limits of its legitimate functions. Their evident object, though cautiously and successfully concealed, was to weaken the Federal Government, and build up the power of the separate States, so that the former, shorn of its constitutional vigor, and crippled in its proper field of action, might, at the critical moment, fall an easy prey to their iniquitous designs. The navigation of the great Mississippi river, the imperial highway of the continent, could not be improved, because every impediment taken away, and every facility given to commerce on its bosom, were so much strength added to the bonds of the Union. The harbors of the great lakes and of the Atlantic coast could not be rendered secure by the agency of the Federal Government, because every beneficent act of this nature fixed it more firmly in the affections of the people, and gave it additional influence at home and abroad. The great Pacific railroad—a measure of infinite importance to the unity of the nation, to the development of the country, and to the general prosperity, as well as to the public defence—a work so grand in its proportions, and so universal in its benefits, that only the power of a great nation was equal to its accomplishment or capable and worthy of its proper control—this great and indispensable measure was defeated from year to year, so long as the conspirators remained in Congress to oppose it, and was only passed in the end, after they had launched the rebellion, and made their open attack against the Government, which they had so long sought to embarrass and weaken, in view of this very contingency.
While yielding these principles in theory, the democratic party did not always adhere to them in practice. The instinct of patriotism was often stronger than the obligations of party necessity and party policy. Moreover, the text of these doctrines in the democratic creed was frequently a subject of grave dispute in the party, and unanimity never prevailed in regard to it. Yet the subtle poison infused into the body of the organization, extended its baleful influence to all questions, and too often paralyzed the arm of the Government in every field of its appropriate action.
Never was presented in history a better illustration of the effect of false and mischievous ideas. It would be unjust, because it would be untrue, to suspect the democratic party of any clear knowledge of the ends to which these principles were intended to lead, or of any participation in the treasonable purpose. Many members of that party saw the danger in time, and abandoned the organization before it was caught in the meshes of the great conspiracy. Some, however, even in the loyal States, clung to Breckinridge and the fatal abstractions of the party creed, until these reached their final and legitimate culmination, in the ghastly paralysis of the most indispensable functions of the Government—the ruinous abnegation of all power of self-defence—the treacherous attempt at national suicide only failing for want of courage to perpetrate the supreme act, which was exhibited by the administration of James Buchanan, in its last hours, when it proclaimed the doctrine of secession to be unfounded in constitutional right, and yet denied the power of the Government to prevent its own destruction. The threats of an imperious band of traitors, operating upon the fears of a weak old man, who was already implicated in the treason, drove him to the verge of the abyss into which he was willing to plunge his country, but from which, at the last moment, he drew back, dismayed at the thought of sacrificing himself.
The doctrine of secession, long and laboriously taught, and the cognate principles calculated to diminish the power of the Federal Government and magnify that of the States, thus served to smooth the way, to lay the track, upon which the engine of rebellion was to be started. But there was still wanting the motive power which should impel the machine and give it energy and momentum. Something tangible was required—something palpable to the masses—on the basis of which violent antagonisms and hatreds could be engendered, and fearful dangers could be pictured to the popular imagination.
The protective system, loudly denounced as unequal and oppressive, as well as unconstitutional, had proved wholly insufficient to arouse rebellion in 1832. It would have proved equally so in 1861: but then the ultra free trade tariff of 1856 was still in existence; and it continued in force, until, to increase dissatisfaction, and invite the very system which they pretended to oppose and deplore, the conspirators in Congress, having power to defeat the 'Morrill Tariff,' deliberately stepped aside, and suffered it to become a law. But this was merely a piece of preliminary strategy intended to give them some advantage in the great battle which was eventually to be fought on other fields. It might throw some additional weight into their scale; it might give them some plausible ground for hypocritical complaint; and might even, to some extent, serve to hide the real ground of their movement; yet, of itself, it could never be decisive of anything. It could neither justify revolution in point of morals, nor could it blind the people of the South to the terrible calamities which the experiment of secession was destined to bring upon them.
Slavery alone, with the vast material prosperity apparently created by it, with the debatable and exciting questions, moral, political, and social, which arise out of it, and with the palpable dangers, which, in spite of every effort to deny it, plainly brood over the system—slavery alone had the power to produce the civil war, and to shake the continent to its foundations. In the present crisis of the struggle, it would be a waste of time and of thought to attempt to trace back to its origin the long current of excitement on the slavery question, beginning in 1834, and swelling in magnitude until the present day; or to seek to fix the responsibility for the various events which marked its progress, from the earliest agitation down to the great rebellion, which is evidently the consummation and the end of it all. The only lesson important to be learned, and that which is the sum of all these great events, plainly taught by the history of this generation, and destined to characterize it in all future time, is, that slavery had in itself the germs of this profound agitation, and that, for thirty years, it stirred the moral and political elements of this nation as no other cause had power to do. It is of little consequence, for the purpose in view, to inquire what antagonisms struggled with slavery in this immense contest, covering so great an area in space, and so long a period of time. All ideas and all interests were involved. Moral, social, political, and economical considerations clashed and antagonized in the gigantic conflict.
Is slavery right or wrong? Has it the sanction of enlightened conscience, or of the divine law as revealed in the Old and New Testaments? The last words of this moral contest have scarcely yet ceased to reverberate in our ears, even while the sound of cannon tells of other arguments and another arbitrament, which must soon cut short all the jargon of the logicians. But one of the most remarkable features of the whole case, has been the indignation with which the slave interest, from beginning to end, has resisted the discussion of these moral questions. As if such inquiries could, by any possibility, be prevented! As if a system, good and right in itself, defensible in the light of sound reason, could suffer by the fullest examination which could be made in private or in public, or by the profoundest agitation which could arise from the use of mere moral means! The discussions, the agitations, and all the fierce passions which attended them, were unavoidable. Human nature must be changed and wholly revolutionized before such agitations can be suppressed. They are the means