We Cannot Alter Our Free Government

Edward Dickinson Baker of Oregon
Senate, December 31 1860

It is no greater crime for a Massachusetts man or an Oregon man to circle, to girdle, and thereby kill slavery than for a Frenchman, or an Englishman, or a Mexican. It is as much a cause of war against France, or England, or Mexico, as against us. Again, sir; how are you going to help it? How can we help it? Circle slavery with a cordon of free States! Why, if I read history and observe geography rightly, it is so girdled now. Which way can slavery extend itself that it does not encroach upon the soil of freedom? It cannot go north, though it is trying very hard. It cannot go into Kansas, though it made a convulsive effort, mistaking a spasm for strength. It cannot go south, because, amid the degradation and civil war and peonage of Mexico, if there be one thing under heaven they hate worse than another, it is African slavery. It cannot reach the islands of the sea, for they are under the shadow of France, that guards their shores against such infectious approach.

Where can slavery go that it is not now? If it go elsewhere it will go incursive, aggressive upon freedom. It will go by invading the rights of a nation that is inferior and that desires to be friendly. It will go in defiance of the wish and will and hope and tear and prayer of the whole civilized world. It will go in defiance of the hopes of civilized humanity all over the world. Therefore it is that it appears to me idle - and I had almost said wicked - to attempt to plunge this country into civil war upon the pretence that we are endeavoring to circle your institution, when, if we had no such wish or desire in the world, it is circled by destiny, by Providence, and by human opinion everywhere.

There is, then no ground of complaint against us, even if all you say be true, that we are surrounding you by a girdle, a cordon, a circle of free States. Why, you seem to me to have the same notion with an old farmer in my country who was complaining that he was not rich enough. He said he would be perfectly happy if he only had all the land that joined him. [Laughter.] It appears to me that the complaint of the honorable Senator is, that slavery does not extend everywhere, without border, or limit, or girdle, or circle in the world.

Again: does the Senator remember, when he asks us to restrain this process of circling the slave States by the settlement of free communities upon their borders, that he is asking us to do what we have no power to do by our system of government, or by our Constitution? What is the process? When slavery is circled, it is circled by the elastic, expansive power of free labor. California so circled it; Oregon so circles it. Make Arizuma a Territory to-day; steal Sonora to-morrow; and there free labor will so circle it, spite of laws, spite of government.

Now, why should the Senator from Louisiana propose to dissolve with us because this is so? I would ask gentlemen on the other side: will it be any the less so if you dissolve with us? Will not our young men take their axes upon their shoulders, or their ox-whips in their hands, and drive their teams out in the wilderness upon the very edge and border of civilization, adventurous, fearless, elastic, expansive? Do you not know that we will gear up the team, put the wife and children in the wagon, and be half way there - nay, that we will seize and possess the goodly land, while you are hallooing "Pompey, Jube, Scipio, get ready and come"? That, sir - the peaceful progress of settlement and civilization - must be the real substantial ground of complaint, if there be any.

Then, sir, as for destroying the liberty of our press, as for abolishing societies formed to promote the abolition of slavery, or for any other purpose in the world, do Senators think when they ask us to do that? Sir, I ask them how? Whether they do it in their own States, it is not for me to determine. But I may inquire how do they expect us to abolish the right of free speech and of free discussion? The abuse of the right is, if you like, an evil incident to free government, and how and why do you ask us to obviate in your case what we cannot remove in our own? Will you really make war upon us, will you really separate from us, because we cannot alter the model and frame of our free Government for which your fathers and ours fought side by side? You will not do that.

Mr. President, do gentlemen propose to us seriously that we shall stop the right of free discussion; that we shall limit the free press; that we shall restrain the expression of free opinion everywhere on all subjects and at all times? Why, sir, in our land, if there be any base enough, unreflecting enough, to blaspheme the Maker that created him, or the Savior that died for him, we have no power to stop him. If there be the most bitter, unjust, and vehement denunciation upon all the principles of morality and goodness, on which human society is based, and on which it may most securely stand, we have, for great and overruling reasons connected with liberty itself, no power to restrain it. Private character, public service, individual relations - neither these, nor age, nor sex, can be in the nature of our Government exempt from that liability to attack. And, sir, shall gentlemen complain that slavery is not made an exception to that general rule? You did that when you made what you call a compact with us. You were then emerging out of the war of Independence. Your fathers had fought for that right, and, more than that, they had declared that the violation of that right was one of the great causes which impelled them to the separation.


Great Debates in American History, Volume Five, pages 399-401
Current Literature Publishing Company, New York, 1913