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LETTER TO NATHANIEL MITCHELL, ESQ., OF BOSTON.
Views of W. L. Yancey, Jefferson Davis, J. C. Breckinridge, and Howell
Cobb averse to Secession prior to 1861–Alexander Hamilton and
WASHINGTON, October 12, 1861. DEAR SIR,_Your letter of the 8th instant is received. I concur fully in the views expressed by you respecting the wickedness of the present rebellion and the desperate character of many of its leading spirits; nor have I any doubt that these men, who have conspired to destroy the Government, will ere long be brought to condign punishment. It cannot be otherwise. Unless all history is false, they are certain, sooner or later, to meet the traitor's doom. They stand already condemned, not only by the united voice of true loyalty everywhere, but by the testimony of some of their own chieftains. Said Mr. W. L. Yancey, at Montgomery, in 1858: “No more inferior issue could be tendered to the South upon which we could dissolve the Union than the loss of an election." Yet the election of Mr. Lincoln, admitted on all sides to have been made according to the requirements of the Constitution, is the controlling fact on which they rely as a sufficient excuse for their infamous conduct.
Mr. Yancey continues, " When I am asked to raise the flag of rebellion against the Constitution, I am asked to do an unconstitutional thing, according to the requirements of the Constitution as it now exists. I am asked to put myself in the position of a rebel,—of a traitor ; in a position where, if the Government should succeed and put me down in the revolution, I and my friends can be arraigned before the Supreme Court of the United States, and there sentenced to be hanged for violating the Constitution and the laws of my country.”
This is clear and to the point. There is no intimation that there was any way of escape except through success. Not even the favorite subterfuge of the “right of secession” seems then to have been thought of as affording any chance for relief in case of failure.
Next hear what Mr. Jefferson Davis said in Faneuil Hall, in the month of September, 1858: “But,” he remarked, “if those voices which breathed the first instincts into the colony of Massachusetts, into those colonies which formed the United States, to proclaim community, independence, and assert it against the powerful mother-country -if those voices live here still, how must they feel [alluding to Northern disunionists] who come here to preach treason to the Constitution and assail the Union it ordained and established! It would seem that their criminal hearts would fear that those voices, so long slumbering, would break their silence, that those forms which look down from these walls, behind and around me, would come forth, and that their sabres would once more be drawn from their scabbards to drive from this sacred temple these fanatical men, who desecrate it more than did the changers of money and those who sold doves in the temple of the living God.”
If the preaching of treason in Faneuil Hall by a few fanatics should, in the opinion of Mr. Jefferson Davis, thus start the dead to life, with armor on, ready to battle for the Constitution and the Union, what must be the effect of his own conduct and that of his guilty associates in now assailing that Constitution and that Union with arms in their hands? Should he not expect that, awakened by the sound of guns aimed at that glorious • flag, whose constellation,” as he declared in his speech at Portland,“ though torn and smoked in many a battle by sea and land, has never been stained with dishonor,” — should he not, I say, look, at such a time, to see the immortal Washington, supported by his brave compatriots in arms, rise up and smite them from the face of the earth?
Much as the leaders of the rebellion relied on their own internal strength and foreign aid, they depended yet more for success on division and dissension in the free States. Even while thus professing devotion to the Constitution and the Union, looking to the possible contingency, if not the probability, of an early rupture between the North and the South, in these same speeches from which I have quoted, Mr. Davis took occasion adroitly to inculcate his peculiar States-Rights doctrines,-affirming that fealty to the Federal Government was subordinate to State allegiance, and at Faneuil Hall he exultantly said, “ And if it comes to the worst, if, availing themselves of their majority in the two Houses of Congress, they should attempt to trample upon our equality in the Union, I believe that there are here in Massachusetts States-Rights Democrats, who have not been represented in Congress for many a day, in whose breasts beats the spirit of the revolution, who can whip the black Republicans.”
In the same confident tone Mr. J. C. Breckinridge, deprecating the employment of force against the revolting cotton States, in his letter of the 6th of January last to the Governor of Kentucky, held this language: “The Federal Union cannot be preserved by arms. The attempt would unite the Southern States in resistance, while in the North a great multitude of true and loyal men never would consent to shed the blood of our people in the name and under the authority of a violated compact.”
Such, I think I am correct in saying, was the opinion of most of the prominent politicians, not to say statesmen, of the South prior to the inauguration of the war by “ that ungodly and unmanly assault upon the little garrison of Sumter” (as Mr. Winthrop forcibly characterizes it); nor is it more strange that they indulged this belief than that
they finally became so lost to all sense of honor as to plunge the country from the height of prosperity and happiness into a cruel civil war. By the aid of their friends in the free States they had hitherto secured nearly everything they had demanded and maintained their supremacy in the Government, and, like spoiled children, they had the presumption to think that these friends would adhere to them to the extent even of assisting to trample the flag of their country in the dust.
The more I reflect upon the atrocious conduct of these men, the more amazed do I become at the enormity of their guilt. Who, one year ago, would have believed such a spectacle possible as that which we behold to-day?-more than two hundred thousand men in arms against our Government, a Government the most beneficent the world ever saw, and all this primarily through the influence and combined action of probably less than one hundred individuals. It could not and did not take place alone from natural causes. No adequate cause nor combination of causes existed to justify it. The whole country was prosperous, and the people, in spite of the angry contentions of politicians, were generally contented and happy. Even after the conspirators succeeded in breaking up the Democratic Conventions at Charleston and Baltimore,—which, it now plainly appears, was an important step, sternly determined on and resolutely carried out, in their programme of disunion,the great mass of the Southern people were loyal in their feeling, so much so that Mr. Yancey himself, in his public address before them, was constrained to profess a love for the Union; and Mr. Breckinridge, as a candidate for the Presidency, and especially for the extreme States-Rights party, felt compelled in the most emphatic manner to declare himself devotedly attached to the Union. IIere is what he said on the occasion of being serenaded at his home in Frankfort, on the 18th of July, 1860 : “Fellowcitizens,-As to the charge that the convention to which I owe my nomination, or that the friends who support me, or that I myself am tainted with a spirit of disunion, how absurd to make a response to a Kentucky audience, and in this old district, too! I am an American citizen,-a Kentuckian who never did an act nor cherished a thought that was not full of devotion to the Constitution and the Union. ... That Constitution was framed and transmitted by the wisest generation of men that ever lived in the tide of time. It may be called an inspired instrument. It answered them at an early day. It has answered our purpose. It is good enough for our posterity to keep it pure.”
Alas! Where now is this once proud and gallant Kentuckian who so recently filled the second highest office in the gift of the republic? A fugitive from his own loyal State, not merely “ tainted with a spirit of disunion," but, with shame and mortification be it spoken, an open rebel and traitor, in the camp and service of the enemy.
One of the ablest and purest among Southern statesmen, Mr. J. S. Millson, late representative in Congress from the Norfolk district, in a letter dated August 21, 1860, said : “ Mr. Breckinridge was, I fear, put up to be beaten, not to be elected, and to make sure, also, of the defeat of any Democratic competitor. . . . That there is a purpose to accomplish the destruction of the present Union I have much reason to fear."
But referring to the controversies then going on upon issues relating to slavery, both between the Democratic and Republican, and between the two sections of the Democratic party, he remarked : “ The truth is, both quarrels relate rather to speculative differences of opinion than to evils or dangers of which there is any well-founded apprehension. I allude, of course, to evils and dangers resulting from Federal legislation. And yet the quarrel has never been fiercer than now. The explanation must be sought, not in history, but in psychology: it is, that there