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A History of the United States by Cecil Chesterton

He died and bequeathed his power to Millard Filmore


turned out no bad choice. For the brief period during which he held the Presidential office he showed considerable firmness and a sound sense of justice, and seems to have been sincerely determined to hold himself strictly impartial as between the two sections into which the Union was becoming every day more sharply divided. Those who expected, on the strength of his blunt avowal of slave-owning, that he would show himself eager to protect and extend Slavery were quite at fault. He declared with the common sense of a soldier that California must come into the Union, as she wished to come in, as a Free State, and that it would be absurd as well as monstrous to try and compel her citizens to be slave-owners against their will. But he does not appear to have had any comprehensive plan of pacification to offer for the quieting of the distracted Union, and, before he could fully develop his policy, whatever it may have been, he died and bequeathed his power to Millard Filmore, the Vice-President, a typical "good party man" without originality or initiative.

The sectional debate had by this time become far more heated and dangerous than had been the debates which the Missouri Compromise had settled thirty years before. The author of the Missouri Compromise still lived, and, as the peril of the Union became desperate, it came to be said more and more, even by political opponents, that he and he alone could save the Republic. Henry Clay, since his defeat

in 1844, had practically retired from the active practice of politics. He was an old man. His fine physique had begun to give way, as is often the case with such men, under the strain of a long life that had been at once laborious and self-indulgent. But he heard in his half-retirement the voice of the nation calling for him, and he answered. His patriotism had always been great, great also his vanity. It must have been strangely inspiring to him, at the end of a career which, for all its successes, was on the whole a failure--for the great stake for which he played was always snatched from him--to live over again the great triumph of his youth, and once more to bequeath peace, as by his last testament, to a distracted nation. God allowed him that not ignoble illusion, and mercifully sent him to his rest before he could know that he had failed.

The death of Taylor helped Clay's plans; for the soldier-President had discovered a strong vein of obstinacy. He had his own views on the question, and was by no means disposed to allow any Parliamentary leader to over-ride them. Filmore was quite content to be an instrument in the hands of a stronger man, and, after his succession, Clay had the advantage of the full support of the Executive in framing the lines of the last of his great compromises.

In the rough, those lines were as follows: California was to be admitted at once, and on her own terms, as a Free State, Arizona and New Mexico were to be open to Slavery if they should desire its introduction; their Territorial Governments, when formed, were to decide the question. This adjustment of territory was to be accompanied by two balancing measures dealing with two other troublesome problems which had been found productive of much friction and bitterness. The district of Columbia--that neutralized territory in which the city of Washington stood--having been carved out of two Slave States, was itself within the area of legalized Slavery. But it was more than that. It was what we are coming to call, in England, a "Labour Exchange." In fact, it was the principal slave mart of the South, and slave auctions were carried on at the very doors of the Capitol, to the disgust of many who were not violent in their opposition to Slavery as a domestic institution. To this scandal Clay proposed to put an end by abolishing the Slave Trade in the district of Columbia. Slavery was still to be lawful there, but the public sale and purchase of slaves was forbidden. In return for this concession to Anti-Slavery sentiment, a very large counter-concession was demanded. As has already been said, the Constitution had provided in general terms for the return of fugitive slaves who escaped from Slave States into the Free. But for reasons and in a fashion which it will be more convenient to examine in the next chapter, this provision of the Constitution had been virtually nullified by the domestic legislation of many Northern States. To put an end to this, Clay proposed a Fugitive Slave Law which imposed on the Federal Government the duty of recovering escaped slaves, and authorized the agents of that Government to do so without reference to the Courts or Legislature of the State in which the slave might be seized.

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