The Law which Controls and the Incentive which Prompts the Political Action of the Northern States of the Union
Richmond Semi-weekly Examiner, January 6, 1860
Those who anticipated any beneficial results from the Union meetings in the free States, have little reason to rejoice at the evidences of popular sentiment and feeling recently given in the most conservative city of the North, and in the interior of the most wealthy, populous, and powerful State in the Confederacy. Not a fortnight has passed since every paper in the South teemed with the details of a grand Union meeting held in the city of New York. People were told that the dormant but potent conservatism of the Empire State was aroused, and in spite of the repeated failures of the spasmodic and intermittent efforts of that enfeebled element in Northern society, the timid and credulous Union idolaters of the South begun to receive this and similar demonstrations in the seaboard cities of that section as omens of a popular reaction which was to end our political "thirty years' war," and to furnish a cure for all the ills to which the body politic is subject. But the ruling genius of free society was not alarmed by these magnificent delusions, nor did it sleep over them. The high priest of Black Republicanism was wandering back from his European tour, and the unexpected and unwelcome appearance of RICHARD THE LIONHEARTED amid the sports at Ashby de la Zouche did not appal the minions of his indolent and hollow-hearted brother, or encourage the English loyalists more, than the sudden arrival of SEWARD disconcerted the Conservative reactionists, and animated the Black Republican cohorts. The thunders of an hundred cannon, the vociferous greeting of an immense multitude, welcomed him to the commercial emporium of the Union; the authorities of the city voted him its freedom. At Albany, at Syracuse, at Auburn, he was received with every demonstration of public rejoicing, and with all the assurances of popular confidence and support. From the villages and rural districts of the interior came forth the sounds of a people's welcome, as if to a great public benefactor and a trusted representative of popular will and sentiment. And why was this seen, amid a people not apt to pay for what it has not received, nor particularly demonstrative of grateful or sudden impulses of any kind? Why was this ovation rendered to the living politician by those who had suffered the greatest genius their section had produced for half a century to sink almost unnoticed and unhonored to his grave, and have apparently forgotten him in less than a decade? Why does VAN BUREN vegetate at Lindenwold, and why do PIERCE and FILLMORE still live unnoticed, "all weak and withered of their force," and indebted for casual mention and kindly memory to Southern friends alone? Why are DICKINSON, SEYMOUR, O'CONNOR, CUSHING, &c., seen only at fitful periods of temporary excitement and then forgotten in their hopeless and profitless struggles for influence and position? Why is DOUGLAS fast sinking in public esteem, even in the Northwest, and forced to cast his eye Southward "with the lingering last look of despairing?" These men had position, genius, ability, energy and great skill in public affairs, and all, save one, are in the vigor of life. Why should they fall, in despite of supports which generally sustain men greatly their inferiors? The answer is simple: They were at war with the popular sentiment, which is the law of the society in which they lived. Why does SEWARD head the political movements and lead the people, their agents and representatives in the Northern section of the Union? His abilities are fair, but not great, his name is connected with no leading measure, with no marked event in the political history of the country; his personal influence, even with his associates, does not seem to be commanding; his competitors do not fear him in debate, nor in any intellectual contest. Even in the Senate and in his own State, he was never known to have a large personal following. But, although thus destitute of position, of the qualities and the apparent elements of power, which are considered requisite to make and mark a popular leader, he is the undisputed head of a great popular party, in communities where the genius of unlimited popular sway riots in licentious triumph. The solution of this problem is not difficult. He, alone, of all the men of action and intellect in his section, saw early the law which controls the mind of the Northern masses, and the incentive which impels the Northern heart to recognize, to obey and to execute that law. He seized the idea promptly, he grasped it firmly, and he retains and uses its power with unscrupulous energy and with unremitting industry. When he proclaimed that the people of the North had a "higher law than the Constitution," he knew what he said, and more, that the people for whom he spoke felt and acted on his idea, though they might not understand or interpret his words. The law which commands obedience to the mandates of the physical force of an unrestrained numerical majority is the operative law, not only with the masses in the free States of the North, but in all communities where no divisions or orders of society are established or recognized, and where the conservative influence of domestic slavery does not supply the deficiency of restraining checks. In the Northern States the popular power has no check but the popular reason and will. A law such as this acting upon a society singularly energetic and adventurous, greedy after wealth and lusting for power, has no limit but the measure of its own power, and that measure is the extent of the physical force of the numerical majority of the people. That force is stimulated to action by one unvarying and universal incentive: the desire for the acquisition and use of power and property. The temper to acquire, the spirit to appropriate, thus unrestrained, operates under a universal law of human nature with a continuous and unremitting energy, against which plighted faith and constitutional checks will ever prove feeble and worthless defenses. There is but one defense of practical value and real efficiency: it is the ability and will of the minority to resist the action of the ruling majority whether seen in the operation of established government, or in the less usual form of unlicensed violence. The majority makes, and construes, and executes the law.—The minority, while living under government, but obeys and submits to the law thus made and construed. No defense provided for it by mere government is in its control or at its service. The majority does not even recognize the existence of the minority where the idea of the supreme authority of the numerical majority prevails, as it does in the Northern States of this Union. And SEWARD and his followers sweep away even the restraints of good faith and plighted honor from their creed. The whole history of Black Republican legislation demonstrates this. Upon their idea, as the majority of 1859 is not the majority of 1860, the majority of this year will not acknowledge the right of the majority of the last, to bind it by its enactments, still less will it admit the law adopted by the ancestry in one century as of binding authority upon the posterity in another. They at once assert the right of the majority in a society to form laws for the government of that society in reference to its then present condition, and they will not be bound by restraints which forbid the majority, that is themselves, to assume power which is within their reach, and which nothing but a law passed some seventy years before (in their view) prevents their using. To a people possessed with such an idea, and studiously taught to believe that this Union and its government is but the government and Union of one people, the rights of the States, and the construction of the Constitution, are of course no barriers. They deny the right of resistance or secession to the States, and they will alter or put their own construction on the Constitution. The prompt annulling by some, and the universal evasion of the Fugitive Slave Law by all Northern States, and the refusal of the majority in that section to recognize the decision of the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case as law, are but two of numerous instances in our history, to prove the inefficiency of legal, judicial or constitutional defenses against the encroachments of majorities who hold physical power. The Black Republicans did not reject the validity of the compromises of 1850, on the special idea which operates with those who adhere to constitutional compromises and attach to legislative compromises only the moral weight of plighted faith and honor. No, they put constitutional and legislative compromises on the same footing. If they do not denounce both "as leagues with hell and covenants with death," they hold them equally as unjust restraints upon popular will and power. They hold the fundamental and ordinary statute law as but the expressed will of the temporary ruling majority, and binding only until another majority shall repeal them. SEWARD uttered no sentiment construed as heretical by Northern politicians, when his higher law doctrine is thus explained. Let any one converse with Northern politicians, or read their speeches, and then reflect if this is not the prevailing sentiment there.
When the memorable Rochester speech was made, SEWARD was still in unison and not in advance of Northern sentiment.—The announcement of an irrepressible conflict between free and slave society, startled no one North of the Potomac, nor do we see why it should have surprised one South of it.—He might desire, indeed, that the enthusiasts and political jobbers in the North might apply this conflict to free and slave labor, but he knew that was not true. Between rival kinds of labor in the same community, subject to the same municipal regulations, there may be contests and antipathies—but the two kinds must be really rivals, in actual contact, using the same markets, and vending and buying the same articles. Between two kinds of labor, producing different articles, bartering or selling the products of their industry to each other, there is no antipathy, but a natural, mutual and rational dependence, and there is peace and not conflict. And there is still more unity of interest and inducements to peace, when they have no collision about local laws, are separated by broad geographical lines, and have distinctive peculiarities due to climate, habits and race. Neither SEWARD nor the Black Republicans believe, or act on any such absurdity, as the popular interpretation of this speech attributes to him. What was true, and what the history of anti-slavery agitations proves to have been true in the beginning and to be equally true now, is the reality of a stern contest waged by the buying, manufacturing, trading, speculating populous section, to obtain uncontrolled power over the producing and sparsely populated Southern section of the Confederacy. This contest was the moving cause which made the aggressive section of the Union adopt the idea of the rightful supremacy of the physical force of the popular majority, as the ruling principle in free communities. And where such a principle and such a nation control a majority in any society, there is an "irrepressible conflict" between the two opposing sections. And it must result in the abandonment of their principle, and the purifying [of] their motives, or in the ascendency of that section in the common government, or in the severance of the union of the two. One of the three results from such a conflict is inevitable.
In uttering this idea SEWARD was but popularising a familiar idea, and giving a less offensive expression to what might have startled the timid or unmasked some pretender who still found it convenient to wear a veil of conservatism in the ranks of the Black Republicans. He showed that he saw the results of the long sectional contest, and had marshalled the elements of political and social power in his section, and was prepared to push them on to farther and more substantial conquests. The man, it seems to us, must have been strangely deluded or wilfully blind, who has not seen for years that this contest about slavery was not confined to that institution, but embraced the whole principle, policy and objects of government. In every political contest in which this institution has been brought prominently forward, the primary object of its assailants has stood broadly and glaringly out. In the very adoption of the Constitution, they gained political power by bringing it forward, and deprived the slaveholder of two-fifths of his rightful power in the House of Representatives and of nearly as much in the Electoral College. In every contest about territory they have brought it prominently forward, and either by compromise or by unconditional plunder, deprived the Southern people both of the land and the political power which attached to it. In their contests about the Tariff they seldom mentioned the institution, for there the loss of their own commercial and agricultural strength was to be compensated by getting the votes of Southern delegates.—When Northern wealth was dependent upon protective duties, the section was conservative on slavery and Union-loving on principle; when it was able or forced to do without such protection, they became fanatical and disunionists, all on principle—the principle which operates on all men in all ages, and teaches them to appropriate the power and property of others.—They stand now committed to the doctrine of no more slave territory; they are favorable to Protective Tariffs and the whole system of class legislation, which must enrich their section, enlarge its political power, and throw the whole support of government, and of tribute to domestic manufactures on the producing States of the South. By legislative action, and by popular assemblies, they are placing the construction of the constitution by the numerical majority of the people, and even by their State Legislatures, above the decision of the Supreme Court; thus stripping the exposed minority of the South of the last defenses left under the constitutional Union of these States. Such acts are far more instructive and infinitely more dangerous and authoritative than any speech of any man. They show beyond doubt, that SEWARD is but the representative of his section. It needed not the reception given him in New York, to show that the political conflict between the sections had known no abatement, that the Northern majority had neither ruth nor relenting; that the fell spirit of aggression was neither sated by past triumphs, nor gorged by its abundant plunder. We trust that the people of the South will close their ears to the delusive promises of the merchant princes in Fifth Avenue, and hearken to no more tattle about popular reactions which, like sorrow, "endure for a night," but unlike it, are not precursors of "joy that cometh in the morning." Let them look at this matter as it is, as a conflict that must be settled, as a danger that is upon them, as an issue which delays and subterfuges cannot avert, as a trouble inseparable from the political and social condition of the Confederacy. Let them look neither to the Federal Government nor to popular movements in the free States for comfort or succor in time of need. But to their own power and authority. They should insist that every public man, either in office or a candidate for one, should stand at once upon defined and common ground with the people of the South. Let them assume a position at once, which will ensure them equality in, or security and independence out of the Union. If they are to stay in the Union, they should know on what terms; but let them be prepared to achieve independence, and maintain their honor and equality in whatever political position they may have to assume.