other words, it appeared probable that, while each of the different propositions might receive a majority of votes, the different majorities would be composed of different sets of men, and the combined measure would receive no majority at all, on account of the opposition of different men to different parts of it. The anti-slavery men insisted upon the admission of California and territorial governments with the Wilmot Proviso. The extreme pro-slavery men, led by Jefferson Davis, Butler, Mason, and Soulé, would not only not accept the admission of California, but demanded a positive recognition of the right of slave-holders to take their slave property into the territories. Rusk of Texas would not vote for any bill reducing the area claimed by Texas; and Benton opposed the compromise because it yielded to Texas too much of the territory belonging to New Mexico, and because it made the admission of California dependent upon the passage of other measures. While Clay's plan was supported by such Northern men as Webster, Cass, Douglas, and Cooper, and by such Southern Whigs as Badger and Bell, other Southern Whigs took as violently hostile an attitude as the Southern Democrats; and the various elements of opposition, so utterly divergent in their ultimate aims, threatened, if combined, to prove more than strong enough to accomplish its defeat.
But that was not all. Clay found also President Taylor against him. While the threats of disunion coming from Southern men stimulated Clay's compromising propensity, they stirred the fighting spirit of the old general. He thought that California had a right to demand prompt admission; and when some of the Southern hotspurs told him that the South would not tolerate the admission of California as a Free State, but would break up the Union, he answered with much emphasis that such language was treasonable, and that, if in enforcing the laws he should find it necessary, he himself would take command of the army and put down rebellion with a strong hand. He also thought that New Mexico might remain under the military government left by the war, until her people should be ready to do as the Californians had done. On April 23 the military governor of New Mexico actually issued a proclamation calling a convention of delegates to frame a state constitution; and when, on the other hand, the governor of Texas, by virtue of the claim of Texas to all of New Mexico east of the Rio Grande, demanded the withdrawal of the federal troops, and threatened to drive them away with Texan militia if not removed, the President sent word to the military commandant in New Mexico to repel force by force, informing him that, if necessary, he, General Taylor, would be there himself. As to the boundary question, he did not think it his business either to recognize or to deny the claims of Texas; but he considered it his duty, until Congress should have disposed of the matter, to keep things in statu quo, and to maintain the public peace against any disturber.
Such being his feelings, Clay's compromise measure found little favor in his eyes. He looked upon any compromise as a concession to a revolutionary and treasonable spirit; and to Senator Hannibal Hamlin, who informed him that he considered the "Omnibus Bill" wrong in principle and that he would do his best to defeat it, he replied: "Stand firm; don't yield; it means disunion, and I am pained to learn that we have disunion men to contend with; disunion is treason." And, with an expression of emphasis sometimes heard among old soldiers, he added that, if they really attempted to carry out their scheme of disunion, "they should be dealt with by law as they deserved, and executed."
The "President's policy," therefore, was to admit California as a state immediately and unconditionally, and to leave New Mexico under the military governor, and Utah, perhaps, under such a government as the Mormons had set up for themselves, until the people of those territories should have formed state constitutions and applied for admission, when the new states should be promptly received; and this, he hoped, would come about very soon. The administration was in a somewhat isolated position; but whatever influence it possessed among members of Congress, and upon public opinion, it employed in favor of this policy and against the compromise. In one respect this plan was weak. The population of New Mexico could not be compared with that of California, either in point of numbers or in point of character. In neither respect was it fit to form a state government. Military rule in a territory could be justified only as a temporary expedient, to be superseded as soon as possible by a legally constituted civil authority. The establishment of regular territorial governments in the newly acquired territories was therefore decidedly called for. Clay further objected to the President's policy that in other respects it stopped short of the requirements of the situation. As he expressed it in one of his numerous speeches on the subject: "Here are five bleeding wounds [counting them upon the fingers of his left hand]: first, there is California; there are the territories, second; there is the question of the boundary of Texas, the third; there is the fugitive-slave law, the fourth; and there is the question of the slave-trade in the District of Columbia, fifth. What is the plan of the President? Is it to heal all these wounds? No such thing. It is only to heal one of the five, and to leave the other four to bleed more profusely than ever by the sole admission of California, even if it should produce death itself." Whereupon Benton sarcastically remarked that Clay would have found more bleeding wounds if he had had more fingers. Clay complained feelingly that the President, instead of aiding him in pacifying the country, adhered exclusively and persistently to his own plan, regardless of consequences. But Taylor could not be moved. He was determined to the fighting point, and would have signed a bill with the Wilmot Proviso in it, had it been presented to him. The influence he exercised was, therefore, rather on the anti-slavery side. Thus, although the current of popular sentiment ran in favor of a compromise, the practical difficulties Clay had to contend with seemed to be well-nigh insuperable.
But two events happened which essentially changed the aspect of things. On the first Mon day in June the dreaded Nashville Convention met. Instead of sending forth fierce threats of disunion in case the extreme demands of the South were not fully complied with, as the Southern hotspurs had hoped, the convention, following more moderate counsels, passed resolutions, indeed, vigorously denouncing the Wilmot Proviso and all other anti-slavery heresies, but at the same time expressing confidence that Congress would find a way to do justice to the South. It is true it also adopted an address in which the sentiments of the "fire-eaters" found their expression, and which soundly denounced Clay's comprehensive plan of adjustment. But on the whole the convention produced the impression that the Southern people were divided in sentiment, and that the Union possessed a good many friends among them. The effect all this had upon Congress was not to strengthen the Southern extremists, whose main capital consisted in the terror spread by their threats of disunion and war, but rather to discourage Southern opposition to a compromise.
The other event of importance was the sudden death of President Taylor, who, on the Fourth of July, had exposed himself to an unusually hot sun, and then, on the 9th, succumbed to a violent fever. The Vice-President succeeding him in his office, Millard Fillmore, a man of fair abilities but little positiveness of character, had, before his election, passed as a Wilmot Proviso Whig. It has been widely believed that his jealousy of Seward, who easily outstripped him as a competitor for the leadership of the Whig party in New York, induced him to take his position on the other side. But it is by no means improbable that he favored Clay's compromise from natural inclination; for he was one of those men who, when put into positions of great responsibility, will avoid all strong measures, thinking that to be "the safe middle course."
The old Cabinet resigned immediately after Taylor's death. Upon the advice of Clay, supported by Mangum, Fillmore appointed Webster Secretary of State. The Treasury Department he gave to Thomas Corwin of Ohio, who had been a very earnest anti-slavery man, but gradually became one of the most conservative of Northern Whigs. John J. Crittenden of Kentucky was made Attorney General. He had lost Clay's favor in 1848 by failing to support him for the presidential nomination; but Clay now "acquiesced" in his appointment. "My relations with Mr. Fillmore are perfectly friendly and confidential," he wrote to one of his sons. He had now the administration on his side. It employed its whole influence in favor of the compromise. Still the battle of words continued.
On July 22, nearly six months after the introduction of his resolutions, and two and a half months after the Committee of Thirteen had presented its report, Clay made his closing speech. Ever since January 28 he had been on the floor almost day after day, sometimes so ill that he could hardly drag his tottering limbs to the Senate Chamber. So he had toiled on, answering objections and arguing, and pleading, and expostulating, and appealing, and beseeching, with anxious solicitude, for the Union, and for peace and harmony among all its people. He had thrown aside all sectional spirit. "Sir," he exclaimed once, "I have heard something said about allegiance to the South. I know no South, no North, no East, no West, to which I owe any allegiance." Whatever may be said of the wisdom of his policy, his motives had never been more patriotic and unselfish. He was no longer a candidate for the presidency. Some of his friends had, indeed, again approached him with inquiries whether he would permit his name to be put forward in 1852, but he had firmly declined. There was no longer any vulgar ambition disturbing him. The old man felt that his endeavors must find their reward in themselves. "I am here," he said, "expecting soon to go hence, and owing no responsibility but to my own conscience and to God." Neither had he approached the problem to be solved with his old dictatorial spirit. Time and again he had assured the Senate that he was not wedded to any plan of his own, and that he would be most grateful for the suggestion of measures more promising than those proposed by him as to the pacification of the country. He had sacrificed the Wilmot Proviso, the adoption of which would have accorded best with his natural impulses. He had made concession after concession to the defenders of slavery, much against his sympathies. And now, seeing his scheme of adjustment after all in great danger of defeat, he once more poured out all his patriotic fervor in a last appeal: —
"I believe from the bottom of my soul," he said, "that this measure is the reunion of the Union. And now let us discard all resentments, all passions, all petty jealousies, all personal desires, all love of place, all hungering after the gilded crumbs which fall from the table of power. Let us forget popular fears, from whatever quarter they may spring. Let us go to the fountain of unadulterated patriotism, and, performing a solemn lustration, return divested of all selfish, sinister, and sordid impurities, and think alone of our God, our country, our conscience, and our glorious Union."
His patriotism was, however, not all meekness. In the same speech he severely censured the abolitionists as reckless agitators, and denounced the Southern fire-eaters for their disunion tendencies, reflecting especially upon a member of the Nashville Convention, Rhett of South Carolina, who, after his return to Charleston, had in a public meeting openly proposed to hoist the standard of secession. When Clay had finished his appeal for peace and union, Barnwell of South Carolina, Calhoun's successor, rose and declared his dissatisfaction with Clay's remarks, "not a little disrespectful to a friend" whom he held very dear, and upon whose character he then proceeded to pronounce a warm eulogy, intimating that the opinions held and expressed by Mr. Rhett might possibly be those of South Carolina. Clay was quickly upon his feet. "Mr. President," he replied, "I said nothing with respect to the character of Mr. Rhett. I know him personally, and have some respect for him. But, if he pronounced the sentiment attributed to him of raising the standard of disunion and of resistance to the common government, whatever he has been, if he follows up that declaration by corresponding overt acts" — the old man's eye flashed and his voice rang out in a thundering peal — "he will be a traitor, and I hope he will meet the fate of a traitor!" Like an electric shock the word thrilled the audience, and volleys of applause broke forth from the crowded galleries.
When order was restored, Clay continued: —
"Mr. President, I have heard with pain and regret a confirmation of the remark I made, that the sentiment of disunion is becoming familiar. I hope it is confined to South Carolina. I do not regard as my duty what the honorable Senator seems to regard as his. If Kentucky to-morrow unfurls the banner of resistance unjustly, I never will fight under that banner. I owe a paramount allegiance to the whole Union, a subordinate one to my own state. When my state is right when it has a cause for resistance, when tyranny, and wrong, and oppression insufferable arise I will then share her fortunes; but if she summons me to the battlefield, or to support her in any cause which is unjust, against the Union, never, never will I engage with her in such a cause!"
The echo of these words was heard eleven years later, when the great crisis had come.
After Clay's closing speech the voting began. Several Southern Senators, who at first had been bitterly opposed to Clay's plan, had gradually become persuaded. But the compromise had to suffer a disheartening defeat before achieving its victory. Amendments were offered in perplexing profusion. The Omnibus Bill was disfigured almost beyond recognition. At last, after a series of confusing manipulations, Clay himself incautiously accepted an amendment offered by a Senator from Georgia, that, until a final settlement of the Texas boundary was effected with the assent of Texas, the territorial government of New Mexico should not go into operation east of the Rio Grande. As this was virtually delivering over New Mexico to Texas, the whole provision concerning New Mexico was struck out by the aid of friends of the compromise; and when on July 31 the bill was passed, there was nothing left in the "Omnibus" but the establishment of a territorial government for Utah. All the rest had been amended out of it. The compromise seemed to be lost.
The next day Clay appeared in the Senate once more to avow his devotion to the Union, and to defy its enemies; for he feared that, the compromise having failed, it might now be impossible to save it without the employment of force. "I stand here in my place," he said, "meaning to be unawed by any threats, whether they come from individuals or from states. I should deplore, as much as any man living or dead, that arms should be raised against the authority of the Union, either by individuals or by states. But if, after all that has occurred, any one state, or the people of any state, choose to place themselves in military array against the government of the Union, I am for trying the strength of the government." The galleries broke out in applause, which was checked by the presiding officer, and Clay proceeded: —
"Nor am I to be alarmed or dissuaded from any such course by intimations of the spilling of blood. If blood is to be spilt, by whose fault is it to be spilt? Upon the supposition I maintain, it will be the fault of those who raise the standard of disunion and endeavor to prostrate this government; and, sir, when that is done, so long as it please God to give me a voice to express my sentiments, or an arm, weak and enfeebled as it may be by age, that voice and that arm will be on the side of my country, for the support of the general authority, and for the maintenance of the powers of this Union!"
The enthusiasm of the galleries became so demonstrative that the presiding officer was obliged to ask the Senator from Kentucky to sit down until order could be restored.
He warned the disunionists, who expressed the belief that the army, commanded in so large a part by officers from Virginia, South Carolina, and other Southern States, would not draw their swords, that they would find themselves gravely mistaken. And, to leave no shadow of a doubt as to his conception of true loyalty to the Union, he said: —
"The honorable Senator speaks of Virginia being my country. This Union is my country; the thirty states are my country; Kentucky is my country, and Virginia no more than any other of the states of this Union. She has created on my part obligations and feelings and duties toward her in my private character which nothing upon earth would induce me to forfeit or violate. But even if it were my own state, — if my own state lawlessly, contrary to her duty, should raise the standard of disunion against the residue of the Union, — I would go against her; I would go against Kentucky in that contingency, much as I love her."
Thus, believing his compromise to have been defeated, he defied the enemies of the Union to do their worst, proclaiming himself ready to fight, even against his own state, for the integrity of the Republic. At last, on August 2, mortified, exhausted, broken in health, he gave up his leadership and went to Newport to rest and recuperate. Then, in Clay's absence, that proved true, which had been frequently urged against the Omnibus Bill, namely, that measures which could not be adopted when lumped together, might be adopted separately. The Texas boundary bill passed the Senate first, under the pressure of peculiar urgency. On August 6, the President informed Congress that the Governor of Texas had called the legislature together for the purpose, as was reported, of taking measures for the occupation of New Mexico east of the Rio Grande by force; and that force would have to be repelled by force, unless the national government came to a friendly understanding with Texas. Accordingly the Senate made haste. A bill proposing to Texas a boundary cutting down New Mexico somewhat more than Clay had intended, and offering the sum of ten million dollars for the surrender of the claim of Texas, — the sum originally intended by Clay, but not mentioned in the Omnibus Bill, because Clay feared it might cause stock speculations — passed the Senate promptly.
Next came a bill to admit California. It was adopted in the Senate on August 12 by a vote of 34 to 18. The Senators from Virginia, South Carolina, and Florida, and one each from Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Missouri, ten in all, signed a protest setting forth that the admission of California as a Free State destroyed the equal rights of the slave-holding states in the confederacy; that it was "contrary to former precedent, and to the spirit and intent of the Constitution;" that it was part of a policy "fatal to the peace and equality of the states" they represented, which "must lead, if persisted in, to the dissolution of that confederacy, in which the slave-holding states have never sought more than equality, and in which they will not be content to remain with less."
On August 15 the bill to establish a territorial government in New Mexico was passed, providing that New Mexico, when fit to be received as a state, might come in with or without slavery, as her Constitution should then determine; and that in the mean time cases involving title to slaves in the territory should go for decision to the Supreme Court of the United States. On August 26 the Senate passed the fugitive-slave bill, but in a form more unfavorable to the negro than that in which it had been reported by Clay's committee; a provision giving the person captured as a fugitive slave the benefit of a trial by jury as to his status in the state in which the claimant resided, was struck out.
The Texas boundary bill created a great stir in the House of Representatives. As the prospect of such legislation with a grant of money in it grew brighter, Texas scrip rose in the market. About the middle of June it had gone up from 10 per cent to 50. In case the bill passed, the scrip was not unlikely to rise to par. A large and active lobby gathered in Washington. It was currently reported that millions of Texas securities were in the hands of members of Congress and officers of the government, high and low. Millions could be gained by the passage of the bill. On September 4 the bill was referred to the committee of the whole by a majority of two votes. Its fate looked doubtful. The third reading was refused by a majority of forty-six. Its defeat seemed certain. A reconsideration was moved, pending which the House adjourned. The next day the reconsideration was carried by a majority of fifty-six. An amendment adding to the bill a provision for a territorial government in New Mexico, which had been defeated the day before, was then adopted. But again the House refused the third reading by a majority of eight. Again a reconsideration was moved, but declared out of order by the Speaker. Pending an appeal from that decision the House adjourned. The next day the Speaker elaborately defended his decision, but that decision was, on the appeal, overthrown by a majority of thirty-eight. The floor of the House was swarming with lobby agents, and amid boisterous demonstrations of delight the third reading was ordered by a majority of ten, and the bill then passed. The House had never presented a more repugnant and alarming spectacle. But the Speaker, at least, had done his duty and kept his hands clean. Texas scrip rushed up to par. The other bills sent down by the Senate passed easily.
When Clay returned to Washington in the last week of August, he found that the Senate had carried out the whole programme laid down in his compromise resolutions seven months before, except the interdiction of the slave traffic in the District of Columbia. After a long debate, in which Clay with great emphasis expressed his expectation that slavery would pass away in the District, adding that he was glad of it, that bill, too, passed and became a law. The compromise of 1850 was then substantially complete.
On September 6, Clay wrote to one of his sons: "I am again getting very much exhausted. I wish I had remained longer at Newport, where I was much benefited. I shall as soon as possible return home, where I desire to be more than I ever did in my life." The deep longing of the old man for home, and to be with his wife, had been pervading his letters to his family ever since the beginning of the session. And now, after the tremendous fatigue he had gone through, and from which his health never recovered, that yearning was stronger than ever. At last, on September 30, Congress adjourned, after one of the longest and most arduous sessions on record, and Clay took home with him the consciousness of having done his duty and accomplished a great work. His mind had not been troubled like Webster's, who, as if he had never been clearly convinced of having followed his true convictions of right, sought in the result a justification of his conduct. On September 10, when the passage of the compromise bills in the House seemed secured, Webster wrote to a friend: "Since the 7th of March there has never been an hour in which I have not felt a crushing weight of anxiety and responsibility. I have gone to sleep at night and waked in the morning with the same feeling of eating care; and I have sat down to no breakfast or dinner to which I have brought an unconcerned or easy mind. It is over. My part is acted, and I am satisfied. It is a day of rejoicing here such as I never witnessed. The face of everything is changed. You would suppose nobody had ever thought of disunion. All say they always meant to stand by the Union to the last." And two days afterwards: "Truly, it was not till Mr. Eliot's election [the election to Congress of a compromise Whig in Boston] that there was any confidence here that I was not a dead man."
Not a single moment during the whole struggle did Clay ever fear that he might be a "dead man." No doubt as to whether he was right had ever disturbed his sleep or clouded his waking. He had remained true to his old convictions as to the methods by which the Union could be preserved. During the progress of the debate he had repeatedly changed his tactics, but not essentially his attitude. He had always believed in the statesmanship of compromise, and, as always, so in this crisis. Seeing in the South the principal danger to the Union, he insisted upon concessions on the part of the North to avert that danger. Of such concessions he gave the example by sacrificing his own inclinations as to the Wilmot Proviso, and by accepting in the Committee of Thirteen some modifications of his plan which were distasteful to him. His inmost feelings would indeed repeatedly break forth. Unequivocally he threw the theory of a necessary equilibrium between the Free and the Slave States to the winds, and almost exultingly recognized the inevitable and constantly growing superiority of the North. If slavery was ultimately to succumb, he was far from regretting its inevitable fate. But he sincerely believed that by compromise measures he could keep the two antagonistic forces at peace, so that the final deliverance might effect itself in the way of a quiet, gradual development without disturbing the Union. In this he erred; but it was an honest error of judgment, not a conscious self-deception for the occasion.
The compromise of 1850 was perhaps the best that could be made under the circumstances to effect a temporary truce. But no compromise could have been devised to keep the antagonistic forces of freedom and slavery permanently at peace. Calhoun was perfectly right in his conclusion that slavery, in order to exist with security in the Union, must rule it. It needed controlling political power, — more Slave States, more representation, an absolute veto upon all legislation hostile to it. If slavery could not obtain this within the Union, and still desired to live, it had to try its fortunes outside. Calhoun's great error was to believe that slavery could survive at all in the nineteenth century. But those who believed like him — and every Southern man who was unwilling to give up slavery would finally accept his conclusions — naturally saw in the admission of California an almost fatal blow to their cause. By that act, the last bulwark they held in the government, the numerical equality between Free States and Slave States in the Senate, and the resulting veto power of a united South, was overthrown. No arrangement could permanently satisfy them that did not secure to them beyond peradventure a speedy increase of the number of Slave States. This they understood well. They, therefore, insisted that the Missouri Compromise line should be run through the newly acquired territories to the Pacific Ocean, and that south of that line slavery should be secured by positive enactment, — or that all laws and usages existing in those territories which prohibited slavery should be declared invalid by act of Congress, in order to give free access to slavery.
But all these things the compromise failed to do. Clay emphatically refused his assent to any measure legislating slavery into free territory. He did, indeed, make some important concessions. His original resolutions contained a declaration that slavery did not by law exist, and was not likely to be introduced, in the acquired territories. That declaration he gave up. In the Committee of Thirteen he also very reluctantly accepted the duty of reporting an amendment that the territorial legislatures should "have no power to pass any law in respect to African slavery," which was adopted. And finally another amendment passed providing that the territories in question, when fit to be received as states, should be admitted with or without slavery, as their respective constitutions might determine. But what did all this mean? Clay argued that, if in the newly acquired territories slavery actually existed, it could not be abolished, or, if it did not exist, it could not be introduced by any act of the territorial legislature. Did slavery exist in New Mexico and Utah? Clay insisted that it did not; the champions of slavery, that it did, — that, if indeed it ever had been abolished by Mexican law, the Constitution of the United States, being by the act of acquisition spread over the territories, superseded that Mexican law, and carried with it the right of the slave-holder to take and hold his "property" there. This doctrine Clay most emphatically denied. But, as opinions differed upon all these points, the compromise proposed that these differences should be referred for decision to the Supreme Court of the United States. This could not permanently satisfy the South, for it gave no security. It provided only for a lawsuit with an uncertain prospect. Neither could it satisfy the North, for by implication it discountenanced the exercise of the power of Congress with regard to slavery in the territories. It introduced in the discussion of the problem that dangerous explosive, the "principle of non-intervention," which four years later served to justify the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, and then brought the forces of slavery and free labor to confront one another in arms on the plains of Kansas. Thus this part of the compromise of 1850, instead of settling anything, only unsettled the compromise of 1820.
An equally prolific source of mischief was the fugitive-slave law. No doubt a large number of slaves had in the course of time escaped from the South and found shelter in the North. No doubt the Northern States had been remiss in performing their constitutional obligations as to the return of fugitives, for in some of them the enforcement of the existing law was actually obstructed by state legislation. No doubt the South had in this respect occasion to complain. But an institution like slavery was naturally exposed to such losses. It would have been prudent to bear them in silence. It was certainly most unwise to make laws calculated to bring the most odious features of slavery home to a free people naturally impatient of its existence. This the fugitive-slave law did in a very provoking form. It gave United States commissioners the power, by summary process, to turn over a colored man or woman claimed as a fugitive slave to the claimant. It excluded from the evidence the testimony of the defendant. It "commanded" all good citizens, whenever summoned, to aid in the prompt and effective execution of the law, including the capture of the fugitive. It made the United States marshal liable for the full value of the slave, if a recaptured fugitive escaped from his custody. Whoever knowingly harbored or concealed a fugitive slave to prevent his recapture was to be punished by fine and imprisonment.
Such a law could not pacify; it could not be executed without galling men's moral sense and pride of free manhood among a people who thought slavery a great wrong, and who would never consider it sinful to help on a poor fugitive seeking his freedom. When first proposing his compromise scheme, and repeatedly during the debate, Clay had remarked that to the Northern people the question was one of sentiment, while to the South it was one of interest, and that it was easier to make a concession of sentiment than of interest. It is an important historical fact that the sentiment prevailing at the North concerning slavery never was understood by the Southern people. They regarded it as a sickly notion of visionary philanthropists, or as the outgrowth of horrible stories told in the North about the South, and artfully used by designing politicians, or as an itching desire to meddle with other people's business. They never appreciated it as the great moral force which it was, and which in the very nature of things would not yield to any compromise. Slave-holder as Clay was, and kind and considerate to his slaves, taking generous care of their well-being, he, with all his anti-slavery instincts and impulses, never fully comprehended the feeling of abhorrence with which the non-slave-holding world looked at the unjust power held by one man over another. But for the business of catching fugitive slaves he himself had no taste. In the course of the debate he said that while he had, with great pleasure, several times given his services as an attorney to negroes trying to prove their freedom, he had only once, very reluctantly, appeared against one to oblige a near friend, and then only after having become perfectly satisfied that the negro really was a slave. And now the fugitive-slave law was to make the citizens of the Free States do for the slave-holders what not a few of the slave-holders were too proud to do for themselves. Such a law could not but fail. But then it would increase the exasperation of the slave-holders by its failure, while exasperating the people of the Free States by the attempts at enforcement. Thus the compromise of 1850, instead of securing peace and harmony, contained in the most important of its provisions the seeds of new and greater conflicts.
One effect it produced which Calhoun had clearly predicted when he warned the slave-holding states against compromises as an invention of the enemy: it adjourned the decisive conflict until the superiority of the North over the South in population and material resources was overwhelming, and, as it happened, until a party, and at its head a man, held the helm of affairs, whose anti-slavery principles and aims made it sure that the cause of the mischief would not in any form survive the issue of the struggle.