November 26, 1860: Letter from Herschel Johnson

Herschel V. Johnson

From the Richmond Daily Dispatch, November 26, 1860:

Hon. Herschel V. Johnson has written a letter in reply to one signed by several members of the Georgia Legislature, in which he contends that Lincoln’s election is not sufficient cause for dissolving the Union; but adds:

But the South has grievances of which to complain far more galling than the bare election of a Republican to the Presidency. The surrender of fugitive slaves is a constitutional obligation upon every State in the Union.–Without such a guaranty the Union would never have been formed. It cannot long survive its continued and persistent disregard by the non-slaveholding States. The violation of it, by some, commenced almost simultaneously with the abolition agitation. It has “grown with its growth and strengthened with its strength,” until now, in defiance of Federal enactments, a majority of those States have passed stringent laws to obstruct and hinder the recovery of fugitive slaves. True, the cotton States have not suffered very considerably, on this score; the evil necessarily falls mainly upon the border States. But all the slaveholding States have felt and do now keenly feel this infidelity of their Northern sisters to their plain constitutional obligation. They have said but little, however; they have submitted to it, almost without complaint.–Amidst the almost unmixed evil which I apprehend from the election of Lincoln, I see one good result, and that is the awakening of the South to these great grievances. They ought not to be permanently submitted to; but promptly redressed, upon the united demand of the South. Let the appeal be made to the delinquent State.

Governor Johnson then refers to his previous opinions on the position of Georgia, and concedes as follows:

These were my opinions as to the proper course for Georgia to adopt in 1850. As far as they are applicable to the present crisis. I would advise their adoption now. Then I would say:

1. Let this Legislature call a convention of the people, at such time as may be deemed most convenient, to consider and determine what the State should do; and also, in the meantime, put the State in a condition to meet any emergency.

2. Let that Convention reaffirm the Georgia Platform of 1850, and demand the repeal of all laws passed by any of the non-slaveholding States, which obstruct the execution, in good faith, of the act of Congress for the rendition of fugitive slaves.

3. Let that Convention appeal to the Northern States to suppress, by all legitimate measures, the slavery agitation, as of the peace and fraternity between the States of this Union.

4. Let that Convention Congress for that purpose, or in such other manner as may be best calculated to secure concert of action.

I repeat what I said in the letter alluded to:

“As to the means a Southern Congress ought to adopt to enforce these propositions, it would be presumption in me to venture a suggestion. I prefer rather to stand mute before the wisdom of its counsels and bow submissively to its decisions. I am willing to confide the interest, the honor and the rights of the South in the hands of such a body; and I feel sure that its moral influence, representing, as it would the patriotism, the intelligence and firm resolve of the South, would be potent to save the Union and awaken the Northern States to the danger with which their misguided fanaticism has imperiled it.”

I should hope that a firm and earnest appeal by the South to the Northern States would be needed; that they would, under a sense of constitutional obligation, repeal their “personal liberty bills,” and cease to hinder the surrender of fugitive slaves. I repeat, a continued and persistent disregard of our rights in this particular, by the non-slaveholding States, cannot, and ought not, to be submitted to. It is time for the South to demand exemption from the agitation of slavery, from unjustifiable interference with our domestic peace and security, from further aggressions upon our rights, and the faithful observance by the Northern States of the requirements and guarantees of the Constitution. Let the business of redress be begun now and prosecuted to a final consummation. Let every effort be made and every means be exhausted to restore the Union back to what it was intended to be by its founders. It we fall in this, which I will not anticipate, then the interest, right, peace and honor of the South will require a dissolution of the Union.

As we’ve seen repeatedly, the key issue (aside from exaggerated fears of immediate abolition) that agitated Southerners was the movement by Northern states to nullify the Fugitive Slave Act, thus destabilizing slavery by providing slaves with the opportunity of escape. As I and others have pointed out, this complaint is actually the opposite of a States’ Rights argument, as it emphasizes the necessity of submission of the Northern States to Federal law.

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3 Responses to November 26, 1860: Letter from Herschel Johnson


    You continue to make the silly argument that the Fugitive Slave Act was against States Rights. This is clearly not true. The Federal Compact of 1787, Article 4, Sec. 2.3:

    “No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.”

    Whether the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793
    … or 1850, it was merely the mechanism of the Federal Compact itself. The South demanded the Supreme Law be upheld. States Rights refers to those thangs not specifically delegated to FedGov, like Slavery in the Territories, or D.C. That is the reason the 10th Amendment was put in place, to assure Ratification. Please try another argument to smear the South, cause “that dog don’t hunt down here” …

  2. Agathman says:

    The Washington Post has a nice discussion of the alleged right of secession which raises some relevant issues. I would say that nullification was the “states’ right” most prized by the South in 1860 — the right of a state to repeal or disregard federal law within its borders. It appears to me that personal liberty laws in the North were attempts at nullification of the fugitive slave law. While the fugitive slave clause said that escaped slaves could not be freed, it did not require any specific means of enforcement — that came from later federal laws such as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Thus the acts of Northerners in disobedience to the Fugitive Slave Act were closely parallel to the act of nullification attempted by South Carolina in 1832, although most were written in such a way as to avoid direct nullification.

  3. Pingback: January 18, 1861: “…that danger arises from the assaults that are made upon the institution of domestic slavery” | Seven Score and Ten

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