Southern Unionist Questions After John Brown’s Crimes
The following editorial from December 1859 asks “What Shall the South Do” after it was confronted with an attack by fanatic John Brown, armed and financed by Northern abolitionists with more money than good sense. The open warfare between North and South had moved eastward, and Americans in the South were asking why they should remain in a fraternal union under some “higher law theory” instead of the United States Constitution.
Bernhard Thuersam, Director
Cape Fear Historical Institute
Southern Unionist Questions After John Brown’s Crimes:
“The chief actor in the affair at Harper’s Ferry has expiated his crime upon the gallows. Old Brown has been hanged. What will be the result of this enforcement of the law? Will the effect be salutary upon the minds of the Northern people? Have we any reason to suppose that it will cause them, for one moment only, to pause and reflect upon the course they have persistently followed towards the South and her institutions?
It is useless to disguise the fact, that the entire North and Northwest are hopelessly abolitionized. We want no better evidence than that presented to us by their course in this Harper’s affair. With the exception of a few papers (among them we are proud to notice that sterling Whig journal, the New York Express,) that have had the manliness to denounce the act as it deserved, the great majority have either sympathised with the offenders, or maintained an ominous silence.
Let us look calmly at the case: A sovereign State, in the peaceful enjoyment of the rights guaranteed by the Constitution, has been invaded by an armed force, not foreign mercenaries, but citizens of the same Confederacy, and her people shot down in the public highways. The question is a natural one — Why is this thing done? Why is murder and rapine committed? — And who are the perpetrators? — The answer is found in the fact, that the State whose territory has thus been invaded, is a Southern State in which the institution of slavery exists according to the law and the gospel; and the actors in the terrible drama were but carrying out the precepts and teachings of our Northern brethren.
The "irrepressible conflict" between the North and the South then, has already commenced; to this complexion it must come at last. It is useless to talk of the conservatism of the North. Where has there been any evidence of it? Meetings upon meetings have been held for the purpose of expressing sympathy for murderers and traitors; but none, no, not one solitary expression of horror, or disapprobation even, for the crime committed, have we yet seen from any State North of Mason & Dixon’s line.
And yet they claim to be our brethren, speak the same language, worship the same God. We yield to none in our veneration for the Union, but it is not the Union, now, as our Fathers bequeathed it to us. — Then, the pulse that throbbed upon the snow-capped mountains of New Hampshire, vibrated along the Gulf and the marshes of the Mississippi; then, there was unison of feeling, brotherly kindness and affection, and the North and the South, in friendly rivalry, strove together how they could best promote the general welfare.
Now, all is changed. Do you ask why? Watch the proceedings of Congress, read the publications that are scattered by the North broadcast over the country, listen to the sentiments expressed at nearly all their public gatherings. The stereotyped cry, that these things are the work of fanatics only, will no longer answer; but if it be so, then fanaticism rules the entire North; for what has been the result of the elections held during the past summer? Ask Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut, — ask Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Wisconsin, and even the great State of New York; — all, all, have given in their adhesion to the "higher law" principle, and the mandate for "irrepressible conflict." Do these things indicate affection, brotherly kindness, Union? There can be no union without affection, — there can be no Union unless this aggressive policy of the North is stopped.
We confess that we look forward with gloomy apprehension towards the future. If Congress fails to apply the remedy, then it behooves the South to act together as one man — ship our produce direct to Europe, — import our own goods, — let the hum of the spinning-wheel be heard in our homes, as in the days of the Revolution, — manufacture our own articles of necessity or luxury, and be dependent upon the North for — nothing. If such a course does not produce a different state of affairs, then set us down as no prophet, — if such a course does not cause the Conservatives of the North to give some tangible evidence of their existence, then we must of necessity conclude, that that principle has no lodgment in their midst.”
(“What Shall the South Do,” editorial, Wilmington Daily Herald, 5 December 1859)