The Great Conspiracy

In a letter addressed by the Rebel Commissioners in London (Yancey, Rost
and Mann), August 14, 1861, to Lord John Russell, Secretary of Foreign
Affairs, it appears that they said: “It was from no fear that the Slaves
would be liberated, that Secession took place. The very Party in power
has proposed to guarantee Slavery forever in the States, if the South
would but remain in the Union.” On the 4th of May preceding, Lord John
had received these Commissioners at his house; and in a letter of May
11, 1861, wrote, from the Foreign Office, to Lord Lyons, the British
Minister at Washington, a letter, in which, alluding to his informal
communication with them, he said: “One of these gentlemen, speaking for
the others, dilated on the causes which had induced the Southern States
to Secede from the Northern. The principal of these causes, he said,
was not Slavery, but the very high price which, for the sake of
Protecting the Northern manufacturers, the South were obliged to pay for
the manufactured goods which they required. One of the first acts of
the Southern Congress was to reduce these duties, and to prove their
sincerity he gave as an instance that Louisiana had given up altogether
that Protection on her sugar which she enjoyed by the legislation of the
United States. As a proof of the riches of the South. He stated that
of $350,000,000 of exports of produce to foreign countries $270,000,000
were furnished by the Southern States.” * * * They pointed to the new
Tariff of the United States as a proof that British manufactures would
be nearly excluded from the North, and freely admitted in the South.
This may be as good a place as any other to say a few words touching
another alleged “cause” of Secession. During the exciting period just
prior to the breaking out of the great War of the Rebellion, the Slave-
holding and Secession-nursing States of the South, made a terrible
hubbub over the Personal Liberty Bills of the Northern States. And when
Secession came, many people of the North supposed these Bills to be the
prime, if not the only real cause of it. Not so. They constituted, as
we now know, only a part of the mere pretext. But, none the less, they
constituted a portion of the history of that eventful time, and cannot
be altogether ignored.

In order then, that the reader may quickly grasp, not only the general
nature, but also the most important details of the Personal Liberty
Bills (in force, in 1860, in many of the Free States) so frequently
alluded to in the Debates of Congress, in speeches on the stump, and in
the fulminations of Seceding States and their authorized agents,
commissioners, and representatives, it may be well now, briefly to refer
to them, and to state that no such laws existed in California, Illinois,
Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, New York, Ohio and Oregon.

Those of Maine provided that no officer of the State should in any way
assist in the arrest or detention of a Fugitive Slave, and made it the
duty of county attorneys to defend the Fugitive Slave against the claim
of his master. A Bill to repeal these laws passed the Maine Senate, but
failed in the House.

That of Massachusetts provided for commissioners in each county to
defend alleged Fugitives from Service or Labor; for payment by the
Commonwealth of all expenses of defense; prohibited the issue or service
of process by State officers for arrest of alleged Fugitives, or the use
of any prisons in the State for their detention, or that of any person
aiding their escape; prohibited the kidnapping or removal of alleged
Fugitive Slaves by any person; prohibited all officers within the State,
down to Town officers, from arresting, imprisoning, detaining or
returning to Service “any Person for the reason that he is claimed or
adjudged to be a Fugitive from Service or Labor”–all such prohibitions
being enforced by heavy fines and imprisonment. The Act of March 25,
1861, materially modified and softened the above provisions.

New Hampshire’s law, provided that all Slaves entering the State with
consent of the master shall be Free, and made the attempt to hold any
person as a Slave within the State a felony.

Vermont’s, prescribed that no process under the Fugitive Slave Law
should be recognized by any of her Courts, officers, or citizens; nor
any aid given in arresting or removing from the State any Person claimed
as a Fugitive Slave; provided counsel for alleged Fugitives; for the
issue of habeas corpus and trial by jury of issues of fact between the
parties; ordained Freedom to all within the State who may have been held
as Slaves before coming into it, and prescribed heavy penalties for any
attempt to return any such to Slavery. A bill to repeal these laws,
proposed November, 1860, in the Vermont House of Representatives, was
beaten by two to one.

Connecticut’s, provided that there must be two witnesses to prove that a
Person is a Slave; that depositions are not evidence; that false
testifying in Fugitive Slave cases shall be punishable by fine of $5,000
and five years in State prison.

In New Jersey, the only laws touching the subject, permitted persons
temporarily sojourning in the State to bring and hold their Slaves, and
made it the duty of all State officers to aid in the recovery of
Fugitives from Service.

In Pennsylvania, barring an old dead-letter Statute, they simply
prohibited any interference by any of the Courts, Aldermen, or Justices
of the Peace, of the Commonwealth, with the functions of the
Commissioner appointed under the United States Statute in Fugitive Slave

In Michigan, the law required States’ attorneys to defend Fugitive
Slaves; prescribed the privileges of habeas corpus and jury trial for
all such arrested; prohibited the use of prisons of the State for their
detention; required evidence of two credible witnesses as to identity;
and provided heavy penalties of fine and imprisonment for the seizure of
any Free Person, with intent to have such Person held in Slavery. A
Bill to repeal the Michigan law was defeated in the House by about two
to one.

Wisconsin’s Personal Liberty law was similar to that of Michigan, but
with this addition, that no judgment recovered against any person in
that State for violating the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 should be
enforced by sale or execution of any real or personal property in that

That of Rhode Island, forbade the carrying away of any Person by force
out of the State; forbade the official aiding in the arrest or detention
of a Fugitive Slave; and denied her jails to the United States for any
such detention.

Apropos of this subject, and before leaving it, it may be well to quote
remarks of Mr. Simons of Rhode Island, in the United States Senate.
Said he: “Complaint has been made of Personal Liberty Bills. Now, the
Massachusetts Personal Liberty Bill was passed by a Democratic House, a
Democratic Senate, and signed by a Democratic Governor, a man who was
afterwards nominated by Mr. Polk for the very best office in New
England, and was unanimously confirmed by a Democratic United States
Senate. Further than this, the very first time the attention of the
Massachusetts Legislature was called to the propriety of a repeal of
this law was by a Republican Governor. Now, on the other hand, South
Carolina had repealed a law imprisoning British colored sailors, but
retained the one imprisoning those coming from States inhabited by her
own brethren!”

These Personal Liberty Bills were undoubtedly largely responsible for
some of the irritation on the Slavery question preceding open
hostilities between the Sections. But President Lincoln sounded the
real depths of the Rebellion when he declared it to be a War upon the
rights of the People. In his First Annual Message, December 3, 1861, he

“It continues to develop that the insurrection is largely, if not
exclusively, a War upon the first principle of popular government–the
rights of the People. Conclusive evidence of this is found in the most
grave and maturely considered public documents, as well as in the
general tone of the insurgents. In those documents we find the
abridgment of the existing right of suffrage, and the denial to the
People of all right to participate in the selection of public officers,
except the legislative, boldly advocated, with labored arguments to
prove that large control of the People in government is the source of
all political evil. Monarchy itself is sometimes hinted at as a
possible refuge from the power of the People.

“In my present position, I could scarcely be justified were I to omit
raising a warning voice against this approach of returning despotism.

“It is not needed, nor fitting here, that a general argument should be
made in favor of popular institutions; but there is one point, with its
connections, not so hackneyed as most others, to which I ask brief
attention. It is the effort to place Capital on an equal footing with,
if not above Labor, in the structure of the Government.

“It is assumed that Labor is available only in connection with Capital;
that nobody labors unless somebody else, owning Capital, somehow by the
use of it induces him to labor. This assumed, it is next considered
whether it is best that Capital shall hire laborers, and thus induce
them to work by their own consent, or buy them, and drive them to it
without their consent. Having proceeded so far, it is naturally
concluded that all laborers are either hired laborers, or what we call
Slaves. And further, it is assumed that whoever is once a hired laborer
is fixed in that condition for life.

“Now, there is no such relation between Capital and Labor as assumed;
nor is there any such thing as a free man being fixed for life, in the
condition of a hired laborer. Both these assumptions are false, and all
inferences from them are groundless.

“Labor is prior to, and independent of Capital. Capital is only the
fruit of Labor, and could never have existed if Labor had not first
existed. Labor is the superior of Capital, and deserves much the higher
consideration. Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of
protection as any other rights. Nor is it denied that there is, and
probably always will be, a relation between Labor and Capital, producing
mutual benefits. The error is in assuming that the whole Labor of the
community exists within that relation.

“A few men own Capital, and that few, avoid labor themselves, and with
their Capital hire or buy another few to labor for them. A large
majority belong to neither class–neither work for others, nor have
others working for them.

“In most of the Southern States, a majority of the whole people of all
colors are neither Slaves nor masters; while in the Northern, a large
majority are neither hirers nor hired. Men with their families–wives,
sons, and daughters–work for themselves, on their farms, in their
houses, and in their shops, taking the whole product to themselves, and
asking no favors of Capital on the one hand, nor of hired laborers or
Slaves on the other.

“It is not forgotten that a considerable number of persons mingle their
own Labor with Capital–that is they labor with their own hands, and
also buy or hire others to labor for them; but this is only a mixed, and
not a distinct class. No principle stated is disturbed by the existence
of this mixed class.

“Again, as has already been said, there is not, of necessity, any such
thing as the free hired-laborer being fixed to that condition for life.
Many independent men everywhere in these States, a few years back in
their lives, were hired laborers.

“The prudent, penniless beginner in the World, labors for wages awhile,
saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land for himself, then labors
on his own account another while, and at length hires another new
beginner to help him. This is the just and generous and prosperous
system, which opens the way to all, gives hope to all, and consequent
energy and progress, and improvement of condition to all.

“No men living are more worthy to be trusted than those who toil up from
poverty–none less inclined to take or touch aught which they have not
honestly earned. Let them beware of surrendering a political power
which they already possess, and which, if surrendered, will surely be
used to close the door of advancement against such as they, and to fix
new disabilities and burdens upon them, till all of Liberty shall be
lost. * * * The struggle of to-day is not altogether for to-day-it is
a vast future also. * * * ”
So too, Andrew Johnson, in his speech before the Senate, January 31,
1862, spake well and truly when he said that “there has been a
deliberate design for years to change the nature and character and
genius of this Government.” And he added: “Do we not know that these
schemers have been deliberately at work, and that there is a Party in
the South, with some associates in the North, and even in the West, that
have become tired of Free Government, in which they have lost

Said he: “They raise an outcry against ‘Coercion,’ that they may
paralyze the Government, cripple the exercise of the great powers with
which it was invested, finally to change its form and subject us to a
Southern despotism. Do we not know it to be so? Why disguise this
great truth? Do we not know that they have been anxious for a change of
Government for years? Since this Rebellion commenced it has manifested
itself in many quarters.

“How long is it since the organ of the Government at Richmond, the
Richmond Whig, declared that rather than live under the Government of
the United States, they preferred to take the Constitutional Queen of
Great Britain as their protector; that they would make an alliance with
Great Britain for the purpose of preventing the enforcement of the Laws
of the United States. Do we not know this?”
Stephen A. Douglas also, in his great Union speech at Chicago, May 1,
1861–only a few days before his lamented death-said:

“The election of Mr. Lincoln is a mere pretext. The present Secession
movement is the result of an enormous Conspiracy formed more than a year
since formed by leaders in the Southern Confederacy more than twelve
months ago. They use the Slavery question as a means to aid the
accomplishment of their ends. They desired the election of a Northern
candidate by a Sectional vote, in order to show that the two Sections
cannot live together.

“When the history of the two years from the Lecompton question down to
the Presidential election shall be written, it will be shown that the
scheme was deliberately made to break up this Union.

“They desired a Northern Republican to be elected by a purely Northern
vote, and then assign this fact as a reason why the Sections cannot live
together. If the Disunion candidate–(Breckinridge) in the late
Presidential contest had carried the united South, their scheme was, the
Northern candidate successful, to seize the Capital last Spring, and by
a united South and divided North, hold it.

“Their scheme was defeated, in the defeat of the Disunion candidates in
several of the Southern States.

“But this is no time for a detail of causes. The Conspiracy is now
known; Armies have been raised. War is levied to accomplish it. There
are only two sides to the question.

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