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Speech on The Presidential Question
August 12, 1852 in Congress

 

     Mr. Stevens. Mr. Chairman, certain recent events, unimportant in themselves but of deep significance, induce me to trouble you for a short time. A small fragment of the Whig Party have deserted colors, and gone over – with what little political material they could collect – to the camp of the enemy. (Laughter) This in itself is a very small and insignificant occurrence, but it is an index and plain interpretation of many past exciting events, which have acquired a painful notoriety in the history of our country. It is a further development of a plan deliberately formed years ago, to organize parties upon different principles, if not under different names, from what had heretofore existed. It is a strong link in the chain of overwhelming evidence, which conclusively proves that the excitement which was created in this Hall three years since, and which so frightened ancient dames and old maidish men – that the wild fire which was kindled here, and sent forth to scorch the nation, was all created and all kindled for this contemptible conclusion. Until lately, the principles of the Whig party were clearly defined, and well understood. They consisted in obedience to the Constitution and all constitutional laws; in a protective tariff; in an equal participation of the public lands; in river and harbor improvements; in a sound currency, and a well regulated commerce. In all other things Whigs were permitted to differ in opinion, without forfeiting their allegiance to their party. They did differ in many things – on the question, for instance, of the naturalization laws, the cause of education, of morals, and religion. Being a national party, they were necessarily permitted to differ upon the subject of African slavery. In the South, Whigs and Democrats were slaveholders; but even there, many were found who condemned the institution, deplored its existence, and hoped for its final overthrow. But this question was not incorporated into any party creed. Emancipationists were found in both political parties. In the North, a great majority of the people believed, as they still believe, that slavery was a great moral, religious, and political evil – a disgrace to the nation, a reproach to humanity. They acknowledged their obligations to tolerate its existence, and to execute the provisions of the Constitution with regard to it. But in the North, opinion was by no means uniform. Scattered throughout all the free States, many men were found whose dispositions naturally inclined to domination, who sincerely believed that a portion of the human race were created for no other purpose than to be servants of others; that a part of mortal clay was a finer texture and nobler mold than the rest. This class was especially numerous in our large commercial cities, where more men are mercenary, and where princely fortunes beget kingly appetites.

    But this was never made a party question, nor attempted to be introduced into a party creed. Had it been, parties long ago, instead of being known as Whigs and Democrats, would have rallied under the names of slavery and freedom. To avoid this issue which must soon have degenerated into a mere sectional contest, has been the honest, sincere, and constant aim of all that portion of the Whig party that favored freedom. Whether they will be successful or not, I think, depends on the result of the ensuing election. Slavery, being local, was not suffered to disturb national parties, for, indeed, it was impossible to incorporate into a uniform creed for any party, what three fourths of the people abhorred and one fourth loved. To tolerate each other in their opinions upon this subject, and leave it an open question, was all that could be reasonably expected on either side of the line. But, as slaves became more numerous, and the produce of their labor became important articles of trade, the advocates of the institution determined to extend its boundaries, and change the whole current of public thought and public action with regard to it. They began some years ago, by denouncing and ridiculing the GREAT TRUTH first promulgated by the inspired authors of American independence, “that all men are born free and equal, and entitled to the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” To reduce this opinion to practical operation in both sections, the ambition of statesmen and the avarice of merchants have been appealed to. It was believed that if the whole South could be combined together, with a modicum of northern parasites, it would be sufficient to bend the proudest ambition and sternest will. It has been successfully tried on one northern aspirant to the Presidency of each party, whose carcasses now strew the political field; and it is now being tried upon that self-poised patriot who never yet quailed before the dictations of mortal man.

    Sir, I have been led into these remarks by the gentleman near me, (Mr. Faulkner,) and the gentleman from Georgia, (Mr. Toombs,) who is not now in his seat; and I say that, in my judgment, it was to aid this object, that, three years ago, at the opening of Congress, the gentleman from Georgia and his associates raised a furor and clamor within this Hall which could hardly have been justified had the Republic been in flames. Sir, their assigned cause for it was all factitious and unreal. I speak but the sentiment of the late lamented Executive, when I say that never for one moment was this Union in danger. Outside the walls of Congress, there was no excitement among the people except what was created here, and sent forth from this focus. The people nowhere desired the dissolution of the Union, except perhaps, in a single long cherished instance, and there it was desired not for safety, not for security, but for separate empire, for independent chiefs.

    The object of all this disgraceful turmoil, of all this false clamor, of all this national disturbance, was to compel both the political parties to incorporate into their party creeds the defense and propagation of slavery.

    The gentleman from Georgia, (Mr. Toombs,) stated with great candor, and the respectable gentleman from Virginia, (Mr. Faulkner,) in his late speech, gave as the specific reason for his abandonment of his party, that this subject of slavery was paramount to all others; every other question is to bow down before it; manufactures, agriculture, commerce, and especially liberty, are to be rejected, and slavery is to become the idol of our political adorations.

    The gentleman from Georgia denounced conventions. I agree with most that he said with regard to the construction of conventions, and the authority of their acts. I admit that the decrees of political conventions, and especially their dogmas, are of very low authority. Those conventions are often framed in a discreditable manner. The Democratic Party lately found the State of South Carolina represented by a single self-elected delegate – General Commander.

    Mr. Orr. No, sir, he was not admitted.

    Mr. Stevens. Not at the late convention, but at the one before that he cast the whole vote of South Carolina. At the late convention he was there, but could not command them. (Laughter)

    Now, sir, I will deal impartially, and speak of the Whig convention lately held in Baltimore. It admitted delegates from States having no Whig organization. The State of Georgia, as any gentleman from that State will bear me witness, had disbanded the Whig party, and never would have thought of sending delegates to that convention had they not been stimulated by an express from Washington. The constituents of the delegates who cast the vote of that State were members of Congress whom I daily see around me, and heads of Departments, and not the people of Georgia. Why, sir, that same messenger extended his journey to Charleston to search for Whigs enough there to represent South Carolina. It is said that when he got there, and they were all mustered, they amounted to three, and that the rest of that delegation was composed of custom house officers from the City of New York. (Laughter.) I admit that the platforms framed by such conventions can have no binding authority upon the people, especially as the people never delegated to them the power to construct platforms. They were sent there to select candidates to represent well known principles, and not to teach principles either to the people or to the candidates. They were sent there to fix upon candidates to represent principles which were established before they were born – which were promulgated by Washington, and Hamilton, by Jefferson and Madison, and other great men of the past and present age. For conventions of General Commanders and hired tide-waiters, to construct platforms for the people, is simply absurd arrogance.


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