Harper's Weekly 03/16/1861



I spent the evening of Saturday, March 2, and
the night intervening between March 3 and 4 in
the Reporters' gallery of the Senate of the United
States. The Senate adjourned at 1 a.m. on Sun-
day morning 3d, to meet again at 7 p.m. on the
same day, and sat continuously till 7 a.m. on Mon-
day morning, March 4. The business before it
was the following Resolution, which had previously
passed the House of Representatives by a two-
thirds vote:

“That no amendment shall be made to the Constitution
which will authorize or give Congress power to abolish or
interfere within any State with the domestic institutions
thereof, including that of persons held to labor or servitude
by the laws of said State.”

It had been for some time evident that the
Senate would not adopt, even by a majority, the
Crittenden Resolutions, or the Resolutions, of the
Peace Congress, or the Clark Resolutions, or
Senator Doolittle's Resolution denying the right of
secession. It was obvious, on Friday, March 1,
that the utmost that could be extorted from Sena-
tors was the passage of the resolution above given.
Even that was doubtful. Very few Senators were
willing to place themselves on the record as affirm-
ing the right of Congress to interfere with slavery
in the States. But at least three-fourths of the
Senate were anxious to see it defeated—the Re-
publicans because it smacked of compromise, the
Southern Secessionists because it had a tendency to
strengthen the Union sentiment in their States.
These Senators, marshaled by Sumner of Massa-
chusetts on the one side, and Mason of Virginia
on the other, sought to defeat a vote by proposing
a multiplicity of amendments, and consuming time
by debate and divisions by ayes and noes.

Against this combination of Republicans and
Secessionists stood Senator Stephen A. Douglas,
of Illinois. I don't think he had any genuine sup-
porters in the Senate, with the exception of Sena-
tors Crittenden, Bigler, and Johnson of Tennessee.
But he entered the lists on Saturday morning with
the air of a man who is going to fight in earnest.
And even in such bodies as the United States Sen-
ate pluck is apt to tell.

After a skirmish with Sumner, in which the
Massachusetts Senator had rather the best of the
fight, the second reading passed, by 39 to 5. Its
further progress was then arrested by a five hours'
speech, delivered, if not composed, by General Jo.
, of Oregon. When I think of that speech,
and when I remember that General Lane was at
one time a probable candidate for the Presidency,
I can not find words to express my thanks to Di-
vine Providence for our escape. True, the speech
had its advantage. It gave a rest to the wearied
reporters for the press, and enabled Senators to
write their letters undisturbed. When it was done,
Andrew Johnson, of Tennessee, rose to reply.
Mr. Johnson is a self-made man. In his youth he
was a tailor's apprentice, and he learned his letters
from his wife. He is a natural orator, and as brave
a man as lives. The author of General Lane's
speech attacked, with sarcasm and sneer, the Home-
stead Bill with which Senator Johnson's name is
connected. Johnson's reply was one of the most
eloquent bursts ever heard in the Senate. I re-
member, he said in substance, when, after years
of painful struggles, with the young wife I had
brought from my native place in North Carolina,
and the little family which had grown up around
us, I was enabled to purchase a small plot of ground
in Tennessee and build a cabin upon it which I
could call my own. I remember the feeling of
triumph and exultation with which we looked upon
the poor little shed, and knew that at last we had
a home of our own. And then, long years ago,
I made up my mind that, if ever I had the power,
every poor man, struggling as I was, should be
enabled to obtain a home—should have one spot
of earth, however small, one cabin, however rude
and scanty, which, in the light of heaven and the
face of man, he should be able to call his own.

An ominous rustle in the galleries followed this
outburst, but subsided on a growl from Senator
Mason. Senator Johnson continued, laying stripe
after stripe scientifically on the back of poor Gen-
eral Lane, and finally closing with a magnificent
eulogium on the Union. On this the pent-up feel-
ings of the spectators could no longer be restrained.
A tremendous cheer arose. Senator Mason in-
stantly moved that the galleries be cleared. A
few hisses were heard—then a stentorian voice
shouted, “Three cheers for the Union!”
They were given with a will. Not only did the
men's gallery shout, but the ladies screamed and
waved their handkerchiefs. Never since the first
meeting of the Senate did that body endure such
an insult. For some moments the din was over-

“The sergeant-at-arms will clear the galleries!”
commanded the Chair, fiercely.

It was easier said than done. There were at
least fifteen hundred excited men in the galleries.
For some moments it was a question whether the
Senate would clear the galleries, or the galleries the
Senate. Senator Turveydrop, as the respected
Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations
is called by those who know and love him best,
nearly fainted. Senator Kennedy spluttered even
more than usual. Senator Douglas roared at the
sergeant-at-arms. That functionary called the
Capitol Police to his aid, and went forth to do or
die. Happily, after the third cheer, the turbulent
denizens of the galleries, obedient to American in-
stincts, obeyed the command of the Senate, and
retired sullenly. The doors were locked, and Sen-
ators were appeased.

Night had fallen, and the Senate, after some op-
position from Senator Mason, resumed the debate
on the Resolution. Senator Pugh moved to strike
out the words “authorize or,” on the ground that
they were bad grammar.

I am enough of a grammarian to perceive by
Senator Pugh's speeches that he is himself no friend
to Lindley Murray. Whether his amendment
would have improved the grammar of the Resolu-
tion I really know too little to say. Mr. Pugh is
the youngest member of the Senate in more senses
than one. He has an invincible tendency to get
upon his legs—which are short of their kind, like
those of Mr. Douglas. But if his legs be short,
his tongue is long. He generally speaks whenever
the President will let him. Not that he has any
thing to say. He seldom has. Perhaps the most
useful office he ever performed in the Senate was
to read extracts for Senator Douglas during his
great speech on the Lecompton question. On this
occasion words of sense proceeded from his mouth,
and Senators listened. This unexpected attention
turned his head, and he has talked constantly ever
since. On Saturday night he very nearly killed
the Resolution which is printed above. Had his
amendment been adopted the Resolution must have
gone back to the House, which had adjourned to
Monday at 10 a.m., and it could not have passed.
Out of 38 members present, 19 voted for it; and
Vice-President Breckinridge—an opponent of
all settlements—giving a casting vote in the affirm-
ative, the amendment was carried.

Then Douglas rose, and in his deep, bass voice,
eloquently appealed to the Senate to reconsider the
vote. Crittenden seconded the appeal. Cling-
, of North Carolina—once a strong Douglas
man, now, poor fellow! a secessionist in a Union
State—declared that he would change his vote. So
the reconsideration was carried, amidst gnashings
of teeth by the extreme Republicans and Seces-
sionists; and, after some debate, the grammatical
amendment was defeated. Senator Pugh then
moved the Crittenden Resolutions as a second
amendment. Every one knew that they could not
pass. But the design was, as I stated above, to
defeat action on the main resolution.

Senator Wilkinson, of Minnesota, got the floor,
and proceeded to flagellate the Secessionists and the
south generally. He was followed, in the same
strain, by Senator Chandler, of Michigan. Both
were violent, severe, and rather abusive. Both
denied the right of secession, and railed angrily at
the seizure of Government property at the South
by the Secessionists. Both were for the forcible
maintenance of the Union. Both were answered
by Wigfall, of Texas.

A French gentleman, of large public experience,
who heard this debate, remarked that Wilkinson
and Chandler were fair types of Northern, while
Wigfall was a fair type of Southern statesmen.
Without going so far as this, one must admit that
there are superficial grounds for the assertion.
Western men like Chandler and Wilkinson—and
they are nearly all alike—are very unpleasant or-
ators to listen to. Their language is not well
chosen, and their delivery most offensive. Trained
to address out-of-door audiences, they never over-
come the habit of bawling; their tones alternate
between a couac and a roar. Their gesticulation
is abominable. When they become excited, the
hearer's anxiety for the safety of their blood-ves-
sels absorbs every other feeling. To see them sit
down is his only wish. Men like Jefferson Davis
and William H. Seward speak in ordinary tones, yet
are heard throughout the Senate Chamber. But
these Western Ciceros always seem to be address-
ing some one who is three miles off. They appear
to consider themselves oratorical Columbiads, war-
ranted not to burst with any charge. Their mat-
ter, too, is generally ill-digested, They take an
hour to say what could be better said in ten min-
utes. The noise of their own voice disturbs their
memory, and they repeat themselves endlessly.
On a prairie, with an audience scattered over sev-
eral miles of ground, they are doubtless the right
men in the right place; in the United States Sen-
ate they are so faulty in respect of gesture, tone,
delivery, and arrangement of matter, that even
when they are right they seem wrong.

Senator Wigfall, of Texas, is the exact op-
posite of these speakers. He is a finished orator—
probably the most charming in the Senate. His
voice is clear, melodious, and sufficiently powerful
to be heard every where. He speaks grammatic-
ally, elegantly, and without effort. He never
bawls. He never screams. His delivery is per-
fect and his action suitable. When to these mer-
its I add that he is witty and smart, I have said
every thing that can be said in his favor. For he
has the misfortune of being almost always illog-
ical, incorrect, and often absurd. He is a duel-
ist, and carries his life in his hand. When he was a
young man he went to practice law in Ashmore's
district, in his native State—South Carolina. He
wrote articles for the county paper, and made ene-
mies. One of them challenged him. They fought,
and Wigfall winged his man. Another took up
the cudgels, and was winged likewise. The lead-
ing men of the county notified the young stranger
that he did not suit their temper, and must go.
Wigfall replied that he preferred to stay. “I will
shoot a regiment of you,” he said, “but I won't
go.” He shot eight altogether, I believe, includ-
ing the brother of the late Preston S. Brooks, who
shot him too; the two belligerents lay seven or
eight weeks side by side, on their beds, in a tavern
on an island in the Savannah River. The end of
the war was, that Brooks died, and Wigfall, not-
withstanding his bravado, left the State, and mi-
grated to Texas.

His reply to Wilkinson and Chandler was ex-
tremely smart. Mr. Chandler had abused Gov-
ernor Floyd as a common thief and a scoundrel.
Wigfall twitted him with offering insults for which
he would not respond in the field. “I will make
a bargain with the Senator,” he said. “If he will
write a letter to Governor Floyd saying, `Govern-
or Floyd, you are a scoundrel, and I am a gentle-
man. Hezekiah'—no, I mean `Jeremiah'—no, I
beg pardon, `Zechariah Chandler,' I will covenant
that Governor Floyd's friends shall pay the whole
amount which he is accused of stealing from the
United States Treasury.” The Northern trains
had just arrived, and the gallery was full of North-
ern spectators. Waving his hand gracefully to
them, Wigfall continued: “The difficulty between
you and us, gentlemen, is, that you will not send
the right sort of people here. Why will you not
send either Christians or gentlemen? Either peo-
ple who will not insult us with gross words, or peo-
ple who will admit their personal responsibility for
their language?” Chandler had said that he
wanted to see whether we had a government; that
if we had none he would leave the country; he
would go to some country where they had one; he
would go and live among the Comanches. Wig-
fall replied: “The Senator says that under cer-
tain conditions he will go and live among the Co-
manches. God forbid! The Comanches have al-
ready suffered much—too much—from contact with
the white man!” His wit and repartee over-
whelmed his Northern opponents, even in the
opinion of Northern hearers; though, on the main
questions at issue between them, he was obviously
wrong and they were right. So much for a good
delivery and well-chosen language.

An hour or more after midnight the Senate ad-
journed to meet on Sunday evening. When it
met, Senator Crittenden had the floor, and deliv-
ered a three hours' speech in favor of compromise.
Senator Crittenden will go down to posterity as a
good man. He is pure, honest, and patriotic. He
has served his country many years with credit.
His weak point is in the back-bone. When Lin-
coln was elected, Crittenden, like a good citizen,
was for unconditional submission. But Breckin-
ridge and others fell upon the old man, and be-
guiled him to father the resolutions which they had
contrived. In an evil moment he yielded, and has
ever since repented the act in sackcloth and ashes.
The Secessionists had to sit up with him at night
to prevent his denouncing the “Crittenden Com-
promise;” and, in fact, when the vote was taken,
on Sunday, he voted against it. His speech was
patriotic; but it was very long. Senators on both
sides listened with respectful attention; but for all
practical purposes the speech might as well have
not been delivered.

When he ended, filibustering was renewed.
Senator Mason declared that the resolution was a
placebo, a sort of “bread-pill,” such as doctors give
to patients who are imaginary invalids. Senator
Douglas instantly retorted that the South was, in
fact, an imaginary invalid, and needed precisely
such a bread-pill. It was dangerous ground. The
Republicans hastened to “take act” of the admis-
sion of the Senator from Illinois, and he was forced
to qualify it by adding that, in his opinion, some
Republicans did really propose to interfere with
slavery in the States. This riding of two horses,
you see, has its inconveniences. But Douglas has
so much pluck that a fall doesn't hurt him.

An altercation between him and Mason arose.
Douglas declared that he had overheard a conver-
sation between Mason and Pugh on the subject of
the defeat of the resolution by indirection. Mason
sneered at people who repeated to the Senate
“scraps of private conversation” which they over-
heard, and wound up in his inimitably insolent
manner with the adage De gustibus, etc. Douglas
fiercely retorted that he permitted no Senator to
accuse him of unparliamentary behavior. Mason
took two steps hastily forward, and for an instant,
the prospect looked warlike. But stopping mid-
way, after a pause of some moments, the haughty
Senator from Virginia condescended to utter a half-
apology. He was “backed down.”

Let me take this opportunity of saying that, with
all his faults, Senator Mason is perhaps the nearest
approach, in the present Senate, to the beau ideal
of a Senator. He seldom makes long speeches.
What he has to say he says in good language, with
a good manner, and in a parliamentary way.
When he has done he does not go over the ground
again, but sits down. This art of sitting down is
the highest accomplishment of parliamentary sci-
ence, and one which our Northern men find it very
difficult to acquire. Mr. Mason never rises need-
lessly, and never says foolish things. He speaks
always to the Senate, never to the galleries. In
parliamentary tactics he is unrivaled. His de-
fects are obvious. His manner and tone are un-
bearably insolent. He talks like a Pacha address-
ing eunuchs. Just now, his temper is embittered
by his Secessionist tendencies, which are not shared
by the people of his State. He sees himself top-
pling over from the height of political power to
insignificant obscurity. He dies hard.

On the Republican side, speeches were made on
this Sunday night and Monday morning by Sena-
tors Trumbull and Wade, and on the other side
by Wigfall again. What I have said of Wilkinson
and Chandler will apply to Trumbull and Wade.
The former was obviously bent on being heard in
Georgetown. Neither had prepared their speeches
beforehand; and consequently, repetitions were in-
cessant. “Old Ben Wade,” as his familiars call
him, made some good points in opposition to Sena-
tor Douglas, who forgot his good manners in an
attack upon him. But there was nothing new in
either of the speeches. The calm dignity naturally
expected in a Senatorial address, the terse asser-
tion of principle and its logical application to cur-
rent events, were wanting—or at all events were
drowned in profuse verbiage.

The leader of the Senate, under the Republican
régime, will be Fessenden, of Maine, the Chair-
man of the Committee on Finance. He seldom
speaks. He is a cold, hard-faced man, with a gray
cheval-de-frise round his jaws; inflexible as the
laws of the universe; cool as a mountain-top; and
brave as a lion. Next to him in influence, per-
haps, may be ranked Preston King, of New York.
He, too, is rarely heard in the Senate. His voice
is a shrill falsetto, which, coming from a man built
like a rum-puncheon, sounds queer enough. But
he is very sound in council, and perfectly brave.
His temper is merry, and the normal condition of
his face is a broad grin. Clark, of New Hamp-
shire, is a bold contrast to Mr. King, yet also a
leader. He is a thin, tall man, of sallow complex-
ion, with lantern jaws and black mustache. His
voice is keen, his sentences crisp. When he speaks,
it seems that a sharp knife is falling at the end of
each period. Sumner, of Massachusetts, Mr. Ma-
son's successor as Chairman of the Committee on
Foreign Relations, acted, during the debate which
I witnessed, as whipper in. He watched warily,
and was ever ready to avail himself of all Parlia-
mentary expedients to defeat the resolution. His
voice is very good, and his elocution admirable.
Weight he has little, as he is known to be an abo-
litionist; and though he is probably the most
learned man in the Senate, he is not an efficient
Senator or debater. Probably the most efficient
Republican Senator in debate will be found to be
Doolittle, of Wisconsin. His peculiar merits
are, first, that he speaks clearly, sensibly, and
quietly; and, secondly, that he knows how and
when to sit down. This most difficult of all arts
—the art of sitting down—he seems to have mas-
tered. 'Tis probably a natural gift. At any rate
he possesses it, and consequently he is always heard
with attention.

Hour after hour had slipped away; it was six
o'clock in the morning, and no vote had been taken
on the Resolution. In six hours more the Inaugu-
ration was to take place. Senators began to look
jaded. Half of them were asleep on the sofas, and
some in their seats. The galleries had thinned
out. Repeated motions for a recess were made.

But Douglas, with bull dog tenacity, stuck to
his point. At the bare mention of the word recess,
his “I object, Mr. President,” rose clearly above
the din. His patience was beyond all praise.
Not a sign of impatience escaped him even during
the most wearisome of the long speeches which
consumed the precious hours of the waning session.
But the instant the floor was vacant he pressed his
point. To personal attacks, and they were many,
his sole reply was—Let us vote. And so at last,
half an hour or so before daylight, the ayes and
noes were called for, and the Resolution passed by
24 to 12—just the necessary two-thirds.

If it saves us the Border States, let us remember
that the credit is due to Stephen A. Douglas,
of Illinois.

Website design © 2000-2008 HarpWeek, LLC
All Content © 1998-2008 HarpWeek, LLC
Please submit questions to webmaster@harpweek.com