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Like Hidden Fire From the Earth: Georgia’s Benning Warns Virginia Against Abolition and Union

Seven states had already seceded from the Union when Henry Benning from Georgia traveled to Richmond in hopes of convincing Virginia to leave the United States and join the infant Confederacy. To convince the still-loyal states of the need to leave the Union, delegates such as Benning were sent out like missionaries from the deep South. With prepared speeches in hand, they echoed and embellished upon their states’ reasons for seceding as laid out in their respective Declaration of Causes. If one truly wished to know why the South seceded, they need look little further than the statements made by Benning and others.

Laying the Ground for Benning

Georgia’s Henry Benning, a State Supreme Court Justice, spoke on February 18, 1861 before Virginia’s State Convention, which had been called to discuss Secession. Beginning five days earlier, the meeting heard from Virginia’s elite unionists and secessionists alike. The former promised that emancipation and subsequent colonization of the slaves – if it even came to such a thing – would deliver more jobs for the white man. The latter preached the opposite gospel, urging the delegates toward secession. 1William W. Freehling, The Road to Disunion, Vol II (Oxford University Press) 504-511.

Henry Lewis Benning
Henry Lewis Benning

The floor that day was first held by Fulton Anderson of Mississippi, who extended an invitation to “another Union, which shall spring into life under more favorable omens and with happier auspices than that which has passed away….” He warned in dire tones that the newly-elected Lincoln administration would “exclude slavery from the public Territory” and “abolish the internal slave trade.”

Railing against both black people and immigrants alike, Anderson’s speech reached one of its numerous crescendos:

“Having thus placed the institution of slavery, upon which rests not only the whole wealth of the Southern people, but their very social and political existence, under the condemnation of a government established for the common benefit, it proposed in the future, to encourage immigration into the public Territory, by giving the public land to immigrant settlers, so as, within a brief time, to bring into the Union free States enough to enable it to abolish slavery within the States themselves.” 2Fulton Anderson, “Address of Fulton Anderson, of Mississippi,” in Rebellion Record, Supplement, First Volume, ed. Frank Moore, (G.P. Putnam & Henry Holt, 1864) 143-148.

All for Slavery

While Fulton Anderson minced few words, Henry Benning was unabashedly straight forward, getting immediately to the point, straying little in his long oration. After a brief salutation, he began, listing three reasons to secede – all of them slavery:

“What was the reason that induced Georgia to take the step of secession? This reason may be summed up in one single proposition. It was a conviction, a deep conviction on the part of Georgia, that a separation from the North was the only thing that could prevent the abolition of her slavery. This conviction, sir, was the main cause. It is true, sir, that the effect of this conviction was strengthened by a further conviction that such a separation would be the best remedy for the fugitive slave evil, and also the best, if not the only remedy, for the territorial evil. But, doubtless, if it had not been for the first conviction this step would never have been taken. It therefore becomes important to inquire whether this conviction was well founded.”

Benning went on to “prove” to the assembly how separation from the North was the only way to fend off the abolition of slavery. The “Black Republican” party was, in Benning’s words, “in a permanent majority.” Abraham Lincoln’s hatred of slavery was “as extreme as hatred can exist.”

Even if the administration could be overthrown, Benning asked, “how long would your victory last?” Answering himself, he concluded, “but a very short time.” They would, he argued, simply come back. They had sprung up “from nothing,” over the past twenty-five years, so “how long would it take the fragments of that party to get again into a majority?”

The North Cannot Be Trusted

Benning then turned his ire away from the government in Washington to the people of the North:

Virginia Capitol Building
Virginia Capitol Building

“What is the feeling of the rest of the Northern people upon this subject? Can you trust them? They all say that slavery is a moral, social and political evil. Then the result of that feeling must be hatred to the institution; and if that is not entertained, it must be the consequence of something artificial or temporary—some interest, some thirst for office, or some confidence in immediate advancement.”

Benning then warned that the North had the power to abolish slavery, and would most certainly use it.

“If things are allowed to go on as they are, it is certain that slavery is to be abolished except in Georgia and the other cotton States, and I doubt, ultimately in these States also. By the time the North shall have attained the power, the black race will be in a large majority, and then we will have black governors, black legislatures, black juries, black everything.”

At this, the assemblage erupted into laughter, as noted by the Convention’s secretary. Whether it was nervous jittering laughter or uproarious belly-laughs at the absurdity of black officials went unstated.

The Slaves Cannot Be Trusted

Benning then played to the common fear of a mass slave revolt.

“Although [the black population was] not half so numerous, we may readily assume that war will break out everywhere like hidden fire from the earth, and it is probable that the white race, being superior in every respect, may push the other back. They [the white South] will then call upon the authorities at Washington, to aid them in putting down servile insurrection, and they will send a standing army down upon us, and the volunteers and Wide-Awakes will come in thousands, and we will be overpowered and our men will be compelled to wander like vagabonds all over the earth; and as for our women, the horrors of their state we cannot contemplate in imagination. That is the fate which Abolition will bring upon the white race.”

A woodcut depicting Virginia's Nat Turner Rebellion, August 1831.
A woodcut depicting Virginia’s Nat Turner Rebellion, August 1831.

When it came to fugitive slaves who attempted to gain their freedom by running across the border, Benning also had an idea, apparently wishing to turn the South into a war-like police state.

“If you were with us, it would become necessary, in order to collect our revenue, to station police officers all along the border, and have there bodies of troops. It could be easily made part of the duty of these officers to keep strict watch along there and intercept every slave, and keep proper surveillance on all who may come within the line of particular localities. Is not that arrangement better than any fugitive slave law that you could get? Most assuredly it is. If we were separated from the North, the escape of a fugitive slave into their territory would be but the addition of one savage to the number they have already.”

Virginia as Purgatory

Benning was very careful in his wording when trying to entice Virginia to leave the Union. While he understandably urged them to “join us” in the South, he warned Virginia not the “join with the North,” as if Virginia was in some official purgatory. Never once did he beg them not to “stay with the North,” it was always that they could “join” with either.

“Join the North, and what will become of you? In that, I say, you will find yourself much lower than you stand now. No doubt the North will now make fine promises, but when you are once in, they will give you but little quarter. They will hate you and your institutions as much as they do now, and treat you accordingly. Suppose they elevated [abolitionist Charles] Sumner to the Presidency? Suppose they elevated Frederick Douglass, your escaped slave, to the Presidency? And there are hundreds of thousands at the North who would do this for the purpose of humiliating and insulting the South. What would be your position in such an event? I say give me pestilence and famine sooner that that.”

And with a quick vow not to reopen the Atlantic slave trade (which the Confederate Constitution would soon officially outlaw), Benning was finished and the day was over. 3Henry Benning, “Address of Henry L. Benning, of Georgia,” in Rebellion Record, Supplement, First Volume, ed. Frank Moore, (G.P. Putnam & Henry Holt, 1864) 148-156.

How Virginia Was Voted Out Of The Union - Harpers Weekly, June 15, 1861.
How Virginia Was Voted Out Of The Union – Harpers Weekly, June 15, 1861.

The Convention continued to meet daily over the next several weeks. On April 4th, the delegates voted against secession. But after the Confederacy fired upon Union-held Fort Sumter (April 12th), and Lincoln, in response, asked the still-loyal Virginia for three volunteer regiments to help put down the rebellion (April 15th), the Convention voted to secede if approved by the people (April 17th). On May 23rd, the people of Virginia confirmed their secession, a month after the state government had already mobilized the militia, seizing the Federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry (April 18th), as well as the United States Naval Yard in Norfolk.

Henry Benning’s address may not have been the factor for Virginia’s secession. Clearly, Lincoln’s call to arms was the breaking-straw. But what his words give us is a (somewhat) concise peek into the minds of Georgia’s pro-slavery politicos. With delegates from Mississippi and South Carolina echoing Benning’s statements, we have a clear picture of why the Deep South seceded and just how they planned to convince the border states to join them.

Full texts of both Anderson’s And Benning’s speeches are available here.

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Has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, writing the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.