1857

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The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, bowing one day about this time to the majesty of the federal government, and more specifically to the Fugitive Slave Law, surrenders a Negro to his owner, one trip on the Underground Railroad that failed to reach Canada. And in Concord, a little village that keeps the conscience of a whole section of America, Henry David Thoreau burns with anger. He has just dined with a half-mad visitor named John Brown, and his patience runs out. Let us go down to the bronze likeness of the Minuteman, he suggests, and paint this statue black.

And so Civil War waits in the wings, girding his costume, surrounded by many notable spear carriers. Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston is preparing to march on the rebellious Mormons of Utah, who have been ambushing and massacring white settlers on their way to California and generally defying the authority of the United States (which testy Brigham Young describes as “a stench in our nostrils,” albeit both Brigham and the stench subside with little bloodshed). Thomas Jonathan Jackson is teaching school, and Captain Ulysses S. Grant, retired from the Army after an undistinguished career, is scratching at odd jobs in St. Louis—now a farmer, now peddling wood, now a real-estate man, now a customhouse clerk. There is not a hair on the chin of Captain Grant, or on that of boyish-looking Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee of the 2nd Cavalry. Robert Gould Shaw, who will break the heart of Boston as he dies leading Negro troops in the assault on Fort Wagner, is a student at Harvard. And Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, who hasjust rerigned to return to the Senate, is being compared to his old mentor, John C. Calhoun. On April 9 he takes up a prophetic pen to vrite a friend:

In the next four years is, I think, locked up the fate of the Union. If the issues are boldly and properly met my hope is that the Constitution will prevail; if the attempt is made to postpone them, the next Presidential election will probably bring us to the alternative of resistance to oppressive usurpation or the tame surrender of our birthright.

To expect boldness from Buchanan is to fish for whale in a millpond.

In Illinois there is an ex-congressman named Lincoln whose political prospects seem dim at the moment but whose principles are strong. The Drdd Scott decision troubles him deeply, he tells a gathering in S`ringfield this June. The position of the slave, he says, is getting worse:

All the powers of the earth seem rapidly combining against him. Mammon is after him, ambition follows, philosophy follows and the theology of the day is fast joining the cry. They have him in his prison house … One after another they have closed the heavy iron doors upon him; and now they have him, as it were, bolted in with a lock of a hundred keys, which can never be unlocked without the concurrence of every key—the keys in the hands of a hundred different men, and they scattered to a hundred different and distant places; and they stand musing as to what invention, in all the dominions of mind and matter, can be produced to make the impossibility of his escape more difficult than it is.

What, he asks, has happened to the Declaration of Independence? And he thinks he had better explain that its authors certainly did not mean to limit its application to Americans and Britons alone. He will restate it:

They meant [the founders] to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all peoples of all colors everywhere.

Such, with all its admitted gaps, was the landscape of the civilized world of 1857, a rather quiet year before the start of the most revolutionary century in history. Such, however impressionistically we have presented them, were its people and personages. It was, if we struggle to find one general adjective for it, a hopeful world, just as our own is, perhaps, best labelled apprehensive. What we might learn from revisiting this forgotten landscape is enormous; what we will learn only history can say. Abraham Lincoln, for example, spoke for all that is best in us: a towering figure, yet we perceived it only later. A century and more after him, the moon is conquered and space beckons, yet the greatest challenge still unmet remains within us, to realize the society he dreamed of so many or (if your perspectives are different) so few years ago.