Stephens Replies to Lincoln. Religious Toleration and Race

The theory of natural rights was developed to solve a number of problems plaguing the English. Religious fanaticism was perhaps the most pressing problem, aside from the general factions of Rich and Poor. Our present social ills are still adjudicated using the language of rights, and the right of Free Speech is seriously disputed today. Make no mistake, the right of Free Speech and the Freedom of Religion “hang together” in theory as they do in the First Amendment.

Our present predicament–and so many predicaments that have come before–results from the fact that our “natural rights” regime was never meant to resolve racial divisions and strife–which were never considered of paramount importance to Hobbes, Locke or their spinoffs. There is a disconnect when we attempt to solve the problem of race with the theory of rights–or, to put it differently, the Enlightened Republicanism of the founders must be scrapped, and was scrapped, in pursuit of resolving the issue of slavery and race in the United States.

In his reply to Lincoln, Alexander Stephens attempts to bring the Regime’s method of solving ancient disputes to the question of Slavery. We know what came of such attempts.

Lincoln’s Letter to Stephens:

To Alexander H. Stephens
For your own eye only.
Springfield, Ills.
Dec. 22, 1860
Hon. A. H. Stephens–
My dear Sir
Your obliging answer to my short note is just received, and for which please accept my thanks. I fully appreciate the present peril the country is in, and the weight of responsibility on me. Do the people of the South really entertain fears that a Republican administration would, directly or indirectly, interfere with their slaves, or with them, about their slaves? If they do, I wish to assure you, as once a friend, and still, I hope, not an enemy, that there is no cause for such fears. The South would be in no more danger in this respect than it was in the days of Washington. I suppose, however, this does not meet the case. You think slavery is right and should be extended; while we think slavery is wrong and ought to be restricted. That I suppose is the rub. It certainly is the only substantial difference between us. Yours very truly A. Lincoln

Stephens’ Reply:

Crawfordville, Georgia,
30th December, 1860.

Dear Sir,—Yours of the 22d instant was received two days ago. I hold it and appreciate it as you intended. Personally, I am not your enemy,—far from it; and however widely we may differ politically, yet I trust we both have an earnest desire to preserve and maintain the Union of the States if it can be done upon the principles and furtherance of the objects for which it was formed. It was with such feelings on my part that I suggested to you in my former note the heavy responsibility now resting upon you, and with the same feelings I will now take the liberty of saying, in all frankness and earnestness, that this great object can never be obtained by force. This is my settled conviction. Consider the opinion, weigh it, and pass upon it for youself. An error on this point may lead to the most disastrous consequences. I will also add, that in my judgment the people of the South do not entertain any fears that a Republican Administratiion, or at least the one about to be inaugurated, would attempt to interfere directly and immediately with slavery in the States. Their apprehension and disquietude do not spring from that source. They do not arise from the fact of the known anti-slavery opinions of the President-elect. Washington, Jefferson, and other Presidents are generally admitted to have been anti-slavery in sentiment. But in those days anti-slavery did not enter as an element into party organizations.

Questions of other kinds, relating to the foreign and domestic policy,—commerce, finance, and other ligitimate objects of the General Government,—were basis of such associations in their day. The private opinions of individuals upon the subject of African slavery, or the status of the negro with us, were not looked to in the choice of Federal officers any more than their views upon matters of religion, or any other subject over which the Government under the Constitution had no control. But now this subject, which is confessedly on all sides outside of the constitutional action of the government, so far as the States are concerned, is made the ‘central idea’ in the platform of principles announced by the triumphant party. The leading object seems to be simply, and wantonly, if, you please, to put the institutions of nearly half the States under the ban of public opinion and national condemnation. This, upon general principles, is quite enough of itself to arouse a spirit not only of general indignation, but of revolt on the part of the proscribed. Let me illustrate. It is generally conceded, by the Republicans even, that Congress cannot interfere with slavery in the States. It is equally conceded that Congress cannot establish any form of religious worship. Now suppose that any one of the present Christian churches or sects prevailed in all of the Southern States, but had no existence in any one of he Northern States,—under such circumstances suppose the people of the Northern States should organize a political party, not upon a foreign of domestic policy, but with one leading idea of condemnation of the doctrines and tenets of that particular church, and with the avowed object of preventing its extension into the common Territories, even after the highest judicial tribunal of the land had decided they had no such constitutional power. And suppose that a party so organized should carry a Presidential election. It is not apparent that a general feeling of resistance to the success, aims, and objects of such a party would necessarily and rightfully ensue? Would it not be the inevitable consequence? And the more so, if possible, from the admitted fact that it was a matter beyond their control, and one that they ought not in the spirit of comity between co-States to attempt to meddle with. I submit these thoughts to you for your calm reflection. We at the South do think African slavery, as it exists with us, both morally and politically right. This opinion is founded upon the inferiority of the black race. You, however, and perhaps a majority of the North, think it wrong. Admit the difference of opinion. The same difference of opinion existed to a more general extent among those who formed the Constitution, and when it was made and adopted. The changes have been mainly to our side. As parties were not formed on this difference of opinion then, why should they be now? The same difference would, of course, exist in the supposed case of religion. When parties or conbinations of men, therefore, so form themselves, must it not be assumed to arise, not from reason or any sense of justice, but from fanaticism? The motive can spring from no other source, and when men come under the influence of fanaticism there is no telling where their impulses or passions may drive them. This is what creates our discontent and apprehension. You will also allow me to say that it is neither unnatural nor unreasonable, especially wnen we see the extent to which this reckless spirit has already gone. Such, for instance,as the avowed disregard and breach of the Constitution in the passage of the statutes in a number of the Northern States against the rendition of fugitives from service, and such exhibitions of madness as the John Brown raid into Virginia, which has received so much sympathy from many, and no open condemnation from any of the leading men of the present dominant party. For a very clear statement of the prevailing sentiment of the most moderate men of the South upon them I refer you to the speech of Senator Nicholson, of Tennessee, which I enclose to you. Upon a review of the whole, who can say that the general discontent and apprehension prevailing is not well founded?

In addressing you thus, I would have you understand me as being not a personal enemy, but as one who would have you do what you can to save our common country. A word ‘fitly spoken’ by you now would indeed be like ‘apples of gold in pictures of silver.’ I entreat you be not deceived as to the nature and extent of the danger, nor as to the remedy. Conciliation and harmony, in my judgement, can never be established by force. Nor can the Union under the Constitution be maintained by force. The Union was formed by the consent of independent sovereign States. Ultimate sovereignty still resides with them separately, which can be resumed, and will be, if their safety, tranquillity, and security, in their judgment, require it. Under our system, as I wiew it, there is no rightful power in the General Government to coerce a State, in case any one of them should throw herself upon her reserved rights and resume the full exercise of her sovereign powers. Force may perpetuate a Union. That depends upon the contingencies of war. But such a Union would not be the Union of the Constitution. It would be nothing short of a consolidated despotism. Excuse me for giving you these views. Excuse the strong language used. Nothing but the deep interest I feel in prospect of the most alarming dangers now threating our common country could induce me to do it. Consider well what I write, and let it have such weight with you as in your judgment, under all the responsibility resting upon you, it merits.

Yours respectfully, Alexander H. Stephens

It is interesting to note that the two men disagree about what “the rub” is. Lincoln thinks the rub is the extension or ultimate extinction of slavery. Stephens thinks it is the equality or inferiority of blacks. For Stephens, the question of slavery is solved by an answer to this question. For Lincoln, no amount of superiority or inferiority justified slavery.

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