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California's Hour of Decision
The period that determined California's attitude during the Civil War, coincides almost exactly with the first year and a half of Starr King's residence in the State. Less than a month after he had preached his first sermon in San Francisco, Abraham Lincoln received the presidential nomination at Chicago, and the great debate was on.
It should be remembered that King's reputation as a lecturer had preceded him, and that he was hardly settled in his new home before he was flooded with invitations to lecture here as he had done in the East. As soon as possible, and as far as possible, he accepted these invitations regarding them as calls to service in the interest of an enlightened patriotism. Choosing as subjects such themes as "Washington," "Webster," "Lexington and Concord," he made of them all a plea for a united country, one glorious land from Maine to the Sierras. He seems to have perceived the danger hidden in the perfectly natural ambition of leading men to take advantage of the troubled time to launch the Pacific Republic, and thus avoid all danger of the coming conflict between North and South. A free, independent California, which should practically include the entire Coast, - surely here was an inspiring and seductive dream. By a method peculiarly his own he did not directly combat this fascinating idea, but rather sought to win his hearers to the larger vision of an empire extending from ocean to ocean, every mile of it dedicated to liberty and progress.
"What a privilege it is to be an American," he exclaims in a favorite lecture, often repeated.
"Suppose that the continent could turn towards you tomorrow at sunrise, and show to you the whole American area in the short hours of the sun's advance from Eastport to the Pacific! You would see New England roll into light from the green plumes of Aroostook to the silver stripe of the Hudson; westward thence over the Empire State, and over the lakes, and over the sweet valleys of Pennsylvania, and over the prairies, the morning blush would run and would waken all the line of the Mississippi; from the frosts where it rises, to the fervid waters in which it pours, for three thousand miles it would be visible, fed by rivers that flow from every mile of the Allegheny slope, and edged by the green embroideries of the temperate and tropic zones; beyond this line another basin, too, the Missouri, catching the morning, leads your eye along its western slope till the Rocky Mountains burst upon the vision, and yet do not bar it; across its passes we must follow, as the stubborn courage of American pioneers has forced its way, till again the Sierra and their silver veins are tinted along the mighty bulwark with the break of day; and then over to the gold-fields of the western slope, and the fatness of the California soil, and the beautiful valleys of Oregon, and the stately forests of Washington, the eye is drawn, as the globe turns out of the night-shadow, and when the Pacific waves are crested with radiance, you have the one blending picture, nay, the reality, of the American domain! No such soil, so varied by climate, by products, by mineral riches, by forest and lake, by wild heights and buttresses, and by opulent plains, - yet all bound into unity of configuration and bordered by both warm and icy seas, - no such domain was ever given to one people."
In many communities and in varying phrase - always earnest and eloquent - King returned to the central theme of all his thinking and speaking, the greatness and glory of the Union, - "one and indivisible." The following but illustrates the constant tenor of his teaching:
"If all that the past has done for us and the present reveals could stand apparent in one picture, and then if the promise of the future to the children of our millions under our common law, and with continental peace, could be caught in one vast spectral exhibition, the wealth in store, the power, the privilege, the freedom, the learning, the expansive and varied and mighty unity in fellowship, almost fulfilling the poet's dream of
'The Parliament of man, the federation of the world,'
you would exclaim with exultation, 'I, too, am an American!' You would feel that patriotism, next to your tie to the Divine Love, is the greatest privilege of your life; and you would devote yourselves, out of inspiration and joy, to the obligations of patriotism, that this land so spread, so adorned, so colonized, so blessed, should be kept forever, against all the assaults of traitors, one in polity, in spirit, and in aim!"
In a way we may say that King found himself in these first months in California. He was forced by the number of his engagements, as well as by the more direct demands of a new country, to throw aside his manuscripts, and, making such preparation as conditions would permit, launch boldly out upon the dangerous sea of extempore speech. He was constantly addressing audiences in whole, or in part, hostile. Writing to an Eastern friend of his experiences in the Sacramento Valley, he says, "You see in glaring capitals, 'Texas Saloon,' 'Mississippi Shoe Shop,' 'Alabama Emporium.' Very rarely do you see any Northern state thus signalized." Men of substance, natural leaders of the people, were in most communities either for Breckenridge or Douglas. The man was grappling with the intellectual soldiery of disunion. The same forces that had transformed Lincoln, the Illinois politician into a national figure, the standard bearer of a great party, were working upon King. And the same method which caused Horace Greeley to write of Lincoln, "He is the greatest Convincer of his day" was followed by the younger patriot, face to face as he was with incipient disloyalty. He was accustomed, even as Lincoln, to state his opponent's argument fully and fairly, and then without unnecessary severity, demolish it. An old miner, listening to one of Starr King's patriotic speeches, delighting in the intellectual dexterity displayed, exclaimed, "Boys, watch him, he is taking every trick." The necessity of "taking every trick," and this so far as possible without offence, quickened his powers and led to the full development of his many sided eloquence.
How he was regarded during these early months when he had literally plunged into the life of a community where nothing was as yet fixed, where everything was in the making, where the most serious questions of duty and destiny were stirring the hearts and consciences of men, - is made clear to us by the testimony of contemporaries whose sole desire must have been to render honor where honor was due.
The latest and most complete history of California based upon the most trustworthy evidence extant gives cautious tribute to the Starr King of this period as follows:
"The Republicans had lost their most effective orator since the campaign of the preceding year, Colonel Baker, but his loss was in some degree compensated for by the appearence of an unheralded but equally eloquent speaker, Thomas Starr King, who arrived in April, 1860, and later toured the state, giving lectures on patriotic subjects but always declared for the Union and the Republican candidates as the surest guaranty of its preservation.
Tuthill, in his history of the time writes with more warmth, and probably more truth:
"There was a charm in King's delivery that few could resist. He was received with applause where Republican orators, saying things no more radical, could not be heard without hisses. Delicately feeling his way, and never arousing the prejudices of his hearers, he adroitly educated his audiences to a lofty style of patriotism. The effect was obvious in San Francisco where audiences were accustomed to every style of address; it was far more noticeable in the interior.
The celebrated critic and writer, Edwin Percey Whipple, made a careful examination of King's record in California and sums up his impressions as follows:
"As a patriotic Christian statesman he included the real elements of power in the community, took the people out of hands of disloyal politicians, lifted them up to the level of his own ardent soul, and not only saved the state to the Union, but imprinted his own generous and magnanimous spirit on its forming life."
Writing a little later and with even more enthusiasm, another authority, speaking of King's charm of manner, says:
"I am persuaded that could he have gone through the Southern states, shaking hands with secessionists, he would have won them back to their allegiance by the mere magnetism of his touch."
It is, perhaps, impossible at this late date to estimate the effect of Starr King's appeal to the voters of California in the presidential election of 1860. As we have already noted, Lincoln carried the State by a very narrow plurality, and we need not ascribe the swaying of many votes to the eloquence of King's advocacy to make it appear that his influence was marked in that memorable campaign.
But here must be emphasized a fact, quite often overlooked, and always to the serious perversion of history. In California, as in every doubtful state, the Hour of Decision did not precede, but in every instance, followed the elevation of Lincoln to the presidency. It was upon this rock that the nation split. Shall a Black Republican be permitted to sit in the seat of Washington? Shall a man elected, as a matter of fact, by a sectional minority rule over Virginia - mother of Presidents - over imperial Texas, or the Golden West? To us the case seems clear. Abraham Lincoln, who commanded 180 votes in the electoral college to 123 divided among his opponents, was by our constitution President-elect of the United States. To the men of that day the case was by no means settled. The national bond was weak. The local, or state bond was strong. It was a time of intense political passion. The irrepressible conflict which had clouded the closing days of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster must now be decided, either for, or against, the extension of human slavery; either for, or against, a National Union.
Well meaning, but mistaken, writers have claimed that California was never a doubtful state, that the great majority of her people were ever loyal to the Northern cause, to Lincoln and Liberty. As a matter of sober truth let it be here written that the attitude of no state north of Mason and Dixon's Line gave Northern leaders so grave concern. Nor was the matter once for all decided until the election of Leland Stanford in September, 1861, as the first Republican Governor of California. During all the Spring and Summer of that great year the battle waged with the issue, up to the last hour, uncertain. These were the months that tried men's souls in California, as in the Border States. Communities were divided. Party ties severed. Families broken up. Old friendships sundered. All lesser questions were lost sight of as Union, or Dis-union, became the all absorbing theme. The battle of ideas, preceding the battle of bullets, was on.
What was the state of public opinion in California? How runs the evidence?
In March, 1861, General E. V. Sumner was given command of United States regulars on the Pacific Coast, replacing Albert Sidney Johnston, whose well known attachment to the Southern cause led to his removal by the Lincoln Administration. In General Sumner's reports to the War Department in Washington we have impartial and official testimony as to conditions in California during the period under consideration. Naturally he came first in contact with the people about San Francisco Bay, a majority of whom were loyal to the North, and consequently, Sumner's first reports were encouraging. "There is a strong Union feeling," he writes, "with the majority of the people of the state, but the Secessionists are much the most active and zealous party."
A little later, better informed, he reported: "The Secessionist party in this state numbers about 32,000 men and they are very restless and zealous, which gives them great influence." Still later: "The disaffection in the southern part of the state is increasing and is becoming dangerous, and it is indispensably necessary to throw reinforcements into that section immediately."
In this connection it should be remembered that when President Lincoln at the outbreak of the war called for 75,000 men, California was expected to furnish her quota of 6,000 soldiers, but so threatening was the local situation that not a loyal man could be spared from the State. On the contrary it was found necessary to retain in the State certain regiments of the regular army badly needed elsewhere. In the summer of 1861, the War Department proposed to transfer a portion of the regular army stationed in California to Texas, where the situation demanded immediate succor for the friends of the Union. How grave the situation had become in California may easily be determined by a fact which seems to have escaped so far the attention of historians. On August 28, 1861, the leading men of San Francisco sent a communication to Hon. Simon Cameron, Secretary of War, remonstrating against the withdrawal of United States troops from California for the following reasons:
1. "A majority of our present state officials are avowed secessionists, and the balance being bitterly hostile to the administration are advocates of a peace policy at any price."
2. "About three-fifths of our citizens are natives of slave-holding states and are almost a unit in this crisis."
3. "Our advices, obtained with great prudence and care, show us that there are about 16,000 Knights of the Golden Circle (a secret military organization of secessionists, said by many authorities to have been much stronger than was at the time believed) in the state, and they are still organizing even in our most loyal districts.
4. "Through misrepresentation the powerful native Mexican population has been won over to the secession side."
This document, remarkable in itself, becomes weighty evidence, when it is stated that after full and careful consideration, the petition was heeded and the regulars remained on the Coast.
General Sumner held command nearly a year, until, as we are accustomed to think, all danger of a disloyal California was over, yet as the date of his departure for the Army of the Potomac drew near, he was very anxious that Col. Wright, an able and loyal officer, should fill his place, and wrote to the authorities in Washington, "Col. Wright ought to remain in command. The safety of the whole coast may depend upon it." (italics ours).
A few weeks after the death of Starr King, the Pacific Monthly, leading magazine of the day, reviewed the situation at the beginning of the great conflict, as it was then known and understood by all intelligent Californians:
"On the breaking out of the rebellion, public opinion on this coast was sorely distracted at the issues raised. The great majority of the people were warmly attached to their Government; but they had drunk deep at the fountains of Southern eloquence, and had been measurably debauched by the dangerous teachings of the able men who had ruled the state from its infancy. When we consider the critical condition of public sentiment at that dark hour (1860-1861); how the public mind had been thrown off its poise by the false teaching of a long succession of political charlatans; how the insidious doctrine of separation and a Pacific Republic had been hissed by serpents into the ears of the people; how the great dark cloud of impending ruin hung over our central Government; how legions of armed patricides were almost battering at the gates of our National Capital; how rebellion had baptized itself in blood and victory at Bull Run - when we think how the effect of all these adverse teachings and adverse fortunes had rendered the public mind plastic to whoever had the genius to seize and direct it, and reflect that a man of King's abilities, but without his patriotism, might have grasped the opportunity to drift us upon shoals and rocks and quicksands of treason, we cannot feel too thankful that the man and the hour both arrived. His was a noble task, and nobly did he fulfill it. What he did for California and the Union can never be fully estimated, - the work he wrought in saving her to the country, and engraving upon her heart, the golden word - 'Union'."
Leaving aside for a little space this fervent tribute to King's work, the quotation just given is evidence of a grave situation, of a state divided in opinion, of just such an "hour of decision" as gives the strong man his opportunity. There can be no doubt that the verdict of the Visalia Delta, a loyal and well-known newspaper, as to conditions in its own community would apply to every considerable town in the State:
"Treason against the Government and constitution is preached from the pulpit, printed in the newspapers, and openly advocated in the streets and public places."
A work just from the press, "California - Men and Events" - by Mr. G. H. Tinkham, affords valuable testimony to the necessity and value of King's mission as patriotic leader:
"At a time when some Union men were paralyzed with dread, and others undecided which way to turn, Thomas Starr King traveled over the state bolstering up the weak-hearted, and urging loyal men to stand firmly for the Union. In his lectures, 'Washington,' 'Daniel Webster,' 'The Great Uprising,' and 'The Rebellion in Heaven,' in unanswerable arguments and matchless eloquence he kindled the patriotism of the people into a glowing flame. It is conceded that no individual did more to keep California in the Union than did Thomas Starr King."
How necessary it was that some one should "kindle the patriotism of the people into a glowing flame" is further evident from the fact that the California Legislature of 1861 numbered as its members 57 Douglas Democrats, 33 Southern Democrats, and but 24 Republicans. What this alignment signified may be judged from the following incident. Edmund Randolph, (a former Virginian, and a man of fiery eloquence) on July 11, 1861, delivered unrebuked in the State Democratic Convention at Sacramento, this diatribe against Abraham Lincoln: "For God's sake speed the ball, may the lead go quick to his heart - and may our country be free from this despot usurper, that now claims to the name of President of the United States."
A few days earlier, July 4, 1861, a Confederate flag waved undisturbed in Los Angeles, as well as in other nearby towns, the Union men in that section being largely in the minority. For a considerable time in the United States Marshal's office in San Francisco, a Confederate flag waved from a miniature man-of-war named "Jeff Davis."
In Merced County, Union men were in a sorry minority! A favorite campaign song in that region was entitled, "We'll Drive the Bloody Tyrant Lincoln From Our Dear Native Soil." A little later, the Equal Rights Expositer of Visalia characterized President Lincoln as "a narrow minded bigot, an unprincipled demagogue, and a drivelling, idiotic, imbecile creature."
Unpleasant testimony of this sort, demonstrating the presence and power of a bitter spirit of disloyalty, running all through the State, but most in evidence in certain localities peopled from the South, might be given at great length. But enough. We have no wish to reproduce the evil passions of an evil time further than to make it absolutely clear that a real danger of disunion existed, and that friend and foe alike recognized that, under God, the undaunted leader of Union sentiment in California was none other than Starr King.
A prominent San Francisco paper, indulging in the partizan speech of the period, calling all friends of the Administration at Washington, "Abolitionists," gave ungracious testimony to King's standing and influence as follows:
"The abolitionists are bent on carrying out their plans, and will not hesitate to commit any act of despotism. If the constitution stands in their way, they will, to use the words of their champion in this state, Rev. T. Starr King, drive through the constitution."
"Their champion in this state." The opprobrium rested upon him then; let the honor be his now. This in simple justice to the truth of history.
It is infinitely to be regretted that what men called "the irresistible charm of his eloquence" cannot by any manner of speech be here portrayed. If excuse is necessary let these words from King's lecture on "Webster" plead for us:
"Alas for the perishableness of eloquence! It is the only thing in the higher walks of human creativeness that passes away. The statue lives after the sculptor dies, as sublime as when his chisel left it. St. Peter's is a perpetual memorial and utterance of the great mind of Angelo. The Iliad is as fresh today as twenty-five centuries ago. The picture may grow richer with years. But great oratory, the most delightful and marvelous of the expressions of mortal power, passes and dies with the occasion."
Not wholly, for even in "cold type" some measure of the power and persuasiveness of the orator's argument is suggested. It is easy to imagine the force and fire of patriotism that must have glowed in such words as these:
"Rebellion sins against the Mississippi; it sins against the coast line; it sins against the ballot-box; it sins against oaths of allegiance; it sins against public and beneficent peace; and it sins, worse than all, against the cornerstone of American progress and history and hope, - the worth of the laborer, the rights of man. It strikes for barbarism against civilization."
The intense fervor of King's loyalty to Union and Liberty is seen in his righteous indignation against an Oregonian who would not fight to save the country unless he could be shown that his own personal interests were involved. "For one wild moment," wrote King, "I longed to throttle the wretch and push him into the Columbia. I looked down, however, and saw that the water was clean."
Think of the force of the following declaration uttered to men who meant well, but were undecided:
"The Rebellion - it is the cause of Wrong against Right. It is not only an unjustifiable revolution, but a geographical wrong, a moral wrong, a religious wrong, a war against the Constitution, against the New Testament, against God."
Thus did he condemn all forces within the State at war with liberty and right. Stern words he used, - words that like Luther's were half battles. Of peace-at-any-price-men he said:
"The hounds on the track of Broderick turned peace men, and affected with hysterics at the sniff of powder! Wonderful transformation. What a pleasant sight - a hawk looking so innocent, and preaching peace to doves, his talons loosely wound with cotton! A clump of wolves trying to thicken their ravenous flanks with wool, for this occasion only, and composing their fangs to the work of eating grass! Holy Satan, pray for us."
When the report reached California that Robert Toombs had said, "I want it carved over my grave, - 'Here lies the man who destroyed the United States Government and its Capitol,'" King replied, "Mr. Toombs cannot be literally gratified. But he may come so near his wish as this, - that it shall be written over his gallows, as over every one of a score of his fellow-felons, 'Here swings the man who attempted murder on the largest scale that was ever planned in history.' "
That our orator knew how to be sarcastic as well as severe must have been plain to those who heard him exclaim:
"There are those who say that they are Union men, and in favor of the Government, and yet they are bitterly opposed to the administration, and cannot support its policy. But in a war for self existence, this divorce is impossible. One might as well say at a fire, while his house is beginning to crackle in the flames, 'I am in favor of this engine, I go for this water; the hose meets my endorsement. Certainly, I am for putting out the fire, but don't ask me to help man the brakes, for I am conscientiously opposed to the hose pipe. Its nozzle isn't handsome. It wasn't made by a Democrat.'"
How ardently King longed for the liberation of the Blacks is seen in the following, addressed in all probability more to the President of the United States than to the people:
"O that the President would soon speak that electric sentence, - inspiration to the loyal North, doom to the traitorous aristocracy whose cup of guilt is full! Let him say that it is a war of mass against class, of America against feudalism, of the schoolmaster against the slave-master, of workmen against the barons, of the ballot-box against the barracoon. This is what the struggle means. Proclaim it so, and what a light breaks through our leaden sky! The war-wave rolls then with the impetus and weight of an idea."
Closing his greatest patriotic lecture, most in demand by the public along the entire Coast, "Daniel Webster," Starr King quotes Webster's noble peroration in the "Reply to Hayne," "Liberty and Union, Now and Forever, One and Inseparable," and in lofty strain of patriotic prophecy announces that:
"Mr. Webster's thought breaks out afresh in the proclamation of the President that America is one and cannot be broken; it bursts forth in the banners thick as the gorgeous leaves of the October forests that have blossomed all over eighteen or twenty States; it shows itself in the passion of the noble Union men of the South who will not bow to Baal; it floats on every frigate that rides the sea to protect our shipping; it leaps forth and brightens in the sacred steel which patriots by the hundred thousand are dedicating, not to ravage, not to murder, not to hatred of any portion of the southern section of the confederacy, but to the support of the impartial Constitution, to the common flag, to the majestic and beneficent law which offers to encircle and bless the whole republic; it utters itself in the thunder-voice of twenty millions of white citizens of the land, that in America the majority under the Constitution must rule, and the public law must be obeyed.
"And when the work of the government shall be accomplished, - when the stolen money of the nation shall be refunded; when hostile artillery shall be with-drawn from the lower banks of the Mississippi; when the flag of thirteen stripes and thirty-four stars shall float again over Sumter, over New Orleans, over every arsenal that has seen it insulted, over Mount Vernon and the American dust of Washington, over every State Capitol and along the whole coast and border line of Texas; when every man within the present limits of the immense republic shall have restored to him the right of pride in the American Navy, and of representation on common terms in the National Capitol, and of citizenship on the whole continent; when leading traitors shall have been punished, and the Constitution vindicated in its unsectional beneficence, and the doctrine of secession be stabbed with two hundred thousand bayonet wounds, and trampled to rise no more, - then the debate between Mr. Calhoun and Mr. Webster will be completed, the swarthy spirit of the great defender of the Constitution will triumph, and a restored, peaceful, majestic, irresistible America will dignify and consecrate his name forever."
"A restored, peaceful, majestic, irresistible America," - this was the vision that nerved King to herculean labor, to a most real martyrdom. Condemned to the slow suicide of over-work, he gave his life a conscious offering to freedom. "What a year to live in," he writes, "worth all other times ever known in our history or any other." Again, - "I should be broken down if I had time to think how I feel. I am beginning to look old, and shall break before my prime."
Why is the song so sweet, and why does it move us so strangely? The singer's heart is breaking. Why is the word so effective? It is laden with love and winged with sacrifice. A man is dying that others may live in verity, not longer in shadow; a hero is suffering crucifixion that the sad ages may a little change their course. Not only is it true that the "blood of martyrs slain is the seed of the church," but it is also true that a man never touches the heights of power until he has made a total, irreversible, affectionate surrender to the cause he professes to serve. When he has done this the cause becomes incarnate in the man; and he speaks as one inspired. And this was the power of Starr King in that great Summer and Fall of 1861 in California. Of course he did not speak in vain. Leland Stanford, backed by a Union Legislature, was elected Governor of California, and by October, King joyfully writing an Eastern friend was able to say "the State is safe from southern tampering."