Robert J. (Robert Jefferson) Breckinridge.

Discourse of Dr. Breckinridge, delivered on the day of national humiliation, January 4, 1861, at Lexington, Ky online

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Online LibraryRobert J. (Robert Jefferson) BreckinridgeDiscourse of Dr. Breckinridge, delivered on the day of national humiliation, January 4, 1861, at Lexington, Ky → online text (page 1 of 2)
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IN of ga&iral fmmiftafeH

JANUARY 4, 1861.




•><>!l.\ W. WOODS, PRINTER.


JAN 5 - 1915



It is in circumstances, my friends, of terrible solemnity, that
this great nation presents herself in an attitude of humiliation
before the Lord God of Hosts ; in circumstances of great solemni-
ty, that she stands before the bar of all surrounding nations,
under that universal public opinion which gives fame or stamps
with infamy ; and hardly less solemn than both, is her attitude
at the bar of distant ages and especially our own posterity, that
awful tribunal whose decrees can be reversed only by the decree
of God. It is the first of these three aspects, either passing by
in silence or touching very slightly the other two, that I am to
consider before you now. And what I shall chiefly attempt to
show is, that our duties can never be made subordinate to our
passions without involving us in ruin, and that our rights can
never be set above our interests without destroying both.

In taking this direction, let us bear in mind that the procla-
mation of the chief Magistrate of the Republic which calls us to
this service, asserts, in the first place, that ruin is impending
over our national institutions ; and asserts in the second place,
that so far as appears to him no human resources remain that
are adequate to save them ; and in the third place, that the
whole nation according to his judgment ought to prostrate itself
before God and cry to him for deliverance. Upon this I have
to say, in the great name of God, and by the authority of Jesus
Christ the Saviour of the world, these two things : First, that
national judgments never come except by reason of national
sins ; nor are they ever turned aside except upon condition of
repentance for the sins which produced them ; and Secondly,
that repentance for sin, as it is the absolute and universal, so it
is the infallible condition of divine pardon and acceptance, not
only in the case of individuals, but more obviously still and
more immediately in the case of nations, since nations, as such,
have no existence in a future life. Wherefore, if we are in the
way of fearful evils we are also in the way of clear duty, and
therein we may hope for assured deliverance in the degree, first,
that every one will go before another in earnest endeavors to
rectify in himself all that is abominable to God ; and, secondly,
that every one will evince towards others, the forbearance which
he desires that God should extend towards him. Wherefore,
also, we may boldly say that the remedy from God to us need
not be expected to manifest itself by means of political parties

or by means of combinations of political leaders, or by means
of new political compacts, or by means of additional legal en-
actments, or by means of more explicit constitutional provisions ;
but that it must come from God to us, and be made manifest
through a profound movement in the source of all power in free
governments, namely, first, in the hearts of individuals, men
turning from their sins, their follies and their madness : and
secondly, in the uprising of an irresistible impulse thus created,
which over the length and breadth of the land shall array itself
in the power of God against every endeavor to bring upon us the
evils which we are imploring God to avert.

The first and greatest of these evils that we beseech God to
avert, and that we should strive with all our might to prevent,
is the annihilation of the nation itself, by tearing it into frag-
ments. Men may talk of rights perpetually and outrageously
violated — they may talk of injuries that are obliged to be redress-
ed they may talk about guarantees without which they can

submit to no further peace — and there is doubtless much that
has force and much more that is captivating to ardent minds
in such expositions of our sad condition. For what problem
half so terrible was ever agitated upon which it was not easy to
advance much on every side of it ? I will not consume the short
time allowed to me in examining such views. What I assert,
in answer to them all is, that we have overwhelming duties and
incalculable interests which dictate a special line of conduct,
the chief aim of which should be the preservation of the Amer-
ican Union, and therein of the American nation.

To be more explicit, it seems to me that there are inestima-
ble blessings connected with the preservation of our National
Union; and that there are intolerable evils, involved in its de-
struction. For the blessings : there is the blessing of peace
amongst ourselves, there is the blessing of freedom to ourselves
and to our posterity, there is the blessing of internal prosperity
secured by that peace, and freedom, never before excelled, if at-
tained, by any people; there is the blessing of national inde-
pendence secured by our invincible strength, against all the
powers of the earth combined, there is the blessing of our glo-
rious example to all nations and to all ages ; there is the bless-
ing of irresistible power to do good to all peoples, and to prevent
evil over the face of the whole earth ; there is the blessing of
an unfettered Gospel and an open Bible and a divine Saviour,
more and more manifested in our whole national life as that life
deepens and spreads, subduing and possessing the widest and the
noblest inheritance ever given to any people, and overflowing
and fructifying all peoples besides. It is the problem sought
to be solved from the beginning of time, and, to say the least,
the nearest approximation made to its solution, namely, the
complete possession of freedom united with irresistible national
force, and all directed to the glory of God and to the good of

man. And this is that glorious estate now declared to be in
fearful peril, and which we are called upon to beseech Grod to
preserve unto us.

On the other hand, the evils of rending this nation. Which
of the blessings that I have enumerated — and I have enumera-
ted only those that appeared to me to be the most obvious —
which of these is there — peace, freedom, prosperity, indepen-
dence, the glory of our example, the power to do good and to
prevent evil, the opportunity to give permanent efficiency all
over this continent, and in a certain degree all over this earth to
the gospel of God ; which of these blessings is there that may
not be utterly lost to vast portions of the nation — which of them
that may not be jeoparded over this whole continent ; which of
them is there that may not depart forevermore from us and our
posterity in the attempt to destroy our oneness as a people, and
in the results of that unparalleled self-destruction ? Besides all
this, how obvious and how terrible are the evils over and above,
which the very attempt begets, and which our after progress
must necessarily make permanent if that attempt succeeds.
First, we have already incurred the perils of universal bank-
ruptcy before the first act is achieved by one of the least impor-
tant of the thirty-three States. Secondly, we have already seen
constitutional government both in its essence and in its form
trampled under foot by the convention of that State ; and all
the powers of sovereignty itself, both ordinary and extraordi-
nary, assumed by it in such a manner that life, liberty and
property have no more security in South Carolioa than any-
where under heaven where absolute despotism or absolute an-
archy prevails, except in the personal characters of the gentle-
men who hold the power. Thirdly, we have already seen that
small community preparing to treat with foreign nations, and
if need be introduce foreign armies into this country : headlong
in the career in which she disdains all counsel, scorns all con-
sultation and all entreaty, and treats all ties, all recollections,
all existing engagements and obligations as if her ordinance of
secession had not only denationalized that community, but had
extinguished all its past existence. Fourthly, we see the glo-
rious flag of this Union torn down and a colonial flag floating
in its place ; yea, we see that community thrown into paroxysms
of rage, and the Cabinet at Washington thrown into confusion
because in the harbor of Charleston our national flag instead of
being still further dishonored, yet floats over a single tower !
What then did they expect, who sent to the harbor of Charles-
ton, to occupy the national fortress there, the son of a companion
of Washington, a hero whose veins are full of revolutionary
blood, and whose body is covered with honorable scars won in
the service of his country ? Why did they send that Kentucky
hero there if they did not intend the place they put into his
hands to be kept, to the last extremity ? But I need not en-

large upon this terrible aspect of what is coming to us all if the
Union is destroyed. These are but the beginnings of sorrows.
The men and the parties who initiate the reign of lawless pas-
sion, rarely escape destruction amid the storms they create, but
are unable to control. Law comes from the depth of eternity,
and in its sublime sway is the nixus of the universe. Institu-
tions grow; they are not made. Desolated empires are never
restored. All history furnishes no such example. If we desire
to perish, all we have to do is to leap into this vortex of dis-
union. If we have any just conception of the solemnity of this
day, let us beseech God that our country shall not be torn to
pieces ; and under the power of these solemnities let us quit our-
selves like men in order to avert that most horrible of all na-
tional calamities.

Let us consider, in the next place, those rights, as they are
called, by means of which, and in their extreme exercise, all the
calamities that threaten us are to be brought upon us at any
moment: nay, are to be so brought upon us that our destruction
shall be perfectly regular, perfectly legal, perfectly constitution-
al ! In which case a system like ours — a system the most en-
during of all others, whether we consider the history of the past
or the laws which enter into its composition — a system the hard-
est of all others to be deranged, and the easiest of all to be read-
justed when deranged ; such a system is alleged to have a se-
cret in it, designed expressly to kill it, at the option of the small-
est fragment of it. I allude to the claim of the right of Nullifi-
cation and the claim of the right of secession as being Constitu-
tional rights : and I desire to explain myself briefly in regard
to them.

According to my comprehension there is a thorough and fun-
damental difference between the two. The power of nullifica-
tion, supposing it to exist, would be an extreme right within
the Union, and is necessarily temporary in its effect, and prompt-
1\ tends to the termination of the difficulty upon which it arises.
And this settlement may occur by the action of our complex
svstem of government in various ways. It may be in the way
of some compromise of existing difficulties ; or in the way of re-
peal, by one party or the other, or in the modification of the ob-
noxious laws ; or in the way of some judicial decision settling
the difficulty. Or — which is the true remedy — instead of Nulli-
fication, by an appeal to the people at the polls, who are the
source of all power in free governments, and by obedience to
their decisions when rendered — by voting, instead of fighting.
Or at the worst, by an appeal to arms ; but even in that case
the result necessarily secures the continuance of the pre-existing
svstem of government on the restoration of peace ; let that peace
be by victory on which side you please. The doctrine of Nulli-
fication stands related to the doctrine of State Rights — precisely
as the doctrine of Consolidation stands related to the old federal

doctrine of a strong central Government. In both cases, the the-
ory of a great party has been pushed to a logical absurdity,
which subverted our political system. That the will of the
greater part should prevail — and that the smaller parts should
have the power of appeal to this will, at the polls — and in judg-
ment upon every principle of civil and political liberty — was the
ultimate form in which this great doctrine entered into
the political creed of that old Republican party which came into
power with Mr. Jefferson in 1801, and was expounded as they
held it in those famous resolutions of Kentucky and Virginia in
the latter part of the last century. Its connection with that
whole theory of every mixed political system, is not only abso-
lute but is vital. More especially is it so with our complex sys-
tem. It has been carried, as it stands connected with the con-
stitutional, and much more with the reserved rights of the
States, to an extreme on that side, opposite to the extreme of Con-
solidation. But even in its extremestform it bears no proportion
in mischief to the doctrine of Secession. Considered in its true
and original form, I judge it to be indispensable to the preser-
vation of our political system ; and that the opposite mode of
interpreting our political duties and rights and remedies termi-
nates in subjugating the States to the General Government, and
in subjugating both the General Government and the exposition
of every political principle to the Supreme Court of the United
States. The former system is natural and permanent — the lat-
ter is absurd and invites rebellion. This great phenomenon has
occurred in this country, that, by reason of the extraordinary
ability of some of the advocates of the system which passed away
in 1801, it has assumed a new form and a new life in general
opinion; and seconded by the peculiar constitution of the Su-
preme Court of the United States, the old Republican or Demo-
cratic notions upon this great subject, though constantly tri-
umphant in the country, have been constantly disallowed in the
interpretations of that Court. I judge that the doctrine of Seces-
sion is an extreme reaction against this Federal interpretation
of the relations of the States to each other and to the nation.
For when you arrive at an interpretation which is final and
hateful to immense parties and interests ; and there is no reme-
dy but arms, secession or absolute submission ; the expression
of popular will against the interpretation you have made, brings
society to a condition that in an excitable race and amongst a
free people can hardly be expected to be safe or easy to be man-
aged. You have therefore this perilous and extraordinary claim
of the right of secession under this extreme reaction ; differing
absolutely from the idea of the old States Rights party, and dif-
fering absolutely even from nullification itself.

Secession is a proceeding which begins by tearing to pieces
the whole fabric of government, both social and political. It
begins by rendering all redress of all possible evils utterly im-

possible under the system that exists, for its very object is to
destroy its existence. It begins by provoking war and render-
ing its occurrence apparently inevitable, and its termination well
nigh impossible. Its very design is not to reform the adminis-
tration of existing laws, not to obtain their repeal or modifica-
tion, but to annihilate the institutions of the country and to
make many nations out of one. If it is the constitutional right
of any State to do this, then we have no National Government
and never had any. Then, also, it is perfectly idle to speak of
new Constitutions, since the new Constitutions can have no more
force than the Constitution already despised and disobeyed.
Then, also, the possibility is ended — ended in the very theory of
the case, and illustrated in the utter failure of its practice — of
uniting republican freedom with national strength in any coun-
try or under any form of government. But according to my be-
lief, and according to the universal belief of the American peo-
ple but a little while ago, no such right, legal or constitutional,
as that of secession, does or can exist under any form of govern-
ment, and least of all under such institutions as ours.

And first of all, no State in this Union ever had any sover-
eignty at all independent of and except as they were United
States. When they speak of recovering their sovereignty, when
they speak of returning to their condition as sovereigns in
which they were before they were members of the confederacy
called at first the United Colonies, and then the United States ;
they speak of a thing that is historically without any founda-
tion. They were not States, they were colonies of the British,
the Spanish, the French, and the Dutch governments ; they
were colonies granted by royal charters to particular individuals
or particular companies. Pennsylvania was the estate, the
property of William Penn ; Georgia the larger part, perhaps
the whole of it, of General Oglethorpe. They were settled under
charters to individuals and to companies — settled as colonies of
foreign Kings and States by their subjects. As such they re-
volted. As such, before their revolt, they united in a continen-
tal government more or less complete. As such united colonies
they pronounced that famous Declaration of Independence, which
after a heroic struggle of seven years, still as united colonies,
they made good. That great Washington who led that great
war was the commander-in-chief for and in behalf of these uni-
ted colonies. As such they were born States. The treaty of
peace that made them independent States, was concluded with
them all together — as United States. What sovereignty did
Kentucky ever have except the sovereignty that she has as a
State of these United States, born at the same moment a State
of the American Union, and a separate sovereign State? We
were a district of Virginia. We became a State and we became
one of the United States at the Satne moment, for the same pur-
pose, and for good and all. What I mean by this, is to point

out the fact that the complex system of governmeno which we
have in this country, did always, does now, and in the nature of
the case, must contemplate these States as united into a com-
mon government, and that common government as really a part
of our political system, as the particular institutions of the sep-
arate sovereignties are a part of our political system. And
while, as you will observe, I have attempted, while repudiating
the doctrine of nullification, to vindicate that doctrine of State
rights, which as I firmly believe is an integral and indispensa-
ble part of our political system ; yet on the other hand, the doc-
trine that we are a nation and that we have a national govern-
ment, is and always was just as truly a part of our system as
the other. And our political system always stood as much upon
the basis that we are a nation, as it stood upon the basis that
that nation is composed of sovereign States. They were born
into both relations ; so born that each State is equally and for-
ever, by force of its very existence and the manner thereof, both
a part of this American nation and also a sovereign State of it-
self. The people therefore can no more legally throw off their
national allegiance, than they can legally throw off their State al-
legiance. Nor can any State, any more legally absolve the allegi-
ance of a people to the nation, than the nation can legally ab-
solve the allegiance due by the people to the State they live in.
Either attempt considered in any legal, in any constitutional, in
any historical light, is pure madness.

Now the pretext of founding the right of secession, upon the
right to change or abolish the government, which is constitu-
tionally secured to the people of the nation and the States, seems
to me, and I say it with all the respect due to others, to be both
immoral and absurd. Absurd, since they who claim to exercise
it are, according to the very statement of the case, but an insig-
nificant minority of those in whom the real right resides. It is
a right vested by G-od, and recognized by our constitutions as
residing in the greater part of those who are citizens under the
constitution, which they change or abolish. But, what in the
name of God, and all the possible and all the imaginable arro-
gance of South Carolina, could lead her to believe that she is the
major part of all the people that profess allegiance to the consti-
tution of the United States? And it is immoral, because it is
trifling with the sound rights of others, with the most solemn
obligations on our own part, and the most vital interests of all
concerned. And it is both immoral and absurd in one, because
as a political pretext, its use in this manner invalidates and
renders perilous and odious, the grandest contribution of mod-
ern times to the science of government, and therein to the peace
of society, the security of liberty, and the progress of civiliza-
tion, namely ; the giving constitutional validity to this natu-
ral right of men to change or to abolish the government under
which they live, by voting, when the major part see fit to do so.


It is trifling with this great natural right, legalized in all our
American constitutions, fatally caricaturing and recklessly con-
verting it into the most terrible engine of organized legal des-
truction. More than that ; it is impossible in the very nature
of the case and in the very nature of government, that any such
legal power^ or any such constitutional right could exist ; be-
cause its existence pre-supposes law to have changed its nature,
to have become a mere device ; and pre-supposes government to
have changed its nature and ceasing to be a permanent ordinance
of God, to beeome a temporary instrument of evil in the hands
of factions as they successively arise. Above all places under
Heaven no such right of destruction can exist under our Ameri-
can constitutions, since it is they that have devised this very
remedy of voting instead of fighting ; they that have made this
natural right a constitutional right ; they that have done it for
the preservation and not for the ruin of society. And it has
preserved it for more than seventy years, the noblest form of
human society, in constant security, and it could if justly exer-
cised preserve it forever.

But let us go a little deeper still. It cannot be denied that
the right of self-preservation, both in men and States, is a su-
preme right. In private persons, it is a right regulated by law
in all communities that have laws. Amongst nations, there is
no common supreme authority, and it must be regulated in their
intercourse with each other, by the discretion of each ; and arms
are the final appeal. In our system of government, there is am-
ple provision made. In all disputes between any State and a
foreign nation, the General Government will protect and redress
the State. In disputes between two States, the Supreme Court
is the constitutional arbiter. It is only in disputes that may
arise between the General Government and a particular State,
that any serious difference of opinion as to the remedy, has man-
ifested itself in this country ; and on that subject it is the less
necessary that I add anything to what has been said when
speaking of nullification, as the grounds of our existing difficul-
ties are not between disaffected States and the General Govern-
ment chiefly if at all ; but they are difficulties rather founded on
opposite states of public opinion touching the institution of negro
slavery, in the northern and in the southern States.

It may be confidently asserted that if the power of nullifica-
tion, or the power of secession, or both of them, were perfectly
constitutional rights, neither of them should be, under any cir-
cumstances, wantonly exercised. Nor should either of them,
most especially the right of secession, ever be exercised except
under extreme necessity. But if these powers, or either of them
is a mere usurpation founded on no right whatever, then no
State may resort to rebellion or revolution without, in the first
place, such a necessary cause as may not be otherwise maintain-
ed ; or, in the second place, without such a prospect of success


Online LibraryRobert J. (Robert Jefferson) BreckinridgeDiscourse of Dr. Breckinridge, delivered on the day of national humiliation, January 4, 1861, at Lexington, Ky → online text (page 1 of 2)