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 2 of 2)
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as justifies the evil of rebellion or revolution, or else such intol-
erable evils as justify the most desperate attempts. Now it is
my profound conviction that nothing has occurred, that nothing
exists, which justifies that revolution which has occurred in
South Carolina, and which seems to be impending in other
southern States. Beyond all doubt, nothing has occurred of this
description, connected with any other interest or topic, except
that of negro slavery ; and connected with that, my deep assur-
ance is, that the just and necessary cause of the slave States,
may be otherwise maintained tban by secession, revolution or
rebellion ; nay, that it may be incomparably better maintained
otherwise ; nay, that it cannot be maintained in that way at all
and that the attempt to do so will be fatal as regards the avow-
ed object, and pregnant with incalculable evils besides.

In such discussions as these, the nature of the institution of
slavery is perfectly immaterial. So long as the Union of the
States survives, the constitutional guaranty and the federal
power, which have proved adequate for more than seventy
years, are that much added to whatever other force States or
sections may possess to protect their rights. — Nor is there, in
the nature of the case, any reason why States with slaves and
States without slaves, should not abide together in peace, as
portions of the same great nation, as they have done from the
beginning. The unhallowed passions of men : the fanaticism
of the times ; the mutual injuries and insults which portions of
the people have inflicted on each other ; the cruel use which
political parties have made of unnatural and transient popular
excitements ; and, I must add, the unjust, offensive, and uncon-
stitutional enactments by various State Legislatures at the
North ; the repeal of the Missouri Compromise by Congress ;
the attempt of the Supreme Court to settle political principles
deemed to be of vast importance by all parties, in the Dred
Scott case, which principles were not in the case at all; the sub-
sequent conduct of the Federal Government and of the people in
Kansas ; the total overthrow of the Whig and American par-
ties, the division and defeat of the Democratic party, and the
triumph of the Republican party ; the ordinance of secession of
South Carolina ; the agitation pervading the whole nation, es-
pecially the greater part of the Southern States ; and to crown
all, and if possible to make all desperate, the amazing conduct
of the President of the United States amidst these great disor-
ders ; this is the sad outline of this slavery agitation, the pos-
ture of which for a moment is thus exhibited, no one knowing
how soon new and fatal steps may hurry us still farther. What
I assert in the face of so much that is painful and full of peril,
and what I confidently rely will be the verdict of posterity, is
that all this, terrible as it is, affords no justification for the se-
cession of any single State of the Union— none for the disruption
of the American Union. They who make the attempt, will find


in it no remedy for the evils from which they flee. They who
goad others to this fatal step, will find that they have them-
selves erred exceedingly. They who have had the lead in hoth
acts of madness, have no hope for good from coming ages, half
so great, as that they may he utterly forgotton. Posterity will
receive with scorn every plea that can he made for thirty mil-
lions of free people, professing to he Christian, in extenuation
of the unparalleled folly of their self destruction, by reason that
they could not deal successfully with three or four millions of
African slaves, scattered amongst them. Oh ! everlasting in-
famy, that the children of Washington did not know how to be
free ! — Oh ! degradation still deeper, that children, of God did
not know how to be just and to forbear with one another !

It is said, however, it is now too late. — The evil is already
done. South Carolina has already gone. Florida, it is most
likely went yesterday, or will go to day, even while we are
pleading with one another and with God to put a better mind
in her. Soon, it may be possible within the present month, all
the Cotton States will go. We, it is added, by reason of being
a Slave State, must also go. Our destiny, they say, our inter-
ests, our duty, our all, is bound up with theirs, and we must go
together. If this be your mind, distinctly made up, then the
whole services of this clay are a national mockery of God ; a na-
tional attempt to make our passionate impulses assume the dig-
nity of divine suggestions, and thus seduce the Ruler of the Uni-
verse with complicity with our sins and follies, through which
all our miseries are inflicted upon us. Let it be admitted that
a certain number of States, and that considerable, will attempt
to form a Southern Confederacy, or to form as many new sover-
eignties as there are seceding States. Let it be assumed that
either of these results is achieved, and that either by way of
peace or by war. Let all be admitted. — What then ? Thirteen
States by their delegates formed the present Constitution, more
than seventy years ago. By the terms of the Constitution itself
it was to be enforced when any nine of these thirteen States
adopted it — whether by convention of their people or otherwise,
is immaterial to the present matter. Thirteen States made the
Constitution by their delegates. A clause is inserted in it that
it shall go into effect when any nine of the thirteen States adopt
it, let any four refuse as they might. If they had refused what
would have happened would have been, that these four States,
born States, and born United States, by the Declaration of Inde-
pendence, by the war of the Revolution, by the peace with Great
Britain, and by the articles of confederation, would by a common
agreement among the whole thirteen, have refused to go further
or to make any stronger national government ; while the other
nine would have gone further and made that stronger national
government. — But such was the desire of all parties that there
should be no separation of the States at all, that the whole thir-


teen unanimously adopted tlie new Constitution, putting a
clause into it that it shonld not go into effect unless a majority
so great as nine to four would sign it. I say if a minority of
States had not adopted the new Constitution, it would have oc-
curred, that they would have passed by common consent into a
new condition, and for the first time have become sovereign
States. As you well know none of them refused permanently.
What I make this statement for, is to show that, taking that
principle as just and permanent, as clearly laid down in the
Constitution, it requires at least eleven States out of the exist-
ing thirty-three States to destroy, or affect in the slightest de-
gree, the question as to whether or not the remaining States are
the United States of America, under the same Constitution.
Twenty-two States, according to that principle, left after eleven
had seceded, would be as really the United States of America
under that Federal Constitution, as they were before, according
to the fundamental principle involved in the original mode of
giving validity to the Constitution. Kentucky would still be as
really one of these United States of America, as she was at first
when, as a district of Virginia, who was one of the nine adopt-
ing States, she became, as such district, a part thereof. — And
by consequence, a secession of less than eleven States, can in no
event, and upon no hypothesis, even so much as embarrass
Kentucky in determining for herself, what her duty, her honor
and her safety require her to do.

This fact is so perfectly obvious, that I presume if the six New
England States were to revolt, and to establish a new confeder-
acy, there is not a man in the State of Kentucky who would be
led thereby to suppose that our relations with the Union and the
Constitution were in the slightest degree affected ; or that they
were on that account under the slightest obligation to revolt
also. It may sound harsh, but I am very much inclined to
think that there are many thousands of men in Kentucky who
might be apt to suppose that the secession of the New England
States would be a capital reason why nobody else should
secede. It is the principle, however, which I am attempting to

The answer to this view, I am aware is, that we are a Slave
State, and that our relations are therefore necessarily different
with respect to other Slave States, as compared with the Free
States, or with the nation at large. The reply to which is various :
First. The Institution of Slavery, as it exists in this country,
presents a threefold, and very distinct aspect. First, the aspect
of it in those States whose great staples are rice, sugar and cot-
ton, commonly and well enough expressed by calling them the
Cotton States. Then the aspect of it presented by those States
in portions of which these fabrics are raised, and in other por-
tions of which they are not ; which we may well enough call
the mixed portion of the Slave States. And then its aspect in


those slave States which are not producers of those great staples
in the midst of which, and out of which these great commotions
come. What I assert is, that the relation of slavery to the
community, and the relation of the community by reason of sla-
very to the General Government and the world, is widely differ-
ent in all three of these classes of States. The relation of sla-
very to the community, to the Government, and to our future,
in Missouri, in Kentucky, in "Virginia, in Maryland, in Dela-
ware, is evidently different from the relation of slavery in all
these respects in Louisiana, in South Carolina, and in all the
other Cotton States. In the meantime, also, the relation is dif-
ferent from both of those, wherein it exists in what I have called
the mixed States ; in Arkansas, part of which is a farming
country, and a part of which thoroughly planting; in Ten-
nessee, part cotton, and the eastern part a mountainous farming
country; in Texas and North Carolina, where similar facts ex-
ist ; and perhaps in some other States.

What I desire is that you get the idea I have of the matter ;
that while it is true that all the slave States have certain ties
and sympathies between them which are real, and ought not to
be broken ; yet, on the other hand, it is extremely easy to carry
this idea to a fatal and a false extent, and to ruin our ourselves
forever under the illusion begotten thereby. In Kentucky, the
institution of slavery exists about in the proportion of one
slave to four white people, and the gap between the two races is
widening at every census. In South Carolina there are about
five slaves to three white persons, and the increment is on the
slave side. In the Cotton States, I know of no way in which
the institution of slavery can be dealt with at all, except by
keeping the relation as it stands, as an integral portion of the
body politic, unmanageable except in the present relation of the
negro to the white man : and, in this posture, it is the duty of
the nation to protect and defend the Cotton States. In regard
to Kentucky, the institution of slavery is in such a position
that the people can do with it whatever they may see fit, both
now, and at any future period, without being obliged, by reason
of it, to resort to any desperate expedient, in any direction.

The state of things I have sketched necessarily produces a
general resemblance, indeed, because slavery is general — but, at
the same time innumerable diversities, responsive to the very
condition of slavery, of its prospects, and of its relative in the
body politic, in the different slave States. And you never com-
mitted a greater folly than you will commit if, disregarding
these things, you allow this single consideration that you are a
slave State — to swallow up every other consideration, and con-
trol your whole action in this great crisis. We in Kentucky
are tolerant of opinion. Inform yourselves of what is passing,
of an opposite character, throughout South Carolina : and re-
flect on the change that must pass on you, before you would be


prepared to tear down the most venerable institutions, to insult
the proudest emblems of your country's glory, and to treat con-
stitutions and laws as if they were play-things for children ; be-
fore you are prepared to descend from your present noble pos-
ture, and surrender yourself to the guidance and dictation of
such counsels and such statesmen as rule this disunion move-
ment. Nothing seems to me more obvious, and nothing is more
important to be pressed on your attention at this moment, than
that the non-cotton States stand in a position radically differ-
ent in all respects from the position in which the Cotton States
stand, both with regard to the institution of slavery, and with
regard to the balance of the nation. The result is that all these
States, the Cotton States, and the mixed States, and the non-
cotton slave States, and the free States, may enjoy peace and
may enjoy prosperity under a common government, and in a
common Union, as they have done from the begining ; where
the rights of all, and the interests of all may be respected and
protected, and yet where the interests of every portion must be
regulated by some general consideration of the interests which
are common to everybody. On the other hand, in a confedera-
cy where cotton is the great idea and end, it is utterly impossi-
ble for the mixed, much more for the non-cotton States, to
protect adequately any of their rights, except the right of slave-
ry, to carry out any of their purposes except purposes connected
with slavery, to inaugurate any system of policy or even to be
free, otherwise than as they servilely follow the lead, and bow
to the rule of the Cotton States. The very instant you enter a
confederacy in which all is regulated and created by the supreme
interest of cotton, every thing precious and distinctive of you, is
jeoparded! Do you want the slave trade re-opened? Do you
want free trade and direct taxation ? Do you want some mil-
lions more of African cannibals thrown amongst you broadcast
throughout the whole slave States? Do you want to begin a
war which shall end when you have taken possession of the
whole Southern part of this continent down to the isthmus of
Darien ? If your design is to accept the principles, purposes
and policy, which are openly avowed in the interest of secession,
and which you see exhibited on a small scale, but in their es-
sence, in South Carolina ; if that is your notion of regulated
freedom and the perfect security of life and property ; if that is
your understanding of high national prosperity, where the great
idea is more negroes, more cotton, direct taxes, free imports,
from all nations, and the conquest of all outlaying land that
will bring cotton ; then, undoubtedly, Kentucky is no longer
what she has been, and her new career, beginning with seces-
sion, leads her far away, from her strength and her renown.

The second suggestion I have to make to you is, that if the
slave line is made the line of division, all the slave States sece-
ding from the Union, and all the free States standing unitedly


by the Union ; what I assert in that case is, that the possibility
of the perpetuity of negro slavery in any border State terminates
at once. In our affected zeal for slavery, we will have taken the
most effectual means of extinguishing it ; and that in the most
disastrous of all possible ways. — On the contrary, if this Union
is to be saved, it is by the cordial sympathy of the border States
on one side, and on the other side of the slave line that it must
be saved. We have nothing to hope from the extreme States
on either side ; nothing from the passionate violence of the ex-
treme South — nothing from the turbulent fanaticism of the ex-
treme North. It is along that slave line — and in the spirit of
mntual confidence, and the sense of a common interest of the
people on the north and on the south of that line ; that the na-
tion must seek the instruments of its safety. It is Ohio, India-
na, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, on the one side ; and
Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri — God send
that I might add with confidence Tennessee and North Carolina —
on the other side ; these are the States that are competent to
save this Union. Nothing, therefore, can be more suicidal, than
for the border slave States to adopt any line of conduct which
can justly deprive them of the sympathy and confidence of
the border free States — now largely possessed by them. — And
nothing is more certain than that a patriotic devotion to the
Union, and a willingness to do all that honorable men should
do, or moderate men ask, in order to preserve it — is as strongly
prevalent at this moment, among the people of the border free
States, as amongst those of the border slave States. The great
central States I have enumerated — must ncessarily control the
fate both of the nation and of the continent — whenever they act
in concert ; and the fate, both of the nation and the continent,
is utterly inscrutable after the division of them on the slave line —
except that we know that when Sampson is shorn of his strength,
the enemies of Israel and of God will make the land desolate.
Fronting on the Atlantic Ocean through many degrees of lati-
tude, running back across the continent so as to include an area
larger than all Western Europe, and finer than any of equal
extent upon the globe, embracing a population inferior to none
on earth, and sufficiently numerous at present to constitute a
great nation ; it is this immense power, free, to a great extent,
from the opposite and intractable fanaticisms of the extreme States
on both sides of it, that is charged with the preservation of our
national institutions, and with them our national power and
glory. There are two aspects of the case thus put, — in either of
which success by peaceful means, is impossible : first, if these
great central States fail to apprehend this part of the great mis-
sion committed to them : secondly, if the Cotton States, following
the example of South Carolina — or the Northern States adhering
to extreme purposes in the opposite direction — by either means
render all peaceful adjustment impossible.


But even in that case, the mission of these great States is not
ended. If under the curse of God, and the madness of the ex-
treme northern and southern States, the preservation of the
Union should be impossible ; then it belongs to this immense
central power, to re-construct the nation, upon the slave line
as its central idea ; and thus perpetuate our institutions our
principles, and our hopes, with an unchanged nationality. For
even they who act in the mere interests of slavery, ought to see
that after the secession of the cotton States, the border slave
States are obliged even for the sake of slavery, to be destroyed,
or to adhere to the Union as long as any Union exists ; and
that if the Union were utterly destroyed, its re-construction up-
on the slave line, is the solitary condition on which slavery can
exist in security any where, or can exist at all in any border

I have considered three possible solutions of the existing
state of things. The preservation of the Union as it is ; the
probable secession of the cotton slave States, and the effect
thereof upon the Union, and upon the course Kentucky ought
to take ; the total destruction of the Union, and its reconstruc-
tion upon the slave line. I have considered the whole matter,
from the point of view understood to be taken by the President
of the United States ; namely : that he judges there is no pow-
er in the General Government to prevent, by force, its own dis-
solution by means of the secession of the States ; and I have
done this, because however ruinous or absurd any one may sup-
pose the views of the President to be, it is, nevertheless, under
their sway that the first acts of our impending revolutions are
progressing. Under the same helpless aspect of the General
Government, there remain two more possible solutions of the
posture and duty of Kentucky, and other States similarly situa-
ted. The first of these is, that in the progress of events, it
may well become the border slave States to unite themselves in-
to a separate confederacy ; the second is, that it may well be-
come Kentucky, under various contingencies, to assume a sepa-
rate sovereign position, and act by herself. Having clearly sta-
ted my own conclusions, I will only say that the first of these
two results is not one to be sought as desirable in itself, but on-
ly as an alternative to be preferred to more dangerous arrange-
ments. For my unalterable conviction is, that the slave line is
the only permanent and secure basis of a confederacy for the
slave States, and especially for the border slave States, and that
the union of free and slave States, in the same confederacy, is
the indispensable condition of the peaceful and secure existence
of slavery. As to the possible isolation of Kentucky, this also,
it seems to me, is not a result to be sought. If it should occur
as the alternative to evils still greater, Kentucky ought to em-
brace it with calmness and dignity, and, awaiting the progress
of events, show by her wisdom, her courage, her moderation,

%6e. -


her invincible rectitude, both to this age and to all that are to
come, how fully she understood in the midst of a gainsaying and
backsliding generation, that no people ever performed anything
glorious who did not trust God, who did not love their country,
and who were not faithful to their oaths.

It seems to me, therefore, that the immediate duty of Ken-
tucky may be clearly stated in very few words :

First. To stand by the Constitution and the Union of the
country, to the last extremity.

Second. To prevent, as for the moment, the impending and
immediate danger, all attempts to seduce her, all attempts to
terrify her, into the taking of any steps inconsistent with her
own constitution and laws — any step disregarded of the consti-
tution and laws of the United States, any step which can pos-
sibly compromise her position, or draw her on otherwise than
by her own free choice deliberately expressed at the polls, accord-
ing to her existing laws and constitution, whereby she will
choose her own destiny.

Third. To settle in her heart that the rending of this Uni-
on the slave line is, for her, whatever it may be for others, the
most fatal issue that the times can have ; and the doing this in
such a way as to subject her to the dominion of the cotton States
for all time to come, is the very worst form of that most fatal

After all, my friends, after all, we have the great promise of
God that all things shall work together for good to them that
love him. I do not know but that it may be the mind of God
and his divine purpose to break this Union up, and to make of
it other nations, that shall at last he more powerful than it, uni-
tedly, would have been. I do not know, I do not pretend to
say, how the Lord will use the passions of men to glorify his
name. He restrains the remainder of wrath, and will cause
the wrath of man to praise him. We have his divine assu-
rance that all nations that have gone before us, and all that
will follow us, and we ourselves, by our rise, by our progress,
and alas ! by our decoy and ruin, are but instruments of his in-
finite purpose, and means in his adorable providence, whereby
the everlasting reign of Messiah, the Christ of God, is to be
made absolute and universal.

Great then, is our consolation, as we tremble for our country,
to be confident in our Lord ! Great is our comlort, as we be-
wail the miseries which have befallen our glorious inheritance,
to know that the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth ! Infinitely
precious is the assurance, amidst the trials now impending, and
the woes which threaten us, that the heroic self-devotion with
which our personal duty is discharged, is one part of our fitness
to become partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light !




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 2 of 2)