Henry L. Benning Howell Cobb

Letter from Henry Benning to Howell Cobb

This is the text of a letter that Georgia judge and future Confederate general Henry Benning wrote to Howell Cobb in the summer of 1849. The letter is interesting in terms of giving a window into Benning's views on the issues of the day. The text was taken from the book, The Toombs, Stephens, Cobb Correspondence, published by the American Historical Association in 1913.

Columbus, 1 July, 1849

Dear Howell,

Until a day or two ago I thought I should be in the convention for the nomination of Governor on the 11th of this month. My calculation was founded on a mistake of the day on which Randolph inferior court is to be held. Business of importance requires me to attend that court; and I now find that its session conflicts with that of the convention. I had wished to be one of the convention, not on account of the nature or importance of the object for which it has been called -- the nomination of a candidate for Governor -- but on account of the bearing which its action may have on the future policy of the party, and more especially on account of the manner in which it ought to consider your own position. Everybody is agreed that Towns should be renominated but everybody is not agreed as to [the] propriety of your course on the "Southern Address" or upon the question whether any and if so what notice ought to be taken of it by the convention. Indeed it will manifestly require all the skill and forbearance and concession of which the convention shall be master, to dispose of this subject so as to secure the concurrence of all concerned. It having been one of the most earnest wishes of my heart to serve you in relation to it to the very utmost verge of what respect for some deep seated conviction of my own would permit, I had rejoiced in my appointmentas a delegate from this county. Being however, owing to the cause above mentioned, deprived of the pleasure of attending the convention, and of thus getting an opportunity of a personal interview with you, I take the liberty of friendship to express to you in writing some views which I think are worthy of your consideration.

First then it is apparent, horribly apparent, that the slavery question rides insolently over every other everywhere -- in fact that is the only question which in the least affects the result of elections. It is not less manifest that the whole North is becoming ultra anti-slavery and the whole South ultra pro-slavery. Hence very small acts of deviation from the prevailing course of conduct of either section, being so conspicuous from their rarity, will attract immense animadversion. Is this not true? Can the Hunker democracy of the North be now depended on by the democracy of the South? To say nothing of their course in the last Congress, which you understand so well, witness the action of Connecticut in the recent elections, the sentiments contained in the Hunker address in New York, the open and formal going over of the Hunkers to the Barnburners in Vermont, and the recent resolutions of the Maine Legislature, the coalition with or rather the merger into the Barnburners by the Hunkers of Wisconsin, the tone of the Indiana Democracy, the election [of] Chase as senator in Ohio by Democrats, and over and above all, the bold unmasking of Benton in his avowal at Jefferson City of his adhesion to 'free-soilism.' Hunkerism is manifestly giving away -- it has already yielded -- throughout the North. Old associations, old pledges, old hopes, perhaps convictions, may for awhile keep a few old leaders of the Northern democracy in their old position on the slavery question; but the body and the present leaders of the party are gone, gone forever. What inference do I ask you to draw from all this? The inference that your long cherished wish to keep up the unity of the Democratic party is now vain, and that you ought not to sacrifice yourself and your usefulness to your state in holding on to a chimera.

No doubt this wish so natural and so attractive had much to do with your refusal to sign the Southern Address.

At that time there might be a hope of the democratic party being able to protect the institution of slavery from abolitionism; now it is painfully obvious that it cannot protect itself from annihilation, except by falling in with the anti-slavery current. Indeed the frank democrats of the North admit this and justify their bowing of the knee to Baal by the example of the South [in] refusing to support Cass after he had taken a satisfactory pro-slavery position. Add to this the desire to corner Taylor and the Whigs on the slavery question, and you will see motive enough to place the democrats of the North in a position next Congress where it will be utterly impossible for any Southern man to stand and live. Surely however it can be but a little time, whether so soon as next Congress or not, before, owing to the causes now at work, the North and the South must stand face to face in hostile attitude. What I would have you consider is this: is it not better voluntarily to take at once a position, however extreme, which you know you must and will some time take, than to take it by degrees and as it were on compulsion? Why sacrifice your usefulness by pursuing a course which however magnanimous it may be must end in failure, when by so doing you lay yourself liable to ineradicable imputations which you know but which none but you will be able to know are groundless and false? Why put yourself in a situation where though innocent everybody will believe you guilty? Already your not co-operating in the Southern convention subjects you to mis-construction. Of all the democrats I have heard express an opinion on that subject there has been but one who justified your course whilst a few bitterly denounced it and the rest the great body in consideration of your undoubted fidelity, of your long and valuable services to the party, and to some extent of the reasons which you assigned in your address for your justification, barely excused it. This feeling towards you is not calculated to be changed for the better by the course which the Northern democracy, for the sake of which you did what you did, will hereafter pursue on the slavery question. A long period of past fidelity on the part of the Northern democracy to the South as it is in the constitution will be forgotten by us in a moment of treachery. That moment is coming. And when it comes, the reasons for your justification assigned in your address will too have lost their effect. What then, secondly, should you do in order to put yourself right before the country? Nothing certainly but what is consistent with the sense of propriety and duty which we all know you entertain to yourself and your state. You ought to indicate your future course with unmistakable directness. This convention furnishes you with a fine opportunity to accomplish the object. What would meet the case would be I think about this. Let the Virginia Resolutions be reported by a committee and then let an additional resolution be offered by you, founded upon the indication of the position which the Northern democracy are assuming, developed since those resolutions were passed by the Virginia Legislature, acknowledging our obligations to our Northern brethren for their conduct in the past but expressing our apprehensions for their course in the future, and recommending in the event of the passage by Congress of the Wilmot proviso or of any law affecting slavery in the District of Columbia or any other law founded on similar principles, the Legislature to be convened forthwith and when convened recommending it to call a convention of the Southern States. This coming from you, and enforced by some remarks in which you can explain your position and set yourself fully right according to the very truth of the matter with the party, will be hailed with acclamation. I do but indicate the principle on which I think the thing ought to be done. Doubtless the details may be varied and improved, and I am inclined to believe too that this course will not only be best for you, your own personal honor and duty being considered, but will also have a good effect, if anything can have it, upon the North. When you take such a stand they will feel that the South is not gasconading but has in reality mischief in her; and if that does not stay their hatred nothing will.

Now having said so much to you on your own account it is proper that I tell you in a few words my position on the slavery question and the duty of the South, in order that you may make due allowance for anything in what I have said which appears exaggerated or extreme. I think then 1st, that the only safety of the South from abolition universal is to be found in an early dissolution of the Union. I think that the Union by its natural and ordinary working is giving anti-slavery-ism such a preponderence in the Genl. Government, both by adding to the number of free states and diminishing the number of slave, that it (anti-slavery-ism) will be able soon to abolish slavery by act of Congress and then to execute the law. I no more doubt that the North will abolish slavery the very first moment it feels itself able to do it without too much cost, than I doubt my existence.

I think that as a remedy for the South, dissolution is not enough, and a Southern Confederacy not enough. The latter would not stop the process by which some states, Virginia, for example, are becoming free, viz., by ridding themselves of their slaves; and therefore we should in time with a Confederacy again have a North and a South. The only thing that will do when tried every way is a consolidated Republic formed of the Southern States. That will put slavery under the control of those most interested in it, and nothing else will; and until that is done nothing is done. You see therefore that I am very extreme in my opinions and that you must weigh them as you weigh what I recommend to you. During the last six months I have given much attention to this problem of problems to the South, and have made up my own mind in my own way. I am no Calhoun man. He in fact is off the stage; the coming battle is for other leadership than his, a leadership that is of this generation, not of the past.

To return a second to the old subject. For myself I should not object to the introduction and adoption of the Va. Resolutions as the full expression of our present party position; and I think that by a little adding that may be effected. But there is no telling what some Hotspur may do. He might introduce a resolution that would compel a vote directly upon your course, and if such a vote were taken it would betray a great want of unanimity in the party upon the most important and exciting of all possible subjects, whereas by taking time by the forelock in some such manner as that which I have ventured to suggest you would forestall all such fellows -- indeed kill them with joy. In conclusion I must beg you to realize the present emergency. Let your eye take in the whole case at one view -- see nothing but the facts as they are, and then decide in the light of the evidence and that only. If you do, I am sure for the reason that I confide in my own judgement, that you must come to the conclusion to which I have come. The fundamental thing is the conviction that the Northern Democracy is no longer trustworthy. That being so, it dictates our course just the same, let the defection proceed from one cause or another. We must act upon what is, not upon what produced it.