Sunday, October 9, 2016

Salmon P. Chase to Charles Sumner, February 19, 1848

Cincinnati, February 19, l848.

My Dear Sir: It always gives me a great deal of pleasure to hear from you; but I was more than gratified by your last letter. I thought I saw in it an augury of approaching union, among the true and earnest lovers of freedom of all parties — a union which every patriot and philanthropist cannot but earnestly desire. For myself, I care not under what banner the rally may be, so that the banner bear blazing on its folds the inscription of Freedom; nor shall I think it of much moment by whom it may be borne, so he be, at all events, a true hearted champion of the Right. How strange it is that such an union has not already been formed — was not long since formed! How it is possible that such facts as those stated by Mr. Palfrey in his Speech — and he gave only a few by way of sample — not at all treating the monstrous bulk — can have been known to Northern men and non-slaveholders, and yet stirred up no fever of indignation, I cannot understand. Unless indeed I adopt the humorous solution of your downeast poet, Hosea Biglow, who says in one of his inimitable lyrics:—

We begin to think its nater,
To take sarse and not be riled,
Who'd expect to see a ’tater,
All on eend at bein’ biled?

Your overtrue description of the fate of honest antislavery men in the Whig Party, devoted to private assault and assassination — suspected, slandered, and traduced applies just as strongly to the antislavery democrats. I believe it was Euripides who said — as Milton translates him:—

There can be slain
No sacrifice, to the Gods more acceptable
Than an unjust and wicked king.

The converse of this is certainly true. There can be no more acceptable sacrifice to unjust power — the unscrupulous slave power — than the immolation of an earnest & defiant1 friend of Freedom and the Right. And I have heard democrats complain [of efforts1] made to ruin them in public esteem, and cut them off from all hopes of political advancement, with an emphasis not less strong than your own. But what remedy for such grievances, except by independent action? How can we expect that the people will sustain us, or that demagogues and serviles will fail to combine against us, defaming our characters, impairing our influence, depriving us opposition, and, what is greatly worse, thwarting our best purposes, unless we give them to understand that we can get along without them, if they choose to get along without us — that our principles are as dear to us as the loaves and fishes of office are dear to them? Once let it be understood by politicians, that no candidate for office can receive the suffrages of antislavery men, who does not, in some reasonable sense, represent antislavery principles, and parties will not dare to fly in the face of antislavery sentiment as they do at present. What a figure the Radical Democracy of New York will cut, if after resolving and resolving upon the absolute necessity of adherence to the Proviso under all circumstances, they should, after all, go into the Baltimore Convention next May and acquiesce in the nomination of Cass or Buchanan or any such man? What a figure will Antislavery Whigs cut in acquiescing in the nomination of Taylor, or Clay, or any other slaveholder, who gives no clear and unequivocal evidence, that he cherishes any antislavery sentiments?

I have thought much of the best means of concentrating antislavery effort. I confess I have not yet seen any clear line of action. The most eligible I have thought is to assemble in National Convention, in June next, say at Pittsburgh, for the purpose of taking into consideration the state of the country, and adopting such practical measures as may be then judged most expedient. My own judgment inclines to the opinion — strongly inclines to it — that should the Whigs nominate a candidate for the Presidency who will take decided ground against the extension of slavery into territories hereafter acquired, such a Convention should give such a candidate its support. The same measure should be applied to the Democratic nomination. Should both parties nominate men, not to be depended on for such opposition to slavery extension, then such a Convention should nominate a candidate of its own.

I have no expectation whatever that General Taylor will take any decided ground upon any question. He will certainly take no ground — unless he changes all his habits of thought, all his sentiments, and all his prejudices—against the extension of slavery. General Taylor is very strong in the South. I was at St. Louis and at Louisville a few weeks since, and had an opportunity of learning something of the feeling of the western southwestern slave States in relation to him. He will sweep them if a candidate like a tornado. But I am not able to see any convincing indications of his strength in the North and Northwest. I see rather signs which satisfy me that if he receives the nomination of the Whigs, it must be because the Whigs of the North and Northwest sacrifice their interests, their honors and their duties, to the ambition of party success. As to Mr. Clay, he might properly receive the support of antislavery men if he would come out unequivocally against the extension of slavery, and in favor of a Convention and some reasonable plan of emancipation in Kentucky. I have no faith, however, that he will do this, though I do not deem it quite impossible.

You say “if Judge M'Lean could be induced to take any practical ground against the extension of slavery he would be a popular candidate”. You may recollect something of a letter from Columbus last fall which appeared in the Era. That letter contained a statement of Judge M'Lean's position as understood by the writer, and it was this, that the Wilmot Proviso, as to all territories in which slavery does not exist at the time of acquisition, is in the Constitution already. A resolution of Congress may declare the principle and legislation by Congress may enforce its application; but neither resolution nor legislation is needed to establish the principle. It is in the Constitution. The paragraph of this letter containing this statement was shown to Judge M'Lean and approved by him. I had a conversation with Corwin2 and I regretted to find that he did not sympathize with or concur in these views. So far as I could discover he had no definite, considered principle or opinions on the subject. He thought it best to avoid the question, by opposing territorial acquisition, but if it must come, then secure freedom by legislation.

Under all circumstances I cannot but think Judge M'Lean to be all together the most reliable man, on the slavery question, now prominent in either party. It is true he does not fully agree with those who are generally known as antislavery men. But on the question of extension of slavery he is with us, not only on the question of its impolicy and its criminality, but also because he believed such extension would be a clear infraction of the Constitution. Add to this the constant and familiar association with antislavery folks in his family and among his friends, and his known aversion to slavery itself — an aversion so strong that when he quitted Washington, although in debt, and comparatively poor, he emancipated his slaves, when sale would have produced the means of discharging all his obligations. I regret very much the decision of Judge M'Lean in the Vanzandt case and believe he fell into great error; still on the pressing issue — the extension of slavery, he is wholly with us, and in general sentiment on slavery questions, nearer to us than any other statesman of either of the two old parties. He is not against the Proviso — on the contrary he is in favor of it. He thinks it however is inexpedient to weaken the strength of the Constitutional position against slavery, by introducing a specific measure of legislation against it, under present circumstances, when its defeat in the legislature or its veto by the Executive is certain, and such defeat, in the general opinion, would take away every obstacle from the introduction of slavery into new territories.

I understand from Mr. Vaughan, that the Boston Whig has given a different statement of Judge M'Lean's position, from the one I have just set before you. You may depend, however, on the fact that mine is correct; and I leave you to judge whether I am wrong in thinking that the nomination of M'Lean by the Whig Convention would be the most substantial triumph of antislavery which has been achieved this century.

I thank you for your offer to circulate a few copies of the Vanzandt argument in Westminster Hall. I send you a dozen for that purpose. I read your address on Fame and Glory with very great pleasure.

Forgive this long letter, and believe me,

Faithfully your friend,

1 Conjectural. Torn in MS.

2 First part of name torn out of MS. From the final syllable, win, Corwin is conjectured.

SOURCE: Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1902, Vol. 2, p. 128

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