Reminiscences of a Long Life
By James M. Pendleton
The election of Mr. Lincoln to the Presidency in 1860 was the occasion of the secession of most of the Southern States from the Union. They did not wait to see how he would fill his high office, but with impatient haste decided that he should not preside over them. The Southern Confederacy was organized at Montgomery, Alabama, in February, 1861, and adopted measures to maintain its separate existence. The Confederacy wished to do this without war and asked to “be let alone;” but this was impossible, especially after Fort Sumpter was fired on. The sound of the first gun was heard in every part of the nation, for it reached every nook and corner of the land. The people were roused as never before since the Revolutionary uprising. Some, even in the North, were willing for the “wayward sisters,” as they were called, to “go in peace;” but the great majority of the nation were zealous for the integrity of the Union. It is proper to refer to the differences of opinion which were antagonistic, hostile, and implacable. In the South the doctrine of “States’ Rights” was espoused and earnestly advocated. All that vigorous logic and fiery rhetoric could do was done. It was urged, in accordance with the “States’ Rights ” view, that a State could, at its option, withdraw from the Union. The celebrated Resolutions of 1798-99, adopted by Virginia and Kentucky, were appealed to in support of this view. It is the part of candor to admit that these Resolutions embody a theoretical justification of secession, though in the history of the Government they had received no practical indorsement. Many Southern Democrats had been for years in favor of them, but no National Convention of the party declared its adherence to them till 1856, when Mr. Buchanan was nominated for the Presidency.
After that it was natural for Democrats of the South to believe that, in case of their secession from the Union, they would be justified by the entire party. Had this turned out to be so, the result of the secession movement would probably have been very different; but Northern Democrats failed to act in concert with their brethren of the South. Indeed, many of them were not only on the side of the Union, but fought under the “star-spangled banner.”
The Resolutions referred to declare that when there is a difference of judgment between a State and the United States the State may decide for itself as to its course of action. On this point my friends Dayton and Graves differed from me most materially. They believed the Government of the United States was oppressive and tyrannical, and their conclusion was that the Southern States should secede from it. The argument of Dr. Dayton amazed, and would have amused me, if the times had not been too serious for amusement. He insisted that as the “people” made the Constitution of the United States, they could alter or abolish it. This is doubtless true of the whole people; but Dr. Dayton said, therefore the people of Tennessee have the right to revoke their allegiance to the Government of the United States. I need not say that neither logic nor common sense authorizes the use of the particle therefore in such a connection.
My friend Graves visited me and spent hours in trying to persuade me to declare myself in favor of the Confederacy. He thought my influence and usefulness would be greatly increased if I would do so, and would be ruined if I did not. I told him that if the Confederacy established itself I would either obey its laws or remove from its jurisdiction. This was not satisfactory, and after saying many things he asked me if I could not say that I preferred the Confederate Government to that of the United States. My answer was, “I can’t lie.” This closed our interview.
I make all allowances for the anxiety of Graves, Dayton, and others on my account; for they honestly believed that the Confederacy would be a success, and that I would occupy the place of a “Tory” of the Revolution. The only question with me was, “What is right?” Having settled this question in favor of the United States, I took my stand, and there were very few who stood with me. Those were dark days. Tennessee, in the year 1860, was largely on the side of the Union, but the next year espoused the Confederacy. I had no difficulty in deciding my allegiance to the United States superior to any allegiance that could be due to a State. It was only necessary for me to read in the Constitution of the United States the second section of Article VI: “This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof, and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, anything in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.”
This is what the Constitution says of itself, and it is absurd for any State government to assume an attitude hostile to “the supreme law of the land.” This the Confederate States did and vainly attempted to justify themselves There were individuals in the South who, denying the right of secession, claimed what they called “the right of Revolution.” I think Hon. John Bell belonged to this class. That he was wrong I have no doubt.
Against the right of Revolution, when the masses of the people are oppressed under monarchical and aristocratic forms of government, I have nothing to say. I recognize sovereignty as inherent in the people and revolution is sometimes the only way in which down-trodden humanity can throw off its burdens. But I deny that the right of revolution can exist under a Republican form of government. This view, so far as I know, is original with me. In a Republican government the majority must rule. This is its foundation principle. Very well. Then if the majority wish to make any change in the method of government, they can do so peaceably, and without the violence which the term revolution implies. The right of revolution, then, does not belong to the majority, and if it did it would be superfluous, for the reason indicated, to exercise it. But can the right belong to the minority? Not unless the minority has the right to govern, which is absurd. Contemplate, then, the right of revolution in connection with either a majority or a minority in a Republican government, and it has no existence; for the people have adopted their form of government and can change it, if they please, without any revolutionary violence. The matter seems too plain to need elaboration.
Believing the Confederacy, whether regarded as secession or revolution, had no right to exist, I had no sympathy with it, and heartily wished its overthrow by the Army and Navy of the United States. I am no advocate of war, but I say this, that with the exception of wars waged by command of God, of which we are told in the Old Testament, history contains no account of any war more justifiable than that waged by the United States against the Confederacy. The South had as much to do as the North in making the National Constitution, but refused to abide by the provisions of that Constitution when a President, whom the South disliked, was elected under it. For no one denied that Mr. Lincoln was Constitutionally elected, and his oath of office certainly required him to put forth the power of the govemnment to maintain the Union in its integrity, and this was done. So much concerning the position of the United States.
It was about midsummer in 1861, when the Confederate flag was hoisted on the Court House in Murfreesboro, and there it waved for nine months, but I seldom saw it. I was unwilling to look at it, because it was usurping the place of the flag of the United States – the flag of my heart’s love. The “stars and bars ” were utterly distasteful to me. I was known to be a Union man, and it was no advantage to me that nearly all my family connections, by blood and marriage, were on the other side. I suppose I was in greater danger of personal violence than I thought at the time. It is said that a citizen offered to head any company that would undertake to hang me, and that my name, accompanied by no complimentary remarks, was sent to the daring John Morgan. I knew not what might happen. I supposed that if measures of personal violence were resorted to, it would be done in the night; and how often, before going to bed, did I arrange a back window and shutter, so that I could escape in a noiseless way! My wife would put up a parcel of something for me to eat; and I remember well how sad her tones were when she said, “You may need this.”
I do not know how long I suffered from fear, but I know well how I was relieved. Everything being disorganized by the war, my means of support were cut off, and I went to work on my farm. I knew of nothing else I could do; so I worked during the week and preached on Sunday to the very few that were willing to hear me. One day, while at work, there occurred something of which I have not often spoken. I do not claim that it was a vision, I do not believe it was, but my imagination was deeply impressed. I thought I was standing in the midst of a circle of demons incarnate, and that they were rushing toward me to tear me in pieces; but they seemed to stop, and with gnashing teeth stretched* forth their murderous hands to seize me, and could not. Amid the exciting scene, I thought that God was sitting in serene majesty above, and that He spoke to the demons, saying, “You can’t touch him unless I permit.” When I returned from the field members of my family said that my face, though covered with sweat, was shining. I know not as to that, but I know that I was relieved from fear, and could afterward sleep as sweetly as a child. I was fully satisfied that God would suffer no one to injure me unless it would be for the glory of His name, and then I was ready to endure anything, even death itself.
After the Confederate flag had floated over the Court House in Murfreesboro for nine months, General Mitchell, with his magnificent division of the Army of the Cumberland, entered the town. Very soon was the flag of the Union unfurled, displaying its starry glory. When I first saw it, my eyes filled with tears of love and joy. I do not expect ever again in this world to see anything so beautiful as that flag appeared to be. How I admired its “red, white, and blue! From that day, it has been no wonder to me that patriotic soldiers are willing to follow that flag into any danger and to die for it; for it is the symbol of greater glory than Greece or Rome ever saw.
I now anticipate one of the results of the war was to emphasize the fact that the overthrow of slavery was God’s work. I mean by this that in the early part of the war there was no reference to the extermination of slavery. The South of course had no such object in view, nor had the North. Mr. Lincoln’s supreme purpose was to preserve the Union without interfering with slavery. When he issued his Proclamation, September 22, 1862, he offered the seceded States the opportunity of coming back into the Union. In proof of their coming back they were to send members to Congress. Had they done this there would have been an end of the conflict. The opportunity was not accepted and the war went on. The Emancipation Proclamation of January, 1863, was made because the Proclamation of September, 1862, was disregarded. That is to say, it was seen that the preservation of the Union required the abolition of slavery by a successful prosecution of the war. It was an overruling Providence that permitted things to reach this point. It was reached in opposition to Mr. Lincoln’s wishes and purposes in the first years of the war, and it disappointed the expectations entertained in all parts of the country. This being the case, it is evident that the overthrow of slavery was not man’s work. There was a God in heaven, presiding over all, and causing “the wrath of man to praise Him,” accomplishing His purpose by thwarting the designs of men, and even using them as instruments in His hands. The over-throw of American slavery was an epoch in the world’s history, and it is the providence of God that creates epochs. Now, that slavery is abolished, there are no regrets, but rejoicings rather, both in the North and in the South. The North is glad that an institution in conflict with the Declaration of Independence no longer exists, and the South concedes that hired labor is better than slave servitude. Being pretty well acquainted in the South, I may be permitted to say that I know no man who would have slavery re-established. It is true that some of the emancipated slaves, perhaps many, have had a worse time in the early years of their freedom than when in slavery, but brighter days are before them. Then, too, they have the proud satisfaction of knowing that liberty, with its priceless blessings, will be transmitted as a rich la[?] to their posterity. For all this God deserves the glory and it should be given to Him.
It is appropriate for me in closing this chapter to say something of slavery as I saw it in Kentucky and Tennessee before the war. No doubt it existed in these States, particularly in Kentucky, in its mildest form. I knew slaveholders who sustained this relation for the good of their slaves rather than for any personal profit. They were willing to set their slaves free if it would improve their condition, but on this point they doubted. They did not see that the free colored people were any better off than the slaves. In addition to this, there was, as the result of the Abolition excitement, a law passed in Kentucky forbidding emancipation. This was, I think, between 1850 and 1860.
As to the sinfulness of slavery in itself, Southern slaveholders did not believe the doctrine. They generally held the view expressed by Dr. Richard Fuller in his discussion with Dr. Francis Wayland, though some thought that view too moderate. Dr. Fuller showed very clearly that a distinction was to be made between slavery and the abuses of slavery.
This distinction was certainly recognized in Kentucky. The law gave the master the right to separate husband and wife, but no master did this without injury to his reputation; for it was considered an abuse of slavery. There was a class of men called by the odious designation, “negro traders,” but they were not received in the best circle of society. They bought slaves, conveyed them farther South, and sold them to cotton and sugar planters. They were an odious class.
The opinion of slaveholders generally was that they were not responsible for the existence of slavery, because it was introduced into the country before they were born. For its introduction the North was as accountable as the South, and the South felt that it must adjust itself to the circumstances of the case. There was always an Emancipation party in Kentucky, and if in making the second Constitution in 1799, the sagacious policy of Henry Clay had been carried out, the State would have been free before the war.
As to the negroes, I saw among them in the days of slavery as pious Christians as I ever saw anywhere. They attended church, occupied the place assigned them in the meeting-house, and partook of the Lord’s Supper with their white brethren. I take pleasure in testifying that slavery in Kentucky and Tennessee, and I was not acquainted with it elsewhere, was of the mild type. When I went North nothing surprised me more than to see laborers at work in the rain and snow. In such weather, slaves in Kentucky and Tennessee would have been under shelter. It will astonish some of my friends to learn that at the death of my mother in 1863, I by the will of my father became a slave-holder. In the distribution of the estate a young girl was assigned to me. The law did not permit me to emancipate her, and the best I could do was to hire her out. I paid her the amount for which she hired and added to it ten per cent. When slavery was abolished I rejoiced in the severance of the relation I had sustained to her. I was not a slave-holder morally, but legally. My children may be interested in knowing these facts, and the additional fact that my conscience is clear.
There is hope for the African race in this country. Its improvement, since the abolition of slavery, has been, all things considered, wonderful. The improvement has not of course been universal, but history records no such progress as has been made by the race since the war. In proof of this I may refer to a volume before me, styled, “The Negro Baptist Pulpit,” containing sermons of which no white preacher need be ashamed. These preachers were slaves till the Emancipation Proclamation gave them liberty. The elevation to which they have risen is “the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes.”