MVB to John Van Schaick Lansing Pruyn et al., 10 January 1860
January 10, 1860.
I sincerely regret my inability to accept the invitation with which you have honored me. Whilst I heartily admit the force of the reasons for placing such a meeting as that to which you invite me upon a different footing from those of a partisan character, from which I have long felt constrained to absent myself, there are also valid excuses for a man of seventy-seven years, who prefers to avoid large crowds, which you will, I am sure, kindly permit me to plead on this occasion.
The views you have taken of the present perilous condition of public affairs are, I fear, too well founded and present strong grounds for the gravest apprehensions on the part of every good citizen. Making a due allowance for the near approach of a Presidential election, and for the factious excitements which seldom fail to precede those events, we still find ourselves beset by sober realities portending greater danger to the union of the States under which we have so long prospered and through the influence of which our beloved country has been raised to her high position among the nations of the earth, than has ever before threatened her.
The extraordinary transactions at Harper's Ferry, which are to be the subject of your deliberations, in this aspect, will, it seems to me, be most wisely and safely treated if unreservedly spoken of and thoroughly sifted. In one very material respect they are presented for our consideration in a form not common to other subjects of public discussion. All accounts of them—as well of what was done as of what was designed, and whether coming from the actors themselves, from their friends or from their accusers—agree in substance. From the mass of concurring information derived from these various sources, it is only necessary to to select two circumstances, the just appreciation of which will give to the whole affair its true character. Brown, the leader of the foray, a man of considerable intelligence and signal personal firmness, but one who, from official documents recently brought to public view, appears to have exhibited on previous occasions, and under the promptings of the spirit that brought him to Harper's Ferry, a lawless and ferocious disposition, sought an interview, on the morning of his last day on earth, with his principal associate, Cook, to upbraid the latter for having deceived him into the belief that the slaves were ready to revolt, and among Brown's papers was found an elaborate plan, the authenticity of which is not disputed, carefully concocted, on a foreign soil, for the government of the slaveholding States, after their white inhabitants had been either subdued or drive[n] out or exterminated. Whatever opinions ma n therefore, be formed in respect to the adequas- of Brown's means, so far as they have been disclosed, no doubt can exist that the design of the military invasion, of which he was the leader, was to excite and support an insurrection of of the slaves in Virginia, which was to be extended through all the slaveholding States, and to appropriate the fruits of such insurrection, if successful, in the way provided for by the constitution which had been prepared in anticipation of such a result. It may well be regarded as certain, that he did not look to the accomplishment of his purposes with the small force with which his enterprise was commenced, but anticipated accessions from those in the non-slaveholding States who concurred in his views, which, in addition to the slaves whom he was enabled to arm, would furnish the strength he might require. Upon the character or sufficiency of his reasons for such expectations, it is not my purpose to speculate.
The case presented for our consideration is thus nothing less than the attempted execution of a design long entertained, devised with all the care and circumspection that contemplated crime permits, and adopted after the fullest deliberation, to inflict, suddenly and stealthily, the unnumbered and unspeakable horrors of a servile war upon communities numbering more than eight millions of souls—communities than whom there perhaps exist not under Heaven others of equal extent, more widely or more justly distinguished for hospitality, personal probity, amenity of manners, kindness of disposition, love of country and respect for private and public virtue.
To appreciate fully the enormity of this guilty scheme, it is necessary to take into view the long existing relations between ourselves and those of the South, upon whom and upon whose families these vials of wrath were to be poured. These latter are none other than the worthy descendants of the people of six States of the old Confederacy—then as thoroughly slaveholding States as they now are and as likely to remain so, whilst, for ourselves, we looked to future emancipation as a certain event—with which our ancestors, at the gloomiest period this Country has ever seen entered into an alliance, on behalf of this State, offensive and defensive, for their common security, established a Confederate Government and exchanged pledges, as solemn as any ever given by man, to stand by each other in a struggle for their liberty and independence; a struggle most glorious in its objects, in its actual prosecution, in its success and in the consequences of its triumphant conclusion. They are descendants, moreover, of those great and good men, the representatives of the same States, with whom those to whose rights and duties we have succeeded united, many years later, in the construction and adoption of a Federal Constitution, which had become necessary to the full enjoyment of the fruits of that struggle; a Constitution made with them whilst they were yet, as they had before been, slave-holding States, and which on its face contemplated the continuance of that institution in a portion of the States composing the Confederacy, as long as it and the Government to be established under its provisions might endure; a Constitution which now, after an experience of seventy years, is as dear to the people of the United States, North and South, East and West, as it has ever been and under which our whole people have, during that period, lived in prosperity and peace and would, without doubt, have continued to do so if the subject of slavery, had not been, in an evil hour, drawn into the angry and distorting vortex of party politics.
More aggravated still does the atrocity of the Harper's Ferry movement become when we call to mind the character and conduct of the State chosen as the starting ground of its desolating course—the ancient and honorable Commonwealth of Virginia, whose history, from and including the generation of Washington and Jefferson, teems with well directed and singularly effective efforts to suppress and prevent the revival of the foreign slave-trade, to ameliorate the condition of the slaves (descendants of those left to the care of her people by their ancestors) and to restrict the extension of slavery in the United States. As early as in 1769 a bill was introduced into her General Assembly, by Mr. Jefferson, to prohibit the importation of slaves into that Colony from abroad, which was defeated by the Colonial Governor and Council, but at the first moment after those checks upon her movements were removed, the subject was resumed, through the same instrumentality, and a law passed by which the object was fully accomplished. From that period onward her representatives in the National Legislature were uniform and assiduous in their efforts to procure an early suppression of the trade by Congress, and their State Government and their people have, ever since, set their faces like flints against its revival in any form. An early and constant friend of the National Colonization Society, over which one of her distinguished sons, Judge Washington, and her most distinguished scion, Henry Clay, for many years presided, Virginia at the same time never intermitted her exertions to secure for her slaves the kindest treatment—the slave-owners of the Commonwealth, honor the happy results of which were strikingly, and so ably exemplified in the facts that, notwithstanding the skillfully devised plan for the seduction of the slaves at Harper's Ferry, not one joined the invaders, and the only one whom they carried off lost his life in attempting to escape from his would be deliverers.
But the crowning grace of her whole career in this regard—that which placed her far in advance of all her sister States and which seemed to render every thing done by others here for the restriction of slavery comparatively unimportant—was her ever memorable cession to the Federal Government of the territory out of which were formed the non-slaveholding States of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin, upon the express and irrevocable condition that slavery should be forever excluded from them. This cession was on her part a voluntary tender, without request or suggestion other than from her own sons, whilst she stood at the head of the slaveholding States of the Confederacy, without a prospect of changing her character in that respect—made and matured whilst the formation and adoption of the Federal Constitution were in progress and, in all probability, designed to allay apprehensions and to keep down such jealousies and ill-blood as those under which the country now suffers, illustrating thereby the magnanimity of her public councils and the extent of her confidence in the justice and liberality of her sister States who were about to become non-slave-holding States. Out of the territory thus ceded non-slave-holding States have been formed, the aggregate population of which, at the present moment, is one-third larger than that of the six principal slave-holding States of the old Confederacy and equal to one-sixth of the entire population of the United States.
It was in full view of antecedents like these that the irruption into that State was made. The intent of that movement was to lay the axe at the root of the great conservative principle that the existence of slavery in a State is a question for its own exclusive decision, and to establish the doctrine that slavery is a wrong of such magnitude as to devolve on any one who is willing to take the responsibility of attempting it, the right to overthrow it by fire and the sword: pretentions which must throw into the back ground every pre-existing issue upon the subject. Whether or not it is expedient that slavery should be extended beyond its present limits, the place where, and the persons by whom that point can only, and ought to be settled, are questions freely arising under the Constitution, in respect to which every citizen has a right to form and express his opinions, but they cannot, in the nature of things, continue to occupy the public mind until the criminal assumption acted upon at Harpers Ferry is effectually suppressed. This right of assailing slavery was claimed in Virginia and an attempt made to enforce it, characterized by a spirit as bitter and remorseless as that which vented itself in Brown's bloody deeds in Kansas when acting, as it appears, in the name of the "Norothern army."
That venerable Mother of States saw her laws trodden under the feet of a military band, led on by a citizen of New York, her authority and dignity derided, her rural districts turned into camps for the protection of her sovereignty, her citizens murdered and their families exposed to the most appaling sufferings for no other reason than for upholding rights which her sons Washington, Jefferson, Henry and Madison—men whose names speak their eulogies—had exercised throughout their lives.
Can we wonder that under such unparalleled injuries, thus insultingly heaped upon her, she is profoundly moved, or that her sister States of the South participate fully and earnestly in her feelings! The first shedding of blood by a military organization, in a controversy to which the States are in any sense parties, can have but one effect here, as it has had in all countries and in all ages, to deepen the sense of injuries and to inflame the passions of the parties engaged far beyond the point to which the original causes of the feud would have carried them. The excitement arising from the strife about questions of slavery has thus acquired fresh and peculiar force as it spread, until it has reached a height in all the slave-holding States which threatens dangers of the gravest nature to the best and dearest interests of the whole country. What is to be the effect of this disastrous condition of things upon the relations that have so long existed between the States of the Union will, of necessity, be in a very great degree, if not entirely, controlled by the treatment which this blow aimed at Virginia and through her at the Southern States, and from which she has already suffered much, shall receive on the part of the non-slaveholding States. Those of our Southern brethren who have no other desire than to cultivate relations of friendship and confidence with the North and between all the States are tremblingly alive to what is said and done here upon this all engrossing subject. They regard the transactions at Harper's Ferry as constituting of themselves, and without enforcement, an appeal to the non-slaveholding States for the declaration of their views upon the subject, and more especially to this State as they were conducted by one of her citizens. Large masses of our people in the cities of New York, Troy and Rochester have acted upon this view of those transactions and, in my opinion, have rightly conceived and worthily performed their duties in regard to them. You are also most suitably engaged in in the same good cause.
All of these movements are in the right direction, cannot fail to be extensively useful, and will, at the very least, carry satisfaction to the warm heart of the patriotic men at the South. We cannot however conceal the fact that in each of the cities I have named, there were a great—perhaps an equal—number of citizens, of not less respectability, having equal concern with ourselves in the important questions to which those meetings related, who took no part or apparent interest in their proceedings. Nor ought we to suppress our apprehensions of the consequences that may result from the course which those citizens have thus marked out for themselves when we consider that most, perhaps all, of them are members of a political association which is in possession of the government of this great State, and which claims to represent a majority of her people. No well informed man can fail to appreciate the beneficial, not to say, the controlling influence which those meetings would have exerted upon the hearts and minds of our Southern brethren if they had been attended by the masses of all parties, expressing their detestation of the crimes committed at Harper's Ferry, and their determination to prevent similar outrages in future, in a manner which must have precluded all cavil in respect to their sincerity. Of this inestimable advantage they have deprived the country, and, although they are not particularly responsible to either of us, our interest in the matter gives us a right to comment upon a circumstance so much to be deplored.
In a different case from yours the terms of the call, was, by some, made an objection to their attendance. If it did not suit their interests, or tastes to meet under such a call, why have they not assembled by themselves and expressed their unreserved opinions upon the subject? They say that they disapprove of Brown's course, and how could they say or feel otherwise! They know as well as we know that those who have gone before us never made the existence of slavery in some of the States an objection to uniting with them on any of the great occasions to which I have referred. They profess to be ardent friends of the Union and insist upon its being maintained with a stringency which, in a confederacy so peculiarly situated in regard to the subject of slavery as this s, is at least equal to our rights—the continuance of that institution in many of the States to the contrary notwithstanding. Would it not, on the part of men, holding such opinions and avowing such determinations, be monstrous to approve and scarcely less so to look with indifference upon an attempt to take the lives of the inhabitants of any one of these States for a cause which they are themselves not only willing but firmly resolved to overlook? If, between this and the Presidential election, it shall become obvious that the object of their present reserve upon so vital a point as that of which we are speaking is thus to effect the same result that was secured by the speech of their conceded leader at the city of Rochester, immediately preceding the election of 1858,—that of conciliating the support of some twenty thousand electors in this State who cherish extreme opinions on the subject of slavery, going far beyond their own, opinions which, if they could be made to prevail would destroy the Union,—and that, to further their particular and comparatively unimportant partisan objects, they have folded their arms and seen the Union drifting to destruction and the country to anarchy and civil war without an effort to save them, they will have involved themselves in a fearful responsibility to the people of this State and Union. Of the result of such a disclosure no man who knows the character and temper of that people can feel a moment's doubt; if they have not been greatly and grievously misunderstood, love for the Union and an unchangeable determination to protect it in its constitutional integrity, are the master passions of their souls. The stability of that sentiment has been demonstrated on every occasion on which it could be tested, that has arisen since the adoption of the Federal Constitution.
Individuals, and sometimes great communities have occasionally, under the influence of excited passions or short-sighted views of separate interests, been led to count the value of the Union and to menace its dissolution, but they have invariably been driven back into the fold which they essayed to leave by the general sentiment of the country. So it was in the case of the highly gifted and ill-fated Burr, again in that of the Hartford Convention men, and once more in respect to the unconstitutional measures attempted by the gallant State of South Carolina to relieve herself from oppressive taxation:—all momentous occasions, occurring at long intervals in the course of half a century and each presenting an exigency in public affairs of sufficient potency to arouse the public mind from the apathy into which it sometimes falls, but from which it has never yet failed to start, with renewed and resistless energy, when the Union was seriously threatened.
Well for us that this is so! If it were not—then, indeed, would the political system, upon the stability and efficiency of which we have so long felicitated ourselves and which we have so often held up for the admiration and imitation of the world, prove to have been a wretched delusion.
I am, gentlemen, your friend and ob't serv't
M. VAN BUREN.
Four lines in the document's second paragraph were originally printed in the wrong order. This transcription places those sentences in their correct order.