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A History of the United States by Cecil Chesterton

Even while compromising with Slavery


He

delivered his soul, and went away to die. And the State to which he had given up everything showed its thought of him by carving above his bones, as sufficient epitaph, the single word: "_CALHOUN_."

CHAPTER VIII

THE SLAVERY QUESTION

The Compromise of 1850, though welcomed on all sides as a final settlement, failed as completely as the Missouri Compromise had succeeded. It has already been said that the fault was not in any lack of skill in the actual framing of the plan. As a piece of political workmanship it was even superior to Clay's earlier masterpiece, as the rally to it at the moment of all but the extreme factions, North and South, sufficiently proves. That it did not stand the wear of a few years as well as the earlier settlement had stood the wear of twenty was due to a change in conditions, and to understand that change it is necessary to take up again the history of the Slavery Question where the founders of the Republic left it.

It can hardly be said that these great men were wrong in tolerating Slavery. Without such toleration at the time the Union could not have been achieved and the American Republic could not have come into being. But it can certainly be said that they were wrong in the calculation by means of which they largely justified

such toleration not so much to their critics as to their own consciences. They certainly expected, when they permitted Slavery for a season, that Slavery would gradually weaken and disappear. But as a fact it strengthened itself, drove its roots deeper, gained a measure of moral prestige, and became every year harder to destroy.

Whence came their miscalculation? In part no doubt it was connected with that curious and recurrent illusion which postulates in human affairs--a thing called "Progress." This illusion, though both logically and practically the enemy of reform--for if things of themselves tend to grow better, why sweat and agonize to improve them?--is none the less characteristic, generally speaking, of reforming epochs, and it was not without its hold over the minds of the American Fathers. But there were also certain definite causes, some of which they could hardly have foreseen, some of which they might, which account for the fact that Slavery occupied a distinctly stronger position halfway through the nineteenth century than it had seemed to do at the end of the eighteenth.

The main cause was an observable fact of psychology, of which a thousand examples could be quoted, and which of itself disposes of the whole "Progressive" thesis--the ease with which the human conscience gets used to an evil. Time, so far from being a remedy--as the "Progressives" do vainly talk--is always, while no remedy is attempted, a factor in favour of the disease. We have seen this exemplified in the course of the present war. The mere delay in the punishment of certain gross outrages against the moral traditions of Europe has made those outrages seem just a little less horrible than they seemed at first, so that men can even bear to contemplate a peace by which their authors should escape punishment--a thing which would have been impossible while the anger of decent men retained its virginity. So it was with Slavery. Accepted at first as an unquestionable blot on American Democracy, but one which could not at the moment be removed, it came gradually to seem something normal. A single illustration will show the extent of this decline in moral sensitiveness. In the first days of the Republic Jefferson, a Southerner and a slave-owner, could declare, even while compromising with Slavery, that he trembled for his country when he remembered that God was just, could use of the peril of a slave insurrection this fine phrase: "The Almighty has no attribute that could be our ally in such a contest." Some sixty years later, Stephen Douglas, as sincere a democrat as Jefferson, and withal a Northerner with no personal interest in Slavery, could ask contemptuously whether if Americans were fit to rule themselves they were not fit to rule "a few niggers."


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