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Civil War Trust

Remarks of Hon. Lyman Trumbull of Illinois

On seizure of Arsenals at Harper’s Ferry, Va., and Liberty, Mo., and in vindication of the Republican Party and its Creed, in response to Senators Chesnut, Yulee, Saulsbury, Clay, and Pugh. Delivered in the United States Senate, December 6, 7, and 8, 1859.

 

I hope this investigation will be thorough and complete.  I believe it will do good by disabusing the public mind, in that portion of the Union which feels most sensitively upon this subject, of the idea that the outbreak at Harper’s Ferry received any countenance or support from any considerable number of persons in any portion of this Union.  No man, who is not prepared to subvert the Constitution, destroy the Government, and resolve society into its original elements can justify such an act.  No matter what evils, whether real or imaginary, may exist in the body politic, if each individual, or set of twenty individuals, out of more than twenty millions of people, is to be permitted, in his own way; and in defiance of the laws of the land, to undertake to correct those evils, there is not a Government upon the face of the earth that could last a day. And it seems to me, sir, that those persons who reason only from abstract principles, and believe themselves justifiable on all occasions, and in every form, in combating evil wherever it exists, forget that the right which they claim for themselves exists equally in every other person.   All Governments, the best which have been devised, encroach necessarily more or less on the individual rights of man, and to that extent may be regarded as evils. Shall we therefore destroy government, and in place of regulated and constitutional liberty inaugurate a state of anarchy, in which every man shall be permitted to follow the instincts of his own passions or prejudices, and where there will be no protection to the physically weak against the encroachments of the strong?

Till we are prepared to inaugurate such a state as this, no man can justify the deeds done at Harper's Ferry. In regard to the misguided man who led the insurgents on that occasion, I have no remarks to make. He has already expiated upon the gallows the crime which he committed against the laws of his country; and to answer for his errors or his virtues, whatever they may have been, he has gone fearlessly and willingly before that Judge who cannot err; there let us leave him.

The amendment which I propose to offer to the resolution which is pending, and in which, I trust, I may have the support of every Senator, provides for the investigation of a like transaction which occurred in the State of Missouri. I will briefly state what that transaction was, as it may not be fresh in the recollection of Senators. The Government of the United States had an arsenal at the town of Liberty, in the State of Missouri, of which Captain Leonard had charge.  In December, 1855 -and the facts which I state appear upon the official records of the country - Captain Leonard testifies that a Judge Thompson, in company with a large number of others, appeared at the arsenal, overpowered him, confined him, broke open the magazines, supplied themselves with cannon, rifles, swords, and pistols, with powder and ball, and took them away from the arsenal.  This was followed by the  invasion of a peaceful Territory; not twenty-two persons only, but more than a thousand men, marched into the adjoining Territory, armed with weapons taken by violence from an arsenal of the United States, under the charge of an officer of the United States, with the avowed object of making that Territory a slaveholding State.  It appears that societies were formed – secret organizations – reaching from Missouri into various states, and among others, the State of Virginia, whose object and design was by force to Government of the United States.  Captain Leonard, in his statement under oath, says:

“The Judge and others told me there were troubles in Kansas, and they wanted arms, but would do nothing wrong with them.  I told the Judge this was aggressive on the part of Missouri, and every community was competent to take care of its own affairs, and that the Missourians ought not to interfere.  A good deal more was said on both sides and I felt indignant at the aggression.  The Judge himself did not say an uncivil word to me.  I had not expected any such thing as this when I first saw the Judge, or I could have had the gates locked.

The  mob proceeded to take arms, forcing the doors, and took three six-pounders, some swords, pistols, rifles, and ammunition, powder, balls, &c., as much as they wanted.  They broke some doors open.  I do not know how they got the keys to get into the powder magazine, which is composed of brick, and had double doors.  Captain Price was the leading man in the crowd, as I understood.  Mr. Rout was there.  I was kept in the room until the men had got all the arms and ammunition they wanted, and had gone away.  Judge Thompson being the last one; when he let me go out, and then he left himself. 

Some six or eight days afterwards, the guns were returned to the arsenal.  They were left, I was told, at Col. Allen’s place, some three-quarters of a mile from the arsenal.  In the mean time, I had reported the facts to Col. Sumner, and he had sent  down a company of dragoons.  The men sent to me to know if I would receive the arms, and I told them I was not in command, and referred them to Captain Beall, and he told them to bring them along; they did so, and they were received.  Among the property taken was some artillery harness; I cannot recollect how many sets.  There were some deficiencies in the number of rifles, swords and pistols, and some harness returned; but I cannot state the precise particulars.  These deficiencies have never been made up by the citizens of Missouri; but I have been instructed by Col. Craig, the head of the ordnance department at Washington, to purchase sufficient of such articles as I could obtain the neighborhood to make up the deficiency, and we did so; but the swords, pistols and rifles, we have not been able to make up.  I do not know how much has been expended in making up this deficiency.  Immediately after this robbery, I reported the circumstances to Col. Craig, at Washington, specifying the number and amount of each of the different articles taken.  In the course of the winter, he sent me orders to ship the public property to Fort Leavenworth and St. Louis arsenal, giving me a schedule of the amount to be taken to each place, which I did as soon as navigation opened.” 
-- House Report No. 200, Thirty-fourth Congress, first session, pages 1130-31.

It seems that the arsenal at Liberty was broken up, and what remained of the arms were shipped to other military posts.  Now, sir, there is a very striking similarity between the breaking into that arsenal and the attack upon the one at Harper’s Ferry.  The question of Slavery had to do with both.  The arsenal in Missouri was broken into for the purpose of obtaining arms to force Slavery upon Kansas; the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry was taken possession of for the purpose of expelling Slavery from the State of Virginia – both unjustifiable, and, it seems to me both proper subjects to be inquired into.

Perhaps the latter would never have occurred if inquiry had been made and the proper steps had been taken when the cry for succor came from Kansas, and her citizens were murdered by the very arms taken from this arsenal or at any rate by persons in the same army with them.  Then the complaints that were made were treated as the “shrieks of bleeding Kansas,” and they could not be heard.  I trust they may get a better hearing now.  Now, sir, when the shrieks of Virginia are heard, and the ears of the country are opened, I trust those from Kansas may get a hearing also.  I am prepared to hear both; and I hope that the investigation in regard to Harper’s Ferry may be impartial, thorough, and complete, and let whoever is implicated in the unlawful transactions there be held responsible; and so, too, in regard to the seizure of the arsenal in the State of Missouri…..

 

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