John George Nicolay.

Abraham Lincoln: a History — Volume 01 online

. (page 22 of 31)
Online LibraryJohn George NicolayAbraham Lincoln: a History — Volume 01 → online text (page 22 of 31)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

First, the West was competing with the Territory of Maine for
settlers; second, the whole scheme was in the interest of the "Ohio
Company," a newly formed Massachusetts emigrant aid society which
immediately made a large purchase of lands; third, the unsettled
regions south of the Ohio River had not yet been ceded to the general
Government, and were therefore open to slavery from the contiguous
Southern States; fourth, little was known of the extent or character
of the great West; and, therefore, fifth, the Ohio River was doubtless
thought to be a fair and equitable dividing line. The ordinance itself
provided for the formation of not less than three nor more than five
States, and under its shielding provisions Ohio, Indiana, Illinois,
Michigan, and Wisconsin were added to the Union with free

[Sidenote: "Ellior's Debates," Vol. V., p. 395.]

[Sidenote: Ibid., p. 392.]

It does not appear that sectional motives operated for or against the
foregoing enactment; they were probably held in abeyance by other
considerations. But it must not be inferred therefrom that the slavery
question was absent or dormant in the country. There was already a
North and a South. At that very time the constitutional convention was
in session in Philadelphia. George Washington and his fellow delegates
were grappling with the novel problems of government which the happy
issue of the Revolution and the lamentable failure of the
Confederation forced upon the country. One of these problems was the
presence of over half a million of slaves, nearly all in five Southern
States. Should they be taxed? Should they be represented? Should the
power to regulate commerce be allowed to control or terminate their
importation? Vital questions these, which went not merely to the
incidents but the fundamental powers of government. The slavery
question seemed for months an element of irreconcilable discord in the
convention. The slave-trade not only, but the domestic institution
itself, was characterized in language which Southern politicians of
later times would have denounced as "fanatical" and "incendiary."
Pinckney wished the slaves to be represented equally with the whites,
since they were the Southern peasantry. Gouverneur Morris declared
that as they were only property they ought not to be represented at
all. Both the present and the future balance of power in national
legislation, as resulting from slaves already in, and hereafter to be
imported into, old and new States, were debated under various
possibilities and probabilities.

Out of these divergent views grew the compromises of the Constitution.
1. The slaves were to be included in the enumeration for
representation, _five_ blacks to be counted as _three_ whites.
2. Congress should have the right to prohibit the slave-trade, but not
till the lapse of twenty years. 3. Fugitive slaves should be delivered
to their owners. Each State, large or small, was allowed two senators;
and the apportionment of representatives gave to the North thirty-five
members and fourteen senators, to the South thirty members and twelve
senators. But since the North was not yet free from slavery, but only
in process of becoming so, and as Virginia was the leading State of the
Union, the real balance of power remained in the hands of the South.

The newly formed Constitution went into successful operation. Under
legal provisions already made and the strong current of abolition
sentiment then existing, all the Eastern and Middle States down to
Delaware became free. This gain, however, was perhaps more than
numerically counterbalanced by the active importation of captured
Africans, especially into South Carolina and Georgia, up to the time
the traffic ceased by law in 1808. Jefferson had meanwhile purchased
of France the immense country west of the Mississippi known as the
Louisiana Territory. The free navigation of that great river was
assured, and the importance of the West immeasurably increased. The
old French colonies at New Orleans and Kaskaskia were already strong
outposts of civilization and the nuclei of spreading settlements.
Attracted by the superior fertility of the soil, by the limitless
opportunities for speculation, by the enticing spirit of adventure,
and pushed by the restless energy inherent in the Anglo-Saxon
character, the older States now began to pour a rising stream of
emigration into the West and the South-west.

In this race the free States, by reason of their greater population,
wealth, and commercial enterprise, would have outstripped the South
but for the introduction of a new and powerful influence which
operated exclusively in favor of the latter. This was the discovery of
the peculiar adaptation of the soil and climate of portions of the
Southern States, combined with cheap slave-labor, to the cultivation
of cotton. Half a century of experiment and invention in England had
brought about the concurrent improvement of machinery for spinning and
weaving, and of the high-pressure engine to furnish motive power. The
Revolutionary war was scarcely ended when there came from the mother-
country a demand for the raw fiber, which promised to be almost
without limit. A few trials sufficed to show Southern planters that
with their soil and their slaves they could supply this demand with a
quality of cotton which would defy competition, and at a profit to
themselves far exceeding that of any other product of agriculture. But
an insurmountable obstacle yet seemed to interpose itself between them
and their golden harvest. The tedious work of cleaning the fiber from
the seed apparently made impossible its cheap preparation for export
in large quantities. A negro woman working the whole day could clean
only a single pound.

[Illustration: JAMES K. POLK.]

[Sidenote: Memoir of Eli Whitney, "American Journal of Science,"

It so happened that at this juncture, November, 1792, an ingenious
Yankee student from Massachusetts was boarding in the house of friends
in Savannah, Georgia, occupying his leisure in reading law. A party of
Georgia gentlemen from the interior, making a visit to this family,
fell into conversation on the prospects and difficulties of cotton-
culture and the imperative need of a rapidly working cleaning-machine.
Their hostess, an intelligent and quick-witted woman, at once
suggested an expedient. "Gentlemen," said Mrs. Greene, "apply to my
young friend, Mr. Eli Whitney; he can make anything." The Yankee
student was sought, introduced, and had the mechanical problem laid
before him. He modestly disclaimed his hostess's extravagant praises,
and told his visitors that he had never seen either cotton or cotton-
seed in his life. Nevertheless, he went to work with such earnestness
and success, that in a few months Mrs. Greene had the satisfaction of
being able to invite a gathering of gentlemen from different parts of
the State to behold with their own eyes the working of the newly
invented cotton-gin, with which a negro man turning a crank could
clean fifty pounds of cotton per day.

[Sidenote: 1808.]

[Sidenote: Compendium, Eighth Census, p. 13.]

This solution of the last problem in cheap cotton-culture made it at
once the leading crop of the South. That favored region quickly drove
all competitors out of the market; and the rise of English imports of
raw cotton, from thirty million pounds, in 1790 to over one thousand
million pounds in 1860, shows the development and increase of this
special industry, with all its related interests. [Footnote: The
Virginia price of a male "field hand" in 1790 was $250; in 1860 his
value in the domestic market had risen to $1600. - SHERRARD CLEMENS,
speech in H. E. Appendix "Congressional Globe," 1860-1, pp. 104-5.] It
was not till fifteen years after the invention of the cotton-gin that
the African slave-trade ceased by limitation of law. "Within that
period many thousands of negro captives had been added to the
population of the South by direct importation, and nearly thirty
thousand slave inhabitants added by the acquisition of Louisiana,
hastening the formation of new slave States south of the Ohio River in
due proportion." [Transcriber's Note: Lengthy footnote (1) relocated to
chapter end.]

It is a curious historical fact, that under the very remarkable
material growth of the United States which now took place, the
political influence remained so evenly balanced between the North and
the South for more than a generation. Other grave issues indeed
absorbed the public attention, but the abeyance of the slavery
question is due rather to the fact that no considerable advantage as
yet fell to either side. Eight new States were organized, four north
and four south of the Ohio River, and admitted in nearly alternate
order: Vermont in 1791, _free_; Kentucky in 1792, _slave_; Tennessee
in 1796, _slave_; Ohio in 1802, _free_; Louisiana in 1812, _slave_;
Indiana in 1816, _free_; Mississippi in 1817, _slave_; Illinois in
1818, _free_. Alabama was already authorized to be admitted with
slavery, and this would make the number of free and slave States equal,
giving eleven States to the North and eleven to the South.

The Territory of Missouri, containing the old French colonies at and
near St. Louis, had attained a population of 60,000, and was eager to
be admitted as a State. She had made application in 1817, and now in
1819 it was proposed to authorize her to form a constitution. Arkansas
was also being nursed as an applicant, and the prospective loss by the
North and gain by the South of the balance of power caused the slavery
question suddenly to flare up as a national issue. There were hot
debates in Congress, emphatic resolutions by State legislatures, deep
agitation among the whole people, and open threats by the South to
dissolve the Union. Extreme Northern men insisted upon a restriction
of slavery to be applied to both Missouri and Arkansas; radical
Southern members contended that Congress had no power to impose any
conditions on new States. The North had control of the House, the
South of the Senate. A middle party thereupon sprang up, proposing to
divide the Louisiana purchase between freedom and slavery by the line
of 36 degrees 30', and authorizing the admission of Missouri with
slavery out of the northern half. Fastening this proposition upon the
bill to admit Maine as a free State, the measure was, after a struggle,
carried through Congress (in a separate act approved March 6, 1820),
and became the famous Missouri Compromise. Maine and Missouri were
both admitted. Each section thereby not only gained two votes in the
Senate, but also asserted its right to spread its peculiar polity
without question or hindrance within the prescribed limits; and the
motto, "No extension of slavery," was postponed forty years, to the
Republican campaign of 1860.

From this time forward, the maintenance of this balance of power, - the
numerical equality of the slave States with the free, - though not
announced in platforms as a party doctrine, was nevertheless steadily
followed as a policy by the representatives of the South. In pursuance
of this system, Michigan and Arkansas, the former a _free_ and
the latter a _slave_ State, were, on the same day, June 15, 1836,
authorized to be admitted. These tactics were again repeated in the
year 1845, when, on the 3d of March, Iowa, a _free_ State, and
Florida, a _slave_ State, were authorized to be admitted by one
act of Congress, its approval being the last official act of President
Tyler. This tacit compromise, however, was accompanied by another very
important victory of the same policy. The Southern politicians saw
clearly enough that with the admission of Florida the slave territory
was exhausted, while an immense untouched portion of the Louisiana
purchase still stretched away to the north-west towards the Pacific
above the Missouri Compromise line, which consecrated it to freedom.
The North, therefore, still had an imperial area from which to
organize future free States, while the South had not a foot more
territory from which to create slave States.

Sagaciously anticipating this contingency, the Southern States had
been largely instrumental in setting up the independent State of
Texas, and were now urgent in their demand for her annexation to the
Union. Two days before the signing of the Iowa and Florida bill,
Congress passed, and President Tyler signed, a joint resolution,
authorizing the acquisition, annexation, and admission of Texas. But
even this was not all. The joint resolution contained a guarantee that
"new States, of convenient size, not exceeding four in number, in
addition to the said State of Texas," and to be formed out of her
territory, should hereafter be entitled to admission - the Missouri
Compromise line to govern the slavery question in them. The State of
Texas was, by a later resolution, formally admitted to the Union,
December 29, 1845. At this date, therefore, the slave States gained an
actual majority of one, there being fourteen free States and fifteen
slave States, with at least equal territorial prospects through future

If the North was alarmed at being thus placed in a minority, there was
ample reason for still further disquietude. The annexation of Texas
had provoked the Mexican war, and President Polk, in anticipation of
further important acquisition of territory to the South and West,
asked of Congress an appropriation of two millions to be used in
negotiations to that end. An attempt to impose a condition to these
negotiations that slavery should never exist in any territory to be
thus acquired was the famous Wilmot Proviso. This particular measure
failed, but the war ended, and New Mexico and California were added to
the Union as unorganized Territories. Meanwhile the admission of
Wisconsin in 1848 had once more restored the equilibrium between the
free and the slave States, there being now fifteen of each.

It must not be supposed that the important political measures and
results thus far summarized were accomplished by quiet and harmonious
legislation. Rising steadily after 1820, the controversy over slavery
became deep and bitter, both in Congress and the country. Involving
not merely a policy of government, but a question of abstract morals,
statesmen, philanthropists, divines, the press, societies, churches,
and legislative bodies joined in the discussion. Slavery was assailed
and defended in behalf of the welfare of the state, and in the name of
religion. In Congress especially it had now been a subject of angry
contention for a whole generation. It obtruded itself into all manner
of questions, and clung obstinately to numberless resolutions and
bills. Time and again it had brought members into excited discussion,
and to the very verge of personal conflict in the legislative halls.
It had occasioned numerous threats to dissolve the Union, and in one
or more instances caused members actually to retire from the House of
Representatives. It had given rise to resolutions of censure, to
resignations, and had been the occasion of some of the greatest
legislative debates of the nation. It had virtually created and
annexed the largest State in the Union. In several States it had
instigated abuse, intolerance, persecutions, trials, mobs, murders,
destruction of property, imprisonment of freemen, retaliatory
legislation, and one well-defined and formidable attempt at
revolution. It originated party factions, political schools, and
constitutional doctrines, and made and marred the fame of great

New Mexico, when acquired, contained one of the oldest towns on the
continent, and a considerable population of Spanish origin.
California, almost simultaneously with her acquisition, was peopled in
the course of a few months by the world-renowned gold discoveries.
Very unexpectedly, therefore, to politicians of all grades and
opinions, the slavery question was once more before the nation in the
year 1850, over the proposition to admit both to the Union as States.
As the result of the long conflict of opinion hitherto maintained, the
beliefs and desires of the contending sections had by this time become
formulated in distinct political doctrines. The North contended that
Congress might and should prohibit slavery in all the territories of
the Union, as had been done in the Northern half by the Ordinance of
1787 and by the Missouri Compromise. The South declared that any such
exclusion would not only be unjust and impolitic, but absolutely
unconstitutional, because property in slaves might enter and must be
protected in the territories in common with all other property. To the
theoretical dispute was added a practical contest. By the existing
Mexican laws slavery was already prohibited in New Mexico, and
California promptly formed a free State constitution. Under these
circumstances the North sought to organize the former as a Territory,
and admit the latter as a State, while the South resisted and
endeavored to extend the Missouri Compromise line, which would place
New Mexico and the southern half of California under the tutelage and
influence of slavery.

These were the principal points of difference which caused the great
slavery agitation of 1850. The whole country was convulsed in
discussion; and again more open threats and more ominous movements
towards disunion came from the South. The most popular statesman of
that day, Henry Clay, of Kentucky, a slaveholder opposed to the
extension of slavery, now, however, assumed the leadership of a party
of compromise, and the quarrel was adjusted and quieted by a combined
series of Congressional acts. 1. California was admitted as a free
State. 2. The Territories of New Mexico and Utah were organized,
leaving the Mexican prohibition of slavery in force. 3. The domestic
slave-trade in the District of Columbia was abolished. 4. A more
stringent fugitive-slave law was passed. 5. For the adjustment of her
State boundaries Texas received ten millions of dollars.

[Sidenote: Greeley, "American Conflict," Vol. I., p. 208.]

These were the famous compromise measures of 1850. It has been gravely
asserted that this indemnity of ten millions, suddenly trebling the
value of the Texas debt, and thereby affording an unprecedented
opportunity for speculation in the bonds of that State, was "the
propelling force whereby these acts were pushed through Congress in
defiance of the original convictions of a majority of its members."
But it must also be admitted that the popular desire for tranquillity,
concord, and union in all sections never exerted so much influence
upon Congress as then. This compromise was not at first heartily
accepted by the people; Southern opinion being offended by the
abandonment of the "property" doctrine, and Northern sentiment
irritated by certain harsh features of the fugitive-slave law. But the
rising Union feeling quickly swept away all ebullitions of discontent,
and during two or three years people and politicians fondly dreamed
they had, in current phraseology, reached a "finality" [Transcriber's
Note: Lengthy footnote (2) relocated to chapter end.] on this vexed
quarrel. The nation settled itself for a period of quiet to repair the
waste and utilize the conquests of the Mexican war. It became absorbed
in the expansion of its commerce, the development of its manufactures,
and the growth of its emigration, all quickened by the riches of its
marvelous gold-fields; until unexpectedly and suddenly it found itself
plunged once again into political controversies more distracting and
more ominous than the worst it had yet experienced.

[Relocated Footnote (1): No word of the authors could add to the force
and eloquence of the following from a recent letter of the son of the
inventor of the cotton-gin (to the Art Superintendent of "The
Century"), stating the claims of his father's memory to the gratitude
of the South, hitherto apparently unfelt, and certainly unrecognized:

"NEW HAVEN, CONN.," Dec. 4, 1886. "... I send you a photograph taken
from a portrait of my father, painted about the year 1821, by King, of
Washington, when my father, the inventor of the cotton-gin, was fifty-
five years old. He died January 25, 1825. The cotton-gin was invented
in 1793; and though it has been in use for nearly one hundred years,
it is virtually unimproved.... Hence the great merit of the South,
financially and commercially. It has made England rich, and changed
the commerce of the world. Lord Macaulay said of Eli Whitney: 'What
Peter the Great did to make Russia dominant, Eli Whitney's invention
of the cotton-gin has more than equaled in its relation to the power
and progress of the United States.' He has been the greatest
benefactor of the South, but it never has, to my knowledge,
acknowledged his benefaction in a public manner to the extent it
deserves - no monument has been erected to his memory, no town or city
named after him, though the force of his genius has original
invention. It has made caused many towns and cities to rise and
flourish in the South....

"Yours very truly, E. W. WHITNEY."]

[Relocated Footnote (2): Grave doubts, however, found occasional
expression, and none perhaps more forcibly than in the following
newspaper epigram - describing "Finality":

To kill twice dead a rattlesnake,
And off his scaly skin to take,
And through his head to drive a stake,
And every bone within him break,
And of his flesh mincemeat to make,
To burn, to sear, to boil, and bake,
Then in a heap the whole to rake,
And over it the besom shake,
And sink it fathoms in the lake -
Whence after all, quite wide awake,
Comes back that very same old snake!]



The long contest in Congress over the compromise measures of 1850, and
the reluctance of a minority, alike in the North and the South, to
accept them, had in reality seriously demoralized both the great
political parties of the country. The Democrats especially, defeated
by the fresh military laurels of General Taylor in 1848, were much
exercised to discover their most available candidate as the
presidential election of 1852 approached. The leading names, Cass,
Buchanan, and Marcy, having been long before the public, were becoming
a little stale. In this contingency, a considerable following grouped
itself about an entirely new man, Stephen A. Douglas, of Illinois.
Emigrating from Vermont to the West, Douglas had run a career
remarkable for political success. Only in his thirty-ninth year, he
had served as member of the legislature, as State's Attorney, as
Secretary of State, and as judge of the Supreme Court in Illinois, and
had since been three times elected to Congress and once to the Senate
of the United States. Nor did he owe his political fortunes entirely
to accident. Among his many qualities of leadership were strong
physical endurance, untiring industry, a persistent boldness, a ready
facility in public speaking, unfailing political shrewdness, an
unusual power in running debate, with liberal instincts and
progressive purposes. It was therefore not surprising that he should
attract the admiration and support of the young, the ardent, and
especially the restless and ambitious members of his party. His career
in Congress was sufficiently conspicuous. As Chairman of the Committee
on Territories in the Senate, he had borne a prominent part in the
enactment of the compromise measures of 1850, and had just met and
overcome a threatened party schism in his own State, which that
legislation had there produced.

In their eagerness to push his claims to the presidency, the partisans
of Douglas committed a great error. Rightly appreciating the growing
power of the press, they obtained control of the "Democratic Review,"
a monthly magazine then prominent as a party organ, and published in
it a series of articles attacking the rival Democratic candidates in
very flashy rhetoric. These were stigmatized as "old fogies," who must
give ground to a nominee of "Young America." They were reminded that
the party expects a "new man." "Age is to be honored, but senility is
pitiable"; "statesmen of a previous generation must get out of the
way"; the Democratic party was owned by a set of "old clothes-horses";
"they couldn't pay their political promises in four Democratic
administrations"; and the names of Cass and Marcy, Buchanan and
Butler, were freely mixed in with such epithets as "pretenders,"
"hucksters," "intruders," and "vile charlatans."

Such characterization of such men soon created a flagrant scandal in

Online LibraryJohn George NicolayAbraham Lincoln: a History — Volume 01 → online text (page 22 of 31)