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This Day in Georgia Civil War History

November 12, 1860

T.R.R. Cobb Speech Supporting Secession

After Georgia governor Joseph E. Brown had delivered his special message to the Georgia General Assembly the previous week, the possibility of secession was the talk of the town - and of the state in general. Support for secession was far from unanimous; many thought it prudent to wait and see what President Abraham Lincoln would do, and others - particularly in the mountainous northeast and pine barrens of the southeastern part of Georgia - owned few, in any, slaves, and did not feel the same threat as the large planters felt from Lincoln’s election. To explore these questions in detail, without interfering with the usual matters of the state government, it was decided that a series of speeches would be delivered before the General Assembly in Milledgeville, but in the evenings, after the regular business of the day had concluded. Both sides of the secession debate would be heard this week.

The first to speak was T.R.R. Cobb, younger brother of former Georgia congressman Howell Cobb (then serving as U.S. Secretary of the Treasury). The elder Cobb had worked to support the Compromise of 1850, which helped avert another secession crisis ten years earlier. He was also one of the authors of the Georgia Platform, which supported the compromise, but also insisted that further compromise was unlikely from the state of Georgia. T.R.R. Cobb had also supported compromise a decade earlier, but now saw what he believed was the futility of it. While Howell Cobb was still in Washington, D.C., T.R.R. Cobb opened the debate in Milledgeville. Following are excerpts from his speech:

…I have been publishing in Northern newspapers, article after article, arguing, reasoning, urging, persuading, yea, begging our Northern fellow-citizens not to force upon the South the terrible issue of Disunion, or Dishonor. And candidly, can I say to-night that I would have illuminated my house with enthusiasm and shoutings, had either one of the candidates urged in Georgia been elevated to the Presidential chair. … In times like these, passion should not rule the hour; calm and dispassionate deliberation should be brought to the consideration of every question. …The practical issue before us is the triumph of the sectional Black Republican party of the North, and the duty of Georgia in the present emergency. To this I address myself. Is the election of Lincoln a sufficient ground for the dissolution of the Union? Can it be supposed that our fathers intended intended to allow our national elections to be controlled by men who were not citizens under the National Constitution? Never, never! Yet to elect Abraham Lincoln, the right of suffrage was extended to free negroes in Vermont, Massachusetts, Ohio, New York and other Northern States, although the Supreme Court has declared them not to be citizens of this nation. Yes! Our slaves are first stolen from our midst on underground Railroads, and then voted at Northern ballot-boxes to select rulers for you and me. The memory of our fathers is slandered when this is declared to be according to the Constitution. … it is true that counting the unanimous votes of the Southern States and the large minorities in the North against the Black Republicans, a majority amounting to perhaps a million or more votes, have declared against Abraham Lincoln for the next Presidency. Is not this according to the forms of the Constitution? I may be asked. I answer it is. But will my objecting friend answer, is it according to its spirit? I may be told that other Chief Magistrates have been elected by popular minorities. This I admit, but never against such an overwhelming majority, and never by a sectional party based upon the prospect and avowal of a continuation of the same results in every future election. The truth is, that we have lived to see a state of things never contemplated by the framers of the Constitution. At that time we were all slaveholding States - a homogenous people, having a common origin, common memories - a common cause, common hopes - a common future, a common destiny. … the Constitution is full of checks to protect the minority from the sudden and excited power of a majority, no provision was suggested for the protection of the majority from the despotic rule of an infuriated, fanatical, sectional minority. The experience of eight years in the Presidential Chair, and the almost more than human wisdom of Washington gave him a glimpse of the fatal omission thus made in the Constitution, and hence we find in that wonderful document - his Farewell Address - a note of solemn warning against such a perversion of the Government, by the formation of sectional parties. … What liberty have we secured by the Constitution of the United States? Our personal liberty is protected by the broad aegis of Georgia’s sovereignty. To her we never appealed in vain. What liberty does the Union give us? The glorious liberty of being robbed of our property, threatened in our lives, abused and vilified in our reputation on every forum from the grog-shop to the Halls of Congress, libeled in every vile newspaper, and in every town meeting, deprived of all voice in the election of our Chief Magistracy, bound to the car of a fiendish fanaticism, which is daily curtailing every vestige of our privileges, and by art and cunning, under the forms of the Constitution, binding us in a vassalage more base and hopeless than that of the Siberian serf. This is “glorious” liberty secured by a “glorious” Union. And the election of Lincoln by a purely sectional vote, and upon a platform of avowed hostility to our rights and our liberty, is the cap-stone - nay, the last magna carta - securing us to these wonderful privileges. … Equality among the states is the fundamental idea of the American Union. Protection to the life, liberty and property of the citizen is the corner-stone and only end of Government in the American mind. Look to the party whose triumph is to be consummated in the inauguration of Lincoln - The exclusive enjoyment of all common territory of the Union, is their watchword and party cry. The exclusion of half the States of the Union has been decreed, and we are called upon to record the fiat. Will you do it, men of Georgia? Are you so craven so soon? But protection- whence comes it to us? Dare you to follow your fugitive into a Northern State to arrest him? The assassin strikes you down, and no law avenges your blood; your property is stolen every day, and the very attempt to recover it subjects you to the insults of the North… Georgia extends her sovereign arm over us, and our lives, our property, our liberty and our reputation are safe under her protection. Loyalty and fidelity have their reason for their growth and food for their sustenance when we turn to this good old Commonwealth. But when we look to this Union - oh, tell me - why owe we allegiance to it? … As a legal question, I am compelled to decide that the election of Lincoln is in violation of the spirit of the Constitution of the United States. … Fanaticism is madness, is insanity. … We call it blind, because it cannot see; we call it deaf, because it cannot hear; we call it foolish, because it cannot reason; we call it cruel, because it cannot feel. By what channel, then, can you reach its citadel? Firmly planted therein, with every avenue closed to ingress, and yet every door of evil influence open to the bitter issues which flow without, the deluded victim glories in his own shame, and scatters ruin and destruction, in the mad dream that he is doing God’s service. … All history speaks but one voice. Tell me when and where the craving appetite of fanaticism was ever gorged with victims; when and where its bloody hands were ever stayed by the consciousness of satiety; when and where its deaf ears ever listened to reason, or argument, or persuasion, or selfishness; when and where it ever died from fatigue, or yielded except in blood. … We have seen, then, that this election is legally unconstitutional, and that politically the issue on which it is unconstitutional is both vital in its importance and permanent in its effects. What, then, is our remedy? … I fear not to say I have gone to the God I worship, and begged Him to advise me. On the night of the 6th of November, I called my wife and little ones together around my family altar, and together we prayed to God to stay the wrath of our oppressors, and preserve the Union of our fathers. The rising sun of the seventh of November found me on my knees, begging the same kind Father to make that wrath to praise Him, and the remainder of wrath to restrain. I believe that the hearts of men are in His hands, and when the telegraph announced to me that the voice of the North proclaimed at the ballot-box that I should be a slave, I heard in the same sound, the voice of my God speaking through his Providence, and saying to his child, “Be free! Be free!” Marvel not then that I say my voice is for immediate, unconditional secession. …