This was the popular view of the situation. But it was an erroneous view, because it lacked the essential information necessary to form a correct and solid judgment. The deep estrangement between the sections was imperfectly realized. The existence of four parties, a very unusual occurrence in American politics, had seriously weakened party cohesion, and more than quadrupled party prejudice and mistrust. There was a strong undercurrent of conviction and purpose, not expressed in speeches and platforms. But the most serious ignorance was in respect to the character and fidelity of the high officers of the Government. Of the timidity of Mr. Buchanan, of the treachery of three members of the Cabinet, of the exclusion of General Scott from military councils, of the President’s refusal to send troops to Anderson, of his stipulation with the South Carolina Members, of the intrigue which drove General Cass from the head of the State Department and from the Cabinet, the people at large knew nothing, or so little that they could put no intelligent construction upon the events. The debates of Congress shed the first clear light upon the situation, but the very violence and bitterness of the secession speeches caused the multitude to doubt their sincerity, or placed their authors in the category of fanatics who would gain no followers.
While, therefore, the Republicans in Congress and in the country maintained, as a rule, an expectant and watchful silence, the conservatives, made up for the greater part of the supporters of Bell and Everett, were active in setting on foot a movement for compromise, in the final success of which they had the fullest confidence; and it is but justice to their integrity and ability to add that this confidence was warranted by the delusive indications of surface politics. Highly patriotic in purpose and prudent in act, their leading men in Congress had promptly opposed secession, had moved a Senate Committee of Thirteen, and secured the appointment and the organization of the House Committee of Thirty-three. Already some twenty-three different propositions of adjustment had been submitted to this committee, and under the circumstances it actually seemed as if only a little patience and patriotic earnestness were needed to find a compromise,—perhaps an amendment of the Constitution,—which the feverish unrest and impatience of the nation would compel Congress to enact or propose, and the different States and sections, willing or unwilling, to accept arid ratify.
Superior political wisdom and more thorough information, as well as a finer strategy, a quicker enthusiasm, and a more unremitting industry, must be accorded to the conspirators who now labored night and day in the interest of disunion. They discerned more clearly than their opponents the demoralization of parties at the North, the latent revolutionary discontent at the South, the influence of brilliant and combined leadership, and the social, commercial, and political conditions which might be brought into action. They recognized that they were but a minority, a faction; but they also realized that as such they had a substantial control of from six to eleven States whenever they chose to make that control effective, and that, for present uses at least, the President was, under their influence, but as clay in the hands of the potter.