Speech of the Hon. Alexander H. Stephens to the Virginia Secession Convention, April 23, 1861
|One of the most famous political speeches of the secession period is the so-called "Cornerstone speech," delivered (extemporaneously) by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens on March 21, 1861, in Savannah, Georgia. Approximately one month later, Stephens delivered a very similar speech to the Virginia Secession convention, meeting in Richmond. One interesting point about the Richmond speech is that the audience apparently included Robert E. Lee, who had just been appointed commander of Virginia's military forces by the convention, and who made a brief statement of acceptance of this appointment just prior to Stephens's speech.|
|This text is taken from George H Reese, editor, Proceedings of the Virginia State Convention of 1861, February 13— May 1; In Four Volumes, Richmond: Virginia State Library, 1865, volume 4, pp. 361-390, and was sent to me by Mr. Robert Huddleston of Colorado, to whom I am most grateful.|
Mr. President and gentlemen of the Convention:— I appear before you on this occasion upon your own invitation, representing the government of the Confederate States. My mission was at your instance, in compliance with a resolution inviting that government to send a commissioner here. The powers by which I am accredited were, I presume, communicated to you by your Executive yesterday; and I have simply in this interview, in accordance with your request, to state to you very freely, candidly, and frankly, what are the wishes and objects of our government in sending me here. I will premise by stating with equal candor and frankness that the communication from this Convention to our government inviting this conference, was received with a great deal of gratification. I presume that no event since the separation of the more Southern States from the late Union, has occurred to give such unbounded pleasure to the whole Southern people, as the news that the Old Dominion had thrown her fortunes with ours.
We had thought, from the beginning, that this result would ultimately be inevitable. Individually, you will allow me to say I had not the slightest doubt upon the subject, and I feel extremely gratified that my anticipations have been so early realized. When the communication was received that Virginia had seceded, and wished a conference with our government, there was not the slightest hesitation. The telegraph announced it at 2 o’clock, P. M., and by 8 in the evening I was on my way here.
It is true your resolution simply indicated a wish to form an alliance with the present Confederate States, in the present emergency, in the midst of the present perils which surround you and us alike. The condition of this body is not unknown to our government. The circumstances under which you are assembled, and the limitations of the powers under which you act, are very well known at Montgomery. We know the condition on which your Ordinance of Secession was necessarily passed—that it was, under the circumstances, properly subjected to the popular ratification of your people. Embarrassments, it was known, therefore, might attend any alliance that may be made; but the great question, looking to existing, present perils, and the dangers which instantly press upon you and us alike, was how best to meet these; how best to provide for today, leaving the troubles and embarrassments of future contingencies to be provided for as they may arise. An immediate alliance to the extent of your powers was by our government thought best. It was taken for granted that such, also, was your opinion. This seems to be too apparent to admit of doubt. The only question is as to details. Common dangers require common and united action. A war is upon us—upon you and the Confederate States alike. The extent of this war no human being at this moment can foresee. Whether it be short or prolonged; whether it will be bloody and waged on the part of our enemies, with a view to subjugation and extermination, are matters of uncertainty. In this free conference I may be permitted to give you my individual opinion on these points, for what it is worth. We can lose nothing by looking dangers full in the face, however great; we may thereby be the better enabled to meet them. My own opinion, then, is, that it is to be a war for our subjugation and the extermination, if possible, of the whole fabric of our civil and social institutions. This is my view of its probable ultimate range; and that it will require all the resources of money and men of the Southern people to maintain their cause successfully, unless, fortunately, by immediate and prompt action, such a decisive blow shall be given, on our part, as will turn the tide of victory in our favor at the outset, and show our full power to sustain independence. In this way it may be a war of short duration; but this is rather a hope than an expectation.
As to the ultimate result—whether long or short, whether waged on a small or extensive scale—I do not permit myself to entertain a doubt. We have the means—the men, and those resources which will command the money. All will be put forth, if necessary. Still the issue of this war, as of all wars, as well as the destinies of the nation, we should not forget, are in the hands of the Great Sovereign of the universe. In Him and the justice of our cause, and our own exertions, our trust and confidence of success should be placed. Our enemies may rely upon their superiority of numbers, but the race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong; but it is with God who gives the victory to the right. The war has not been of our seeking. We have done all that we could to avoid it. We feel assured of the righteousness of our cause, and that “thrice armed is he who hath his quarrel just.” We have committed no wrong on those who force the war on us; we have made no aggression on them or theirs; we have merely claimed and exercised the right of all free and independent States to govern ourselves as we please, and according to our own wishes, without interfering with or in any way molesting the other sovereign and independent States that formed the old Union. With those States we were united under a compact known as the Constitution, that imposed obligations upon all the States. These obligations, on the part of the Southern States, have been faithfully performed, while on the part of a large number of the Northern States, they were openly and avowedly disregarded. The breach of faith was on their part. In the judgment of our people the only hope for safety was in a resumption of their delegated powers. Having resumed the powers delegated to the general government—a right which Virginia distinctly reserved to herself in the adoption of the Federal Constitution—there is no power on earth that can rightfully call in question our acts as free, sovereign, and independent States, so far as the old Union is concerned. Even in the opinion of Mr. Webster, the great Northern expounder of the Constitution, when the Northern States refused to fulfill their obligations under the Constitution, it was no longer binding upon the Southern States.
But this is a digression. It was only intended to impress the rightfulness of our cause. The matter now before us is the formation of a new alliance that will better secure our rights and our safety—the first object of every State and community.
The importance of a union or an alliance of some sort on the part of your Commonwealth with the present Confederate States South, in this conflict for our common rights, I need not discuss before this intelligent body. Any one State, acting in its own capacity, without concert with other States, would be powerless, or at least could not exert its power efficiently. The cause of Virginia, and I will go further, the cause of Maryland, and even the cause of Delaware, and of all the States with institutions similar to ours, is the cause of the Confederate States—the cause of each, the interests of each, the safety of each is the same; and the destiny of each, if they could all but be brought to realize the dancers, would be the same. Therefore, where there is a common danger; where there is a common interest; where there is a common safety; where there is a common destiny, there ought to be a common and united effort.
This is the view entertained by our government, and hence the invitation of the commonwealth of Virginia was responded to so promptly.
There are various reasons that I might present to enforce the importance of such a policy, if I were aware of there being the slightest necessity for it; but I am not. Indeed, I am speaking without knowing anything of the individual sentiments of the members of the Convention; and it may be that what I am now stating to the Convention as very important to them and to us, is a subject upon which there is no difference of opinion. The truth of the general propositions thus cursorily stated, seems to me to be so self-evident, that I feel it hardly necessary to argue them before you. I will, however, add a few things, briefly.
First, as to the ends or objects of the alliance. To me it seems very important that your military should at least be in co-operation with, if not under the direction of the Confederate States government. We will necessarily have a large amount of forces in the field. When I left Montgomery there was 50,000 troops ordered out; 15,000 of them were then under arms, and most of them are perhaps under arms by this time From information received from the Executive to-day, it appears that the President of the Confederacy has ordered out thirteen more regiments since I left. That will be about 12,000 more troops. North Carolina may be considered as co-operating with us now, though this large force [72,000] does not embrace any from that State. Tennessee also has tendered 5000, with an assurance from distinguished gentlemen from that State to our government, on Tuesday of last week, that soon after the news of the bombardment of Fort Sumter, 15,000 had tendered their services, and that, if necessary, 50,000 would be forthcoming. So large a number, however, would not be called for from there.
Kentucky, also, has a large body of men, who will be mustered into our service should the exigency arise. It may be that some of those troops may be discharged, and their places supplied by others; but 100,000 men will perhaps be in the field in less than three months. That is not counting Virginia. You, of course, will have a large force. All these forces should co-operate to be efficient; and while I don’t claim to be a military man, it seems to me to be clear, on general rational principles, that all the forces—those of the Confederate States, those of Virginia, as well as those of the border States that are not yet out of the Union—should be under one head, as also all the military operations of the country directed to the same ends. It is generally admitted that, in the execution of laws, it is essential that there should be one head; but more important than in the usual execution of laws is it that military operations should be under one head. In physical economy all the parts and functions in each organism, to be efficient, are under the control of one head, one animating, moving spirit, with one sensorium, one mind, one directing will. In military matters, looking to the same ends and objects, there should be one head. It is probable Virginia will be the main theatre, to a great extent, of the pending conflict. Maryland may be, perhaps—we don’t know; but the line of Virginia, your great waters on the North, necessarily make you, in this conflict, the theatre of large and extensive military operations, if not the scene of the bloodiest conflicts that this continent has ever yet witnessed. You will, necessarily, therefore, look to the Southern confederacy immediately for aid, even whether you become a member of it or not. I will state here, however, before passing any further, that we are looking to this, your ultimate union with us, as a fixed fact; and the unanimous desire of every branch of our government is, that, just as speedily as possible, you will thus link your fortunes with ours. Your cause is ours, your future will be ours; and your destiny must be ours.
But my mission relates to the intermediate time; to such alliance as may be necessary for the next twenty or forty days before action can be taken by the people in their sovereign capacity at the ballot-box. In the meantime, between now and then, the salus populi must be the rule of your action as the custodians of popular rights. Your duty to yourselves and your homes, is to look immediately to the pressing wants of your people, and, in the meantime, make such preparations as are necessary to meet this extraordinary exigency. Is it not essential that there should be concert and united action under one head? Now, what can Virginia do under a military organization distinct from that of the Confederate States? How can she act in concert with her allies, or those willing to help her without some compact or agreement? Troops from the South are already on the way here. Two regiments from South Carolina will, perhaps, be here within the next 24 hours. Forces have been ordered from Louisiana, and are coming immediately to your assistance. Ought there not to be some understanding as to how they shall be received and how directed? Would it not be better that these troops, as well as your whole military operations, should be under the control and supervision of our government? To me it seems essential for efficient action. These suggestions are thrown out for the consideration of the Convention.
There are other considerations which I might also present. I know the condition of your State in financial matters only to a limited extent. I know the vast resources of Virginia, and I know that her people, with the patriotism that has ever distinguished them, would never permit her cause to suffer for lack of means at any cost or sacrifice. But have you the means now at command? Arms must be had, munitions of war must be procured, men must be sent immediately to the field—these must be clothed and fed as well as armed. All this will require money. “Money is the sinew of war.” Where money cannot be had, credit may answer. But money or credit, which will command it, is essential. On the financial point, so far as it relates to the Confederate States, I may state here, that our Congress authorized a loan of fifteen millions at its last session.
The Secretary of the Treasury advertised for five millions. The loan was taken the day I left Montgomery. There were two days for its subscription. When I left, news had already reached by telegraph from the cities that seven millions of the loan of five that had been offered had been taken. The subscriptions in the interior towns had not been heard from, but it was believed that the whole amount would not fall far short of nine or ten millions—double the amount offered. This shows how our credit stands—the money thus raised is now at the disposal of our government; and it was believed that if an offer for the other five millions should be made, making the whole fifteen millions, it would be subscribed in ten days. Our people, from South Carolina to the Rio Grande, are in this movement heart and soul; and every dollar that can be raised will be used for the defence of the country in this emergency. No serious difficulty is apprehended as to our ability to raise the necessary means. In the State of Georgia, before we entered into an alliance with the other States, apprehensions were felt as to our available means. Georgia ordered a loan on her own account, of one million of dollars. This was promptly raised or provided for in our own State. What amount it will require to put your State in proper defence and to meet the invasion that may be looked for is a matter for your own considerate attention—and also whether the State at this time could, without a sacrifice of her credit, raise the requisite amount.
An army of not less than 50,000 men will doubtless be required in your State. On this point your distinguished commander-in-chief, just duly installed into office, can of course give better information than any conjecture of mine. But whether a small or large force shall be required, it may be considered as certain that many millions will be required to cover the expense. Whether you have the means to do this, is a matter for you to consider.
Again: if you had the means, another question is, would it be right for Virginia, on her own account, to make this heavy expenditure in this enterprise? Because you stand on the border, it is not our desire that you should fight our battles. We don’t wish you alone to fight these battles, or to bear yourself the expense of defending Virginia. I know that the intimation has been held out in other parts that we were not considering the peculiar circumstances of our brethren on the border States. I give you every assurance that our government feels thoroughly identified with you in interest, and we do not wish your great commonwealth to do more than bear her part in this contest. We know she is willing to do that. So far as the pecuniary matters are concerned then, I simply suggest whether it would not be wise and just and proper that all should share the burden equally —and whether we should not as our fathers did, in the first struggle for independence, look to each other, and bear equally the costs of a common cause? This I present, whether Virginia joins us ultimately or not. But to be entirely frank, I must say that we are looking to a speedy and early union of your State with our confederacy. Hence the greater importance for this immediate and temporary alliance. We want Virginia, the mother of States, as well as of statesmen, to be one of the States of our confederation. We want it because your people are our people—your interests are our interests; nay, more: because of the very prestige of the name of the old commonwealth. We want it, because of the memory of Jefferson, of Madison, and Washington, the father of his country—we want it for all the associations of the past—we want it because the principles in our Constitution, both provisional and permanent, sprung from Virginia. They emanated from your statesmen—they are Virginian throughout—taught by your illustrious sages, and by their instrumentality mainly, were incorporated in the old Constitution. That ancient and sacred instrument has no less of our regard and admiration now than it ever had. We quit the Union, but not the Constitution—this we have preserved. Secession from the old Union on the part of the Confederate States was founded upon the conviction that the time-honored Constitution of our fathers was about to be utterly undermined and destroyed, and that if the present administration at Washington had been permitted to rule over us, in less than four years, perhaps, this inestimable inheritance of liberty, regulated and protected by fundamental law, would have been forever lost. We believe that the movement with us has been the only course to save that great work of Virginia statesmen.
On this point indulge me a moment. Under the latitudinarian construction of the Constitution which prevails at the North, the general idea is maintained that the will of the majority is supreme; and as to Constitutional checks or restraints, they have no just conception of them. The Constitution was, at first, mainly the work of Southern men, and Virginia men at that. The government under it lasted only so long as it was kept in its proper sphere with due regard to its limitations, checks, and balances. This, from the origin of the Government, was effected mainly by Southern statesmen. It was only when all further effort seemed to be hopeless to keep the federal government within its proper sphere of delegated powers, that the Confederate States, each for itself, resumed those powers and looked out for new safeguards for their rights and domestic tranquility. These are found not in abandoning the Constitution, but in adhering only to those who will faithfully sustain it.
We have rescued the Constitution from utter annihilation. This is our conviction, and we believe history will so record the fact. You have seen what we have done. Our Constitution has been published. Perhaps most of you have read it. If not I have a copy here, which is at the service of any who may wish to examine it. It is the old Constitution, with all its essentials and some changes, of which I may speak presently.
It is upon this basis we are looking to your union with us; first, by the adoption of the Provisional Constitution, and then of the permanent one, in such a way as you may consider best, under the limitations of your powers. This I may be pardoned for pressing upon the Convention, and expressing the hope that they may do it, utterly ignoring all past differences of opinion.
In all bodies of men differences of opinion may be expected; but the disagreements and differences with you, as was the case with us, will perhaps be found to relate more as to the mode of action, than to the propriety and necessity of action of some sort. As to differences in the past, on the subject of Union and Secession, let them be buried and forgotten forever.
My position and views upon these questions in the past may be known to you. If not, it may be proper to state, and I feel no reluctance in declaring, in your presence here in the capitol of the old commonwealth of Virginia, that there never breathed a human spirit on the soil of America more strongly and devoutly attached to the Union of our fathers than I. I was, however, in favor of no Union that did not secure perfect equality and protection of all rights guaranteed under the Constitution. I was not insensible of the fact that several of the Northern States had openly repudiated their Constitutional obligations, and that if the principles of the present dominant party should be carried out, ultimate separation was inevitable. But still, I did trust that there was wisdom and patriotism enough at the North, when aroused, to correct the evils, to right the wrongs and to do us justice. I trusted even to the last, for some hopeful reaction in the popular sentiment at the North.
I was attached to the Union, however, not on account of the Union per se, but I was attached to it for what was its soul, its vitality and spirit; these were the living embodiments of the great principles of self-government, springing from the great truth, that the just powers of all governments are derived from the consent of the governed, as it was transmitted to us by our fathers. This is the foundation on which alone all Constitutional liberty is and must be based—and to these principles I am today attached just as ardently as I ever was before, and I now announce to you my solemn conviction that the only hope you have for the preservation of these principles, is by your alliance with those who have rescued, restored, and re-established them in the Constitution of the Confederate States—there is no hope in the States North.
The disagreements that existed in our State as to the course that we should pursue, before the last resort of secession was adopted, were more as to the mode and manner of redress, than as to the cause of the grievance or the existence of the grievance requiring redress. I take this occasion, in passing, to state to you, that in our Convention there was considerable difference of opinion on this view of the subject. It may not be known to you that on that occasion, I disagreed with the majority on the course adopted. My vote was recorded against the secession ordinance in our State. I was for making one more effort, and for getting the whole South united if possible in that effort for redress.
But when the State in her sovereign capacity determined otherwise, my judgment was yielded to hers. My allegiance was due to her. My fortunes were linked with hers; her cause was my cause; and her destiny was my destiny. A large minority in that Convention voted as I did. But after secession was determined on by the majority, a resolution was drawn up to the effect, that whereas the lack of unanimity on the passage of the ordinance, was owing more to a disagreement as to the proper mode at the time for a redress of existing wrongs and threatened wrongs, than as to the fact of the existence of such wrongs as required redress; therefore, after the mode aid manner was adopted by a majority of the Convention, that all of us, as an evidence of our determination to maintain the State in her chosen remedy, should sign the ordinance; and with that determination under that resolution, every member of the Convention, except six, signed it. Those six also declared upon record a like determination on their part. So our State became a unit upon the measure, when it was resolved upon. All anterior differences amongst us were dropped. The cause of Georgia was the cause of us all; and so I trust it will be in Virginia. Let all past differences be forgotten. Whether, if some other course had been adopted, our rights could have ultimately been secured in the old Union, is a problem now that can never be solved. I am free to confess, as I frankly do, that the late indications afford strong evidence that the majority at the North were bent upon our destruction at every cost and every hazard. At all events, we know that our only hope now is in our own strong arms and stout hearts, with unity among ourselves. Our course is adopted. We can take no steps backward. The time for compromise, if it ever existed, is past. Many entertained hopes from the “Peace Congress”—that failed. Even an extension of the Missouri line, which was offered by prominent Southern men, was sullenly rejected. Every indication of Northern sentiment on the part of the dominant party there, since the election last fall, shows that they were and are bent upon carrying out their aggressive and destructive policy against us. This they insidiously expected to succeed in, by relying upon the known strong Union sentiment in the border States. They evidently relied strongly on this in Virginia. Their policy being to divide and conquer. In this, I think, however, they counted without their host.
The people of Virginia may have been attached to the Union; but they are much more attached to their homes, their firesides and all that is dear to freemen —Constitutional liberty.
All hopes of preserving this in the old Union are gone forever. We must for the future look to ourselves. It is cheering to feel conscious that we are not without hope in that quarter. At first, I must confess, that I was not without serious apprehensions on that point. These apprehensions were allayed at Montgomery.
The men who were sent there were not such materials as revolutions usually throw up. They seemed to understand thoroughly the position of affairs—the past, the present, and the future. They duly appreciated the magnitude of the responsibilities resting upon them, and proved themselves, I trust, not only determined to overthrow one government, but capable of building up another. Their work, as I have said, is before you. One leading idea runs through the whole—the preservation of that time-honored Constitutional liberty which they inherited from their fathers.
The first thing was to organize a Provisional Government. This was done by the adoption of the Provisional Constitution. It is to last but one year, and conforms to our ancient usages as nearly as practicable. No changes in essential or fundamental principles. We have but one legislative body. This possesses the powers of the old Senate and House combined; but the rights of the States and the sovereign equality of each is fully recognized—more fully than under the old Constitution, which was the basis of the action of the Convention; for, during the Provisional Government, on all questions in Congress, each State has an equal vote. This Provisional Government was only a temporary arrangement to meet the exigencies until a permanent Constitution could be formed and put into operation. This was really the great work before them.
In this, as in the Provisional Government, the old Constitution of our fathers—the Constitution of Madison and Washington, was their model. I said I might say something touching its provisions. Time will not allow me to go much into details. You will please read and examine it minutely for yourselves. While the old Constitution was the basis and model of its construction, you will find in it several changes and modifications. Some of them important. But of them all I make in passing this general remark—they are all of a conservative character. This is the most striking characteristic of our revolution or change of government thus far, that none of the changes introduced are of a radical or downward tendency.
But all the changes—every one of them—are upon what is called the conservative side. Now, this I ask your special attention to. It is an important fact. I wish you specially to mark it, for I know that efforts has been made to create prejudice against our movement by telling the conservative men of the country that it sprung from some of the hot heads down South, and should not be relied on or trusted. But take the Constitution and read it, and you will find that every change in it from the old Constitution is conservative. In many respects it is all improvement upon the Constitution of our fathers. It has such improvements as the experience of seventy years showed were required. In this particular our revolution thus far is distinguished from popular revolutions in the history of the world. In it are settled many of the vexed questions which disturbed us in the old Confederacy. A few of these may be mentioned—such as that no money shall be appropriated from the common treasury for internal improvement; leaving all such matters for the local and State authorities. The tariff question is also settled. The presidential term is extended, and no re-election allowed. This will relieve the country of those periodical agitations from which sprang so much mischief in the old government. If history shall record the truth in reference to our past system of government, it will be written of us that one of the greatest evils in the old government was the scramble for public offices—connected with the Presidential election. This evil is entirely obviated under the Constitution which we have adopted.
Many other improvements, as I think, could be mentioned, but it is unnecessary. I have barely alluded to the subject to show you that we do not invite you to any wild scheme of revolution. We invite Virginia to join us in perpetuating the principles upon which she has ever stood—the only hope of constitutional liberty in the world, as I now seriously apprehend. If it fails with us, where else can we see hope? But for the South, what would have become of the principles of Jefferson, Madison, and Washington, as embodied in the old Constitution long ago? Whatever the United States Government has done in advancement of civilization, by solving the great principles of self-government by the people, through representatives clothed with delegated powers, is due mainly to the South. The achievement has been by Southern statesmen. The honor and glory of the Western Republic, to which the eyes of the world has been directed for years, was the work mainly of Southern men, and my judgment is, if you will pardon its expression, that just so soon as the South is entirely separated from the North, and the government at Washington has no longer the advice and counsel of your statesmen and the men of the South, they will go into confusion and anarchy speedily. It gives me no pleasure to think so. It would be to our advantage, as well as theirs, for them, as we can no longer live in safety and peace under the same Constitution, to go on and be prosperous, and leave us to do the same. But my conviction is that they will not. They do not understand Constitutional liberty. It is an exotic in their clime. It is a plant of Southern growth. I have, however, no war to make on their institutions. They seem to think them better than ours, and, not satisfied with this, they war upon ours. Now, the true policy of both sides, should be to let each other alone. Let both try their systems, not in war, but in friendly rivalship. Hence it is from no unkind feelings toward them or their institutions, that I express the opinion I do. I believe that our institutions are by far the best. My judgment is that theirs will be a failure. I would give them every opportunity to try them thoroughly by themselves, and for themselves. I simply give my view of what I believe to be the prospect on both sides, as well as the true policy of both; but I seriously doubt whether the rivalry which I would fain indulge the hope of seeing carried out, will be engaged in. War is what they are bent on in the start. Where this will end, time alone can determine. What I have ventured to say of the probable future of the North, is founded upon the experience and associations of many years with their public men in Washington. They do not seem to understand the nature or workings of a federative system. They have but slender conceptions of limited powers. Their ideas run into consolidation.
Whilst I was in Congress I knew of but few men there from the North who ever made a Constitutional argument on any question. They seemed to consider themselves as clothed with unlimited power. Mr. Webster was one of these distinguished few. Though he generally differed from Southern men on points of Constitutional power, yet he argued his side with great ability. Mr. Douglas is also another distinguished exception to the general remark. One or two others might be named as exceptions to the rule, but the great majority, the almost entire Representation from the North in Congress, both in the House and Senate, seemed really to have no correct idea of the nature of the government they were engaged in carrying on. They looked upon it simply as a government of majorities.
They did not seem to understand that it was a government that bound majorities by constitutional restraints. Now, nothing is more fixed or certain than that constitutional liberty can be maintained only by a rigid adherence to fundamental principles. Government is a science—the Northern mind seems disinclined to that sort of study. Excuse this digression. It may not, however, be altogether inappropriate to the occasion—all things being duly considered. It springs from no disposition on my part wantonly to disparage Northern character. It is intended rather to show where our future safety and security lies. We have our destiny under Providence in our own hands, and we must work it out the best we can. All we ask of our late confederates is to let us alone. But, be this as it may, we shall, I trust, be equal to the future and our mission, whether they choose to pursue toward us a peace or a war policy.
With union, harmony, concert of action and patriotism, our ultimate success in establishing or rather perpetuating a stable and good government on our ancient republican model need not be feared.
One good and wise feature in our new or revised Constitution is, that we have put to rest the vexed question of slavery forever, so far as the Confederate legislative halls are concerned. On this subject, from which sprung the immediate cause of our late troubles and threatened dangers, you will indulge me in a few remarks as not irrelevant to the occasion. The condition of the negro race amongst us presents a peculiar phase of republican civilization and constitutional liberty. To some, the problem seems hard to understand. The difficulty is in theory, not in practical demonstration; that works well enough—theories in government, as in all things else, must yield to facts. No truth is clearer than that the best form or system of government for any people or society is that which secures the greatest amount of happiness, not to the greatest number, but to all the constituent elements of that society, community or State. If our system does not accomplish this; if it is not the best for the negro as well as for the white man; for the inferior as well as the superior race, it is wrong in principle. But if it does, or is capable of doing this, then it is right, and can never be successfully assailed by reason or logic. That the negroes with us, under masters who care for, provide for and protect them, are better off, and enjoy more of the blessings of good government than their race does in any other part of the world, statistics abundantly prove. As a race, the African is inferior to the white man. Subordination to the white man is his normal condition. He is not his equal by nature, and cannot be made so by human laws or human institutions. Our system, therefore, so far as regards this inferior race, rests upon this great immutable law of nature. It is founded not upon wrong or injustice, but upon the eternal fitness of things. Hence, its harmonious working for the benefit and advantage of both. Why one race was made inferior to another, is not for us to inquire. The statesman and the Christian, as well as the philosopher, must take things as they find them, and do the best he can with them as he finds them.
The great truth, I repeat, upon which our system rests, is the inferiority of the African. The enemies of our institutions ignore this truth. They set out with the assumption that the races are equal; that the negro is equal to the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be legitimate. But their premises being false, their conclusions are false also. Most of that fanatical spirit at the North on this subject, which in its zeal without knowledge, would upturn our society and lay waste our fair country, springs from this false reasoning. Hence so much misapplied sympathy for fancied wrongs and sufferings. These wrongs and sufferings exist only in their heated imaginations. There can be no wrong where there is no violation of nature’s laws. We have heard much of the higher law. I believe myself in the higher law. We stand upon that higher law. I would defend and support no Constitution that is against the higher law. I mean by that the law of nature and of God. Human Constitutions and human laws that are made against the law of nature or of God, ought to be overturned; and if Seward was right the Constitution which he was sworn to support, and is now requiring others to swear to support, ought to have been overthrown long ago. It ought never to have been made. But in point of fact it is he and his associates in this crusade against us, who are warring against the higher law—we stand upon the laws of the Creator, upon the highest of all laws. It is the fanatics of the North, who are warring against the decrees of God Almighty, in their attempts to make things equal which he made unequal. My assurance of ultimate success in this controversy is strong from the conviction, that we stand upon the right. Some years ago in the Hall of the House of Representatives, a very prominent gentleman from Ohio, announced with a great deal of effect, that we at the South would be obliged to yield upon this question of slavery, because we warred against a principle; and that it was as impossible to war successfully against principle in politics as it was in mechanics. The principle, said he, would ultimately prevail. He announced this with imposing effect, and endeavored to maintain that we were contending against the great principle of equality in holding our fellow men. in the unnatural condition of bondage. In reply, I stated to him, that I admitted his proposition as he announced it, that it was impossible to war successfully against a principle in mechanics and the same was true in politics—the principle would certainly prevail—and from that stand point I had come to the conclusion that we of the South would ultimately succeed, and the North would be compelled to yield their ideas upon this subject. For it was they who were contending against a principle and not we. It was they who were trying to make the black man a white man, or his equal, which was nearly the same thing. The controlling laws of nature regulate the difference between them as absolutely as the laws of gravitation control whatever comes within their action—and until he could change the laws of gravitation, or any other law of nature, he could never make the negro a white man or his equal. No human efforts or human laws can change the leopard’s spots or the Ethiopian’s skin. These are the works of Providence—in whose hands are the fortunes of men as well as the destiny of nations and the distinctions of races.
On this subject a change is evidently going on in the intellectual world—in the republic of thinkers. The British West India experiment has done much to produce this change. All theories on the problem of human society must in the end yield to facts—just as all theories and speculations in other departments of science must yield to the same sure and unerring test. The changes of sentiment upon the subject of negro subordination have been great already, for this is the proper term to designate his condition with us. That they will continue as truth progresses, there can be no doubt. All new truths progress slowly. With us this change of view and sentiment has been wonderful. There has been almost a complete revolution within the last half century. It was a question little understood by the eminent statesmen of the South seventy years ago. This is no disparagement to their wisdom or ability. They were occupied in the solution of other great new truths upon which rested the first great principles of self-government by the governing race. These principles they solved and established. They met and proved themselves equal to the exigencies of their day and generation that was enough to fill the measure of their fame. Each generation in the eternal progress of all things connected with existence, must meet new questions, new problems, new phases of even old subjects, and it will be enough for the men of each generation, if they prove themselves equal to the requirement of the times in which they live. As our fathers were equal to all the questions of their day, so may their sons be at this and all succeeding times. This is the point to which our attention should be chiefly directed.
In our Constitution, provision is made for the admission of other States into the confederacy; but none can be admitted without first adopting our Constitution, and, consequently, none can be admitted who does not first adopt the fundamental principles on which our social and domestic institutions rest—thereby removing forever from our public or confederate councils that question which gave rise to so much disturbance in the old government.
I have, perhaps, detained you much longer than I ought to have done, and upon matters, perhaps, which you may consider not very pertinent to the object of my mission. This you will please excuse. As I said in the outset, I appeared before you upon your invitation and was rather at a loss what to say, until I knew more of your own objects and wishes—and without, therefore, trespassing further upon your time and patience, in conclusion, I will barely add, by way of recapitulation, the main object, then, I had in view in coming before you today, was simply to announce that our Government hailed with joy the news of your secession from the old Government, and a desire on your part to form an alliance with us. Our Government is very desirous that your ancient commonwealth shall become a member of our confederacy. Your interests and ours are the same; your safety the same, and your ultimate destiny must be the same. We are looking to your union with us as a certainty. But, in the meantime—before that union can be perfected by the action of your people, we think a temporary alliance or Convention of the highest importance to meet the exigencies of the day and the hour. The enemy is now on your border—almost at your door—he must be met. This can best be done by having your military operations under the common head at Montgomery—or it may be at Richmond. For, while I have no authority to speak on that subject, I feel at perfect liberty to say; that it is quite within the range of probability that, if such an alliance is made as seems to me ought to be made, the seat of our Government will, within a few weeks, be moved to this place. There is no permanent location at Montgomery —and should Virginia become, as it probably will, the theatre of the war, the whole may be transferred here—then all your military operations with ours will be under a common head. Your distinguished commander-in-chief, [General Lee], will, doubtless, have such a position as his great military talents and merits deserve. Whether in the Confederate Army proper, or in the State service, will, I doubt not, depend upon his own choice. The great object is to have perfect union, harmony, and co-operation under one head. We think also that it is better for you, in a financial point of view, to unite with us immediately. Besides this, we want your members at Montgomery. We want the voice of Virginia in our Confederate councils.
On this point, I would suggest to you that this Convention immediately, if you think you have got the power, appoint delegates to our Provisional Congress. My opinion is you have got the power. You may have to refer back to your constituents whatever change you make in your federal relations and in your State Constitution; but in all other matters you have plenary power. You certainly have full power to send delegates to the Provisional Congress.
Is it not expedient that you should send members immediately to the Congress that is to assemble at Montgomery next week? If you think it is necessary that this matter should be decided by the people, I would wait, even though perils threatened, before I would infringe upon the rights of the people. But at all events, I wish you to understand that we expect you to join us just as soon as you can. If you see fit to make an alliance offensive and defensive, we will have our military here just as soon after the alliance is concluded as possible. We want you to join us permanently by the adoption of the permanent Constitution, which will go into operation next winter, and of course it will be important to you in regard to the elections, that you change your fundamental law so far as relates to the election of members to the Southern Congress under that Constitution.
I must apologize to you for trespassing so long upon your patience. I have said so much in a desultory way that I have, I fear, overlooked or omitted some things that would have been more appropriate if I had known more of the temper and views of your body. But this is a time for free conference and consultation upon the general state of public affairs. It is from this conviction that I have addressed you as I have. You are now in possession of my views very fully and frankly. It may be that something may occur that may render it proper for me to appear before you again. In any discussions that may grow out of what I have submitted, I hold myself in readiness to confer with you; and if this body should decide to form any alliance, or treaty that may be thought proper, such as I have intimated, I will be found ready to meet them or any number that may be appointed to negotiate with me on the subject. I am alone, and have no associate; but any number that may be thought best on your part to meet me can be appointed.
If you desire to hear from me on any other point, most cheerfully I will be at your command.