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In the hurry of those events that are swiftly deciding for us the external conditions of our national life hereafter, it is with an effort we look back on the revolution that has been going on, meanwhile, in the received theory of our public law. It is difficult even to imagine how many things were unsettled, two years ago, as to which the time has compelled a summary decision. With our old notion of the advantage and the certainties found in a written code of constitutional maxims, we forgot how the interpretation of those maxims must be a matter of time, and the slow accumulation of precedent. It is by a long process of growth that the organic law of a people gets adjusted to its needs, temper, and experience. A time of revolution is a forcing-season, - or rather a ripening season, when a September day makes more visible change than a month of June. These two years have done more than the previous half-century to make clear and positive the rules by which our organic law is to be interpreted. Granting only the cohesive force to prevent actual disruption under the strain of this convulsion, and more has been done to ripen the sense of nationality, to give birth to genuine loyalty, to shape and define the objects of public policy, than three generations of prosperous peace. “Nations have long periods of annals, brief periods of history." *
The Thirty-Seventh Congress has won its place in history more by deeds than by thoughts or words; more by the acts which were forced upon it in the stress of the time, than by the deliberate adoption or the eloquent exposition of any clear line of policy. With few exceptions, it has not been a Congress of marked ability. It has shown little of that sort of eloquence - even of that sort of passion, or fiery conviction, or eager devotion to the perilled interests of the state — which we naturally look for in revolutionary times. In these matters it presents a striking, and by no means flattering, contrast with the two great legislatures with which it is most natural to compare it, — the Long Parliament of 1640 and the Constituent Assembly of 1789. It was not elected to meet an emergency. It came into being through the ordinary machinery of our
* Sermon on “ The Aspects of the War," by J. F. Clarke.
party politics, in that era of careless and easy confidence which was the lull before the gathering storm. The springs of the nation's courage, and its magnificent faith in its own destiny, had not been touched. The Congress that was called together felt but imperfectly the magnetism of the popular will. Old party jealousies rankled; and the dominant party felt itself so strong, that it could afford to indulge in the luxury of personal spites and cliques. Its dignity was damaged, too, by the mere fact of secession. It was insulted with the epithet of “RumpCongress”; it was accused as representing, not the nation, but a fragment, a geographical division of the nation. This fact gave it weakness, but should have made keener its sense of dignity and self-respect. Nothing, on the contrary, more sets it apart from the two great revolutionary assemblies just referred to, than its slowness to comprehend the magnitude or apprehend the solemnity of the occasion it was called to meet. Imperfectly representing the popular fervor and faith, it very completely represented the fretful impatience of the popular temper. The lack of moral dignity in a body which could not shun being the mark of most eager expectation on one side, and most jealous criticism on the other, was one of the most discreditable results of the party politics of the last thirty years. It has been only slowly done away by the overwhelming gravity of the questions at issue, and the calamities of the war, -- together, as we think, with the sincere and patriotic purpose with which the Executive has discharged his high and difficult responsibility.
We do not propose, at this day, to offer any verdict as to the executive abilities and the public course of President Lincoln. History, which judges men inexorably by success or failure, is sure to detect the lurking causes of either. We do not assume to anticipate its judgment. But history, in summing up the evidence, will bear in mind that at each critical juncture the initiative was forced on Mr. Lincoln under circumstances of the most terrible responsibility ; that he accepted it without impatience, — almost with too much patience, — yet always without hesitation ; that with characteristic frankness he appealed to the legislature for ratification or authority in every doubtful step he was compelled to take; and that, to a remark
able degree, the acts of legislation which have made this period so momentous in our constitutional history have been prompted by his direct suggestion, or wrought out by constant and plain counsel with his Cabinet and himself. Singularly faithful to our republican traditions, he would have preferred that the steps of hazardous responsibility should be taken first by the more immediate representatives of the people. Yet, with the political consistency and courage that are the birthright of a republican magistrate, he has never that we remember shrunk from assuming the full weight of it, whenever an obnoxious act must be done or an obnoxious man defended, when any blunder or neglect in military matters had to be remedied, or any oversight in legislation or unforeseen emergency required a voice of authority to proclaim the need. Errors of judgment he may have committed ; but for months he suffered under charges of them which the first word of clear evidence disproved. Much reading in history and much experience in statesmanship had been denied to him; yet, for one compelled to take so many steps in absolute darkness, we think the verdict will be that he has made very few mistakes. Even the idiosyncrasies of manner, his baffling of impatient questioners and critics by story or jest, or by argument which his conduct presently appeared to contradict, seem to have been the honest frontiersman's substitute for that armor of polished diplomacy by which statesmen bred in courts find it necessary to disguise their purposes. That he has interfered sometimes where interference was unwise, may be true; but the greater danger lay the other way, - in a cowardly shirking and shifting of the responsibility. How high a virtue is that moral courage which Mr. Lincoln has shown in his difficult office, we should not have perfectly known but for the hopeless imbecility of the months which preceded it. His chief defect, perhaps, is the lack of a prompt and imperious will. Yet to him belongs forever, unchallenged, the glorious distinction, that by one brave act at the very outset of his administration an act so brave that most men believed it impossible to be done — he broke the evil spell that held the nation enchanted and bound. He saved the nation the bitter shame of suffering judgment to go against it by default. In VOL. LXXIV. - 5TH S. VOL. XII. NO. III.
answer to the insolent boast from the South, to the insolent taunt from Europe, that the Union was dissolved, and the nation was already crumbled into fragments, “ he declared that the government of the United States still existed ; and he announced the fact to them and to the world in resounding cannonades, whose meaning is plain enough. What they say is, that the law must be executed in Charleston and Savannah and Richmond and New Orleans, in order that it may have authority in Philadelphia and New York and Chicago and San Francisco ; that our flag must fly again at Fort Sumter, that it may be honored on the high seas and in foreign ports ; and that, when this government discusses the right of secession, it will not be with secret plotters of treason and armed rebels to its authority.”
It were a task beyond our limits to trace, even in its simplest outline, the course of policy by which a government so completely demoralized and disarmed as this was a little more than two years ago has become a power strong, reso lute, equipped, confident and stern of purpose, armed with the numbers, the wealth, and the will of a vast population, victorious over party division and lurking treason in the loyal States, unshaken in purpose and hope to crush the strength of confederate rebellion. One cardinal feature of its policy — that in regard to slavery -- we have heretofore discussed as fairly and fully as we were able.f A few other points, of hardly less importance, we can only present in a summary showing, as an index or odometer, by which to know how far these two years of legislation have brought us, and by what sort of road.
First, to strengthen the military arm, - crippled as it was by the desertion of officers, the seizure of forts, the dispersion of the fleet, the abstraction of supplies, and the virtual disbanding in Texas of a large proportion of the rank and file of the army. The leaders in rebellion had assumed that constitutional scruples and official timidity would prevent the loss from being ever supplied ; that local jealousies, such as existed in the war of 1812, I would forbid the militia of the
* Fisher's “ Trial of the Constitution,” p. 188.
When Mr. Jeremiah Mason, of Massachusetts, contended that the State mili. tia could not be called to serve beyond the State boundaries.
States to be employed. It was a bold act that summoned seventy-five thousand men to arms on the 15th of April, 1861. Congress responded at once and nobly. No less than sixty acts, in the extra session of July 4th, have the single object to provide most perfectly for the nation's defence. Recognizing the proportions of the struggle, it early authorized an army of half a million volunteers (July 22); increase of the navy (July 24) and of the standing army (July 29) immediately followed; the efficiency of the militia force was largely augmented, both at this time, and a year later by the law authorizing a nine months' draft (July 17, 1862); the national military force liable to be called into service is made by one of the latest acts (March 3, 1863) to consist of every able-bodied male citizen between the ages of twenty and fortyfive, — the few exceptions being almost all on grounds of simple humanity;* and authority has been given to employ at need that most terrible and questionable arm of modern warfare, the issue of letters of marque, – judiciously restricted to three years, and as yet unused, - so as to meet on their own ground the armed speculators in treason and piracy, who build and man their fleets in British ports, and furnish rebellion with its most formidable weapons.f
Again, if it was not the deliberate purpose of the traitors in office, in that disastrous winter two years ago, to cripple by bankruptcy and financial panic the government they betrayed, such was at least the danger and the threat. The measures taken to sustain the public credit have been, first, a direct tax of twenty million dollars (August 5, 1861), laid according to the plain but difficult provisions of the Constitution, with the supplement enforcing its provisions on the rebellious States (June 7, 1862); the successive modifications of the tariff
* Compare the cautious provisions of the Act of July 29, 1861.
† A private letter received from England says (January 26) : “ I tell people, that we shall have to pay for every shilling of damage done by the Alabama ; so they bad better stop the other ships from getting out at Liverpool. It is clear you have us in your power; for when you solemnly demand repayment, it will cost more to arm against you than to pay up; and quite sure it is, that the nation will never support the government to the point of war in so detestable a cause."
" The most destructive missiles were of English manufacture, principally Whitworth’s steel-pointed projectiles.” — Report of the Attack at Charleston, April 7.