The World’s Famous Orations, Vol 10

Author: Edward D. Baker  | Date: 1861

His Reply to Breckenridge*

These speeches of his, sown broadcast over the land, what clear distinct meaning have they? Are they not intended for disorganization in our very midst? Are they not intended to dull our weapons? Are they not intended to destroy our zeal? Are they not intended to animate our enemies? Sir, are they not words of brilliant polished treason?

What would have been thought if, in another capitol, in another republic, in a yet more martial age, a senator as grave, not more eloquent or dignified than the senator from Kentucky, yet with the Roman purple flowing over his shoulders, had risen in his place, surrounded by all the illustrations of Roman glory, and declared that advancing Hannibal was just, and that Carthage ought to be dealt with in terms of peace? What would have been thought if, after the Battle of Cannae, a senator there had risen in his place and denounced every levy ofthe Roman people, every expenditure of its treasure, and every appeal to the old recollections and the old glories? Sir, a senator, himself learned far more than myself in such lore [Mr. Fessenden4], tells me, in a voice that I am glad is audible, that he would have been hurled from the Tarpeian rock.

When we subjugate South Carolina, what shall we do? We shall compel its obedience to the Constitution of the United States; that is all. Why play upon words? We do not mean, we never have said, any more. If it be slavery that men should obey the Constitution their fathers fought for, let it be so. If it be freedom, it is freedom equally for them and for us. We propose to subjugate rebellion into loyalty; we propose to subjugate insurrection into peace; we propose to subjugate Confederate anarchy into constitutional Union liberty. The senator well knows that we propose no more. I ask him—I appeal to his better judgment now—what does he imagine we intended to do, if fortunately we conquer Tennessee or South Carolina—call it "conquer," if you will, sir—what do we propose to do?

They will have their courts still; they will have their ballot-boxes still; they will have their elections still; they will have their representatives upon this floor still; they will have taxation and representation still; they will have the writ of habeas corpus still; they will have every privilege they ever had and all we desire. When the Confederate armies are scattered; when their leaders are banished from power; when the people return to a late repentant sense of the wrong they have done to a government they never felt but in benignancy and blessing,—then the Constitution made for all will be felt by all, like the descending rains from heaven which bless all alike. Is that subjugation? To restore what was, as it was, for the benefit of the whole country and of the whole human race, is all we desire and all we can have.

Sir, how can we retreat? Sir, how can we make peace? Who shall treat? What commissioners? Who would go? Upon what terms? Where is to be your boundary line? Where the end of the principles we shall have to give up? What will become of constitutional government? What will become of public liberty? What of past glories? What of future hopes? Shall we sink into the insignificance of the grave—a degraded, defeated, emasculated people, frightened by the results of one battle, and scared at the visions raised by the imagination of the senator from Kentucky upon this floor? No, sir; a thousand times no, sir! We willrally—if, indeed, our words be necessary—we will rally the people, the loyal people, of the whole country. They will pour forth their treasure, their money, their men, without stint, without measure. The most peaceable man in this body may stamp his foot upon this body may stamp his foot upon this Senate-chamber floor, as of old a warrior and a senator did, and from that single stamp there will spring forth armed legions.

Shall one battle determine the fate of an empire? or the loss of one thousand men, or twenty thousand; or one hundred million dollars, or five hundred million dollars? In a year’s peace, in ten years, at most, of peaceful progress, we can restore them all. There will be some graves reeking with blood, watered by the tears of affection. There will be some privation; there will be some loss of luxury; there will be somewhat more need for labor to procure the necessaries of life. When that is said, all is said. If we have the country, the whole country, the Union, the Constitution, free government—with these there will return all the blessings of well-ordered civilization; the path of the country will be a career of greatness and of glory such as, in the olden time, our fathers saw in the dim visions of years yet to come, and such as would have been ours now, to-day, if it had not been for the treason for which the senator too often seeks to apologize!

*From a speech in the United States Senate on August 1, 1861, eleven days after the Battle of Bull Run. Breckenridge was then a senator from Kentucky and had been defeated as the candidate of the Southern Democrats for the presidency in the election of November, 1860. On being expelled from the Senate, December 4, 1861, he entered the Confederate army, where he served as a major-general and finally as secretary of war.
Baker’s speech is remembered as one of the most dramatic ever delivered in the United States Senate. Breckenridge, whose speech, strongly Southern in tone, had provoked it, was already on his feet when Baker, a colonel in the army as well as a senator, alternating in his services between his seat in the Senate and his tent in the field, entered the Senate-chamber at the eastern door, wearing his blue army coat and fatigue cap, a riding whip in his hand and his sword in its scabbard. Blaine, in his "Twenty Years of Congress," describes how Baker "laid his sword upon his desk" and sat down, listening to Breckenridge. When Breckenridge had finished, Baker, "his face aglow with excitement, sprang to the floor. No more thrilling speech was ever delivered. The striking appearance of the speaker in the uniform of a soldier, his superb voice, his graceful manner, all united to give the occasion an extraordinary interest." Eleven weeks later Baker lay dead on the field of Ball’s Bluff.

4Blaine relates that Breckenridge understood this suggestion to come from Sumner instead of Fessenden, and in his reply to Baker bitterly denounced Sumner, who looked surprised, but having become accustomed to abuse from the South, said nothing. When next day it was shown by the Globe that Mr. Fessenden was the offender, Mr. Breckenridge neither "apologizeed to Mr. Sumner nor attacked the senator from Maine."


Related Resources

A Nation Reborn, 1861–1905

Download Options

Title: The World’s Famous Orations, Vol 10

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options

Title: The World’s Famous Orations, Vol 10

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: Edward D. Baker, "His Reply to Breckenridge* (1861)," The World’s Famous Orations, Vol 10 in The World’s Famous Orations, ed. William Jennings Bryan (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, December, 1906), 6–9. Original Sources, accessed May 20, 2024,

MLA: Baker, Edward D. "His Reply to Breckenridge* (1861)." The World’s Famous Orations, Vol 10, in The World’s Famous Orations, edited by William Jennings Bryan, Vol. The World#8217;s Famous Orations, New York, Funk and Wagnalls, December, 1906, pp. 6–9. Original Sources. 20 May. 2024.

Harvard: Baker, ED, 'His Reply to Breckenridge* (1861)' in The World’s Famous Orations, Vol 10. cited in December, 1906, The World’s Famous Orations, ed. , Funk and Wagnalls, New York, pp.6–9. Original Sources, retrieved 20 May 2024, from