Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
His Country First
By Stephen Arnold Douglas (18131861)
[Born in Brandon, Vt., 1813. Died in Chicago, Ill., 1861. Address, on the War, to the Illinois Legislature, 25 April, 1861.]
FOR the first time since the adoption of this Federal Constitution, a widespread conspiracy exists to destroy the best government the sun of heaven ever shed its rays upon. Hostile armies are now marching upon the Federal capital, with a view of planting a revolutionary flag upon its dome . The boast has gone forth by the secretary of war of this revolutionary government that on the first day of May the revolutionary flag shall float from the walls of the Capitol at Washington, and that on the fourth day of July the revolutionary army shall hold possession of the Hall of Independence. The simple question presented to us is whether we will wait for the enemy to carry out this boast of making war on our soil, or whether we will rush as one man to the defence of this government, and its capital, to defend it from the hands of all assailants who have threatened it. Already the piratical flag has been unfurled against the commerce of the United States. Letters of marque have been issued, appealing to the pirates of the world to assemble under that revolutionary flag, and commit depredations on the commerce carried on under the stars and stripes. Hostile batteries have been planted upon its fortresses; custom-houses have been established; and we are required now to pay tribute and taxes without having a voice in making the laws imposing them, or having a share in the distribution of them after they have been collected. The question is whether this war of aggression shall proceed, and we remain with folded arms inactive spectators, or whether we shall meet the aggressors at the threshold and turn back the tide .
I ask you to reflect and then point out any one act that has been done, any one duty that has been omitted to be done, of which these disunionists can justly complain. Yet we are told, simply because one party has succeeded in a Presidential election, therefore they choose to consider that their liberties are not safe, and therefore they will break up the government. I had supposed that it was a cardinal and fundamental principle of our system of government that the decision of the people at the ballot-box, without a fraud, according to the forms of the Constitution, was to command the explicit obedience of every good citizen. If their defeat at a Presidential election is to justify the minority, or any portion of the minority, in raising the traitorous hand of rebellion against the constituted authorities, you will find the future history of the United States written in the history of Mexico. According to my reading of Mexican history, there never has been one presidential term, from the time of the revolution of 1820 down to this day, when the candidate elected by the people ever served his four years. In every instance, either the defeated candidate has seized upon the presidential chair by the use of the bayonet, or he has turned out the only duly elected candidate before his term expired. Are we to inaugurate this Mexican system in the United States of America? The first duty of an American citizen, or of a citizen of any constitutional government, is obedience to the constitution and laws of his country. I have no apprehension that any man in Illinois or beyond the limits of our own beloved State will misconstrue or misunderstand my motive. So far as any of the partisan questions are concerned, I stand in equal, eternal, and undying opposition to the Republicans and the Secessionists. You all know that I am a good partisan fighter in partisan times. And you will find me equally as good a patriot when the country is in danger. Permit me to say to the assembled Representatives and Senators of our good old State, composed of men of both political parties, that in my opinion it is your duty to lay aside your party creeds and party platforms, to lay aside your party organizations and partisan appeals, to forget that you were divided, until you have rescued the government and the country from their assailants. Then resume your partisan positions, according to your wishes. Give me a country first, that my children may live in peace; then we will have a theatre for our party organizations to operate upon.
I appeal to you, my countrymen, men of all parties, not to allow your passions to get the better of your judgments. Do not allow your vengeance upon the authors of this great iniquity to lead you into rash and cruel and desperate acts upon those who may differ from you in opinion. Let the spirit of moderation and of justice prevail. You cannot expect, within so few weeks after an excited political canvass, that every man can rise to the level of forgetting his partisan prejudices and sacrifice everything upon the altar of his country; but allow me to say to you, whom I have opposed and warred against with an energy you will respect,allow me to say to you that you will not be true to your country if you ever attempt to manufacture partisan capital out of the miseries of your country. When calling upon Democrats to rally to the tented field, leaving wife, child, father, and mother behind them, to rush to the rescue of the President that you elected, do not make war upon them and try to manufacture partisan capital out of a struggle in which they are engaged from the holiest and purest of motives. Then I appeal to you, my Democratic friends, do not allow the mortification growing out of a defeat in a partisan struggle, and the elevation to power of a party that we firmly believed to be dangerous to the country,do not let that convert you from patriots to traitors to your native land. Whenever our government is assailed, when hostile armies are marching under rude and odious banners against the government of our country, the shortest way to peace is the most stupendous and unanimous preparation for war. The greater the unanimity the less blood will be shed. The more prompt and energetic is the movement, and the more important it is in numbers, the shorter will be the struggle.
I am not prepared to take up arms, or to sanction a policy of our government to take up arms, to make any war on the rights of the Southern States, on their institutions, on their rights of person or property, but, on the contrary, would rush to their defence and protect them from assault: but, while that is the case, I will never cease to urge my countrymen to take arms to fight to the death in defence of our indefeasible rights. Hence, if a war does come, it is a war of self-defence on our part. It is a war in defence of our own just rights, in defence of the government which we have inherited as a priceless legacy from our patriotic fathers, in defence of our great rights of freedom of trade, commerce, transit, and intercourse from the centre to the circumference of this great continent. These are rights we must struggle for and never surrender .
I see no path of ambition open in a bloody struggle for triumphs over my countrymen. There is no path of ambition open to me in a divided country. Hence, whatever we do must be the result of duty, of conviction, of patriotic duty, the duty we owe to ourselves, to our posterity, and to the friends of constitutional liberty and self-government throughout the world.
My friends, I can say no more. To discuss these topics is the most painful duty of my life. It is with a sad heart, with a grief that I have never before experienced, that I have to contemplate this fearful struggle; but I believe in my conscience that it is a duty we owe to ourselves, our children, and our God, to protect this government and that flag from every assailant, be he who he may.