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A History of the United States by Cecil Chesterton

Who felt the reproach of Slavery keenly


This

was not because democratic ideals were more devotedly cherished in the North than in the South; on the whole the contrary was the case. But the institution of Slavery was in no way necessary to the normal life and industry of the North; its abrogation made little difference, and the rising tide of the new ideas to which it was necessarily odious easily swept it away. In their method of dealing with it the Northerners, it must be owned, were kinder to themselves than to the Negroes. They declared Slavery illegal within their own borders, but they generally gave the slave-holder time to dispose of his human property by selling it in the States where Slavery still existed. This fact is worth noting, because it became a prime cause of resentment and bitterness when, at a later date, the North began to reproach the South with the guilt of slave-owning. For the South was faced with no such easy and manageable problem. Its coloured population was almost equal in number to its white colonists; in some districts it was even greatly preponderant. Its staple industries were based on slave labour. To abolish Slavery would mean an industrial revolution of staggering magnitude of which the issue could not be foreseen. And even if that were faced, there remained the sinister and apparently insoluble problem of what to do with the emancipated Negroes. Jefferson, who felt the reproach of Slavery keenly, proposed to the legislature of Virginia a scheme so radical and comprehensive in its character
that it is not surprising if men less intrepid than he refused to adopt it. He proposed nothing less than the wholesale repatriation of the blacks, who were to set up in Africa a Negro Republic of their own under American protection. Jefferson fully understood the principles and implications of democracy, and he was also thoroughly conversant with Southern conditions, and the fact that he thought (and events have certainly gone far to justify him) that so drastic a solution was the only one that offered hope of a permanent and satisfactory settlement is sufficient evidence that the problem was no easy one. For the first time Jefferson failed to carry Virginia with him; and Slavery remained an institution sanctioned by law in every State south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

While the States were thus dealing with the problems raised by the application to their internal administration of the principles of the new democratic creed, the force of mere external fact was compelling them to attempt some sort of permanent unity. Those who had from the first a specific enthusiasm for such unity were few, though Washington was among them, and his influence counted for much. But what counted for much more was the pressure of necessity. It was soon obvious to all clear-sighted men that unless some authoritative centre of union were created the revolutionary experiment would have been saved from suppression by arms only to collapse in mere anarchic confusion. The Continental Congress, the only existing authority, was moribund, and even had it been still in its full vigour, it had not the powers which the situation demanded. It could not, for instance, levy taxes on the State; its revenues were completely exhausted and it had no power to replenish them. The British Government complained that the conditions of peace were not observed on the American side, and accordingly held on to the positions which it had occupied at the conclusion of the war. The complaint was perfectly just, but it did not arise from deliberate bad faith on the part of those who directed (as far as anyone was directing) American policy, but from the simple fact that there was no authority in America capable of enforcing obedience and carrying the provisions of the treaty into effect. The same moral was enforced by a dozen other symptoms of disorder. The Congress had disbanded the soldiers, as had been promised, on the conclusion of peace, but, having no money, could not keep its at least equally important promise to pay them. This led to much casual looting by men with arms in their hands but nowhere to turn for a meal, and the trouble culminated in a rebellion raised in New England by an old soldier of the Continental Army called Shay. Such incidents as these were the immediate cause of the summoning at Philadelphia of a Convention charged with the task of framing a Constitution for the United States.


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