The Great Conspiracy

But the occasional words of wisdom that fell from the lips of the few
far-seeing statesmen of the South, were as chaff before the storm of
Disunion raised by the turbulent Fire-eaters, and were blown far from
the South, where they might have done some good for the Union cause,
away up to the North, where they contributed to aid the success of the
contemplated Treason and Rebellion, by lulling many of the people there,
into a false sense of security. Unfortunately, also, even the ablest of
the Southern Union men were so tainted with the heretical doctrine of
States-Rights, which taught the “paramount allegiance” of the citizen to
the State, that their otherwise powerful appeals for the preservation of
the Union were almost invariably handicapped by the added protestation
that in any event–and however they might deplore the necessity–they
would, if need be, go with their State, against their own convictions of
duty to the National Union.

Hence in this same speech we find that Mr. Stephens destroyed the whole
effect of his weighty and logical appeal against Secession from the
Union, by adding to it, that, “Should Georgia determine to go out of the
Union I shall bow to the will of her people. Their cause is my cause,
and their destiny is my destiny; and I trust this will be the ultimate
course of all.”–and by further advising the calling of a Convention of
the people to decide the matter; thus, in advance, as it were, binding
himself hand and foot, despite his previous Union utterances, to do the
fell bidding of the most rampant Disunionists. And thus, in due time,
it befell, as we shall see, that this “saving clause” in his “Union
speech,” brought him at the end, not to that posture of patriotic
heroism to which he aspired when he adjured his Georgian auditors to
“let us be found to the last moment standing on the deck (of the
Republic), with the Constitution of the United States waving over our
heads,” but to that of an imprisoned traitor and defeated rebel against
the very Republic and Constitution which he had sworn to uphold and

The action of the South Carolina Legislature in calling an Unconditional
Secession Convention, acted among the Southern States like a spark in a
train of gunpowder. Long accustomed to incendiary resolutions of Pro-
Slavery political platforms, as embodying the creed of Southern men;
committed by those declarations to the most extreme action when, in
their judgment, the necessity should arise; and worked up during the
Presidential campaign by swarming Federal officials inspired by the
fanatical Secession leaders; the entire South only needed the spark from
the treasonable torch of South Carolina, to find itself ablaze, almost
from one end to the other, with the flames of revolt.

Governor after Governor, in State after State, issued proclamation after
proclamation, calling together their respective Legislatures, to
consider the situation and whether their respective States should join
South Carolina in seceding from the Union. Kentucky alone, of them all,
seemed for a time to keep cool, and look calmly and reasonably through
the Southern ferment to the horrors beyond. In an address issued by
Governor Magoffin of that State, to the people, he said:

“To South Carolina and such other States as may wish to secede from the
Union, I would say: The geography of this Country will not admit of a
division; the mouth and sources of the Mississippi River cannot be
separated without the horrors of Civil War. We cannot sustain you in
this movement merely on account of the election of Mr. Lincoln. Do not
precipitate by premature action into a revolution or Civil War, the
consequences of which will be most frightful to all of us. It may yet
be avoided. There is still hope, faint though it be. Kentucky is a
Border State, and has suffered more than all of you. * * * She has a
right to claim that her voice, and the voice of reason, and moderation
and patriotism shall be heard and heeded by you. If you secede, your
representatives will go out of Congress and leave us at the mercy of a
Black Republican Government. Mr. Lincoln will have no check. He can
appoint his Cabinet, and have it confirmed. The Congress will then be
Republican, and he will be able to pass such laws as he may suggest.
The Supreme Court will be powerless to protect us. We implore you to
stand by us, and by our friends in the Free States; and let us all, the
bold, the true, and just men in the Free and Slave States, with a united
front, stand by each other, by our principles, by our rights, our
equality, our honor, and by the Union under the Constitution. I believe
this is the only way to save it; and we can do it.”

But this “still small voice” of conscience and of reason, heard like a
whisper from the mouths of Stephens in Georgia, and Magoffin in
Kentucky, was drowned in the clamor and tumult of impassioned harangues
and addresses, and the drumming and tramp of the “minute men” of South
Carolina, and other military organizations, as they excitedly prepared
throughout the South for the dread conflict at arms which they
recklessly invited, and savagely welcomed.

We have seen how President Andrew Jackson some thirty years before, had
stamped out Nullification and Disunion in South Carolina, with an iron

But a weak and feeble old man–still suffering from the effects of the
mysterious National Hotel poisoning–was now in the Executive Chair at
the White House. Well-meaning, doubtless, and a Union man at heart, his
enfeebled intellect was unable to see, and hold firm to, the only true
course. He lacked clearness of perception, decision of character, and
nerve. He knew Secession was wrong, but allowed himself to be persuaded
that he had no Constitutional power to prevent it. He had surrounded
himself in the Cabinet with such unbending adherents and tools of the
Slave-Power, as Howell Cobb of Georgia, his Secretary of the Treasury,
John B. Floyd of Virginia, as Secretary of War, Jacob Thompson of
Mississippi, as Secretary of the Interior, and Isaac Toucy of
Connecticut, as Secretary of the Navy, before whose malign influence the
councils of Lewis Cass of Michigan, the Secretary of State, and other
Union men, in and out of the Cabinet, were quite powerless.

When, therefore, the Congress met (December 3, 1860) and he transmitted
to it his last Annual Message, it was found that, instead of treating
Secession from the Jacksonian standpoint, President Buchanan feebly
wailed over the threatened destruction of the Union, weakly apologized
for the contemplated Treason, garrulously scolded the North as being to
blame for it, and, while praying to God to “preserve the Constitution
and the Union throughout all generations,” wrung his nerveless hands in
despair over his own powerlessness–as he construed the Constitution–to
prevent Secession! Before writing his pitifully imbecile Message,
President Buchanan had secured from his Attorney-General (Jeremiah S.
Black of Pennsylvania) an opinion, in which the latter, after touching
upon certain cases in which he believed the President would be justified
in using force to sustain the Federal Laws, supposed the case of a State
where all the Federal Officers had resigned and where there were neither
Federal Courts to issue, nor officers to execute judicial process, and
continued: “In that event, troops would certainly be out of place, and
their use wholly illegal. If they are sent to aid the Courts and
Marshals there must be Courts and Marshals to be aided. Without the
exercise of these functions, which belong exclusively to the civil
service, the laws cannot be executed in any event, no matter what may be
the physical strength which the Government has at its command. Under
such circumstances, to send a military force into any State, with orders
to act against the people, would be simply making War upon them.”

Resting upon that opinion of Attorney-General Black, President Buchanan,
in his Message, after referring to the solemn oath taken by the
Executive “to take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” and
stating that there were now no longer any Federal Officers in South
Carolina, through whose agency he could keep that oath, took up the laws
of February 28, 1795, and March 3, 1807, as “the only Acts of Congress
on the Statute-book bearing upon the subject,” which “authorize the
President, after he shall have ascertained that the Marshal, with his
posse comitatus, is unable to execute civil or criminal process in any
particular case, to call out the Militia and employ the Army and Navy to
aid him in performing this service, having first, by Proclamation,
commanded the insurgents to ‘disperse and retire peaceably to their
respective abodes, within a limited time'”–and thereupon held that
“This duty cannot, by possibility, be performed in a State where no
judicial authority exists to issue process, and where there is no
Marshal to execute it; and where even if there were such an officer, the
entire population would constitute one solid combination to resist him.”
And, not satisfied with attempting to show as clearly as he seemed to
know how, his own inability under the laws to stamp out Treason, he
proceeded to consider what he thought Congress also could not do under
the Constitution. Said he: “The question fairly stated, is: Has the
Constitution delegated to Congress the power to coerce into submission a
State which is attempting to withdraw, or has actually withdrawn, from
the Confederacy? If answered in the affirmative, it must be on the
principle that the power has been conferred upon Congress to declare and
make War against a State. After much serious reflection, I have arrived
at the conclusion that no such power has been delegated to Congress or
to any other department of the Federal Government.” And further:
“Congress possesses many means of preserving it (the Union) by
conciliation; but the sword was not placed in their hands to preserve it
by force.”

Thus, in President Buchanan’s judgment, while, in another part of his
Message, he had declared that no State had any right, Constitutional or
otherwise, to Secede from that Union, which was designed for all time–
yet, if any State concluded thus wrongfully to Secede, there existed no
power in the Union, by the exercise of force, to preserve itself from
instant dissolution! How imbecile the reasoning, how impotent the
conclusion, compared with that of President Jackson, thirty years
before, in his Proclamation against Nullification and Secession, wherein
that sturdy patriot declared to the South Carolinians. that “compared
to Disunion, all other evils are light, because that brings with it an
accumulation of all;” that “Disunion by armed force, is Treason;” and
that he was determined “to execute the Laws,” and “to preserve the

President Buchanan’s extraordinary Message–or so much of it as related
to the perilous condition of the Union–was referred, in the House of
Representatives, to a Select Committee of Thirty-three, comprising one
member from each State, in which there was a very large preponderance of
such as favored Conciliation without dishonor. But the debates in both
Houses, in which the most violent language was indulged by the Southern
Fire-eaters, as well as other events, soon proved that there was a
settled purpose on the part of the Slave-Power and its adherents to
resist and spit upon all attempts at placation.

In the Senate also (December 5), a Select Committee of Thirteen was
appointed, to consider the impending dangers to the Union, comprising
Senators Powell of Kentucky, Hunter of Virginia, Crittenden of Kentucky,
Seward of New York, Toombs of Georgia, Douglas of Illinois, Collamer of
Vermont, Davis of Mississippi, Wade of Ohio, Bigler of Pennsylvania,
Rice of Minnesota, Doolittle of Wisconsin, and Grimes of Iowa. Their
labors were alike without practical result, owing to the irreconcilable
attitude of the Southrons, who would accept nothing less than a total
repudiation by the Republicans of the very principles upon which the
recent Presidential contest had by them been fought and won. Nor would
they even accept such a repudiation unless carried by vote of the
majority of the Republicans. The dose that they insisted upon the
Republican Party swallowing must not only be as noxious as possible, but
must absolutely be mixed by that Party itself, and in addition, that
Party must also go down on its knees, and beg the privilege of so mixing
and swallowing the dose! That was the impossible attitude into which,
by their bullying and threats, the Slave Power hoped to force the
Republican Party–either that or “War.”

Project after project in both Houses of Congress looking to Conciliation
was introduced, referred, reported, discussed, and voted on or not, as
the case might be, in vain. And in the meantime, in New York, in
Philadelphia, and elsewhere in the North, the timidity of Capital showed
itself in great Conciliation meetings, where speeches were applauded and
resolutions adopted of the most abject character, in behalf of “Peace,
at any price,” regardless of the sacrifice of honor and principles and
even decency. In fact the Commercial North, with supplicating hands and
beseeching face, sank on its knees in a vain attempt to propitiate its
furious creditor, the South, by asking it not only to pull its nose, but
to spit in its face, both of which it humbly and even anxiously offered
for the purpose!*

[Thus, in Philadelphia, December 13, 1860, at a great meeting held
at the call of the Mayor, in Independence Square, Mayor Henry led
off the speaking–which was nearly all in the same line-by saying:
“I tell you that if in any portion of our Confederacy, sentiments
have been entertained and cherished which are inimical to the civil
rights and social institutions of any other portion, those
sentiments should be relinquished.” Another speaker, Judge George
W. Woodward, sneeringly asked: “Whence came these excessive
sensibilities that cannot bear a few slaves in a remote Territory
until the white people establish a Constitution?” Another, Mr.
Charles E. Lex (a Republican), speaking of the Southern People,
said: “What, then, can we say to them? what more than we have
expressed in the resolutions we have offered? If they are really
aggrieved by any laws upon our Statute-books opposed to their
rights–if upon examination any such are found to be in conflict
with the Constitution of these United States–nay, further, if they
but serve to irritate our brethren of the South, whether
Constitutional or not, I, for one, have no objection that they
should instantly be repealed.” Another said, “Let us repeal our
obnoxious Personal Liberty bills * * *; let us receive our brother
of the South, if he will come among us for a little time, attended
by his servant, and permit him thus to come.” And the resolutions
adopted were even still more abject in tone than the speeches.]

But the South at present was too busy in perfecting its long-cherished
plans for the disruption of the Union, to more than grimly smile at this
evidence of what it chose to consider “a divided sentiment” in the
North. While it weakened the North, it strengthened the South, and
instead of mollifying the Conspirators against the Union, it inspired
them with fresh energy in their fell purpose to destroy it.

The tone of the Republican press, too, while more dignified, was
thoroughly conciliatory. The Albany Evening Journal,–[November 30,
1860]–the organ of Governor Seward, recognizing that the South, blinded
by passion, was in dead earnest, but also recognizing the existence of
“a Union sentiment there, worth cherishing,” suggested “a Convention of
the People, consisting of delegates appointed by the States, in which it
would not be found unprofitable for the North and South, bringing their
respective griefs, claims, and proposed reforms, to a common
arbitrament, to meet, discuss, and determine upon a future”–before a
final appeal to arms. So, too, Horace Greeley, in the New York
Tribune,–[November 9, 1860.]–after weakly conceding, on his own part,
the right of peaceable Secession, said: “But while we thus uphold the
practical liberty, if not the abstract right, of Secession, we must
insist that the step be taken, if it ever shall be, with the
deliberation and gravity befitting so momentous an issue. Let ample
time be given for reflection; let the subject be fully canvassed before
the People; and let a popular vote be taken in every case, before
Secession is decreed.” Other leading papers of the Northern press, took
similar ground for free discussion and conciliatory action.

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