John A. (John Adams) Dix.

Speeches and occasional addresses (Volume 1) online

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I had supposed that Blackstone had furnished sufficient
evidence of the mistaken pretensions which had been set up
on both these foundations to support the fabric of slavery
in the American colonies and their successors, the States.
I hold in my hand a volume of the English commentator,
edited by St. George Tucker, who was a professor of law
in the University of William and Mary, and one of the
judges of the general court of Virginia. To this volume
is appended an article or tract written by him, " On the
state of Slavery in Virginia." Sir, it is in this edition of
the writings of the great English commentator that many
of us of the North have studied the principles of English
law, and from the tracts, which are appended to the several
volumes, that we have learned to consider Virginia as the
great enemy of slavery extension. I propose to read a few
extracts from this volume, to show how widely different are
the grounds now assumed and those on which the young men
of Virginia, and of the country generally, were instructed,
half a century ago, in the principles of political liberty and

And, first, as to the origin of slavery. Judge Tucker
quotes largely from Blackstone, denying that slavery rests
either upon the law of nations, by which, according to Jus-
tinian, " one man is made subject to another contrary to
nature," or upon captivity or conquest, or upon the civil
law, by which a man may suffer himself to be sold " for
the sake of sharing the price given for him." He then
proceeds : —

" Thus, by the most clear, manly, and convincing reasoning, does
this excellent author refute every claim upon which the practice of


slavery is founded, or by which it has been supposed to be justified, at
least in modern times. But were we even to admit, that a captive
taken in a just war might by his conqueror be reduced to a state of
slavery, this could not justify the claim of Europeans to reduce
the natives of Africa to that state. It is a melancholy, though well-
known fact, that, in order to furnish supplies of those unhappy people
for the purposes of the slave-trade, the Europeans have constantly, by
the most insidious (I had almost said infernal) arts, fomented a kind of
perpetual warfare among the ignorant and miserable people of Africa ;
and instances have not been wanting where, by the most shameful
breach of faith, they have trepanned and made slaves of the sellers as
well as the sold. That such horrid practices have been sanctioned by
civilized nations ; that a nation ardent in the cause of liberty, and
enjoying its blessings in the fullest extent, can continue to vindicate a
right established upon such a foundation ; that a people who have de-
clared ' That all men are by nature equally free and independent,' ^
and have made this declaration the first article in the formation of
their government, should in defiance of so sacred a truth, recognized
by themselves in so solemn a manner, and on so important an occasion,
tolerate a practice incompatible therewith, — is such an evidence of
the weakness and inconsistency of human nature, as every man who
hath a spark of patriotic fire iii his bosom must wish to see removed
from his own country. If ever tliere was a cause, if ever an occasion,
in which all hearts should be united, every nerve strained, and every
power exerted, surely the restoration of human nature to its inalien-
able right, is such. Whatever obstacles, therefore, may hitherto have
retarded the attempt, he that can appreciate the honor and happiness
of his country will think it time that we should attempt to surmount

Such, according to Judge Tucker, is the foundation on
which slavery in Virginia and in the other States rests, —
not on conquest, not on any right derived from legitimate
warfare, but on violence and treachery. I do not cite this
authority to create prejudice of any sort. My only pur-
pose is to meet arguments on the other side.

The common law of England utterly repudiated slavery.
To use the language of one of her great commentators,
" The law of England abhors, and will not endure the exist-
ence of, slavery within this nation." In the colonies it was
introduced by virtue of the prerogative of the crown, as

^ Virginia Bill of Rights, art. 1.


the fountain of chartered rights, and as the arbiter of com-
merce. Nothing, I believe, is better settled in English law
than this. Slavery was at one time, it is true, regulated by
act of Parliament, rather by recognizing the laws of the
colonies than by original legislation ; but the common law
always rejected it as unnatural and unjust.

Virginia uniformly acted in accordance with the elevated
sentiments expressed by Judge Tucker. She imposed duties
on slaves brought within her limits as early as 1699, —
one hundred and fifty years ago. In 17'59, she imposed a
duty of 20 per cent, on all slaves imported from Maryland,
North Carolina, or other places in America. In 177'^, she
petitioned the King of England to allow her to prohibit
the importation of slaves from .ifiica. I quote from the
petition : —

"The importation of slaves into the colonies from the coast of
Africa hath long been considered as a trade of great inhumanity, and
under its present encouragement we have too much reason to fear will
endanger the very existence of your Majesty's American dominions.

"We are sensible that some of your Majesty's subjects of Great
Britain may reap emoluments from this sort of traffic ; but when we
consider that it gi-eatly retards the settlement of the colonies with more
useful inhabitants, and may, in time, have the most destructive influ-
ence, we presume to hope, that the interest of a few will be disre-
garded, when placed in competition with the security and happiness
of such numbers of your Majesty's dutiful and loyal subjects.

" Deeply impressed with these sentiments, we most humbly beseech
your Majesty to remove all those restraints on your Majesty's governors
of this colony, which inhibit their assenting to such laws as might
check so very pernicious a commerce."

Judge Tucker says : —

" This petition produced no effect, as appears from the first clause
of our CoNSTiTUTiox, where, among acts of misrule, ' the inhuman
use of the royal negative,' in refusing us permission to exclude slaves
from us by law, is enumerated among the reasons for separating from
Great Britain."

The clause in the constitution of Virginia is in these
words : —


" Whereas, George the Third, King of Great Britain and Ireland,
and Elector of Hanover, heretofore intrusted with the exercise of the
kingly office in this Government, hath endeavored to pervert the same
into a detestable and insupportable tyranny, putting his negative on
laws the most wholesome and necessary for the public good ; " [Here
follows an enumeration of other acts ;] by prompting our negroes to
rise in arms against us, — those very negroes whom, by an inhuman
use of his negative, he hath refused us permission to exclude by law."

Judge Tucker adds : —

" The wishes of the people of this colony were not sufficient to
counterbalance the interest of the English merchants trading to Africa,
and it is probable, that, however disposed to put- a stop to so infamous
a traffic by law, we should never have been able to effect it, so long as
we might have continued dependent on the British government; an
object sufficient of itself to justify revolution."

And now, sir, I ask, will Virginia insist on extending
to other communities an evil which she deplored, and thus
be guilty of an act which she considered, when done by the
British king, as a sufficient justification of revolution, —
an act enumerated in the first clause of her constitution
among the reasons for separating from Great Britain 1
Mr. Jefferson, as we all know, introduced into the original
draught of the Declaration of Independence a clause repro-
bating the conduct of the British king in forcing slaves
upon the American colonies ; but it was struck out, to use
his own language, " in complaisance to South Carolina and
Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importa-
tion of slaves, and who, on the contrary, still wished to
continue it." Sir, are we willing to do towards other com-
munities dependent on us what we condemned in the British
king, — what we relied on as one of the grounds of our
justification in appealing to the sword for a vindication of
our rights and the assertion of our independence? What
matters it to the inhabitants of Oregon, or New Mexico, or
California, whether slaves are introduced from Africa or
from the States of the Union in which they are bred ? Sir,
let us abstain from injustice and wrong. If we insist on
carrying slaves to those territories, — if the arm of the pub-


lie authority is employed, directly or indirectly, for the pur-
pose of placing them there, and in uprooting, in two of
the territories, the fundamental law of Mexico, which de-
clares slavery to be forever prohibited, — it would not be
surprising, wdien those distant communities shall in the
progress of events have grown to manhood, if they should
declare themselves " free and independent," and among
the causes of the separation charge us, as we charged
the British king, with forcing slavery upon them against
their wishes and their remonstrances. If this was a just
cause of separation for us, why would it not be so for them ?
God forbid that history should record such a passage as
this, to confound and shame our descendants !

It has been said, that this territory should be divided, so
that a portion of it may be left open to the introduction of
slaves ; that it has been acquired by the common treasure
and the common blood of the whole Union, and that it
would be unjust to exclude a portion of the citizens of the
Union from it.

In the first place, I do not admit that there would be any
exclusion if slavery were prohibited. It would be open to
every freeman in the community. But, even on the score
of an equitable division, — if the propriety of such a divis-
ion can be admitted, when the question is, whether laws
abolishing slavery shall be abrogated, — I hold that the
territory should be, as it now is, free. When Florida was
acquired, we did not ask that any portion of it should be
set apart for immigration from the free States. We claimed
no division. We gave it all up to the South. And yet
it was purchased by the common blood and the common
treasure of the whole Union. The soil of Florida has been
crimsoned by the blood, and whitened by the bones of North-
ern men sacrificed in the wars waged to secure it. Includ-
ing the price paid for it, it has drawn forty millions of dol-
lars from the public treasury, to be reimbursed, for the most
part, by the toil and contributions of the North. What




have we received in return on this principle of an equitable
division 1 Nothing ; nothing-.

It is the same with Texas. It is true, the Missouri com-
promise line was drawn across that State, leaving- to the
north of it a strip, narrow, misshapen, barren, and broken,
for northern immigration. For all purposes of an equitable
division, it would have been a deception, if it had been pre-
tended. Why, sir, this very war, which has just terminated,
grew out of the annexation of Texas. It is part and parcel
of the acquisition. What will it cost ? At least eighty mill-
ions of dollars, when arrears are liquidated, bounty lands set
apart, and pensions fully paid. For this acquisition the
North has contributed its full share in blood, and, from its
greater ability for consumption, will pay the largest portion
of the treasure by which it has been purchased. Taking
Texas into the account, with its three hundred thousand
square miles, and its capacity for production, I hold that an
equitable division — if the propriety of it were to be con-
ceded — should leave California and New Mexico free.

Let us look at the money account, and see how that
stands. Florida has cost us forty millions of dollars, and
Texas eighty millions. For New Mexico and California
we are to pay, including claims of our own citizens, twenty
millions. Deduct this from the other, and we have a bal-
ance of one hundred millions, which we have })aid for new
territory given up wholly to the South. The blood, the
treasure, the surface, — everything taken into the account, —
there is an overwhelming balance in favor of the North;
and on every principle we are entitled to New Mexico and
California. But, sir, I will not put it on this narrow ground.
I hold, that, if we acquire territory which is free, it should
remain so, and this on high principle, — that the United
States shall not be instrumental to the extension of slavery,
and stand before the world, in this age of intellectual light
and of moral elevation, in the attitude of ministering to the
propagation of an evil for the presence of which among us
we can only justify ourselves by necessity.



There is one argument on the other side against restric-
tion, — if it may not rather be termed a complaint, or an
accusation, — which I cannot pass by in silence. Gentle-
men have represented us, who oppose the extension of
slavery, as intending to hem their slaves in, to " pen them
up," to surround them with " walls of circumvallation," to
crowd them together and leave them to perish ; and we
have been assailed with such outbursts of eloquent indigna-
tion as it has never before been my pleasure to hear on this
floor. Pens and walls of circumvallation ! These are ex-
pressive forms of speech, Mr. President. They are not
ungrateful to the imagination. They combine the famil-
iar associations of rural economy with those which be-
long to the nobler occupation of arms. They are redolent
of the classics — the gratum opus agricoUs, and the nunc
horrentia Martis arma. Why, sir, an innocent by-stander
might have supposed, from the expressions of horror and
disgust with which we have been visited, that we had de-
vised, in good earnest, some unnatural scheme for penning up
or walling in this unfortunate African race. Now, if gentle-
men will consider the facts, I think they will find not the
slightest occasion for any exuberance of feeling, either in
its higher phases of indignant passion, or in its lower tones
of commiseration and sympathy. What is the area of the
slaveholding States \ What is the size of the enclosure in
which the negro race is to be shut up by those who oppose
the extension of slavery \ More than nine hundred thou-
sand square miles, — more than the entire surface of France,
Spain, Portugal, Germany proper, Prussia, Switzerland,
and Italy, combined, — nearly equal to two thirds of the
entire surface of Europe, Russia excluded, — a greater area
than that which, in the eastern hemisphere, sustains a pop-
ulation of one hundred and fifty millions of souls ! Let us
turn to the non-slaveholding States, and see how their sur-
face compares with that of the slaveholding. What is their
area, Mr. President ? But little more than four hundred


thousand square miles, — not half the geographical extent
of the slaveholding. Thus, with an area not half as great
as that of the slaveholding States, the free States are charged
with aggression and injustice, because they will not consent
to the extension of slavery beyond its present limits into
districts of country in which it does not exist. And, what
is more extraordinary, we are accused of inhumanity be-
cause we propose, to use the language of our accusers, " to
pen up " the African race on an area nearly a million
of square miles in extent! Really, this subject is hardly
susceptible of being treated with becoming gravity ; and I
dismiss it.

Let me now look a moment at the provisions of this bill,
so for as they profess to offer us a compromise of the ques-
tion of slavery in the territories. And here I desire to say,
that I intend no reflection upon the conduct or motives of
the committee, collectively or individually. I deal only with
the measure ; but of that I must speak freely and frankly.

There are but two direct references to slavery in the bill :
they are contained in the twenty-sixth and thirty-third sec-
tions, and both are to the same purport. They prohibit
the territorial governments of California and New Mexico
from legislating on the subject.

There is one indirect reference to slavery. It is contained
in the twelfth section of the bill, which declares the laws
now in force in Oregon to be valid and operative for three
months after the legislative assembly meets ; and, as we all
know, one of these laws prohibits slavery.

These, then, are the great provisions of this bill. They
leave the whole of New Mexico and California open to the
introduction of slaves, and prohibit the territorial govern-
ments from legislating on the subject, even if disposed to
legislate for their exclusion. And, in consideration of this
abandonment of all the territory we have acquired from
Mexico to slavery, we have received from the hands of the
committee the boon of freedom for three months in Oregon.


This is the great concession to the non-slaveholding States ;
and this is presented to us as a compromise, — a compromise
M'hicli surrenders everything on one side, and concedes
nothing on the other. Let me pursue this subject, by ex-
amining some of the propositions with which this bill was
ushered into the Senate Chamber by the Senator from Del-
aware,^ as chairman of the committee of eight. They are
so extraordinary that I cannot forbear to pay them a pass-
ing notice. I hold them to be a true exposition of the
meaning and the object of the bill by the one who, of all
others, is best qualified to interpret it, — the one by whom
it was drawn. I give more credence to his interpretation of
it because, on a careful examination, I can put no other
construction on it myself.

The first proposition is this (I read from his remarks): —

" "While it Avas admitted on all sides that by far the greatest portion
of the Territories was properly adapted to free labor, and would neces-
sarily be free soil forever, yet it was also, with equal unanwiity, con-
ceded that there was a portion of it where free labor could never be
introduced, owing to the climate and the peculiar productions of that

I consider this proposition unsound in all its parts. In
the first place, our own experience teaches us that slaves
will be carried wherever they are permitted to go ; that no
soil will be free where they are not excluded by law. They
were taken into the territory northwest of the Ohio river.
There are now five slaveholding States north of 86° 30':
Missouri, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, and Kentucky.
On a former occasion, I said that slaves would be valuable
in any part of the country, in the early stages of settlement,
where the demand for labor is urgent. And I have no
hesitation in saying, that, if this bill passes both Houses,
and becomes a law, they will be carried into every part of
New Mexico and California which is habitable. This will
be its practical effect. Even if the northern portion shall in

1 Mr. Clayton.


future years abolish slavery, it will be left with a black pop-
ulation, — a burden and an encumbrance to the white race,
and an impediment to its moral and physical development.

But the latter part of the proposition is far more objec-
tionable than the first ; and I regret exceedingly to hear
that it was conceded with unanimity. I deny that there is
any portion of these territories where free labor can never be
introduced. I deny that there is any portion of the globe
which nature designed for slavery. It would be an impeach-
ment of the character and the purposes of the great Author
of the Universe to concede that there is any portion of the
earth in which we cannot " stand fast in the liberty " where-
with God has made us free. I deny that there is any por-
tion of Oregon, or New Mexico, or California, to the
cultivation of which slave labor is indispensable. The sug-
gestion is as unsound in fact as it is in philosophy. I do
not admit that there is any portion of those territories to
which African, much less slave labor, is indispensable.
There is no portion of it less suited to white labor than the
southern portion of Spain, — none which has a more fiery
sun than Andalusia, — where slavery does not exist. Be-
sides, there is a free Indian population, natives of the cli-
mate, willing to work, singularly docile, and adequate to all
the demands for labor for years to come.

I regret exceedingly to have heard the admission that
slave labor is necessary in these territories. But I have
ceased to be surprised at anything from any quarter. I
have heard one of the principles of the Declaration of Inde-
pendence impugned, and its author charged with error in
advocating the exclusion of slavery from the territories of
the United States. I have heard negro slavery defended as
founded in right, as justified by the laws of God, and lauded
as " the mildest species of bondage which labor ever bore to
capital on the face of the globe." I confess I have been
astonished at these declarations, so different from all I have
heard and read of the sentiments of the great men of the



Republic from its foundation to the present day. I have
been taught, and taught by the South, to regard slavery as
an evil to be got rid of, and not as a good to be commu-
nicated to other communities.

The Senator from Delaware, after proposing to organize
governments for California and New Mexico, by the appoint-
ment of a governor, secretary, and judges, to compose a
temporary legislature, without the power to legislate on the
subject of slavery, proceeds : " It was thought that by this
means Congress would avoid the decision of this distracting
question, leaving it to be settled by the silent operation of
the Constitution itself; and that, in case Congress should
refuse to touch the subject, the country would be slaveholding
only \\'here, by the laws of nature, slave labor was etfective,
and free labor could not maintain itself ! "

This proposition is subject to the great and fundamental
objection I have taken to the other. It contains a direct
admission, that by the laws of nature a portion of the coun-
try or territory will be slaveholding. I deny that nature has
any such law. It is the law of man, doing violence to all
the dictates of nature, that makes a country slaveholding,
either by its own voluntary act, or by the act of others for-
cing slavery upon it.

But the chief and radical objection is, that it contains a
further admission that the territories are to be left open to
the introduction of slaves, — that they will be slaveholding
wherever slaves can be carried. It is an admission that the
" silent operation of the Constitution " will be to make the
country slaveholding where slave labor will be eflfective. I
consider it an entire abandonment of northern ground.
What is the ground taken by the North ? It is, that slavery
shall be prohibited in the territories. The act contains no
such prohibition. It is a complete surrender to the theories
and claims of our friends of the South. All they contend
for is, that the territories shall be open, and they left to the
unrestricted enjoyment of the right they assert to carry their


slaves into any territory belonging to the United States. It
is the very extent of their demand. It leaves nothing for
them to ask or desire. The distinguished Senator from
South Carolina ^ commenced his speech with the assertion
that all the South desired was — no legislation. This has
been conceded — fully conceded. Indeed, something more
has been given up. It was not enough to yield all that was
asked. The territorial government is prohibited from legis-
lating on the subject of slavery. This I should not object
to, constituted as that government is likely to be, but for
a single consideration : as a precedent, it may be of impor-
tance. It will constitute an argument in favor of extending
the same prohibition to the legislative assemblies, when they
shall be hereafter created. But I will not look beyond the

Online LibraryJohn A. (John Adams) DixSpeeches and occasional addresses (Volume 1) → online text (page 33 of 40)