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THE principal reason why Washington has become a national capital in fact as well as in name, is because within her limits was fought the great contest which changed the American people from a confederacy to a nation.
No people becomes a nation without first passing through a crisis of sufficient intensity to weld its discordant elements into a homogeneous whole. That crisis for us was the anti-slavery contest and the civil war which followed and of which it was the
That war turned all eyes upon the capital. The city became the centre of a nation's hope, its brain and heart, the fortress where its enormous powers were concentrated, the stronghold whence its citizen soldiery marched to attack the enemy, and to which they returned with standards advanced, and bugles pealing jubilant strains of victory and of nationality preserved. From the year 1820, when the Missouri Compromise passed the House, to the year 1861, when the whole question was given to the arbitrament of the sword, slavery was the paramount issue in politics, the question of questions, often thought settled, forever reappearing, like Banquo's ghost, on the most inopportune occasions. Her position as the arena in which this contest was fought is the city's greatest distinction, her chief claim to national veneration and regard. In this chapter we shall seek to identify her with the great men and the great events of that memorable conflict.
In the election of November, 1816, James Monroe had been chosen to succeed Mr. Madison as President. At the same time Daniel D. Tompkins of New York was elected Vice-President. Mr. Monroe, who has before appeared in our pages, had been a colonel in the Revolution, a senator from Virginia, and later Governor of that State, had filled important diplomatic appointments to France, England, and Spain, and had served acceptably as Secretary of State under Mr. Madison, thus placing himself in the direct line of succession. His cabinet was remarkable for the eminence of the men composing itJohn Quincy Adams, Secretary of State, William H. Crawford, Secretary of the Treasury, John C. Calhoun, Secretary of War, and Smith Thompson, Secretary of the Navy.
These men were in power when in the winter of 1818-19, the Territory of Missouri applied for admission to the Union, and the great contest to which we have alluded began in the Halls of Congress. The struggle was not for the abolition of slavery in the States where it then existed, but against its extension into the territories north and west of the Mississippi, from which territories new States were being carved with marvellous rapidity. The Southern or slaveholding members advocated this extension; the Northern members, with some exceptions, opposed it.
On the 19th of February, 1819, when the debates began, Congress was sitting in the large wooden building on Capitol Hill, which later achieved fame as the Old Capitol Prison, and which had been erected for its use by citizens of Washington on the burning of the Capitol in 1814. In the following December, however, when the Sixteenth Congress came together, it was able to take possession of the new wings of the Capitol, which had been rebuilt, under the superintendence of the architects Latrobe and Bullfinch, in a much more magnificent manner than before. The House chamber in the present structure we now know as the Hall of Statuary. The Senate met in the present chamber of the Supreme Court.
In this Sixteenth Congress that stirring debate took place. All Washington thronged to hear itold and young, rich and poor, white and black. The colored people especially were greatly excited by the tone of the debates, so much so that their masters began to fear that the sentiments of the Abolitionists would incite them to insurrection and violence. The chambers were from day to day packed to their utmost capacity. Of that great triumvirate-Clay, Webster, Calhoun-who later won immortality by their connection with this question, only Clay participated in the opening debates of the Sixteenth Congress.
The latter was then forty-two years of age, and Speaker of the House, of which he had been a member since 1811. Webster was thirty-seven, and had been from 1812 to 1817 a member of the House, but in the latter year retired to practise his profession of the law. Calhoun, two months younger than Webster, was in Congress from 1810 to 1817, in which year, as we have seen, he had become Secretary of War.
Of that second great triumvirate, later brought into prominence by this contest,—Lincoln, Sumner, and Seward,—the former was then a boy of ten, Seward was a junior in Union College, and Sumner, a lad of eight, was conning his primer in the primary schools of Boston.
Paul H. Hayne, the matchless orator, Davis, Benton, Breckinridge, Douglas, Corwin, Cass, Marshall, and others, who later bore so prominent a part in the struggle, were still hidden in the veil of obscurity.
The chief speakers in the House were Henry Clay, John Randolph of Roanoke, Colston of Virgina, and Cobb of Georgia, for the South, and James W. Tallmadge and John N. Reynolds of New York, for the North. Clay was Speaker and frequently left the chair to address the House, the galleries and the throngs upon the floor hanging upon his lips, spellbound by his eloquence. No reporters were there to preserve his speeches, and they are lost to posterity. John Randolph made a striking and picturesque figure-tall, thin, pallid as death, with his towering mane of hair thrown back from his brow, and his thin lips curled in scorn, never in his element except when opposing some measure or excoriating a fellow-member.
An incident that occurred during this debate may be cited as showing the nature of the man. Annoyed by the presence of a large company of ladies on the floor of the House he rises deliberately, and pointing his long skeleton forefinger at them, exclaims in his peculiar, shrill, squeaking voice:
“Mr. Speaker, what pray are all these women doing here so out of place in this arena? Sir, they had much better be at home attending to their knitting.”
Cobb, of Georgia, is boldest of speech, and is the first to throw out in debate the threat of secession as a menace to the North, if it persists in its unfriendly attitude toward slavery. It is not by any means, however, the first time that the direful word has been heard in the Republic. In 1789, as we have seen, the Northern States had used it with effect to obtain the assumption of the State debts, and in the war of 1812-15 New England had covertly threatened it when Jefferson's Embargo Act and the subsequent war had destroyed her commerce and made havoc with her material prosperity. At a point in the debate Cobb, looking pointedly at Tallmadge, declares that a fire has that day been kindled which not all the waters of the ocean can quench, and which only seas of blood can extinguish. “ He did not hesitate to declare that if Northern members persisted the Union would be dissolved.” Judge Tallmadge rises to reply.
Language of this sort,” he remarks, “has no effect upon me. My purpose is fixed. It is interwoven with my existence. Its durability is limited with my life. It is a great and glorious cause-setting bounds to slavery