- Historic Sites
Is it really true that the more things change, the more they stay the same? Once upon a time, before the bureaucratic society, before modern war and technology, there was a very different world, and not so long ago. Let us revisit, picking at random, the year
December 1969 | Volume 21, Issue 1
But there are some flaws. No railroad bridge crosses the Mississippi south of Rock Island, Illinois, and travellers must be ferried across the muddy waters. Speeds still rarely exceed twenty-five or thirty miles an hour. Safety devices are rudimentary and schedules are a joke. When going to Chicago bx rail, one changes cars at Albany, Buffalo, the state line, Erie, Cleveland, and Toledo. One reason for many of these changes ir the multiplicity of gauges now prevailing, ranging from six feet to two. Between Philadelphia and Charleston, South Carolina, there are eight changes, for eight shifts in width of track. The traveller takes the steam cars at his peril. The seats are wood, the springs are poor. Older sections of the line, not yet laid with T-rail, offer an additional hazard. Poorly spiked ends of the old strap iron rails are apt to come loose, snap upward as a train passes, and impale the floor of a car. You shiver in winter and broil under the cinders and wood sparks in summer. You bring your own candle for lighting purposes, and you eat when the train crews see fit to stop by a restaurant, for certain customs of the stagecoach era linger on. The lines, mostly single-track, have been slow to adopt telegraphic signalling, and there are frightful accidents. Boilers burst, bridges snap, and trains meet head-on around the bend. No one has dreamed of synchronizing times, although the railroads are urging a system of time zones in the country, in the teeth of objections from fundamentalist preachers who claim that God knows but one time, for Heaven and for earth.
But the trains get through, and they build America. The eagle screams, the people strut, every man has a future here. He has, anyway, if he’ll work. Survival of the fittest, that’s what Herbert Spencer says, and that’s what we have here. (Charles Darwin is still at his writing table, to burst into print with the major work of his life in 1859.) If you can’t succeed back East, do what Greeley is erroneously reported to have said, “Go West, young man!” No kings here, no classes, all men are created equal.
Chief Justice Roger B. Taney gathers the robes about his wasted frame and begins to speak in so weak a voice that the spectators can barely hear the great decision. Slaves, he whispers, are not persons but property. The Constitution protects property throughout the United States. If a slave has been taken into a free state, therefore, that fact does not set him free. Nor does residence in a territory, either; Congress lacks the power to regulate slavery in the territories. The Missouri Compromise of 1820, restricting slavery north of a certain line in the new territories, had been repealed in 1854; now out the window goes the whole jerry-built edifice of compromise between North and South on which the Congress, for years, has spent so much of its time, over which the great dead voices of Calhoun, Clay, and Webster have poured their oceans of rhetoric; out the window goes even the latest nostrum of Stephen A. Douglas, the formula of “popular sovereignty,” which, in bloody Kansas, means popular mayhem.
Finally comes the barely audible anticlimax: the plaintiff, Dred Scott, “a man of color,” is not a citizen and cannot sue in the courts anyway. Dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. The old voice dies away, to echo at Sumter, and Gettysburg, and Appomattox; we hear it still.
In this same year of 1857, newspaper readers learn, fifty thousand Kaffirs, members of an impressionable African tribe, have committed suicide at once; horrified missionaries discover that the unfortunate natives, spellbound by prophecies of resurrection and eternal joy in the hereafter for those who sacrificed everything, including life itself, were resolved to waste no time. Yet who will say, in the long view, that this dreadful blood-letting matches in historical importance the defeat in court of this solitary Negro, Dred Scott?
Over in Washington, they are inaugurating James Buchanan, who is only a minority victor. Together, the candidate of the new Republican party, the picaresque explorer John Frémont, and the Know-Nothing candidate, ex-President Millard Fillmore, have pulled more votes, and a combination of the opposition in 1860 will be fatal to the angry, split Democratic party. The cold March sun goes behind a portentous cloud as the old bachelor mouths the platitudes of his undistinguished inaugural. He takes no sides on slavery, save to “hope that the long agitation on this subject is approaching its end.” Tired old Buck is no man to meet an issue when he can mark time. Afterward there is a ball for several thousands, but the old gentleman does not enjoy it, for he writhes with the dysentery that he, like other guests at the National Hotel, picked up the day before. There are new gaslights in Washington, but the same old lack of sanitation. And there is the same old quarrel, mounting wrathfully as every day passes.
Congress, after spending thirty years of oratory on it, has failed to solve the problem of slavery, and now the hateful stereotypes have been created that must precede a war—the hypocritical abolitionist on the one side, the slave driver on the other, and the time for compromise is almost past. Yet, strangely enough, there are really only a handful of abolitionists and barely one in four southerners is concerned, even indirectly, with slavery, or lives on its fruits.