A reference in Shearer Davis Bowman's At the Precipice: Americans North and South during the Secession Crisis, led me to take a look at remarks made by Texas Senator Louis Trezevant Wigfall on Saturday March 2, 1861.
Wigfall was, as they say, a piece of work (as Jefferson Davis found out during the war), but judging from his comments no dummy and a skilled polemicist. While making clear that the issue of slavery lay at the heart of the secession crisis, his discussion of the remedy both characterized the north as the aggressor and asserted that nothing less than the meaning of representative self-government was at stake (some paragraph breaks added):
Now as to this talk which the Senator from Minnesota [Henry M. Rice] indulged in early in the evening. He pretended to say – and I suppose really he was sincere about it, for there are none so blind as those who will not see – that the whole difficulty had grown out of our being defeated in a presidential election; and that if Mr. Breckinridge had been elected, there would have been no dissolution of the Union.
Of course there would not. Mr. Breckinridge ran as a candidate for the Presidency upon a platform which declared explicitly that slaves were property, and, like all other property, were entitled to protection wherever the Federal flag floated, wherever the Federal Government had jurisdiction. Had that sentiment been indorsed, north and south, east and west, this Union would have been saved; but when you elected a man upon a platform which declared in substance – I do not pretend to quote it – that slaves were not property; and that, instead of protection, it should meet confiscation wherever the flag floated or this Government – our common government – had jurisdiction, we said to you, we would live under no such Government; and we have made good our words. We have dissolved the Union; mend it if you can; cement it with blood; try the experiment.
We do not desire war; we wish to avoid it. We are not interfering with you; and have no objection to the people of Massachusetts living, from this time until the last trump[et?] sounds, under such a form of government as she sees fit. We have no objection to New York living under such a government as she sees fit; and so as to all the other States. What we are willing to accord to you, we want to secure to ourselves – the right of self-government. We invade not your soil in order to subvert your institutions. We will not be invaded because you wish to subvert ours. We assert that the right of self-government is the only right that was established by the Revolution; that it is the only right that is set forth in the Declaration of Independence; that it is a right inalienable to freemen, and terrible to tyrants only.
It is better, then, to look this matter in the face, and see what is the grievance. The grievance is not about the Territories. It is the denial that slaves are property, and the declaration that the Federal Government has a right to settle that question. Nothing short, I believe, of an amendment to the Constitution declaring that each State has the right to secede – which is admitting the right of self-government to the people of each one of these sovereign States – will give satisfaction. I am sure, if you are talking about reconstruction, and expecting any one of these Gulf States to come back, that nothing short of that would induce them even to entertain your propositions.
You must admit that the masters are free; that they have a right to live under such a Government as they see fit; that they can peaceably, quietly, constitutionally change their government, if they see fit. When you do that, then they will entertain the proposition as to whether the form of government you offer them is satisfactory or not. But while you deny the right of secession, while you deny the right of self-government, those men will not consider whether they are are to be well governed or badly governed; and they should not.
Admit the right to govern themselves, and then offer amendments to the Constitution securing the right to their property in this Government, and then they will entertain the proposition. Nothing short of that, I am satisfied, would induce any one of the confederate States again to secede from that confederation, and come back into this.