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Alexander Hamilton Stephens: Secession is the Heights of Madness

Author: Alexander Hamilton Stephens
Year: 1861
Location: Georgia, the US
Occasion: State Convention of Georgia

Critical Commentary:

Alexander Stephens delivered this speech at the Special Convention in Georgia, which was to decide on further events in the United States. The Secession of Georgia from the United States was in the center of discussion. Stephens appealed to the South to remain with the Union. He distinctly opposed the secession, but at the same time he kept this right in case if the federal authorities continued discrediting of the Fugitive Slave Law. Stephens was elected the president of the Confederacy.

Text of the Speech

This step (of secession) once taken, can never be recalled; and all the baleful and withering consequences that must follow, will rest on the convention for all coming time. When we and our posterity shall see our lovely South desolated by the demon of war, which this act of yours will inevitably invite and call forth: when our green fields of waving harvest shall be trodden down by the murderous soldiery and fiery car of war sweeping over our land; our temples of justice laid in ashes; all the horrors and desolations of war upon us; who but this convention will be held responsible for it? and who but him who shall have given his vote for this unwise and ill-timed measure, as I honestly think and believe, shall be held to strict account for this suicidal act by the present generation, and probably cursed and execrated by posterity for all coming time, for the wide and desolating ruin that will inevitably follow this act you now propose to perpetrate? Pause, I entreat you, and consider for a moment what reasons you can give that will even satisfy yourselves in calmer moments - what reasons you can give to your fellow-sufferers in the calamity that it will bring upon us. What reasons can you give to the nations of the earth to justify it? They will be the calm and deliberate judges in the case; and what cause or one overt act can you name or point, on which to rest the plea of justification? What right has the North assailed? What interest of the South has been invaded? What justice has been denied? and what claim founded in justice and right has been withheld? Can either of you to-day name one governmental act of wrong, deliberately and purposely done by the government of Washington, of which the South has a right to complain? I challenge the answer.

While, on the other hand, let me show the facts (and believe me, gentlemen, I am not here the advocate of the North; but I am here the friend, the firm friend, and lover of the South and her institutions, and for this reason I speak thus plainly and faithfully for yours, mine, and every other man's interest, the words of truth and soberness), of which I wish you to judge, and I will only state facts which are clear and undeniable, and which now stand as records authentic in the history of our country. When we of the South demanded the slave-trade, or the importation of Africans for the cultivation of our lands, did they not yield the right for twenty years? When we asked a three-fifths representation in Congress for our slaves, was it not granted? When we asked and demanded the return of any fugitive from justice, or the recovery of those persons owing labor or allegiance, was it not incorporated in the Constitution, and again ratified and strengthened by the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850? But do you reply that in many instances they have violated this compact, and have not been faithful to their engagements? As individual and local communities, they may have done so; but not by the sanction of Government; for that has always been true to Southern interests. Again, gentlemen, look at another act: when we have asked that more territory should be added, that we might spread the institution of slavery, have they not yielded to our demands in giving us Louisiana, Florida, and Texas, out of which four States have been carved, and ample territory for four more to be added in due time, if you by this unwise and impolitic act do not destroy this hope, and, perhaps, by it lose all, and have your last slave wrenched from you by stern military rule, as South America and Mexico were; or by the vindictive decree of a universal emancipation, which may reasonably be expected to follow?

Leaving out of view, for the present, the countless millions of dollars you must expend in a war with the North; with tens of thousands of your sons and brothers slain in battle, and offered up as sacrifices upon the altar of your ambition - and for what, we ask again? Is it for the overthrow of the American Government, established by our common ancestry, cemented and built up by their sweat and blood, and founded on the broad principles of Right, Justice, and Humanity? And, as such, I must declare here, as I have often done before, and which has been repeated by the greatest and wisest of statemen and patriots in this and other lands, that it is the best and freest Government - the most equal in its rights, the most just in its decisions, the most lenient in its measures, and the most aspiring it its principles to elevate the race of men, that the sun of heaven ever shone upon. Now, for you to attempt to overthrow such a Government as this, under which we have lived for more than three-quarters of a century - in which we have gained our wealth, our standing as a nation, our domestic safety while the elements of peril are around us, with peace and tranquility accompanied with unbounded prosperity and rights unassailed - is the height of madness, folly, and wickedness, to which I can neither lend my sanction nor my vote.

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