John Baldwin's Speech to the Virginia Convention
|John Baldwin was from Staunton, in Augusta County in the lower Shenandoah Valley. Born into a prosperous family in 1820, he attended the University of Virginia and then embarked upon a legal career in 1841. He entered politics, earning a seat in Virginia’s House of Delegates in 1846. He made a name for himself by supporting Tidewater interests against western Virginia interests in an apportionment controversy during his term of office, a stance which cost him re-election. Nonetheless he remained popular as an orator in subsequent election campaigns. In 1861 he and two other “Unionists” were elected to represent Augusta County in Virginia’s secession convention. On April 4th, 1861, Baldwin had a controversial meeting with President Lincoln during which Lincoln may have offered to evacuate Fort Sumter in exchange for adjournment of the Virginia Secession Convention. An alternate transcription of this speech may be found in Showdown in Virginia, Freehling and Simpson (eds.). This text was taken from Robert Moore's excellent blog, Cenantua's Blog.|
[Taken from the March 26, 1861 edition of the Staunton Spectator.]
She [Augusta County, Virginia---Baldwin's home] was identified with every interest of the Commonwealth; and if there were extremes of opinion or prejudice in one quarter or another, Augusta county knew nothing of them. She occupies a central poisition, and is concerned in every question that affects the rights and interests of the Commonwealth. What, he asked, is the great question that concerns us here, and threatens to overturn the mighty fabric of a free Government? He wished to discuss the question as bearing upon Virginia’s rights and Virginia’s honor; and from that stand-point, he could see but one single complaint so far as she was concerned, and that was the course of the North upon the question of African slavery. From the earliest foundation of the Government, Virginia had given direction to its policy; and when it has not been in the hands of her own sons, it has been in the hands of those of her choice, supported and ratified by her people. This was not only true in regard to the Executive, but she had a controlling voice in all the other departments of Government.
In all this he saw enough to show that the Government had been administered to her satisfaction, and therefore the only cause or complaint was the agitation of the slavery question. This had been discussed by eloquent and able gentlemen on this floor, and he asked if any man had heard a reference to other grounds of complaint. He understood gentlemen to acquiesce in this. – This we have it confessed that in all else that concerns the great interests of thirty millions of people, the Government had been administered to the satisfaction of Virginia. He could not put out of mind the apprehension that on this great question Virginia was divided; the apprehension that there were some people in this State, and some on this floor, who were not to be trusted. This was not new to him – he had heard it for years; not from abroad, but the charge came up from the midst of our own family. He had seen it resorted to for the baser ends of party – not only one party, but all. It had the effect of bounding on fanatacism against us in the councils of the nation, under impressions that the people of Virginia were not true to Virginia, but were divided and distracted in regard to her highest interests. It would seem as itf it were resorted to now as a species of terrorism, directed at the representatives of the people of Virginia, and in the vain hope of repressing, if not the freedoms of thought, the freedom of speech. He trusted that, in defining his position, he should not defer in any respect to a clamor which he despised. He hoped to show, with candor, in what particular light he viewed what was for the honor and interests of Virginia.
He had always held the opinion – and had never had to undergo a change such as had been described by the gentleman from Orange, and had not, therefore, perhaps, the fresh zeal of a new convert – that African slavery was right; a right thing and a good thing, on every ground, morally, religiously, politically and economically, a blessing… to the slave and the slaveholder. He was not one of those who looked forward to its extinction, nor did he look with any sympathy upon any attempt to restrict it to a particular locality. When it could be fairly done, he hoped it would expand until it covered the whole earth, as the waters cover the great deep. The people who sent him here with this avowal on his lip, might, he thought, be considered as sound, a little further South. He represented a slaveholding constituency, who in men and money could compete with any county in the Commponwealth, and they held it all ready, at any time, to defend this great and vital interest.
He would undertake to say that on the slavery question, the month of Virginia was completely estopped as to the want of proper legislation on the part of the General Government. He defied any gentleman to put his finger on a single act, in any Department of Government, from its foundation to the present, that did not at the time, or afterwards, receive the sanction and approval of the people of Virginia. This he asseted to be true, and he challenged contradiction.
After elaborating upon this point, he alluded to the expressions on this floor in regard to the degradation of Virginia, and said he hurled such an imputation back with scorn and contempt.