Every class of mine has begun this week with questions like “Dr. Tures, have you heard about the secession movement? What do you think?”
Actually, the concept isn’t too alien these days. Believe it or not, several Northern states held meetings to discuss secession after President George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004. Perhaps it is a sign of the times that folks reacted as they did, contemplating ditching their American citizenship and heritage just because their side lost an election they thought they’d win.
But perhaps some folks are more serious about this, and not just using secession as a political stunt to embarrass the President. If so, these people might think about the following words given on the eve of a real secession movement, when Georgians met to discuss the issue.
“The first question that presents itself is, shall the people of Georgia secede from the Union in consequence of the election of Mr. Lincoln to the presidency of the United States? My countrymen, I tell you frankly, candidly, and earnestly, that I do not think that they ought. In my judgment, the election of no man, constitutionally chosen to that high office, is sufficient cause to justify any state to separate from the Union. It ought to stand by and aid still in maintaining the Constitution of the country. To make a point of resistance to the Government, to withdraw from it because any man has been elected, would put us in the wrong. We are pledged to maintain the Constitution. Many of us have sworn to support it. Can we, therefore, for the mere election of any man to the Presidency, and that, too, in accordance with the prescribed forms of the Constitution, make a point of resistance to the Government, without becoming the breakers of that sacred instrument ourselves, by withdrawing ourselves from it? Would we not be in the wrong? Whatever fate is to befall this country, let it never be laid to the charge of the people of the South, and especially the people of Georgia, that we were untrue to our national engagements.”
Those words were spoken by longtime Congressman Alexander Hamilton Stephens on November 14, 1860. Most of you with knowledge of Georgia history might be surprised by reading this, because you probably know that Representative Stephens was chosen to be the vice-president of the Confederate States of America (CSA). Yet Stephens, though supportive of slavery, was considered a moderate. Indeed, he feuded often with the obstinate President Jefferson Davis, and sought frequent negotiations with the North.
Stephens’s wisdom exceeded that of many in the Peach State at that time. While Georgia secessionists like Robert Toombs rushed to leave the United States and denounce its Constitution, Stephens recognized the problems such a move would make, as if he understood how the horrors of war like the brutal march of William T. Sherman through Georgia would devastate his home. If only his fellow Georgia legislators would have listened.
“Should Georgia determine to go out of the Union, I speak for one, though my views might not agree with them, whatever the result may be, I shall bow to the will of her people,” Stephens said in that speech. “Their cause is my cause, and their destiny is my destiny; and I trust this will be the ultimate course of all. The greatest curse that can befall a free people, is civil war.”
John A. Tures ia an associate professor of political science at LaGrange College.