Well might Yancey and his followers receive with a shout of joy the "Freeport Doctrine," as Douglas's supreme evasion was called. Should Southerners trust any longer the man who had evolved from the principle of let-'em-alone to the principle of double-dealing? However, the Southerners were far from controlling the situation. Though the events of 1858 had created discord in the Democratic party, they had not consolidated the South. Men like Toombs and Stephens were still hopeful of keeping the States together in the old bond of political evasion. The Democratic machine, damaged though it was, had not yet lost its hold on the moderate South, and while that continued to be the case, there was still power in it.
The Southern moderates in 1859 form one of those political groups, numerous enough in history, who at a crisis arrest our imagination because of the irony of their situation. Unsuspecting, these men went their way, during the last summer of the old regime, busy with the ordinary affairs of state, absorbed in their opposition to the Southern radicals, never dreaming of the doom that was secretly moving toward them through the plans of John Brown. In the soft brilliancy of the Southern summer when the roses were in bloom, many grave gentlemen walked slowly up and down together under the oaks of their plantation avenues, in the grateful dusk, talking eagerly of how the scales trembled in Southern politics between Toombs and Yancey, and questioning whether the extremists could ride down the moderate South and reopen the slave trade. In all their wondering whether Douglas would ever come back to them or would prove the blind Samson pulling down their temple about their ears, there was never a word about the approaching shadow which was so much more real than the shades of the falling night, and yet so entirely shut away from their observation.
In this summer, Stephens withdrew as he thought from public life. With an intensely sensitive nature, he had at times flashes of strange feeling which an unsophisticated society would regard as prophetic inspirations. When he left Washington "on the beautiful morning of the 5th of March, 1859, he stood at the stern of the boat for some minutes gazing back at the capital." He had announced his intention of not standing again as a Representative, and one of his fellow-passengers asked jokingly whether he was thinking of his return as a Senator. Stephen's reply was full of emotion, "No, I never expect to see Washington again unless I am brought here as a prisoner of war." During the summer he endeavored to cast off his intuition of approaching disaster. At his plantation, "Liberty Hall," he endeavored to be content with the innumerable objects associated with his youth; he tried to feel again the grace of the days that were gone, the mysterious loveliness of the Southern landscape with its immense fields, its forests, its great empty spaces filled with glowing sunshine. He tried to possess his troubled soul with the severe intellectual ardor of the law. But his gift of second sight would not rest. He could not overcome his intuition that, for all the peace and dreaminess of the outward world, destiny was upon him. Looking out from his spiritual seclusion, he beheld what seemed to him complete political confusion, both local and national. His despairing mood found expression a little later in the words: "Indeed if we were now to have a Southern convention to determine upon the true policy of the South either in the Union or out of it, I should expect to see just as much profitless discussion, disagreement, crimination, and recrimination amongst the members of it from different states and from the same state, as we witness in the present House of Representatives between Democrats, Republicans, and Americans."
Among the sources of confusion Stephens saw, close at home, was the Southern battle over the reopening of the slave trade. The reality of that issue had been made plain in May, 1859, when the Southern commercial congress at Vicksburg entertained at the same time two resolutions: one, that the convention should urge all Southern States to amend their constitutions by a clause prohibiting the increase of African slavery; the other, that the convention urge all the Legislatures of Southern States to present memorials to Congress asking the repeal of the law against African slave trade. Of these opposed resolutions, the latter was adopted on the last day of the convention*, though the moderates fought hard against it.
*It is significant that the composition of these Southern commercial congresses and the Congress of the whole Southern people was strikingly different in personnel. Very few members of the commercial congresses reappear in the Confederate Congress.
The split between Southern moderates and Southern radicals was further indicated by their differing attitudes toward the adventurers from the United States in Central America. The Vicksburg Convention adopted resolutions which were thinly veiled endorsements of southward expansion. In the early autumn another Nicaraguan expedition was nipped in the bud by the vigilance of American naval forces. Cobb, prime factor in the group of Southern moderates as well as Secretary of the Treasury, wrote to Buchanan expressing his satisfaction at the event, mentioning the work of his own department in bringing it about, and also alluding to his arrangments to prevent slave trading off the Florida coast.
But the spirit of doubt was strong even among the moderates. Douglas was the target. Stephens gives a glimpse of it in a letter written during his last session in Congress. "Cobb called on me Saturday night," he writes. "He is exceedingly bitter against Douglas. I joked him a good deal, and told him he had better not fight, or he would certainly be whipped; that is, in driving Douglas out of the Democratic party. He said that if Douglas ever was restored to the confidence of the Democracy of Georgia, it would be over his dead body politically. This shows his excitement, that is all. I laughed at him, and told him he would run his feelings and his policy into the ground." The anger of Cobb, who was himself a confessed candidate for the Democratic nomination, was imperiling the Democratic national machine which Toombs was still struggling so resolutely to hold together. Indeed, as late as the autumn of 1859 the machine still held together.
Then came the man of destiny, the bolt from the blue, the end of the chapter. A marvelous fanatic--a sort of reincarnation of the grimmest of the Covenanters--by one daring act shattered the machine and made impossible any further coalition on the principle of "nothing doing." This man of destiny was John Brown, whose attack on Harper's Ferry took place October 16th, and whose execution by the authorities of Virginia on the charges of murder and treason occurred on the 2nd of December.