In Their Own Words
November 14, 1860
Stephens Spoke Against 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.
Next to speak was Alexander Stephens, who would go on to become the Vice-President of the Confederate States of America. But he was not thinking along those lines on this night. Stephens and Robert Toombs (who had spoken for secession the previous night) were very different men, but had been close friends and political allies, until this crisis. Stephens was also a friend of President Abraham Lincoln, and believed caution was warranted before making a monumental decision such as secession. Stephens had intended to be retired permanently from political life after 1859, but the secession crisis inevitably drew him back, and on this night he eloquently expressed the conservative, “wait and see” approach, as seen in the following excerpts:
…My object is not to stir up strife, but to allay it; not to appeal to your passions, but to your reason. Let us, therefore, reason together. It is not my purpose to say aught to wound the feelings of any individual who may be present; and if in the ardency with which I shall express my opinions, I shall say anything which may be deemed too strong, let it be set down to the zeal with which I advocate my own convictions. There is with me no intention to irritate or offend. I do not, on this occasion, intend to enter into the history of the reasons or causes of the embarassments which press so heavily upon us all at this time. In justice to myself, however, I must barely state upon this point that I do think much of it depended upon ourselves. The consternation that has come upon the people is the result of a sectional election of a President of the United States, one whose opinions and avowed principles are in antagonism to our interests and rights, and we believe, if carried out, would subvert the Constitution under which we now live. But are we entirely blameless in this matter, my countrymen? I give it to you as my opinion, that but for the policy the Southern people pursued, this fearful result would not have occurred. The first question that presents itself is, shall the people of Georgia secede from the Union in consequence of the election of Mr. Lincoln to the Presidency of the United States? My countrymen, I tell you frankly, candidly, and earnestly, that I do not think that they ought. In my judgment, the election of no man, constitutionally chosen to that high office, is sufficient cause to justify any State to separate from the Union. It ought to stand by and aid still in maintaining the Constitution of the country. To make a point of resistance to the Government, to withdraw from it because any man has been elected, would put us in the wrong. We are pledged to maintain the Constitution. Many of us have sworn to support it. Can we, therefore, for the mere election of any man to the Presidency, and that, too, in accordance with the prescribed forms of the Constitution, make a point of resistance to the Government, without becoming the breakers of that sacred instrument ourselves, by withdrawing ourselves from it? Would we not be in the wrong? Whatever fate is to befall this country, let it never be laid to the charge of the people of the South, and especially the people of Georgia, that we were untrue to our national engagements. Let the fault and the wrong rest upon others. … But it is said Mr. Lincoln’s policy and principles are against the Constitution, and that, if he carries them out, it will be destructive of our rights. Let us not anticipate a threatened evil. If he violates the Constitution, then will come our time to act. … My honorable friend who addressed you last night [Toombs], and to whom I listened with the profoundest attention, asks if we would submit to Black Republican rule? I say to you and to him, as a Georgian, I would never submit to any Black Republican aggression upon our Constitutional rights. I will never consent myself, as much as I admire this Union, for the glories of the past or the blessings of the present; as much as it has done for civilization; as much as the hopes of the world hang upon it; I would never submit to aggression upon my rights to maintain it longer; and if they can not be maintained in the Union standing on the Georgia Platform, where I have stood from the time of its adoption, I would be in favor of disrupting every tie which binds the States together. I will have equality for Georgia, and for the citizens of Georgia, in this Union, or I will look for new safeguards elsewhere. This is my position. The only question now is, can this be secured in the Union? That is what I am counseling with you tonight about. Can it be secured? In my judgment it may be, yet it may not be; but let us do all we can, so that in the future, if the worst comes, it may never be said we were negligent in doing our duty to the last. … There are defects in our Government, errors in our administration, and shortcomings of many kinds, but in spite of these defects and errors, Georgia has grown to be a great State. Let us pause here a moment. In 1850 there was a great crisis, but not so fearful as this, for of all I have ever passed through, this is the most perilous, and requires to be met with the greatest calmness and deliberation. There were many amongst us in 1850 zealous to go at once out of the Union – to disrupt every tie that binds us together. Now do you believe, had that policy been carried out at that time, we would have been the same great people we are today? It may be that we would, but have you any assurance of that fact? Would we have made the same advancement, improvement, and progress, in all that constitutes material wealth and prosperity, that we have? … When I look around and see our prosperity in everything – agriculture, commerce, art, science, and every department of progress, physical, mental and moral – certainly, in the face of such an exhibition, if we can, without the loss of power, or any essential right or interest, remain in the Union, it is our duty to ourselves and posterity to do so. Let us not unwisely yield to this temptation. Our first parents, the great progenitors of the human race, were not without a like temptation when in the garden of Eden. They were led to believe that their condition would be bettered – that their eyes would be opened – and that they would become as Gods. They, in an evil hour, yielded – instead of becoming Gods, they only saw their own nakedness. I look upon this country, with our institutions, as the Eden of the World, the Paradise of the Universe. It may be that out of it we may become greater and more prosperous, but I am candid and sincere in telling you that I fear if we yield to passion, and without sufficient cause shall take that step, that instead of becoming greater or more peaceful, prosperous and happy– instead of becoming Gods, we will become demons, and at no distant day commence cutting one another’s throats. This is my apprehension. Let us, therefore, whatever we do, meet these difficulties, great as they are, like wise and sensible men, and consider them in the light of all the consequences which may attend our action. Let us see, first clearly, where the path of duty leads, and then we may not fear to tread therein. … Now, then, my recommendation to you would be this: In view of all these questions of difficulty, let a convention of the people of Georgia be called, to which they may all be referred. Let the sovereignty of the people speak. Some think that the election of Mr. Lincoln is cause sufficient to dissolve the Union. Some think those other grievances are sufficient to justify the same; and that the Legislature has the power thus to act, and ought thus to act. I have no hesitancy in saying that the Legislature is not the proper body to sever our Federal relations, if that necessity should arise. I say to you, you have no power so to act. You must refer this question to the people, and you must wait to hear from the men at the cross-roads, and even the groceries; for the people of this country, whether at the cross-roads or groceries, whether in cottages or palaces, are all equal, and they are the Sovereigns in this country. Sovereignty is not in the Legislature. We, the people, are sovereign. I am one of them, and have a right to be heard; and so has every other citizen of the State. You Legislators – I speak it respectfully – are but our servants. You are the servants of the people, and not their masters. Power resides with the people in this country. The great difference between our country and most others, is, that here there is popular sovereignty, while there sovereignty is exercised by kings or favored classes. This principle of popular sovereignty, however much derided lately, is the foundation of our institutions. Constitutions are but the channels through which the popular will may be expressed. Our Constitutions, State and Federal, came from the people. They made both, and they alone can rightfully unmake either. Should Georgia determine to go out of the Union, I speak for one, though my views might not agree with them, whatever the result may be, I shall bow to the will of her people. Their cause is my cause, and their destiny is my destiny; and I trust this will be the ultimate course of all. The greatest curse that can befall a free people, is civil war. … I am for exhausting all that patriotism demands, before taking the last step. …