Letter from Col. F. H. Smith to a friend, on the questions of the day.
Virginia Military Institute, December 13th, 1860.
My Dear Sir:
When the correspondent of the Richmond Dispatch
represented me as favoring a "Southern Confederacy," he was as unjust to me as I think he was to Major Preston
when he stated that gentleman expressed his "satisfaction with the Union
as it is." My position may be enunciated in two general propositions:
- I not only prefer, but am most earnestly anxious, to preserve and perpetuate the Constitutional Union under which we live.
- I am no less determined to vindicate the constitutional rights, and to preserve inviolate the honor and character of my beloved mother Commonwealth — Virginia.
The two propositions, though seemingly paradoxical, are perfectly consistent, and are based upon the fundamental principles which underlie our Federal Union.
No constitutional right of a single State can be trampled upon by the Federal Government
or by one of the States which compose it, without impairing the Union
Its security, peace and perpetuity, are all involved in the jealous vigilance with which each separate State guards its constitutional rights; while submission to oppression and wrong would not only enslave the State
upon which they were visited, but impair the honor and safety of the Union
to which she belongs
I am sure you fully endorse both propositions, and are the last person in Virginia
who would repudiate either.
How, now, shall we practically apply them in the present crisis!
Here many of us differ, and we differ, too, from day to day; for, what seemed to be the best course yesterday, (so rapidly does the current of public affairs culminate,) would not do to-day.
There is no question between us of the South
in reference to the bill of grievances.
Our constitutional compact has not only been violated to letter, but in spirit; and we find those who have been the chief agents
in the work of violator now riding into power and taking possession of the Federal Government
, that they may, by the forms of the Constitution
, still further trample upon our constitutional rights.
Here we are all agreed.--We have been wronged.--grievously so.
Shall we submit!
Never; no. never!
We would be unworthy of our fathers, who counted not the cost, but freely pledged life, fortune and honor, rather than submit to wrong — to oppression.
Then we must seek redress.
In what way?
It seems to me, now, that if the Southern States
had gone into Conference last spring and drawn up a bill of grievances, and presented an ultimatum,
present difficulties might have been obviated.
I did not think so then, but the course of affairs since has led me to the conclusion, that Virginia
erred in refusing this Conference.
If nothing else had been secured, unity in the Presidential contest might have been promoted.
But this failed.
Now, it does seem to me. that we in Virginia
are stopped from complaint against South Carolina
for her separate action, after refusing to go into Conference with her.
We may think she has acted precipitately, or rashly, or selfishly; but we refused to counsel with her, and left her, in the hour of common peril, to take counsel of herself.
Whether she acted-wisely or unwisely — for the best interest of the South
or not — for or against our own interest, she has acted — the Southern States
acting in concert with her are about to act, and we in Virginia
are irresistibly, by the force of circumstances, to shape our course, not by the consideration of what might have been best, if South Carolina
had not seceded, or matters had not gone so far, but by facts as they are; and as she would not breast the storm, and lead others who would have gladly followed her proud flag, she must be content to shape her action as may be best in the forced circumstances by which she is at present surrounded.
It seems to me she is compelled to meet this crisis, and have questions at issue settled; and the point is, how she may do this, with less damage to herself and her peculiar interests.
Some advise that we remain in the Union
and make a solemn demand upon the North
But what avail will be the weak cry of Virginia
, stripped of the united strength of her sister Southern States?
Or what could Virginia
, North Carolina
, and Tennessee
do, when their power in the Federal Union has been paralyzed by the secession of the cotton States?
Or admit that redress were secured; how could she remain in a Union, overpowered as she would be by the united sentiment of the North
, without additional constitutional guarantees?
And could she get them?
I know not.
Others, considering the dissolution of the Union
inevitable, are suggesting a Middle Confederacy.
While I see no advantage in this arrangement, that could not be as fully secured in an united South, there are many serious objections to it. It increases our hostile frontier, while it weakens our means of defence.
I could not favor such a diminution of our political status,
except under the force of an overruling necessity.
My opinion is, that the safety of the Union
depends upon an united South, on the common issue, which has exposed us to the common peril.
Let the whole South
act in concert.
It South Carolina
has proceeded so far that she cannot, in honor, counsel with us, let the other Southern States act together.
If the country can be saved, without recourse to the ultima ratio,
by all means save the country.--If this be impossible, then it is not worth while to argue upon the abstract right of secession — we will all act upon it — and if no constitutional power exists in the Federal Government
, as Mr. Buchanan
and his Attorney General
think, to coerce, then, we may secede peaceably, first settling the common debt and dividing the common property.
My belief is, that when the North
sees that the whole South
is in real earnest;
that the country is gone, unless they relent in their unfriendly attitude, they will submit to any conditions consistent with justice and right and honor.--We have assurance of this, in the large conservative element of the North
, who have been all along fighting for us, and who have been at last overpowered by the combination of opposing elements.
We shall have the conscience of those Republicans, who have been misled and betrayed into their present associations, but who really desire to do justice and to avoid wrong; and the noisy clamor for "bread or blood" will frighten those who know no other appeal than that which springs from such a demand.
Now, can the South
be brought to act thus in concert?
I hope it-may.
there is patriotism enough in the South
to do it.
Did ever a people bear as long as we have?
Surely, surely, our patriotism has been tried, and it has not been found wanting.
We all desire to preserve this proud fabric of our National Union, and that we do so, is evident from the fact that we are willing to make such sacrifices for it.
Every fibre of our Southern heart has been stretched to preserve it, and if it falls, the united Southern voice can say-- "It was not I that did it.
My allegiance is due to my native State, Virginia
For weal or woe, my destiny is in dissoluble united to hers.
I submit to her decision, and most devoutly pray that she may be guided by the spirit of All Wisdom.
I have written to you more fully, because you and my friends elsewhere have the right to know the sentiments of one holding so public a position as I do, and you are at liberty to make such use of this letter as may seem best and right.