Ingersoll tries to revive the Second Party System’s spirit of compromise–one marked by wilful ignorance of slavery, its horrors, and its legacy.

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

Editor’s Note

Anthony Comegna, PhD

Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

For our final number, we take time to reflect on the record of Ingersoll’s brand of compromise and conciliation. His concluding section unequivocally denounces southern secessionists and northern fanatic, warmongering abolitionists. These rash, reckless parties drove their country apart with self‐​serving, egotistical actions, they broke up the Union by drawing the sword, and they maintained their positions only so long as the peace‐​loving people of both sections allowed themselves to be led. Ingersoll’s Second Party System was the solution–that political alignment pioneered by Van Buren between 1824 and 1828 and solidified by Clay’s opposition party, the Whigs. Van Buren’s party system recognized that parties were inevitable and indeed healthy influences in a democracy. Rather than run from them–like so many from the Founding generation–Van Buren decided to harness, channel and exploit their power. Van Buren built his Democracy by uniting the workingmen and plain republicans of New York with the yeoman farmers of Virginia. This idealized coalition was reinforced by command of a complex partisan establishment operated by a long series of faction‐​wrangling bosses and publicists. Plain republicans and yeoman are useful, no doubt, but Van Buren’s daily concerns were more closely occupied by managing the Albany Regency and the Richmond Junto. Van Buren’s party system featured a tenuous and troublesome “gentleman’s agreement” to leave slavery out of public discourse as much as possible. His allies in Congress–northerners and southerners both–went so far as to “gag” antislavery representatives like former President John Quincy Adams. Antislavery activists claimed that any compromise with slaveholders was evil and unacceptable, but for Ingersoll it was a critical component of modern democracy and republican governance. Without a powerful will to live peacefully, to tolerate one another’s imperfections, even the most affluent societies might plunge into chaos and death. Those who would continue the upward arc of history must be willing to live and let live.

Yet, while we may find much wisdom in this point of view, what Ingersoll leaves unexpressed is at least as important and sobering. While he has every due concern for the white southerners’ wellbeing, he has little criticism for the slave society “fanatics” so hated. For all his libertarian‐​like logic about the rewards of peaceful interaction, he shows little or no care for the enslaved majority in states like South Carolina and Mississippi. To compromisers, conciliators, and coalition‐​builders like Ingersoll and Van Buren, the worst social conflicts were best left out of public view. The planters could have their slaves so long as they didn’t demand too much from northerners to keep ahold of them. The northerners could have their plain republicanism so long as they didn’t begin dictating southern institutions. Rather than crusade against one or the other set of exploiters (or both), the compromising advocates of the old party system accepted violence and exploitation as a fact of the world. Eventually, they positively embraced it.

Their purpose was to channel conflict into peaceful, prosperous, stable political change. The turbulent, disruptive 1850s and 60s shoved the American people off this path to progress, but by 1876 the compromisers and coalitionists returned to power. The Bryants and the Bigelows became disgusted with Grant’s Republican Party, casting their ballots for Martin Van Buren’s direct political heir, Samuel Tilden. By pulling their votes from the Republican Party and declaring victory in the great abolition war, many significant early reformers helped bring their cause to a conclusion. Reconstruction’s failure signaled the end of “fanaticism” and the revival of “gentleman’s agreements” that violence should remain–but it should remain localized, contained, and outside the realm of acceptable national politics.

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By a Citizen of Pennsylvania


The 24th of November, 1832, piloted by Mr. Calhoun the State of South Carolina, by what they denominated a nullifying ordinance, which was the new name they gave to Secession, declared that “the several acts and parts of acts of the Congress, especially those of the 28th May, 1828, and 14th July, 1832, imposing duties on imports, were “unauthorized by the Constitution of the United States, and violated the true meaning and intent thereof, and are null and void, and no law.”

When, in the session of Congress of 1836–37, the slavery agitation, which it was hoped had ended with the Missouri question of 1819–20, was resumed, never since to cease for a moment, it produced among its results, state acts, defying or seceding from a portion only, of the Federal Constitution. The rejected portion was the provision for the restoration of fugitives from labor, which, by the States enacting these laws, called Personal Liberty Bills, sometimes with open boldness, sometimes with evasive duplicity, was set at naught. These statutes engendered in malice, and not like the New England and South Carolina resistances of 1812 and 1832, in a sense of supposed injury, by which so many States set aside the part of the Constitution of the United States which they did not choose to comply with, had immense operation in the region at which they were aimed, in bringing and reconciling men’s minds to the movement of 1860–61.

Massachusetts, in 1814, had not, by continuous action for a course of years, defied the laws of the Union; Virginia and Kentucky, in 1798, had not approached, and South Carolina, in 1832, had not quite reached the point of action; but here were resistance and defiance of Federal authority, violently , persistently, and, to all appearance, irrevocably adopted into state legislation; and depriving, from time to time, citizens of the United States of property of a particular and most delicate kind, solemnly guaranteed to them by the Constitution. These enactments, repeated over the North, through the influence of the abolitionists, openly avowing their purpose to dissolve the Union, and of their party allies not only joining in any desire to invade the peace of the country, but by a singular infatuation, to the last moment, refusing to believe it was in danger, were revolts against the Constitution in a more really dangerous form than any in which secession had yet appeared. They were more perilous than when secession took the form of opposition to revenue measures, or war, or to the alien and sedition laws, because aided by that irrepressible instinct of man’s nature, which teaches him to love freedom and not slavery, they damaged, and were able to threaten the eventual destruction of an interest, at the same time the most vulnerable and the most wide spread, the very thought of a general assault upon which was frightful to all concerned in it. They were part of a system of torture, unrelentingly applied for a quarter of a century, by which the South were driven mad. The perplexity which haunted the owners of four millions of slaves, under the influence of incessant and ferocious anti‐​slavery agitation, from 1836 to 1861, that increased in violence and enlarged in extent from one Presidential canvas to another, was at last, too much for them, and in 1861, appealing from New England fanaticism, to the New England doctrine of 1814, that “States which have no common umpire, must be their own judges, and execute their own decisions,” slavery flew to arms from the Rio Grande to the Potomac.

The State that defies the Federal Constitution runs into revolution, and the reasoning that maintains it can do so constitutionally, is perverse; and so is the reasoning which insists that to annul one provision, by making laws against restoring slaves, is less unconstitutional than to annul them all, by going out of the Union. But the countenance given it by the organized action of so many States was not lost on individuals, and tempted to demagoguism occasionally, statesmen – oftener, less noble politicians. Mr. Lincoln’s doctrine laid down as lately as 1848, as the rule of men’s right to defy the government under which they live, is ‘inclination,” and their power to carry it through…

Here is secession in its cups: from all this to the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions, is the appeal from secession drunk to secession sober. The authors of those resolves, thinking with the rest of the world, that nothing but intolerable wrong can justify revolution, find the way through what they call an open door, but which was a breach in the Constitution, to revolutionary defiance of it. Mr. Lincoln deeming revolution virtue, “where being inclined and having the power,” the promoters of it “can shake off the existing government and form a new on that suits them better,” disdains to mince into secession this “most valuable and most sacred right of rebellion.”

And what does he mean, when, after telling us that this most valuable right is not confined in the exercise of it to “the whole people of an existing government,” he goes on to say that “any portion of such people that can, may revolutionize;” and again, rising in the climax, “that more than this, a majority of any portion of such people may revolutionize?” Does he mean that any fragment of a portion of a State may rebel and set up for itself; that in the ocean each drop is an ocean, and may declare itself an ocean, and have tides, tempests, and sea monsters for itself? If they be “inclined and have the power,” no part of the population can be too small to rebel!!!

It was the saying of the famous Carnot, a man of the first order, and an unquestionable democrat, — perhaps the truth lies between him and Mr. Lincoln, — after playing one of the busiest parts in the most effective revolution the world ever saw, that in his judgement it was better to submit to the worst government, than attempt to pull it down. But the tendency is to the denial of authority, and politicians simulate it by false doctrine. In 1798 Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Madison dipped their hands in this kind of mistake; in 1848 Mr. Lincoln jumps into a horse‐​pond of it. Who would have believed who listened (if there were listeners) to such stuff as this in 1848, that in 1861 the speaker of it would be sending his messages to Congress as President of the United States, and marshalling armies against doctrines which are unintelligible enough, but, when compared with his own muddy principles, are purity itself?

Ah! well would it have been for the country had this subject of resistance to constitutional authority, been always dealt with as it was by Mr. Clay, in the debate on the Compromise bill of 1850, when, in reply to a Senator, who assumed to sustain a friend who had thus erred, he said, “I know him personally, and have some respect for him. But if he pronounced the sentiment attributed to him, of raising the standard of disunion, and of resistance to the common government, whatever he has been, if he follows up that declaration by corresponding overt acts, he will be a traitor, and I hope he will meet the fate of a traitor!”

But for schemes of resistance to authority, no brain too deep, none too shallow; the stream of doctrine tolerating the Union, but denying its power, everywhere encouraged by political engineering, now soaking through the swamps of Carolina, now rushing over the rocks of New England, has swelled into the torrent of actual secession. We have nursed and petted what has grown to be a giant of mischief, and now, when he does his office, we can see nothing in it but “causeless and unnatural rebellion.” For exactly seventy years prior to the late Southern movement, this “causeless and unnatural rebellion’ had rioted among us, in every part of the country, not only unpunished, but applauded and caressed, encouraged by the example of States, and countenanced by the precept of Mr. Lincoln!

Secession is no new heresy in the United States; and to the present hour, in the form of nullification, abounds in Northern statute books. Let Mr. Lincoln, whose lot is to make war on it, remember equal justice, and be ready with terms of gentle peace. Let him take down from the colors of the Union his vile scroll of Unconditional Submission, and write there Conciliation and Compromise! And would it be asking too much of a magistrate whom we made and can unmake; who was elected by voters and may be impeached by their representatives, to inform his constituents, the people of the United States, categorically and exactly, what are his terms of settlement? Is it a new thing that a free people should know what they fight for?

Such are some of the reasons – of which the number could easily be swelled – why it would seem to be humane, as well as wise and necessary, to come to an amicable adjustment, if possible, with the seceded States. But have the individuals who direct the present unhappy course of the policy of the country, reflected on the peculiarities of their own personal positions, when they thus push extreme measures to their utmost limits?

The government at Washington are servants of a people who have but one desire left, all others being absorbed in it, and should they disappoint them, let them look to the day of reckoning. Large majorities in the Houses of Congress unhesitatingly co‐​operate with them, and leave no shadow of irresponsibility, under which to take shelter. They have all the troops, all the money, all the legislation which the country can give. If they make good their promises; if the war restore the Union, though coming to us with not a blade of grass, South or North; if they possess us again of the territory of the United States, the mere area of land that belongs to us, we can begin again, and, profiting by our lesson, be what we had promised ourselves. But where will they be if they bear us to destruction?

Should the wild and desperate game, now playing, of Union and Emancipation, give us no Union, and only Emancipation, they will do well to remember that revolutions, which Barrere said are not made with rose water, when they come to a bad end, usually find in the leaders of them the first victims of a deluded and exasperated people. And let the Republican party, of whom the immense majority are citizens of moderate and patriotic sentiments, transporting themselves “beyond the ignorant present,” put their houses in order against the day when revolution, in rags, may march up to the doors of every one of us. It is infinitely more probable now that eighteen months hence we shall be paying the last penalty of civil discord, than eighteen months ago it was, that we should be where we are to‐​day.

The people of the United States who have come to disaster under the delusion that, unlike the rest of mankind, they are immortal and invulnerable, in truth, have a quality not possessed in the same degree by any other population, the sentiment of individuality, the sense of each man of his own importance. This is infinitely unlike the very restricted estimate placed on himself by the inhabitant of other countries, where high rank, hereditary power, and old establishments, meet, in every direction, his eye, and with the aid of a government which quite relieves him of the cares of State, let down his pride far below the point at which is fixed that of the free and untrammeled citizen, who, standing in a new and vast country, where yet there are no monuments, look round him and says, there is nothing better than myself. This ought to be an element of strength, though the converse exactly of the sentiment of the Roman citizen that he and all he had were the City’s. Whether it be nationally force or weakness, the people in the absoluteness of their will, could they reach this question, which perplexes the present, and threatens their future, would seize and settle it; but between it and them stand two organized governments.

The objects of that of the South are undisguised; it was ordained for separation; to that their chiefs pledged themselves; they are in arms for it; to carry it through, and prevent the restoration of the Constitution and laws, they would use all means, ill or good, foreign alliance, auxiliary troops, a return to European influence, if not dominion; anything would be preferred to the Union; such is the nature of their position. It would be impolitic to act on the belief that the government at Richmond would listen to any terms of agreement which the North could, would, or ought to enter into.

But are there any terms to which the Government at Washington would agree, which the South could, would, or ought to enter into; to which any Northern Republican, imagining himself for a moment a Southern citizen, would consent? To which any people in arms, having risen to “shake off the existing Government, and form a new one that suits them better,” ever did consent? If the Government could to‐​morrow, bring back every seceded State on the terms of the Crittenden resolutions, they would not do it. And if the Crittenden arrangement be unadvisable, what other will they advise? There is none. And if there be none, what is the difference between the two Governments, on the head of opposition to the Union? The Southern victory at Bull Run strengthened the hands of Mr. Jefferson Davis, darkened the prospects of Union, and encouraged the hopes of European recognition. The Northern victory at Fort Donelson fortified the Abolition party in Congress, and enabling them to lay on the table of the House of Representatives Mr. Holman’s resolution, that the war was for the Union and the Constitution, served as so much anti‐​slavery artillery to batter them both.

Our position is most critical, and demands all our energies. That governments must occasionally stand between the people and their immediate inclinations, is true; but it is also true – and the administration ought to reflect on it – that the day has gone by when the people were not consulted; when York and Lancaster could divide and deluge the land with blood, and count the people nothing; that all they have they hold from us, and are to account for to us; and that we have no more stake in the game, playing between the abolition and secession factions as a game of dynasties, of ambition, of present power, and future Presidencies than if it lay between the White and Red Rose. We want peace and union with the South, not the humiliation of the South; and the Government that uses us to seek for more, betrays us.

Is there, then, the vital energy in the people of the United States to hold their own, and stand firm against not one, but two governments, that are bent on their ruin; not to be crushed to death in the conflict of organized and opposing forces, each ruling supreme in its section of country; one insisting on unconditional submission, which is absurd, the other on perpetual separation which is ruin; and both acting against the wishes of the people, and the Union of the States? Have we in the North fortitude to wait, undemoralized, for a Democratic House of Representatives, which cannot take their seats until December, 1863; as the passengers wait and cling to a shipwrecked vessel, and gaze helplessly at sea and sky, tossed about by the tempest, so many days more?

Are we already demoralized? The government is in the possession of the political abolitionists, who fain would perpetuate their power. They control the republicans, get along, as well as they can, with the abolitionists proper, and spurn the democrats as rebels. The state is deep in corruption, and we its citizens, exhaust our pockets, empty our veins, and peril our liberties in civil strife – which could have been ended a year ago, without raising a man or expending a dollar – for the profit of political leaders, politicians, who availing themselves of the passiveness of some, the thirst for office of others, and the fury of those of whom John Brown was no exaggerated type, have in craft and cold blood, through long years of treacherous agitation, brought us to this pass, with no better apology for it, than that they did not know what was coming!

They know it now; they knew it during the session of 1860–61. But the slavery question has, alas! its political mission – which is to make Presidents; and to settle it, would extinguish too many lights. The political Abolitionists will do nothing for us – will permit nothing to be done for us, and are as little to be trusted as the Abolitionists themselves. If we are to be rehabilitated, it must be, under God, through our own energies.

But if we submit our necks to the yoke; if we yield to unconstitutional pressure, to a mock reign of would‐​be terror; if, by a system of spying and seizing, violations of the person, violations of property, violations of the press, violations of papers and private correspondence, we are to be muzzled and hushed up; if the voice that is raised for freedom and union is to be choked in men’s throats; in the North by Mr. Lincoln, in the South by Mr. Davis; if, when our plainest word ought to be spoken in its loudest tone, some Jack‐​in‐​office is to command silence; if, at an hour when each citizen should be sentinel to the state, and public judgement monitor to authority, we, whose blood and treasure support them, are to be kept under, like an Asiatic population, by a feeble Government, at the head of a numerous army, why then, God help us!

If that Almighty and beneficent Being to whom some of our pulpits pray for success in the shock of battle, that we may make deeper gashes in our brothers’ bosoms than they can make in ours, that our swords may be sharper than theirs, our artillery more crushing, would vouchsafe more humble supplications, to enlighten the understanding and change the hart of Mr. Lincoln, it is not too late yet to restore peace and Union. But until Providence shall listen to such prayers let us make up our minds to the worst, and looking at things as they are, see in them this, that for measures having for their object the restoration of the Union, there could be less chance than with the party now controlling the Federal government.

Thus you have the views of the citizen of this midland region, who look to compromise with the South. It is the feeling of many of the Republicans, that an endeavor ought to be made to effect an amicable adjustment with the slave‐​holding States. That the Democratic party, which carried the State at the last election, and will sweep it at the next, will insist on an earnest and persistent effort, be it successful or unsuccessful, to restore the Union by measures of conciliation, you may be sure.

After more than a year of hostilities, with all the political complications, forced upon us from so many sources, and which now fill the place of the once fraternal relations between the two parts of the country, it is true that reconciliation must be difficult; but it is not impossible.

Men’s passions may be high; civil war may have stirred the depths of mutual hate, yet national fury cannot blot out the sense of individual interest and safety. Nations even in the midst of a career of foreign conquest, rejoice to return to peace. Whatever the present state of the public mind in the two sections of country now arrayed against each other, if the people of the North and South could meet in a field, they would settle their differences. They would listen to the war speeches, and then make peace. Had the South known that war was to follow, secession would not have been resorted to. Had the North known secession was to be the consequence, they would not have tolerated the slavery agitation.

We are told that the South would not return to the Union; — never would consent to come again under the federal government – that the very children are inflamed with animosity against us; — but the difficulty is with the North, not the South.

The slave States, now out of the Union, seceded and betook themselves to arms, when they would have rejoiced to remain with us on terms which the mass of the Republican party desired to offer, and which now ought to be freely tendered them. Why should they not return on the same terms, on which they would have remained?

That the feeling in the seceded States is extreme, may be admitted; it is the natural and necessary consequence of the war, but it would be reasoning against the current of human motive to argue that the people of those States would rather suffer the ills which must accompany the Northern attempt to subdue them, than to come to a fair and equal settlement. When did the weaker party – or any party – so act in national controversy? We are to suppose the men in the South are like the rest of the world, and will follow their interests – will accept the advantages and blessings of peace, if they can be obtained at no greater price than that of digesting their anger.

They have gone to war for what they think their rights, and separating from us is but the means, not the end. It is of hostilities, the declared, but not the only object. Nay, it was with the utmost reluctance that they admitted it within their line of objects at all. To give it the fullest prominence, it is but one of the purposes for which they fight. Now, peace may be honorable, and may be hailed and welcomed by all…

You tell me – native and resident, as you are, of a slave State – that you are in favor of the Union despite the worst measures of which the government is capable. I rejoice to hear it, and find in such sentiments firm ground on which to build my hope. If other citizens of your part of the country be as true and patriotic as yourself, it remains only that the North do its duty at the polls to enable us to make our beginning, and break the fastenings which bind us to the fatal principles of the men now in power. When that shall be accomplished, we will apply ourselves to further effort; day will have begun to dawn, our hopes to assume form and shape; the ship will be off the shore; we can put sail on her and try the ocean. We will no longer be, as now we are, helpless. To support the government will no longer mean to stand mute when the Constitution is violated and the Union undermined.

To support the government will mean that we support lawful authority in lawful courses, and oppose it in all other. This war, in which we have been miserably involved – by the act of the South – by faults of the North – we will support, as a war for the Union – which being assailed with the sword, must be maintained with the sword. We will carry it on, not with the power of arms alone, but essaying, also, the force of ample justice, and offers of frank conciliation.

Further Reading:

Banning, Lance. The Jeffersonian Persuasion: Evolution of a Party Ideology. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 1978.

Barney, William. The Secessionist Impulse: Alabama and Mississippi in 1860. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1974.

Bensel, Richard. Yankee Leviathan: The Origins of Central State Authority in America, 1859–1877. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1990.

Benson, Lee. The Concept of Jacksonian Democracy: New York as A Test Case. New York: Athanaeum. 1965.

Bigelow, John. William Cullen Bryant. New York: Chelsea House Publishers. 1980. (Original printing: 1890).

Blue, Frederick. The Free Soilers, Third Party Politics, 1848–54. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press. 1973.

Brown, Charles H. William Cullen Bryant. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1971.

Channing, Steven. Crisis of Fear: Secession in South Carolina. New York: Simon and Schuster. 1970.

Eaton, Clement. The Mind of the Old South. Louisiana State University Press. 1964.
Freedom of Thought in the Old South, Durham: Duke University Press. 1940.

Ericson, David. The Debate Over Slavery: Antislavery and Proslavery Liberalism in Antebellum America. New York: New York University Press. 2000.

Feller, Daniel. The Jacksonian Promise: America, 1815–1840. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 1995.

Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. Perennial Classics Edition. 2002. Originally Published: 1988.
Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1995.

Freehling, William W. The Road to Disunion, Vol. I: Secessionists at Bay, 1776–1854. New York: Oxford University Press. 1990.
The Road to Disunion, Vol. II: Secessionists Triumphant, 1854–1861. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2007.

Gienapp, William. The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852–1856. New York: Oxford University Press. 1987.

Haworth, Paul. The Hayes‐​Tilden Election. Indianapolis: The Bobbs‐​Merrill Company. 1906.

Hummel, Jeffrey Rogers. Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War. Chicago: Open Court. 1996.

Mayfield, John. Rehearsal for Republicanism: Free Soil and the Politics of Antislavery. Port Washington, New York: Kennikat Press. 1980.

Meyers, Marvin. The Jacksonian Persuasion. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 1957.

Mushkat, Jerome. Fernando Wood: A Political Biography. Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press. 1990.

Pessen, Edward. Jacksonian America: Society, Personality, and Politics. Homewood, Illinois: The Dorsey Press. 1969.

Quigley, David. Second Founding: New York City, Reconstruction, and the Making of American Democracy. New York: Hill and Wang. 2004.

Thomas, Emory. The Confederate Nation: 1861–1865. New York: Harper & Row. 1979.
The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience. Columbia (SC): University of South Carolina Press. 1992.

Widmer, Edward. Martin Van Buren. New York: Times Books. 2005.

Wilentz, Sean. Chants Democratic: New York City & the Rise of the American Working Class, 1768–1850. New York: Oxford University Press. 1984.
Wilentz, Sean. The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 2005.