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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Oregon and the Compromise Bill

By Thomas Corwin (1794–1865)

[Born in Bourbon Co., Ky., 1794. Died in Washington, D.C., 1865. From a Speech on the Oregon Compromise Bill. U. S. Senate, 24 July, 1848.]

ALL over the world the air is vocal with the shouts of men made free. What does it all mean? It means that they have been redeemed from political servitude; and in God’s name I ask, if it be a boon to mankind to be free from political servitude, must it not be accepted as a matter of some gratulation that they have been relieved from personal servitude—absolute subjection to the arbitrary power of others? What do we say of them? I am not speaking of the propriety of this thing; it may be all wrong, and these poor fellows in Paris, who have stout hands and willing hearts, anxious to earn their bread, may be very unreasonable in fighting for it. It may be all wrong to cut off the head of a king, or send him across the Channel. It may be highly improper and foolish in Austria to send away Metternich, and say, “We will look into this business ourselves.” According to the doctrine preached in these halls—in free America—instead of sending shouts of gratulation across the water to these people, we should send to them groans and commiseration for their folly, calling on them to beware how they take this business into their own hands—informing them that universal liberty is a curse; that as one man is born with a right to govern an empire, he and his posterity must continue to exercise that power, because in this case it is not exactly partus sequitur ventrem, but partus sequitur patrem—that is all the difference. The crown follows the father! Under your law, the chain follows the mother!

Sir, we may, we ought, to remember, that it was law in this country in 1776, that kings had a right to rule us—did rule us. George III. said then, “partus sequitur patrem,” my son inherits my crown, “he follows the condition of the father,” “he is born to be your ruler;” your fathers said, this is not true, this shall be law no longer. Let us look for a moment at the doings of that good old time, 1776. Then, sir, our fathers, being oppressed, lifted up their hands and appealed to the God of justice, the common Father of all men, to deliver them and their posterity from that law, which proclaimed that “kings were born to rule.” They (the men of 1776) did not believe that one man was born “booted and spurred” to ride another. And if, as they said, no man was born to rule another, did it not follow, that no man could rightfully be born to serve another? Sir, in those days, Virginia and Virginia’s sons, Washington and Jefferson, had as little respect for that maxim, partus sequitur ventrem, as for that other cognate dogma, “Kings are born to rule.” I infer from our history, sir, that the men of that day were sincere men, earnest, honest men, that they meant what they said. From their declaration, “All men are born equally free,” I infer, that, in their judgments, no man, by the law of his nature, was born to be a slave; and, therefore, he ought not by any other law to be born a slave. I think this maxim of kings being born to rule, and others being born only to serve, are both of the same family, and ought to have gone down to the same place whence I imagine they came, long ago, together. I do not think that your partus sequitur ventrem had much quarter shown it at Yorktown on a certain day you may remember. I think that when the lion of England crawled in the dust, beneath the talons of your eagles, and Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington, that maxim, that a man is born to rule, went down, not to be seen among us again forever; and I think that partus sequitur ventrem, in the estimation of all sensible men, should have disappeared along with it. So the men of that day thought….

Mr. President, these men, when they spoke of slavery and its extension, did not get up some hybrid sort of “compromise,” and consult some supreme court. They declared slavery an evil, a wrong, a prejudice to free colonies, a social mischief, and a political evil; and if these were denied, they replied, “These truths are self-evident.” And from the judgments of men they appealed to no earthly court; they took an appeal “to the Supreme Judge of the World.” When I am asked to extend to this new empire of ours, now in its infancy, an institution which they pronounced an evil to all communities; when I refuse to agree with some here whose judgments I revere, and whose motives I know to be pure, I can only say, I stand where our fathers stood of old, I am sustained in my position by the men who founded the first system of rational liberty on earth. With them by my side, I can afford to differ from those here whom I respect. With such authority for my conduct, I can cheerfully encounter the frowns of some, the scorn of all; I can turn to the fathers of such, and be comforted. They knew what was best for an infant people just struggling into existence. If their opinions are worth anything—if the opinions of the venerated men are to be considered as authority—I ask Southern gentlemen what they mean when they ask me to extend slavery to the distant shores of the Pacific ocean, and the slave trade between Maryland and Virginia and that almost unknown country?…

I remember what was said by the Senator from Virginia the other day. It is a truth, that when the Constitution of the United States was made, South Carolina and Georgia refused to come into the Union unless the slave trade should be continued for twenty years; and the North agreed that they would vote to continue the slave trade for twenty years; yes, voted that this new Republic should engage in piracy and murder at the will of two States! So the history reads; and the condition of the agreement was, that those two States should agree to some arrangement about navigation laws! I do not blame South Carolina and Georgia for this transaction any more than I do those Northern States who shared in it. But suppose the question were now presented here by any one, whether we should adopt the foreign slave trade and continue it for twenty years, would not the whole land turn pale with horror, that, in the middle of the nineteenth century, a citizen of a free community, a Senator of the United States, should dare to propose the adoption of a system that has been denominated piracy and murder, and is by law punished by death all over Christendom? What did they do then? They had the power to prohibit it; but at the command of these two States, they allowed that to be introduced into the Constitution, to which much of slavery now existing in our land is clearly to be traced. For who can doubt that, but for that woful bargain, slavery would by this time have disappeared from all the States then in the Union, with one or two exceptions? The number of slaves in the United States at this period was about six hundred thousand; it is now three millions. And just as you extend the area of slavery, so you multiply the difficulties which lie in the way of its extermination. It had been infinitely better that day that South Carolina and Georgia had remained out of the Union for a while, rather than that the Constitution should have been made to sanction the slave trade for twenty years. The dissolution of the old Confederation would have been nothing in comparison with that recognition of piracy and murder. I can conceive of nothing in the dark record of man’s enormities, from the death of Abel down to this hour, so horrible as that of stealing people from their own home, and making them and their posterity slaves forever. It is a crime which we know has been visited with such signal punishment in the history of nations as to warrant the belief that Heaven itself had interfered to avenge the wrongs of earth….

I know that this is a peculiar institution; and I doubt not that in the hands of such gentlemen as talk about it here, it may be made very attractive. It may be a very agreeable sight to behold a large company of dependents, kindly treated by a benevolent master, and to trace the manifestations of gratitude which they exhibit. But in my eyes a much more grateful spectacle would be that of a patriarch in the same neighborhood, with his dependents all around him, invested with all the attributes of freedom bestowed upon them by the common Father, in whose sight all are alike precious! It is, indeed, a “very peculiar” institution. According to the account of the Senator from Mississippi [Mr. Davis], this institution exhibits all that is most amiable and beautiful in our nature. That Senator drew a picture of an old, gray-headed negro woman, exhausting the kindness of her heart upon the white child she had nursed. This is true; and it shows the good master and the grateful servant. But, sir, all are not such as these. The Senator concealed the other side of the picture; and it was only revealed to us by the quick apprehension of the Senator from Florida [Mr. Westcott], who wanted the power to send a patrol all over the country to prevent the slaves from rising to upturn the order of society! I had almost believed, after hearing the beautiful, romantic, sentimental, narration of the Senator from Mississippi, that God had, indeed, as he said, made this people in Africa to come over here and wait upon us, till the Senator from Florida waked me up to a recollection of the old doctrines of Washington and Jefferson, by assuring us that wherever that patriarchal institution existed, a rigid police should be maintained in order to prevent the uprising of the slave. Sir, it is indeed a peculiar institution. I know many good men, who, as masters, honor human nature by the kindness, equity, and moderation of their rule and government of their slaves; but put a bad man, as sometimes happens, as often happens, in possession of uncontrolled dominion over another, black or white, and then wrongs follow that make angels weep. It is, sir, a troublesome institution; it requires too much law, too much force, to keep up social and domestic security; therefore I do not wish to extend it to these new and as yet feeble Territories….

I am called on to lay the foundations of society over a vast extent of country. If this work is done wisely now, ages unborn shall bless us, and we shall have done in our day what experience approved and duty demanded. If this work shall be carelessly or badly done, countless millions that shall inherit that vast region will hereafter remember our folly as their curse; our names and deeds, instead of praises, shall only call forth execration and reproach. In the conflict of present opinions, I have listened patiently to all. Finding myself opposed to some with whom I have rarely ever differed before, I have doubted myself, reexamined my conclusions, reconsidered all the arguments on either side, and I still am obliged to adhere to my first impressions, I may say my long-cherished opinions. If I part company with some here, whom I habitually respect, I still find with me the men of the past, whom the nations venerated. I stand upon the Ordinance of 1787. There the path is marked by the blood of the Revolution. I stand in company with the “men of ’87,” their locks wet with the mists of the Jordan over which they passed, their garments purple with the waters of the Red Sea through which they led us of old to this land of promise. With them to point the way, however dark the present, Hope shines upon the future, and, discerning their footprints in my path, I shall tread it with unfaltering trust.