1861: James William Denver to Patrick Henry Harris

Brig. General James William Denver

The following draft of a letter was penned by James William (“Jim”) Denver (1817-1892), an American politician, soldier and lawyer. He served in the California state government, as an officer in the United States Army in two wars, and as a Democratic member of the United States House of Representatives from California. He served as secretary and Governor of the Kansas Territory during the struggle over whether or not Kansas would be open to slavery. The city of Denver, Colorado, is named after him.

Though a native of Virginia, and a staunch conservative Democrat, during the Civil War, Denver would cast his lot with the Union. He was appointed a Brigadier General in the Union army by President Lincoln in August 1861.

In the following two documents, Denver expresses his views on the deepening divide between the North & South from his residence in California in January 1861, some three months before hostilities erupted. The second document, written in June 1861, is his retrospective reaction to the dashed hopes expressed in his first document and includes the rationale for pursuing his personal course of action as a Union Democrat. The first document was clearly a draft and includes handwritten corrections by Denver. The finished letter was known to have been submitted to Harris because there is a reference to it in George C. Barns’ book, Denver, the Man, published in 1949.

Denver wrote the letter to his old friend, Patrick Henry Harris (1819-Aft1861) of Harrodsburg, Kentucky, who served as a 1st Lieutenant in the 16th Regiment of the US Infantry during the Mexican War. I believe the appellation of “General” was simply a term of affection for a former military comrade. In the 1860 US Census, Patrick was enumerated as a lawyer and later District Attorney in Butte county, California, where he had been in practice since at least the mid 1850s in partnership with J. M. Burt. The last record I find for him in Butte county is in 1862.


Sacramento, California
January 26, 1861

Gen. P. H. Harris, Sir,

At your request I proceed to give my views in regard to the troubles at present existing in the southern states of our Union and the course which I think ought to be pursued to restore harmony to the country. About these matters, I have no concealments and if anything I can say or do will contribute in any degree to the preservation of our government and the restoration of good feeling in our hitherto prosperous and happy country, I shall always be ready to respond. That we are surrounded by dangers the most threatening our country has ever yet encountered, no one will deny. So long as the government was in the hands of a great national party, there could be no real danger. But when it became evident that that power was to pass into the hands of a sectional party who entertained opinions hostile to what the other section of the country believed to be their constitutional rights, it it not to be wondered that the very foundations of the government are shaken.

The political issues of the past year belong to the past, and the crisis which I have so long feared and deprecated is upon us. The Democracy have been divided in this state because they differed as to the policy that ought to be pursued in order to avoid it, and upon the construction of the Constitution with reference to the Territories. The question now presented is not what shall be our construction of the Constitution, but how shall we maintain the integrity of the Union? To effect this, two modes present themselves. The one is to insist on the construction given by the Republican Party as to the powers of Congress over the Territories and the manner in which thy shall be exercised, and by physical force compel the submission of the southern people; and the other is to amend the Constitution in such a manner as to define specifically the powers of Congress over the Territories and over the question of African slavery.

The first carries with it war—civil war, as much more horrible than the civil wars of the times of Charles V, in all its consequences, as the energy of our people and means of destroying human life at the present day are superior to what existed at the time of the thirty years’ war in Germany. The physical resources of both sections of the country are immense and no one can even calculate upon the result of a resort to the sword. If the present movement in the southern states was confined to the politicians alone, we might hope to see them checked by the conservative masses of the people, but almost all accounts agree in representing the excitement in the popular mind as being far in advance of the mere politicians. All accounts agree too in representing the people of the South as being almost a unit on the questions now agitating the community. A resort to the sword would inevitably drive the border slave-holding states to take sides with the extreme southern states, which would at once and forever terminate this confederacy.

Suppose, however, those states should be conquered. What then is to be done with them? We cannot compel the people there to elect members of Congress. We cannot compel them to exercise any right which is secured to them by the Federal Constitution. How then are they to be governed? Congress has no power to supply a government. Even then in the event of a successful invasion of the southern states (which is hardly probable), the Federal Government would find itself in a worse condition at the termination than at the commencement of hostilities.

Our government is based upon and dependent on the affections of the people. Destroy the confidence and affections that attach the people to the government and it can no longer exist. Confidence cannot be secured by merely conforming to the forms of the Constitution while grossly violating its spirit. Neither can a great section of the confederacy composing a number of states, be coerced by military force to accept a construction of the Constitution which they believe will deprive them of their rights and deprive them of their equality in the government. A small community or even a single state might be compelled to submit and give but little trouble, for the opinion of their neighbors would force them to do so, but the case in point is very different.

Looking at the subject then from this point of view without finding any solution for our present difficulties, let us turn to the Federal Constitution itself. That instrument was framed by the patriots of the revolution and was the result of many compromises and concessions. After a trial, it was found to be defective and it was amended so as to meet the requirements of the times. Are we of the present generation less patriotic than our forefathers? Can we not imitate their example of moderation, of concession, or magnanimity? Are we incapable of upholding and maintaining that glorious inheritance—that monument of their wisdom, which has been so long the pride of Americans and challenged the admiration of the civilized world? Shall we throw away everything—shall we destroy the best government the world ever saw and bathe our hands in the blood of our relatives, our friends, and our neighbors, in quarreling over abstract propositions about a servile race? God forbid.

Let us then meet together in a spirit of harmony as did our forefathers, and by mutual forbearance and concession amend the Constitution so as to meet the emergency. I have an abiding confidence in the patriotism of the great masses of the people. The Constitution has been their pride and glory through life, and their fondest affections cluster around the stars & stripes—the glorious emblem of their country. The southern people (whether right or wrong it is not now necessary to inquire), think that their rights have been invaded by the people of the northern states by a misconstruction of the Constitution—by unfriendly legislation and by obstructing the execution of the Fugitive Slave Law. Amend the Constitution & let the northern people remove these causes of irritation, and I have no doubt but the southern people would readily and patriotically respond, for they know as well as we do that united we are a great people, while if divided we would be as nothing in the affairs of the world.

The more ultra of the Republican Party I know strongly urge coercion, and seem to forget that their own conduct in passing heir Personal Liberty Bills (thus nullifying a provision of the Constitution and a law of Congress), differs only in degree from the conduct of the people of the South, while those of them here who are most noisy for such measures only a few years since took the law into their own hands and set the state authorities at defiance; but I doubt not there is a conservative element even in the Republican Party strong enough and resolute enough to throw aside false philanthropy for the African race in order to preserve this government for the white race. It is not to be expected, it is true, that those men who have been for twenty years struggling to bring the country to its present condition will be willing to yield anything, but those who have assisted them in the heat and excitement of a political canvass will pause before taking a step which must finally plunge us into civil war.

California occupies a position in the Union at this time that would very well justify her in presenting herself as a mediator, and she cannot in my opinion pursue any other course with safety. Among our population is to be found representatives from every state. The great mass of the people are eminently conservative/ They love their old homes, their old friends, and they love their whole country/ There are few among us who would regard with any kind of favor a proposition to dismember the Union and I apprehend there are not many who would be willing to have the state take part in a war in favor of the North against the South, or of the South against the North, for such an act would surely bring civil war to our own homes.

I would cling to the Union as long as the Union has an existence, but I would not engage in a fratricidal war which would result in the destruction of the Republic. By pursuing the course indicated, I believe our government can be preserved, and any other course I am certain will be its destruction. These are great emergencies when the strongest governments must yield to the force of circumstances. Such a crisis is upon us now and it remains to be determined whether we will yield to reasonable demands or adhere to abstract propositions and destroy our government.

You will observe that I have confined myself to the examination of the single proposition—the best means of preserving the government under existing circumstances, and being clearly of opinion that an attempt at coercion by military force would be impracticable and disastrous in its results. I am in favor of peaceable compromises and reasonable concessions.

Very respectfully your obedient servant, — J. W. Denver

June 1861

The foregoing was written at a time when it was believed that everything could and would be settled peaceably and by the adoption of some compromise. The South as, however, chosen to precipitate a bloody contest by the uncalled for attack on Fort Sumter and other hostile acts, thus taking the first step to initiate practically the doctrine of coercion. So long as they desired a full and complete recognition of their constitutional rights, I was in favor of an unequivocal settlement and authoritative declaration of the same; but when they declared their intention to set aside the Constitution and endeavored to destroy the Union of the States and the best government the world ever saw, I could see but one course left for any man who really had the good of his county at heart. No matter how much he may condemn the fanaticism of the north (which has been the chief cause of our troubles), he cannot approve the rebellion of the South.

My lot must be cast with the Constitution and Flag of my country. I acknowledge no divided allegiance. I am amenable to the laws of the State or municipality within which I reside, but my allegiance is due to the National Sovereignty which is represented by the President of the United States.

All the troubles heretofore predicted loom up in still greater magnitude than at first, but the die is cast and we must accept things as they are presented to us. I have done all that it was in my power to do to save my country from plunging into the gulf into which it is falling, and have, therefore, not to reproach myself with any dereliction of duty on that score. In the future I will endeavor to act as earnestly and disinterestedly as in the past, and trust to the kindness of al All Wise Providence to open the eyes of those deluded men who seem for the moment to have got control of affairs, but who heretofore have been known only by their turbulence and hostility to all government.

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