The Slave Power
Henry Wilson of Massachusetts
United States Senate, January 25 1860

Within fifteen States of this democratic Republic, which commenced its career by uttering the ideas of equality and liberty that live in the throbbing hearts of the toiling masses, and nurse even the wavering hopes of hapless bondmen amid the thick gloom of rayless oppression, more than four million human beings, made in the image of God, are held in perpetual bondage. By inexorable laws, sanctioned by the merciless force of public opinion, these millions are denied the rights of manhood, and degraded to the abject condition of chattelhood. To them, the hallowed relations of husband and wife, parent and child, are held not by the sacred rights of a common humanity but by the will of masters. The laws, the customs, the public opinion which have sunk these millions from the dignity of humanity down to the degredation of chattels, have founded and developed a privileged class which now controls the slaveholding States. This class now rules these fifteen States, abrogating, in support of its interests, the inborn, inbred, Constitutional right of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. In these States the power of this class is overshadowing, resistless, complete.

Over the Federal Government this class, this slave power, has achieved complete dominion. The slave power this day holds the national Government, in all its departments, in absolute subjugation. In this Chamber, where sit the representatives of sovereign Commonwealths, that power retains unbroken sway. That power bids the Supreme Court utter its decrees, and that high tribunal obeys its imperative commands. That power holds the President in the hollow of its hand, compelling him to declare that "slavery exists in Kansas by virtue of the Constitution;" that "the master has the right to take his slave into the Territories as property, and have it protected there under the Federal Constitution;" that "neither Congress nor the Territorial Legislature, nor any human power, has any authority to annul or impair this vested right." That power summoned the aspiring Vice President to his own Kentucky to give his assurances "that this constitutional right exists;" that "we must hold to this principle, we must stand by it;" and "if it cannot be enforced for want of proper legislation to enforce it; sufficient legislation must be passed, or our Government is a failure." That power lays its iron hand upon the representatives of free and proud Commonwealths in this Chamber and in the other, compelling them to disavow their own recorded opinions, to accept the monstrous dogma that "neither Congress, nor a Territorial Legislature, nor any human power has any authority to annul or impair the vested right" of the master to have his slave protected as property in the Territories under the Federal Constitution. Well might the Vice Preisident, in view of the recent triumphs and the imperial sway of the slave power, proudly say to the men of his native Kentucky, "we stand in a good position!" "We have the Executive; we have the laws; we have the courts; and that is a great advance from where we stood ten years ago!"

The glowing pages of that history which records the deeds of the heroIc men who, in defense of the inherent and indefeasible rights of humanity, accepted the bloody issue of civil war, and defied and baffled the gigantic power of the British empire, won national independence, and framed a Constitution for united America, bear to us of this generation the amplest evidence that they, with rare exceptions, believed slavery to be a local and temporary evil, which British avarice planted, and British power nurtured in America, and which the advancing current of a humane and Christian civilization would sweep from the land it stained and polluted. But seventy years, Mr. President, have now passed away since the inauguration of the Government under the Federal Constitution. Those six hundred thousand bondmen, valued at less than fifty million dollars, have increased to four million, valued at more than two thousand million. That feeble system of African slavery, which seemed to the hopeful eyes of our patriotic fathers smitten with the disease of original sin, has expanded into a gigantic system, which now casts its chilling influences over the land, polluting the very sources of national life, perverting the moral sense of the nation, corrupting the sentiment of justice, humanity, and liberty, and leaving the traces of its ruinous power upon the institutions and upon the soil of the Republic, which it turns to barrenness and desolation.

Sir, this expansion and growth of the system of African slavery, this development of the slave power, during the past seventy years, have wrought a wonderful change, a complete revolution, in the sentiments and opinions of the public men who control the councils of America. What a contrast between slavery in America in 1789 and slavery in America in 1860! Then it was weak; now it is strong. Then its influences over the nation were impotent; now it holds the Government in its iron grasp. Then the public men who dictated the policy of the Government deemed it to be a moral, social,and political evil, which humanity and religion deplored; now it is regarded by the men who control the Government as a positive good, a beneficent system,"a great moral," in the words of the Senator from Mississippi, [Mr. BROWN,] "social and political blessing; a blessing to the master, and a blessing to the slave." Then, to prohibit it in the Territories was deemed alike the right and duty of the Government; now, the avowed doctrine of the Administration of the Government is, that the slaveholders have the right to carry their slaves as property into the Territories, and hold them there as property by virtue of the Constitution, and that "neither Congress, nor a Territorial Legislature, nor any human power, has authority to annul or impair this vested right." Then, to cherish, as a living faith, the creed that "all men are created equal;" to believe slavery to be an evil; to believe with Henry that "a time would come to abolish this lamentable evil;" and with Jefferson, that "nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that this people shall be free," brought neither proscription from power, nor indignities from the people; now these sentiments bring upon the public man the proscriptions of power, the ridicule and reproach of presses in the interest of power, and subject the American citizen, whose rights are guarded by constitutional guarantees, in the slave States to the insults and degrading indignities of lawless and brutal mobs, maddened by the fanaticism of slavery, to arrests, imprisonments, fines, and banishment. Then, the people of America confided their new Government to the guardianship and guidance of statesmen, known by their acts and recorded opinions to be unalterably opposed to the slave trade; to the perpetuity of slavery, to its expansion into the vast empire of the Northwest; now; the public men of America, who inherit the sentiments and opinions of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Jay, Hamilton, and their illustrious compeers, who would consecrate the territorial possessions of the Republic to free institutions for all, are admonished, in these Chambers, that they will not be permitted, in the slave States, to avow their sentiments, or to advocate the election to the Presidency, in 1860, of a candidate representing their policy; ay ,that the election of such a candidate will be cause for the dissolution of the Union.


The Congressional Globe, The Official Proceedings of Congress, Published by John C. Rives, Washington, D. C.
Thirty-Sixth Congress, 1st Session,
New Series...No. 36, Thursday, January 26, 1860, pages 568-569.