Front Page Titles (by Subject) COMPROMISE. - Retrospect of Western Travel, vol. 2
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COMPROMISE. - Harriet Martineau, Retrospect of Western Travel, vol. 2 
Retrospect of Western Travel in Three Vols (London: Saunders and Otley, 1838). Vol. 2.
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“For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.”—Hosea, viii. 7.
THE greatest advantage of long life, at least to those who know how and wherefore to live, is the opportunity which it gives of seeing moral experiments worked out, of being present at the fructification of social causes; and of thus gaining a kind of wisdom which in ordinary cases seems reserved for a future life. An equivalent for this advantage is possessed by such as live in those critical periods of society when retribution is hastened, or displayed in clear connexion with the origin of its events. The present seems to be such an age. It is an age in which the societies of the whole world are daily learning the consequences of what their fathers did, the connexion of cause and effect being too palpable to be disputed; it is an age when the active men of the new world are witnessing the results of their own early counsels and deeds. It seems indeed as if the march of events were everywhere accelerated for a time, so as to furnish some who are not aged with a few complete pieces of experience. Some dispensation,—like the political condition of France, for instance,—will still be centuries in the working out: but in other cases,—the influence of eminent men, for example.—results seem to follow more closely than in the slower and quieter past ages of the world. It is known to all how in England, and also in America, the men of the greatest intellectual force have sunk from a higher to a far lower degree of influence from the want of high morals. It seems as if no degree of talent and vigour can long avail to keep a man eminent in either politics or literature, unless his morals are also above the average. Selfish vanity, double-dealing, supreme regard to expediency, are as fatal to the most gifted men in these days, and almost as speedily fatal, as intellectual incapacity to a pretender. Men of far inferior knowledge and power rise over their heads in the strength of honesty; and by dint of honesty, (positive or comparative) retain the supremacy, even through a display of intellectual weakness and error of which the fallen make their sport. This is a cheering sign of the times, indicating that the days are past when men were possessed by their leaders, and that the time is coming when power will be less unfairly distributed, and held on a better tenure than it has been. It indicates that traitors and oppressors will not in future be permitted to work their will and compass their purposes at the expense of others, till guilty will and purpose are prostrated on the threshold of eternity. It indicates that that glorious and beautiful spectacle of judgment may be witnessed in this world which religious men have referred to another, when the lowly shall be exalted; when, unconscious of their dignity, they shall with amazement hear themselves greeted as the blessed of the Father, and see themselves appointed to a moral sovereignty in comparison with whose splendour
However long it may be before the last shred of tinsel may be cast into the fire, and the last chaff of false pretence winnowed away, the revolution is good and secure as far as it goes. Moral power has begun its long series of conquests over physical force and selfish cunning, and the diviner part of man is a guarantee that not one inch of the ground gained shall ever be lost. For our encouragement, we are presented with a more condensed evidence of retribution than has hitherto been afforded to the world. Moral causes seem to be quickened as well as strengthened in their operation by the new and more earnest heed which is given to them.
In the new world, however long some moral causes may be in exhibiting their results, there have been certain deeds done which have produced their consequences with extraordinary rapidity, and in indisputable clearness. May all men open their eyes to see them, and their hearts to understand them!
The people of the United States were never under a greater temptation to follow temporary expediency in preference to everlasting principle than in the case of the admission of Missouri, with slave-institutions, into the Union. To this temptation they yielded, by a small majority of their representatives. The final decision rested, as it happened, in the hands of one man, Mr. Clay; but it is to the shame of the North, (which had abolished slavery) that it did so happen. The decision was made to prefer custom and expediency to principle; it was hoped that if the wind were once got under confinement, something would prevent its bursting forth as the whirlwind.
The plea of slave-holders, and a plausible one up to the year 1820, was that slavery was not an institution of their choice, or for which they were answerable: it was an inherited institution. Since the year 1820, this plea has become hypocrisy; for in that year, a deliberate vote was passed by Congress to perpetuate slavery in the Union, by admitting a new State whose institutions had this basis. This new States north-west of the Ohio were prohibited from introducing slavery, by the very act of cession of the land: and nothing could have been easier than to have procured the exclusion of slavery from Missouri by simply refusing to admit any new State whose distinguishing institution was one incompatible in principle with the principles on which the American Constitution was founded. Missouri would undoubtedly have surrendered slavery, been admitted, and virtuously flourished, like her neighbour, Illinois. But there was division of opinion, and because the political device of the Union seemed in danger, the eternal principles of justice were set aside, and protection was deliberately pledged to slavery, not only in Missouri, but, as a consequence, in Arkansas and Florida. The Constitution and Declaration of Fights of Missouri therefore exhibit the following singular mixture of declarations and provisions. It will be seen afterwards how they are observed.
“The general assembly shall not have power to pass laws,
“It shall be their duty, as soon as may be, to pass such laws as may be necessary,
“Schools and the means of education shall for ever be encouraged in this State.
“That the right of trial by jury shall remain inviolate.
“That the accused cannot be deprived of life, liberty, or property, but by the judgment of his peers, or the law of the land.
“That cruel and unusual punishments shall not be inflicted.
“That the free communication of thoughts and opinions is one of the invaluable rights of man, and that every person may freely speak, write, and print on any subject, being responsible for the abuse of that liberty.”
The consequences of the compromise began to show themselves first in the difference between the character of the population in Missouri and Illinois; the latter of which is two years older than the former. They lie opposite each other on the Mississippi, and both are rich in advantages of soil, climate, and natural productions. They showed, however, social differences from the very beginning of their independent career which are becoming more striking every day. Rapacious adventurers, who know that the utmost profit of slaves is made by working them hard on a virgin soil, began flocking to Missouri; while settlers who preferred smaller gains to holding slaves sat down in Illinois. When it was found, as it soon was, that slavery does not answer so well in the farming parts of Missouri as on the new plantations of the South, a further difference took place. New settlers perceived that, in point of immediate interest merely, the fine lands of Missouri were less worth having, with the curse of slavery upon them, than those of Illinois without it. In vain has the price of land been lowered in Missouri as that in Illinois rose. Settlers go first and look at the cheaper land: some remain upon it; but many recross the river, and settle in the rival State. This enrages the people of Missouri. Their soreness and jealousy, combined with other influences of slavery, so exasperate their prejudices against the people of colour as to give a perfectly diabolical character to their hatred of negroes and the friends of negroes. That such is the temper of those who conduct poplar action in the State, is shown by some events which happened in the year 1836. In the very bottom of the souls of the American statesmen who admitted Missouri on unrighteous terms, these events must kindle a burning comparison between what the social condition of the frontier States of their honourable Union is and what it might have been.
A man of colour in St. Louis was arrested for some offence, and rescued by a free man of his own colour, a citizen of Pennsylvania, named Mackintosh, who was steward on board a steam-boat then at St. Louis. Mackintosh was conveyed to gaol for rescuing his comrade, whose side of the question we have no means of knowing. Mackintosh appears to have been a violent man; or, at least, to have been in a state of desperation at the time that he was on his way to gaol, guarded by two peace-officers. He drew a knife from his side (almost every man on the western frontier being accustomed to carry arms,) killed one of the officers, and wounded the other. He was immediately lodged in the prison. The wife and children of the murdered officer bewailed him in the street, and excited the rage of the people against Mackintosh. Some of the citizens acknowledged to me that his colour was the provocation which aggravated their rage so far beyond what it had ever been in somewhat similar cases of personal violence; and that no one would have dreamed of treating any white man as this mulatto was treated. The citizens assembled round the gaol in the afternoon, demanding the prisoner; and the gaoler delivered him up. He was led into the city; and when there, they did not know what to do with him. While deliberating, they tied him to a tree. This seemed to suggest the act which tongues echoed the cry. Brushwood was rooted up, and a heap of green wood piled about the man. Who furnished the fire does not seem to be known. Between two and three thousand of the citizens of St. Louis were present. Two gentlemen of the place assured me that the deed was done by the hands of nto more than six; but they could give no account of the reasons why the two or three thousand stood by in silence to witness the act of the six, further than that they were afraid to interfere!
The victim appears to have made no resistance nor entreaty. He was, some say twenty minutes, some say half an hour, in dying; during the whole of which time he was praying or singing hymns, in a firm voice. This fact was the ground of an accusation, made by magistrates, of his being “connected with the abolitionists.” When his legs were consumed, so that his body dropped into the fire, and he was no longer seen, a bystander observed to another, “There! it is over with him: he does not feel any more now.” “Yes, I do,” observed the man's quiet voice from out of the flames.
I saw the first notice which was given of this in the St. Louis newspapers. The paragraph briefly related that a ruffian of colour had murdered a citizen, had been demanded by the indignant fellow-citizens of the murdered man, and burned in the neighbourhood of the city: that this unjustifiable act was to be regretted; but that it was hoped that the veil of oblivion would be drawn over the deed. Some of the most respectable of the citizens were in despair when they found that the newspapers of the Union generally were disposed to grant the last request; and it is plain that on the spot, no one dared to speak out about the act. The charge of Judge Lawless (his real name) to the Grand Jury is a sufficient commentary upon the state of St. Louis society. He told the jury that a bad and lamentable deed had been committed, in burning a man alive without trial; but that it was quite another question whether they were to take any notice of it. It it should be proved to be the act of the few, every one of those few ought undoubtedly to be indicted and punished: but if it should be proved to be the act of the many, incited by that electric and metaphysical influence which occasionally carries on multitude to do deeds above and beyond the law, it was no affair for a jury to interfere in. He spoke of Mackintosh as connected with the body of abolitionists. Of course, the affair was found to be electric and metaphysical, and all proceedings were dropped.
All proceedings in favour of law and order: other of an opposite character were vigorously instituted by magistrates, in defiance of some of those clauses of the Constitution which I have quoted above. The magistrates of St. Louis prosecuted a domiciliary inquisition into the periodical publications of the city, visiting the newspaper offices, prying and threatening, and offering rewards for the discovery of any probability that the institution of slavery would be spoken against in print. In the face of the law, the press was rigidly controlled.
Information was given, while the city was in this excited state, of every indication of favour to the coloured people, and of disapprobation of slavery; and the savages of St. Louis were on the alert to inflict vengeance. In Marion College, Palmyra, (Missouri) two coloured boys to read. These boys were carried by them to the college for service, the one being employed on the farm, and the other in the college, to clean shoes and wait on the young men. One afternoon, a large number of citizens from St. Louis, well mounted, appeared on the Palmyra road; and they made no secret of their intention to lynch the two students who taught their servants to read. The venerable Dr. Nelson, who was, I believe, at the head of the institution, came out of his house to implore the mob with tears not to proceed; and the ladies of his family threw themselves down in the road in the way of the horses. The way was forcibly cleared, and the persecutors proceeded. The young men came forth as soon as summoned. They were conducted to the edge of the forest, where it opens upon a prairie. There a circle was formed, and they were told that they stood in a Lynch court.
The younger one was first set in the midst. He acknowledged the act with which he was charged. He was offered the alternative of receiving twenty lashes with the horrid cowhide, (which was shown him) or of immediately leaving the State for ever. He engaged to leave the State for ever, and was set across the river into Illinois.
The elder student made his trial a longer one. He acknowledged the act of teaching his servant to read, and made himself heard while he defended it. He pleaded that he was a citizen of Missouri, being of age, and having exercised the suffrage at the last election. He demanded a fair trial in a court of law, and pledged himself to meet any accusation there. At last it came to their binding him to a tree, and offering him the choice of two hundred lashes with the cowhide, or of promising to leave the State, and never to return to it. He know that a sentence of two hundred lashes meant death by torture: (it is so understood in Lynch courts:) and he knew that a promise thus extorted was not binding: so he promised. He was also set across the river, where he immediately published a narrative of the whole transaction, and declared his intention of returning to his State, to resume the duties and privileges of citizenship, as soon as he could be personally safe.
The St. Louis Lynchers next ordered the heads of Marion College to hold a public meeting, and declare their convictions and feelings on the subject of slavery. They were obeyed, and they put pretty close questions to the Professors, especially Dr. Ely who was a suspected man.
Dr. Ely came from one of the eastern States, and was considered by the abolitionists of his own religious persuasion to be one of their body. Some time after he went into Missouri, it appeared incidentally in some newspaper communications that he had bought a slave. His friends at the east resented the imputation, and were earnest in his vindication; but were presently stopped and thrown into amazement by his coming out with an acknowledgment and defence of the act. He thought that the way in which lie could do most good was by purchasing negroes for purposes of enlightenment. So he bought his man Abraham, designing to enlighten him for nine years, and then set him free, employing the proceeds of his nine years' labour in purchasing two other slaves, to be enlightened and robbed in the same manner, for the purpose of purchasing four more, at the expiration of another series of years; and so on. It seems astonishing that a clergyman should thus deliberately propose to confer his charities through the medium of the grossest injustice: but so it was. When, at the enforced meeting, he was questioned by the Lynchers as to his principles, he declared himself opposed to the unchristian fanaticism of abolitionism; spurned the imputation of being one of the body, and in proof of his sincerity, declared himself to be the master of one slave, and to be already contracting for more.
The Lynchers returned to St. Louis without having committed murder. They had triumphantly broken the laws, and trodden under foot their Constitution of sixteen years old. If it could be made known at what expense they were saved from bloodshed,—if it could be revealed what violence they offered to conscience, what feelings they lacerated, what convictions they stifled, what passions they kindled, what an undying worm—they fixed at the core of many a heart, at the root of many a life, it might have been clear to all eyes that the halter and the cowhide would have been merry in comparison with the tortures with which they strewed their way.
I have told enough to show what comes of compromise. There is no need to lengthen out my story of persecutions. I will just mention that the last news from Missouri that I saw was in the form of an account of the proceedings of its legislature, but which yet seems to me incredible. It is stated to have been enacted that any person, of any complexion, coming into or found in the State of Missouri, who shall be proved to have spoken, written, or printed, a word in disapprobation of slavery, or in favour of abolition, shall be sold into slavery, for the benefit of the State. If, in the fury of the moment, such a law should really have been passed, it must speedily be repealed. The general expectation is that slavery itself will soon be abolished in Missouri, as it is found to be unprofitable and perilous, and a serious drawback to the prosperity of the region.
What a lesson is meantime afforded as to the results of compromise! Missouri might now have been a peaceful and orderly region, inhabited by settlers as creditable to their country as those of the neighboring free States, instead of being a nest of vagabond slave-dealers, rapacious slave-drivers, and ferocious rioters. If the inhabitants think it hard that all should be included in a censure which only some have deserved, they must bestir themselves to show in their legislature, and by their improved social order, that the majority are more respectable than they have yet shown themselves to be. At present, it seems as if one who might have been a prophet preaching in, the wilderness, had preferred the profession of a bandit of the desert. But it should never be forgotten whence came the power to inflict injury,—by a permission being given where there should have been a prohibition. Whatever danger there ever was to the Union from difference of opinion on the subject of the compromise is now increased. The battle has still to be fought at a greater disadvantage than when a bad deed was done to avert it.