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BRECKENRIDGE-BAKER DEBATE ON THE
August 1, 1861
This debate, it is said, produced the most dramatic scene that ever occurred in Congress. It took place in a period of deepest depression at the beginning of the Civil War, when the Confederacy was most defiant, and most successful. Although disaster had followed disappointment and the rebel army was but twenty miles from Washington, the war was being fought in an aimless and half-hearted way, for men with Southern sympathies were still powerful in Congress.
Such was the condition on August 1, 1861, when there was taken up for discussion the Insurrection and Sedition Bill, an act that provided for martial instead of civil law in such districts as were designated by the President as in a state of insurrection. On the day set for the debate, when it was learned that Senator Breckenridge of Kentucky was about to deliver in opposition to this bill the speech he had been preparing, the Republican senators conferred as who should be selected to make the reply. They agreed that the task should be given to Baker, who at the time was drilling his regiment at the foot of Meridan Hill, about a mile from the Senate Chamber.
On receiving the summons, Baker sprang at once into the saddle and without change of clothes rode to the Capitol. In his colonel's uniform he entered the eastern door while Breckenridge was still speaking Advancing to his seat, he laid his sword across his desk and listened restlessly to the speech. . As soon as the Senator from Kentucky had concluded, he sprang to the floor his face aglow with excitement.
At the conclusion of his impromptu speech, he remounted his horse and rode back to his regiment. He died heroically a few weeks later at the battle of Ball's Bluff. Breckenridge became a major-general in the Confederate army, and finally was made secretary of war for the Confederate States.
DEBATE ON THE WAR
John C. BRECKENRIDGE
MR. PRESIDENT: Gentlemen talk about the Union as if it was an end instead of a means. They talk about it as if it was the Union of these states which alone had brought into life the principles of public and of personal liberty. Sir, they existed before, and they may survive it. Take care that in destroying one idea you do not destroy not only the Constitution of your country, but sever what remains of the Federal Union. These external and sacred principles of public men and of personal liberty, which lived before the Union and will live forever and ever somewhere, must be respected; they cannot with impunity be overthrown; and if you force the people to the issue between any form of government and these priceless principles, that form of government will perish; they will tear it asunder as the irrepressible forces of nature rend whatever opposes them.
Mr. President, we are on the wrong tack; we have been from the beginning. The people begin to see it. Here we
have been hurling gallant fellows on to death, and the blood of Americans has been shed—for what? They have shown their prowess, respectively—that which belongs to
and shown it like men. But for what have the United States soldiers, according to the exposition we have here to-day, been shedding their blood and displaying their dauntless courage? It has been to carry out principles that three-fourths of them abhor; for the principles contained in this bill and continually avowed on the floor of the Senate, are not shared, I venture to say, by one-fourth of the army.
I have said, sir, that we are on the wrong tack. Nothing but ruin, utter ruin, to the North, to the South, to the East, to the West will follow the prosecution of this contest. You may look forward to countless treasures all spent for the purpose of desolating and ravaging this continent; at the end leaving us just where we are now; or if the forces of the United States are successful in ravaging the whole South, what on earth will be done with it after that is accomplished? Are not gentlemen now perfectly satisfied that they have mistaken a people for a faction? Are they not perfectly satisfied that to accomplish their object, it is necessary to subjugate to conquer—ay, to exterminate-nearly ten millions of people? Do you not know it? Does not everybody know it? Does not the world know it? 1 Let us pause, and let the Congress of the United States respond to the rising feeling all over this land in favor of peace. War is separation; in the language of an eminent gentleman now no more, it is disunion, eternal and final disunion. We have separation now; it is only made worse by war, and an utter extinction ci all those sentiments of common interest and feeling which might lead to political reunion founded upon consent and upon a conviction of its advantages. Let the war go on, however, and soon in addition to the moans of widows and orphans all over this land, you will hear the cry of distress from those who want food and the comforts of life. The people will be unable to pay the grinding taxes which a fanatical spirit will attempt to impose upon them. Nay, more, sir; you will see further separation. The Pacific slope now, doubtless, is devoted to the union of states. Let this war go on till they find the burdens of taxation greater than the burdens of a separate condition, and they will assert it. Let the war go on until they see the beautiful features of the old Confederacy beaten out of shape and comeliness by the brutalizing hand of war, and they will turn aside in disgust from the sickening spectacle, and become a separate nation. Fight twelve months longer, and the already opening differences that you see between New England and the great Northwest will develop themselves. You have two confederacies now. Fight twelve months and you will have three; twelve months longer, and you will have four.
I will not enlarge upon it, sir. I am quite aware that all I say is received with a sneer of incredulity 3 by the gentlemen who represent the far Northeast; but let the future determine who was right and who was wrong. We are making our record here; I, my humble one, amid the sneers and aversion of nearly all who surround me, giving my votes, and uttering my utterances according to my convictions, with but few approving voices, and surrounded by scowls. The time will soon come, Senators when history will put her final seal upon these proceedings, and if my name shall be recorded there, going along with yours as an actor in these scenes, I am willing to abide, fearlessly, her final judgment.
EDWARD D. BAKER
MR. PRESIDENT: It has not been my fortune to participate in at any length, indeed, nor to hear very much of, the discussion which has been going on—more, I think, in the hands of the Senator from Kentucky than anybody else upon all the propositions connected with this war; and as I really feel as sincerely as he can an earnest desire to preserve the Constitution of the United States for everybody, South as well as North, I have listened for some little time past to what he has said with an earnest desire to apprehend the point of his objection to this particular bill.
Mr. President, the honorable senator says there is a state of war. The Senator from Vermont 4 agrees with him; or rather, he agrees with the Senator from Vermont in that. What then? There is a state of public war; none the less war because it is urged from the other side; not the less war because it is unjust; not the less war because it is a war of insurrection and rebellion. It is still war; and I am willing to say it is public war,--public as contra-distinguished from private war. What then? Shall we carry that war on? Is it his duty as a senator to carry it on ? If so, how? By armies under command; by military organization and authority, advancing to suppress insurrection and rebellion. Is that wrong? Is that unconstitutional ? Are we not bound to do, with whoever levies war against us, as we would do if he were a foreigner? There is no distinction as to the mode of carrying on war; we carry on war against an advancing army just the same whether it be from Russia or from South Carolina. Will the honorable senator tell me it is our duty to stay here, within fifteen miles of the enemy seeking to advance upon us every hour, and talk about nice questions of constitutional construction as to whether it is war or merely insurrection ? No, sir. It is our