Frederick Douglass Project Writings: Henry Clay and Slavery

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The North Star, February 8, 1850

Long and assiduously have the derided and contemned advocates of emancipation labored in the work of disseminating their principles and opinions at the North; and anxiously have they looked forward to the period when these opinions and principles should be brought before the entire nation. That time has now arrived. Notwithstanding that the slaveholders of the South, with equal assiduity have been active in originating schemes, with a view to stay the progress of these opinions and principles, and in fortifying the system of slavery against attack, by trampling upon the right of petition, by suppressing free discussion, by fettering the American press, by gagging the American pulpit, and by enlarging their borders,—the judgment-day of slavery is dawning—the devices of the oppressor, thanks to the God of the oppressed, have most signally failed—the "wisdom of the crafty" has been confounded, and the "counsels of the ungodly have been brought to nought;" the great movement for freedom has rolled onward with a speed accelerated in proportion to the amount of opposition arrayed against it. This should be a time of rejoicing with the humble laborers in the cause. We speak advisedly, and in no canting spirit, when we term this cause holy; for if to have triumphed over foes mighty and multitudinous—to have removed mountains of difficulty,—if to have, with one, "chased a thousand," and with two, to have "put ten thousand to flight," be any evidence of the guardianship of Heaven, we can say, with one of old, "Truly the Lord is with us." This dreaded agitation, so feeble in its commencement, now rocks the land, from end to end. The vexed question of slavery has forced itself into the councils of the nation; and, like the rod of the Hebrew deliverer, it has swallowed up all other topics. Scarcely a day has passed since the meeting of the present Congress, but that the hated subject has been the theme of fiery discourse. Our entire exchange comes to us laden with leaders and speeches on this once obscure and strictly avoided topic. The public mind has reached a point of interest and excitement unprecedented. The South demands the extension of slavery into the new territories; while the North sternly insists upon its exclusion; but words pass on both sides, and the waves of agitation rise higher and higher. It is at this juncture that the crafty Clay, with his characteristic temper and skill, has thrown himself on the turbid waters of debate. He comes, as he is wont to do, with that soft and gentle diction, and in that spirit of conciliation and compromise, for which he has been so long and so highly distinguished. He wishes, as usual, to revive the expiring embers of patriotism—to soothe all asperities—to allay all sectional jealousies, and to knit the nation into a firmer bond of union. He has presented a string of resolutions to the Senate, for the purpose, (to use his own language,) of making "an amicable arrangement of all questions in controversy between the free and the slave States, growing out of the subject of slavery." This object, it must be admitted, is a comprehensive one; and it displays no small ambition that any one man should essay to accomplish it. But let this pass. Will he succeed? is the question. We think not. The plan which Mr. Clay proposes, like all Southern compromises, gives everything to Liberty, in words, and secures everything to Slavery, in deeds. He is most generous in giving away that which he does not possess; but is never betrayed into the weakness of bestowing that which he has the power to retain. The first Resolution of his compromise goes the enormous length of proposing the admission of California into the Union, without forcing her to open her golden domain to the foul and corrupting systein of slavery. What a magnificent concession is here! Ought not every Northern man to bow, with grateful emotion, to the magnanimous man by whom it is proffered? This liberal and generous concession, to be fully appreciated, must be viewed in the light of certain notorious facts. The first fact is, that California has already, with singular unanimity, adopted a constitution which excludes for ever the foul system of bondage from her borders. The next fact is, that she has already received, from the present Administration of the United States government, especial marks of its approbation. Another fact is, with the growing population of California, her vast extent and boundless wealth, she is, of herself sufficiently strong to command respect, without asking the favor of any; and the last and most important fact of all is, that the North has the disposition and power to admit her into the Union, with or without the generous compromise, so nobly and complacently presented by that father of compromises, Henry Clay. Mr. Clay's proffered liberality is about as noble as that of a highwayman, who, when in the power of a traveller, and on his way to prison, proposes a consultation, and offers to settle the unhappy difficulty which has occurred between himself and the latter, by accepting the half of the contents of his purse, assuring him, at the same time, that IF his pistol had NOT missed fire, he might have possessed himself of the whole. This assuming to concede, as a mark of liberality, the right of a State to enter this Union, without being compelled to have the foul Curse of slavery fastened upon her, would be about as ridiculous as it is disgraceful; but that the slightest token of concession, on the part of the South to the North, is hailed by so many doughfaces with marks of humble gratitude! The impudence of slaveholders exceeds everything! They talk about the rights (!!) of slavery, just as if it were possible for slavery to have rights. The right to introduce it into the new territories! the constitutional right, &c. Shame on such insolent pretensions! Slavery has NO RIGHTS. It is a foul and damning outrage upon all rights, and has no right to exist anywhere, in or out of the territories. "The earth is the Lord's," and "righteousness" should "cover it;" and he who concedes any part of it to the introduction of slavery, is an enemy to God, an invader of his dominion, and a rebel against his government.

The next resolution of Mr. Clay adopts practically, the nonintervention doctrine so universally held up to ridicule by the Whig press of the North, as the offspring of that prince of sycophants, Gen. Cass. They are as follows:

"Resolved, that the western boundary of the State of Texas, ought to be fixed on the Rio del Norte, commencing one marine league from its mouth, and running up that river to the Southern line of New Mexico; thence with that line eastwardly, and so continuing in the same direction, to the line established between the United States and Spain, excluding any portion of New Mexico, whether lying on the east or west of that river.

"Resolved, That it be proposed to the State of Texas, that the United States will provide for the payment of all that portion of the legitimate and bona fide public debt of that State, contracted prior to its annexation to the United States, and for which the duties on foreign imports were pledged by the said State to its creditors, not exceeding the sum of $—, in consideration of the said duties so pledged having been no longer applicable to that object, after the said annexation, but having thenceforward become payable to the United States; and upon the condition, also, that the State of Texas shall, by some solemn and authentic act of her Legislature, or of a Convention, relinquish to the United States any claim which it has to any part of New Mexico."

No comments on the foregoing resolutions, are needed from us. We put them on record merely as links in the chain of this compromise. It will be seen that Mr. Clay does not concede the justice of the claims which Texas has recently set up, for a large portion of New Mexico. So far so good.

The fifth and sixth resolutions are as follows:

"Resolved, That it is inexpedient to abolish Slavery in the District of Columbia, while that institution continues to exist in the State of Maryland, without the consent of that State, without the consent of the people of the District, and without just compensation to the owners of slaves within the District.

"But, Resolved, That it is expedient to prohibit within the District the slavetrade, in slaves brought into it from States or places beyond the limits of the District, either to be sold therein as merchandize, or to be transported to other markets without the District of Columbia."

If the abolition of slavery is to depend upon the assent of the slaveholders of Maryland, and the other contingencies specified, it is easy to see that slavery in the District of Columbia cannot be reached until the last vestige of slavery has disappeared from the State of Maryland. When that event takes place, there will be no necessity for compromise. And so far as these resolution have any bearing at all, their effect will be to clog the wheels of emancipation.

What is said about abolishing the slavetrade in the District of Columbia, is a mere ruse: since the slavetraders of Maryland can easily reside in Washington, and sell their slaves out of that city, under the very management which pretends to obstruct the trade. While slavery remains in the District, and the right to buy and sell is retained by the slaveholders, it will be impossible to suppress the slavetrade there.

The seventh resolution in the series is as follows:

"Resolved, That more effectual provision ought to be made by law, according to the requirement of the Constitution, for the restitution and delivery of persons bound to service or labor in any State who may escape into any other State or territory in the Union."

Hardened as we have had reason to believe Mr. Clay to be, and inconsistent as he always is, we scarcely expected such a resolution from him as the foregoing, at this time, and in such a connection. When the sympathy of the nation has, by his eloquence and that of others, just been wrought up to the greatest intensity for the Hungarian fugitives from oppression, that he should propose such a resolution, at such a time, for hunting down fugitives in our own land, who are fleeing from a bondage and tyranny far more terrible than that of Austria, is almost as shocking to our sense of consistency and propriety, as it is revolting to our moral perceptions of right and wrong.

But we give Mr. Clay's eighth and last resolution, that the reader may judge for himself as to the benefit which freedom will derive from this misnamed compromise. To us, the whole seems like the handle of a jug—all on one side.

"Resolved, That Congress has no power to prohibit or obstruct the trade in slaves between the slaveholding States; but that the admission or exclusion of slaves brought from one into another of them, depends exclusively upon their own particular laws."

This resolution declares what is not true.—If there be any meaning in words, the Constitution of the U.S. does confer upon Congress full powers to abolish the slave trade between the States. Having already extended this article beyond the limits we had prescribed, we bring it at once to a close.—F. D.