Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Did the Vice President Adivse Clemency for John Brown?

Native Kentuckian John Cabell Breckinridge was the youngest man ever elected vice president when he won the office in 1856 at the age of 35. Breckinridge would run unsuccessfully for president in 1860 on a divided Democratic ticket, but later would become a Confederate general and the Confederate Secretary of War.

In the fall of 1859 a letter appeared in the Frankfort Yeoman newspaper anonymously signed, "Kentucky Gentleman." The article quickly reappeared in several other papers and it was claimed that Breckinridge was the author. Breckinridge later denied the claim in the Lexington Kentucky Statesman.

Whether Breckinridge wrote the article or not is difficult to determine. It was certainly produced by someone of more than average intelligence and access to historical and current information, due to a number of its references.

In the article, the author (whoever it was), compared John Brown's role in Kansas to the Indian attacks on early Kentucky settlers. He wrote, "Charred ruins and the unburied bodies of murdered men indicated his presence as surely as similar remains did that of the remorseless savage to the pioneers of Kentucky." But, he explains that references to Brown's Kansas forays are not meant to encourage his hanging. He writes that Brown certainly deserves to die for his actions at Harpers Ferry, "if ever a traitor; and a murderer and a robber did," but if he was spared, "it would place the South upon a vantage ground in the eyes of the whole world; it would show that the spirit of Legree [slavemaster Simon Legree from Uncle Tom's Cabin] does not pervade our people; that conscious of the rectitude and humanity of our institutions, we can afford to be magnanimous to the very Barabbas of our enemies." The author summarized, "he is the very fittest subject upon which to display the chivalric sentiment of the South."

The writer's main reason for advising clemency is clearly stated in the following paragraph. "If old John Brown is executed there will be thousands to dip their handkerchiefs in his blood; relics of the martyr will be paraded throughout the North; pilgrimages will be made to his grave, and we should not be surprised to hear of miracles wrought there, as at the tomb of Thomas A'Becket [saint and martyr of Catholic and Anglican churches]. The blood of this martyr would be as seed to this fanatical church, as as that of Joe[esph] Smith [Mormon founder] to the Church of Latter-Day Saints. It could be called to attention of the purity of their faith; and Governor Wise would be compared to Julian the Apostate [Roman emperor who rejected Christianity], or Grahame of Claverhouse [persecutor of the Scottish Converters].

The author closes the article by claiming that clemency is in keeping with the "spirit of the times." He says that if European despots can free thousands "with a single dash of the pen," then "think of the shame which must rest upon the Commonwealth of Virginia with a million of freemen, themselves the sovereignty, and a quarter of a million of slaves held under patriarchal rule, whose loyalty under temptation is an astonishment to many who call themselves patriots; we say, think of the shame that must rest upon her, if her security demands and receives the blood of, one old brave bad man."

If Breckinridge did write the article then he was wise to deny it, for claiming its authorship would have certainly undermined his Southern base of support in any future political endeavors. But, regardless of who penned it, it is interesting to see the intelligence, logic, and reasoning that it contains belonged to a Southerner. It shows that not all Southern men during this particular time period were violent and reactionary.

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