July 25, 2013

Congressman Charles Van Wyck's "True Democracy--History Vindicated," 1860

Related Posts:
Congressman Charles Van Wyck's "True Democracy--History Vindicated," 1860
Fight Between Congressmen Van Wyck and Hindman, 1860
Assassination Attempt of Congressman Charles Van Wyck, 1861


Charles Van Wyck was a U.S. Representative from New York (March 4, 1859-March 3, 1863) and an outspoken abolitionist.  On March 7, 1860, he gave a speech on the floor of the House entitled "True Democracy--History Vindicated," which caused quite a bit of animosity between him and his colleagues (as you can see in my next post).  In it, he argues the progress of the country is inclined toward the extinction of slavery, for both moral and constitutional reasons.  (Click here to open a PDF of the full speech.)

The opening of his speech is of particular interest because it explains the 'excitement' in Congress and public sentiment leading up to secession in a way few historians have been able to map with similar clarity.

Though I'm well aware that the extremity of Van Wyck's abolition views were not as common as some history books would have you think, Van Wyck does make some very salient points, such as this one about popular sovereignty.   He argues that Congress has repeatedly exercised power over the territories in the past, but only recent attempts are criticized as unconstitutional.  

I think it's ironic that he calls Southerners alarmist for crying that the North is hostile toward their way of life, yet the ideas in his speech are exactly what the Southerners found hostile.  As one of the articles in my next post states, "Mr. Van Wyck's attack in debate upon the inhumanity of the whole South has made him especially obnoxious."


(March 7, 1860)
VAN WYCK: For many weeks I was a patient listener to eloquent speeches from the leaders of the so-called Democratic party on the floor of this House.

Why do they charge the Republican as agitators, when they themselves have been sounding the notes of disunion, and preaching violence, for the only purpose of alarming the timidity of one and the weakness of another sanction of a common country; of arraying faction against faction; first, to steel the heart against all sentiments of humanity, and then nerve the arm to execute its unholy impulses; charging treason upon the North, and counselling the South to rebellion and resistance?

When you, gentlemen, came to this Capitol, the agitation occasioned by the Harper's Ferry riot was subsiding. In the discharge of what you call a patriotic duty, you gathered together the elements of that unfortunate strife, and increased the turbulence in the public mind.

The storm which gathered for a moment across a summer sky, then broke in the sunshine and dissipated in the rain drops, you call back, and by the eloquence of words and the impulse of fear, in the "chambers of your imagery" you generate a storm whereby you seek to send forth hurricane and tempest to prostrate the oaks and temples of the Republic in one common ruin.  The torch of the incendiary had been smothered, and you seize the blackened flambeau, rush forth with the madness and folly of the suicide, and essay to light up the flames of civil war and fratricidal strife.

You, gentlemen, and not John Brown, have unchained the whirlwind of angry passion and bitter invective; you have unbarred the thunder and loosened the lightning shaft, whereby you sought to rend asunder the people of a great nation, so that, in your own language on this floor, the "Union might be wrecked from turret to foundation stone," and "the Constitution torn in tatters." Then from the ruins of one, and the dismembered body of the other, you might erect a confederacy cemented by the blood, watered by the tears, and strengthened by the groans of your bondmen; which would fill the measure of your avarice and feed the cravings of your ambition.

Day after day, with the most vindictive language, have we been arraigned as guilty of arson, treason, and murder; so base was the charge, so unjust the imputation, we meet them with our weapons at rest.

The gentleman from Louisiana, [Mr. Davidson,] whose ambition at one time seemed to be that he might appear in this Hall armed with a double-barrel shot gun, in his speech on the 22d day of December, in a defiant manner, said:

"I honestly believe that if you were tried before a jury of conscientious men, a jury of men who believe in a God of all justice and mercy, and all intelligence, you would be found guilty, as accessories before the fact, to all the dreadful deeds of Brown and his associates."

You talk of God, justice, and mercy, who hold, claiming by Divine authority, four million human beings in hopeless and irretrievable bondage, and ostracize free white men who will not sing hosannas to your traffic in the bodies and souls of men, and stigmatize as murderers and felons those who will not applaud the cruelty which tramples upon all the attributes of the mind, the affections of the heart given by the Almighty to the children of His own creation!

That same gentleman desired to present to the consideration of this House one of John Brown's pikes; let me urge him to extend his cabinet of curiosities and add one of the chains and branding irons of his coffle gang, tied by the lash with which the backs of women and children are scourged, and then, to watch them, a sleek, well-fed bloodhound, with quick scent, trained to snuff in the air the track of the fleeing fugitive; let him present these as symbols, the one of Brown's folly, and the others of his own high type of civilization. 


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