The Promise of American Life eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 620 pages of information about The Promise of American Life.

Of the five alternatives, the least substantial was that of the Constitutional Unionists.  These well-meaning gentlemen, composed for the most part of former Whigs, persisted in asserting that the Constitution was capable of solving every political problem generated under its protection; and this assertion, in the teeth of the fact that the Union had been torn asunder by means of a Constitutional controversy, had become merely an absurdity.  Up to 1850 the position of such Constitutional Unionists as Webster and Clay could be plausibly defended; but after the failure of that final compromise, it was plain that a man of any intellectual substance must seek support for his special interpretation of the Constitution by means of a special interpretation of the national idea.  That slavery was Constitutional nobody could deny, any more than they could deny the Constitutionality of anti-slavery agitation.  The real question, to which the controversy had been reduced, had become, Is slavery consistent with the principle which constitutes the basis of American national integrity—­the principle of democracy?

Each of the four other factions answered this question in a different way; and every one of these answers was derived from different aspects of the system of traditional American ideas.  The Abolitionists believed that a democratic state, which ignored the natural rights proclaimed by the Declaration of Independence, was a piece of organized political hypocrisy,—­worthy only of destruction.  The Southerners believed that democracy meant above all the preservation of recognized Constitutional rights in property of all kinds, and freedom from interference in the management of their local affairs.  The Northern Democrats insisted just as strenuously as the South on local self-government, and tried to erect it into the constituent principle of democracy; but they were loyal to the Union and would not admit either that slavery could be nationalized, or that secession had any legal justification.  Finally the Republicans believed with the Abolitionists that slavery was wrong; while they believed with the Northern Democrats that the Union must be preserved; and it was their attempt to de-nationalize slavery as undemocratic and at the same time to affirm the indestructibility of the Union, which proved in the end to be salutary.

Surely never was there a more distressing example of confusion of thought in relation to a “noble national theory.”  The traditional democratic system of ideas provoked fanatical activity on the part of the Abolitionists, as the defenders of “natural rights,” a kindred fanaticism in the Southerners as the defenders of legal rights, and moral indifference and lethargy on the part of the Northern Democrat for the benefit of his own local interests.  The behavior of all three factions was dictated by the worship of what was called liberty; and the word was as confidently and glibly used by Calhoun and Davis as it was by

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The Promise of American Life from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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