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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

“Peaceable Separation” Mooted by the Abolitionists of 1845

By Wendell Phillips Garrison (1840–1907)

[From William Lloyd Garrison: The Story of his Life, told by his Children. 1885–89.]

THE LEVERS of disunion ready to the hands of the Massachusetts abolitionists were the recent expulsions of the State’s delegates from South Carolina and Louisiana, and the impending annexation of Texas. At the annual meeting, Wendell Phillips reported resolves that the Governor should demand of the Federal Executive an enforcement of the Constitution, and the maintenance of Mr. Hoar’s right to reside in Charleston; in default of which the Legislature should authorize the Governor to proclaim the Union at an end, recall the Congressional delegation, and provide for the State’s foreign relations. This was the logic of the situation. So far as Massachusetts (or any free State) was concerned, South Carolina had dissolved the Union: Federal rights were disregarded in her borders, the Federal laws were subordinate or inoperative, Federal protection could have been exercised only by force and at the cost of a civil war. There could be no better occasion for weighing the value of the Union, or for taking the initiative in peaceable separation as advocated by the abolitionists. But no other class or party in the State was equal to this simple and manly procedure. Governor Briggs’s messages in regard to Messrs. Hoar and Hubbard were unexceptionable in tone and temper, rhetorically considered; but they meant nothing and could effect nothing, since disunion was the only remedy. The Legislature did, indeed, pass the equally unexceptionable joint resolves prepared by Charles Francis Adams, suggesting retaliation with reference to South Carolina; but no enactment followed, nor, notoriously, could any such have been sustained in the Federal courts.

The same paralysis befell the political opposition to the annexation of Texas. Governor and Legislature pledged Massachusetts anew to the position that annexation would have no binding force on her. But how would it have no binding force? Texas once in the Union, would laws passed by the aid of her representatives be resisted? No one not an abolitionist ever advocated any measure of irreconcilability—so to call it—except Henry Wilson in the Massachusetts Senate. His proposal, to “provide by law that the moment a man held as a slave in Texas stepped upon the soil of Massachusetts, his liberty should be as sacred as his life,” and to “make it a high crime to molest him,” fell dead, and was, in fact, though well meant, absurd, either as a practicable mode of opposition or as a quid pro quo, even supposing the whole North to have taken this stand along with Massachusetts. The truth was, slavery was dragging the country down an inclined plane, and there was no escape but by cutting the rope that bound the North to the South. The impracticable politicians of all parties, therefore, who struggled against the inevitable, while refusing to look facts in the face, filled the year at which we have now arrived with the emptiest of empty words….

Months passed, during which inaction on the part of the North paved the way to the catastrophe, and sapped the courage of the resistants—the political and “practical” resistants. William H. Seward, in a public letter to Salmon P. Chase, submitted in advance to the inevitable annexation of Texas, repudiating disunion. His counter measure was to enlarge the area of freedom—as if the South did not provide for that by coupling the admission of a slave State with that of a free State. Already, in February, Florida had been thus admitted into the Union, paired with Iowa, in spite of the intense Northern feeling against more slave States aroused in the case of Texas; in spite, too, of the Florida Constitution making slavery perpetual, and authorizing the Legislature to forbid the landing of any colored seaman—the toleration of which by Congress was a virtual approval of the action of South Carolina towards Mr. Hoar. Yet still Mr. Seward contended—“We must resist unceasingly the admission of slave States, and demand the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia”; and he even dreamed, when one independent Congress had been elected, that the “internal slave-trade will be subjected to inquiry. Amendments to the Constitution will be initiated.” Robert C. Winthrop made his surrender on the Fourth of July, and in Faneuil Hall, toasting, in famous words, “Our country … however bounded;… to be cherished in all our hearts, to be defended by all our hands”—an abasement which accepted war with Mexico, along with that spread of slave territory which he had hitherto strenuously opposed. In the same hall of heroic memories the Whig State Convention in October withdrew from the opposition, and left the Constitutional question to the Supreme Court of the United States! Governor Slade of Vermont could no longer urge his State to take, unsupported, an unrelenting attitude, and sought comfort in the illusion that the entrance of Texas into the Union would make slavery a national institution as never before, and expose it to attack as such. Webster, accusing the Liberty Party (by its defeat of Clay) of having procured annexation, hoped, or professed to hope, the consummation might yet be averted; as Charles Francis Adams, seeing nothing further left, and disregarding the example of Florida, vainly looked for some modification of the pro-slavery Constitution of Texas. Abbott Lawrence and Nathan Appleton, ex-members of Congress, not only desisted from opposition to a deed actually accomplished, but rebuked those of their colleagues whose conscience and zeal outran their discretion as “practical men.”