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Issue of the Civil War

John Wesley characterized Slavery as "The sum of all villainies." Certainly, it was an extremely degrading institution. The early founders of the Republic soon realized the enormity of the evil. They endeavored to overthrow it, but failed. As it began to be immensely profitable to the people living in the southern section of the country, its roots became firmly entrenched, and, finally, involved the nation in one of the most distressing and painful civil wars in the annals of history.

In 1773, Patrick Henry said: "A serious view of this subject gives a gloomy prospect to future times." The same year, George Mason wrote to the Virginia Legislature: "The laws of impartial Providence may avenge our injustice upon our posterity." Adjusting his conduct to his convictions, Thomas Jefferson, in Virginia, and in the Continental Congress, with the approval of Edmund Pendleton, branded the slave trade as piracy; and he fixed in the Declaration of Independence, as the corner-stone of America: "All men are created equal with an unalienable right to liberty." In laboring in the direction of Emancipation, Jefferson encountered exceedingly great difficulties, and was forced to exclaim: "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that His justice cannot sleep forever." It was the desire of the heart of George Washington that Virginia should remove slavery by a public act; and as hope grew more dim, he did all that he could by bequeathing freedom to his own slaves. Madison said: ''Slavery is the greatest evil under which the nation labors, a portentous evil and an evil moral, political and economical, a sad blot on our free country." Old age found him with the lamentation: "No satisfactory plan has yet been devised for taking out the stain."

"A new generation," says Bancroft, the historian, ''sprang up, impatient that an institution to which they clung should be condemned as inhuman, unwise and unjust. In the throes of discontent at the self-reproach of their fathers, and blinded by the luster of wealth to be acquired by the culture of a new staple, they devised the theory that slavery, which they would not abolish, was not evil, but good. They turned on the friends of Colonization, and confidently demanded: Why take black men from a civilized and Christian country, where their labor is a source of immense gain, and a power to control the markets of the world, and send them to a land of ignorance, idolatry, and indolence, which was the home of their fore-fathers, but not theirs? Slavery is a blessing. Were they not in their ancestral land naked, scarcely lifted above brutes, ignorant of the course of the sun, controlled by nature? And in their new abode have they not been taught to know the difference of the seasons, to plow and plant and reap, to drive oxen, to tame the horse, to exchange their scanty dialect for the richest of all the languages among men, and the stupid adoration of follies for the purest religion. And since Slavery is good for the blacks, it is good for their masters, bringing opulence and the opportunity of educating a race. The Slavery of the black is good in itself; he shall serve the white man forever." And nature which better understood the quality of fleeting interest and passion, laughed as it caught the echo, 'man' and 'forever."

By and by, the issue was forced. A slave was not a person, but "property." If such a black "property" came into a free state it was contended that he could be treated the same as though he were a horse or a mule, and his "master" could go anywhere in the country and recover his property. The matter was carried to the Supreme Court. What followed we shall let the historian, Bancroft, tell. Says Bancroft:

"The Chief Justice of the United States, without any necessity or occasion, volunteered to come to the rescue of the theory of slavery; and from his court there lay no appeal, but to the bar of humanity and history. Against the Constitution, against the memory of the nation, against a previous decision, against a series of enactments he decided that the slave is property; that slave property is entitled to no less protection than any other property; that the Constitution upholds it in every Territory against any act of a local Legislature and even against Congress itself; or, as the President for that term tersely promulgated the saying: "Kansas is as much a slave State as South Carolina or Georgia; slavery, by virtue of the Constitution, exists in every Territory." Bancroft continues: "Moreover, the Chief Justice, in his elaborate opinion, announced what had never been heard from any magistrate of Greece, or Rome; what was unknown to civil law, and feudal law, and common law and constitutional law; unknown to Jay, to Rutledge, Ellsworth, and Marshall, that there are 'slave races.' "

The crisis had come. To the people the issue was carried. The party of Mr. Jefferson Davis maintained that a colored person was not a "person," in the ordinary use of that word. That such was "property," and, as such, should be protected in the same essential manner as a horse or a mule, in any and every section of the country. That is, if a colored person, say of Alabama, by some means made his way to Pennsylvania, this human "property" should be just as secure to his "owner" as though he were in Alabama. It was the duty of the government to return such human "property" to his owner, in the same manner as though he had been a horse that had gotten at large. When it was perceived by a number of white people, living in the Southern section of the country, that the greater part of the nation were not disposed to take such a view with respect to human "property," then, many of the Southern States concluded that they would peacefully withdraw from the Union, and set up a central government for themselves, the "cornerstone" of which new government should be the perpetual slavery of the people of African descent. Mr. Alexander H. Stephens, Vice-President of the late Confederate States, declared most plainly this purpose.

But, the party of Mr. Abraham Lincoln resolutely objected to such procedure. Mr. Lincoln maintained that no State could withdraw from the Union. The Southern people claimed that they had the right to withdraw; Mr. Lincoln solemnly denied the existence of such a right. The Civil War was the result. The object of the Southerners was to emancipate themselves from the Union, while that of the party of Lincoln was to force them to remain in the Union. The Emancipation of slaves issued from the controversy. The position assumed by the party of Lincoln is most aptly stated by Mr. Lincoln himself in his first Message to Congress, a portion of which follows:

"Our States have neither more nor less power than that reserved to them in the Union by the Constitution, no one of them having been a State out of the Union. The original ones passed into the Union even before they cast off their British colonial dependence; and the old ones each came into the Union directly from a condition of dependence, excepting Texas. And even Texas, in its temporary independence, was never designated a State. The new ones only took the designation of States on coming into the Union, while that name was first adopted by the old ones in and by the Declaration of Independence. Therein the 'United Colonies' were declared to be 'free and Independent States; but, even then, the object plainly was not to declare their independence of one another or of the Union, but directly the contrary, as their mutual pledge and their mutual action before, at the time, and afterwards abundantly show. The express plighting of faith by each and all of the original thirteen in the articles of Confederation, two years later, that the Union shall be perpetual, is most conclusive. Having never been States, either in substance or in name outside of the Union, whence this magical omnipotence of 'States' Eights,' asserting a claim of power lawfully to destroy the Union itself? The States have their status in the Union, and they have no other legal status. If they break from this they can only do so against law and by revolution. The Union, and not themselves separately, procured their in-dependence and their liberty. By conquest or purchase the Union gave each of them whatever independence or liberty it has. The Union is older than any of the States, and, in fact, it created them as States. Originally some dependent colonies made the Union, and in turn the Union threw off their old dependence for them, and made them States, such as they are. Not one of them ever had a State Constitution independent of the Union. What is now combatted is the position that secession is consistent with the Constitution, is lawful and peaceful. It is not contended that there is any express law for it: and nothing should ever be implied as law which leads to unjust or absurd consequences. The nation purchased with money the countries out of which several of these States were formed; is it just that they shall go off without leave and without refunding? The nation paid very large sums (in the aggregate, I believe, nearly a hundred millions) to relieve Florida of the aboriginal tribes; is it just that she shall now be off without consent or without making any return? The nation is now in debt for money applied to the benefit of these so-called seceding States in common with the rest; is it just either that creditors shall go unpaid or the remaining States pay the whole? A part of the national debt was contracted to pay the old debts of Texas; is it just that she shall leave and pay no part of this herself?

Again, if one State may secede, so may another; and when all shall have seceded, none is left to pay the debts. Is this quite just to creditors? Did we notify them of this sage view of ours when we borrowed their money? If we now recognize this doctrine by allowing the seceders to go in peace, it is difficult to see what we can do if others choose to go, or to extort terms upon which they will promise to remain. The seceders insist that our Constitution admits of secession. They have assumed to make a national Constitution of their own, in which, of necessity, they have either discarded or retained the right of secession, as they insist it exists in ours. If they have discarded it, by their own construction of ours, they show that to be consistent they must secede from one another whenever they shall find it the easiest way of settling their debts or effecting any other selfish or unjust object. The principle itself is one of disintegration, upon which no government can possibly endure."

The cause of the Union prevailed. In accomplishing such victory it became necessary, as a war measure, for the President to declare "forever free" the "'"human property'' held as such, by those who had taken up arms against the Union. And so "freedom" came. While, technically, the war was waged to preserve the Union, yet "freedom of the slaves" was inseparably connected with the preservation of the Union.

Maryland BiographiesMaryland AHGP

Source: Gazetteer of Maryland, by Henry Gannett, Washington, Government Printing Office, 1904.

 

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