Emerson Etheridge.

State of the Union. Speech of Hon. Emerson Etheridge, of Tennessee (Volume 2) online

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Mhere4 in iUEoim of liepreseataJifes, Jae, 2X mu




S I=» E E O KC

The Hrnta havisg ander consideration the report of the

Mr. Speaker, I have frequently had oc-
casion to express my opinions in regard to
matters of grave public concern, and I have
often done so at the risk of imputations upon
ray political integrity. I have too fre-
quently found that many of those with whom
I differed, have indulged in censure of my
acts, and imputed even treason to my mo-
tives. In a contest like this, involving as it
does, the existence of the Government, and
the preservation of popular freedom ; arous-
ing as it does, the fiercest passions of rival
and contending parties, a man must be at ]
once for or against his whole country. It
matters not under what banner he arrays
himself, those upon the opposite side will i
attacii to him the most selfish and treason- '
able aims. I say, therefore, in advance, !
that in whatever 1 may now say upon the
subject under consideration, I shall not seek ]
to evade any responsibilities of that kind, j
I shall not attempt to speak merely to avoid |
censure, or [by affectation or hypocrisy ^^to
court commendatioa. In what I say, I
shall be bound by a strict regard for truth.
The opinions I shall avow are those sanc-
tioned by observation ani experience; they
have the approval of my heart. And the
facts to which I shall refer, will, I am sure,
be sustained by the unquestioned truths of

Sir, if I had a jury of twelve honest and
unpretending men, sworn well and truly to
try the issues joined between the contending
factions — a jury belonging to no political
party, and without oiner motive than a de-
sire to subserve the best interests of their
country — I could, by submitting a plain
statement of undisputed facts, have a prompt
and unanimous verdict in favor of preserv-
ing the Union of thesv States. Unfortu-
nately, sir, we cannot here, raid now, get a
disinterested jury ; but it is consoling to
know that lime will soon adjourn ail these
difficult questions to the arbitrament of all
the people, who, with no other weapon thai,
the ballot-box, will be able to arrest revolu-
tion and save the country. If, for the last
year or two, the men and women of this
country could have observed the deliberations
of this body; could have seen each member
as he is, and witnessed your daily proceed-
ings, they would instantly rise up all over
the country, and arrest the tide of revolution,
which is threatening to involve us all in one
eommon ruin. There afe thirty millions of

select committee of tUirty-tbroe-»

people whose ptace and happiness, whose
very existence is involved in these grave
issues. This Hou^e is composed of but two
hundred and thirty-six members, some of
whom, doubtless, have reached their present
position by the merest accidents. It may be
safely assumed that each member of this
body represents, among his immediate con-
stituents, more than that number of states-
men — statesmen, perhaps, our superiors ia
wisdom and moderation, yet we are to be
told in this day of fearful precipitation, that
because forsooth. Congress, elected as it has
been, without reference to the issues now be-
fore us, cannot, or v^ill not, instantly do
something to stay the tide of revolution,
therefore, there is no hope for the country.
I say, again, could the people behold those
who are now around me, could they see
■ them when under their alternate hopes and
fears — the hopes inspired by the " Tribune,"
or the fears arousad by the thunderings of
the " Herald," — [Laughter.] could they see
and know all these things, as they really
are, their good sense would cause them to
reject with scorn, the idea of hazarding,
finally and forever, the peace of the country
almia ujwn the deliberations of such a body?
Can it be possible that we hold the final des-
tinies of such a people, and such a country
in our hands alone 1 I answer, no ; such an
imputation is a libel upon the good sense of
the millions who are resolved to preserve the
institutions our ancestors so wisely ordained.
As well might so many hackmen, gathered
promiscuously from the streets of New York,
get together and constitute themselves sole
arbiters of a country, which will endure so
long as we are fit to be free. In what spirit
was our Government conceived ? It was in
jealousy, and not in confidence. Why, sir,
by the very Constitution which you and I
have sworn to support — and I mean to keep
my oath — your Government alone was
formed ; and throughout every line of that
Constitution, is a manifest distrust of man's
ability to resist the temptations of power.
Hence, short terms in office were prescribed,
and every officer of the Governmont was
required to swear fealty to that Constitution.
Even the Father of liis Country was not
allowed to assume the Executive authority,
until he had fir.st invoked the vengeance of
Heaven, should he fail faithfully to support
and defend the Constitution he bad assisted
to ordain. This body is wisely so constitu
ted that, at the e ;piration of every two years,

we are compelled by the Constitution, to
return our authority to the people. If dis-
satisfied witli our conduct they are sure to
dispense with our services. Our Govern-
ment contemplated just such emergencies as
we are noAv compelled to meet, and, how-
ever, contumacious the politicians may be,
in despite of thera, every issue now before
us will soon be adjourned by the Constitu-
tion itself to the decision of the whole peo-
ple. They have the good sense and patriot^
ism to work out a safe solution of all real
or pretended difficulties. If error prevails
now, their sound judgment will combat it
successfully, and all will finally l)c well

Mr. Speaker, althoQgh we are to-day de-
liberating upon questions which, when we
were respectively elected, were not before
the American people, yet the hasty precipita-
tors of this revolution, tell us, if we do not
decide at once, and so deciding come up to
their requirements, we must accepf, the al-
ternative of dismemberment with all its at-
tendant horrors ! I protest against it. I
demand, to-day, for the innocent millions
whose peace, prosperity, civilization — whose
very existence is so fearfully involved, an
adjournment of this whole matter from the
arbitrament of maddened unrelenting politi-
cians to all the people — to those v/hose ser-
vants we are, and who will not fail in this
great emergency, to save the priceless heri-
tage which you have no rightful power to
destroy. And, sir, if you do not so adjourn
all these questions to the people — to those
whose peace and happiness are so fearfully
imperilled — they will speedily adjourn you
to a dark oblivion, and write shame and in-
famy upon your graves. What right have
you or I, or any one of us, to assume that we
alone will pass, finally, upon the questions
of peace and war, among our own people,
when'ihey themselves, with the balloc-box in
their hands, are impatient, as I believe, to
pass their judgment upon these measures,
which, however, abstract they may be, will,
if adopted, disarm the enemies of the Union
of their treasonable pretexts, and leave them
without further power to mislead their too
confiding victims. I yet trust this House
will do something — yes, sir, do much, to
allay this alarm, and apprehension ; and
while I shall continue to vote for every pro-
position to disarm ihose ichose aim is dlf<ii/non,
and whose grievances are mainly pretexts,
1 do not hesitate to announce in my plaae,
that if this Congress shall, finally, fail to meet
the public expectation in patriotic quarters,
I will not then be willing to abandon my
interest in almost the only government in the
world, which is worth preserving. This j
House cannot, by any indifference it may j
lYianifiel ^0'th^ various propotitions before I

it, force me to join those, who, aiming at dis-
union as an end, expect by your indifference
to gather strength for their revolutionary de-
signs. Before I consent to aid in the over-
throw of my country, and to extinguish its
nationality, I will counsel with your masters—
thfe people — those in whose unambitious
hearts, love of country and of kind, burns as
brightly as of yore.

Sir, this revolution which threatens, speedi-
ly to involve us all, and which is suggestive
of so terrible a future, is the most extraordi-
nary, unpardonable, and indefensible the
world has ever looked upon; and public men
all over the country, of whom better things
were expected — men who, a few months ago,
were indignant at the bare suspicion of their
sympathy or complicity with those who
were i/ioi plotting revolution, are now coun-
selling armed rebellion, and playing with the
worst passions of mankind, as though nothing
serious were involved in the result.

I propose to meet fairly the dread aUerna-
tive presented by these precipitators ; to meet
them in a candid spirit, and to array in
opposition to their real and pretended griev-
ances, some of the manifold blessings which
all sections of the country have derived
from the Government — a Governmentwhich
smiles even yet benignantly upon its mis-
guided children. And may I not ask, what
utter madness and folly, must there be in
subverting the Government for the purpose
of securing out of the Union, rights or privi-
leges which may not be secured or vindicated
by candid appeals to our kindred and friends,
who salute the same flag, and acknowledge
a common ancestry.

It is a remarkable and most significant fact,
that this revolution is not justified or carried
on with reference so much to anything which
lixis been done by Congress, or any political
party,%s because of dangers which, it is al-
leged, are to be apprehended ia the future.
The only thing charged to have been already
done or performed, as was said by my friend
from Virginia, [Mr. MillsonJ twodaysago,
is the passage by the Legislatures of some
of the free States, of the so-called Personal
Li! erty bills. If I had time — I have not — I
believe precipitation reigns here, and each
moment, as it "rides upon the dial's point,"
(pointing to the clock,) admonishes me that
1, too, must be precipitate. If I had time, I
could show — and I challenge contradiction
from any disunionist, if such there be here —
that you will be infinitely more the victims
of the unfriendly legislation of the free
States, when the Government has been des-
troyed, than you now are, or ever can be,
while the Constitution endures and the
Union is maintained. This — the passage of
the Personal Liberty bills — I repeat, is the
only thing now actually done or performed

by an/ depar':nieiit of Govprnnient, State or
Fee oral, otwhicii even disunionists can com-
plain. I wiW endoavar, t'len, tb sita'te the
dancjers you profess to fear in the future.

First, Yoj .-ay the p3oph' of the North are
op[io:5cd to the execution ol the fugitive shivc

SecQii'l, That the Republican party, wlien
they obtain coitrol of hoth branches of Con-
gress, intend to exclude slavery from all the
Territories by act of Congress.

Third, That the people of the North re-
fuse to grant Congressional protection to
slave property in the free Territories.

Fourth, That they intend, finally, to change
the Federal Constitution, thereby to enable
them to abolish slavery in the States.

Fifth, That the people of the free States
are opposed to slavery.

Sixth, That the people of the respective
sections are not homogeneous — that they hate
each other. a

Seventh, That some of the people of the
free States, favor thesocialaad political equal-
ity of the negro.

Eightlt, That the South is in danger of in-
vasions, similar to John Brown's raid into

I think I have fairly stated all the various
charges which the disunionists have embo-
died into this indictment against the Govern-
ment they seek to overthrow, and the people
they would treat as enemies. Now, sir, I
frankly confess that the Personal Liberty
bills do exist in some of the free States, They
are, whenever designed to evade the Consti-
tution or the laws passed under it, without
extenuation or excuse. But it is gratifying
to perceive, if the signs of the times are
worth anything, that all these Personal Lib-
erty bills, which in any manner conflict
with the Constitution, are soon to be swept
from- the statute books of the free States.
And if this were not so, it should not be for-
gotten, that these laws have existed during
the whole of the last eight years of Demo-
cratic rule, and without so much as a threat
of revolution for such a cause; nor should
it be overlooked, that if they are unconstUu-
iional they are simply void, and if they are
passed without a violation of the Constitu-
tion, as States-rights men you have less rea-
son to complain. I repeat they will soon be
repealed. Nothing retards it now, in ray
opinion, but that general repugnance which
all men feel in doing anything seemingly,
"upon cdmiuilsion." I repeat, this is the
only act that has been done, by State or Fed-
eral authority, upon which disunion is justi-
fied by its advocates; and, as I before said,
the other grounds of complaint are in refer-
ence to things you profess to believe will
hereafter oscur — things which never have
happened, and which never could transpire

if the seceding States had continued in the
Union, and yourrcpresentatives had remained
at their posts. I taight further remark in re-
gard to these Personal Liberty bills, that they
do not, as I am assured, exist in the border
free States — the States which immediately
adjoin the slave States — Iowa, Illinois, In-
diana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.
Where, then, do they exist? They are found
on the statute books only, of such far off
States as Vermont — a State in which, I am
assured, there has not been a fugitive slave
for forty years; a State as inaccessible to a
slave's approach, as his escape is impossible
from South Carolina.

But yoa say that slaves escape from the
southern States, and are permitted to pass
through the free States, and take refuge in
Canada. I grant this to be true ; and they
will, in all time to come, occasionally es-
cape from their owners. No system of laws
can guard against it. In some negroes a
disposition to run away is inherent. It must
be endured, unless, per chance, you can in-
vent some peculiar lineament to restrain the
elasticity of their legs. (Laughter.) I reside
within a day's ride of the iVee States, yet
I have never known more than one slave to
make his escape from my own neighborhood
into the free States. He passed through that
part of Kentucky now represented by my
friend, [Mr. Burnett,] and took refuge in
Illinois. He was arrested by some of the
citizens of that State and taken back to his
owner. Now, I will not blame my friend
from Kentucky for permitting this fugitive
to pass thiviigh his district, nor will I coun-
sel disunion because his constituents did not
arrest him on his way. Fugitive slaves do
pass through the free States, and find free-
dom in Canada, but have you any means of
reclaiming them now, in the British domin-
ions; aiid will not a disruption of the Union,
in effect, bring the Canada line down to the
banks of the Ohio ?

But what appeals have the southern States
made to the free States to repeal tiiese stat-
utes? Is not their existence rather an ima-
ginary than a real grievance? For I am
informed that under them no fugitive slave
has ever been liberated, nor has there been,
at any time, a prosecution or fine, forfeiture
or conviction, for any alleged violation of
their provisions. Instead of seeking relief
in that spirit which would have given dig-
nity and effect to the app.eal, the whole
matter has been left to the party newspapers
and politicians.

But the precipitators complain, as I have
stated, that many of the people of the free
States are hostile to the execution of the
fugitive-slave law. Doubtless this is so to a
great extent; but this is not the fault of the
Federal Government, nor of the law. Mr.


Buchanan, in his late annual message to
Congress, used this very language :

"The fugitive-slave law has been carried into execu-
tion ill every contesteJ case eiiicc the ccmmencement of
^e present administration."

And it is a matter of history, that not a
dozen slaves have been rescued within the
last forty years, from the custody of the offi-
cers of the United States, while acting under
the authority of that law. You know the
statement I make is true, although the people
of the South are made to believe that it is
impossible to recapture a runaway slave
•without his being in almost every instance
rescued from the custody of the officers of
the law. And while every rescue is made
a matter of public notoriety, mention in
rarely, if ever made, of the instances in
which the law is enforced. We all know
that fugitive slaves are almost constantly
being captured in the free States and car-
ried back to their owners; but informa-
tion of cases of this kind rarely find their
way into the party newspapers — certainly
not in those which advocate disunion. But
a mob or a riot, originating in matters of
this kind, is the food upon which secession
leaders wax wroth and grow fat. If the fu-
gitive-slave law is not now well executed,
will it be more faithfully enforced if you dis-
solve the Union ? Will you then have any
fugitive-slave law whatever? It cannot ex-
ist for a moment beyond the life of that
Constitution which secession seeks to destroy.

Whether we have two or more Confedera-
cies, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, and
Maryland are to be converted into mere out-
posts. The people who know most of their
present free-State neighbors, and with whom
commercial intercourse must of necessity
exist, are to have their immediate northern
friends transformed into enemies, and all the
priveleges of the Constitution are to be sur-
rendered for the poor boon of standing as
military sentinels to guard those who dream
of Southern Confederacies, and feel secure
because of their remoteness from danger.
These seceding States are now no sufferers
from the evilsof which they complain. They
know nothing of Personal Liberty bills, ex-
cept as lliey atford pretexts for their schemes,
while hundreds of miles of slave territory
intervenes between them and the free States.
It is the border slave States I have named
which alone feel the injustice of the aboli-
tionists; and now the Gulf States propose by
disunion, to aggravate all these evils and
add to their number a thousand fold. It re-
mains to be seen if they and their misguided
allies can so far mislead the. people of tlie
borc'er slave States as to induce them thus
recklessly to ttirovv away their best interests,
to gratify the malignity of disappointed
ambition. And let it be remembered that

there is no complaint from any quarter of
the South against the provisions of the
fugitive-slave law. The charge, as I have
already said, is that some of the people of
the free Slates do not approve its provisions,
and sometimes resist its enforcement. But
this is not the fault of the Federal Govern-
ment, wliich disunion would madly destroy.
Mr. Orr, late the presiding officer of this
House, and very recently a resident Com-
missioner "near the Government of the
United States," from the Kingdom of South
Carolina, (laughter) has declared the fugi-
tive-slave law to be "as stringent as humaa
ingenuity can make it." I ask my friends
who are in favor of dissolving the Union, if
its overthrow vsiil make the fugitive-slave
law more stringent, or make the radicai
anti-slavery men of the free States more in-
clined to admire its provisions. I frankly
adm't that the northern people are opposed
to slgvery in the abstract ; they always werej
they are so now, and they always will be so.
You cannot find an honest northern man,
born, reared, and educated in a free State —
and who knows nothing of the stern neces-
sity of the relation of servitude as it exists in
the southern States, but what he hears frona
Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and their co-
adjutors — who is not opposed to slavery m
the abstract. It is true many of your Yan-
kees go South, and almost instantly fall ia
love with a negro (laughter) — I beg pardon —
with a woman who has some real or contin-
gent interest in a plantation and negroes;
and not unfrequently they cajole her into
marriage. Very soon you will hear them
announce their belief in the theory of Agas-
siz, and descant hugely against the unity of
the human race. I have had repeated lec-
tures myself from these interesting gentry.
I repeat that the people of the free States
have always been opposed to slavery — as
evidence of which I point you to the fact
that they abolished it when it existed among
them. It is quite as difficult to make a
northern man favorable to negro slavery —
without making him interested in it — as it is
to make a politician run away from a fat
office. (Laughter.)

The precipitators assign as another cause
for their attempt to overthrow the Govern-
ment, that the people of the free Slates in-
tend to abolish slavery in the States where it
exists. Now, sir, I do not believe there is
one word of truth in this allegation, and
those who make it ought to kndw better;
and if such were their desire we all know
ihey have no such power. The whole Re-
publican party denounce this charge as
false. I am here in the presen.ce of the
members of this House, and 1 aver that there
is not a man in this Congress, of any parly,
from any quarter of the country, who claims


the power or avows the purpose to interfere [
with slavery ia the States where it exists,
(Cries of "not one," from the Republican side
of the House ) If there is one I wish to know
it, (voice, " There are none.") because he
will receive the rebuke not only of his col-
leagues, but of every man who wishes to live
up to the Constitution. But, sir, this pur-
pose is imputed to the people of the free
States by the disunionists and their allies, in
the teeth of tlie most solemn assurance which
a political party can make to the world ; and
I hesitate not to say that this assurance has
been, in many instances, purposely withheld
from the people of the slave States so that
this misrepresentation might produce its
baleful effects upon the popular mind. 1 re-
member that during the last summer some of
the newspapers in my own State affected to
be horrihed because I read the following
resolution from the Republican platform :

"That the mointunance inviolate of the rights of the
States, and especially the rig:ht of each Slate to order and
control its own domestic institutions, according to its own
judgment exclusively, is essential to that balance of power
on which the perfection and endurance of our political
fabric depends ; and wg denounce the lawless invasion
by armed force oi the soil of ai;y State or Territory,
BO matter under what pretext, as among the gravest of

And I do not hesitate now, in this presence?
to assert, that no political party that ever
assembled in convention in this country, has
given stronger guaranties against any desire
or any power to interfere with slavery in the
States of this Union. They did more than
this — that which no other political party in
this country has ever done. Apprehending
the possibility of invasions similar to that of
John Brown, they denounce in express terms
all such raids " as among the gravest of
crimes." Common fairness requires that we
take gentlemen at their word, but if more
were wanting in this regard, they are now
willing to appease your apprehension.s — if
any such you have — to vote for an amend-
ment to the Constitution, declaring in express
terms that Congress shall never have power
or authority to legislate in regard to slavery
in the States where it may exist. Such a
provision would be, in fact, no amendment
at all, but a declaration of what the Consti-
tution already is ; for no intelligent lawyer,
no man of sense, believes that the Constitu-
tion now confers upon Congre.ss any such

But, say those who are intent upon sub-
verting the Government: the people of the
two sections are dissimiliar; they have their

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Online LibraryEmerson EtheridgeState of the Union. Speech of Hon. Emerson Etheridge, of Tennessee (Volume 2) → online text (page 1 of 3)