The Great Conspiracy

He also endeavored to maintain the extraordinary proposition that “if
the Senate of the United States were to adopt this Joint-resolution, and
were to submit it to all the States of this Union, and if three-fourths
of the States should ratify the Amendment, it would not be binding on
any State whose interest was affected by it, if that State protested
against it!” And beyond all this, he re-echoed the old, old cry of the
Border-state men, that “the time is unpropitious for such a measure as
this.”

Reverdy Johnson, of Maryland, however, by his great speech, of April
5th, in the Senate, did much to clear the tangle in the minds of some
faltering Union statesmen on this important subject.

He reviewed the question of human Slavery from the time when the
Constitutional Convention was held; showed that at that period, as well
as at the time of the Declaration of our Independence “there was but one
sentiment upon the subject among enlightened Southern statesmen”–and
that was, that Slavery “is a great affliction to any Country where it
prevails;” and declared that “a prosperous and permanent Peace can never
be secured if the Institution is permitted to survive.”

He then traversed the various methods by which statesmen were seeking to
prevent that survival of Slavery, addressing himself by turns to the
arguments of those who, with John Sherman, “seemed,” said he, “to
consider it as within the power of Congress by virtue of its Legislative
authority;” to those of the “many well-judging men, with the President
at their head, who,” to again use his own words, “seem to suppose that
it is within the reach of the Executive;” and lastly, to those “who
express the opinion that it is not within the scope of either Executive
or Legislative authority, or of Constitutional Amendment;” and after
demolishing the arguments of those who held the two former of these
positions, he proceeded to rebut the assumption that Slavery could not
be abolished at all because it was not originally abolished by the
Constitution.

Continuing, he said: “Remember, now, the question is, can that
Institution, which deals with Humanity as Property, which claims to
shackle the mind, the soul, and the body, which brings to the level of
the brute a portion of the race of Man, cease to be within the reach of
the political power of the People of the United States, not because it
was not at one time within their power, but because at that time they
did not exert the power?

“What says the Preamble to the Constitution? How pregnant with a
conclusive answer is the Preamble, to the proposition that Slavery
cannot be abolished! What does that Preamble state to have been the
chief objects that the great and wise and good men had at heart, in
recommending the Constitution, with that Preamble, to the adoption of
the American People? That Justice might be established; that
Tranquillity might be preserved; that the common Defense and general
Welfare might be maintained; and, last and chief of all, that Liberty
might be secured.

“Is there no Justice in putting an end to human Slavery? Is there no
danger to the Tranquillity of the Country in its existence? May it not
interfere with the common Defense and general Welfare? And, above all,
is it consistent with any notion, which the mind of man can conceive, of
human Liberty?”

He held that the very Amendatory clause of the Constitution under which
it was proposed to make this Amendment, was probably inserted there from
a conviction of that coming time “when Justice would call so loudly for
the extinction of the Institution that her call could not be disobeyed,”
and, when “the Peace and Tranquillity of the Land would demand, in
thunder tones,” its destruction, “as inconsistent with such Peace and
Tranquillity.”

To the atrocious pretence that “there was a right to make a Slave of any
human being”–which he said would have shocked every one of the framers
of the Constitution had they heard it; and, what he termed, the nauseous
declaration that “Slavery of the Black race is of Divine origin,” and
was intended to be perpetual; he said:

“The Saviour of Mankind did not put an end to it by physical power, or
by the declaration of any existing illegality, in word. His mission
upon Earth was not to propagate His doctrines by force. He came to
save, not to conquer. His purpose was not to march armed legions
throughout the habitable Globe, securing the allegiance of those for
whose safety He was striving. He warred by other influences. He aimed
at the heart, principally. He inculcated his doctrines, more ennobling
than any that the World, enlightened as it was before His advent upon
Earth, had been able to discover. He taught to Man the obligation of
brotherhood. He announced that the true duty of Man was to do to others
as he would have others do to him–to all men, the World over; and
unless some convert to the modern doctrine that Slavery itself finds not
only a guarantee for its existence, but for its legal existence, in the
Scripture, excepts from the operation of the influences which His
morality brought to bear on the mind of the Christian world, the Black
man, and shows that it was not intended to apply to Black men, then it
is not true, it cannot be true, that He designed His doctrine not to be
equally applicable to the Black and to the White, to the Race of Man as
he then existed, or as he might exist in all after-time.”

To the assumption that the African Slaves were too utterly deficient and
degraded, mentally and morally, to appreciate the blessings of Freedom,
he opposed the eloquent fact that “wherever the flag of the United
States, the symbol of human Liberty, now goes; under it, from their
hereditary bondage, are to be found men and women and children
assembling and craving its protection ‘fleeing from’ the iron of
oppression that had pierced their souls, to the protection of that flag
where they are ‘gladdened by the light of Liberty.'”

“It is idle to deny,” said he–“we feel it in our own persons–how, with
reference to that sentiment, all men are brethren. Look to the
illustrations which the times now afford, how, in the illustration of
that sentiment, do we differ from the Black man? He is willing to incur
every personal danger which promises to result in throwing down his
shackles, and making him tread the Earth, which God has created for all,
as a man, and not as a Slave.”

Said he: “It is an instinct of the Soul. Tyranny may oppress it for
ages and centuries; the pall of despotism may hang over it; but the
sentiment is ever there; it kindles into a flame in the very furnace of
affliction, and it avails itself of the first opportunity that offers,
promising the least chance of escape, and wades through blood and
slaughter to achieve it, and, whether it succeeds or fails,
demonstrates, vindicates in the very effort, the inextinguishable right
to Liberty.”

He thought that mischiefs might result from this measure, owing to the
uneducated condition of the Slave, but they would be but temporary. At
all events to “suffer those Africans,” said he, “whom we are calling
around our standard, and asking to aid us in restoring the Constitution
and the power of the Government to its rightful authority, to be reduced
to bondage again,” would be “a disgrace to the Nation.” The
“Institution” must be terminated.

“Terminate it,” continued he, “and the wit of man will, as I think, be
unable to devise any other topic upon which we can be involved in a
fratricidal strife. God and nature, judging by the history of the past,
intend us to be one. Our unity is written in the mountains and the
rivers, in which we all have an interest. The very differences of
climate render each important to the other, and alike important.

“That mighty horde which, from time to time, have gone from the
Atlantic, imbued with all the principles of human Freedom which animated
their fathers in running the perils of the mighty Deep and seeking
Liberty here, are now there; and as they have said, they will continue
to say, until time shall be no more: ‘We mean that the Government in
future shall be, as it has been in the past–Once an exemplar of human
Freedom, for the light and example of the World; illustrating in the
blessings and the happiness it confers, the truth of the principles
incorporated into the Declaration of Independence, that Life and Liberty
are Man’s inalienable right.”

Fortunately the Democratic opposition, in the Senate, to
this measure, was too small in numbers to beat the proposed Amendment,
but by offering amendments to it, its enemies succeeded in delaying its
adoption.

However, on the 5th of April, an amendment, offered by Garrett Davis,
was acted upon. It was to strike out all after the preamble of the
XIIIth Article of Amendment to the Constitution, proposed by the
Judiciary Committee, and insert the words:

“No Negro, or Person whose mother or grandmother is or was a Negro,
shall be a citizen of the United States and be eligible to any Civil or
Military office, or to any place of trust or profit under the United
States.”

Mr. Davis’s amendment was rejected by a vote of 5 yeas to 32 nays; when
he immediately moved to amend, by adding precisely the same words at the
end of Section 1 of the proposed Article. It was again rejected. He
then moved to amend by adding to the said Section these words:

“But no Slave shall be entitled to his or her Freedom under this
Amendment if resident at the time it takes effect in any State, the laws
of which forbid Free Negroes to reside therein, until removed from such
State by the Government of the United States.”

This also was rejected. Whereupon Mr. Powell moved to add, at the end
of the first Section, the words:

“No Slave shall be Emancipated by this Article unless the owner thereof
shall be first paid the value of the Slave or Slaves so Emancipated.”

This likewise was rejected, on a yea and nay vote, by 2 yeas (Davis and
Powell) to 34 nays; when Mr. Davis moved another amendment, viz.: to add
at the end of Section 2 of the proposed Article, the following:

“And when this Amendment of the Constitution shall have taken effect by
Freeing the Slaves, Congress shall provide for the distribution and
settlement of all the population of African descent in the United States
among the several States and Territories thereof, in proportion to the
White population of each State and Territory to the aggregate population
of those of African descent.”

This met a like fate; whereupon the Senate adjourned, but, on the
following day, the matter came up again for consideration:

Hale, of New Hampshire, jubilantly declared that “this is a day that I
and many others have long wished for, long hoped for, long striven for.
* * * A day when the Nation is to commence its real life; or, if it is
not the day, it is the dawning of the day; the day is near at hand * * *
when the American People are to wake up to the meaning of the sublime
truths which their fathers uttered years ago, and which have slumbered,
dead-letters, upon the pages of our Constitution, of our Declaration of
Independence, and of our history.”

McDougall, of California, on the other hand,–utterly regardless of the
grandly patriotic resolutions of the Legislature of his State, which had
just been presented to the Senate by his colleague–lugubriously
declared:

“In my judgment, it may well be said of us:

‘Let the Heavens be hung in black
And let the Earth put mourning on,’

for in the history of no Free People, since the time the Persians came
down upon Athens, have I known as melancholy a period as this day and
year of Our Lord in our history; and if we can, by the blessing of God
and by His favor, rise above it, it will be by His special providence,
and by no act of ours.”

The obstructive tactics were now resumed, Mr. Powell leading off by a
motion to amend, by adding to the Judiciary Committee’s proposed
Thirteenth Article of the Constitution, the following:

“ART. 14.–The President and Vice-President shall hold their Offices for
the term of four–[Which he subsequently modified to: ‘six years’]–
years. The person who has filled the Office of President shall not be
reeligible.”

This amendment was rejected by 12 yeas to 32 nays; whereupon Mr. Powell
moved to add to the Committee’s Proposition another new Article, as
follows:

“ART. 14.–The principal Officer in each of the Executive Departments,
and all persons connected with the Diplomatic Service, may be removed
from office at the pleasure of the President. All other officers of the
Executive Departments may be removed at any time by the President or
other appointing power when their services are unnecessary, or for
dishonesty, incapacity, inefficiency, misconduct, or neglect of duty,
and when so removed, the removal shall be reported to the Senate,
together with the reasons therefor.”

This amendment also being rejected, Mr. Powell offered another, which
was to add a separate Article as follows:

“ART. 14.–Every law, or Resolution having the force of law, shall
relate to but one subject, and that shall be expressed in its title.”

This also being rejected–the negative vote being, as in other cases,
without reference to the merits of the proposition–and Mr. Powell
having now apparently exhausted his obstructive amendatory talents, Mr.
Davis came to the aid of his Kentucky colleague by moving an amendment,
to come in as an additional Article, being a new plan of Presidential
election designed to do away with the quadrennial Presidential campaign
before the People by giving to each State the right to nominate one
candidate, and leaving it to a Convention of both Houses of Congress–
and, in case of disagreement, to the Supreme Court of the United States
–to elect a President and a Vice-President.

The rejection of this proposition apparently exhausted the stock of
possible amendments possessed by the Democratic opposition, and the
Joint Resolution, precisely as it came from the Judiciary Committee,
having been agreed to by that body, “as in Committee of the Whole,” was
now, April 6th, reported to the Senate for its concurrence.

On the following day, Mr. Hendricks uttered a lengthy jeremiad on the
War, and its lamentable results; intimated that along the Mississippi,
the Negroes, freed by the advance of our invading Armies and Navies,
instead of being happy and industrious, were without protection or
provision and almost without clothing, while at least 200,000 of them
had prematurely perished, and that such was the fate reserved for the
4,000,000 Negroes if liberated; and declared he would not vote for the
Resolution, “because,” said he, “the times are not auspicious.”

Very different indeed was the attitude of Mr. Henderson, of Missouri,
Border-State man though he was. In the course of a speech, of much
power, which he opened with an allusion to the 115,000 Slaves owned in
his State in 1860–as showing how deeply interested Missouri “must be in
the pending proposition”–the Senator announced that: “Our great
interest, as lovers of the Union, is in the preservation and
perpetuation of the Union.” He declared himself a Slaveholder, yet none
the less desired the adoption of this Thirteenth Article of Amendment,
for, said he: “We cannot save the Institution if we would. We ought not
if we could. * * * If it were a blessing, I, for one, would be
defending it to the last. It is a curse, and not a blessing. Therefore
let it go. * * * Let the iniquity be cast away!”

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