You Never Can Subjugate Us

Judah Philip Benjamin of Louisiana
United States Senate, December 31, 1860  

The wrongs under which the South is now suffering, and for which she seeks redress, seem to arise chiefly from a difference in our construction of the Constitution. You, Senators of the Republican party, assert, and your people whom you represent assert, that, under a just and fair interpretation of the Federal Constitution, it is right that you deny that our slaves, which directly and indirectly involve a value of more than four thousand million dollars, are property at all, or entitled to protection in Territories owned by the common Government. You assume the interpretation that it is right to encourage, by all possible means, directly and indirectly, the robberyof this property and to legislate so as to render its recovery as difficult and dangerous as possible; that it is right and proper and justifiable, under the Constitution, to prevent our mere transit across a sister State, to embark with our property on a lawful voyage, without being openly despoiled of it. You assert, and practice upon the assertion, that it is right to hold us up to the ban of mankind in speech, writing, and print, with every possible appliance of publicity, as thieves, robbers, murderers, villains, and criminals of the blackest dye, because we continue to own property which we owned at the time that we all signed the compact; that it is right that we should be exposed to spend our treasure in the purchase, or shed our blood in the conquest, of foreign territory, with no right to enter it for settlement without leaving behind our most valuable property, under penalty of its confiscation. You practically interpret this instrument to be that it is eminently in accordance with the assurance that our tranquility and welfare were to be preserved and promoted; that our sister States should combine to prevent our growth and development; that they should surround us with a cordon of hostile communities for the express and avowed purpose of accumulating in dense masses, and within restricted limits, a population which you believe to be dangerous, and thereby force the sacrifice of property nearly sufficent in value to pay the public debt of every nation in Europe.

This is the construction of the instrument that was to preserve our security, promote our welfare, and which we only signed on your assurance that that was its object. You tell us that this is a fair construction - not all, some say one thing, some say another; but you act, or your people do, upon this principle. You do not propose to enter into our States, you say, and what do we complain of? You do not pretend to enter into our States to kill or destroy our institutions by force. Oh, no. You imitate the faith of Rhadamistus, who, according to Tacitus's account, having sworn to Mithridates that he would not employ either poison or steel against him, caused him to be smothered under a heap of clothes. You propose simply to close us in an embrace that will suffocate us. You do not propose to fell the tree; you promised not. You merely propose to girdle it, that it dies. And then, when we tell you that we did not understand this bargain this way, that your acting upon it in this spirit releases us from the obligations that accompany it; that under no circumstances can we consent to live together under that interpretation and say: "we will go from you; let us go in peace"; we are answered by your leading spokesmen: "Oh, no; you cannot do that; we have no objection to it personally, but we are bound by our oaths; if you attempt it, your people will be hanged for treason. We have examined this Constitution thoroughly; we have searched it out with a fair spirit, and we can find warrant in it for releasing ourselves from the obligation of giving you any of its benefits, but our oaths force us to tax you; we can dispense with everything else; but our consciences, we protest upon our souls, will be sorely worried if we do not take your money." [Laughter.] That is the proposition of the honorable Senator from Ohio, in plain language. He can avoid everything else under the Constitution, in the way of secession; but how is he to get rid of the duty of taking our money he cannot see. [Laughter.]

Now, Senators, this picture is not placed before you with any idea that it will act upon any one of you, or change your views, or alter your conduct. All hope of that is gone. Our committee has reported this morning that no possible scheme of adjustment can be devised by them all combined. The day for the adjustment has passed. If you would give it now, you are too late.

And now, Senators, within a few weeks we part to meet as Senators in one common council chamber of the nation no more forever. We desire, we beseech you, let this parting be in peace. I conjure you to indulge in no vain delusion that duty or conscience, interest or honor, imposes upon you the necessity of invading our States or shedding the blood of our people. You have no possible justification for it. I trust it is in no craven spirit, and with no sacrifice of the honor or dignity of my own State, that I make this last appeal, but from far higher and holier motives. If, however, it shall prove vain, if you are resolved to pervert the Government framed by the fathers for the protection of our rights into an instrument for subjugating and enslaving us, then, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the universe for the rectitude of our intentions, we must meet the issue that you force upon us as best becomes freemen defending all that is dear to man.

What may be the fate of this horrible contest, no man can tell, none pretend to foresee; but this much I will say: the fortunes of war may be adverse to our arms; you may carry desolation into our peaceful land, and with torch and fire you may set our cities in flames; you may even emulate the atrocities of those who, in the war of the Revolution, hounded on the blood-thirsty savage to attack upon the defenceless frontier; you may under the protection of your advancing armies, give shelter to the furious fanatics who desire, and profess to desire, nothing more than to add all the horrors of a servile insurrection to the calamities of civil war; you may do all this---and more, too, if more there be---but you never can subjugate us; you never can convert the free sons of the soil into vassals, paying tribute to your power; and you never, never can degrade them to the level of an inferior and servile race. Never! Never! [Loud applause in the galleries.]

Great Debates in American History, Volume Five, pages 384-387 Current Literature Publishing Company, New York, 1913