« PreviousContinue »
The Civil war Lincoln President Tilden's prophetic utterance
Letter to William Kent Preston King – Edward Everett — Tilden's attitude toward secession - His advice to the Secretary of War.
NOTWITHSTANDING the defeat of General Cass for the presidency in 1848, time and discussion seemed only to embitter the relations between the North and South, and for the next sixteen years the politics of the country were conducted almost exclusively upon sectional lines, the non-slaveholding States becoming daily more uncompromising in their opposition to the extension of slavery into the free Territories, and the slaveholding States even more unanimous in their determination to regard the exclusion of slaves from the free Territories as a violation of their constitutional rights for which a dissolution of the Union must be the inevitable consequence.
In 1856 the anti-slavery wings of the Whig and Democratic parties united to form what they called the Republican party, the cementing principle of which was the subordination of all other political questions or differences to the single purpose of resisting the extension of slavery in the free Territories of the North-west.
At a national convention of this party held in Philadelphia in the summer of 1856, John C. Fremont was nominated as its candidate for the presidency. James Buchanan, of Pennsylvania, was one of the three candidates of the proslavery interest. Mr. Tilden was urgently pressed by his old associates in the rebellion of 1848 to join the Republican organization, but he declined, for reasons, the plausibility of which could not be contested. He thought he could be of more influence inside of the Democratic party than
outside of it; he was unwilling to identify himself with any political party which, so far as he knew, had but one single bond of union; and finally, and this was his most serious difficulty, — he feared the consequences of dividing
the people of the United States into geographical parties. He had no doubt that the inevitable consequence of the triumph of the Free-Soil party, through the electoral vote of the free States, and without the electoral vote of a single slave State, must be civil war.
Though Mr. Buchanan was elected, Fremont received the electoral votes of the six New England States, of New York, Ohio, Michigan, Iowa, and Wisconsin. His popular vote was 1,341,000, only 497,000 less than were received by his successful rival. The result of this election, in proportion as it encouraged the Republicans of the free States, filled the South with alarm, and the whole four years of Buchanan's administration were spent by Congress — still under the control of the slaveholding States — in efforts to strengthen the entrenchments of slavery.
In the prosecution of their efforts they were more or less countenanced by Tilden and men of his political school, who dreaded the consequences of a collision between what seemed to them a transient national fanaticism.
Mr. Lincoln was nominated by the Republicans for the presidency in 1860. Their antagonists were unable to unite upon a candidate. The extremists of the South, unwilling to trust any Northern man in the state of public opinion then prevailing in the free States, nominated Mr. John C. Breckinridge, of Kentucky; a schismatic convention of Democrats nominated Stephen A. Douglas, of Illinois; while the party representing what remained of the Native American schism formed what they called a fusion ticket, at the head of which they placed Senator Bell, of Tennessee. Mr. Tilden did not support the Republican candidate.
Though holding no official relations with any party, and more than ever absorbed by his profession, he attested in many ways the acute interest which he felt in the impending struggle ; he pled with those that would be pleaded with, he reasoned with those he could reason with, and by occasional addresses and by correspondence did what he could to discourage the transfer of the federal government to the control of a geographical party.
Better than any person that I knew, he comprehended the irreconcilability of the forces that were arraying themselves against each other in the country. Exaggerating, perhaps, the danger of attempting to rule the country by a sectional party, he deemed it the part of wise statesmanship to postpone as long as possible, in the hope, through the mediatorial offices of time and its inevitable changes, of avoiding a collision. Among these changes, upon which he most relied were those to be worked out by immigration, which since 1847 had amounted to seven and one-half millions, embracing a number of males between the ages of fifteen and forty, equal to that contained in fifteen millions of our average population. This, he said, would soon decide all controversies in respect to the Territories in favor of the North and free labor; and he was of opinion that it was the part of true statesmanship to wait for this tide of population to rise, and to so manage the inevitable translation of political power as to avoid a civil war - the sure consequence, in his opinion, and as the event proved, of precipitating the conflict. No one contested the force of his reasoning on this subject; but they derided his apprehensions of a civil war. So preposterous did they appear to the impassioned multitude in the North, that I remember myself to have intimated to one of his personal friends a doubt whether he was quite in his right mind on this subject.
Only a few days before the election of Mr. Lincoln, and when his partisans were confident of success, Mr. Tilden came into the editorial rooms of the Evening Post,” looking very haggard and preoccupied. Hiram Barney, William H. Osborne, and John A. C. Gray, all Republicans and intimate friends, who chanced to be there at the same time, began to chaff
After the failure of the Democratic party to unite upon a candidate at the Charleston convention in 1860, Tilden was asked to fill a vacancy in the delegation from New York at the adjourned meeting of the Democratic convention of that year in Baltimore. In that body he made two speeches, in which he portrayed, as an inevitable consequence
of a sectional division of the Democratic party, a corresponding division of the States and an armed conflict. These speeches were described by those who heard them as inspired by a solemn sense of patriotic duty, and a most vivid perception of impending dangers. Although they made a profoundly painful impression, they failed to influence the action of the delegates in season to avert the consequences he had predicted.
About two weeks before the presidential election of 1860, Tilden published a letter in the " New York Evening Post,” addressed to William Kent, in which he set forth with great care his view of the perils to be apprehended from the success of the Republican candidate.
He assumed correctly that Lincoln could not receive the electoral vote of a single slave State; he argued that the condition of politics in which the federal government should be carried on by a party having no affiliations in the
him about the political situation. He listened for a time without relaxing in the slightest degree the sternness of his expression, or uttering a word. Presently, as if suddenly filled with the spirit of prophecy, and in a tone of intense emotion, he exclaimed, “I would not have the responsibility of William Cullen Bryant and John Bigelow for all the wealth in the subtreasury. If you have your way, civil war will divide this country, and you will see blood running like water in the streets of this city.” Having uttered these words he rose and left the office.
Ten or fifteen minutes later, Andrew H. Green, who had a desk in Mr. Tilden's law office, called and asked me if Mr. Tilden was not there. I said he had just left, and then, lowering my voice to Mr. Green, I said, “You had better look Tilden up at once and get him home. He is very much excited.” Much as it would have grieved me, it would not have surprised me had I heard any time within ten days or ten hours that he was a raving lunatic.
1. Writings and Speeches," Vol. I. p. 289.
slave States would constitute a government out of all relations with those States, that it would be in substance the government of one people by another people, and that from the natural operation of inflexible laws must result in efforts at separation and lead to all the imaginable and unimaginable disasters to be apprehended from such efforts ; he thought it wiser, therefore, to temporize, to depend upon the revelations of the census to dispose of the slave question, and meantime bear with our present evils rather than fly to those we knew not of.
A few months before Tilden's death he put into my hands one day an envelope on which was endorsed, "' Evening Post,' Oct. 30, 1860. An editorial upon Tilden's letter to William Kent, the Union, its dangers.” He handed me this envelope with a smile, but without any remark. I received it in the same way. The editorial was not a clipping from the "Evening Post,” but a pencilled copy. The fact that he had taken the trouble to have it copied and to preserve it for nearly thirty years, interested no less than it surprised me. For the same reason my
feel some curiosity to know the tenor of it. I hope they will pardon me, therefore, if I am guilty of any indelicacy in gratifying their curiosity. The editorial of the “ Evening
" Post” was entitled "Mr. Tilden's excuse for disfranchising the free States.” After referring to some of the transient conditions under which the letter appeared, which are no longer of any importance, the article continued :
" Mr. Tilden's communication is addressed to the Hon. William Kent, between whom and himself an uninterrupted political antagonism has existed since the days when their fathers were active opponents, but who now, like Pilate and Herod, are brought together and united by the bond of a common outrage upon what we regard as the cause of truth and justice.
* We do not propose to review Mr. Tilden's paper at length to-day; a logical and conclusive answer to all its