The Worlds Famous Orations. America: III. (18611905). 1906.
His Reply to Breckenridge
Edward D. Baker (181161)
Born in London in 1811, died in 1861; came to America in 1816; elected to Congress from Illinois in 1845; Colonel and Brigade Commander in the Mexican War, 184748; again elected to Congress from Illinois in 1849; removing to Oregon, elected a United States Senator in 1860; raised a regiment in New York and Philadelphia in 1861; commanded a brigade at the Battle of Balls Bluff on October 21, 1861; killed at Balls Bluff while leading a desperate charge.
THE SENATOR1 from Kentucky stands up here in a manly way in opposition to what he sees is the overwhelming sentiment of the Senate, and utters reproof, malediction, and prediction combined. Well, sir, it is not every prediction that is prophecy. It is the easiest thing in the world to do; there is nothing easier, except to be mistaken when we have predicted. I confess, Mr. President, that I would not have predicted three weeks ago the disasters2 which have overtaken our arms; and I do not think (if I were to predict now) that six months hence the senator will indulge in the same tone of prediction which is his favorite key now. I would ask him what would you have us do nowa Confederate army within twenty miles3 of us, advancing, or threatening to advance, to overwhelm your government; to shake the pillars of the Union; to bring it around your head in ruins if you stay here?
Are we to stop and talk about an uprising sentiment in the North against the war? Are we to predict evil, and retire from what we predict? Is it not the manly part to go on as we have begun, to raise money, and levy armies, to organize them, to prepare to advance; when we do advance, to regulate that advance by all the laws and regulations that civilization and humanity will allow in time of battle? Can we do anything more? To talk to us about stopping is idle; we will never stop. Will the senator yield to rebellion? Will he shrink from armed insurrection? Will his State justify it? Will its better public opinion allow it? Shall we send a flag of truce? What would he have? Or would he conduct this war so feebly, that the whole world would smile at us in derision? What would he have?
These speeches of his, sown broadcast over the land, what clear distinct meaning have they? Are they not intended for disorganization in our very midst? Are they not intended to dull our weapons? Are they not intended to destroy our zeal? Are they not intended to animate our enemies? Sir, are they not words of brilliant polished treason?
What would have been thought if, in another capitol, in another republic, in a yet more martial age, a senator as grave, not more eloquent or dignified than the senator from Kentucky, yet with the Roman purple flowing over his shoulders, had risen in his place, surrounded by all the illustrations of Roman glory, and declared that advancing Hannibal was just, and that Carthage ought to be dealt with in terms of peace? What would have been thought if, after the Battle of Cannæ, a senator there had risen in his place and denounced every levy of the Roman people, every expenditure of its treasure, and every appeal to the old recollections and the old glories? Sir, a senator, himself learned far more than myself in such lore [Mr. Fessenden4], tells me, in a voice that I am glad is audible, that he would have been hurled from the Tarpeian rock.
When we subjugate South Carolina, what shall we do? We shall compel its obedience to the Constitution of the United States; that is all. Why play upon words? We do not mean, we never have said, any more. If it be slavery that men should obey the Constitution their fathers fought for, let it be so. If it be freedom, it is freedom equally for them and for us. We propose to subjugate rebellion into loyalty; we propose to subjugate insurrection into peace; we propose to subjugate Confederate anarchy into constitutional Union liberty. The senator well knows that we propose no more. I ask himI appeal to his better judgment nowwhat does he imagine we intend to do, if fortunately we conquer Tennessee or South Carolinacall it conquer, if you will, sirwhat do we propose to do?
They will have their courts still; they will have their ballot-boxes still; they will have their elections still; they will have their representatives upon this floor still; they will have taxation and representation still; they will have the writ of habeas corpus still; they will have every privilege they ever had and all we desire. When the Confederate armies are scattered; when their leaders are banished from power; when the people return to a late repentant sense of the wrong they have done to a government they never felt but in benignancy and blessing,then the Constitution made for all will be felt by all, like the descending rains from heaven which bless all alike. Is that subjugation? To restore what was, as it was, for the benefit of the whole country and of the whole human race, is all we desire and all we can have.
Sir, how can we retreat? Sir, how can we make peace? Who shall treat? What commissioners? Who would go? Upon what terms? Where is to be your boundary line? Where the end of the principles we shall have to give up? What will become of constitutional government? What will become of public liberty? What of past glories? What of future hopes? Shall we sink into the insignificance of the gravea degraded, defeated, emasculated people, frightened by the results of one battle, and scared at the visions raised by the imagination of the senator from Kentucky upon this floor? No, sir; a thousand times no, sir! We will rallyif, indeed, our words be necessarywe will rally the people, the loyal people, of the whole country. They will pour forth their treasure, their money, their men, without stint, without measure. The most peaceable man in this body may stamp his foot upon this Senate-chamber floor, as of old a warrior and a senator did, and from that single stamp there will spring forth armed legions.
Shall one battle determine the fate of an empire? or the loss of one thousand men, or twenty thousand; or one hundred million dollars, or five hundred million dollars? In a years peace, in ten years, at most, of peaceful progress, we can restore them all. There will be some graves reeking with blood, watered by the tears of affection. There will be some privation; there will be some loss of luxury; there will be somewhat more need for labor to procure the necessaries of life. When that is said, all is said. If we have the country, the whole country, the Union, the Constitution, free governmentwith these there will return all the blessings of well-ordered civilization; the path of the country will be a career of greatness and of glory such as, in the olden time, our fathers saw in the dim visions of years yet to come, and such as would have been ours now, to-day, if it had not been for the treason for which the senator too often seeks to apologize!
Note 1. From a speech in the United States Senate on August 1, 1861, eleven days after the Battle of Bull Run. Breckenridge was then a senator from Kentucky and had been defeated as the candidate of the Southern Democrats for the presidency in the election of November, 1860. On being expelled from the Senate, December 4, 1861, he entered the Confederate army, where he served as a major-general and finally as secretary of war. Bakers speech is remembered as one of the most dramatic ever delivered in the United States Senate. Breckenridge, whose speech, strongly Southern in tone, had provoked it, was already on his feet when Baker, a colonel in the army as well as a senator, alternating in his services between his seat in the Senate and his tent in the field, entered the Senate-chamber at the eastern door, wearing his blue army coat and fatigue cap, a riding whip in his hand and his sword in its scabbard. Blaine, in his Twenty Years of Congress, describes how Baker laid his sword upon his desk and sat down, listening to Breckenridge. When Breckenridge had finished, Baker, his face aglow with excitement, sprang to the floor. No more thrilling speech was ever delivered. The striking appearance of the speaker in the uniform of a soldier, his superb voice, his graceful manner, all united to give the occasion an extraordinary interest? Eleven weeks later Baker lay dead on the field of Balls Bluff. [back]
Note 2. In the first battle of Bull Run the Federals lost 481 killed, 1,011 wounded, and 1,421 missing; the Confederates, 387 killed and 1,582 missing. The Federals, put to rout, also lost 28 guns and 5,000 small arms. [back]
Note 3. The field of Bull Run is twenty-five miles southwest of Washington. [back]
Note 4. Blaine relates that Breckenridge understood this suggestion to come from Sumner instead of Fessenden, and in his reply to Baker bitterly denounced Sumner, who looked surprised, but having become accustomed to abuse from the South, said nothing. When next day it was shown by the Globe that Mr. Fessenden was the offender, Mr. Breckenridge neither apologized to Mr. Sumner nor attacked the senator from Maine. [back]