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Letter, Joseph P. Fessenden to William Pitt Fessenden

April 14, 1860

Boyd B. Stutler Collection

South Bridgton April 14th 1860

Dear William,

I thank you for so promptly replying to my letter. I know you will readily pardon an old uncle, if he does presume to criticise your action in the Senate in the case of Mr. Hyatt a little sharply; especially as that action deprived a citizen of the United States of his liberty, “without due process of law” & in defiance of an explicit provision of the constitution. I not only love you dearly as a kinsman, but feel proud of you as a senator from Maine. And I hate to hear of your doing any thing in your official capacity that I cannot boldly defend as right & proper in any company or on any occasion. But this vote of yours I could not justify - I cannot now, after reading what you said in the debate, as reported in the Globe you sent me. I do not doubt the uprightness of the motives by which you were actuated in this matter. But you are a falible [sic] man, & I confess it is easier for me to believe that, in dealing with an open & avowed abolitionist, you might err by mistake, than that the slavery loving & democratic gang who voted with you could do right on such an occasion. The company with which you voted affords strong presumptive evidence that you were in a wrong position. If I understand your remarks in the Globe, you do not pretend that the Constitution alone & of itself authorizes the Senate to proceed in the manner it has done in the case of Hyatt. But you contend that so much of the common law of England, including parliamentary usages & rider, is in force in this country, as will enable the Senate to carry out its purposes of legislation they being the exclusive judges what purposes of legislation it is proper for them to adopt & how much of this parliamentary law it is necessary to use to accomplish them. If it be indeed so, then it inevitably follows, as it seems to me, that the Constitution, creating the government of the United States, & prescribing the powers & defining the limits of each branch the executive, judicial & legislative, is not the sole & paramount law for the guidance & regulation of said government. But each branch is permitted, at its pleasure, to call in the assistance of an undefined mass of common or parliamentary law for the accomplishment of its assumed measures of legislation, regardless of the individual rights & liberties of the citizens of the country. As it looks to me, this is riding rough-shod over the constitution with a vengeance & turning each branch of the national legislature into a despotism which may well startle the people & lead them to inquire what sort of a government they are living under. It is a government not at all to my taste. I should prefer being in the power & at the mercy of Napoleon 3d. rather than at the disposal, as now constituted, of a majority of the Senate of the U. States. I have read in the Semi-weekly Tribune all the communications of Hyatt. I have not discovered in any of them a disposition to treat with disrespect the Senate. But he did distinctly avow at the outset his belief that they had no constitutional power to appoint an investigative committee with authority to drag witnesses before them from various parts of the [page 3] country & compel them to answer their questions. And it was this assumed power, as I understood it, that he went to Washington to confront. He manifested no unwillingness to tell what he knew; but was unwilling to acknowledge a power in the Senate which in his conscience he did not believe they possessed. In my opinion, the committee acted arbitrarily in arresting him at all, as they could have obtained all the facts he was able to give without an arrest. I cannot see as it evinced any contempt for the Senate on his part to refuse to testify under arrest. And I ask whether the Senate showed no contempt for the rights of a citizen in attempting to compel him to testify, when he did not believe they were authorized to do so. If power is given to Judicial tribunals, in certain contingencies, to compel witnesses to testify under pains & privations, it does not follow that the Senate of the United States has this power; & I deny that it has, unless some one can show me an explicit clause in the Constitution authorizing it, or a fair & legitimate deduction from that instrument allowing it or making it necessary for the purposes of legislation. I cannot admit that legislative practice sanctioned by Courts, is an authoritative precedent in this matter. The Senate is not a judicial tribunal. They have not the power to imprison or torture or kill for crime. If they have legitimate power to imprison, they have equal power to torture, until their victim relents or dies. And I see not why they have not as good authority to apply to Hyatt the thumb-screws - the paddle, the rack & the fire, as to shut him up in jail & compel him to linger out his existence in confinement.

It may not be that Hyatt is either obstinate or foolish or anxious for notoriety, because he did not follow the advice of friends, or the example of Andrew & Howe. But even if all these things can be truly laid to his charge, I consider it no argument in favor of what the Senate has done in his case. Now, Wm, let me call your attention for a moment to the motives which induced members of the Senate to get up this inquisitorial committee. You will know that it was a political maneuver of the sham democracy for the purpose of injuring the Republican party by implicating some of its leading men in affording assistance to John Brown in his attempt to free the slaves. Had parts been such as to show that Joshua R. Giddings & other distinguished republicans gave money to Brown & were thus guilty of assisting in taking by force & arms an Arsenal of the U. States, would the Senate have attempted to try and punish them as criminals? Who gives them then the power to punish a witness who refuses to testify for the gratification of their spite & the accomplishment of their bare political purposes? You remark truly that denunciation is not argument; neither is mere assertion argument. For what was Hyatt imprisoned? You have not proved that his objections to testify were not what he averred them to be; not that he was not conscientious in this matter. If he believed that testifying under protest would be virtually acknowledging the constitutional power of the Senate to coerce his testimony, when he was convinced they had no such power, it was his duty to refuse to give it - otherwise he would have violated his sense of right & been guilty of a moral wrong. It is idle to talk about an appeal to a writ of Habeas Corpus in the case of Hyatt. He could appeal to no court which is not the tool of the slave-oligarchy There is not a Judge on the bench of the Supreme Court of this nation, or in the District of Columbia who would not decide against an abolitionist, although the decision might be so flagrantly unjust as to “shame extremist hell”. Witness the Dred Scott decision & the conduct of the Judge in the case of Brooks, after his cowardly & murderous assault upon Mr. Sumner. The fact that Mr Seward would have voted with the majority of the Senate had he been present does not prove that the notion of that majority was either constitutionally or morally right. I have always considered Mr. S. a mere politician, whose ethics could be easily varied to suit circumstances, & take any shape which he might think calculated to promote his own political elevation. I thought him shrewd & far-seeing. But I am constrained by his last speech to alter my opinion of him in this respect. He is not a man of the wisdom & foresight I thought him. That speech has lowered him immeasurably in my estimation. By some of his former utterances in reference to slavery, about a “higher law,” & “the irrepressible conflict,” he assumed a noble & elevated position. By his last speech, he has fallen from that position to one of cringing meanness. No “irrepressible conflict” between freedom & slavery, or free & slave-labor in this speech. But there is talk about loving harmony & union between “capital & labor states”! Capital forsooth! in human flesh in the bodies & souls of men, women & children! “in sinews bought & sold!” No higher law mentioned to condemn this abominable outrage. Oh, shame, shame! I miss my guess if Mr. S. gains either credit or capital (votes) by this speech in New England. At any rate I doubt whether he gains my vote by it. And let me here say that I abominate the colonization scheme advocated by Doolittle & Wade & others, in Central America or somewhere else, on the ground that coloured people cannot ever enjoy equal rights in this country with white people. This scheme is anti-republican & anti-christian - at war with the definition of Independence & the gospel of Jesus Christ. I think you do injustice to Dr. Elmore in accusing him of “unfairness & dishonesty” in the article I sent you - hope you will peruse it again & at your leisure tell me wherein he is unfair or dishonest. It has cost me some labor in my weak state of health to write this long letter. But I wanted to put down on paper with my own hand a few thoughts & send them to you. I am aware that I impose somewhat of a task upon you to read what I have written. But, perhaps, in some depressing hour, when you are downhearted, it may amuse to look over the babblings of the infirm old man. I know you will forgive any thing you may deem wrong & readily believe all is well intended. I hope if you make a speech in the Senate on the slavery question you will not hesitate to speak right out & let the country & the world know just what you think of the sin of chatelering immortal beings redeemed by the blood of the Son of God. I hope you will say that the slave holder, as such, can have not rights - is precisely in the condition of the highwayman & the pirate. It is impossible to legalize slavery, it being at war with the law of God. Aunt sends much love Ever your affectionate uncle

Jos. P. Fessenden

Hon. W. P. Fessenden
U. S. S.

Chapter Thirteen: Toward Civil War

His Soul Goes Marching On

West Virginia Archives and History