Ingersoll defends the traditional existence of secession throughout American history, but ultimately condemns it as inadvisable and rash.

Charles Ingersoll's "Letter to a Friend in a Slave State," Part Four

Editor’s Note

Anthony Comegna, PhD

Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

For his next set of pro‐​compromise, antiwar arguments, former Congressman Charles Ingersoll undermines the “anti‐​slavery hurricane” that swept through northern states in the 1850s and the southern overreaction to it. To his mind, northerners did not feel any sort of enmity toward their southern neighbors until the fanatical abolitionists were able to successfully create a new major party. Though southerners dominated the national government since its founding, northerners did not begrudge them their political influence–if anything, it seemed to Ingersoll that northerners were well aware that they were quickly outpacing, out‐​developing the South. Rather than envy the southern planters, northern travelers looked on them with the kind of pity one might bestow on a great and majestic but crumbling building. Ingersoll presages mid‐​twentieth century historians of the “Blundering Generation” School, who argued that a generation of foolish, inept, bumbling, and power‐​seeking politicians incrementally led their country to civil war. While he certainly targets the extremists of both sections, our author reserves most ink for the North. Though southerners undoubtedly allowed themselves to be led by the worst and most blusterous, secession had a long and (at least somewhat) respectable pedigree in American history. If northerners would be honest with themselves, admit that southerners had every right to secede, and recognize the reasons they felt it necessary or advisable, the disastrous conflict could be ended. If southerners would fess up to having been reckless and foolhardy, proud and belligerent, the northern radicals’ fire would burn out. Reinstate the sorts of ‘gentlemanly agreements’ that built the Second Party System, and the American people could again take their place as leaders of the free, sensible, progressive world.

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By a Citizen of Pennsylvania


I will ask you now, to recur with me, as bearing upon the political justice of a settlement with the South, to some points of party history, as well recent as more remote. I desire by them to recall to your recollection that it is emphatically to the hard and uncompromising course of the friends of Mr. Lincoln we have to attribute as its immediate cause our present unhappy condition; and that the dogma to which the people of the South betook themselves for refuge from the anti‐​slavery hurricane, has flourished in other States than the slave holding, and in other times than those of 1860–1.

What is by the Republicans reproachfully called the slave power had, as they truly insist, with the aid of the Northern Democrats, ruled the Union for the much more considerable portion of the period which elapsed from the first election of Mr. Jefferson to the recent elevation of Mr. Lincoln. Instinctively opposed to over‐​governing, they, upon the whole, ruled judiciously, the let‐​alone policy prevailing, and never interrupted by the coming in of the opposing party without damage to the country, through the forcing system. Nor was there anything in this that revolted Northern pride; they did not ask, nor seek, nor want what the South so much valued. They attended to their affairs at home, and any traveler who opened his eyes and looked at the shining face of the prosperous North, and then at the laggard South, must have recognized the wisdom of their choice. But with the disproportion between the two parts of the country as it grew, and with increasing national wealth and power as they advanced, came the desire of the anti‐​democratic part of the North to possess so considerable a prize as the administration of them; and with it the temptation to take for their allies that active and extreme faction which were fanatically bent upon the abolition of slavery. The abolitionists gave at once to the struggle a sectional character, of the most violent and unsparing kind, and backed it by the fiercest denunciation of negro bondage so that when the North called upon the South to surrender the reins of government, they accompanied it with a cry for their property. The South, would fain have kept power as long as they could, and have contended, like other men, for mastery when it did not belong to them. But as they well knew, their slave property could never be as safe as when the Union protected it, their opposition to Northern ascendancy, fairly insisted on, would not, nor is it easy to imagine why it should, have led them beyond the limits of Constitutional resistance; and it was a bitter insult, a grievous wrong and lamentable mistake, when, after long and violent anti‐​slavery agitation, the South conducting themselves no worse than would any injured and perplexed minority, the election of anti‐​slavery candidates for the Presidency and Vice‐​presidency, with an anti‐​slavery platform, inaugurated in November, 1860, the final triumph of the exclusive North.

The elevation of Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Hamlin, to the eyes of all that chose to see things as they were, and they included the greater number of those who had cast their ballots against the Republican candidates, could not but cause a political crisis; which they flattered themselves would bring with it nothing more serious than a convention of the slave‐​holding States, to be followed, they hoped, by some arrangement, which if it did not deaden the fury of the anti‐​slavery agitation, at least would blunt its effects. But the preposterous example of South Carolina, bent upon at once withdrawing from the Union, and taking measures accordingly, led, in an evil hour, the people of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida, Arkansas, and Texas, to prepare for immediate secession, should it become, as they might deem, expedient; and upon the new President depended the course of action of each of these States.

Mr. Lincoln’s advent to Washington was looked for with hope, unknown though he was, to the country, and deep anxiety; but it soon developed itself, in his addresses delivered by the way, that we were not to find in the Republican President at a juncture that so much needed them, either the will, or the understanding of a statesman. Arrived at the centre of the movement, he exercised no influence that was not negative, or more than belonged to inaction. He had, in one of his speeches on the road from Springfield, been reported as saying, with a levity now known to be characteristic, that he would drive the machine as he found it; and such seemed really to be the limit of his ambition. The whole session of Congress, before and after Mr. Lincoln’s appearance, was a chaos of resolution, and proposals of arrangements, by members from the middle States and Southern border, and mutual defiance of the extreme South and extreme North. But no State, South Carolina excepted, was irrational, for no other desired to leave the Union; not that there were not persons in the South, and members of the Southern delegations in Washington, who, like the Northern abolitionists, desired the worst, men blinded by passion, or ruled by the desire of change. But to be able to move, they must carry their States with them, and the Southern masses, like those of the North, were for the Union. The Union majority of Missouri was upwards of eighty thousand on a test vote; that of Virginia fifty‐​six thousand; Tennessee and North Carolina refused to stir, so did even Arkansas; in the Alabama Convention, the votes were for Secession sixty‐​one, against it thirty‐​nine; in Georgia so small was the popular majority for Secession, that a change of three or four hundred votes would have turned the scale. It was well understood that the adoption of the resolutions offered by Mr. Crittenden, and earnestly and solemnly pressed by him with all his weight of influence, would have left South Carolina to secede alone. If the President elect had but signified to his friends that their passage would be agreeable to him, the mischief would have stopped –the Union losing for the moment a single State. In Pennsylvania they would have been voted at the polls with no party opposition, for the politicians would not have ventured to contend with the current, so strongly did it set in. Nor is it credible that the masses anywhere, even in New England would have rejected them; and petitions from the people poured into Washington, covered with names of those who had expended their time and thousands of their dollars to elect Mr. Lincoln, but now alarmed, and earnestly praying for measures of harmony.

We cannot bring back the past, but let us, for present instruction, bear in mind, that what the people wanted, the leaders refused because to save the country would have damaged themselves. The President was not yet installed, the patronage all undistributed, and to yield to the pressure from without and settle with the South, was to let down the pegs of every republican who had come to Washington as a place hunter, with no merit than that of uncompromising hostility to slavery. The cry of the people for peace and union was so nearly universal, that the abolition influence seemed for a moment to quail, and nothing remained utterly appeasable but the sacred thirst of the crowd that besieged the doors of the treasury. It is a melancholy truth, that if the crisis could have occurred after, instead of before the patronage had been distributed, there probably would have been a settlement and not a rupture; for then, of a hundred politicians, the disappointed ninety‐​nine would have been sulky and silent, and the hundredth a place‐​holder and content.

Nothing was done; the fourth of March came, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida had left the Union; and the border States had remained; but the places – the places – those rewards of the faithful, which before, they were only looking for, they were now in the act of receiving, and the Government engrossed in giving. Future ages will with difficulty believe that down to the 14th of April, the day after the Fall of Fort Sumter, no move was made by the new government towards saving us; but the message of the President, with the papers accompanying it, at the opening of the session of Congress, the 4th of July, 1861, are before the country, and put it beyond the possibility of doubt. That Mr. Lincoln must have a cabinet to advise him is very certain; and, if they thought it necessary, the appointment of new representatives abroad, at the more important Courts, is intelligible; but that a government should have actually spent their time in emptying and filling little offices, of which it was of no sort of public moment whether the incumbent was of one party or the other, at such a juncture, is utterly inconceivable. It was the Greeks of the lower empire on the benches of the circus when the enemy was thundering at the gates.

Six precious weeks passed after the 4th of March, as the three months that preceded it, with nothing done to meet an exigency which it was in their power to control, as the three months that preceded it, with nothing done to meet and exigency which it was in the power to control. The President says by his “policy” was “time, discussion, and the ballot box.” These were the measures of action, as denoted in the 4th of July message, resolved on for the rescue of the Union! “Time, discussion, and the ballot‐​box!” They might be well enough for the States which had seceded, and useful in those that never would secede: but Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland, Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, where the Union men were in large majorities, but needed a helping hand and encouraging word; where events were precipitating themselves; which the seceding States must carry with them, or fail, and to which every seceding hand would apply a torch, was “time, discussion and the ballot‐​box,” a policy for them? “Time, discussion and the ballot‐​box” meant the chapter of accidents. But soon Fort Sumter was fired upon and fell; the stars and stripes were hauled down, the rattlesnake hoisted in their stead; the indignant North started to their feet, and Mr. Lincoln had his cue, and a “policy!” It was a fitting prelude to the Mason and Slidell dilemma. There the Government waited and were swept into disgraceful peace; here they waited and were swept into uncompromising war. Five States, of the six which went out before Mr. Lincoln’s inauguration, and three of the four which went out after, have been lost to us because, while he could not make up his mind, the Abolitionists had made up theirs to rid the Union of the slave States.

Thus, out of the extreme purposes of some of the Southern leaders, the greediness of the seekers of office, the malignant violence of the Abolitionists, and the miserable weakness of the President, came the final event of actual secession.

But the ground was laid for it long ago, and not in the South alone. Secession was the plague of confederacies long before America was discovered; and since these colonies were planted, under different forms, but always in the same substance of defiance of federal authority, secession has abounded, in every part of the country. Let me cultivate your feeling of charitable compromise by recalling to your recollection some of the facts. It was British arms, more than the articles of confederation, that kept us together during the war of the revolution, when the requisitions of Congress, so weak was its authority, the exigency being at its highest, were disobeyed by nearly every State of the thirteen. The Federal Government was hardly organized, under the administration of Washington, when the New England delegations in Congress announced that, if the revolutionary debts of the States were not assumed by the Union, the New England States would secede. The very term, secessionist, was, no great while ago, it is to be believed, a favorite, for the American Anti‐​Slavery Society, at its annual meeting, in May, 1844, adopted a resolution “That secession from the present United States is the duty of every Abolitionist.”

With the jealousy of the states of their sovereignty, of which it was neither wise nor possible to divest them, the framers of the Constitution dealt as well as they could, but always gently. It was a jealousy, of which Franklin complained, a century ago, which existed then, which went with us through the Revolution, and has adhered to us ever since. It was always, and is now, a necessary and honorable jealousy, arising from the love of freedom, and a just apprehension of power. But liberty has its excesses as well as despotism; it is easy to persuade men, however free, that they ought to be freer; and the office of inflaming the States against Federal authority, has been, amid the heats of party, undertaken by, sometimes, the most enlightened statesmen, and often, the meanest demagogues. Patrick Henry in Virginia, Mr. Yates and Mr. Lansing in New York, the distinguished men in all parts of the country who opposed the Constitution, the leaders of the large minorities of the Massachusetts and other conventions, which by majorities only, adopted it, the conventions of the States of Rhode Island and North Carolina, which, at first, wholly rejected it, mainly based their opposition upon the necessity of the states retaining their full power, as well as right, of sovereignty. Patrick Henry, to the position taken in argument, in the Virginia Convention, that the States, by the terms of the compact, would have the right, if oppressed by the Federal Government, to secede from the Union, answered, True, we will have the right, but not the power.

The Virginia and Kentucky resolutions, from the time when they were penned by Mr. Madison and Mr. Jefferson, are passed the Legislatures of those States in 1798–9, never ceased, in any part of the Union, to be the text of the party, although from their doctrine to that of Secession, there is but a single and inevitable step. The Virginia resolutions declared it as the sense of that State “that, in case of a deliberate, palpable and dangerous exercise of other powers not granted by the said compact, the States, who are parties thereto, have the right and are in duty bound, to interpose, for arresting the progress of the evil, and for maintaining within their respective limits, the authorities, rights, and liberties, appertaining to them.” Those of Kentucky, that “each State acceded as a State, and is an integral party: that this government, created by this compact, was not made the exclusive or final judge of the extent of the powers delegated to itself, since that would have made its discretion, and not the Constitution, the measure of its powers, but that as in all other cases of compact among parties having no common judge, each party has an equal right to judge for itself, as well of infractions as of the mode and measure of redress.” And further, “That the several States who formed that instrument,” the Constitution of the United States, “being sovereign and independent, have the unquestionable right, to judge of the infraction; and, that a nullification, by those sovereignties, of all unauthorized acts, done under color of that instrument, is the rightful remedy.

These resolutions, to speak of the work of such men as Mr. Madison (who afterwards, in effect, recanted) and Mr. Jefferson, in the mildest and most charitable sense, were follies of the wise, for it is in the nature of government that the power of governing should be somewhere lodged, and to denounce the perils of permitting it to be exercised by the united discretion of all, and find for it no safer depository than the uncontrolled pleasure of one, was surely an impotent and unstatesmanlike conclusion.

They were the early fruit of Democratic discontent. But in 1801 Mr. Adams and the Federalists went out, Mr. Jefferson and the Democrats came in, and the virtue of the followers of Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Jay was next to be tried, when in 1803 the purchase of Louisiana threatened to swamp Federal influence forever, by bringing into the Union and opening the great western country to a pioneer population. The right of State resistance became now New England doctrine, and was maintained by Puritanism with hereditary energy. As a specimen of its tone, take a speech in the House of Representatives, made the 14th of January, 1811, after the Louisiana question had been in fact settled for some years, and the subject long enough before the public to allow the first effervescence of party to subside, by Mr. Quincy, of Massachusetts, a member representing the city of Boston, and a gentleman of the highest standing, on the bill to admit Louisiana into the Union. “I am compelled,” said he, “to declare it as my deliberate opinion, that if this bill passes, the bonds of the Union are virtually dissolved; that the States which compose it are free from their moral obligations, and that as it will be the right of all, so it will be the duty of some, to prepare definitely for a separation – amicably if they can, violently if they must.”

But in June, 1812, when war was declared against Great Britain, and their militia was required by the Federal government, by virtue of the clause of the Constitution authorizing Congress to provide for calling them out to “repel invasion,” secession ripened fast in the cold climate of New England. Governor Strong, of Massachusetts, backed by a large majority of the legislature, proceeded under an opinion obtained by him from the highest Court of law of his State, to carry into action the dogma of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, and refusing to furnish the Massachusetts troops, he set Congress at defiance…

Governor Strong accordingly refused to obey the call for troops, but in his resistance, which did not here end, of Federal power, he went on his dangerous way, not supported by Massachusetts alone. Nothing but the peace of Ghent, signed in December, 1814, prevented that State, and perhaps others also, of the New England States, from withdrawing themselves, in some form, from the Union. Sanction was to be given to this step by a convention which was to meet at Boston at the recommendation of the famous Hartford Convention, where the preliminary movements to that object had been organized, but all of which, including the assembling of the Boston Convention, became unnecessary, and fell through, when intelligence was received of the treaty of Ghent.

The original convention was called, and sat at Hartford, Connecticut, in December, 1814, composed of delegates appointed by the constituted authorities of the States of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and of delegates “chosen by local conventions,” in the States of New Hampshire and Vermont, many of them men of the most eminent position, who after a session of three weeks, in which were fully considered the grievances of New England by reason of the war, agreed on, and transmitted to their several States, a series of resolutions…

Here was the doctrine acted upon by the seceding States in 1860 and 1861. Having pledged themselves to it, and to much more, the Convention, in adjourning, the 5th of January, 1815, resolved, by one of their resolutions, which were numerous and, at this day, read most strangely, in case their grievances should not be in the meanwhile redressed, that it was “expedient for the Legislatures of the several States to appoint delegates to another Convention, to meet at Boston, in the State of Massachusetts on the third Thursday of June next, with “such powers and instructions as the exigency of a crisis so momentous may require.” Before that day the treaty with Great Britain was signed, and the States which met at Hartford, and such others as might have been represented in the hotter region of Boston, lost forever the glory of anticipating the Secession of 1860.