American Federalism and the Civil War

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from a lecture delivered in 1866 and published in 1907 in Historical
Essays and Studies. An MP3 audio file of this article, read by
Floy Lilley, is
available for download

For many years
before the outbreak of the Civil War, the United States had become
an object of anxiety or of envy to many, of wonder and curiosity
to all mankind. Their prosperity, attached by a thousand beneficent
links to the prosperity of England, seemed even more splendid and
more secure. The rapid growth of their population united the marvels
of Lancashire with the marvels of Australia; it created vast cities,
and peopled an enormous territory with their overflow.

The accumulation
of riches was as great as in Europe, whilst they were diffused so
much more generally that poverty as well as idleness was all but
unknown. All the sources of agricultural and of mineral wealth enjoyed
by the Old World were tenfold multiplied in the New, and were exempt
from the drain of those political causes which restrain commercial
enterprise, and expend on objects that yield no adequate return
the resources of the people. The money thus rescued from unproductive
waste was reserved to extend and equalize education.

In a society
organized like our own it is desirable that education should be
fitted, in nature and degree, to the special character and occupation
of the several ranks in life to which each man belongs. But in a
country where there is no distinction of class, a child is not born
to the station of its parents, but with an indefinite claim to all
the prizes that can be won by thought and labor.

It is in conformity
with the theory of equality to check the causes which disturb it,
and to give as near as possible to every youth an equal start in
life. Every American is a self-made man, and they are unwilling
that any should be deprived in childhood of the means of competition.
Therefore in several states a system of instruction was introduced
which enabled a pupil to advance from the first rudiments of knowledge
to the end of a university course, and to prepare himself for the
learned professions, without payment of a single shilling.

Taxation was
scarcely felt; there was no standing army; a navy that weighed lightly
in the budget, an inconsiderable public debt. No neighboring power
threatened the safety of the country. No internal disaffection disturbed
the peaceful reign of law. And this material progress, though checked
by serious drawbacks, was not obtained at the expense of the higher
elements of civilization.

In literature
at least I entirely dissent from the opinion which denies to Americans
an honorable place beside European nations. It may be said that
they have had no first-rate poet or painter, and that they have
done little for scholarship and antiquities. But it appears to me
impossible with justice to deny that they are our equals in political
eloquence and philosophy, or that they surpass us as writers on
the history of the continent and on the art of government.

In practical
politics they had solved with astonishing and unexampled success
two problems which had hitherto baffled the capacity of the most
enlightened nations: they had contrived a system of federal government
which prodigiously increased the national power and yet respected
local liberties and authorities; and they had founded it on the
principle of equality, without surrendering the securities for property
and freedom. I call their success unexampled, not because it is
a forcible term, but because it exactly indicates the peculiar character
of the history of the American Constitution, and its special significance
for ourselves.

And this reminds
me of the wise and salutary regulation which obliges me here to
abstain from topics which may supply the occasion of discord. In
order to estimate in its nature and its causes the subject which
is before us, we must be guided by the light of that political science
which resides in serene regions, remote from the conflicts of party
opinion: a science whose principles are clear, definite, and certain,
and not more difficult to apply than the principles of the moral
code. It is in this spirit I wish to speak of the exemplary value
of events in America. Example is of the first importance in politics,
because political calculations are so complex that we cannot trust
theory if we cannot support it by experience.

Now the experience
of the Americans is necessarily an impressive lesson to England.
Our institutions as well as our national character spring from the
same roots, and the fortunes they encounter must serve as a beacon
to guide us, or as a warning to repel. Now the world had never yet
beheld a democracy combining a very advanced civilization with a
very extensive territory. Democracies have coexisted with the highest
social and intellectual refinement, but then they had not to overcome
the difficulty of space. Those which extended their dominion perished
between the cognate perils of anarchy and despotism.

Above all,
a democracy has never even attempted to adopt the system of representative
government which is the supreme and characteristic invention of
the British monarchy. Therefore it had become almost an axiom in
political science that that which ancient Rome and modern France
attempted and failed to accomplish is really impossible; that democracy,
to be consistent with liberty, must subsist in solution and combination
with other qualifying principles, and that complete equality is
the ruin of liberty, and very prejudicial to the most valued interests
of society, civilization, and religion.

That was, until
a generation ago, the verdict of history; whose decision the Americans
have undertaken to reverse. No more memorable attempt was ever made
by men. If they succeeded in their momentous pleading – if
they proved by experiment that a vast community, rich, intellectual,
and civilized as those of Europe, guided by the accumulated experience
of the older hemisphere and without its special difficulties, prejudices,
and dangers, could be governed by the principles of pure democracy,
without any sacrifice of those more exalted objects which political
forms exist to serve, they would inevitably exercise an overwhelming
pressure on the ancient society of Europe.

If they could
demonstrate that to be possible which was deemed a chimera, because
it is contradicted by the experience of ages – if they showed
us that the objects aimed at by our political and social system
may be enjoyed still more amply without the penalty which Europe
has always paid, in the shape of so much iniquity and so much suffering,
by irresponsible authorities, sanguinary wars, and wanton injury,
in the oppression of class by class, of race by race, and of religion
by religion – in the elaborate, deliberate, intentional degradation
of the weaker party, for reasons of state, or religious zeal, or
by the pride of blood, or by the blind and resistless action of
superior wealth and force – if they could exhibit to the world
the spectacle of a country as extensive as Russia, as secure from
aggression as France, as intellectual as Germany, as free and as
obedient to law as Great Britain, cursed with no restrictions on
personal freedom, without fleets or armies, without pauperism or
national debt – if, in short, America could give the light
without the shade of political life, then I believe that the venerable
institutions of European polity would go down before that invincible

Those institutions
have grown old, and their old age is vigorous, because we are confident
that they will stand the tests of expediency and right, because
they are either necessary or conducive to the general advantage.
But if America should destroy the validity of that defense, then
the only inducement by which the masses of mankind will be made
to tolerate the evils and injustice incident to our system of society,
will be the short-lived argument of force.

There were
many who believed that the mighty problem was solved, and that America
had accomplished the work and this conviction has already exerted
a disturbing influence over the affairs of Europe. Historians affirm
that the French Revolution was partly caused by the successful revolution
which founded the United States. If that could be at a time when
nothing had been achieved but independence, and their Constitution
was only beginning the career it has so grandly run, it is easy
to estimate how much their influence would be increased by the permanence
of their success.

America exercised a power of attraction over Europe of which the
great migration is only a subordinate sign. Beyond the millions
who have crossed the ocean, who shall reckon the millions whose
hearts and hopes are in the United States, to whom the rising sun
is in the West, and whose movements are controlled by the distant
magnet, though it has not drawn them away?

The time has
come for all men to perceive that these judgments were premature.
Five years have wrought so vast a change, that the picture which
I have faithfully given of the United States as I found them under
President Pierce could not be realized in the awful realities of
the present day. Their debt now imposes a heavier charge than that
which England contracted in the great war, and it has been incurred,
not to repel invasion or defeat a national enemy, but to slaughter
fellow citizens, and carry fire and sword over the cornfields and
the homesteads of a country which is their own.

The armies
they have raised and lost were larger in proportion to the population
than those of the Emperor Napoleon or the Emperor Alexander. Their
prisons have been peopled with disaffected citizens. Part of their
territory has become desolate, because those who should have tilled
the soil were taken by the war part because the armies laid it waste.
The Union which was founded and sustained by the attachment of the
people has been restored by force, and the Constitution which was
the idol of Americans is obeyed by millions of humbled and indignant
men, whose families it has decimated, whose property it has ravaged,
and whose prospects it has ruined forever.

in this crisis of its political existence the nation has displayed
many noble qualities: patriotism, fortitude in adversity, respect
for authority, and in some measure the difficult arts of subordination
and discipline. The civil power has never been threatened or weakened
by the resistance of a popular commander; differences of social
station have not interfered with the organization of the army; military
rank has not disturbed the level surface of ordinary life, the officer
and the soldier have been merged in the peaceful citizen.

In the number
of the leaders there have arisen men of high ability, and at least
one who has built himself a name among names that will never die.
Nevertheless the judgment which overtook the American Union was
not undeserved. Convulsions such as this spring from causes of commensurate
importance, and cannot be the work of a short time or of a few men.
Americans themselves would acknowledge this, but their explanations
contradict each other. Some would say that the fault was with slavery,
others would accuse the tyranny of the North. On the solution of
the question depends the place which is to be assigned to the American
Civil War in the history of the world.

It is remarkable
that the Constitution was little trusted or admired by the wisest
and most illustrious of its founders, and that its severest and
most desponding critics were those whom Americans revere as the
fathers of their country. Washington explained, in a conversation
which Jefferson has recorded, his fears for the permanence of the
new form of government. He stated that at one period of the deliberations
the Constitution promised to satisfy his ideas, but that the great
principles for which he contended had been changed in the last days
of the convention. He meant the law which required a majority of
two-thirds in all those measures which affected differently the
interests of the several States.

This provision,
which would have given protection to minorities, was repealed in
consequence of a coalition between the Southern and Eastern states,
for the benefit of the slave owners in the South, and of the commercial
and manufacturing interests in the East. He said "that he did
not like throwing too much into democratic hands; that if they would
not do what the Constitution called on them to do, the government
would be at an end, and must then assume another form." He
stopped here, says Jefferson, "and I kept silence to see if
he would say anything more in the same line, or add any qualifying
expression to soften what he had said, but he did neither."

There was one
superior to Washington among the statesmen who surrounded him –
Alexander Hamilton; and his prognostications were still more gloomy.
He said, "It is my own opinion that the present government
is not that which will answer the ends of society, by giving stability
and protection to its rights, and it will probably be found expedient
to go into the British form." "A dissolution of the Union
after all seems to be the most likely result." Later in his
life he called the Constitution a frail and worthless fabric, and
a temporary bond.

The first president
after Washington, John Adams, said "he saw no possibility of
continuing the Union of the states; that their dissolution must
necessarily take place." On another occasion he pointed out
the quarter from which he anticipated danger. "No republic,"
he said, "could ever last that had not a senate deeply and
strongly rooted, strong enough to bear up against all popular storms
and passions. That as to trusting to a popular assembly for the
preservation of our liberties, it was the merest chimera imaginable;
they never had any rule of decision but their own will."

If I were to
continue my extracts I could still more clearly show that the authors
of the most celebrated democracy in history esteemed that the most
formidable dangers which menaced the stability of their work were
the very principles of democracy itself. With them the establishment
of a republican government was not the result of theory, but of
necessity. They possessed no aristocracy, and no king, but otherwise
they inherited our English laws, and strove to adapt them as faithfully
as possible to a society constituted so differently from that in
which they had their origin.

The earliest
interpreters of the Constitution and the laws strove to be guided
by English precedents, and to approach as nearly as they could to
the English model. Hamilton is the chief expounder of these ideas:

It has been
observed that a pure democracy, if it were practicable, would
be the most perfect government. Experience has proved that no
position in politics is more false than this. The ancient democracies,
in which the people themselves deliberated, never possessed one
feature of good government. Their very character was tyranny,
their figure deformity.

If we incline
too much to democracy, we shall soon shoot into a monarchy.

Those who
mean to form a solid republican government ought to proceed to
the confines of another government.

There are
certain conjunctures when it may be necessary and proper to disregard
the opinions which the majority of the people have formed.

There ought
to be a principle in government capable of resisting the popular
current.… The principle chiefly intended to be established
is this, that there must be a permanent will.

These are not
individual opinions. They were shared by a powerful party, that
watched the cradle and guided the first steps of the American republic,
and they display the moderate, wise, and English spirit which presided
over its early councils. In this combination there was an inconsistency,
which time necessarily developed.

The laws of
England do not flow from a single principle; they are the result
of many influences, they acknowledge authority and tradition, balance
one set of interests by another, and aim at serving very various
rights, and are determined by many considerations of expediency.
Of all conceivable things that which is most alien to their spirit
is to sacrifice any distinct interest or particular right to the
requirements of some vague abstraction. But it was difficult for
Norman kings and feudal parliaments to legislate in a manner that
would satisfy the wants of American society. Modifications were
needed, and they were naturally directed by that new element which
called for them, a purely democratic principle.

The most eminent
advocate of this principle, whom Tocqueville has called the most
powerful apostle that democracy ever had, was Jefferson. One or
two sentences taken from his writings will furnish the most forcible
illustration of the contrasts which then existed together, and whose
struggles for supremacy were to occupy the history and decide the
fate of the American Constitution.

Jefferson says
that "his object was to restrain the administration to republican
forms and principles, and not permit the Constitution to be construed
into a monarchy, and to be warped, in practice, into all the principles
and pollutions of their favorite English model. Every people may
establish what form of government they please; the will of the nation
being the only thing essential. I subscribe to the principle that
the will of the majority, honestly expressed, should give law. I
suppose it to be self-evident that the earth belongs to the living;
that the dead have neither powers nor rights in it. No society can
make a perpetual Constitution or even a perpetual law. The earth
belongs always to the living generation. Every Constitution then,
and every law, naturally expires at the end of thirty-four years."

Between this
revolutionary doctrine and the ideas derived from England, there
was an irreconcilable antagonism. It was intolerable to Jefferson
that the engagements of one generation should bind another, that
any rights should be deemed too sacred to be confiscated by the
vote of a majority. He desired law to be in a constant state of
fluctuation, and every change to realize more and more the momentary
wishes of the people. No man, therefore, and no interest would enjoy
any security against popular feeling, and men would be compelled
to struggle permanently not only for influence, but for safety.

Yet Jefferson
himself was one of those who despaired of the Union. When the great
controversy of the extension of slavery first arose, he wrote to
a private friend, "I consider it at once the knell of the Union.
It is hushed indeed for the moment, but this is a reprieve only,
not a final sentence. A geographical line coinciding with a marked
principle, moral and political, and conceived and held up by the
angry passions of men, will never be obliterated, and every new
irritation will make it deeper and deeper."

But it seems
clear to me that if slavery had never existed, a community divided
by principles so opposite as those of Jefferson and Hamilton will
be distracted by their antagonism until one of them shall prevail;
and that a theory that identifies liberty with a single right, the
right of doing all that you have the actual power to do, and a theory
which secures liberty by certain unalterable rights, and founds
it on truths which men did not invent and may not abjure, cannot
both be formative principles in the same Constitution.

Absolute power
and restrictions on its exercise cannot exist together. It is but
a new form of the old contest between the spirit of true freedom
and despotism in its most dexterous disguise.

One scene I
often look back upon, for it appears to me to contain the key of
that which followed. I was sometimes present at the debates of a
convention which met at Boston after an interval of thirty years
to revise the Constitution of the most enlightened state of the
Union. There were treated some of the first principles of politics,
and one of the questions was as to the appointment of the judiciary.
It is quite an elementary truth that a judge should be independent,
and saved from the danger of being influenced by the favor of either
the court or the people. But an eminent and highly cultivated orator,
now one of the first of American statesmen, now perhaps quite the
first in European fame, spoke in favor of short, I believe annual,
terms of office, and for the election of the judges by the people.

He did not
dispute that the laws would be more honorably and faithfully administered
by independent judges. But he maintained that consistency is better
than justice; that the people, as the source of all authority, ought
to control those to whom they delegate it, and that no argument
from expediency ought to be allowed to disturb the application of
the democratic principle.

I could not
help remembering that there is also a principle of absolute monarchy
in the world, which makes the Crown the only source of authority,
and makes the judiciary agents of the court. It is the boast of
modern civilization to have undone this system and to have substituted
for it that which experience proves to be most favorable to justice.
But the absolutists of democracy and monarchy rank their principles
of government at a higher value than the purposes of society and
civilization, and create an idol to which they are ready to sacrifice
the safeguards of property, the protection of virtue, and the sanctity
of private life.

All governments
in which one principle dominates degenerate by its exaggeration.
The unity of monarchy gravitates towards the despotism of a single
will. Aristocracy which is governed by a minority inclines to restrict
that minority into an oligarchy. In pure democracies the same course
is followed, and the dominion of majority asserts itself more and
more extensively and irresistibly. We understand liberty to consist
in exemption from control. In America it has come to mean the right
to exercise control.

In order to
describe the encroachment of this illiberal and tyrannical principle,
it would be necessary to pass in review the entire history of the
last seventy years. I can only illustrate my meaning by the language
which eminent Americans themselves have used. The President Madison
wrote, "When a majority is included in a faction, the form
of popular government enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion
or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens.
If a majority be united by common interests, the rights of the minority
will be insecure."

Justice Story
says that the people must be reminded of the fundamental truth in
a republican government, "that the minority have indisputable
and inalienable rights; that the majority are not everything and
the minority nothing; that the people may not do what they please."
Channing says, "The doctrine that the majority ought to govern
passes with the multitude as an intuition, and they have never thought
how far it is to be modified in practice, and how far the application
of it ought to be controlled by other principles."

Finally, let
me quote the words of a very recent publication, which is from the
pen of the chief of Sherman’s staff, of a man therefore who cannot
be supposed insane. "How can there be justification for revolution
under a government where there is universal suffrage? For my part,
I would rather say, how is it possible that thoughtful men should
so long have tolerated a system which is at the same time so oppressive
and so extremely stupid?"

We must bear
in mind the one decisive contrast between Europe and America, that
there society is cut adrift from the traditions and influence of
an ancient civilization. The nations of western Europe are so bound
to each other by their origin, by their close intercourse, and the
similarity of social interests and character, that a comprehensive
public opinion extends over their boundaries, and sustains in each
the habits, ideas, and constitutions which are common to all. The
protest of European opinion would react powerfully in favor of those
habits and ideas against any European state that should reject them.

But Americans
enjoy no such protecting influences, and nothing is safe that is
not supported by popular favor. The ideas of past generations and
of civilized contemporaries are not permitted to share or to limit
the absolute authority of the present moment. The revolutionary
principle which Jefferson introduced cuts them off from one as completely
as the Atlantic separates them from the other. The voice of European
civilization, and the voice of the past alike, come to them from
another world.

History is
filled with records of resistance provoked by the abuse of power.
But whereas in the old world the people produce the remedy, in America
they produce the cause of the disease. There is no appeal from the
people to itself. After having been taught for years that its will
ought to be law, it cannot learn the lesson of self-denial and renounce
the exercise of the power it has enjoyed. Therefore it has been
laid down by political writers as a universal rule that a degenerate
republicanism terminates in the total loss of freedom. Many have
prophesied that this would be the end of the American republic.

But a confederacy
possesses one resource against such a catastrophe which is denied
to a single state. Centralization finds a natural barrier in the
several state governments. "This balance," says Hamilton,
"between the national and state governments is of the utmost
importance; it forms a double security to the people. If one encroaches
on their rights they will find a powerful protection in the other."

That is indeed
the peculiar merit of American institutions; it alters but does
not settle the question. It gives to liberty in its struggle against
centralization a valuable auxiliary in the feudal system, but it
does not decide the issue. That aggressive, absolute spirit which
is the bane of pure democracies prevailed much sooner and more completely
in some states than in others, and the states which it animated
strove to give it the supreme direction of the central government
of the Union. They did not choose that other portions of the nation
should be exempt from a kind of power to which they themselves submitted.
But as soon as the different states made themselves the champions
of opposite principles of government, the Union was in jeopardy.

Now there was
one broad line of demarcation between the states, which divided
them both in political principles and financial interests, and coincided
moreover with the difference of climate and of modes of cultivation,
as well as with certain early diversities of race. I mean, of course,
that which was the immediate cause of the late revolution, that
which, you will say, I have kept out of sight too long, the division
between the slave states and the North.

If my present
theme were the institution of slavery in general, I should endeavor
to show that it has been a mighty instrument not for evil only,
but for good in the providential order of the world. Almighty God,
in his mysterious ways, has poured down blessings even through servitude
itself, by awakening the spirit of sacrifice on the one hand, and
the spirit of charity on the other.

But Negro slavery
in America had features of its own too strongly marked to admit
of general observations. Arguments have been advanced in mitigation,
stories have been published to prove the greatness of the actual
suffering. The judgment which I shall ask you to accept, for our
present purpose, shall be founded neither on the existence of great
abuses nor of kind and Christian masters, but on the provisions
of the servile law.

The most suggestive
enactment I could adduce to illustrate the idea of personality in
the Negro, is, that if the life of a slave was taken by the law,
his owner received his value in money from the state treasury. No
slave could make a valid contract; therefore he could not contract
a legal marriage, even with the consent of the master. All the safeguards
of virtue, all penalties on the breach of the marriage law, or of
those laws which are anterior to all human legislation, were held
inapplicable to the Negro family. I am sure that the voice of nature
and of humanity constantly mitigated the law of the land, but it
is certain that the Southern jurisprudence denied that the Negro
is bound by the same moral code as ourselves, and that this belief
was shared by the leaders of secession.

In a great
speech at the beginning of the movement, Mr. Stephens, the Vice
President of the Confederacy, spoke these words: "The corner
stone of our new government rests upon the great truth that the
Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination
to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. Our new
government is the first in the history of the world based upon this
great physical, philosophical, and moral truth." Here, then,
was a society adopting inequality, not as the natural product of
property, descent and merit, but as its very foundation – a
society, therefore, more aristocratically constituted than those
of feudal times.

The Southern
slave owner was in contradiction to the two principles which animated
the democracy of the Northern states. He denied the absolute essential
equality of all men in civil rights; and he denied the justice of
the doctrine that the minority possesses nothing which is exempt
from the control of the majority, because he knew that it was incompatible
with the domestic institution which was as sacred to him as the
rights of property. Therefore the very defect of their social system
preserved them from those political errors which were transforming
the original characters of the Northern republics. The decomposition
of democracy was arrested in the South by the indirect influence
of slavery.

Thus it came
to pass that the South, to protect themselves, sought to restrain
the central power, while the North wished to make it superior to
all restraint. To one party it was a sword, to the other a shield.
And so it happened that the long reign of Southern politics at Washington,
down to the year 1860, provoked no rupture, because they desired
self-government, and not empire; whereas the victory of the North
in the election of Mr. Lincoln gave at once the signal for dissolving
the Union.

The Constitution
failed to provide against the consequences which were to be expected
whenever considerable diversities of character, of material interests,
and of political spirit should estrange the several states. For
this reason certain states accepted it with reluctance, and joined
the Union with conditions which betrayed the apprehension that perhaps
the bargain might turn out ill.

Virginia, in
the act of ratification, declared "that powers granted under
the Constitution, being derived from the people of the United States,
may be resumed by them whensoever the same shall be perverted to
their injury or oppression." New York and Rhode Island said
the same. From time to time these fears revived, and single states
meditated revoking the Act of Union. At length certain measures
for the protection of manufactures in the East aroused a united
opposition in the agricultural states, who were to pay for the benefit
of the others. That was the first threatening of the storm that
did not burst for thirty years.

Two great men
stood forth as the champions of two great causes, and the contest
derived from the eminent ability of the combatants all the interest
of a personal struggle. The philosopher of the South, Mr. Calhoun,
of whom it was said, to describe his influence, that as often as
he took a pinch of snuff all South Carolina sneezed, put forward
what was called the theory of nullification. He maintained that
if an interested majority passed a law injurious to the settled
interests of any state, that state had a right to interpose a veto.

He was answered
by Daniel Webster, the most eloquent of Americans, who asserted
the absolute right of a legislature where all were fairly represented,
to make laws for all. Then Calhoun insisted that if a state could
not prevent the execution of a law which it deemed unconstitutional
and injurious, it had the right to withdraw from the Union which
it had conditionally joined.

The North shrunk
from provoking this extremity, and made concessions which pacified
the people of the South. But at the same time Webster laid down,
in immortal speeches, that the Union is not a compact between the
states, but a fundamental law no longer subject to their choice,
and that each state is bound up with the rest by cords that cannot
be legally severed.

the opinion of Webster prevailed among American jurists. The right
of redress was taken away from the South, and the Northern Republicans,
taking advantage of this constitutional victory, entered upon those
violent courses which ended in making the Union intolerable to those
who were opposed to them. At that time the abolitionists commenced
their crusade, which was directed as much against the Union, which
they denounced as an "agreement with hell and a covenant with
death," as against slavery itself.

It became a
settled doctrine among them that the North and the South could not
continue together, and they made the public familiar with the idea
of dissolution. "The Union," said Mr. Horace Greeley,
the editor of The Tribune, "is not worth supporting in connection
with the South." But the stronger part of the Republicans resolved
to make themselves masters of the central government, for the purpose
of coercing the South to submit to their political opinions. The
Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts confessed that "the object
to be accomplished was this, for the Free States to take possession
of the government."

The spirit
in which they meant to exercise it is expressed with the characteristic
force and candor of American language by the representative of the
same state in Congress: "When we shall have elected a president,
as we will, who will not be the president of a party, nor of a section,
but the tribune of the people, and after we have exterminated a
few more dough faces from the North, then if the slave Senate will
not give way, we will grind it between the upper and nether millstones
of our power."

A pamphlet,
which was widely circulated and was read in Congress, contains the
following sentence: "Teach the slaves to burn their masters’
buildings, to kill their cattle and hogs, to conceal and destroy
farming utensils, to abandon labor in seed time and harvest, and
let the crops perish." Mr. Chase said, in 1859, "I do
not wish to have the slave emancipated because I love him, but because
I hate his master." A Senator from Ohio said very truly, "There
is really no union now between the North and the South, no two nations
on earth entertain feelings of more bitter rancor towards each other
than these two nations of the Republic."

In this state
of public feeling and political division, the candidate of abolitionists
and Republicans was elected President. Four years before, a former
President, Mr. Fillmore, prophesied the catastrophe that would ensue.
"We see a political party presenting candidates for the Presidency
and the Vice Presidency, selected for the first time from the Free
States alone, with the avowed purpose of electing these candidates
by suffrages from one part of the Union only, to rule over the whole
United States. Can it be possible that those who are engaged in
such a measure can have seriously reflected on the consequences
which must inevitably follow in case of success? Can they have the
madness or the folly to believe that our Southern brethren would
submit to be governed by such a Chief Magistrate?"

The opinion
we must form on the revolution that followed ought to be guided
by the events which led to it, not by the motives of the leaders.
In point of fact they were divided, like the Union, by the question
of slavery. To one party it was the real object of the war; they
believed it could not be safe against the assaults of Northern politicians,
whatever might be the pledges of the federal government. Another
party desired secession in order to establish a new union on the
old principles which the North had disavowed.

The great issue
between them was the arming of the slaves. Those who deemed it too
dear a price to pay for independence succeeded in preventing it
by narrow majorities until the eve of the fall of Richmond. When
the Act was passed by which the Negroes would have acquired the
benefits without the dangers of emancipation, it was too late, and
the end was at hand.

Slavery was
not the cause of secession, but the reason of its failure. In almost
every nation and every clime the time has come for the extinction
of servitude. The same problem has sooner or later been forced on
many governments, and all have bestowed on it their greatest legislative
skill, lest in healing the evils of forced but certain labor, they
should produce incurable evils of another kind. They attempted at
least to moderate the effects of sudden unconditional change, to
save those whom they despoiled from ruin, and those whom they liberated
from destitution.

But in the
United States no such design seems to have presided over the work
of emancipation. It has been an act of war, not of statesmanship
or humanity. They have treated the slave owner as an enemy, and
have used the slave as an instrument for his destruction. They have
not protected the white man from the vengeance of barbarians, nor
the black from the pitiless cruelty of a selfish civilization.

If, then, slavery
is to be the criterion which shall determine the significance of
the civil war, our verdict ought, I think, to be, that by one part
of the nation it was wickedly defended, and by the other as wickedly
removed. Different indeed must our judgment be if we examine the
value of secession as a phase in the history of political doctrine.

When the Confederacy
was established on the right of secession, the recognition of that
right implied that there should never be occasion for its exercise.
To say that particular contingencies shall justify separation is
the same thing as to say that the Confederate government is bound
within certain limits, under certain conditions, and by certain
laws. It is a distinct repudiation of the doctrine that the minority
can enforce no rights, and the majority can commit no wrong. It
is like passing from the dominion of an able despot into a constitutional

Further, definite
safeguards were provided against the abuses which had sapped liberty
in the Union. One of these was the imposition of taxes for the advantage
of interests which were confined to certain states, and at the expense
of the others. Therefore it was enacted that "no bounties shall
be granted from the treasury, nor shall any duties or taxes on importations
be levied to promote or foster any branch of industry."

One great means
of throwing influence into the hands of the central government had
been internal improvements. It was enacted that they should never
be carried out by the Confederate government. Finally, the abuse
of patronage had furnished the President with such opportunities
for corruption that I have heard as many as 60,000 offices changed
hands as often as a term expired. It was enacted that none but cabinet
ministers should be removed from office without the cause of the
removal being submitted to the Senate.

These were
the political ideas of the Confederacy, and they justify me, I think,
in saying that history can show no instance of so great an effort
made by republicans to remedy the faults of that form of government.
Had they adopted the means which would have ensured and justified
success, had they called on the Negroes to be partners with them
in the perils of war and in the fruits of victory, I believe that
generous resolution would have conferred in all future ages incalculable
blessings on the human race.

They would
have supplied the advocates of freedom hereafter with a peerless
model. They would have realized the ideals of its friends, and disarmed
the resistance of its foes. The cause that was to triumph comes
forth from the conflict with renovated strength, and confirmed in
the principles which must react dangerously on the other countries
of the world.

The spurious
liberty of the United States is twice cursed, for it deceives those
whom it attracts and those whom it repels. By exhibiting the spectacle
of a people claiming to be free, but whose love of freedom means
hatred of inequality, jealousy of limitations to power, and reliance
on the state as an instrument to mould as well as to control society,
it calls on its admirers to hate aristocracy and teaches its adversaries
to fear the people. The North has used the doctrines of democracy
to destroy self-government. The South applied the principle of conditional
federation to cure the evils and to correct the errors of a false
interpretation of democracy.


2, 2010

Acton (John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton, 1834–1902)
was a leading 19th-century historian in the classical-liberal tradition.
He watched the growth of the United States with great interest,
and lamented the decline of states’ rights and federalism. While
he was a prolific writer and speaker, his great work, a history
of freedom, was never completed.

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