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The Pretext for the Secession Agitation.


September/October 1860

From The Missouri Democrat, Tuesday, October 23, 1860.

The Pretext for the Secession Agitation.

This is not the first time in our history that the dark clouds of nullification and secession have appeared on the horizon.  There have been disunionists ever since the Constitution was adopted.  Thirty years ago South Carolina assumed a position towards Jackson like that which she threatens to assume towards Lincoln.  The tariff was the pretended grievance then, as the anti-slavery sentiment of the Republican party is now.  The latter is used as a pretext just as the former was; and it is well known that slavery agitation was substituted for the tariff agitation in Southern politics, on the failure of the other Southern States to sustain South Carolina in her nullification attitude.  It was apparent that the tariff question would never produce a united South.  The agitators forthwith shifted their ground and entrenched themselves in the fortress of slavery, and from that day to this, slavery propagandism, alternating with threats of secession, has constituted the politics of the Calhoun school—a school that under the present and the preceding administration has governed the country.

That no danger to the sovereign rights of the States will follow the inauguration of Lincoln, is apparent not only from his own declarations, but from the very nature and construction of our government.  What were constitutional government worth if it did not afford protection to the citizen or the subject from the hand of power?  Constitutions, we know, are overturned by military force, and despotism established on their ruins.  But an American President has no army at his command for such an enterprise.  He is utterly powerless against the constitution.  The wildest visionary that ever addressed a South Carolina audience, knows, if he knows anything of home politics, that Mr. Lincoln cannot appoint a single officer without the concurrence of the Senate; that he cannot make war or treaties, or exercise any attribute of sovereignty without the concurrence of one or both branches of Congress.  The apprehended danger to Southern rights or Southern interests consequent on his election, is therefore utterly groundless.  Assuming for the sake of argument that he desires the abolition of slavery, what will he be able to do, to give effect to that desire?  The duties which will devolve upon him are prescribed by law; he will be sworn to execute the laws; he will not be able to draw even his own salary until Congress makes an appropriation for the civil list.  Congress holds both the purse and the sword.  With the exception of giving that body information from time to time on the state of the nation, and signing or refusing to sign bills which have passed both Houses, his functions will be purely executary.  Mr. Buchanan failed to get the bill admitting Kansas, passed, although powerfully supported by the Senate.  Yet he employed every means in his power, including bribery.

But our government is so constituted that each branch of the Federal Legislature is a check on the other, and also on the executive, which in its turn is a check on them.  The concurrence of all three is indispensable to every measure.  The secessionists must therefore wait for the conjunction of a Republican House, a Republican Senate, and a Republican Administration before they can make sensible people believe that danger to the institution of slavery through the action of the Federal Government is even possible.

Why did not the South secede when John Quincy Adams was elected President?  He was unquestionably an extreme anti-slavery man.  He was the founder of the school to which Seward, Sumner and Giddings belong.  Yet, his administration was not hurtful to the rights of the Southern States.  Danger, if danger there be, is more to be apprehended from a Republican House of Representatives than from a Republican President.  Yet, a Republican House of Representatives met in the Capitol the first Monday of December last, and another met there four years previously, and neither, it would appear, let slip the dogs of war upon the South, nor scattered ruin over a startled land.  Cotton, sugar, and hemp were planted with the same firm faith as ever in the stability of the political organization, and the succession of the seasons; and it was not until a Democratic Congress was elected to co-operate with a Democratic President, that hard times set in.

It is said in some quarters that if South Carolina secedes, that other slave States will resist the Federal Government if it attempts to coerce her into the Union.  We do not know how that might be; but we do know that the Government cannot permit a hostile State to interpenetrate the very heart of the country, sundering the States like a wedge.  When the nation was comparatively weak, the acquisition of Florida and Louisiana—of all that lay between us and the seaboard of the Gulf—was deemed essential; and it is the acme of absurdity to suppose that the existence of a foreign government could be tolerated on the Atlantic seaboard.  Now South Carolina may, if she chooses, refuse to elect Senators and members of Congress, but the United States laws nevertheless will be administered within her limits, and every box of cigars that comes from Cuba to Charleston, and every basket of champagne the comes thither from France, will have to pay duty to the Federal Treasury.  The laws will be enforced—not new laws, but the same she has obeyed from the beginning.

The threatened revolt against the principle of all organized Democracy—the principle which recognizes the majority as the rightful exponent of the national will—a principle which even monarchs are beginning to regard as the legitimate basis of all government—comes, appropriately enough, from the most oligarchical of the oligarchical States.  The movement is not a movement hostile to the Union, merely; it is one hostile to free suffrage, to Democracy, to enlightened opinion, and even to the republican form of government.  Were it to succeed, its proximate result would be a dictatorship, with, perhaps, a simulacrum of a patrician or a plantation Senate.  The Republican, whose watchword is Union and Liberty, has adopted a creed which, however brief, is charged with profound meaning.  The success of the Secessionists, whether by the defeat of Lincoln or the dissolution of the Union, would be the overthrow of the Democratic principle.