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 State of the Union: Speech of Thaddeus Stevens,
Delivered On January 29, 1861, in Congress


     Let no slave State flatter itself that it can dissolve the Union now, and then reconstruct it on better terms. The present Constitution was formed in our weakness. Some of its compromises were odious, and have become more so by the unexpected increase of slaves, who were expected soon to run out. But now, in our strength, the conscience of the North would not allow them to enter into such a partnership with slaveholding. If this Union should be dissolved, its reconstruction would embrace one empire wholly slaveholding, and one republic wholly free. While we will religiously observe the present compact, nor attempt to be absolved from it, yet if it should be torn to pieces by rebels, our next United States will contain no foot of ground on which a slave can tread, no breath of air which a slave can breathe. Then we can boast of liberty. Then we can rise and expand to the full stature of untrammeled freemen, and hope for God’s blessings.”

    Mr. Stevens, of Pennsylvania. I do not expect to be heard in all parts of the Hall, owing to the bad state of my health and voice; but I will present some views on the pending question, which I may not have another opportunity to do.

    I regret, sir, that I am compelled to concur in the belief stated yesterday by the gentleman from Virginia, (Mr. Pryor,) that no compromise which can be made will have any effect in averting the present difficulty. (The impending outbreak of war with the southern states. Editor’s note) I concur in that belief, because it is my belief, although I regret the fact; for when I see these States in open and declared rebellion against the Union, seizing upon her public forts and arsenals, and robbing her of millions of the public property; when I see the batteries of seceding States blockading the highway of the nation, and their armies in battle array against the flag of the Union; when I see, sir, our flag insulted, and that insult submitted to, I have no hope that concession, humiliation, and compromise, can have any effect whatever. And what confirms me – if confirmation were necessary – and what confirms the remark of the gentleman from Virginia, (Mr. Pryor,) is a piece of news contained in the paper just laid upon the desks of the members. Virginia sends ambassadors to the head and front of the empire that is proposed to be erected upon the ruins of this Government, for the purpose of getting South Carolina to appoint commissioners for the purpose of proposing amendments to the Constitution of the United States, to secure their rights, as they say; and that kingdom of South Carolina peremptorily refuses to appoint any such commissioners, for the reason that it has no desire or design of promoting the ultimate object set forth in the joint resolutions of the State of Virginia – that is, the procurement of amendments to, or new guarantees in, the Constitution of the United States. Thus ends negotiation; thus ends concession; thus ends compromise, by the solemn declaration of the seceding party that they will not listen to concession or compromise.  

    Mr. Speaker, following the close upon the belligerent speech of the gentlemen for Virginia yesterday, I saw the contribution toward compromise which the slaveholding States are willing to make to the North – for compromise means some concession from both sides. Immediately after that speech a bill came up to admit Kansas into the Union; and I am sorry to say that almost every southern man, men who had just been appealing to us to furnish them ground to stand upon – almost in a solid body the southern men voted against even the consideration of the question of admitting Kansas, that source of all our woes. I leave the inference to the country.

    I have no expectations that anything we could say or do, or that could be said or done, in Congress, would have the least effect in retarding or accelerating the onward career of the secession movement which already pervades this land. I do not believe that words now will have any effect; yet it is right that the effort should be made. It is right that upon this floor we should enunciate our views; that from this Hall, sacred to freedom and free debate, we should inform our constituents of the condition of things that they may well consider them; so that, if we are wrong, they may correct us; and if we are right, they may strengthen our hands.

    Sir, I will touch but briefly upon the question of secession which is claimed by the gentleman from Virginia, (Mr. Pryor,) and upon the right of coercion, which is denied by him, and the kind of coercion which, in my judgment, will prove effectual to bring them back into this Union without humiliation, and make that Union permanent.

    I regret to be obliged to concur with the gentleman from Virginia, that no compromise can be offered that will avert the present evils. This morning’s papers contain conclusively confirmation of that in the resolutions of the leading seceding State, South Carolina, which are as follows:

    “Resolved unanimously, That the General Assembly of South Carolina tenders to the Legislature of Virginia their acknowledgements of the friendly motives which inspired the mission entrusted to Hon. Judge Robertson, her commissioner.  

    “Resolved unanimously, That candor, which is due to the long-continued sympathy and respect which has subsisted between Virginia and South Carolina, induces the Assembly to declare with frankness that they do not deem it advisable to initiate negotiations when they have no desire or intention to promote the ultimate object in view – that object which is declared in the resolution of the Virginia Legislature to be the procurement of amendments or new guarantees to the Constitution of the United States.

    “Resolved unanimously, That the separation of South Carolina from the Federal Union is final, and she has no further interest in the Constitution of the United States; and that the only appropriate negotiations between her and the Federal Government are as to their mutual relations as foreign States.”

    But I have not heretofore expected that anything that has been done, or could be said or done here, could have any effect in retarding or accelerating the headlong career of treason and rebellion that now frighten the land. This I deeply regret; as I should be willing to go to the verge of principle to avert this catastrophe.

    The question of the dissolution of the Union is a grave one, and should be approached without excitement, or passion, or fear. Difficulties have surrounded all nations in their inception, in their progress to greatness, and in their stability. Much of their success has depended on the ability and firmness of the statesmen who had management of affairs in the days of their trouble. The virtue most needed in times of peril is courage, calm, unwavering courage, which no danger can appal, and which will not be excited to action by indignation or revenge.

    If such statesmen, governed by such qualities, should be found at the head of this nation when danger comes, there can be no fear for the result. The Union will overcome all difficulties, and last through unnumbered ages to bless millions of happy freemen. Homilies upon the Union, and jeremiads over its destruction, can be of no use, except to display fine rhetoric and pathetic eloquence. The southern States will not be turned from their deliberate and stern purpose by soft words and touching lamentations. After the extent to which they have gone, it would do them no credit; condemnation which is now felt for their conduct, would degenerate into contempt.

    The annual message of the President contains some wholesome truths mixed with atrocious calumnies. It states that –

    “The long, continued, and intemperate interference of the northern people with the question of slavery in the southern states has at length produced its natural effects.”

    The President well knew that the anti-slavery party of the North never interfered, or claimed the right to interfere, or expressed the desire to intermeddle, with slavery in the States. Search the proceedings of their Legislatures, their conventions, and their party creeds, and you will find them always disclaiming the right or intention to touch slavery in the States where it existed. But this calumny on the freemen of the North, so often repeated by a man who, during his whole political life, has been the slave of slavery, is not worth a moment’s consideration. He makes a very able and conclusive argument against the right of secession; and had he followed it out to its legitimate results, he would have deserved the gratitude of his country.

    But after denouncing secession as a great wrong, he came to the impotent conclusion that there is no power in the Government to prevent or punish it.

    It is time that this important question were solved. I do not perceive when any better occasion can present itself to decide whether this Union exists by the sufferance of the individual States, or whether it requires a constitutional majority to absolve them from their allegiance. If it should be determined that secession is a rightful act, or that there is no power to prevent it, then the Union is not worth preserving for a single day; for whatever disposition shall be made of the present difficulty, fancied wrongs will constantly arise, and induce State after State to withdraw from the Confederacy. If, on the other hand, it should be decided that we are ONE PEOPLE, and that the Government possesses sufficient power to coerce obedience, the public mind will be quieted, plotters of disunion will be regarded as traitors, and we shall long remain a united and happy people.

    It did not require the present Constitution to make our Union perpetual in theory. The Articles of Confederation declared in express terms:

     “That the Articles of Confederation shall be inviolably observed by every State, and the Union shall be perpetual.”

    If the force of moral suasion and patriotism were alone to be relied on to insure its perpetuity, the convention which substituted the present for the old Constitution was but little needed. True, there were other defects in the old Articles. The several States had conflicting laws with regard to the revenue, taxation, and other subjects. As Congress could operate only on the States if they refused to comply with their requisitions, it was difficult to enforce them. But the great defect in the preceding Government was want of authority; and the main motive for the change was to clothe the central Government with sufficient power to perpetuate its own existence. The resolutions of the several States appointing delegates to the convention, and the act of Congress recommending it, show that. The act pf Congress of May, 1787, recommended a convention “so as to alter the Articles of Confederation as shall be necessary to the preservation and support of the Union.” Connecticut instructed hers in the same words. New York instructed, so to amend as to render the Federal Government “adequate to the exigencies of Government and the preservation of the Union.”

    As to coercion, General Washington, in a letter to Mr. Madison, dated before the convention, (March 31, 1787,) in discussing the necessity for a stronger Federal Government, says:

    “I confess, however, that my opinion of public virtue is so far changed, that I have my doubts whether any system without the means of coercion in the sovereign, will enforce due obedience to the requirements of the General Government; without which everything else fails.”

    These quotations might be fortified by similar ones from many States and leading statesmen. They prove, beyond all doubt, that the Constitution was intended and supposed to confer on the Government sufficient power to depend and perpetuate the Union; if necessary, to “coerce” a rebel State, or, to reach the same point by a surer road, to coerce the people of the State to obey all laws of the General Government.

     The Congress of the Confederation could act only on States. If they were refractory, it was difficult to enforce the laws. The Constitution is made to operate directly on the individuals – on the people, without resorting to State authorities or asking State aid. The Constitution being ordained by the people, and operating directly on them, does not permit the States to thwart its operations any more than it invokes their aid. It is self-sustaining, independent power, and absolutely sovereign within its sphere. If a State pass a laws or ordinances hostile to the Constitution, no citizen is bound to obey them. Nay, he is bound not to obey them. If, in obedience to them, he violates the Constitution, he cannot plead such laws in his defense. It behooves every citizen, at his peril, to decide whether he will obey the higher or the lower power – the Constitution of the United States or the void enactment of the States. If he commit treason against the United States, he will not be excused, like a soldier who obeys his commander, on the ground of obedience to higher authority.

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