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Gentlemen, I certainly had no expectation of appearing before such an assemblage as this to-day. It is not probable that, for a long time to come, I may again address any large meeting of my fellow-citizens. If I should not, and if this should be the last, or among the last, of all the occasions on which I am to appear before any great number of the people of the country, I shall not regret that that appearance was here. I find myself in the political capital of the greatest, most commercial, most powerful State of the Union. I find myself here by the invitation of persons of the highest respectability, without distinction of party. I consider the occasion as somewhat august. I know that among those who now listen to me there are some of the wisest, the best, the most patriotic, and the most experienced public and private men in the State of New York. Here are governors and ex-governors, here are judges and ex-judges, of high character and high station; and here are persons from all the walks of professional and private life, distinguished for talent, and virtue, and eminence. Fellow-citizens, before such an assemblage, and on such an invitation, I feel bound to guard every opinion and every expression; to speak with precision such sentiments as I advance, and to be careful in all that I say, that I may not be misapprehended or misrepresented.
I am requested, fellow-citizens, by those who invited me, to express my sentiments on the state of public affairs in this country, and the interesting questions which are before us. This proves, Gentlemen, that in their opinion there are questions sometimes arising which range above all party, and all the influences and considerations and interests of party. It proves more; it proves that, in their judgment, this is a time in which public affairs rise in importance above the range of party, and draw to them an interest paramount to all party considerations, If this be not so, I am here without object, and you are listening to me for no purpose whatever.
Then, Gentlemen, what is the condition of public affairs which makes it necessary and proper for men to meet, and confer together on the state of the country? What are the ques . tions which are transcending, subduing, and overwhelming party, inciting honest, well
meaning persons to lay party aside, and to meet and confer for the general weal? I shall, of course, not enter at large into many of these questions, nor into any length
ened discussion of the state of public affairs, but shall endeavor in general to state what that condition is, what those questions are, and to pronounce a conscientious judgment of my own upon the whole.
The last Congress, fellow-citizens, passed laws called adjustment measures, or settlement measures; laws intended to put an end to certain internal and domestic controversies existing in the country, and some of which had existed for a long time. These laws were passed by the constitutional majorities of both houses of Congress. They received the constitutional approbation of the President. They are the laws of the land. To some or all of them, indeed to all of them, at the time of their passage, there existed warm and violent opposition. None of them passed without heated discussion. Government was established in each of the Territories of New Mexico and Utah, but not without opposition. The boundary of Texas was settled by compromise with that State, but not without determined and earnest resistance. These laws all passed, however, and, as they have now become, from the nature of the case, irrepealable, it is not necessary that I should detain you by discussing their merits or demerits. Nevertheless, Gentlemen, I desire, on this and all public occasions, in the clearest and most emphatic manner, to declare, that I hold some of these laws, and especially that which provided for the adjustment of the controversy with Texas, to have been essential to the preservation of the public peace.
I will not now argue that point, nor lay before you at length the circumstances which existed at that time; the peculiar situation of things in so many of the Southern States; the fact that many of those States had adopted measures for the separation of the Union; or the fact that Texas was preparing to assert her claims to territory which New Mexico thought was hers by right, and that hundreds and thousands of men, tired of the ordinary pursuits of private life, were ready to rise and unite in any enterprise that might offer itself to them, even at the risk of a direct conflict with the authority of this government. I say, therefore, without going into the argument with any detail, that in March of 1850, when I found it my duty to address Congress on these important topics, it was my conscientious belief, and it still remains unshaken, that if the controversy with
Texas could not be amicably adjusted, there must, in all probability, be civil war and bloodshed; and in the contemplation of such a prospect, although we took it for granted that no opposition could arise to the authority of the United States that would not be suppressed, it appeared of little consequence on which standard victory should perch. But what of that? I was not anxious about military consequences; I looked to the civil and political state of things, and their results, and I inquired what would be the condition of the country, if, in this state of agitation, if, in this vastly extended, though not generally pervading feeling at the South, war should break out and bloodshed should ensue in that quarter of the Union? That was enough for me to inquire into and consider; and if the chances had been but one in a thousand that civil war would be the result, I should still have felt that that one thousandth chance should be guarded against by any reasonable sacrifice, because, Gentlemen, sanguine as I am of the future prosperity of the country, strongly as I believe now, after what has passed, and especially after the enactment of those measures to which I have referred, that it is likely to hold together, I yet believe firmly that this Union, once broken, is utterly incapable, according to all human experience, of being reconstructed in its original character, of being re-cemented by any chemistry, or art, or effort, or skill of man.
Now, then, Gentlemen, let us pass from those measures which are now accomplished and settled. California is in the Union, and cannot be got out; the Texas boundary is settled, and cannot be disturbed; Utah and New Mexico are Territories, under provision of law, according to accustomed usage in former cases; and these things may be regarded as finally adjusted. But then there was another subject, equally agitating and equally irritating, which, in its nature, must always be subject to reconsideration or proposed amendment, and that is, the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, passed at the same session of Congress.
Allow me to advert, very shortly, to what I consider the ground of that law. You know, and I know, that it was very much opposed in the Northern States; sometimes with argument not unfair, often by mere ebullition of party, and often by those whirlwinds of fanaticism that raise a dust and blind the eyes, but produce no other effect. Now, Gentlemen, this ques
tion of the propriety of the Fugitive Slave Law, or the enactment of some such law, is a question that must be met. Its enemies will not let it sleep or slumber. They will "give neither sleep to their eyes nor slumber to their eyelids” so long as they can agitate it before the people. It is with them a topic, a desirable topic, and all who have much experience in political affairs know, that, for party men and in party times, there is hardly any thing so desirable as a topic. Now, Gentlemen, I am ready to meet this question. I am ready to meet it, and ready to say that it was right, proper, expedient, and just that a suitable law should be passed for the restoration of fugitive slaves, found in free States, to their owners in slave States. I am ready to say that, because I only repeat the words of the Constitution itself, and I am not afraid of being considered a plagiarist, nor a feeble imitator of other men's language and sentiments, when I repeat and announce to every part of the Union, to you, here, and at all times, the language of the Constitution of my country.
Gentlemen, at the period of the Revolution, slavery existed in the Southern States, and had existed there for more than a hundred years. We of the North were not guilty of its introduction. That generation of men, even in the South, were not guilty of it. It had been introduced according to the policy of the mother country, before the United States were independent; indeed, before there were any authorities in the Colonies competent to resist it. Why, Gentlemen, men's opinions have so changed on this subject, and properly, the world has come to hold sentiments so much more just, that we can hardly believe, what is certainly true, that at the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle, in 1748, the English government insisted on the fulfilment, to its full extent, of a condition in the treaty of the Asiento, signed at Utrecht, in 1713, by which the Spanish government had granted the unqualified and exclusive privilege to the British government of importing slaves into the Spanish colonies in America! That was not then repugnant to public sentiment; happily, such a contract would be execrated now.
I allude to this only to show that the introduction of slavery into the Southern States is not to be visited upon the generation that achieved the independence of this country. On the contrary, all the eminent men of that day regretted its existence. And you, my young friends of Albany, if you will take the
pains to go back to the debates of the period, from the meeting of the first Congress, in 1774, I mean the Congress of the Confederation, to the adoption of the present Constitution, and the enactment of the first laws under it, - you, or any body who will make that necessary research, will find that Southern men and Southern States, as represented in Congress, lamented the existence of slavery in far more earnest and emphatic terms than the Northern; for, though it did exist in the Northern States, it was a feeble taper, just going out, soon to end, and nothing was feared from it, while leading men of the South, and especially of Virginia, felt and acknowledged that it was a moral and political evil; that it weakened the arm of the freeman, and kept back the progress and success of free labor ; and they said with truth, and all history verifies the observation, " that if the shores of the Chesapeake had been made as free to free labor as the shores of the North River, New York might have been great, but Virginia would have been great also." That was the sentiment.
Now under this state of things, Gentlemen, when the Constitution was framed, its framers, and the people who adopted it, came to a clear, express, unquestionable stipulation and com. pact. There had been an ancient practice, a practice a century old, for aught I know, according to which fugitives from service, whether apprentices at the North or slaves at the South, should be restored. Massachusetts had restored fugitive slaves to Virginia long before the adoption of the Constitution, and it is well known that in other States, in which slavery did or did not exist, they were restored also, on proper application. And it was held that any man could pursue his slave and take him wherever he could find him. Under this state of things, it was expressly stipulated, in the plainest language, and there it stands, -sophistry cannot gloss it, it cannot be erased from the page of the Constitution ; there it stands, — that persons held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall not, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be deliv. ered up upon claim of the party to whom such service or labor shall be due. This was adopted without dissent; it was nowhere objected to, North or South, but considered as a matter of absolute right and justice to the Southern States, and con