Sunday, November 18, 1860
Secession fever was rippling through the South. Georgia had the largest population in the lower south (505,000 free – 462,000 slave), so her decision on whether or not to secede was every bit as important as South Carolina’s.
That day, the debate, as most recent debates were, was about leaving the Union. Only a third of the state’s white population owned slaves. Georgia’s majority were moderates like Alexander Stevens, not fire eaters like Henry Benning.
His speech on this date tossed around some constitutional and legal defenses of secession, but the bulk of it focused upon slavery. He was convinced that when Lincoln took office, slavery would immediately be abolished. Though Ol’ Honest Abe had said time and time again that he would not and could not constitutionally close the institution of slavery in any sovereign state, Benning wasn’t buying it.
He considered the abolition of slavery “one of the dirtiest evils of which the mind can conceive.” If the blacks were set free, Benning said, “a war between whites and blacks will spontaneously break out – a war of extermination!”
The only escape from this extermination was, of course, secession. “Men of Georgia,” Benning pleaded, “it is our business to save ourselves…. And if nothing else will save us but going out of the Union, we must go out of the Union, however much we deplore it.”
All this fire could only culminate in one thing: Georgia would have a secession convention if the state would vote for it. The state-wide election would take place on January 2, 1861.
In the meantime, the senate approved the bill giving one million dollars to the defense of the state for the year of 1861.1
- From Georgia Odyssey by James Charles Cobb, University of Georgia Press, 1997 [↩]