Border State Convention
Louisville Daily Journal, December 4, 1860
The Douglas Democracy of Kentucky have called what they style a "Democratic State Union Convention" to assemble in Louisville on the Eighth of next January. The object of this Convention, as defined in the Call, is "the maintenance of the Federal Union, on the basis of nonintervention by Congress with slavery in the Territories, and the faithful enforcement of existing laws for the protection and surrender of slave property, without let or hindrance by the laws or authorities of non-slaveholding States." Such is the solution which one wing of the Democracy in Kentucky proposes for the existing troubles. The other wing declares through its organs in favor of a Southern Convention on the basis of an ultimate demand for new guarantees of the constitutional rights of the South. The Douglas Democracy presents the dogma non-intervention as the only expedient by which the Union can be maintained, whilst the Breckinridge Democracy holds out in like manner the formal offering of a Southern ultimatum by the united South and the formal acceptance of the ultimatum by the North. And in this matter, undoubtedly, both wings of the Kentucky Democracy are moving in the line prescribed or sanctioned by their respective allies elsewhere; in other words, the movements under consideration foreshadow the schemes of the Douglas Democracy and the Breckinridge Democracy respectively as integral parties. The movements, accordingly, may be treated as authoritative.
We thus have before us the devices which the two wings of the Democracy tender for the salvation of the country in this formidable crisis. In our opinion, the device of neither, however conscientiously designed, is adapted to promote the pacification and the permanency of the Union; but directly the contrary. We will give our reasons for this opinion in as narrow a compass as possible.
The first reason we shall bring forward applies equally to both devices. We conceive that an indispensable condition of all measures directed honestly to the accommodation of our present sectional difficulties is a foundation sufficiently broad to admit the patriotic members of every party without distinction. It appears to us that the indispensableness of this condition is self-evident. But the devices in question set this condition flatly at defiance. They are alike founded on mere party bases, of which, by a moral necessity, each excludes not only the adherents of the other, but the large and influential body of conservatives that rejects fellowship with either on such contracted terms. As respects the Douglas device, this fact is apparent at a glance. The device is simply the Douglas platform in the late eventful canvass, dragged up by the corners from the depths of confusion into which the disastrous issue of that struggle has plunged the country. It professes to be nothing else. The same thing is true substantially as respects the Breckinridge device. The notion of submitting a Southern ultimatum to the North by the united South, though not for obvious reasons incorporated into the Breckinridge platform, constituted notoriously the principal incentive of the Breckinridge Democracy in the Border Slave States throughout the recent canvass. The Breckinridge leaders in Kentucky especially made no concealment during the canvass of their desire to range the Border States politically by the side of the Cotton States in order to bring about what they called indifferently an "understanding" or a "settlement" or an "agreement" with the North which should define the terms whereon alone the South would consent to remain in the Union. The hope of executing this plan formed the chief motive which prompted the Breckinridge leaders here to work with desperation for "a united South," and unquestionably the general recognition of the fact contributed most powerfully to the defeat of their desperate efforts. The device they now put forth, therefore, is merely an attempt to carry out the plan above-mentioned, notwithstanding the defeat of their efforts in the late canvass to unite the South for this very purpose. Like the device of the Douglas man, it is the naked reproduction of a party basis.
Our objection to these partisan devices, however, goes deeper than this. We will next consider the two devices separately. And first the Breckinridge device.
A Southern Convention or a Convention of all the slaveholding States on the basis of an ultimate demand for new guarantees of the rights of the South under the Constitution must of course either agree or disagree with respect to the nature and extent of the ultimatum to be laid before the North. If the Convention disagrees, not only does the device fall to the ground at once, but the spectacle of a South divided on what the entire movement assumes to be a question vital to the safety and honor of the Southern people is presented to instigate the fanatics and to mislead the conservatives of the North. The event will be accepted by the Northern zealots as a confession of inherent and incurable weakness on the part of the South, and even our best friends in the North will feel their respect for Southern steadiness and resoluteness considerably lessened. The South, consequently, will stand humiliated in the presence of the North, and the possibility of Federal aggression will be increased while the power of averting it by peaceable means will be proportionately diminished. All this will follow unavoidably if the Convention disagrees on the cardinal point in hand. And who does not perceive that the Convention must necessarily disagree on this point? Who believes that Missouri and Tennessee and Kentucky and Virginia and Maryland and North Carolina and Louisiana will at this time agree to any measure that will be satisfactory to South Carolina and the States affiliated with her in the treasonable enterprise of a Southern Confederacy? Surely no one who reflects dispassionately. In the face of certain, imminent, and intolerable aggression, the slaveholding States would beyond dispute present a united front to the aggressor, in whatever form or quarter he might appear, and herein lies their real security. But in view of a danger which is uncertain, remote, and impalpable, concerning which the widest and most radical diversity of opinion exists among patriots devoted equally to the constitutional rights of the slaveholding States, and when there is a prevailing opinion even in the South that the States which manifest a determination to rush into the indisputable horrors of revolution professedly to escape this vague danger are using it as the mere occasion for the execution of a settled purpose to destroy the government, a united South on the basis of any formal measure of defense is an utter impossibility. It is the dream of an enthusiast or the snare of a traitor.
But suppose that the Convention agrees. Admit, for the sake of the argument, that the seven States mentioned above consent to the ultimatum urged by South Carolina and her allies. Concede that the dream of our Breckinridge friends is realized. Grant that the South stands united on the basis dictated to her by the States now apparently treading the verge of revolution. Would the North accept the ultimatum thus submitted? He who fancies that the North would accept the ultimatum knows little of the temper of the times in which he lives. Most unquestionably the North would reject the ultimatum. The state of public feeling in both sections of the country puts any other result entirely out of the question. Rather than accept the ultimatum the North without doubt would assent to the peaceable withdrawal of the solid South from the Union. Certainly the ultimatum would not be accepted. Then what would follow? The answer is clear. The South, standing united on the ultimatum, and pledged to dissolve the Union in the event of the rejection of the ultimatum, would have nothing to do but either to recede from her declared resolution or to carry it out at all hazards. And her impetuous pride of spirit, and union of her people effected beforehand on the basis of Disunion in this contingency, and the fierce and eager instigation of the Cotton States, would render it easy for her to go forward, but difficult to recede. She would not recede. She would not be allowed to recede. She would be slidden with hardly an effort into the abyss of Disunion.
Suppose, however, that the North or the representatives of the North should accept the ultimatum. Allow that the agreement is ratified. What additional security would the bargain afford the South in reality? If the North can't be trusted to observe the Constitution how could the North be trusted to comply with the terms of a loose popular transaction of this character? Would the gloss of Rhett and Yancey and Toombs and their confederates be more unmistakable or more sacred than the text of Madison and Hamilton and Jefferson and their illustrious compeers? Could the people of the North be fairly expected to recognize the obligation to fulfil such a pact as higher and more binding than the obligation to obey the organic law of the Union? What, indeed, would prevent the people of the North from rescinding the act of their representatives at the earliest feasible moment? Not law; for the settlement, even if it should attain the dignity of law, would be repealable by a bare majority, no matter whence obtained. Not good faith; for the people of no section of the country are bound in good faith not to revoke in proper form a law, which they believe to be derogatory to their honor or inconsistent with the Constitution. Not fear of the consequences; for the American people, without distinction of geographical lines, spurn intimidation with contempt. If law, good faith, and fear of the consequences, could stamp any agreement between the North and the South with sovereign validity, assuredly the Missouri Compromise would have been held inviolable on every side; but the Missouri Compromise was repealed by the South without compunction. It is now quite too late in our history to set up the claim of sacredness in behalf of any popular or legislative compact whatever between the sections. There is and can be no true sacredness in such expedients. The best of them are devoid of salutary force.
Will it be pretended that the arrangement under notice, or any other arrangement of the sort in the least degree practicable at the present time, would possess a more potent sanction than the Missouri Compromise possessed? If so, whence would that sanction flow? From the equity of the arrangement? The Missouri Compromise was conceived by its authors to be laid in justice. From the calamity the arrangement would serve to ward off? The Missouri Compromise was currently believed to have prevented the overthrow of the government. From the peace the arrangement would promise to secure? The Missouri Compromise had in the general estimation actually secured the unbroken peace of the nation for upwards of a quarter of a century. From the names of the statesmen that would be likely to negotiate the arrangement? The Missouri Compromise was concluded under the auspices of Monroe and Adams and Clay and King and Crawford and Sergeant and Calhoun and Eustis and Wirt and Holmes and Lowndes and Baldwin and Pinckney and Southard and a host of other proud names belonging to the North and the South; the arrangement we are considering, if it should be concluded, would be illustrated by the names of Yancey and Seward and Rhett and Sumner and Keitt and Burlingame and Toombs and Hale and Wise and Wilson and others of the like quality of renown. It is unnecessary to press the inquiry. Beyond all question the Missouri Compromise was clothed with a mightier sanction than any other compromise that has ever marked our history or ever will mark it.
Yet the Missouri Compromise was abrogated unreluctantly by one section against the vehement protest of the other. Ay, the Missouri Compromise was abrogated; and, in a little more than six years after the date of its abrogation, the question it was designed to put to rest for ever has returned to plague the nation with redoubled violence and malignity. The net result of the Missouri Compromise is the original difficulty plus the aggravations springing from the essential invalidity of the measure. After the lapse of forty years, the evil, inflamed by the remedy, confronts us anew. Is it probable that a fresh application of the same description of remedy under circumstances particularly untoward would be more effectual for good or less effectual for ill? On the contrary, is it not plain that, whilst a new remedy of this species would be much inferior to the old one in validity, its rescission or infringement would be the signal, not for local turbulence and frenzy merely, but for the concerted, irresistible, and uncontrollable disruption of the Confederacy? Is it not perfectly manifest, that, with the South united on a basis of Disunion in a specified contingency, the agitators of the Cotton States and the enemies of the Union everywhere else would not rest until they had brought the contingency to pass in some form or other, with the view of consummating the cherished scheme of their lives? And isn't it equally clear that the happening of this contingency in any manner would bring on the consummation of their atrocious scheme? No thinking or observing man can doubt it. The remedy, therefore, would bind up the peace and existence of the Union in a frail bargain subsisting at the mercy of the deadly enemies of both. It would hand over the life and destiny of the Model Republic of the World to the keeping of Yancey and his fellow-conspirators.
Wherefore, we should condemn strongly the arrangement contemplated by the Breckinridge Democracy if the North would agree to it. In our judgment, the arrangement is pernicious in tendency and false in principle. Unless the people of the United States, like the Bourbons, "forget nothing and learn nothing," the era of such arrangements is passed. Experience has shown not simply their futility but their mischievousness. They have no power to subdue permanently or with wholesome effect the rage of sectional strife. Resembling ropes of flax cast upon a fire, they quell the flame for a time only to augment its fury in the end. Shouldering the weight of the Constitution itself, they have at most barely the validity of an ordinary law, repealable by the majority. So far as the public peace is concerned, therefore, the consequence of their adoption must be in the long run very much as if we had no organic law at all, but were living at the mere good pleasure and discretion of the majority. They are, in fact, conventional or majority Constitutions, usurping, as to the matter involved, the place of the genuine instrument, and gathering up in their own feeble stipulations the mighty interests confided by the people to the great fundamental law alone. Pausing at this point of our history, and calmly surveying the past, we own we can imagine no more fatal way of assailing the integrity of the Republic than by luring the people from the impregnable masonry of the Constitution to stand on the scaffolding of compromises which a single blow from the hand of the majority may at any moment precipitate into the red waves of revolution. And we believe that if the prominent actors in the passage of the Missouri Compromise were living to-day they would confess the same thing. It is at all events our own deliberate and settled conviction.
We, therefore, object to the Breckinridge device, 1, Because the arrangement to which the device looks forward is essentially wrong and practically destructive; 2, Because the arrangement, if it were as right and conservative as it is wrong and destructive, is totally impracticable; and, 3, Because the attempt to bring the arrangement about would by conspicuously dividing the Southern people fix the South in a false position towards the North. In short, and generally, we object to the Breckinridge device for the reason that in every point of view it is a measure hostile to the peace and permanency of the Union. We object to the Breckinridge device on one other important ground. The device leaves entirely out of the account the pregnant fact that Kentucky and her sister States of the Border, though slaveholding States, and as such allied closely with the true and legitimate interests of the Cotton States, have nevertheless a peculiar interest of their own as the central members of the Confederacy, and acknowledge no part or lot whatever in the unlawful and unpatriotic aspirations which now seem to inflame a portion of their Southern sisters. The Border Slave States are not strictly Southern; they are not Northern; THEY ARE CENTRAL: and, by virtue of this position, they have a most especial concern in the preservation of the Union. It is scarcely too much to say that their total prosperity as States and the entire welfare of their citizens individually are staked upon the existence of the Union as defined broadly in the Constitution. Disunion would be a very appalling calamity even to the States that appear to be so eager to precipitate it, but to Kentucky and the rest of the Border States it would be nothing less than civic death. The stakes of the two classes of communities in the Union although coincident are not equal. This fact the Breckinridge device ignores altogether, which we hold to be a very grave objection in addition to the conclusive objections we have unfolded above. But we pass from the separate consideration of the Breckinridge device.
As for the Douglas device, we have nothing to say now that we have not said a thousand times before. We think of it to-day precisely as we have thought of it always. A blemish in morals, a blunder in law, and an artifice in statesmanship, its obtrusion at this time by the Douglas party as the basis on which the friends of the Union must harmonize, if they harmonize at all, is or should be a subject of profound regret to every patriot in the land. We do not doubt that the apple of discord has been thrown amongst the Union men of the South with the best of motives, but the resulting dissension will be none the less real or lamentable on that account. Let the responsibility rest where it belongs. Challenged, as we are, to show cause why the Union men of Kentucky and of the South are not bound in honor to surrender at discretion to the Douglas Democracy, we have no thought of flinching from the test. Neither duty nor self-respect would permit us to think of flinching. But here we must needs be somewhat brief.
The device of non-intervention or squatter-sovereignty is exhibited to the public in two aspects. One is the right as well as the liberty of the people of the Territories to govern themselves independently of the National Government; the other is the liberty of the people of the Territories to do this without the right. The first-mentioned is squatter-sovereignty proper; the last-mentioned is practical squatter-sovereignty. Mr. Douglas himself and the bulk of his followers everywhere hold the former; some few of his followers in the South hold only the latter; the Call for a "Democratic State Union Convention" pretermits completely the distinction between the two, thereby presumptively at least committing every man who shall participate in the Convention to the principle as well as the policy of squatter-sovereignty. And indeed it would not be easy to determine which is really the worse phase of the device. Squatter-sovereignty proper affirms an unconstitutional principle and offers to execute it; practical squatter-sovereignty denies the principle and offers to execute it. What the first gains in consistency it loses in unconstitutionality; what the last gains in constitutionality it loses in fidelity. The one is unconstitutional and the other is immoral. The two together make up the doctrine of absolute non-intervention. And this is the basis on which the Unionists of the South are modestly summoned to maintain the Union under penalty of being read out of their own party.
But it is said by the blind partisans of this most absurd and pestilent dogma that the National Government has heretofore in point of fact pursued generally the policy of non-intervention in the affairs of the Territories. So the National Government has done heretofore, and so doubtless it will continue to do hereafter; but it has never repudiated the right to intervene, if occasion should require intervention, or abdicated the duty to intervene in such event, which, in truth, it couldn't do if it would, for a government can no more throw off its duty than an individual can lay aside his moral accountability. If the National Government has seldom intervened actually in the affairs of the Territories, it is because the necessity for intervention has seldom actually occurred, not because the Government has not at all times recognized both the right to intervene in a suitable emergency and the obligation to exercise the right. To non-intervention as understood and practiced by the National Government from its organization down to the present moment we heartily subscribe; but that is not absolute non-intervention. It is neither squatter-sovereignty proper nor practical squatter-sovereignty. It is far from either. It is nothing more or less than the constitutional supremacy of the National Government, manifested in a wise discretion, tempered generously by the spirit of our free institutions. With non-intervention of this order we have no quarrel; but with nonintervention that denies the constitutional supremacy of the National Government, or paralyzes its chief arm of protection in the presence of Territorial outrage and oppression, we have a mortal quarrel. The idea of presenting such a mixture of illegality and immorality as the only possible "basis" for "the maintenance of the Federal Union" is repugnant to every dictate of prudence, to every maxim of sound statesmanship, and to every unperverted instinct of loyalty. The folly of the idea is so excessive as to be almost criminal. We are told, however, that the doctrine of protection or non-intervention as we have described it is an abstraction. Not so. It is a living reality; it is and has ever been the established policy of the government. The doctrine of absolute nonintervention is an abstraction, and will never be anything else. It can't be reduced to practice. It is at vengeful war with the fitness of things. The question of actual intervention for protection, we admit, is not one of immediate moment; and nobody that we know of proposes to urge it. The question is quiet and no one thinks of raising it. A case has not occurred to disturb it. And we are entirely willing for the right to rest undisturbed with the case until events shall call the latter up. It is to be greatly regretted that the Douglas Democracy are not like-minded. They, however, are madly bent on agitating the question, case or no case. With these remarks we dismiss the separate consideration of the Douglas device for the present.
We have now touched rapidly upon the main reasons in support of the opinion we entertain that neither the Breckinridge device nor the Douglas device for preserving the Union in this exigency is adapted to the end avowed. These reasons, expressed summarily, are, 1, Impracticability; 2, Destructiveness of tendency; and, 3, Viciousness of principle. An enlightened public will agree with us that no measure against which these reasons can be justly brought is worthy of adoption. Whether we have brought these reasons against the measures in question justly or not, we leave an enlightened public to judge.
We, however, may be asked what measure, in our judgment, ought to be adopted, or what stand the conservatives of this noble Valley should take in the present conjuncture. We will, with becoming deference, anticipate the question, though the extreme length of this article precludes the smallest expansion of the suggestion we shall offer. Without preface or comment, therefore, but not without much deliberation, we suggest that a CONVENTION OF THE CENTRAL STATES OF THE UNION, on the basis of the Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court in its formal decisions, be held in this city on the Twenty-second of February next. And by the Central States of the Union, we mean Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. These eleven States, linked together more or less closely in destiny as in position, constitute the real Keystone of the Arch of the Union, and it is equally their duty and their interest to lead off in some intelligent effort to bring order out of the present chaos of our politics. We believe it is in their power to lead off in a successful effort for this purpose. Believing thus, we venture respectfully to submit the foregoing suggestion. Men of the Central States! let us hear your response. And Heaven grant that it may be favorable. If there is not conservatism enough in the centre and heart of the Union to animate and control the rebellious extremities, then, indeed, we fear the days of the Republic are numbered.