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This Day in Georgia Civil War History

November 16, 1860

Herschel Johnson Letter Opposing 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.

Herschel Johnson, who had been a candidate for vice-president in the just completed election, was invited to speak on this night, but instead chose to send a letter outlining his reasons for wishing to stay in the Union. Excerpts from the letter follow:

…Much as I deplore the election of Lincoln, it is an event which I confidently expected, from the moment of the disruption of the Chat’n [Charleston] Convention. It requires all the energies of a united Democracy to elect a President; with a divided Democracy, it is impossible. To that schism therefore, must be ascribed our defeat. … We are therefore indebted to an error in (sic) our own, for our signal defeat - it elected Lincoln. Hence, as we are not entirely blameless, it behooves us to temper our exasperation by calm reflection and prudent counsels. Hasty action is always unwise: it is superlative folly, when prompted by passion for which, our own indiscretion has created the existing occasion. … I do not think the election of Lincoln a sufficient cause for secession. No man deprecates it more than I do. None is more implacably hostile to the avowed principles and policy of the Republican party. I trust I am second to no one, in an intelligent devotion to the rights and honor of the South. But he is legitimately elected - elected in strict accordance with the Constitution… If he obey[s] the Constitution, in his administration, we shall have suffered no injury by his election: if he violate[s] it, by aggressing upon our rights, we will resist it and the justice of that resistance will rally the united hearts and hands of all true patriots. But is is contended by many, that we must anticipate aggression - assumed that it will come, and secede from the Union immediately to avoid it. I do not approve of such a course. But anticipating that it may come, prudence suggests that we begin, at once, to prepare to resist it. I believe however, that, under the existing circumstances, it cannot come. The President is powerless, without the concurrence of both houses of Congress. But both are known to be opposed to the federal principles and policy of the Republican party. How is it possible then for Lincoln to commit any aggression upon the South?…but if the complexion of Congress shall change to that of hostility to my section, knock off his fetters and violate our rights, I will defy them all: and if I cannot obtain redress in the Union, then, trusting to the reserved sovereignty of the State, I will strike for separate independence out of the Union. But the South has grievances of which to complain, far more galling than the bare election of a Republican to the Presidency. The surrender of fugitive slaves is a constitutional obligation upon every State in the Union. Without such a guaranty the Union would never have been formed. It cannot long survive its continued and persistent disregard by the non slaveholding States. … Amidst the almost unmixed evil, which I apprehend from the election of Lincoln, I see one good result, and that is, the awakening of the South to these great grievances. They ought no to be permanently submitted to; but promptly redressed, upon the united demand of the South. Let the appeal be made to the delinquent States. Having presented these general views, I will venture a few suggestions as to the best course to be pursued. … These are my opinions now, so far as they are applicable to the existing circumstances. I am opposed to dissolution now, by secession or otherwise… Then I would say: 1. Let this Legislature call a convention of the people, at such time as may be deemed most convenient, to consider and determine what the State should do; and also, in the meantime, put the State in a condition to meet any emergency. 2. Let that Convention reaffirm the “Georgia Platform” [see link] of 1850 and demand the repeal of all laws passed by any of the non-slaveholding States, which obstruct the execution, in good faith, of the act of Congress for the rendition of fugitive slaves. 3. Let that Convention appeal to the Northern States to suppress by all legitimate measures the slavery agitation, as subversive of the peace and fraternity between the States of this Union. 4. Let that Convention ask a consultation with the other Southern States, either in a Congress for that purpose, or in such other manner as may be best calculated to secure concert of action. … I should hope that a firm and earnest appeal by the South to the Northern States would be heeded; that they would, under a sense of Constitutional obligation, repeal their “personal liberty bills,” and cease to hinder the surrender of fugitive slaves. - I repeat, a continued and persistent disregard our rights, in this particular, by the non-slaveholding States, cannot and ought not to be submitted to. It is time for the South to demand exemption from the agitation of slavery, from unjustifiable interference with our domestic peace and security, from further aggressions upon our rights and the faithful observances by the Northern States of the requirements and guarantees of the Constitution. Let the business of redress be begun now and prosecuted to a final consummation. Let every effort be made and every means be exhausted to restore the Union back to what it was intended to be, by its founders. If we fail in this, which I will not anticipate, then the interest, rights, peace and honor of the South will require a dissolution of the Union. …