Reminiscences of a Long Life
By James M. Pendleton
The general impression had been that Mr. Clay would be elected President. So confident was Judge Ewing that he thought it doubtful whether Mr. Polk would receive the electoral vote of a single State in the Union. He did not carry his own State of Tennessee, but he was elected, to the astonishment of the nation and of the civilized world. Mr. Clay had had Presidential aspirations from 1824, when he, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, and William H. Crawford were candidates. There never was a time when he could have been elected except in 1840, when William Henry Harrison was the successful Whig candidate. Mr. Polk was a man of respectable talents, had been a member of Congress for some years, was Speaker of the House of Representatives, but was not to be compared, in ability, with Mr. Clay. He, however, received a majority of the electoral, and also of the popular vote.
It’s the impression of many, even to this day, that as the result of Mr. Polk’s election, Texas was annexed to the United States. This is a mistake, for the annexation took place just before the expiration of Mr. Tyler’s term of office. Mr. Tyler became President on the death of General Harrison. In the latter part of his administration he made Mr. Calhoun Secretary of State, and thus he had a very able man to engineer the annexation of Texas. This was done not by treaty, but by a joint resolution of both Houses of Congress. It could not be expected that Mexico would quietly submit to this, and soon were heard rumors of war. Whigs and Democrats differed very widely as to the origin and even the righteousness of the war. Whigs considered the river Nueces the boundary between the United States and Mexico, while Democrats made the Rio Grande the dividing line. Mr. Polk ordered ‘General Taylor, with the army under his command, to the Rio Grande, and there was not found a Texas family between this river and the Nueces. This fact is stated by General Grant in his “Personal Memoirs,” and he was with General Taylor. The Whigs therefore believed that, Mr. Polk was quite unreasonable in assuming that the territory of the United States extended to the Rio Grande. While General Taylor’s troops were opposite Matamoras a few Mexicans crossed the river and in a little skirmish a little blood was shed. This was enough for Mr. Polk and he issued a proclamation in which he declared, “American blood has been shed on American soil.” This statement was believed by Democrats and earnestly denied by Whigs. Hon. J. J. Crittenden applied to it the plain Anglo-Saxon term “lie,” for he did not believe that there was any “American soil” between the Nueces and the Rio Grande. War with its attendant horrors came, and I think now, as I thought then, that the two political parties exemplified the two kinds of insanity, mental and moral. That is to say, Democrats were mentally insane in believing that the territory between the two rivers belonged to the United States, and Whigs were morally insane in voting for and urging the prosecution of a war which they pronounced unjust. While Whig members of Congress, with Democrats, voted supplies for carrying on the war, such men as Casius M. Clay, Thomas F. Marshall, Henry Clay, Jr., and many others, belonging to the Whig party, volunteered their services and made their way to Mexico. General Taylor was of course ordered to cross the Rio Grande and to engage the Mexican forces. He was very successful in his battles, became the idol of the army and very popular in the United States, so that he was in a short time heir apparent, and afterward real heir to the Presidency. Mr. Polk was annoyed for fear the glory of the war would not inure to the Democratic party, and for a time he was anxious to put Col. Thomas H. Benton in command of the army; but this could not well be done. General Scott was first in military authority and was ordered to Mexico. He sailed for Vera Cruz, bombarded and captured the place, and then proceeded without very much fighting to the city of Mexico. By this time it was known that the army of the United States was victorious and Gen. Scott rode on a high horse into the capital city of the enemy with all the pomp and display of which he was childishly found. In due time a treaty was made in which the Rio Grande was named as the boundary line (although Democrats said it was the line before) and New Mexico and California were ceded to the United States.
The consequences resulting from the treaty were unexpected and far-reaching. The purpose of Mr. Polk and his, party was that the territory ceded should enlarge the area of slavery; but in this they were disappointed. When the matter came before Congress for discussion and decision, California was admitted into the Union as a free State, and there was a failure to establish slavery in New Mexico. The discussion was earnest and even vehement. Mr. Jefferson Davis in the Senate insisted that there should be a recognition of slavery in New Mexico; but Mr. Clay said that no earthly power could make him vote to send slavery where it was not. Mr. Webster argued in his celebrated speech of March 7, 1850, that it would be needlessly offensive to the South to declare New Mexico free, because God in the physical conformation of the territory had virtually made slavery impossible, and that no action of Congress was called for. For this speech Mr. Webster was denounced by many of his former friends, but at this day we can see he was patriotic and wise. The oil of vitriol so copiously poured on his head was out of place and posterity will do him justice.
General Taylor was at this time President, having been elected in 1848, but he died July 9, 1850, leaving Mr. Fillmore to take his place. One of the results of the treaty with Mexico was the discovery of gold in California, and this affected the condition of things not only in the United States but throughout the world. Many persons went in hot haste to California in pursuit of gold, the city of San Francisco was built up, and railroads reaching the shores of the Pacific have been constructed. There has been a Divine providence in all this which reminds us that God can bring good out of evil. A war, unjustifiable on the part of the United States, has resulted in many beneficial consequences. We need not now speculate as to what the state of things would have been if California had not been admitted into the Union.
The year 1849 was an important year in Kentucky. A new Constitution was to be formed, and the friends of Emancipation hoped that some provision might be inserted in it for the gradual abolition of slavery in the State. Mr. Clay wrote an able letter on the subject which was extensively circulated. The plan he advocated was that all slaves born in the State after a certain time should be free at certain ages-males at twenty-eight years and females at twenty-one. I was not satisfied with these numbers, for, in my judgment, they deferred the period of freedom too long. Having business in upper Kentucky in the Summer of 1848, I visited Mr. Clay and conversed with him on the subject. He insisted that without a large concession to the pro-slavery feeling of the State nothing could be done, and he was right in this view. Indeed, it was afterward seen that no concession would have been satisfactory to the advocates of slavery. During the canvass for Delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1849, the Emancipation party thought it wise to vote for men in favor of what was significantly called the “open clause.” By this it was meant that if the Convention failed to adopt any measure of Emancipation, the adoption of the “open clause” would enable the Legislature at any time to submit the question to the people, untrammeled by any other question.
I was deeply interested in the subject of Emancipation, for all the pulsations of my heart beat in favor of civil liberty. There was an Emancipation paper, called The Examiner, published in Louisville, and I wrote for it more than twenty articles signed “A Southern Emancipationist.” I incurred the ill will of many, and an old friend said to me, “I do not see how an honest man can be in favor of Emancipation.” I bore it quietly. It may surely be said that some of the ablest men in the State were on the side of Emancipation, such men as Henry Clay, President Young of Center College, Dr. Malcom of Georgetown College, Drs. R. J. and W. L. Breckinridge, Dr. E. P. Humphrey, Dr. Stuart Robinson, Judges Nicholas, Tompkins, Underwood, Graham, and many others. But the influence of these strong men was unavailing. The pro-slavery party was triumphant at the election of delegates by a very large majority. My spirit sank within me and I saw no hope for the African race in Kentucky, or anywhere else without the interposition of some providential judgment. The thought did not enter into my mind that a terrible civil war would secure liberty to every slave in the United States. That God brought slavery to an end I shall attempt to show in another place.
It was in the summer of 1849 that I resigned the care of the church in Bowling Green. I thought it best to do, as I supposed that my views of Emancipation were not acceptable to some of the members. The church, however, was unwilling to receive the resignation, requested me to remain pastor, and I did so remain till the end of the year. Persons at this day cannot easily imagine how strong the pro-slavery feeling was in Kentucky before and at the election of Delegates to the Constitutional Convention. When it was known that Dr. Malcom had voted the Emancipation ticket, some of the Trustees of the College gave him to understand that his resignation of the Presidency would be acceptable. He did resign and went east. There was some discussion in the papers concerning the resignation and I think the Trustees regretted the treatment Dr. Malcom received. I defended him in some news-paper articles, and it is a satisfaction to me now that years after he said to me, “You are the man who defended me in Kentucky.” I think I may say that I have always had a propensity to defend my friends when unjustly assailed.
After the result of the election was known those opposed to Emancipation, being in an overwhelming majority, felt that they could afford to be courteous and magnanimous toward their opponents. I attended the General Association in October of that year, at Lexington, and was treated with great kindness. It was arranged, too, for me to attend the ordination of Rev. J. W. Warder at Frankfort in November, and preach the sermon. I saw clearly that there was no intention to ostracize me. Most of the men of that time have passed away. I am left to pen these lines.
I have failed to say, in the proper place, that in the year 1845, Rev. John L. Waller, editor of The Baptist Banner, began the publication of the Western Baptist Review, a monthly magazine. It was published at Frankfort, Ky. I had written occasional articles for the Banner for some years, and Mr. Waller was pleased to ask me to become a contributor to his Review. I did so, and find from an examination of the four volumes before me that if I did not have the pen of a ready writer I had a pen that was often in use. My articles are rather numerous, and I may say that in writing for the Review I learned to write with greater care than I had exercised in writing transient pieces for newspapers. I found this an advantage, by way of concentrating my attention on a subject, and I have tried to write carefully ever since. I may have carried this thing to a greater length than most writers, for I have written nothing a second time. All my books have been written once and then printed. It is impossible to write with requisite care if a writer knows that he is going to rewrite his manuscript, or make any important interlineations in it. Some of my descendants may profit by these views after I am gone.
Mr. Waller was probably the ablest writer among the Baptists of Kentucky. He wielded a vigorous pen, and on the chain of his logic he often hung festoons of beautiful rhetoric. Many of his productions in this Review exhibit transcendent power and, though written more than forty years ago, may be read with profit now. There are, however, but few copies of the Review in existence. Mr. Waller did not preach very much, but his sermons were very instructive. There was one, easily first of all his discourses. Its title is, “The Bible Adapted to the Spiritual Wants of the World,” and it was preached before the Kentucky and Foreign Bible Society, Danville, October 16, 1846. It is published in the second volume of the Review, and is Mr. Waller’s masterpiece as a sermon.
As a debater Mr. Waller was quite celebrated. He had a discussion, afterward published, with Mr. Pingree on Universalism, and with several Pedo-baptists on Baptism. Among these was Rev. N. L. Rice, and when these two champions came together they were foemen worthy of each other’s steel. I have heard that Dr. Rice pronounced Waller abler than Alexander Campbell on the baptismal question. Mr. Waller did in 1849 what I and many of his friends regretted. He became a candidate, in Woodford County, for a seat in the Constitutional Convention and he was elected over the brilliant Thomas F. Marshall. I am sorry to say that the pro-slavery element decided the election. Mr. Waller made a pro-slavery speech in the Convention which I reviewed, anonymously, in the Louisville Courier. Our friendly relations were not disturbed.
Mr. Waller was a strong advocate of the revision of the Bible, and it was through his influence that I was appointed to deliver an address before the American Bible Union, in New York, in October, 1854. Having performed the duty, I returned by way of Niagara, and on reaching Louisville I learned that Waller was dead. He died October 10, 1854, and the funeral sermon was preached by Dr. W. W. Everts. There is no protection from the grave.