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This Day in Georgia Civil War History

November 15, 1860

Benjamin Hill Speech 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.

Benjamin Hill spoke on this night. Hill and Alexander Stephens had long been political foes - and would be again in the future - but on this occaion Hill agreed that trying to resolve differences within the Union was the best policy. Hill would go on to serve as a Confederate Senator during the war, and after Reconstruction as a U.S. Senator. Following are excerpts from his speech:

…The government is the result of much toil, much blood, much anxiety, and much treasure. For nearly a century we have been accustomed to speak and boast of it as the best on earth…. Whether we shall now destroy that government or make another effort to preserve it and reform its abuses, is the question before us. Is that question not entitled to all the wisdom, the moderation, and the prudence we can command?… We are at sea, my friends. The skies are fearfully darkened. The billows roll threateningly. Dangers are on every side. Let us throw overboard our passions, our prejudices, and our party feelings, however long or highly valued. But let us hold on - hold on to reason and moderation. These, and these alone, point always to the fixed star of truth, by whose guidance we may yet safely come to shore. … In the first place what are our grievances? All the speakers, thus far, even the most ultra, have admitted that the mere Constitutional election of any man is no ground for resistance. The mere election of Mr. Lincoln is on all sides admitted not to be a grievance. Our State would not be thrown on a false issue on this point. We complain, in general terms, that the anti-slavery sentiment at the North has been made an element of political power. In proof of this we make the following specifications: 1. That a large political party has been organized in the Northern States, the great common idea of which is to prohibit the extension of slavery by Congress, and hostility to slavery generally. 2. That this party has succeeded in getting control of many of the Northern State Legislatures and have procured the passage of acts nullifying the fugitive slave law… 3. That this party has elected governors in Northern States who refuse, some openly and others under frivolous pretexts, to do their plain Constitutional duties, when these involve the recognition of property in slaves. 4. That Northern courts, chosen by the same party, have assumed to declare the fugitive slave law unconstitutional in the teeth of the decisions of the United States courts… 5. We complain that the Northern States, thus controlled, are seeking to repudiate every Constitutional duty or provision, in favor or in recognition of slavery…The inexorable logic of this party…must array them against the whole Constitution of the United States; because that instrument, in its very frame-work, is a recognition of property in slaves. …I could quote all night, my friends, to show that the tendency of the Republican party is to disunion. That to be a Republican is to be logically and practically against the Constitution and the Union. … 6. We complain, in the last place, that this party, having thus acquired the control of every department of government - legislative, executive, and judicial - in several of the Northern States, and having thus used every department of the State government so acquired, in violation of the Constitution of the United States, in disregard of the laws of the Southern States, and in utter denial of the property and even liberty of the citizens of the Southern States - this party, I say, with these principles, and this history, has at least secured the executive department of the Federal Government… Here, then, is a party seeking to administer the government on principles which must destroy the government - proposing to preserve the Union upon a basis on which the Union, in the very nature of things, cannot stand; and offering peace on terms which must produce civil war. Now, my friends, the next question is, shall these grievances be resisted? I know of no man who says they ought not to be resisted. For myself, I say, and say with emphasis, they ought to be resisted - resisted effectively and at all hazards. … These grievances are our real complaint. They have advanced to a point which makes a crisis: and that point is the election of Lincoln. We dare not, we will not let this crisis pass without a settlement. That settlement must wipe out existing grievances, and arrest threatened ones. We owe it to our Constitution, to our country, to our peace, to our posterity, to our dignity, to our self-respect as Union men and Southern men, to have a cessation of these aggressions and an end to these disturbances. I do not think we should wait for any further violation of the Constitution. The Constitution has already been violated and even defiled. These violations are repeated every day. We must resist, and to attempt to resist and not do so effectively - even to the full extent of the evil - will be to bring shame on ourselves, our State, and our cause. … Who shall inaugurate this resistance? Who shall determine the mode, the measure, and the time of this resistance? My reply is: The people through their delegate convention duly assembled. … there are really but two modes of resistance proposed. One method is to make no further effort in the Union, but to assume that the Union either cannot or ought not to be preserved, and secede at once and throw ourselves upon the consequences. The other method is to exhaust certain remedies for these grievances in the Union, with the view of preserving our rights and the Union with them, if possible; looking, however, to and preparing for secession as an ultimate resort, certainly to be had, if those grievances cannot be remedied and completely remedied and ended in the Union…. The advocates of the first mode declare that these grievances are the fruits of an original, innate anti-slavery fanaticism…. The advocates of the second mode of resistance, of whom I am humbly one, reason after another fashion: We say, in the first place, that while it is true that this anti-slavery sentiment has become fanatical with many, yet it is not necessarily so in its nature, nor was it so in its origin. Slavery has always existed in some form. It is an original institution. Besides, we say the agitation now upon us did not originate in fanaticism or philanthropy but in cupidity. … while the anti-slavery sentiment has spread in the North, the pro-slavery sentiment has also strengthened in America. In our early history the Southern statesmen were anti-slavery in feeling. So were Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Randolph, and many of that day, who had never studied the argument of the cotton gin, nor heard the eloquent productions of the great Mississippi Valley. … we urge for believing that all the enumerated grievances - the results of slavery agitation - are curable by remedies within the Union. … Let us try these remedies, and if we fail, this failure will establish the truth of the positions of the advocates of immediate secession, and we shall join in that remedy. For let it be understood, we are all agreed that these grievances shall be resisted - shall be remedied - most effectively remedied; and if this cannot be done in the Union, then the Union must go. … Let the Georgia Convention meet. Let her not simply demand but command that this war on slavery shall cease - that these unconstitutional acts and proceeding shall be repealed and abandoned by the States, or repudiated and redressed by the Federal Government. … let the fifteen Southern States join in this demand, and let the penalty of refusal, even to the demand of one State, be the abandonment of the Union, and any other, even harsher remedy, each State may think her rights and honor require. … I believe we can make Lincoln enforce the laws. If fifteen Southern States will take that Constitution and the laws and his oath, and shake them in the face of the President, and demand their observance and enforcement, he cannot refuse. Better make him do it than any one else. It will be a magnificent vindication of the power and the majesty of the law, to make the President enforce the law… If we secede now, in what condition are we? Our secession will either be peaceable or otherwise. If peaceable, we have no ships to take off our produce. We could not get and would not have those of the government from which we had just seceded. We have no treaties, commercial or otherwise, with any other power. We have no postal system among our own people. Nor are we prepared to meet any one of the hundred inconveniences that must follow, and all of which can be avoided by taking time. But suppose our secession be not peaceable. In what condition are we for war? No navy, no forts, no arsenal, no arms but bird guns for low trees. Yet a scattered people, with nothing dividing us from our enemy but an imaginary line, and a long sea and a gulf coast extending from the Potomac to Galveston Bay, if all should secede. In what condition are we to meet the thousand ills that would beset us, and every one of which can be avoided by taking time. “We have more to do than to go up the hills and come down.” Secession is no holiday work. While we are seeking to redress our wrongs in the Union, we can go forward, making all necessary preparations to go out if it becomes necessary. We can have a government system perfect, and be prepared, ready for the emergency, when the necessity for separation shall come. Again, if we fail to redress in the Union, that very failure will united the people of our State. The only real ground of difference now is: some of us think we can get redress in the Union, and others think we cannot. Let those of us who still have faith make that effort which has never been made, and if we fail, then we are ready to join you. … Finally, my friends, we shall have secured, by this policy, the good opinion of all mankind and of ourselves. We shall have done our duty to history, to our children, and to Constitutional liberty, the greatest experiment of self-government. … Above all we shall have found good consciences, and secured that, either in the Union or out of it, which is dearer to us than any Union, and more to be desired than all constitutions however venerated - that which is the end of all our efforts, and the desire of all our hearts, our equality as States, our rights as citizens, and our honor as men.