No record is to be found of the shipping of the Colonies prior to the Revolution, but there is reason to suppose that it must have exceeded two hundred thousand tons. During the Revolution the merchantmen went generally to decay or were captured. Some were equipped as privateers. But after seven years a ship is in its dotage. New vessels were built and armed. The models which figure in old pictures, with high sterns and bows, proved too clumsy for war, and modern forms were adopted. At least five hundred armed vessels were fitted out in the commercial States, and among them one hundred and fifty-eight from the single port of Salem. Some of these vessels mounted twenty guns; they captured large numbers of English vessels, and performed feats on the ocean as brilliant as any upon the land. At the close of the war, our shipping, although it included many prizes, was undoubtedly reduced; but it had changed its character. Our ships had improved in size and speed, and were manned by officers and seamen who had measured their strength with Englishmen, and acknowledged no superiors. From the Peace of 1783 to the Embargo of 1807, a period of twenty-four years, is a remarkable epoch in the history of American navigation.
At the close of the war, the country was exhausted by its long and protracted struggle with the colossal power of England. The Eastern States, which furnished most of the shipping, had made great sacrifices, and had contributed more than their share in men, money, and ships to the common defence. They were creditor States, and their means were locked up in "final settlements." Their remaining capital was insufficient to equip their vessels and give them full cargoes. The country was impoverished, too, by the suits of foreign creditors, to whom our merchants had become deeply indebted before the war. Under these circumstances, commerce was slowly resumed. For several years our exports did not exceed ten millions. But our merchants were not disheartened; they gradually enlarged their trade and extended their field of adventure; privateers were put into the India trade, and entered into successful rivalry with the more cumbrous ships of the East India Companies. The new Constitution was adopted, the public debt funded, and duties imposed to meet the interest. The war-worn officer, the patriotic merchant, and the humble capitalist, who had relied on the honor and justice of the country, were paid in public stocks which found favor abroad. Old capital was resuscitated and became the basis of commerce.
In 1793 our tonnage had risen to 488,000 tons; and in 1799 it had grown to 939,488 tons, and was still increasing. The aggressions of France in 1798 and 1799 were met with a bold spirit and proved of brief continuance, a proper chastisement was inflicted on the corsairs of Africa, the honor of the flag was maintained, our commerce moved onward until the close of 1807, and by the official report of that year our tonnage had increased to 1,208,735 tons, or at least five hundred per cent. in the first twenty-four years after the close of the war. The revenue had risen to fifteen millions, and the official report of the Treasurer showed a balance in the Treasury of eighteen millions in bonds and money; it stated, also, that twenty-six millions of the public debt had been extinguished in the seven years preceding. Our ships, too, had become the great carriers of the deep; our exports for 1807 were $108,343,750, of which $59,622,558 were of foreign origin; our ports, remote from the seat of war, had become the depots of goods; and our commerce, whitening the surface of every ocean, had begun to tempt the cupidity of contending nations. In 1807, the United States, in addition to its domestic produce, which went principally to English ports, exported of foreign goods, in round numbers, to
Holland, . . . . . . . . $14,000,000 French ports, . . . . . . 13,000,000 Spanish " . . . . . . 14,000,000 Italian " . . . . . . 5,500,000 Danish " . . . . . . 2,500,000 English and other ports,. 10,000,000
In those prosperous days of navigation, during the first period of twenty-four years after the Peace of 1783, the merchants of our country were accumulating riches; but a check was given to their prosperity by the Embargo, closely followed by acts of non-intercourse, by war, and by sixteen years of debility which ensued. In 1814, our tonnage was diminished to 1,159,288 tons, a point actually below that of 1807; and at the close of the second epoch of twenty-four years, in 1831, during which our population had doubled, the tonnage remained at 1,267,846 tons, having virtually made no progress in the second epoch of twenty-four years, commencing with the Embargo.
We now enter upon the third epoch of equal length, from 1831 to 1855, which stands out in bold relief a striking contrast to the gloomy period which it followed, and bears some resemblance to the epoch which preceded the Embargo, showing the recuperative power of a commerce destined to float after the most disastrous shipwreck.
Peace had continued down to 1831; the debt incurred during the war was at length reduced; new breeds of sheep were imported, and manufactures, aided by new inventions, were established on a permanent basis; our new fabrics began to demand more raw material; the culture of cotton was thus extended; railways were constructed; England, relaxing her commercial code, opened her marts to our breadstuffs; the great discovery of gold followed. Each of these causes gave an impulse to navigation, and at the close of the third epoch of twenty-four years, in 1855, our tonnage had outstripped that of England both in amount and effective power, and had risen by the official report to 5,212,000 tons, exhibiting a gain of more than three hundred per cent. The ratio of its advance may be inferred from the following table:—
Tonnage of ships built in 1818 55,856 do. do. 1831 85,962 do. do. 1832 144,539 do. do. 1848 318,072 do. do. 1855 583,451
Let us contrast these three epochs we have named. During the first, our navigation sprang from infancy to manhood, surmounting all obstacles and bidding defiance to all foes. In the second, in the vigor of manhood, it was withdrawn by a mysterious and pusillanimous policy from the ocean. This very timidity invited aggression, seizures and war followed, and the growth was checked for nearly the fourth of a century. In the third epoch it resumed its onward march, stimulating improvement, and thereby accelerating its own progress, until at length the offspring has surpassed the parent and taken the lead in navigation. Mark the contrast: the three epochs were of equal length: the first witnessed a growth of five hundred per cent.; in the second there was an entire paralysis; in the third, renewed progress of more than three hundred per cent.
What were the causes that confined the young giant to a Procrustean bed for a quarter of a century?
The subject has become history, and we can now calmly investigate it by the light of the past and the present. May not this investigation illumine the path of the future? Let us examine the maritime policy of our nation during each period.
At the close of the Revolution there was no navy, and few ships to be protected. Our private armed vessels were converted into merchantmen, our solitary ship of the line was presented to France, and we had no frigates worth preserving.
The first great effort of the country was to form a constitution; the second, to provide for the creditors who had sustained the nation; the third, to provide a revenue to meet expenses and interest. And these were all successful. As commerce advanced, the Federal party under Washington revived the idea of a navy, and on March 11th, 1794, against the opposition of Madison, they carried a bill through Congress for the construction of six frigates. Under this bill, the Constitution, Constellation, and United States, all since identified with the fame of our country, were commenced, but they were not launched until the accession of John Adams in 1797.
Washington, in his Farewell Address, gave the sanction of his name to a navy, as well as to the West Point Academy, and to a system of harbor-defence. He thus marked out the great outlines; but the founder of the navy was John Adams. Nurtured among the hardy sons of Massachusetts, familiar with their exploits upon the ocean during the war both in private and public service, he felt assured of their ability to cope with the Mistress of the Seas. When France seized our ships and undertook to involve us in European wars, Adams renounced her alliance and called for the creation of a navy. In his annual message in 1797, he spoke of "a navy as next to the militia the natural defence of the United States." In 1798 the three frigates above-mentioned were finished and sent to sea, and soon after the Constellation captured the Insurgent. During the same year Congress voted to construct six more frigates, twelve sloops-of-war, and six smaller vessels, and appropriated a million for the frames of six ships of the line, two millions for timber, and fifty thousand dollars for two dock-yards. At the same time, in response to a vote of Congress authorizing the acceptance of additional ships, $711,700 were subscribed, and the frigates Essex, Connecticut, Merrimack, and other vessels, constructed and turned over to the Government by the merchants of Salem, Newburyport, Hartford, and other seaports.
To illustrate the spirit with which the merchants responded to the call for a navy, we may cite the action of the Federal county of Essex, none of whose towns at that period contained over ten thousand inhabitants. This county had contributed more armed ships and men to the War of the Revolution than any other county in the Union, and was conspicuous for its enterprise and patriotism before the embargo, non-intercourse, and war had crushed its commerce.
The merchants of Essex assembled and subscribed the funds for the frigates Essex and Merrimack, the first of which was built at Salem and the other at Newburyport, and both of New-England oak; and this effort was the more remarkable, as they advanced the money while the Government found it difficult to borrow at eight per cent., and these patriotic men afterwards took their pay in depreciated six per cent. stock at par.
We have not the history of the Merrimack; but the Essex, a frigate of thirty-two guns, begun in April, was launched in September, 1799, and the best commentary upon the policy of the measure and upon the skill and fidelity of her builders is the fact that she proved the fastest ship in the navy, that she lasted thirty-eight years, namely, till 1837, that she cost for hull, spars, sails, and rigging, when ready to receive her armament and stores, but $75,473.59, and that under the gallant Porter, in the War of 1812, she captured the British corvette Alert, of twenty guns, a transport with one hundred and ninety-seven troops for Canada, and twenty-three other prizes, valued at two millions of dollars; she also broke up the British whale-fishing in the Pacific; and when finally captured at Valparaiso by two ships of superior force, who would not venture within reach of her carronades, she fought a battle of three hours' duration, which does honor to the country. While this frigate was building, so fast did the timber come in, that the spirited contractor, Mr. Briggs, was obliged to insert the following notice in the Salem paper to check the supply.
"THE SALEM FRIGATE.
"Through the medium of the Gazette the subscriber pays his acknowledgments to the good people of the County of Essex, for their spirited exertions in bringing down the trees of the Forest for building the Frigate.
"In the short space of four weeks the full complement of timber has been furnished. Those who have contributed to their country's defence are invited to come forward and receive the reward of their patriotism. They are informed that with the permission of a kind Providence who hath hitherto favored the undertaking, that
"Next September is the time When we'll launch her from the strand, And our cannon load and prime With tribute due to Talleyrand."
The promise was fulfilled on September 30th, 1799. The hills in the vicinity and the rocks upon the shores were covered with people assembled to witness the launch, and the guns of the frigate were planted on an eminence "to speak aloud the joy of the occasion."
A correspondent of the "Gazette" gave the following jubilant account of the affair.
"And Adams said, Let there be a Navy, and there was a Navy. To build a navy was the advice of our venerable sage. How far it has been adhered to is demonstrated by almost every town' in the United States that is capable of floating a Galley or Gunboat. Salem has not been backward in this laudable design; impressed with a due sense of the importance of a Navy, the patriotic citizens of this town put out a subscription and thereby obtained an equivalent for building a vessel of force. Among the foremost in this good work were Messrs. Derby & Gray, who set the example by subscribing ten thousand dollars each,—but, alas, the former is no more; we trust his good deeds follow him. Yesterday the stars and stripes were unfurled on board the Frigate Essex, and at twelve o'clock she made a majestic movement into her destined element, there to join her sister-craft in repelling foreign invasion and maintaining the rights and liberties of 'a great, free, peaceful, and independent Republic.'"
The early reports under Adams give the estimated cost of a ship of the line as $400,000; and the first frigates actually cost as follows:—
Constellation $314,212 Constitution 302,718 United States 299,336 President 220,910 Chesapeake 220,679 Congress 197,246 Essex, with armament and stores 139,202
In 1799 the estimates for the navy were raised to four millions and a half, and large appropriations were continued in 1800. Under these appropriations several navy-yards were established, and frames of live-oak and cedar were furnished for eight ships of the line. The energy of the Administration produced corresponding effects, convoys were provided for our merchantmen, insurance fell from twenty to ten per cent., and France, impressed by our spirit and armament, retired from the contest.
At the close of 1800 the navy had made great progress; and the Secretary of the Navy, Hon. Benjamin Stoddard of Baltimore, proposed in 1801 an annual appropriation of one million for its increase.
But in 1801 the spirited administration of Adams came to an end. He had favored the payment of the national debt; he had dared to anticipate the future, to impose taxes and provide ships; he had aided the formation of a military academy and advocated a system of coast-defence, and had boldly asserted our national rights against the French Republic; and yet he loved peace so well, that, against the advice and wishes of his party and his cabinet, he sent a minister to France, who made an honorable treaty. Posterity sees little to censure in all these measures, for they evince the courage and forecast of the great Statesman of the Revolution; but they were assailed by his opponents, and aided in effecting his defeat.
Jefferson came into power as the advocate of retrenchment and reform,—captivating terms! Under his administration the military academy was thrown into the shade, the coast-defences were forgotten, most of the new frigates and sloops built by patriotic citizens were sold, the navy reduced to ten frigates, half of which were suffered to decay, the frames of the ships of the line were used for repairs, and the appropriations for the increase of the navy were reduced to the pitiful sum of a quarter of a million, which was applied principally to gunboats. Of these Jefferson built no less than one hundred and seventy, at a cost of $10,500 each,—incurring for the construction and maintenance of this flotilla an expense of nearly three millions, without a particle of benefit to the country.
We would not detract from the services of Jefferson. Posterity will honor him as the Patriot of the Revolution, as the champion of the rights of man; but will it not trace to his policy as a statesman, in the cabinet of Washington, in the opposition to Adams, and in the office of President, the grave errors from which sprang the embargo, non-intercourse, and the second war with England? At the close of his administration in 1809, he claimed credit for having left eighteen millions in the Treasury after payment of twenty-six millions of the debt of the Revolution in less than seven years, and his successor, Madison, in 1812, had over eleven millions in funds and cash in the Treasury after the extinguishment of forty-nine millions of the Revolutionary debt,—the expenses of Government, in the mean time, exclusive of the debt, having averaged from five to seven millions only. But parsimony is not always economy.
The embargo cost the nation at least forty millions; non-intercourse twenty more; the war in three years added one hundred and thirteen millions to the debt, with at least an equal loss by the sacrifice of commerce and heavy drafts by taxes: and if the embargo, non-intercourse, and war can be traced to the loss of the navy, we find a saving of a million per annum in ships dearly purchased by a loss of capital which, at compound interest, would exceed to-day one-third the computed wealth of the nation.
Had the policy of Adams been continued from 1800 to 1808, the annual million, aided by the live-oak and cedar frames, the three millions paid for gun-boats, and the frigates on hand when Jefferson came into power, would have provided or placed upon the stocks ten ships of the line, forty frigates, and ten sloops-of-war. If with the increase of revenue this estimate had been doubled in 1808, the material collected and the ships held back until the latter part of 1812, the country would have been supplied with twenty sail of the line, fifty frigates, and thirty sloops-of-war,—a force which would have employed at least threefold its number of English ships, upon our coast, upon the passage, and in the dock-yards. Impressment, orders in council, paper blockades, would have gone down before such a force of American ships ere one-tenth of it had left our harbors; for England, distressed for men and at war with the Continent, could not have spared the ships required to meet such a navy. The reports of Jefferson and Madison now make it apparent, that, without omitting to pay one instalment of the debt, they could have carried out the policy of Adams and provided a navy the very aspect of which would have commanded the respect and deference of the only foe we had occasion to dread.
This point is most forcibly illustrated by the speeches of Lowndes and Cheves of South Carolina in Congress a few years later, cited by Henry Clay in 1812, in which they very justly say,—"If England should determine to station permanently on our coast a squadron of twelve ships of the line, she would require for this service thirty-six ships of the line, one-third in port repairing, one-third on the passage, and one-third on the station; but that is a force which it has been shown England, with her limited navy, could not spare for the American service." For once, at least, two of the gifted sons of South Carolina sustained the views of Massachusetts. The War of the Revolution and the War of 1812 have both demonstrated that England can maintain no permanent blockade through the winter on our waters, and the largest fleet upon our Atlantic coast during the last war did not exceed twenty sail of armed vessels of all sizes.
Jefferson, in his "Notes on Virginia," in 1785 had expressed his views on our maritime policy in the following terms:—
"You ask me what I think of the expediency of encouraging our States to become commercial. Were I to indulge my own theory, I wish them to practise neither commerce or navigation, but to stand with respect to Europe precisely on the footing of China."
We have seen the commercial policy of Adams illustrated by the creation of a navy; we now see the anti-commercial theory of Jefferson illustrated by its overthrow.
He was once tempted to concede that we might apply a year's revenue to a navy, but that year he never designated. Perhaps, if he could have foreseen the unceremonious way in which a few English frigates have of late years dealt with China, or the facility with which they have compelled her to pay millions for a drug alike pernicious to character and health, or the report of the treaty and tribute dictated from the walls of Pekin,—or could he have foreseen the progress of Lord Cochrane's frigates up the Potomac, regardless of his gunboats,—could he have foreshadowed the conflagration of the Capitol and the exit of the Cabinet,—he would perhaps have attached more importance to a navy and found less to admire in the policy of China, and doubtless his immediate successor would not have aimed a side-blow at our army and navy, as he did, in suggesting "that the fifteenth century was the unhappy epoch of military establishments in the time of peace."
But our country, under Jefferson and Madison, for twelve years adopted the blind policy of China. The navy was suffered to decay. In 1807 but one frigate and five sloops-of-war were in commission. The Federal party, however, although in a weak minority, did not tamely submit to the unhappy policy of Southern statesmen; and individuals even of the dominant party opposed it. Among these, the late Justice Story, who in 1807 represented the County of Essex in Congress, made an effort for the revival of the navy. But it was objected, on the part of the Administration, that such a force would be impotent against Great Britain. Williams, subsequently Governor of South Carolina, insisted, that, if we built ships, they would all fall into the hands of the British; and the capture of the Danish fleet at Copenhagen was instanced,—the fall of Genoa, Venice, and Carthage, notwithstanding their navies, being also cited. Story, with almost a prescience of the future, urged in its favor,—"I was born among the hardy sons of the ocean, and I cannot doubt their courage or their skill; if Great Britain ever gets possession of our present little navy, it will be at the expense of the best blood of the country, and after a struggle which will call for more of her strength than she has ever found necessary for a European enemy." To which Williams replied,—"If our rights are only so to be saved, I would abandon the ocean." And in December, 1807, the ocean was abandoned.
No additions were made to the navy during the period of the embargo or non-intercourse, nor was a new ship sent to sea until after the peace; and at the commencement of the war, in June, 1812, the country had neither navy, fortifications, nor disciplined troops. The relics of the Federal navy then consisted of five frigates and seven sloops and brigs in commission, and three frigates under repair,—a feeble force, indeed, with which to meet the Mistress of the Seas, but which demonstrated by its achievements what fifty or a hundred sail might have accomplished.
In 1812, Quincy, in the House, and Lloyd, in the Senate, both from Massachusetts, advocated a navy, and Clay and Davies, of the West, raised their voices in its support; but their efforts were unavailing.
James Lloyd, who combined the intelligent merchant with the statesman, thus addressed the Senate:—"To make an impression on England, we must have a navy. Give us thirty swift-sailing, well-appointed frigates. In line-of-battle ships and fleet engagements, skill and experience would decide the victory. We are not ripe for them; but bolt together a British and American frigate side by side, and though we should lose sometimes, we should win as often. Give us this little fleet. Place your Navy Department under an able and spirited administration; cashier every officer who strikes his flag; and you will soon have a good account of your navy. This may be thought a hard tenure of service; but, hard or easy, I will engage in five weeks, yes, in five days, to officer this fleet from New England alone. Give us this little fleet, and in a quarter of the time in which you would operate upon her in any other way, we would bring Great Britain to terms. To terms, not to your feet. No, Sir! Great Britain is at this moment the most colossal power the world ever saw. It is true she has an enormous national debt. Her daily expenditure would in six short weeks wipe off all we owe. But will these millstones sink her? will they subject her to the power of France? No, Sir! let the bubble burst to-morrow,—destroy the fragile basis on which her public credit stands,—sponge out her national debt,—and, dreadful as would be the process, she would rise with renewed vigor from the fall, and present to her enemy a more imposing, irresistible front than ever. No, Sir! Great Britain cannot be subjected by France. The genius of her institutions, the genuine game-cock, bulldog spirit of her people, will lift her head above the waves. From this belief I acknowledge I derive a satisfaction. In New England our blood is unmixed. We are the direct descendants of Englishmen. We are natives of the soil. In the Legislature, now in session, of the once powerful and still respectable State of Massachusetts, composed of more than seven hundred members, to my knowledge not a single foreigner holds a seat. As Great Britain wrongs us, I would fight her. Yet I should be worse than a barbarian, did I not rejoice that the sepulchres of our forefathers, which are in that country, shall remain unsacked, and their coffins rest undisturbed, by the unhallowed rapacity of the Goths and Saracens of modern Europe. Let us have these thirty frigates. Powerful as Great Britain is, she could not blockade them; with our hazardous shores and tempestuous northwest gales, from November to March, all the navies in the world could not blockade them. Divide them into six squadrons; place those squadrons in the Northern ports, ready for sea; and at favorable moments we would pounce upon her West India Islands,—repeating the game of De Grasse and D'Estaing in '79 and '80. By the time she was ready to meet us there, we would be round Cape Horn, cutting up her whalemen. Pursued thither, we could skim away to the Indian Seas, and would give an account of her China and India ships very different from that of the French cruisers. Now we would follow her Quebec, and now her Jamaica convoys; sometimes make our appearance in the chops of the Channel, and even sometimes wind north about into the Baltic. It would require a hundred British frigates to watch the movements of these thirty. Such are the means by which I would bring Great Britain to her senses. By harassing her commerce with this fleet, we could make the people ask the Government why they continued to violate our rights; whether it were for her interest to sever the chief tie between her and us, by compelling us to become a manufacturing people (and on this head we could make an exhibition that would astonish both friends and foes); what she was to gain by forcing us prematurely to become a naval power, destined one day or other to dispute with her the sceptre of the ocean? We could, in short, bring the people to ask the Government, For whose benefit is this war? And the moment this is brought about on both sides of the water, the business is finished; you would only have to agree on fair and equal terms of peace."
And Daniel Webster, just entering upon public life, made one of his earliest efforts in Congress for a navy. In his characteristic manner, he urged, in 1814,—"If war must continue, go to the ocean; let it no longer be said, not one ship of force built by your hands since the war yet floats; if you are seriously contending for maritime rights, go to the theatre where alone those rights can be defended. Thither every indication of your future calls you. There the united wishes and exertions of the nation will go with you."
But a Southern Cabinet still clung to the Chinese policy, and the war for maritime rights was confided to a raw militia upon the land, while Hull, Bainbridge, Stewart, Porter, and Barney were performing the very feats which Lloyd had pictured to the Senate. A vote, it is true, was at length passed, to build four ships of the line, six frigates, and six sloops; but none were finished before the close of the war; and it was not until after its conclusion that the Democratic party, so long opposed to Federal measures, and triumphant from their very opposition, after a loss of at least three hundred millions, caused by their abandonment, gave the most conclusive proof of their value by funding the debt, re-establishing the navy, reviving the Military Academy at West Point, fortifying the coast, and making a tariff for revenue with incidental protection. Well might party-strife cease under the veteran Monroe; for Democracy had become Federalized.
The sketch thus given of the rise and progress of our navigation, and of the origin and decline of our navy, affords us a commanding view of the position of our nation when it adopted the Chinese policy and withdrew from the ocean.
Let us now glance for a moment at the state of Europe at the close of 1807. The great struggle of England and France was in progress. Napoleon, by his brilliant exploits, had subdued Italy and Holland, established the Empire, and by the battles of Marengo, Jena, Austerlitz, and Friedland, humbled Austria, overwhelmed Prussia, and conquered a peace with Russia. The Continent, from the Pyrenees to the Vistula, was subject to his sway, and he had closed it against the manufactures of England. This nation, alike victorious on the sea, had nearly annihilated the navy of France, captured the fleet of Denmark, swept the French and Dutch ships from the ocean, and was now seizing the possessions of France and Holland in the Indies. Regardless of neutral rights, she had declared every part of the Continent, from the Pyrenees to the Elbe, in a state of blockade.
To escape impressment, or to obtain higher wages, many of her seamen enlisted in our service. Anxious to reclaim them and to man all her ships, she followed them into American vessels, and impressed American seamen as Englishmen, without the least respect to the rights of a neutral that did not assert by arms the dignity of its flag.
Neither of the parties in the excitement of the great conflict was disposed to respect the rights of the United States, a neutral without an army or a fleet, and too timid to arm its own merchantmen; and the purpose of both seemed to be to compel these merchantmen to contribute to the war. England, in addition to her blockade, required all neutrals bound for the Continent to pay duties in her ports; and France retaliated by declaring all neutral ships which had paid such tribute denationalized and subject to confiscation, and without a frigate on the ocean declared all the ports of England in a state of blockade. There can be no question now that the acts of both parties were a violation of the rights of every neutral.
England, in her sober moments, has tacitly relinquished her claim to impress beneath the American flag; paper blockades and the right of search are no longer recognized in the maritime code of either England or France; and there can be no doubt that our country could, at a later period, have made reclamation on England for seizures, as she has done upon France, Naples, and Denmark; but the policy of our rulers had left us destitute of means either of offence or defence, and of the power to resent any indignity. Three courses were open to us. The first was to devote the funds in the Treasury at once to the creation of a navy; to commence ten or twelve ships of the line in our dock-yards, and twenty frigates in the ship-yards of Boston, Salem, Portsmouth, New York, and Philadelphia; to build them as the Constitution and Constellation were built before; and to appeal to the merchants who built the Essex and Connecticut to build more, and to take their pay in certificates of stock. In one twelvemonth a navy might have been created; and the note of preparation sounded by a nation enriched by the peaceful commerce of a quarter of a century, and now refreshed for a new struggle, would have been most influential with the conflicting powers.
Another course was open to us. More than two-thirds of our commerce was with English ports, or ports remote from France; for England, Spain, Sweden, Norway, Russia, the Indies were open to our commerce. The premium of insurance against French capture was but five per cent, on ships bound to those ports; for scarcely a French privateer dared show itself on the ocean.
Our nation had cause of war with France, for France was at war with commerce and had invaded her rights; and our little navy, small as it was, and our merchantmen, if allowed to arm, might have bid defiance to France. England, then, would have respected our rights as allies; or, as our commerce was lucrative and paid profits that would cover an occasional seizure, we might have put our merchants on their guard, allowed them to arm their ships, and have temporized until the conflicting powers of the Old World had exhausted their strength, and we had grown strong enough to demand reparation.
We owned at this period from eight to ten thousand vessels, and built annually nearly a thousand more. All the ships seized from 1800 to 1812 did not average one hundred and fifty yearly, of which more than one-third were released, and indemnity finally paid for half the residue: namely, there were 917 seized by England, more than half released; 558 seized by France, one-fourth released; 70 seized by Denmark; 47 seized by Naples, and more property was detained by France than England. But the sympathies of our Cabinet were with Napoleon; a moment had arrived when he had determined to reverse the laws of trade and exclude the exports of England from the Continent; and our rulers, regardless of our own commerce, determined to withhold all our produce, to cut off the raw material from England at the moment she had lost the sale of her exports, and by this combined process to bring her to submission. They forgot, for the moment, how impossible it is to reverse the great laws of trade; that we thus gratuitously resigned to her the commerce of the globe; that China, the Indies, with their inexhaustible supplies, Spain, Sweden, Norway, Russia, and Africa, were open to her ships and might fill the vacuum. The hazardous experiment was made. Let us trace the progress of events.
May 16, 1806, England passed her Orders in Council, declaring the ports and rivers from Brest to the Elbe in a state of blockade. November 21, 1806, Napoleon issued his Berlin Decree, declaring the British ports blockaded. January 6, 1807, England prohibited all coastwise trade with France, and November 11, 1807, prohibited all neutrals from trading with France or her allies, except on payment of duties to England. December 17, 1807, Napoleon issued his Milan Decree, confiscating all neutral vessels that had been searched by English cruisers, or had paid duties to England. December 16, 1807, the day preceding the date of the Milan Decree, President Jefferson submitted to Congress the Embargo. The Democratic party was then all-powerful, and the measure, after being debated for a few days and nights in the House, and a few hours in the Senate with closed doors, was adopted. This gratuitous surrender to England of the commerce of the world, this measure whose objects were veiled in mystery, conjectured, but not understood, became a law December 22, 1807.
A leader of the Democratic party, in urging its passage, said,—"The President has recommended the measure on his high responsibility. I would not consider, I would not deliberate, I would act; doubtless the President possesses such further information as would justify such a measure." And the pliant majority acquiesced.
After the passage of the Embargo Act, other acts were speedily passed to give it efficacy. By these, forfeitures of threefold the value of merchandise were imposed on those who violated its provisions, vessels were obliged to give heavy bonds to land their cargoes in the United States, and all shipments to frontier posts were prohibited. Under these acts the shipment of flour coastwise was forbidden, except upon permits issued at the pleasure of the President, upon the requisition of Governors of States, most of whom were members of the dominant party. And last of all came the Enforcing Act, under the provisions of which the collectors were armed with power to call out the militia at their discretion and upon suspicion of an intent to violate the law, to require vessels that had given bonds to discharge their cargoes, and to detain every suspected vessel engaged in the coasting-trade. These measures did not pass without opposition. Although the minority was weak in numbers, it was not deficient in talent.
In the House, Josiah Quincy of Massachusetts, at that period the great commercial State, was the Federal leader; and he now, after the lapse of half a century, still survives in a green old age to see his policy vindicated by the verdict of history.
Quincy, in various speeches, urged upon Congress,—
"You undertake to protect better the property of the merchant than his own sense of personal interest would induce him to protect it.
"Suppose the embargo passes; will France forego a policy designed to crush Great Britain and secure her way to universal empire, or England a policy essential to her national existence? It is all very well to talk of the patriotism and quiet submission of the people of the interior; they cannot help submitting, they will have no opportunity to break the embargo. But they whose ships lie on the edge of the ocean laden with produce, with the alternative before them of total ruin or a rich market, are in a totally different condition."
Again said Quincy,—
"Never before did society witness a total prohibition of all intercourse like this in a commercial nation. But it has been asked in debate, 'Will not Massachusetts, the Cradle of Liberty, submit to such privations?' An Embargo Liberty was never cradled in Massachusetts. Our Liberty was not so much a mountain-nymph as a sea-nymph. She was free as air. She could swim, or she could run. The ocean was her cradle. Our fathers met her as she came, like the Goddess of Beauty, from the waves. They caught her as she was sporting on the beach. They courted her while she was spreading her nets upon the rocks. But an Embargo Liberty, a handcuffed Liberty, Liberty in fetters, a Liberty traversing between the four sides of a prison and beating her head against the walls, is none of our offspring. We abjure the monster! Its parentage is all inland.
"Is embargo independence? Deceive not yourselves! it is palpable submission! France and Great Britain require you to relinquish a part of your commerce, and you relinquish it entirely! At every corner of this great city we meet some gentlemen of the majority wringing their hands and exclaiming, 'What shall we do? nothing but an embargo will save us; remove it, and what shall we do?' Sir, it is not for me, an humble and uninfluential individual, at an awful distance from the predominant influences, to suggest plans for Government. But, to my eye, the path of duty is as distinct as the Milky Way,—all studded with living sapphires, glowing with light. It is the path of active preparation, of dignified energy. It is the path of 1776. It consists not in abandoning our rights, but in supporting them as they exist and where they exist,—on the ocean as well as on the land."
Troup of Georgia, one of the champions of the Democratic party, replied to the Opposition,—"Shall we sacrifice the honor and independence of the nation for a little trade in codfish and potash? Permission to arm is equivalent to a declaration of war; make the embargo effective, and it will show what all the great commercial politicians have said is true,—it will vitally affect the manufacturing and commercial interests of England."
As one coercive measure after another was proposed, John Randolph of Roanoke, who had at first favored an embargo, came out against the measure, and "warned the Administration that they were fast following in the fatal footsteps of Lord North."
But one of the most effective speeches against the Democratic policy was made in February, 1809, by Gardinier, who represented New York, a city the creation of commerce.
"The avowed object of this policy," he said, "was to save our vessels and property from capture; the real one seemed to be to establish a total non-intercourse with the whole world. We are engaged perpetually in making additions and supplements to the embargo. Wherever we can spy a hole, although it be no bigger than a wheat-straw, at which industry and enterprise can find vent, all our powers are called in requisition to stop it. The people of the country shall sell nothing but what they can sell to each other. All our surplus produce shall rot on our hands. God knows what all this means; I cannot understand it. I see effects, but I can trace them to no cause. I fear there is an unknown hand guiding us to the most dreadful destinies, unseen, because it cannot endure the light. Darkness and mystery overshadow the House and the whole nation. We know nothing, we are permitted to know nothing. We sit here as mere automata."
This speech nearly cost Gardinier his life, for he was in consequence of it challenged and dangerously wounded; but the embargo was permitted to continue.
The produce of the country fell sixty to seventy per cent. in value, and much of it passed at low prices into the hands of British agents. Armed ships from England appeared on the coast of Georgia and loaded with cotton from lighters in defiance of Government, and Northern ships in the outports occasionally eluded the vigilance of collectors or escaped by their collusion; but the measure pressed with a crushing weight upon the honest merchants and ship-owners.
When news of the Enforcing Act reached Boston, it was received with such indignation, that General Lincoln, the collector of the port, resigned, and the flags of the dismantled ships were hoisted at half-mast, processions of starving sailors and mechanics passed through the streets, and the whole community was highly excited; an excitement increased by an order from the Cabinet to the commandant of the fort to allow no vessel whatever to proceed to sea.
But the end of Jefferson's administration was approaching. He had come in as the advocate of popular rights; and now at the close of his term was enforcing measures more arbitrary than those which preceded the Revolution. Madison was nominated as his successor. All New England, save the inland State of Vermont, was revolutionized and voted against him, while Maryland and New York chose Federal Assemblies. The South, however, gave him its votes, and he was elected; but the tide of public opinion was rolling strongly against the Embargo.
The new legislature of Massachusetts was convened; Governor Gore, who had displaced Gerry, drew their attention to the arbitrary and oppressive measures of Government; and the General Court, in their reply, after denouncing those measures as illegal and unconstitutional, used the memorable words, that "they would be true to the Union, although they had fallen under the ban of the Empire."
The merchants determined to test the legality of the Enforcing Act; but John Quincy Adams and Joseph Story repaired to Washington, and urged the necessity of a repeal. Their representations, and the signal defeat of the Democracy at the North, proved irresistible; and the Embargo, after a protracted struggle, fell before them.
From this glance at the history of the Embargo we can account for the asperity of feeling towards the Democratic leaders, and the distrust of their measures and men, which pervaded New England from the passage of the Embargo Act until the close of the war.
New England, and more especially Massachusetts, commercial from its infancy, did not come into the Union to surrender its commerce, navigation, or seamen to any visionary theories of the South. For nearly two centuries it had struggled for all its liberties with the parent empire. It had learned in the cruel school of oppression that the price of freedom is perpetual vigilance.
Fifteen months had now elapsed since the laying of the embargo, and it had more than realized all the presages of its opponents. Our minister, Armstrong, had written from France, that it had produced no effect in France and was forgotten in England. Pinckney, in England, did all in his power to save the Administration, by offering to end the embargo, if England would relax her policy; but Canning replied, that England had no complaints to make, that Spain and Russia had been opened to her, and the measure would serve to convince her that she was not absolutely dependent on the trade of America; with cutting irony, he added, he would make but one concession to America: she had complained that England drew a tribute from her merchandise, when shipped to the Continent; he would, out of deference to American delicacy, substitute a total prohibition. He had the tact, also, to draw from Pinckney a letter offering to concede many of the points in dispute, and published it with an insolent commentary.
Jefferson still clung to the embargo; but Madison and his friends, deferring to the reasons of Story and Adams, and yielding to the adverse current now setting strongly against Democracy, March 9, 1809, repealed the obnoxious act. Such was the end and signal failure of a measure alike disastrous at home and abroad, a measure which had falsified all the predictions of its author. Its avowed object was to secure our seamen from impressment, to protect our commerce, and preserve our ships; its presumed object was to cooeperate with France, and starve England into submission: but none, of these objects were effected. Instead of rescuing our seamen, it imprisoned them all at home, and deprived them of the food which they found even in the prisons of the enemy. Instead of protecting our commerce, it tamely resigned it to England, and either left our exports to perish or reduced their value sixty per cent. It seized all our ships at home, and left most of them to decay, without giving the sufferer the claim to ultimate redress which consoled him in cases of foreign seizure. It aided France so little, that this "deed of magnanimity" was in a few months forgotten. Instead of impoverishing or humbling England, it poured into her lap the riches of the world, and increased the insolence of her tone; while it impoverished our own nation, broke the spirit of the commercial classes and alienated them from Government, and gave the first of a series of blows to the nation from which it did not recover for a quarter of a century.
But the pusillanimous policy which prompted the embargo survived its repeal. The Chinese theory still showed itself, not in measures for defence, but in impotent measures for restriction or prohibition, and finally in a declaration of war against England on the very eve of her triumph by the power of her navy and commerce over the greatest captain of the age: a war declared by our rulers without an army, navy, officers, coast-defence, or national credit, for the avowed purpose of securing free trade and sailors' rights by measures which the mercantile community rejected. In its progress, the want of discipline, forts, ships, munitions of war, credit abroad, and frugality at home, was most severely felt; and the principal honor derived from it arose from the exploits of the few frigates left to us by improvidence and parsimony, from the achievements of the Northern troops of Scott, Brown, and Miller, disciplined during the war, and the courage and sagacity of the veteran Jackson and his Western volunteers behind their cotton ramparts at New Orleans.
If, during the seven years of trial and suffering, from 1808 to 1815, in which nearly one-half of the wealth of New England was extinguished, her citizens became indignant at the wanton sacrifice of their means and of the best opportunity Fortune ever gave them to gain riches by commerce,—if the public sentiment found expression alike through the press, in town-meetings, in legislative halls, and even in the pulpit,—if the capitalists lost confidence in a government which trifled with its own resources,—if the merchant refused all countenance to those who had wrought his ruin,—let the blame fall on the originators of the evil. Lord North did but impose a few light taxes, place a few restrictions upon commerce, and make a few other inroads on freedom; but he set a nation in flames. The Cabinets of 1807 and 1812 warred against commerce itself, and placed an interdict on every harbor; and which of the measures of the British statesman was more arbitrary in its character, more repugnant to the spirit of freemen, or more questionable as to its legality, than the Enforcing Act of 1808? And if the men of New England, who had in their colonial weakness met both France and England by sea and land without a fear, saw the fruits of their industry sacrificed and the bread taken from their children's mouths by the Chinese policy of a Southern cabinet, might they not well chafe under measures so oppressive and so unnecessary that they were ingloriously abandoned? Under a dynasty whose policy had closed their ports, silenced their cannon, nearly ruined their commerce, and left their country without a navy, army, coast-defences, or national credit, could they be expected to rush with ardor into a war with the greatest naval power of the age, elated with her triumph over Napoleon,—into a war to be prosecuted on land by raw recruits against the veteran troops of England, for the avowed purpose of protecting the commerce of those who opposed it, and in which munitions of war were to be dragged at their expense across pathless forests,—into a war whose burdens were to fall either in present or prospective charges upon their surviving trade? Must they not have deeply felt that they were still under "the ban of the Empire"? and is it not proof of the extent of their patriotism and intense love of country, that under such trials and adverse policy they were still "true to the Union"?
If Canada were desired, how easily might it have been acquired by a wiser policy! A small loan to the State of New York, from surplus funds, might have opened the Erie and Champlain Canals twenty years in advance of their completion. A little aid to men of genius might have placed Fulton's steamers, then navigating the Hudson, on the Lakes.
A dozen frigates to cruise in the Gulf of St. Lawrence would have cut off supplies from England. The attractions of a new outlet for commerce, aided by a few disciplined regiments, the command of the Lakes, facilities for moving munitions of war and for intercepting supplies, would have settled the question in advance. And instead of a series of measures which embittered parties, created a jealousy between North and South, called into the field one hundred and twenty thousand raw militia, and absorbed in wasteful expenses nearly half our resources, we should have reaped a golden harvest in commerce, preserved our wealth, and have either avoided war, or terminated it in the same style in which the Constitution, Constellation, and United States terminated their conflicts on the deep, or as France and England terminated their recent war with Russia, arresting their foe in his march of conquest, closing his ports, destroying his fleet, seamen, and chief military station, and nearly exhausting his resources,—and drawing the means of war from commerce, have at the same time expanded our commerce, cities, and wealth to a degree unparalleled in our history.
The past, however, is gone, and the future is before us. England, conscious of her naval power, of her vast steam-marine, and of our deficiencies, has not acceded to our proposal to exempt merchantmen from seizure in future wars. Is it not now our policy to provide in advance for the contingencies of the future,—to obtain the live-oak and cedar frames, the engines, boilers, Paixhan guns for at least one hundred steam-frigates, with coats of mail for some of them,—so that, instead of spending years in their construction, launching them when the war is over, and then leaving them to decay, we may, as the crisis approaches, be able in a few months to fit out a fleet which, if not irresistible, shall at least command respect? Accomplished officers and men can be drawn from the merchant-service at short notice; but we cannot create steamers in a moment.
The appropriations by Congress of late years for steam—frigates and sloops-of-war, and for the defence of New York, New Bedford, Portland, Bath, and Bangor,—for Bath, in particular, which owns nearly two hundred thousand tons of shipping, and which builds more ships annually than any other port in the Union, Boston excepted,—are most judicious; but are there not other points which deserve the attention of Government? Should not a few thousand rifled cannon, a good supply of rifles, and a proportionate amount of powder and ball be deposited near San Francisco, to enable us, in case of war, to convert our clipper ships and steamers in the Pacific into cruisers? Should not batteries of Paixhan guns be erected at the outlet of Long Island Sound, upon Gull and Fisher's Islands and the opposite points, to convert the whole Sound above into a fortified harbor, and thus defend New York and the important seaports upon the Sound, and by these fortresses and a few coast-batteries between Stonington and Newport, like those on the coast of France, keep open during war an inland navigation for coal and flour between the Chesapeake and Delaware Bays, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts? Should not these and similar questions of national defence, in these days of extended commerce, command the attention of the nation?
* * * * *
On Saturday afternoon, May 25th, 1822, a slave named Devany, belonging to Colonel Prioleau of Charleston, South Carolina, was sent to market by his mistress.—the Colonel being absent in the country. After doing his errands, he strolled down upon the wharves, in the enjoyment of that magnificent wealth of leisure which usually characterizes the "house-servant" of the South, when once beyond hail of the street-door. He presently noticed a small vessel lying in the stream, with a peculiar flag flying; and while looking at it, he was accosted by a slave named William, belonging to Mr. John Paul, who remarked to him,—"I have often seen a flag with the number 76, but never one with the number 96 upon it before." After some further conversation on this trifling point, he continued with earnestness,—"Do you know that something serious is about to take place?" Devany disclaiming the knowledge of any graver impending crisis than the family dinner, the other went on to inform him that many of the slaves were "determined to right themselves." "We are determined," he added, "to shake off our bondage, and for that purpose we stand on a good foundation; many have joined, and if you will go with me, I will show you the man who has the list of names, and who will take yours down."
This startling disclosure was quite too much for Devany; he was made of the wrong material for so daring a project; his genius was culinary, not revolutionary. Giving some excuse for breaking off the conversation, he went forthwith to consult a free colored man, named Pensil or Pencell, who advised him to warn his master instantly. So he lost no time in telling the secret to his mistress and her young son; and on the return of Colonel Prioleau from the country, five days afterward, it was at once revealed to him. Within an hour or two he stated the facts to Mr. Hamilton, the Intendant, or, as we should say, Mayor; Mr. Hamilton at once summoned the Corporation, and by five o'clock Devany and William were under examination.
This was the first warning of a plot which ultimately filled Charleston with terror. And yet so thorough and so secret was the organization of the negroes, that a fortnight passed without yielding the slightest information beyond the very little which was obtained from these two. William Paul was, indeed, put in confinement and soon gave evidence inculpating two slaves as his employers,—Mingo Harth and Peter Poyas. But these men, when arrested, behaved with such perfect coolness and treated the charge with such entire levity, their trunks and premises, when searched, were so innocent of all alarming contents, that they were soon discharged by the Wardens. William Paul at length became alarmed for his own safety, and began to let out further facts piecemeal, and to inculpate other men. But some of those very men came voluntarily to the Intendant, on hearing that they were suspected, and indignantly offered themselves for examination. Puzzled and bewildered, the municipal government kept the thing as secret as possible, placed the city guard in an efficient condition, provided sixteen hundred rounds of ball cartridges, and ordered the sentinels and patrols to be armed with loaded muskets. "Such had been our fancied security, that the guard had previously gone on duty without muskets and with only sheathed bayonets and bludgeons."
It has since been asserted, though perhaps on questionable authority, that the Secretary of War was informed of the plot, even including some details of the plan and the leader's name, before it was known in Charleston. If so, he utterly disregarded it; and, indeed, so well did the negroes play their part, that the whole report was eventually disbelieved, while (as was afterwards proved) they went on to complete their secret organization, and hastened by a fortnight the appointed day of attack. Unfortunately for their plans, however, another betrayal took place at the very last moment, from a different direction. A class-leader in a Methodist church had been persuaded or bribed by his master to procure further disclosures. He at length came and stated, that, about three months before, a man named Rolla, slave of Governor Bennett, had communicated to a friend of his the fact of an intended insurrection, and had said that the time fixed for the outbreak was the following Sunday night, June 16th. As this conversation took place on Friday, it gave but a very short time for the city authorities to act, especially as they wished neither to endanger the city nor to alarm it.
Yet so cautiously was the game played on both sides, that the whole thing was still kept hushed up from the Charleston public; and some members of the city government did not fully appreciate their danger till they had passed it. "The whole was concealed," wrote the Governor afterwards, "until the time came; but secret preparations were made. Saturday night and Sunday morning passed without demonstrations; doubts were excited, and counter orders issued for diminishing the guard." It afterwards proved that these preparations showed to the slaves that their plot was betrayed, and so saved the city without public alarm. Newspaper correspondence soon was full of the story,—each informant of course hinting plainly that he had been behind the scenes all along, and had withheld it only to gratify the authorities in their policy of silence. It was "now no longer a secret," they wrote,—adding, that for five or six weeks but little attention had been paid by the community to these rumors, the city council having kept it carefully to themselves, until a number of suspicious slaves had been arrested. This refers to ten prisoners who were seized on June 18th,—an arrest which killed the plot, and left only the terrors of what might have been. The investigation, thus publicly commenced, soon revealed a free colored man named Denmark Vesey as the leader of the enterprise,—among his chief coadjutors being that innocent Peter and that unsuspecting Mingo who had been examined and discharged nearly three weeks before.
It is matter of demonstration, that, but for the military preparations on the appointed Sunday night, the attempt would have been made. The ringleaders had actually met for their final arrangements, when, by comparing notes, they found themselves foiled; and within another week they were prisoners on trial. Nevertheless, the plot which they had laid was the most elaborate insurrectionary project ever formed by American slaves, and came the nearest to a terrible success. In boldness of conception and thoroughness of organization there has been nothing to compare with it, and it is worth while to dwell somewhat upon its details, first introducing the Dramatis Personae.
Denmark Vesey had come very near figuring as a revolutionist in Hayti, instead of South Carolina. Captain Vesey, an old resident of Charleston, commanded a ship that traded between St. Thomas and Cape Francais, during our Revolutionary War, in the slave-transportation line. In the year 1781 he took on board a cargo of three hundred and ninety slaves, and sailed for the Cape. On the passage, he and his officers were much attracted by the beauty and intelligence of a boy of fourteen, whom they unanimously adopted into the cabin as a pet. They gave him new clothes and a new name, Telemaque, which was afterwards gradually corrupted into Telmak and Denmark. They amused themselves with him until their arrival at Cape Francais, and then, "having no use for the boy," sold their pet as if he had been a macaw or a monkey. Captain Vesey sailed for St. Thomas, and presently making another trip to Cape Francais, was surprised to hear from his consignee that Telemaque would be returned on his hands as being "unsound,"—not in theology nor in morals, but in body,—subject to epileptic fits, in fact. According to the custom of that place, the boy was examined by the city physician, who required Captain Vesey to take him back; and Denmark served him faithfully, with no trouble from epilepsy, for twenty years, travelling all over the world with him, and learning to speak various languages. In 1800, he drew a prize of fifteen hundred dollars in the East Bay Street Lottery, with which he bought his freedom from his master for six hundred dollars,—much less than his market value. From that time, the official report says, he worked as a carpenter in Charleston, distinguished for physical strength and energy. "Among those of his color he was looked up to with awe and respect. His temper was impetuous and domineering in the extreme, qualifying him for the despotic rule of which he was ambitious. All his passions were ungovernable and savage; and to his numerous wives and children he displayed the haughty and capricious cruelty of an Eastern bashaw."
"For several years before he disclosed his intentions to any one, he appears to have been constantly and assiduously engaged in endeavoring to embitter the minds of the colored population against the white. He rendered himself perfectly familiar with all those parts of the Scriptures which he thought he could pervert to his purpose; and would readily quote them, to prove that slavery was contrary to the laws of God,—that slaves were bound to attempt their emancipation, however shocking and bloody might be the consequences,—and that such efforts would not only be pleasing to the Almighty, but were absolutely enjoined and their success predicted in the Scriptures. His favorite texts, when he addressed those of his own color, were Zechariah, xiv. 1-3, and Joshua, vi. 21; and in all his conversations he identified their situation with that of the Israelites. The number of inflammatory pamphlets on slavery brought into Charleston from some of our sister States within the last four years, (and once from Sierra Leone,) and distributed amongst the colored population of the city, for which, there was a great facility, in consequence of the unrestricted intercourse allowed to persons of color between the different States in the Union, and the speeches in Congress of those opposed to the admission of Missouri into the Union, perhaps garbled and misrepresented, furnished him with ample means for inflaming the minds of the colored population of this State; and by distorting certain parts of those speeches, or selecting from them particular passages, he persuaded but too many that Congress had actually declared them free, and that they were held in bondage contrary to the laws of the land. Even whilst walking through the streets in company with another, he was not idle; for if his companion bowed to a white person, he would rebuke him, and observe that all men were born equal, and that he was surprised that any one would degrade himself by such conduct,—that he would never cringe to the whites, nor ought any one who had the feelings of a man. When answered, 'We are slaves,' he would sarcastically and indignantly reply, 'You deserve to remain slaves'; and if he were further asked, 'What can we do?' he would remark, 'Go and buy a spelling-book and read the fable of Hercules and the Wagoner,' which he would then repeat, and apply it to their situation. He also sought every opportunity of entering into conversation with white persons, when they could be overheard by negroes near by, especially in grogshops,—during which conversation he would artfully introduce some bold remark on slavery; and sometimes, when, from the character he was conversing with, he found he might be still bolder, he would go so far, that, had not his declarations in such situations been clearly proved, they would scarcely have been credited. He continued this course until some time after the commencement of the last winter; by which time he had not only obtained incredible influence amongst persons of color, but many feared him more than their owners, and, one of them declared, even more than his God."
It was proved against him that his house had been the principal place of meeting for the conspirators, that all the others habitually referred to him as the leader, and that he had shown great address in dealing with different temperaments and overcoming a variety of scruples. One witness testified that Vesey had read to him from the Bible about the deliverance of the Children of Israel; another, that he had read to him a speech which had been delivered "in Congress by a Mr. King" on the subject of slavery, and Vesey had said that "this Mr. King was the black man's friend,—that he, Mr. King, had declared he would continue to speak, write, and publish pamphlets against slavery the longest day he lived, until the Southern States consented to emancipate their slaves, for that slavery was a great disgrace to the country." But among all the reports there are only two sentences which really reveal the secret soul of Denmark Vesey, and show his impulses and motives. "He said he did not go with Creighton to Africa, because he had not a will; he wanted to stay and see what he could do for his fellow-creatures." The other takes us still nearer home. Monday Gell stated in his confession, that Vesey, on first broaching the plan to him, said "he was satisfied with his own condition, being free, but, as all his children were slaves, he wished to see what could be done for them."
It is strange to turn from this simple statement of a perhaps intelligent preference, on the part of a parent, for seeing his offspring in a condition of freedom, to the naive astonishment of his judges. "It is difficult to imagine," says the sentence finally passed on Denmark Vesey, "what infatuation could have prompted you to attempt an enterprise so wild and visionary. You were a free man, comparatively wealthy, and enjoyed every comfort compatible with your situation. You had, therefore, much to risk and little to gain." Is slavery, then, a thing so intrinsically detestable, that a man thus favored will engage in a plan thus desperate merely to rescue his children from it? "Vesey said the negroes were living such an abominable life, they ought to rise. I said, I was living well; he said, though I was, others were not, and that 't was such fools as I that were in the way and would not help them, and that after all things were well he would mark me." "His general conversation," said another witness, a white boy, "was about religion, which he would apply to slavery; as, for instance, he would speak of the creation of the world, in which he would say all men had equal rights, blacks as well as whites, etc.; all his religious remarks were mingled with slavery." And the firmness of this purpose did not leave him, even after the betrayal of his cherished plans. "After the plot was discovered," said Monday Gell, in his confession, "Vesey said it was all over, unless an attempt were made to rescue those who might be condemned, by rushing on the people and saving the prisoners, or all dying together."
The only person to divide with Vesey the claim of leadership was Peter Poyas. Vesey was the missionary of the cause, but Peter was the organizing mind. He kept the register of "candidates," and decided who should or should not be enrolled. "We can't live so," he often reminded his confederates; "we must break the yoke." "God has a hand in it; we have been meeting for four years and are not yet betrayed." Peter was a ship-carpenter, and a slave of great value. He was to be the military leader. His plans showed some natural generalship; he arranged the night-attack; he planned the enrolment of a mounted troop to scour the streets; and he had a list of all the shops where arms and ammunition were kept for sale. He voluntarily undertook the management of the most difficult part of the enterprise,—the capture of the main guard-house,—and had pledged himself to advance alone and surprise the sentinel. He was said to have a magnetism in his eye, of which his confederates stood in great awe; if he once got his eye upon a man, there was no resisting it. A white witness has since narrated, that, after his arrest, he was chained to the floor in a cell, with another of the conspirators. Men in authority came and sought by promises, threats, and even tortures, to ascertain the names of other accomplices. His companion, wearied out with pain and suffering, and stimulated by the hope of saving his own life, at last began to yield. Peter raised himself, leaned upon his elbow, looked at the poor fellow, saying quietly, "Die like a man," and instantly lay down again. It was enough; not another word was extorted.
One of the most notable individuals in the plot was a certain Jack Purcell, commonly called Gullah Jack,—Gullah signifying Angola, the place of his origin. A conjurer by profession and by lineal heritage in his own country, he had resumed the practice of his vocation on this side the Atlantic. For fifteen years he had wielded in secret an immense influence among a sable constituency in Charleston; and as he had the reputation of being invulnerable, and of teaching invulnerability as an art, he was very good at beating up recruits for insurrection. Over those of Angolese descent, especially, he was a perfect king, and made them join in the revolt as one man. They met him monthly at a place called Bulkley's Farm, selected because the black overseer on that plantation was one of the initiated, and because the farm was accessible by water, thus enabling them to elude the patrol. There they prepared cartridges and pikes, and had primitive banquets, which assumed a melodramatic character under the inspiriting guidance of Jack. If a fowl was privately roasted, that mystic individual muttered incantations over it, and then they all grasped at it, exclaiming, "Thus we pull Buckra to pieces!" He gave them parched corn and ground-nuts to be eaten as internal safeguards on the day before the outbreak, and a consecrated cullah, or crab's claw, to be carried in the mouth by each, as an amulet. These rather questionable means secured him a power which was very unquestionable; the witnesses examined in his presence all showed dread of his conjurations, and referred to him indirectly, with a kind of awe, as "the little man who can't be shot."
When Gullah Jack was otherwise engaged, there seems to have been a sort of deputy seer employed in the enterprise, a blind man named Philip. He was a preacher, was said to have been born with a caul on his head, and so claimed the gift of second-sight. Timid adherents were brought to his house for ghostly counsel. "Why do you look so timorous?" he said to William Garner, and then quoted Scripture, "Let not your hearts be troubled." That a blind man should know how he looked was beyond the philosophy of the visitor, and this piece of rather cheap ingenuity carried the day.
Other leaders were appointed also. Monday Gell was the scribe of the enterprise; he was a native African, who had learned to read and write. He was by trade a harness-maker, working chiefly on his own account. He confessed that he had written a letter to President Boyer of the new black republic; "the letter was about the sufferings of the blacks, and to know if the people of St. Domingo would help them, if they made an effort to free themselves." This epistle was sent by the black cook of a Northern schooner, and the envelope was addressed to a relative of the bearer.
Tom Russell was the armorer, and made pikes "on a very improved model," the official report admits. Polydore Faber fitted the weapons with handles. Bacchus Hammett had charge of the firearms and ammunition, not as yet a laborious duty. William Garner and Mingo Harth were to lead the horse-company. Lot Forrester was the courier, and had done, no one ever knew how much, in the way of enlisting country negroes, of whom Ned Bennett was to take command when enlisted. Being the Governor's servant, Ned was probably credited with some official experience. These were the officers: now for the plan of attack.
It was the custom then, as now, for the country negroes to flock largely into Charleston on Sunday. More than a thousand came, on ordinary occasions, and a far larger number might at any time make their appearance without exciting any suspicion. They gathered in, especially by water, from the opposite sides of Ashley and Cooper Rivers, and from the neighboring islands; and they came in a great number of canoes of various sizes,—many of which could carry a hundred men,—which were ordinarily employed in bringing agricultural products to the Charleston market. To get an approximate knowledge of the number, the city government once ordered the persons thus arriving to be counted,—and that during the progress of the trials, at a time when the negroes were rather fearful of coming into town,—and it was found, that, even then, there were more than five hundred visitors on a single Sunday. This fact, then, was the essential point in the plan of insurrection. Whole plantations were found to have been enlisted among the "candidates," as they were termed; and it was proved that the city negroes who lived nearest the place of meeting had agreed to conceal these confederates in their houses to a large extent, on the night of the proposed outbreak.
The details of the plan, however, were not rashly committed to the mass of the confederates; they were known only to a few, and were finally to have been announced after the evening prayer-meetings on the appointed Sunday. But each leader had his own company enlisted, and his own work marked out. When the clock struck twelve, all were to move. Peter Poyas was to lead a party ordered to assemble at South Bay, and to be joined by a force from James' Island; he was then to march up and seize the arsenal and guard-house opposite St. Michael's Church, and detach a sufficient number to cut off all white citizens who should appear at the alarm-posts. A second body of negroes, from the country and the Neck, headed by Ned Bennett, was to assemble on the Neck and seize the arsenal there. A third was to meet at Governor Bennett's Mills, under command of Rolla, and, after putting the Governor and Intendant to death, to march through the city, or be posted at Cannon's Bridge, thus preventing the inhabitants of Cannonsborough from entering the city. A fourth, partly from the country and partly from the neighboring localities in the city, was to rendezvous on Gadsden's Wharf and attack the upper guard-house. A fifth, composed of country and Neck negroes, was to assemble at Bulkley's Farm, two miles and a half from the city, seize the upper powder-magazine and then march down; and a sixth was to assemble at Denmark Vesey's and obey his orders. A seventh detachment, under Gullah Jack, was to assemble in Boundary Street, at the head of King Street, to capture the arms of the Neck company of militia, and to take an additional supply from Mr. Duquercron's shop. The naval stores on Mey's Wharf were also to be attacked. Meanwhile a horse-company, consisting of many draymen, hostlers, and butcher-boys, was to meet at Lightwood's Alley and then scour the streets to prevent the whites from assembling. Every white man coming out of his own door was to be killed, and, if necessary, the city was to be fired in several places,—slow-match for this purpose having been purloined from the public arsenal and placed in an accessible position.
Beyond this, the plan of action was either unformed or undiscovered; some slight reliance seems to have been placed on English aid,—more on assistance from St. Domingo; at any rate, all the ships in the harbor were to be seized, and in these, if the worst came to the worst, those most deeply inculpated could set sail, bearing with them, perhaps, the spoils of shops and of banks. It seems to be admitted by the official narrative, that, they might have been able, at that season of the year, and with the aid of the fortifications on the Neck and around the harbor, to retain possession of the city for some time.
So unsuspicious were the authorities, so unprepared the citizens, so open to attack lay the city, that nothing seemed necessary to the success of the insurgents except organization and arms. Indeed, the plan of organization easily covered a supply of arms. By their own contributions they had secured enough to strike the first blow,—a few hundred pikes and daggers, together with swords and guns for the leaders. But they had carefully marked every place in the city where weapons were to be obtained. On King-Street Road, beyond the municipal limits, in a common wooden shop, were left unguarded the arms of the Neck company of militia, to the number of several hundred stand; and these were to be secured by Bacchus Hammett, whose master kept the establishment. In Mr. Duquercron's shop there were deposited for sale as many more weapons; and they had noted Mr. Schirer's shop in Queen Street, and other gunsmiths' establishments. Finally, the State arsenal in Meeting Street, a building with no defences except ordinary wooden doors, was to be seized early in the outbreak. Provided, therefore, that the first moves proved successful, all the rest appeared sure.
Very little seems to have been said among the conspirators in regard to any plans of riot or debauchery, subsequent to the capture of the city. Either their imaginations did not dwell on them, or the witnesses did not dare to give testimony, or the authorities to print it. Death was to be dealt out, comprehensive and terrible; but nothing more is mentioned. One prisoner, Rolla, is reported in the evidence to have dropped hints in regard to the destiny of the women; and there was a rumor in the newspapers of the time, that he, or some other of Governor Bennett's slaves, was to have taken the Governor's daughter, a young girl of sixteen, for his wife, in the event of success; but this is all. On the other hand, Denmark Vesey was known to be for a war of immediate and total extermination; and when some of the company opposed killing "the ministers and the women and children," Vesey read from the Scriptures that all should be cut off, and said that "it was for their safety not to leave one white skin alive, for this was the plan they pursued at St. Domingo." And all this was not a mere dream of one lonely enthusiast, but a measure which had been maturing for four full years among several confederates, and had been under discussion for five months among multitudes of initiated "candidates."
As usual with slave-insurrections, the best men and those most trusted were deepest in the plot. Rolla was the only prominent conspirator who was not an active Church-member. "Most of the ringleaders," says a Charleston letter-writer of that day, "were the rulers or class-leaders in what is called the African Society, and were considered faithful, honest fellows. Indeed, many of the owners could not be convinced, till the fellows confessed themselves, that they were concerned, and that the first object of all was to kill their masters." And the first official report declares that it would not be difficult to assign a motive for the insurrectionists, "if it had not been distinctly proved, that, with scarcely an exception, they had no individual hardship to complain of, and were among the most humanely treated negroes in the city. The facilities for combining and confederating in such a scheme were amply afforded by the extreme indulgence and kindness which characterizes the domestic treatment of our slaves. Many slave-owners among us, not satisfied with ministering to the wants of their domestics by all the comforts of abundant food and excellent clothing, with a misguided benevolence have not only permitted their instruction, but lent to such efforts their approbation and applause."
"I sympathize most sincerely," says the anonymous author of a pamphlet of the period, "with the very respectable and pious clergyman whose heart must still bleed at the recollection that his confidential class-leader, but a week or two before his just conviction, had received the communion of the Lord's Supper from his hand. This wretch had been brought up in his pastor's family, and was treated with the same Christian attention as was shown to their own children." "To us who are accustomed to the base and proverbial ingratitude of these people this ill return of kindness and confidence is not surprising; but they who are ignorant of their real character will read and wonder."
One demonstration of this "Christian attention" had lately been the closing of the African Church,—of which, as has been stated, most of the leading revolutionists were members,—on the ground that it tended to spread the dangerous infection of the alphabet. On January 15th, 1821, the City Marshal, John J. Lafar, had notified "ministers of the gospel and others who keep night- and Sunday-schools for slaves, that the education of such persons is forbidden by law, and that the city government feel imperiously bound to enforce the penalty." So that there were some special, as well as general grounds for disaffection among these ungrateful favorites of Fortune, the slaves. Then there were fancied dangers. An absurd report had somehow arisen—since you cannot keep men ignorant without making them unreasonable also—that on the ensuing Fourth of July the whites were to create a false alarm, and that every black man coming out was to be killed, "in order to thin them"; this being done to prevent their joining an imaginary army supposed to be on its way from Hayti. Others were led to suppose that Congress had ended the Missouri Compromise discussion by making them all free, and that the law would protect their liberty, if they could only secure it. Others again were threatened with the vengeance of the conspirators, unless they also joined; on the night of attack, it was said, the initiated would have a countersign, and all who did not know it would share the fate of the whites. Add to this the reading of Congressional speeches, and of the copious magazine of revolution to be found in the Bible,—and it was no wonder, if they for the first time were roused, under the energetic leadership of Vesey, to a full consciousness of their own condition.
"Not only were the leaders of good character and very much indulged by their owners, but this was very generally the case with all who were convicted,—many of them possessing the highest confidence of their owners, and not one of bad character." In one case it was proved that Vesey had forbidden his followers to trust a certain man, because he had once been seen intoxicated. In another case it was shown that a slave named George had made every effort to obtain their confidence, but was constantly excluded from their meetings as a talkative fellow who could not be trusted,—a policy which his levity of manner, when examined in court, fully justified. They took no women into counsel,—not from any distrust apparently, but in order that their children might not be left uncared-for, in case of defeat and destruction. House-servants were rarely trusted, or only when they had been carefully sounded by the chief leaders. Peter Poyas, in commissioning an agent to enlist men, gave him excellent cautions: "Don't mention it to those waiting-men who receive presents of old coats, etc., from their masters, or they'll betray us; I will speak to them." When he did speak, if he did not convince them, he at least frightened them; but the chief reliance was on the slaves hired out and therefore more uncontrolled,—and also upon the country negroes.
The same far-sighted policy directed the conspirators to disarm suspicion by peculiarly obedient and orderly conduct. And it shows the precaution with which the thing was carried on, that, although Peter Poyas was proved to have had a list of some six hundred persons, yet not one of his particular company was ever brought to trial. As each leader kept to himself the names of his proselytes, and as Monday Gell was the only one of these who turned traitor, any opinion as to the numbers actually engaged must appear altogether conjectural. One witness said nine thousand; another, six thousand six hundred. These statements were probably extravagant, though not more so than Governor Bennett's assertion, on the other side, that "all who were actually concerned had been brought to justice,"—unless by this phrase he designates only the ringleaders. The avowed aim of the Governor's letter, indeed, is to smooth the thing over, for the credit and safety of the city; and its evasive tone contrasts strongly with the more frank and thorough statements of the Judges, made after the thing could no longer be hushed up. These best authorities explicitly acknowledge that they had failed to detect more than a small minority of those concerned in the project, and seem to admit, that, if it had once been brought to a head, the slaves generally would have joined in.
"We cannot venture to say," says the Intendant's pamphlet, "to how many the knowledge of the intended effort was communicated, who, without signifying their assent, or attending any of the meetings, were yet prepared to profit by events. That there are many who would not have permitted the enterprise to have failed at a critical moment, for the want of their cooeperation, we have the best reason for believing." So believed the community at large; and the panic was in proportion, when the whole danger was finally made public. "The scenes I witnessed," says one who has since narrated the circumstances, "and the declaration of the impending danger that met us at all times and on all occasions, forced the conviction that never were an entire people more thoroughly alarmed than were the people of Charleston at that time.... During the excitement and the trial of the supposed conspirators, rumor proclaimed all, and doubtless more than all, the horrors of the plot. The city was to be fired in every quarter, the arsenal in the immediate vicinity was to be broken open and the arms distributed to the insurgents, and an universal massacre of the white inhabitants to take place. Nor did there seem to be any doubt in the mind of the people that such would actually have been the result, had not the plot fortunately been detected before the time appointed for the outbreak. It was believed, as a matter of course, that every black in the city would join in the insurrection, and that, if the original design had been attempted, and the city taken by surprise, the negroes would have achieved a complete and easy victory. Nor does it seem at all impossible that such might have been or yet may be the case, if any well-arranged and resolute rising should take place."