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Doc. 32. letter of Alexander H. Stephens: on State sovereignty.1

Crawfordsville, Ga., September 22, 1864.
Gentlemen: You will please excuse me for not answering your letter of the fourteenth instant sooner. I have been absent nearly a week on a visit to my brother in Sparta, who has been quite out of health for some time. Your letter I found here on my return home yesterday. The delay of my reply thus occasioned I regret.

Without further explanation or apology, allow me now to say to you that no person living can possibly feel a more ardent desire for an end to be put to this unnatural and merciless war upon honorable and just terms than I do. But I really do not see that it is in my power or yours, or that of any number of persons in our position, to inaugurate any movement that will even tend to aid in bringing about a result that we and so many more desire.

The movement by our Legislature at its last session, at the suggestion of the Executive, on this subject, was by authority properly constituted for such a purpose.

That movement, in my judgment, was timely, judicious, and in the right direction. Nor has it been without results. The organization of that party at the North to which you refer may justly be claimed as a part of the fruits of it. These, it is to be hoped, will be followed by others of a more marked character, if all in both sections who sincerely desire peace upon correct terms will give that movement thus inaugurated all the aid in their power.

The resolutions of the Georgia Legislature, at its last session, upon the subject of peace, in my judgment, embodied and set forth very clearly those principles upon which alone there can be permanent peace between the different sections of this extensive, once happy and prosperous, but now distracted country.

Easy and perfect solutions to all present troubles, and those far more grievous ones which loom in prospect, and portentously threaten in the coming future, is nothing more than the simple recognition of the fundamental principle and truth upon which all American constitutional liberty is founded, and upon the maintenance of which alone it can be preserved — that is, the sovereignty, the ultimate, absolute sovereignty, of the States. This doctrine our Legislature announced to the people at the North and to the world. It is the only keynote to peace — permanent, lasting peace — consistent with the security of the public liberty.

The old Confederation was formed upon this principle. The old Union was afterward formed upon this principle. No league can ever be formed or maintained between any State, North or South, securing public liberty, upon any other principle.

The whole framework of American institutions, which in so short a time had won the admiration of the world, and to which we were indebted for such an unparalleled career of prosperity and happiness, was formed upon this principle All our present troubles sprang from a departure from this principle, from a violation of this essential law of our political organization.

In 1776 our ancestors, and the ancestors of those who are waging this unholy crusade against us, together proclaimed the great and eternal truth for the maintenance of which they jointly pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, that governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, and that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of those ends for which it was formed, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and institute a new government, laying its foundations on such principles and organizing its powers in such a form as to them may seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

It is needless here to state that by “people,” and “governed,” in this annunciation, is meant communities and bodies of men capable of organizing and maintaining a government, not individual members of society. The consent of the governed refers to the will of the men of the community, or State in its organized form, and expressed through its legitimate and properly-constructed organs. It was upon this principle the Colonists stood justified before the world in [183] effecting their separation from the mother country. It was upon this principle that the original thirteen coequal and co-sovereign States formed the Federal compact of the old Union in 1787. It is upon the same principle that the present coequal and co-sovereign States of our Confederacy formed their new compact of union.

The idea that the old Union or any union between sovereign States, consistently with this fundamental truth, can be maintained by force is preposterous. The war springs from an attempt to do this preposterous thing. Superior power may compel a union of some sort, but it would not be the Union of the old Constitution or of our new. It would be that sort of Union that results from despotism.

The subjugation of the people of the South by the people of the North would necessarily involve the destruction of the Constitution, and the overthrow of their liberties as well as ours. The men or party at the North, to whom you refer, who favor peace, must be brought to a full realization of this truth in all its bearings, before their efforts will result in much practical good. Any peace growing out of a union of States established by force will be as ruinous to them as to us.

The action of the Chicago Convention, so far as its platform of principles goes, presents, as I have said on another occasion, a ray of light, which under Providence, may prove the dawn of the day to this long and cheerless night, the first ray of light I have seen from the North since the war began. This cheers the heart, and toward it I could almost exclaim, “Hail, holy light, offspring of heaven, first born of the eternal coeternal beam. May I express thee unblamed, since God is light.”

Indeed, I could have quite so exclaimed, but for the sad reflection that whether it shall bring healing in its beams or be lost in a dark and ominous eclipse ere its good work be done, depends so much upon the action of others who may not regard it and view it as I do. So at best it is but a ray, a small and tremulous ray, though only to gladden the heart and quicken the hope.

The prominent and leading idea of that convention seems to have been a desire to reach a peaceful adjustment of our present difficulties and strife through the medium of a convention of the States. They propose to suspend hostilities, to see what can be done, if anything, by negotiations of some sort. This is one step in the right direction. To such a convention of the States I would have no objection, as a peaceful conference and interchange of views between equal and sovereign powers, just as the convention of 1787 was called and assembled.

The properly constituted authorities at Washington and Richmond, the duly authorized representatives of the two confederacies of States now at war with each other, might give their assent to such a proposition. Good might result from it. It would be an appeal on both sides from the sword to reason and justice. All wars which do not result in the extinction or extermination of one side or the other must be ended sooner or later by some sort of negotiation.

From the discussion or interchange of views in such a convention, the history, as well as the true nature of our institutions and the relation of the States toward each other and toward the federal head, would doubtless be much better understood generally than they now are; but I should favor such a proposition only as a peaceful conference, as the convention of 1787 was. I should be opposed to leaving the questions at issue to the absolute decision of such a body.

Delegates ought to be clothed with power to consult and agree, if they could, upon some plan of adjustment, to be submitted for subsequent ratification by the sovereign States whom it affected, before it should be obligatory or binding, and then binding only on such as should so ratify it. It becomes the people of the South, as well as the people of the North, to be quite as watchful and jealous of their rights, as their common ancestors were.

The maintenance of liberty in all ages, times, and countries, when and where it has existed, has required not only constant vigilance and jealousy, but it has often required the greatest privations, and sufferings, and sacrifices that people or States are ever subjected to. Through such an ordeal we are now passing. Through a like and even severer ordeal our ancestors passed in their struggle for the principles which it has devolved upon us thus to defend and maintain.

But great as our sufferings and sacrifices have been and are, to which you allude, they are as yet far short of the like sufferings and sacrifices which our fathers bore with patience, courage, and fortitude in the crisis that tried men's souls in their day. These are the virtues that sustained them in their hour of need. Their illustrious and glorious example bids us not to underestimate the priceless inheritance they achieved for us at such a cost of treasure and blood.

Great as are the odds we are struggling against, they are not greater than those against which they successfully struggled. In point of reverses, our condition is not to be compared with theirs. Should Mobile, Savannah, Charleston, Augusta, Macon, Montgomery, and even Petersburg and Richmond fall, our condition would not then be worse or less hopeful than theirs was in the darkest hour that rested on their fortunes.

With wisdom on the part of those who control our destiny in the Cabinet, and in the field, in husbanding and properly wielding our resources at their command, and in securing the hearts and affections of the people in the great cause of right and liberty for which we are struggling, we could suffer all these losses, and calamities, and greater even, and still triumph in the end.

At present, however, I do not see, as I stated in the outset, that you or I, or any number of persons in our position, can do anything toward inaugurating any new movement looking [184] to a peaceful solution of the present strife. The war on our part is fairly and entirely defensive in its character. How long it will continue to be thus wickedly and mercilessly waged against us depends upon the people of the North.

Georgia, our own State, to whom we owe allegiance, has with great unanimity proclaimed the principles upon which a just and permanent peace ought to be sought and obtained. The Congress of the Confederate States has followed with an endorsement of these principles. All you and I, and others in our position, therefore, can do on that line at this time, is to sustain the movement already inaugurated, and to the utmost of our ability to hold up these principles as the surest hope of restoring soundness to the public mind of the North, as the brazen serpent was held up for the healing of Israel in the wilderness.

The chief aid and encouragement we can give the peace party at the North is, to keep before them these great fundamental principles and truths, which alone will lead them and us to permanent and lasting peace, with possession and enjoyment of constitutional liberty. With these principles once recognized, the future would take care of itself, and there would be no more war so long as they should be adhered to.

All questions of boundaries, confederacies, and union or unions, would naturally and easily adjust themselves, according to the interests of parties and the exigencies of the times. Herein lies the true law of the balance of power and the harmony of States.

Yours, respectfully,

1 written in reply to a communication addressed to him by his friends in Georgia, on the subject of which it treats.

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