This Southern life was carried on in the most appropriate environment. On a landed estate, often larger than many of Europe's baronies, stood the great house of the planter, usually a graceful example of colonial architecture, surrounded by stately gardens. This mansion was the center of a boundless hospitality; guests were always coming and going; the hostess and her daughters were the very symbols of kindliness and ease. To think of such houses was to think of innumerable joyous days; of gentlemen galloping across country after the hounds; of coaches lumbering along avenues of noble oaks, bringing handsome women to visit the mansion; of great feastings; of nights of music and dancing; above all, of the great festival of Christmas, celebrated much as had been the custom in "Merrie England" centuries before.
Below the surface of this bright world lay the enslaved black race. In the minds of many Southerners--it was always a secret burden from which they saw no means of freeing themselves. To emancipate the slaves, and thereby to create a population of free blacks, was generally considered, from the white point of view, an impossible solution of the problem. The Southerners usually believed that the African could be tamed only in small groups and when constantly surrounded by white influence, as in the case of house servants. Though a few great capitalists had taken up the idea that the deliberate exploitation of the blacks was the high prerogative of the whites, the general sentiment of the Southern people was more truly expressed by Toombs when he said: "The question is not whether we could be more prosperous and happy with these three and a half million slaves in Africa, and their places filled with an equal number of hardy, intelligent, and enterprising citizens of the superior race; but it is simply whether, while we have them among us, we would be most prosperous with them in freedom or in bondage."
The Southern people, in the majority of instances, had no hatred of the blacks. In the main they led their free, spirited, and gracious life, convinced that the maintenance of slavery was but making the best of circumstances which were beyond their control. It was these Southern people who were to hear from afar the horrible indictment of all their motives by the Abolitionists and who were to react in a growing bitterness and distrust toward everything Northern.
But of these Southern people the average Northerner knew nothing. He knew the South only on its least attractive side of professional politics. For there was a group of powerful magnates, rich planters or "slave barons," who easily made their way into Congress, and who played into the hands of the Northern capitalists, for a purpose similar to theirs. It was these men who forced the issue upon slavery; they warned the common people of the North to mind their own business; and for doing so they were warmly applauded by the Northern capitalist class. It was therefore in opposition to the whole American world of organized capital that the Northern masses demanded the use of "the Northern hammer"--as Sumner put it, in one of his most furious speeches--in their aim to destroy a section where, intuitively, they felt their democratic ideal could not be realized.
And what was that ideal? Merely to answer democracy is to dodge the fundamental question. The North was too complex in its social structure and too multitudinous in its interests to confine itself to one type of life. It included all sorts and conditions of men--from the most gracious of scholars who lived in romantic ease among his German and Spanish books, and whose lovely house in Cambridge is forever associated with the noble presence of Washington, to the hardy frontiersman, breaking the new soil of his Western claim, whose wife at sunset shaded her tired eyes, under a hand rough with labor, as she stood on the threshold of her log cabin, watching for the return of her man across the weedy fields which he had not yet fully subdued. Far apart as were Longfellow and this toiler of the West, they yet felt themselves to be one in purpose.
They were democrats, but not after the simple, elementary manner of the democrats at the opening of the century. In the North, there had come to life a peculiar phase of idealism that had touched democracy with mysticism and had added to it a vague but genuine romance. This new vision of the destiny of the country had the practical effect of making the Northerners identify themselves in their imaginations with all mankind and in creating in them an enthusiastic desire, not only to give to every American a home of his own, but also to throw open the gates of the nation and to share the wealth of America with the poor of all the world. In very truth, it was their dominating passion to give "land to the landless." Here was the clue to much of their attitude toward the South. Most of these Northern dreamers gave little or no thought to slavery itself; but they felt that the section which maintained such a system so committed to aristocracy that any real friendship with it was impossible.
We are thus forced to conceive the American Republic in the years immediately following the Compromise of 1850 as, in effect, a dual nation, without a common loyalty between the two parts. Before long the most significant of the great Northerners of the time was to describe this impossible condition by the appropriate metaphor of a house divided against itself. It was not, however, until eight years after the division of the country had been acknowledged in 1850 that these words were uttered. In those eight years both sections awoke to the seriousness of the differences that they had admitted. Both perceived that, instead of solving their problem in 1850, they had merely drawn sharply the lines of future conflict. In every thoughtful mind there arose the same alternative questions: Is there no solution but fighting it out until one side destroys the other, or we end as two nations confessedly independent? Or is there some conceivable new outlet for this opposition of energy on the part of the sections, some new mode of permanent adjustment?
It was at the moment when thinking men were asking these questions that one of the nimblest of politicians took the center of the stage. Stephen A. Douglas was far-sighted enough to understand the land-hunger of the time. One is tempted to add that his ear was to the ground. The statement will not, however, go unchallenged, for able apologists have their good word to say for Douglas. Though in the main, the traditional view of him as the prince of political jugglers still holds its own, let us admit that his bold, rough spirit, filled as it was with political daring, was not without its strange vein of idealism. And then let us repeat that his ear was to the ground. Much careful research has indeed been expended in seeking to determine who originated the policy which, about 1853, Douglas decided to make his own. There has also been much dispute about his motives. Most of us, however, see in his course of action an instance of playing the game of politics with an audacity that was magnificent.