December 12, 1860: Louis Wigfall speaks in the Senate

Louis T. Wigfall
Louis T. Wigfall

Congressional Globe, December 12, 1860. Louis T. Wigfall of Texas has the floor:

…the Senator from Illinois [Mr. Douglas] was indulging in some patriotic platitudes upon the subject of saving the Union; and I understood him to say that he was prepared to make any effort in his power to accomplish that very desirable object. He…asked for specifications as to the wrongs, or imagined wrongs, under which the southern States were suffering…
I stated to him that one of the grievances under which the Southern States supposed they were suffering was, that this Government denied that slaves were property, and, upon that denial, refused to protect the owners of slaves in their title whenever they were within the Federal jurisdiction.

If the two Senators from New York, the Senator from Ohio [Mr. Wade,] the two Senators from Illinois, the Senator from New Hampshire, [Mr. Hale,] the senators from Maine, and others, who are regarded as representative men, who have denied that, by the Constitution of the United States; slaves are recognized as property; who have urged and advocated those acts which we regard as aggressive on the part of the people — if they will rise here and say in their places, that they desire to propose amendments to the Constitution and beg that we will vote for them; that they will, in good faith, go to their respective constituencies and urge the ratification; that they believe, if those Gulf States will suspend their action, that those amendments will be ratified and carried out in good faith; that they will cease preaching this “irrepressible conflict”, and if, in those amendments, it is declared that slaves are property, that they shall be delivered up upon demand; and if they will assure us that Abolition societies shall be abolished; that Abolition presses shall be suppressed; that Abolition speeches shall no longer be made; that we shall have peace and quiet; that we shall not be called cut-throats and pirates and murderers; that our women shall not be slandered — these things being said in good faith, the Senators begging that we will stay our hand until an honest effort can be made, I believe that there is a prospect of giving them a fair consideration.

The Globe records that there was laughter on the Republican side of the aisle at this, and Wigfall took offense at it. He went on to threaten that secession would bring economic ruin to the North as well as Britain and Europe because “cotton is king.” He spoke at some length on the nature of the federal government:

Your irrepressible conflict idea is predicated upon the supposition that this is a consolidated Government; that there are no States; that there is a national Government, as they call it; that the people who live between the two oceans and between the Gulf and the lakes are one people; that the boundaries of Massachusetts have, by some hocus pocus, been extending themselves until they embrace all the remainder of the Union; and that we are one people, have a national Government, and are under the control of “the Massachusetts school of politics,” as the Senator from New York said he was. This is the fatal error. If you could have seen it in time, much of this difficulty would have been avoided. We see and know and we feel that you are administering this Government upon the idea that there is but one single State or nation, and that you, under these impressions, believe that you are responsible for the domestic institutions of all the other States.


I say that there is not and cannot be under this present form of Government any irrepressible conflict; that those States which are slaveholding have a right to be so, those that are non-slaveholding have a right to be so…

This is one of the clearest expositions I have seen yet of the States’ Rights doctrine as opposed to a strong Federalism. Nevertheless, the one right that can be identified as an example is the right to own slaves. Wigfall’s view of the rights of the states is typically asymmetrical; Northerners will not be allowed even to talk about abolition, while Southern whites must be guaranteed the right to own other people.

This entry was posted in Abolitionism, Louis T. Wigfall, Secession, Slavery, States' Rights, Texas. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to December 12, 1860: Louis Wigfall speaks in the Senate

  1. Pingback: Recruiting a Peace Emissary in Buffalo | Blue Gray Review

  2. Chris Moore says:

    Wigfall was one of the true “fire eaters”. Here’s some fun details from Wikipedia:

    “In the South Carolina gubernatorial election of 1840, Wigfall actively supported the candidacy of John Peter Richardson over the more radical James Henry Hammond, which led to public exchanges of arguments and insults. In a five-month period, Wigfall managed to get into a fistfight, two duels, three near-duels, and was charged, but not indicted, for killing a man.[6] This outbreak of political violence culminated in 1840 on an island in the Savannah River near Augusta, Georgia, where Wigfall took a bullet through both thighs while dueling with future Congressman Preston Brooks.[7]. ”

    (Wigfall shot and killed Thomas Bird, a cousin to Preston Brooks, when he attempted to remove “postings” at the Edgefield courthouse that called Brooks’ father a coward for rejecting a duel challenge. You may also recall Preston Brooks later on in history – he suffered a wounded hip in the affair and had to use a walking cane for the rest of his life. He would famously use that cane on the floor of the U.S. Senate against Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner in 1856, thrashing him senseless and nearly killing Sumner for a remark Sumner had made about another Brooks’ cousin, Senator Andrew Butler.)

    Back to Wigfall:
    “In the days leading up to the start of hostilities, Wigfall advocated an attack on Fort Sumter and Fort Pickens in Florida to prompt Virginia and other upper southern states to join the Confederacy.

    He arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, as the siege of Fort Sumter commenced. According to diarist Mary Chesnut, he was the only “thoroughly happy person I see.”[13] While serving as an aide to General Beauregard during the bombardment of Fort Sumter, and without authorization, he rowed a skiff out to the island fort and demanded its surrender from Major Robert Anderson.[14] The incident was widely reported in the newspapers furthering his celebrity, but the story redacted the important detail that Wigfall had not spoken to Beauregard in two days. When the authorized emissaries arrived at the fort, they were dismayed upon learning that Wigfall had granted terms to Anderson which Beauregard had already rejected.[15]

    [edit] Brigade commander
    With his new found celebrity Wigfall secured an appointment to full Colonel of the 1st Texas Infantry Regiment, and a rapid promotion thereafter to Brigadier General of the “Texas Brigade” in the Confederate Army. He took up residence near his encamped troops in a tavern at Dumfries, Virginia, during the winter of 1861–1862, where he would frequently call the men to arms at midnight, imagining a Federal invasion.[16] His nervousness was blamed on his fondness for whiskey and hard cider. He appeared visibly drunk, on and off-duty, in the presence of his men on more than one occasion.[17] He resigned his commission in February 1862 to take a seat in the Confederate Senate, and was replaced by John Bell Hood.[18]”

    I believe “colorful characters” might be the term that applies.

  3. Agathman says:

    I personally love his suggestion that if they’d pass a constitutional amendment that would guarantee slavery, suppress all abolition societies, and prohibit even saying mean things about slaveowners, the South might consider staying in the union.

  4. Chris Moore says:

    Don’t forget, those damn yankees also have to stop saying slanderous things about southern women.

    But this part I don’t get, “I stated to him that one of the grievances under which the Southern States supposed they were suffering was, that this Government denied that slaves were property, and, upon that denial, refused to protect the owners of slaves in their title whenever they were within the Federal jurisdiction.”

    The Fugitive Slave Act and Kansas/Nebraska Act were in force and the Supreme Court had recently handed down its pro-southern decision in the Dred Scott case. This rhetoric sounds like Wigfall’s self-serving bombast to me. Not to mention, his justification for the actions already irrevocably underway in the land of cotton.

    • Agathman says:

      It seems like he’s talking about the right to travel through Federal property — D.C.?– with one’s slaves. But I thought slavery was still permitted in D.C. at the time?

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