Sectionalism & Factionalism in the Civil War Period: Thoughts by Albert Taylor Bledsoe

Sectionalism & Factionalism in the Civil War Period: Thoughts by Albert Taylor Bledsoe

Albert Taylor Bledsoe served as an officer in the Confederate army; however, he was also an Episcopal priest, mathematician, and attorney. He was a defender of slavery, believing that it was an important component of an orderly society, and one of the many apologists for the Southern cause in the Civil War.

In 1866, he wrote a work entitled, Is Davis a Traitor: Or was Secession a Constitutional Right Previous to the War of 1861? This selection comes from this book.

DISCLAIMER: Like all posts on this site, there is absolutely no pro/con agenda in support of either belligerent in the Civil War or the institution of slavery. This, nor any other post from either a Southern or Northern perspective, is meant to be in support of either side either explicitly or by implication. The stated goal of this site is to post works that may be obscure or thought provoking, perhaps contrary to received opinions, or insightful about the actions of historical figures. Some may be controversial. The posts herein provided are engineered to expose readers to sundry historical perspectives. All values and interpretations are to be supplied by the consumers of this information. Historical sources should, first and foremost, give insight into the actors of any historical event and provide context for their actions.

With that being said, modern readers will most likely find Bledsoe's thoughts about factionalism particularly interesting as the subject seems to be an ever-present factor--perhaps even an annoyance, for every generation.

August Glen-James, editor

Hence, Mr. Madison well adds: ‘This danger ought to be wisely guarded against.” Otherwise, the great Republic must inevitably split on the rock of faction, and go to the bottom, with the republics of the past.

[As a precursor to the section entitled “The Formation of a Faction,” Bledsoe was pursing an argument concerning what factors had led to the impoverishment of the South. Of course, the North claimed for the cause, slavery; the South, however, believed it was North-favoring tariff legislation. The course of Bledsoe's argumentation led to the subject of the sectionalism and factionalism. The first five paragraphs below set the stage for his focus on sectionalism and factionalism --editor]

"All majorities are, in fact, unjust, despotic and oppressive. Hence, in the opinion of the Convention of 1787, if either section should have the majority in both branches of Congress, it would oppress the other. As this opinion was founded on the experience of the past, so it was afterward confirmed by the history of the future. Indeed, if the North, with a majority in both branches of Congress, had not oppressed the South, it would have been unlike every other unchecked power in the history of the world.

“What is that freedom which is held at the mercy of another? Is that safety which depends on the will of an interested majority?

“What was to have been expected from such a majority, is well described in the speeches of John C. Calhoun; in the ‘essay on Liberty’ by John Stuart Mill; and in the celebrated work of De Tocqueville on ‘Democracy in America.’ Both De Tocqueville and Mill are advocates of democracy; and yet, if possible, they draw more frightful pictures of the tyranny of an unchecked majority, than has John C. Calhoun himself. ‘The majority in that country,’ [the United States,] says M. De Tocqueville, ‘exercise a prodigious actual authority, and a moral influence which is scarcely less preponderant; no obstacles exist which can impede, or so much as retard its progress, or which can induce it to heed the complaints of those whom it crushes upon its path.’ [footnoted as Democracy in America, vol. I, 301] How cold, then, and heartless, such a majority! Cruel as death, and inexorable as the grave, it turns a deaf ear to the outcries of those whom it crushes upon its path!

“But if such was the unprejudiced conclusion of a great philosophic observer in 1833, what was to have been expected from a sectional majority, growing continually in greatness, in power, and in hatred of the sectional minority? Had the South no reason for her fears? If not, then De Tocqueville, and Mill, and Calhoun, were the veriest simpletons that ever lived. If not, then the founders of the Republic had all read the history of their own times wrong, and wrote libels on the character of unshackled majorities?

“M. De Tocqueville has told the exact truth. ‘This state of things,’ said he, in 1833, ‘is fatal in itself, and dangerous for the future . . . If the free institutions of America are ever destroyed, that event may be attributed to the unlimited authority of the majority . . . Anarchy will then be the result, but it will have been brought about by despotism.” [footnoted as Democracy in America, vol I, {ibid.} 317]

The Formation of a Faction

“There is a vast difference between a political party and a faction. The one is legitimate, healthful, and conservative; the other is the fatal disease of which nearly all republics have perished. The one is united by principles, or designs, which persons in any part of the Republic may freely adopt and cherish; the other is animated by a ‘common interest, or passion,’ which is hostile to other interests of the same community. Now, the great object of the legislation of 1787, was to provide a remedy for the fatal effects of faction.

“‘Among the numerous advantages,’ says The Federalist [10], ‘promised by a well constructed union, none deserve to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction. The friend of popular governments, never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate, as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice. He will not fail, therefore, to set a due value on any plan which, without violating the principles to which he is attached, provides a proper cure for it.’ [Federalist 10]. Mr. Madison, the author of the above words, used still more impressive language on the same subject, in the Virginia Convention of 1788. ‘On candid examination of history,’ he there said, ‘we shall find that turbulence, violence, and abuse of power, by the majority trampling on the rights of the minority, have produced factions and commotions, which, in republics, have more frequently than any other cause, produced despotism. If we go over the whole history of ancient and modern republics, we shall find their destruction to have generally resulted from those causes. IF WE CONSIDER THE PECULIAR SITUATION OF THE UNITED STATES, AND WHAT ARE THE SOURCES OF THAT DIVERSITY OF SENTIMENT WHICH PERVADES ITS INHABITANTS, WE SHALL FIND GREATER DANGER TO FEAR, THAT THE SAME CAUSES MAY TERMINATE HERE, IN THE SAME FATAL EFFECTS, WHICH THEY PRODUCED IN THOSE REPUBLICS’ [footnoted Elliot's Debates, Vol. iii, pg. 109.]. Here, then, was the rock on which the new Republic was in the greatest danger of being dashed to pieces. Hence, Mr. Madison well adds: ‘This danger ought to be wisely guarded against.” Otherwise, the great Republic must inevitably split on the rock of faction, and go to the bottom, with the republics of the past.

“It was, therefore, the great object of the legislation of 1787, to guard the new Republic against the rise, or formation, of a faction. This, as we have already seen, is well stated in The Federalist, as follows: ‘When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion, or interest, both the public good and the rights of other citizens. To secure the public good, and private rights, against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and the form of a popular government, is the great object to which our inquiries are directed. Let me add, that it is the great desideratum, by which alone this form of government can be reduced from the opprobrium under which it has so long labored, and be recommended to the esteem and adoption of mankind” [Federalist 10].

“By what means, then, did the legislators of 1787, hope to remedy the evils of faction; to subdue, if not to eradicate, that fatal disease of republics? Mr. Madison replies: ‘Perhaps, in the progress of this discussion, it will appear that the only possible remedy for those evils and means of protecting the principles of Republicanism, will be found in that very system which is now exclaimed against as the parent of despotism’ [footnoted as Elliot’s Debates, Vol. iii, p. 109]. That is, in the new Union of 1787.

“Now where, and how, did the new Union provide ‘the only possible remedy’ against the evils of faction? According to the view of Mr. Madison, and of the majority of the Convention of ’87, neither the North nor the South would be able to form itself into a dangerous faction; because, as they said, each section will have a majority in one branch of Congress; and thereby hold a constitutional check on the power of the other. But this remedy, as every one knows, proved a total failure.

“The other great remedy against the evils of faction, which, as the legislators of 1787 supposed, existed in the new system; would be found in the great extent of the Union, in the great number and diversity of its interests, which would prevent ‘any one party being able to outnumber and oppress the rest’ [Federalist 14]. This remedy against faction is repeatedly urged by Mr. Madison. Thus, he speaks of the new Union ‘as the proper antidote for the diseases of faction, which have proved fatal to other popular governments, and of which alarming symptoms have been betrayed by our own;’ [Federalist 14] because ‘the influence of factious leaders,’ who ‘may kindle a flame within their particular States,’ . . . ‘will be unable to spread a great conflagration through the other States’ [Federalist 10]. Now this great remedy also proved a failure. Factious leaders did kindle a conflagration through all the Northern States; and the great North, animated by one ‘passion, or interest,’ did form itself into the most terrible faction the world has ever seen, and point all lightnings of its wrath at the devoted South.

“The fact is not denied by many of the great champions of the Northern power. On the contrary, it was made a ground of exultation and boasting, by some of her most eloquent orators. Thus, it was said ‘no man has a right to be surprised at this state of things. It is just what we have attempted to bring about. It is the first sectional party ever organized in this country. It does not know its own face, and calls itself national; but it is not national—it is sectional. THE REPUBLICAN PARTY IS A PARTY OF THE NORTH PLEDGED AGAINST THE SOUTH’ [Wendell Phillips—no other citation given, but an Internet search associates the quote with Wendell Phillips and William Lloyd Garrison]. Nothing could have been more true. Thus, under and in spite of the Constitution designed for the protection of all sections and of all interests alike, the North did form itself into a faction, and seize all the powers of the Federal Government. This may have been rare sport to the leaders of the faction; it was the death-knell of the Republic. It was,—the founders of the Union themselves being the judges,—the fall of the Republic, and the rise of despotism.

“This faction, it is said, did ‘not know its own face.’ Perhaps it was a little ashamed of its own face. It is certain, that it was very loud in its professions that all its designs were national and constitutional; even while it avowed the purpose to ‘use all constitutional means to put an end to the institution of slavery.’ But no such means were known to the Constitution; which, as the leaders of that faction perfectly well knew, was established and ordained to protect all the institutions of the South, as well as of the North. Use all constitutional means indeed! Why, the very existence of such a faction, was an outrageous violation of the whole spirit and design of the Constitution of 1787. It was, in one word, the last throe of the mighty Republic, as it succumbed to the fatal disease of which so many republics had previously perished. Conceived in profound contempt of the wisdom of Washington, who, in his Farewell Address, had so solemnly warned his countrymen against the dangers of a sectional party, or faction; it just marched right onward in the light of its own eyes over broken constitutions, and laws, and oaths; trampling on all alike with imperial scorn and proud disdain.

“The South was advised to ‘wait for some overt act.’ But if one finds himself in company with a strong man armed, who is both able and willing to crush him, is it wise to ‘wait for the overt act,’ or to withdraw from his society as soon as possible? If the strong man armed should make his withdrawal the occasion of his ruin; that would only prove, that the companionship was neither safe, nor desirable.

“The South, it is true, did not better her condition by her withdrawal from the North. But is not all history replete with similar instances of failure in the grand struggle for freedom, safety, and independence? In the golden words of the Federalist: ‘Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been, and it ever will be pursued, until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit’ [Federalist 51]. It was thus, in the pursuit of justice, that the South lost her liberty. If she had not engaged in the pursuit, she would have deserved to lose her liberty.

“The South, it was said, had nearly always been in the possession of the Government; and it was right, therefore, that the North should take possession of it in her turn. But this is one of the lying fictions of the North. The South never had possession of the Government at all. All the great powers of the Government are, for the most part, lodged in the Congress of the United States, in neither branch of which did the South ever have a majority. She was, indeed, when she entered into the new Union, promised a majority in one branch of Congress; but that promise, like an apple of Sodom, soon turned to dust and ashes in her hands.

"Nor had the South as such ever had a President of the United States. The great democratic party generally selected its Presidents from the South. But this did not make them sectional Presidents. Neither Washington, nor Jefferson, nor Madison, nor Monroe, nor Jackson, nor Polk, was a sectional President. On the contrary, so little was there of a sectional nature in their characters, or designs, that each and every one of them was elected to the Presidency of the United States, by a large majority of the Northern votes. Mr. Lincoln, on the other hand, who was a sectional candidate, and put forth on purely sectional grounds, did not receive a single Southern vote. He was, then, the candidate not of a legitimate party, but of the great unconstitutional and anti-republican faction of 1861; that is, the candidate of ‘the party of the North pledged against the South.’

“The North, with a majority in both houses of Congress, was perfectly protected against every possible danger of oppression. If, then, as statesman from the South had always filled the office of President; still her situation would have been far more precarious and unprotected than that of the North. The President could introduce no bill into Congress; he could only veto those which he might deem unjust and oppressive. Surely, a most feeble and uncertain protection to the South; since no man stood the least chance for the Presidency, who was not known to favor the wishes and the interests of the mighty North. The North, then, in possession of both branches of Congress, and the dazzling prize of the Presidency to influence the leading politicians of the South, was sufficiently secure in the Union; even if all the Presidents had come from the South. But all this did not satisfy the North. On the false plea, that the South had nearly always been in possession of the Government; she determined to take possession of all its departments, the supreme Executive, as well as both branches of the Federal Legislature. Nor is this all. She determined to take and to keep possession of them all in the name of the North, alleging that the South had enjoyed them all long enough; and to wield them all by the terrible faction of ‘the North pledged against the South.’ Nor was this all. The great leader, or the great tool, of this faction, declared that he was not bound by the decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States; that he would enforce the Constitution as he understood it, and not as it was understood by that high judicial tribunal. Indeed, this might faction was got up and organized in direct opposition to, and in open contempt of the decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States; both in the Dred Scott case, and in the case of Prigg vs. the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Its own will was its only law.”

Bledsoe, Albert Taylor. Is Davis a Traitor: Or Was Secession A Constitutional Right Previous to the War of 1861? Pantianos Classics. First published in 1866. [pp. 137—141]