Secession Era Editorials Project

Furman University Department of History


Where is the Responsibility?

New Orleans, Louisiana, Times-Picayune [Democratic]

(25 October 1859)

The mails are just beginning to bring us the details as published in the Northern journals, by the hourly despatches from the scene of conflict of the outbreak at Harper's Ferry, the sudden rising and instant suppression of that incomprehensible revolt.

They are very copious, but they add little to our knowledge of the extent of the conspiracy or the degree of support which it had from other quarters. Much remains unexplained and mysterious, especially the possession of arms and ammunition, which, if they are correctly described, must have cost large sums, and been transported from a considerable distance. Reports speak of discoveries of correspondence with noted abolitionists and proofs of concert with notorious men in the Northern and Western States. This is, however, for the most part speculation, at least it is not yet confirmed by such evidence as is sufficient to satisfy the mind, and in such grave matters we are not to rest anything involving turpitude so monstrous upon suspicion or rumor. There is enough in the ascertained facts to make us cautious about recieving none against individuals without full proof, and we do not doubt that the investigation will be prosecuted with zeal, and a thorough determination to find out the guilty and hold them up to the reprobation they merit, and all the punishment with which an outraged country can reach them.

That there has been collusion with, or at least a guilty knowledge of the intended insurrection, among persons in various parts of the country, is apparent, but the number and station of the confederates, their weight in society and their power over public opinion, are difficult matters, in regard to which the evidence is very slight, and we must deal with presumptions and probabilities.

The attempt was so rash in all its aspects; the place was so ill adapted to success, where an overwhelming force could be brought against any possible number of insurgents in the shortest possible time; the means provided were so absurdly inadequate to any possible results, and the whole conduct was so imbecile, that it is difficult to believe the revolt to have been part of a conspiracy, countenanced by rational men anywhere, or anything more than the freak of hot-brained individuals of disordered minds, desperate fortunes and revengeful passions. The anti-slavery party of the North, while it breeds such men, and furnishes the aliment which strengthens, and the stimulants which excite them, it too wise in its generation to link itself with proceedings which are so foolish, so certain to fail, and so sure to rouse the conservative feeling of the country, North and South, against the excesses to which fanaticism leads, and against the men and the theories, which, involantarily or not, beget such pupils and such report that any considerable number of responsible, or influential persons in the Northern States, can be found to have been identified, as consenting or advising parties to this insurrectionary movement.

Enthusiasts and desperadoes may brave the popular indignation by proclaiming their sympathy with the revolters and their purposes, but these will be few, and they will be repudiated by the honest sentiments of the mass of all parties. Even the policy of the anti-slavery leaders will prompt them to repudiate as an inexcusable folly, what they will not join in denouncing as a crime against virtue, humanity and justice -- against society and government. And in this point of view, in presenting to the Northern eye a vivid picture of the effects upon the ignorant, the deluded and the wicked, of the preachings and theories, which, designed merely to catch a popular current, and thereby reach power and office, lead to sedition, social conflicts, hopeless insurrection and bloody retribution -- it is to be hoped that eventual good may come out of a great and frightful calamity.

The insurgents at Harper's Ferry may be repudiated as madmen or fools, but who made them insane? What misled them if they were misled? or inspired them with such absurd expectations and frantic hopes, if they really had thoughts of overthrowing the institutions of a great State by such feeble means, and with such wretched implements?

The insurgent leader -- Brown -- appears to have been a desperado in Kansas; one who had learned in the conflicts, stimulated by Northern rapacity for power in that distracted Territory, an intense hatred of Southern men and Southern institution, beyond what was intended by his backers; and, filled with these passions, to have bent his whole mind to the object of continuing, in every imaginable way, the war on the South, which was commenced in Kansas. Some confederates and sympathisers he doubtless found, for the fever of fanaticism is contagious; and to a mind once set in the pursuit of an object, in which the passions were deeply interested, aliment for his hopes was easily found in the frantic tone of the Northern anti-slavery presses, and the proclamation by the leaders of a great political party of "an irrepressible conflict" between the North and the South, to which he felt himself called as a leader of the vanguard. Perhaps he believed himself a chief, to whom the great miltitudes who cheer so tumultuously the political orators of the North, when they meet and proclaim in such fervent tones the moral duty of incessant warfare against the South, would rally and make him the Peter of a new crusade, more fortunate that his prototype. Whether inflamed to unreasoning madness or deluded by false hopes, who is responsible for the frenzy of such as he?

Now this is the very serious question, which the men of the North who are not incurably touched with the same madness -- and these constitute, we believe, a large numerical majority -- will be apt to put to themselves and to each other, when they read of such things as have transpired at Harper's Ferry. These wanton disturbances of the peace of a great community, fearfully aggravated by the uncertainties which thicken with unimagined terrors, about a subject in which so many of tenderest interests of life are concerned; these scenes of disorder suddenly provoked, and crushed out with such stern necessity of bloodshed; these cruel sedections of the victims of the false philanthropy into suffering and punishment for the guilty, and increased rigours for the whole race; the incitement, the cause, and the consequences, are but the legitimate growth of the ultraisms which have been permitted to gain such an ascendancy over the minds of the Northern people, and have been made more powerful and more dangerous by being used as the means by which aspiring politicians and selfish demagogues seek to ride into power and office. The fools that became the criminals and have perished in their folly, as all such will do when they fling themselves against the ramparts with which the South can protect itself against this incendiarism, are themselves victims of those false teachers, who are themselves morally guilty of the very offences they will repudiate entirely, and responsible for the consequences they may affect to deplore. They are guilty of all the mischief done by the firebrands with which they have armed the heedless and the wicked.

There is no apprehension in the Southern States that the designs of their enemies can be accomplished by such means as those of which the Harper's Ferry revolt is an example. Forewarned, they are capable of perfect self-protection against this species of assault. But they are unwilling to be put to the universal necessity of the rigorous measures of precaution which this state of things if continued and extended, would require, and they are anxious to live in peace with their Northern countrymen, instead of being entrenched against them as natural enemies. If we are to live together in kindness, the temper and practices which have incited the disorders must be changed, and those who indulge in them or countenance them, and to whose rash teachings the insane excesses are distinctly traceable as their sources, must be rebuked by public opinion, in that way in which a rebuke will be most keenly felt, in the overthrow of their political fortunes, and their banishment from station, as the exponents of Northern opinions.

If such a consummation is ever to be effected, and we have our hopes that it is within the reach of a full, earnest and honest struggle, by the constitutional men of the North acting together, it must be rapidly advanced by such developments as those in Virginia, of the tendencies of the doctrines which are taught in the journals of the extreme partisan press, and proclaimed by the anti-slavery press; and thus out of the present evil may be plucked the germ of a great good.

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