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The World’s Famous Orations.
America: II. (1818–1865). 1906.

Alexander Hamilton Stephens

The South and the Public Domain

A PUBLIC domain has been acquired by the common blood and common treasure of all, and the South, which is charged with endeavoring to control the government for its purposes, asks nothing but that the common territory which is the public property may be opened to the entry and settlement and equal enjoyment of all the citizens of every part of the Republic, with their property of every description; while it is the North which comes here and demands that the whole of this common domain shall be set apart exclusively for itself, or for itself and such persons from the South as will strip themselves of a certain species of their property, and conform their views to the policy of the North. I submit it to every candid man in this House, and to every intelligent and candid man in the world, outside of the House, if this is not a fair statement of the question. The South asks no discrimination in her favor. It is the North that is seeking to obtain discriminations against her and her people. And who leads in this endeavor to control the action of the government for sectional objects? It is the gentleman himself who brings this charge against the South. Sir, I deny the charge, and repel it. And I tell that gentleman and the House if these agitations are not to cease until the South shall quietly and silently yield to these demands of the North, it is useless to talk of any amicable settlement of the matters in controversy. If that is the basis you propose, we need say nothing further about agreement or adjustment—upon those terms we can never settle. The people of the South have as much right to occupy, enjoy, and colonize these Territories with their property as the people of the North have with theirs. This is the basis upon which I stand, and the principles upon which it rests are as immutable as right and justice. They are the principles of natural law, founded in natural justice, as recognized by the ablest publicists who have written upon the laws of nations and the rights pertaining to conquests. These acquisitions belong to the whole people of the United States, as conquerors. They hold them under the Constitution and the general government as common property in a corporate capacity.

Under our Constitution the power of making regulations for the enjoyment of the common domain devolves upon Congress—the common agent of all the parties interested in it. In the execution of this trust it is the duty of Congress to pass all laws for an equal and just participation in it. And so far from this common agent having any right to exclude a portion of the people, or “to make distinctions to their disadvantage,” it is the duty of Congress to open the country by the removal of all obstructions, whether they be existing laws or anything else. and to give equal protection to all who may avail themselves of the right to use it. But you men of the North say that we of the South wish to carry our slaves there, and that the free labor of the North can not submit to the degradation of being associated with slave labor. Well, then we say, as the patriarch of old said to his friend and kinsman, when disputes arose between the herdsmen of their cattle: “Let there be no strife, I pray thee, between me and thee, and between my herdsmen and thy herdsmen, for we be brethren. Is not the whole land before thee? Separate thyself, I pray thee, from me. If thou wilt take the left hand, then I will go to the right; or, if thou depart to the right hand, then I will go to the left.” In other words, we say, if you can not agree to enjoy this public domain in common, let us divide it. You take a share, and let us take a share. And I again submit to an intelligent and candid world if the proposition is not fair and just?—and whether its rejection does not amount to a clear expression of your fixed determination to exclude us entirely from any participation in this public domain?

Now, sir, all that we ask, or all that I ask, is for Congress to open the entire country, and give an equal right to all the citizens of all the States to enter, settle and colonize it with their property of every kind; or to make an equitable division of it. Is this wrong? Is it endeavoring to control the action of Congress improperly to carry out sectional views and interests? And am I to subject myself to the intended reproach of being an ultraist for insisting upon nothing but what is just and right? If so, I am willing to bear whatever of reproach the epithet may impart. If a man be an ultraist for insisting upon nothing but his rights, with a willingness to compromise even these upon any fair and reasonable terms, without a total abandonment, then I am an ultraist. And I am mistaken in the character of that people among whom I was born and with whom I have been reared, if a large majority of them, when all their propositions for adjustment and compromise shall have been rejected, will not be ultraists, too. Be not deceived and do not deceive others—this Union can never be maintained by force. With the confidence and affections of the people of all sections of the country, it is capable of being the strongest and best government on earth. But it can never be maintained upon any other principles than those upon which it was formed. All free governments are the creatures of volition—a breath can make them and a breath can destroy them. This government is no exception to the rule. And when once its spirit shall have departed, no power on earth can ever again infuse in it the Promethean spark of life and vitality. You might just as well attempt to raise the dead.

Mr. Chairman, when I look to the causes which lie at the bottom of these differences of opinion between the North and the South, and out of which this agitation springs; when I look at their character, extent, and radical nature—entering, as they necessarily do, into the very organization of society with us, I must confess that unpleasant apprehensions for the future permanent peace and quiet of the different States of this Union force themselves upon my mind. I am not, however, disposed to anticipate evil by indulging those apprehensions unless compelled to do so. It may be that we have the seeds of dissolution in our system which no skill can eradicate, just as we carry with us in our bodies the seeds of death which will certainly do their work at the allotted time. But because we are all conscious that we must die, it does not follow that we should hasten the event by an act of suicide. We have the business, duties, and obligations of life to discharge. So with this government. Because I may have serious apprehensions of the workings of causes known to exist, I do not conceive it therefore to be in the line of duty to anticipate the natural effects of those causes by any rash or unjustifiable act. I am disposed rather to hope for the best, while I feel bound to be prepared for the worst. What is really to be the future fate and destiny of this Republic is a matter of interesting speculation; but I am well satisfied that it can not last long, even if the present differences be adjusted, unless these violent and bitter sectional feelings of the North be kept out of the national halls. This is a conclusion that al must come to, who know anything of the lessons of history. But our business to-day is with the present, and not the future; and I would now invoke every member of this House who hears me, with the same frankness, earnestness, and singleness of purpose with which I have addressed them throughout these remarks, to come up like men and patriots, and relieve the country from the dangerous embarrassments by which it is at this time surrounded. It is a duty we owe to ourselves, to the millions we represent, and to the whole civilized world. To do this, I tell you again, there must be concessions by the North as well as the South. Are you not prepared to make them? Are feelings too narrow and restricted to embrace the whole country and to deal justly by all its parts? Have you formed a fixed, firm, and inflexible determination to carry your measures in this House by numerical strength, and then to enforce them by the bayonet? If so, you may be prepared to meet the consequences of whatever follows. The responsibility will rest upon your own heads. You may think that the suppression of an outbreak in the Southern States would be a holiday job for a few of your Northern regiments, but you may find to your cost, in the end, that seven millions of people fighting for their rights, their homes, and their hearthstones, can not be “easily conquered.” I submit the matter to your deliberate consideration.

I have told you, sincerely and honestly, that I am for peace and the Union upon any fair and reasonable terms—it is the most cherished sentiment of my heart. But if you deny these terms—if you continue “deaf to the voice” of that spirit of justice, right, and equality, which should always characterize the deliberations of statesmen, I know of no other alternative that will be left to the people of the South, but, sooner or later, “to acquiesce in the necessity” of “holding you, as the rest of mankind, enemies. in war—in peace, friends.”