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This Day in Georgia Civil War History

November 19, 1860

Henry Lewis Benning 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.

After taking the weekend off, the final evening speech before the Georgia General Assembly in Milledgeville was delivered by Henry Lewis Benning. After three evenings of hearing the “conservative,” wait-and-see side of the debate, Benning closed out the set with a strongly worded call in favor of secession. Benning had served as a justice on the Georgia Supreme Court, and would serve as one of the chairmen of the Georgia Secession Convention. He would then go on to attend the Virginia Secession Convention as Georgia’s commissioner, where he would give another rousing call for secession. Benning served as a Confederate general during the war; Fort Benning near Columbus is named for him. Excerpts from his speech to the Georgia General Assembly follow:

Fellow Citizens: The points for our consideration are, what is the disease - the precise disease under which the South is laboring, and what is the remedy? I propose to endeavor to maintain several propositions showing, I think, what that disease is, and also what the remedy is for that disease. … My first proposition is that the election of Mr. Lincoln to the Presidency of the United States means the abolition of slavery, as soon as the party which elected him shall acquire the power to do the deed. … My second proposition is that the North will soon acquire that power, unless something is done to prevent it. I dare say everyone present will agree that this is almost a self-evident proposition. The North has now eighteen States, and the South fifteen. The whole of the public territory of the United States may at this time be said to be Northern territory. … The Constitution, with that party, is already a dead letter - a thing void, under the operation of the “higher law.” The only question, therefore, will be one of physical power. And that power they are rapidly acquiring, and will soon acquire, unless something is done to prevent it. And this is my second proposition. My third is that abolition would be to the South one of the direst evils of which the mind can conceive. …The cotton States will, at that time, have a large population of slaves, perhaps a larger population of slaves than of whites; but the population of the whites will be respectable. The decree will excite an intense hatred between the whites on one side, and the slaves and the North on the other. Very soon a war between the whites and the blacks will spontaneously break out everywhere. It will be in every town, in every village, in every neighborhood, in every road. It will be a war of man with man - a war of extermination. Quickly the North will intervene, and of course take sides with the party friendly towards them - the blacks. The coalition will exterminate the white race, or expel them from the land, to wander as vagabonds over the face of the earth. …Am I not right then in saying that abolition is one of the direst evils that the mind can imagine? Thus then we have data from which we may announce this position: that abolition, dire evil as it is, is inevitable, unless something is done either to mollify this hostility to slavery on the part of the North, or to prevent the North from acquiring the power to abolish slavery. … What now are the remedies suggested or supposable to prevent the North from abolishing slavery? … It follows that there is not within the Union any remedy by which we can escape abolition, and therefore if we wish for a remedy, a remedy we must seek outside the Union. … I say that a separation from the North would be a complete remedy for the disease - a complete remedy for both diseases, a remedy not merely to prevent abolition, but also to heal the fugitive slave ulcer. … If you were to separate from the North, the power to abolish slavery by the North would be taken away. That is clear. The will to do so would also cease. … I say, then, that whenever the South is separated from the North, and in its stead other questions will spring up which will occupy all their time and attention… If we separate from the North, we could put an end to the alarming process by which the slave population is draining off into the cotton States. The mere act of separation would have that tendency. Fear - the fear that slaves will escape to the North by the under-ground railroad, and otherwise, is the chief cause of the drain. After a separation, stock in the under-ground railroad would cease to pay, and the road would suspend business. … The separation from the North would then be a remedy for all diseases. … I say that if one or two of the cotton States go out, all the cotton States will go out, and that if all the cotton States go out, all the border States will soon follow. … the North cut off from Southern cotton, rice, tobacco, and other Southern products would lose three-fourths of her commerce, and a very large proportion of her manufactures. And thus those great fountains of finance would sink very low. I say then that we would have ample power to maintain our independence in spite of the North. … But indeed there will be no war. The effect at the North of our separation would be a commercial crisis, a bankruptcy greater than has ever prevailed there before. … I go further, gentlemen, and deny that the election of Mr. Lincoln was not an overt, or to speak in their own language an unconstitutional act. I question that - I venture to question it come come from what source it may. The Constitution says in the preamble, that it was made to form a more perfect Union, to establish justice and to insure domestic tranquility. The intent of the Black Republican Party in electing Mr. Lincoln was to make a less perfect union, to establish injustice, and to organize domestic strife. The intent with which he was elected, was, therefore, directly in the teeth of the intent of the Constitution. … Why, then, will you not disregard the objections and adopt that remedy? Is there any other course left to you? If so, what is it? But surely there is none. Why hesitate? the question is between life and death. Well, if these things be so, let us do our duty; and what is our duty? I say, men of Georgia, let us lift up our voices and shout, “Ho! for independence!” Let us follow the examples of our ancestors, and prove ourselves worthy sons of worthy sires!