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Dec December

In Their Own Words

December 30, 1860

Alexander Stephens Replied to Abraham Lincoln

Alexander Stephens replied to Abraham Lincoln’s letter of December 22. The two had served in Congress together, and for now, considered themselves friends. Stephens explained that he also wanted to preserve the Union, but went on to explain the reasons the South was so concerned:

… Dear Sir,—Yours of the 22d instant was received two days ago. I hold it and appreciate it as you intended. Personally, I am not your enemy,—far from it; and however widely we may differ politically, yet I trust we both have an earnest desire to preserve and maintain the Union of the States if it can be done upon the principles and furtherance of the objects for which it was formed. It was with such feelings on my part that I suggested to you in my former note the heavy responsibility now resting upon you, and with the same feelings I will now take the liberty of saying, in all frankness and earnestness, that this great object can never be obtained by force. This is my settled conviction. Consider the opinion, weigh it, and pass upon it for yourself. An error on this point may lead to the most disastrous consequences. I will also add, that in my judgment the people of the South do not entertain any fears that a Republican Administration, or at least the one about to be inaugurated, would attempt to interfere directly and immediately with slavery in the States. Their apprehension and disquietude do not spring from that source. They do not arise from the fact of the known anti-slavery opinions of the President-elect. Washington, Jefferson, and other Presidents are generally admitted to have been anti-slavery in sentiment. But in those days anti-slavery did not enter as an element into party organizations. … I would have you understand me as being not a personal enemy, but as one who would have you do what you can to save our common country. A word ‘fitly spoken’ by you now would indeed be like ‘apples of gold in pictures of silver.’ I entreat you be not deceived as to the nature and extent of the danger, nor as to the remedy. Conciliation and harmony, in my judgment, can never be established by force. Nor can the Union under the Constitution be maintained by force. The Union was formed by the consent of independent sovereign States. Ultimate sovereignty still resides with them separately, which can be resumed, and will be, if their safety, tranquility, and security, in their judgment, require it. Under our system, as I view it, there is no rightful power in the General Government to coerce a State, in case any one of them should throw herself upon her reserved rights and resume the full exercise of her sovereign powers. Force may perpetuate a Union. That depends upon the contingencies of war. But such a Union would not be the Union of the Constitution. It would be nothing short of a consolidated despotism. Excuse me for giving you these views. Excuse the strong language used. Nothing but the deep interest I feel in prospect of the most alarming dangers now threatening our common country could induce me to do it. Consider well what I write, and let it have such weight with you as in your judgment, under all the responsibility resting upon you, it merits. …

Read the full text of the letter here.