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Growing Audacity of the Slave Power

So closely is the life of Lincoln intertwined with the growth of the slave power that it will be necessary at this point to give a brief space to the latter. It was the persistent, the ever-increasing, the imperious demands of this power that called Lincoln to his post of duty. The feeling upon the subject had reached a high degree of tension at the period we are now considering. To understand this fully, we must go back and come once again down through the period already treated. There are three salient points of development.

The first of these is the fugitive slave law. At the adoption of the Constitution it was arranged that there should be no specific approval of slavery. For this reason the word “slave” does not appear in that document. But the idea is there, and the phrase, “person held to service or labor,” fully covers the subject. Slaves were a valuable property. The public opinion approved of the institution. To set up one part of the territory as a refuge for escaped slaves would be an infringement of this right of property, and would cause unceasing friction between the various parts of the country.

In 1793, which happens to be the year of the invention of the cotton gin, the fugitive slave law was passed. This was for the purpose of enacting measures by which escaped slaves might be recaptured. This law continued in force to 1850. As the years passed, the operation of this law produced results not dreamed of in the outset. There came to be free states, communities in which the very toleration of slavery was an abomination. The conscience of these communities abhorred the institution. Though these people were content to leave slavery unmolested in the slave states, they were angered at having the horrors of slave-hunting thrust upon them. In other words, they were unable to reside in any locality, no matter how stringent the laws were in behalf of freedom, where they were not liable to be invaded, their very homes entered, by the institution of slavery in its most cruel forms.

This aroused a bitter antagonism in the North. Societies were formed to assist fugitive slaves to escape to Canada. Men living at convenient distances along the route were in communication with one another. The fugitives were passed secretly and with great skill along this line. These societies were known as the Underground Railway. The appropriateness of this name is obvious. The men themselves who secreted the fugitive slaves were said to keep stations on that railway.

This organized endeavor to assist the fugitives was met by an increased imperiousness on the part of the slave power. Slavery is imperious in its nature. It almost inevitably cultivates that disposition in those who wield the power. So that the case was rendered more exasperating by the passage, in 1850, of another fugitive slave law. Nothing could have been devised more surely adapted to inflame the moral sense of those communities that were, in feeling or conscience, opposed to slavery, than this law of 1850. This was a reenactment of the law of 1793, but with more stringent and cruel regulations. The concealment or assisting of a fugitive was highly penal. Any home might be invaded and searched. No hearth was safe from intrusion. The negro could not testify in his own behalf. It was practically impossible to counteract the oath or affidavit of the pretended master, and a premium was practically put upon perjury. The pursuit of slaves became a regular business, and its operation was often indescribably horrible. These cruelties were emphasized chiefly in the presence of those who were known to be averse to slavery in any form, and they could not escape from the revolting scenes.

The culmination of this was in what is known as the Dred Scott decision. Dred Scott was a slave in Missouri. He was by his master taken to Fort Snelling, now in the state of Minnesota, then in the territory of Wisconsin. This was free soil, and the slave was, at least while there, free. With the consent of his former master he married a free woman who had formerly been a slave. Two children were born to them. The master returned to Missouri, bringing the negroes. He here claimed that they, being on slave soil, were restored to the condition of slavery.

Scott sued for his freedom and won his case. It was, however, appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States. The first opinion of the court was written by Judge Nelson. This treated of this specific case only. Had this opinion issued as the finding of the court, it would not have aroused general attention.

But the court was then dominated by the slave sentiment, and the opportunity of laying down general principles on the subject of slavery could not be resisted. The decision was written by Chief Justice Taney, and reaches its climax in the declaration that the negro “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Professor T. W. Dwight says that much injustice was done to Chief Justice Taney by the erroneous statement that he had himself affirmed that the negro “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” But while this may be satisfactory to the legal mind, to the lay mind, to the average citizen, it is a distinction without a difference, or, at best, with a very slight difference. The Judge was giving what, in his opinion, was the law of the land. It was his opinion, nay, it was his decision. Nor was it the unanimous ruling of the court. Two justices dissented. The words quoted are picturesque, and are well suited to a battle-cry. On every side, with ominous emphasis in the North, one heard that the negro had no rights which the white man was bound to respect. This was, until 1860, the last and greatest exhibition of audacity on the part of the slave power.

There was another exhibition of the spirit of slavery which deserves special mention. This is the history of the settlement of Kansas. That remarkable episode, lasting from 1854 to 1861, requires a volume, not a paragraph, for its narration. It is almost impossible for the imagination of those who live in an orderly, law-abiding community, to conceive that such a condition of affairs ever existed in any portion of the United States. The story of “bleeding Kansas” will long remain an example of the proverb that truth is stranger than fiction.

The repeal of the Missouri Compromise, in 1854, opened up to this free territory the possibility of coming into the Union as a slave state. It was to be left to the actual settlers to decide this question. This principle was condensed into the phrase “squatter sovereignty.” The only resource left to those who wished Kansas to come in as a free state was to settle it with an anti-slavery population.

With this purpose in view, societies were formed in anti-slavery communities, extending as far east as the Atlantic coast, to assist emigrants. From Iowa, Illinois, Ohio, Massachusetts, and elsewhere, emigrants poured into Kansas. But the slave party had the advantage of geographical location. The slave state of Missouri was only just across the river. It was able, at short notice and with little expense, to pour out its population in large numbers. This it did. Many went from Missouri as actual settlers. By far the larger part went only temporarily and for the purpose of creating a disturbance. These were popularly called “border ruffians.” Their excesses of ruffianism are not easily described. They went into the territory for the purpose of driving out all the settlers who had come in under the emigrant aid societies. Murder was common. At the elections, they practised intimidation and every form of election fraud then known. Every election was contested, and both parties always claimed the victory. The parties elected two separate legislatures, adopted two constitutions, established two capitals. For several years, civil war and anarchy prevailed.

There is no doubt, either reasonable or unreasonable,–there is no doubt whatever that the anti-slavery men had a vast majority of actual settlers. The territorial governors were appointed by Presidents Pierce and Buchanan. These were uniformly pro-slavery and extremely partisan. But every governor quickly came to side with the free-state men, or else resigned to get out of the way.

The pro-slavery men, after the farce of a pretended vote, declared the Lecompton constitution adopted. The governor at that time was Walker, of Mississippi, who had been appointed as a sure friend of the interests of slavery. But even he revolted at so gross an outrage, and made a personal visit to Washington to protest against it. It was at this point, too, that Senator Douglas broke with the administration.

In spite of the overwhelming majority of anti-slavery settlers in the state, Kansas was not admitted to the Union until after the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln.

So unscrupulous, imperious, grasping was the slave power. Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad. The slave power had reached the reckless point of madness and was rushing to its own destruction. These three manifestations,–the fugitive-slave law, the Dred Scott decision, and the anarchy in Kansas,–though they were revolting in the extreme and indescribably painful, hastened the end.