Monday, July 31, 2017

Salmon P. Chase to W. G. Kephart,* Winchester, Adams County, Ohio, May 8, 1849

June 19, [1849.]

My Dear Sir — On my return from Frankfort, Kentucky, day before yesterday, I found your note of the 7th inst. on my table. I shall not think it worth while to respond to the editorials of the Bee; but when a true & devoted friend to the sacred cause of Freedom asks my attention to any particular matter of accusation against me, I cannot hesitate about giving him all the satisfaction in my power. You write as if you feared some bad results to the cause of Free Democracy from the imputation of the Bee, implied rather than stated, that I changed or modified my opinions in regard to the Mexican war, for the sake of securing my election to the Senate. Neither this nor any other imputation alarms me. I have neither time nor inclination for replies to the attacks made on me by the partizans of Tay lorism. I prefer to let the acts of my life speak for me. If these witnesses are not believed, neither will any statement that I can make obtain credence. I do not therefore as a general rule take any notice of Newspaper aspersions. To you, however, a friend, I say distinctly that I neither retracted nor modified any old opinion, or adopted or expressed any new one, for the sake of securing my election. I abandon opinions when convinced that they are wrong and adopt opinions when satisfied that they are right, not otherwise. As to my opinions on the Mexican war I do not believe that a dozen members of the Legislature knew what they were. Certainly I was not interrogated at all in respect to them, nor can I recollect that I conversed with any member on that subject, until after my return from Washington, though it is by no means impossible that I may have done so. I have however expressed on various occasions my views on the subject in conversation both with friends and opponents, and these conversations may have been reported to members, though I have no knowledge of the fact. Of course there is not the slightest ground for the idea that I “stooped” to any insincerity or disguise for the sake of being Senator. I can say, I believe with truth, that the office has very little charm for me, except so far as it adds to my ability to promote the welfare of my country and advance the interests of the cause of Freedom.

I never took any active part in the controversy between the Whigs & Democrats in regard to the Mexican war. I was engaged in a different contest & on different questions. To me the question of slavery seemed paramount in importance to the question of the war: and I never thought it desirable to divide those who agreed in opposition to slavery, by raising disputes among them on the subject of the war. In fact this seemed to me the general policy of the Liberty men; and consequently we find no expression of opinion either in the Resolutions of the National Convention of 1847, or of any Convention in our own State on this matter. The Liberty men, generally, condemned the war, but some in one degree & some in another; and very few, to that degree, that they could not unite cordially with the Free Soil Democracy of New York, who generally sanctioned the war, in the support of the same national candidates; one of whom it is remarkable enough, sustained while the others opposed the Government in the prosecution of it. Holding the view which was thus acted on by the Liberty men generally I seldom referred to the war at all in any public addresses and, when I did, thought it best to abstain from any line of remark calculated to introduce division among ourselves. I had, however, my individual views on the subject, which I freely expressed, whenever the occasion seemed proper for it, in private talk. These views I have not held or expressed dogmatically, or with any absolute certainty that they were right exclusively, and that everybody who dissented from them was wrong. They were in substance the same as those expressed by Wilberforce in relation to the war of England against France in 1803 — a war in my judgment, the commencement of which was quite as indefensible as that of our war against Mexico “I strongly opposed this war” he remarked “differing from those with whom 1 commonly agreed, at a great cost of private feeling; but when once it had begun, I did not persist in declaiming against its impolicy & mischiefs, because I knew that by so doing I should only injure my country.

I was not in any position to make my views of any consequence; and in this respect my circumstances were very unlike those of Wilberforce, who was a prominent and influential member of Parliament. As a private citizen, however, though I did not approve the commencement of the war but on the contrary always regarded the pretension of Texas to the boundary of the Rio Grande as groundless, and the order of the President, that the troops should advance to that river as therefore unwarranted, I did not on the other hand, after the war was actually begun & had received the sanction of the Congress, think it my duty to oppose its vigorous prosecution, on the contrary it seemed to me, reasoning on actual facts & not on facts as I could have wished them to be, that this course was the only practicable road to a sure & permanent peace. In this I may have been wrong, and when convinced that I was, I shall fully admit it. I rejoice certainly that I was in no public position, which would constrain me, holding these views and unconvinced by argument against them to differ in action from those who felt themselves constrained by honest convictions of imperative duty uninfluenced by the spirit of opposition to the existing administration, to oppose all measures for the prosecution as well as the commencement of the war. Nor do I expect that any future circumstances will arise, the war being now terminated, in which I shall be compelled to differ from them. I might go farther in this subject, but I have said enough to shew you my exact position. In one thing we shall probably all agree that the result of the war has signally disappointed the anticipation of those who supported it as some doubtless did with a view to the extension of slavery. The acquisition of New Mexico & California, free from slavery, by their own laws, and the bold demand of the slaveholders that they shall be surrendered to its blight, has aroused a spirit of inquiry upon the whole subject of that terrible curse and the relations of the National Government to it, which can hardly fail to precipitate the downfall of the slave power & hasten the era of emancipation. Let me assure you, my dear sir, that I shall always receive the “reproofs of instruction” with respectful consideration. I am far from believing that I have attained correct views of every subject. I dare not say that I am exempt from even more than the ordinary bias of human nature in forming my judgments. But I can say that I desire to be right & pray that I may be kept from all error, & especially all error harmful to our beloved country or to the cause of Human Freedom & progress — Join me in these prayers & when you believe me wrong tell me so. If after all, in any particular, my course shall not meet your approbation, before you go beyond a simple condemnation of that particular action or line of action and think of withdrawing your confidence from me or inducing others to do so, consider whether you are warranted in so doing by the whole tenor of my life and the general character & scope of all my conduct. Having thus considered act as your sense of duty prompts you. I ask no more.

P. S. I shall be pleased to hear from you in answer to this.

* From letter-book 6, p. 91 (continued on 107).

SOURCE: Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1902, Vol. 2, p. 174-7

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