Virginia, Slavery, and Disunion
Washington National Republican, January 21, 1861
The most plausible argument, if indeed it is not the only plausible argument, addressed to Virginians in favor of joining the secession of the Gulf States, is the suggestion that those States will exclude Virginia slaves from their markets, if Virginia adheres to a Northern political connection. This argument makes up the pith and stress of Senator Hunter's letter of last December, urging his constituents to follow the fortunes of the extreme South.
The subject is one which has many aspects.
If Virginia goes into the proposed Southern Confederacy, and if it be assumed that such a Confederacy becomes successfully established, she would have, to the extent of her weight in it, the means of preventing the revival of the African slave trade. But she would run the risk of being overruled by her impetuous, domineering, and impracticable associates, and if so overruled she would be without remedy. The risk is great, because the temptation of getting negroes at Coast of Guinea prices, instead of at Virginia prices, is great, and because, the reopening of the African slave trade seems to be essential to the schemes of expansion which are looked to, to give weight and security to the Southern Confederacy. If the sugar and cotton lands of Mexico are to be tilled by slave labor, for the advantage of the present generation, it must be by slave labor introduced from the old source of supply.
Nor is it certain, that the slaveholders of Virginia, could wield the entire weight of that State in a Southern Confederacy, against the African slave trade. Virginia is full of men of energy and restlessness, who own no negroes, and who rush into schemes of opening Mexico and Central America, and of building up their own fortunes upon new lands and with cheap labor. Those men are there now, to be sure, but they would be excited to a new activity, by the new spirit of a Southern Confederacy.
If, on the contrary, Virginia adheres to a Northern connection, she can put a quietus upon the African slave trade, beyond a peradventure, by using to that end the maritime power of a Northern Confederacy. Great Britain put an end to the slave trade of Brazil ten years ago, by the simple and natural process of a naval police on the Brazilian coast. This cotton State nation, which is talked of, will have a position in the civilized world, assimilated to that of the Barbary Powers, without the corsairs which made those Powers formidable, but not respectable. It will be dealt with without the least ceremony, in this matter of the African slave trade, and will get neither aid nor sympathy from the European nations. It will be in vain to talk about the law of nations; because it only needs the assent of the United States to change that law and make the slave trade piracy. And, in addition to this, the law of nations is only a humbug, with which youngsters in colleges and law schools are amused. Men of sense know that there never was and never can be any law for nations, because there can be no law without a lawgiver, and without penalties. The practice of nations is to do what their interests require to be clone, within the limits of their power; and there is never any difficulty in finding authority in the books, where the will and the means exist to do anything. The Monroe doctrine, of itself, that this continent is not to be colonized from the Old World, is good enough warrant for extinguishing the African slave trade. There will be no difficulty about authorities, if Virginia remains in the Northern Confederacy, and wants the African slave trade put down. The Northern Confederacy will be both able and willing to do what Virginia will desire in that respect. Authorities will be found as plenty as blackberries. When the British Ministry want anything in the line of the law of nations, they always get it from the Crown law officers, and we doubt not that Mr. Lincoln will be equally well served by his Attorney General Bates. If not, he will fare worse than Mr. Buchanan has with judge Black.
Thus, then, in respect to the African slave trade, Virginia runs the very considerable risk of being overruled in a Southern Confederacy, whereas, in the maritime power of a Northern Confederacy, she will have the certainty of putting it down.
And aside from the question of that trade, there is not the slightest reason to suppose that the Gulf States would refuse to receive negroes from Virginia, if she shall determine to remain connected with the North. They will be controlled in that matter by their interest, as they are now. They want labor and capital and immigration, and it is idle to suppose that they will refuse to receive Virginia planters coming with their slaves, or will refuse to buy negroes from negro traders. If, in an outbreak of passion, they should legislate against these things, their laws could not be enforced. A six months['] prohibition of the ingress of Virginia negroes into the further South, would produce such a disparity in their price, by raising it on the Gulf and depressing it in Virginia, that they would be smuggled from the poor market to the good one, in spite of all laws. But it is not a Confederacy, which is to be especially and pre-eminently slaveholding, and which bases its hopes of importance upon such an expansion of its system of slave labor as will give it the substantial control of tropical products, which will refuse to receive slaves, to gratify an ill-will against Virginia. It may menace such a refusal as a matter of policy, but it will never execute the menace, because to do so would militate with all its interests.
As we have argued this thing on the supposition of the actual establishment of a cotton-State Confederacy, which can never take place without the assent of the present Union, it may be added, that if this assent is obtainable at all, it can only be upon stipulations securing the interests of the States adhering to the Union. And nobody who observes the excessive anxiety of the cotton States for a peaceful secession, not concealed, but constantly avowed, can doubt for a moment that, to secure such a peaceable secession, they would only too gladly enter into stipulations securing forever to the slaveholding States remaining in the Union, all the outlet for their slaves which they now have. This is what the extreme South would willingly concede, and it is what the North would peremptorily demand in behalf of both Maryland and Virginia, if they decide to abide in their old connection. It is sometimes said, that if only two, three, or half a dozen slave States remain in the Union, they will be too feeble to enforce any regard for their peculiar interests. It is only the unreflecting who see things in that way. If the South divides, the part remaining with the North, instead of being oppressed by the North, will become the pet of the North. It can scarcely ask anything which will not be granted. The old jealousies will be replaced by a new attachment. Depend upon it, if Virginia and Maryland remain faithful to the Union, the free States will take care that they suffer nothing in respect to the outlet for their slaves. They will keep it open by stipulation, or by force, and they will close out the African slave trade, hermetically, with their squadrons and their cruisers.