April 11, 1861
To the Hon. Geo. W. Summers, of Virginia:
Sir: As one who, though claiming no place in your regard, feels that interest in you naturally excited by past years of concurrent political action and fond hopes, long cherished on my part, of your advancement, to positions of wider usefulness and greater eminence, I claim the right to address you on the position taken by Virginia, through her Convention, whereof you are a leading member, upon the distractions which now afflict our common country. And, though very much in earnest, I trust you will have no cause to complain that I assume to be familiar or fail to be respectful[.]
--We shall readily agree that Slavery is at the bottom of all our National troubles and when I add that I accept your speech in the Constitutional Convention of your State nearly thirty years ago, as in the main a full and forcible expression of my own views on that theme, I shall have disposed of all needful preliminaries. That speech proved that you are just as well aware as I am that it is Slavery, and nothing but Slavery, that has dragged Virginia down from the proud position she long held of first among our family of States to the fifth rank, which she is certain to exchange for a lower under each succeeding census. In 1870, Illinois will have passed her, and perhaps Indiana also; probably twenty years hence, Missouri, Iowa and Wisconsin will have done likewise. And you know that neither Protective Tariffs, nor Internal Improvements, nor any form of “Federal bounty” have done this—that Slavery alone is, as you have so forcibly depicted it, the overshadowing curse of Virginia, depriving her people of decent roads, of common schools, of manufacturing and mineral development and every other element of rapid and beneficent progress. And you have no more doubt than I have (I claim to know only by your public record) that if Slavery were expelled from your State tomorrow, the value of her soil would thereby be trebled, the aggregate of her wealth increased, and her population doubled within the next twenty years. When, therefore, you try to say what will be satisfactory to the natural and earnest advocates of Free Trade, eternal Slavery, and all that have made Virginia what she is, you wrong yourself without deceiving them. They know that you are acting a part, and you feel that they cannot deem it a creditable one.
For the first time, I think, Mr. Summers, you supported last Fall an electoral ticket that was successful. At all events, Virginia then for the first time voted against her old Bourbons who have so long ridden her to ruin in the name of Democracy. The platform on which you won that triumph was simply “The Union, the Constitution and the enforcement of the laws.”—Have you since stood firmly on that platform? Are you not now a deserter from it?
The people of Virginia elected you, and a majority of like faith, to the present Convention. They did it because they believed you faithful to the Union, and the implacable enemy of secession. Have you justified that confidence? Is your present attitude at all consistent with it?—If so, then the friends of the Union in the free States have been grossly deceived. They naturally exulted over your success; yet that success has provided a great disaster. Had a majority of red-hot secessionists been chosen, the Convention would have long since attempted to take Virginia out of the union. But you were compelled by the act which called your body into being to submit any Ordinance of Secession to the People: they would have voted it down by fifty thousand majority, and that would have exploded the bubble. . . But you Union majority has wasted weeks in hair-splitting talk, while the Secessionists have steadily acted; you have waveringly held an equivocal position, while they have had a definite purpose, and marched straight toward their object: and the necessary result is that they are far stronger to-day, and their prospect far brighter, than if they had carried the State at your late election. And if the Union shall be finally wrecked, very much of the blame will justly fall on the shilly-shally Unionists in the Virginia Convention.
Mr. Summers! the Union is quite as important to the South as the North, to Virginia as to New York, and you know it.—When, therefore, you talk—as in the never-ending conclusions of your Convention—of “the grievances” of the South, and of “the guaranties” you will require of the North, you talk as becomes Secessionists only, and in such manner as to play directly into their hands. We are not in want of broken victuals up this way, and will not accept the Union as a boon conferred upon us by your charity or a reward magnanimously given us for our docility. If you expect the North to don the white sheet and sit on the stool of repentance for her past resistance to Slavery Extension, you deceive yourselves in our common peril. And when you talk of “the withdrawal” of the Gulf States from the Union as if that were the exercise of a conceded constitutional right, you do your best to show that the professions under which you carried the State for Bell and Everett were hollow, and that yourselves, in consistency with your present views, ought to have voted for Breckinridge and Lane.
Your resolves assert that the Union has no right to use a fortress erected by itself, on ground expressly ceded to and paid for by it, “to intimidate a State, or constrain its free actions.” Can you really mean this? Suppose Massachusetts or Connecticut had seceded during the War of 1812 and assumed to make peace with the British, do you really believe that the Federal Government would thereby have been laid under obligation to evacuate and surrender its forts in Boston Harbor or upon Long Island Sound? If you do hold that doctrine, why did you profess to hold with Webster against Hayne in 1829, and with Jackson against South Carolina in 1833? In what respect do you differ from the Nullifiers and Secessionists if these are your views?
--But spade falls. Let me traverse more directly your indictment of the Republican party. Here it is:
“2. African Slavery is a vital part of the social system of the States wherein it exists; and as that form of servitude existed when the Union was formed, and the jurisdiction of the several States over it within their respective limits, was recognized by the Constitution, any interference to its prejudice by the Federal authority, or by the authorities of the other States, or by the people thereof, is in derogation from plain right, contrary to the Constitution, offensive and dangerous.
3. The choice of functionaries of a common Government established for the common good, for the reason that they entertain opinions and avow purposes hostile to the institutions of some of the States, necessarily excludes the people of one section from participating in the administration of the Government, subjects the weaker to the domination of the stronger section, leads to abuse, and is incompatible with the safety of those whose interests are imperiled; the formation, therefore, of geographical or sectional parties in respect to Federal politics, is contrary to the principles on which our system rests, and tends to its overthrow.
4. The Territories of the several States constitute a trust to be administered by the General Government for the common benefit of the people of the United States, and any policy in respect to such Territories calculated to confer greater benefits on the people of one part of the United States than on the people of another part is contrary to equality; and prejudicial to the rights of some for whose equal benefit the trust was created. If the equal admission of slave labor and free labor into any Territory excites unfriendly conflict between the systems, a fair partition of the Territories ought to be made between them, and each system ought to be protected within the limits assigned to it by the laws necessary for its proper development.”
--I meet all this chain of subtleties with a single fact—a fact which even you will not controvert nor declare irrelevant. I rest on the naked truth that Virginia, through her greatest statesmen, incited and brought us to do just what you here state we ought not and have no right to do. You cannot deny that Thomas Jefferson, in the first draft ever made of an Ordinance for the Government of the Territories, not of “the several” but of the United States, framed this provision, making it applicable not to a part but to all the common territories, down even to the southern limit of the Confederation—not merely of such as had already been ceded by the States respectively claiming them, but of such also as should be ceded thereafter, as he presumed and intended that all should be. Here are his very words:
“That after the year 1800 of the Christian era, there shall be neither Slavery nor involuntary servitude in any of the said States, otherwise than in punishment of crimes, whereof the party shall have been convicted to be personally guilty.”
Mr. Jefferson’s bill divided all the territories within our conceded limits into seventeen embryo States, and made the above provision extend to and cover them all. More than two-thirds of the members then in Congress—when nearly every State held slaves—voted for the above provision. It barely failed then because of the requirement of a majority of a quorum from seven of the thirteen States to carry a proposition; but the essential restriction was renewed three years later, carried by a unanimous vote of Congress, Virginians included, and ratified next year by a like vote of the first Federal Congress, George Washington signing the bill.
These are very old facts, Mr. Summers. You are doubtless familiar with them.—You know also that it was John Randolph—mother Virginia slaveholder, who reported against and defeated the unanimous prayer of the Governor and Territorial Legislature of Indiana Territory, that Slavery be permitted therein for a limited period. Mr. Randolph resisted this on the distinct ground that slavery is an evil and a curse—and Congress said Amen. There was nothing said of a “fair partition,” nor of conferring benefits on one section of the Union at the expense of another; but Congress decided that Slavery ought to be restricted, and that the power to restrict it existed in that body, and acted accordingly. If, then, there are sectional divisions and geographical parties in the Union, the blame rests on you, who have forsaken the paths traced out by our common fathers—not we who continue to walk steadfastly therein. Yours, Horace Greeley.
New York, April 9, 1861.
Timeline of West Virginia: Civil War and Statehood: April 1861