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November-December 1860

From The Missouri Democrat, Tuesday, December 25, 1860.


Editors Missouri Democrat:

The right to secede is not given by the Constitution to the several States. It would be strange if such a right had ever been granted in an instrument which was framed “by the people of the United States in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to themselves and their posterity.” If it had permitted secession, it would be the first instrument, intended as a fundamental law, which would in itself provide for its own dissolution. Our Constitution was made in the light of historic day. We know the workshop in which it was made, we know the workmen, we know every shape and form which it received while under the hands of these workmen, until its final development. Its progressive history is written down and deposited in our public archives. The views, intentions and purposes of its framers are likewise preserved in the histories and memorials of the times. The right of peaceable secession does not appear to have been even suggested by any one in the Convention which framed the Constitution. Contemporary commentaries on the Constitution, when it was before the people for adoption, are wholly silent upon the subject. It may be said, then, that the very idea of secession after the Constitution should have been adopted by the several States, never suggested itself to any one at the time of its being made or being ratified. There seems to be no room for cavil left, and it may be positively asserted, that this right cannot be derived from the Constitution.

Can it be urged that, though not derivable from it, secession is necessarily one of the reserved rights of the States, which entered into the Union and was not surrendered by the compact? The very nature of the compact forbids this idea. The Union never would have been formed with that reservation. It is said, however, that as the Constitution granted no power to force a State to remain in the Union, it is clear that secession may peaceably and rightfully take place, and that such must have been the view of the framers of the Constitution in not providing for the employment of force against a State. It is said that they never contemplated force, and Mr. Buchanan alluded to a suggestion of Mr. Madison in the convention as proof of this position. When Mr. Madison made the remarks referred to in Mr. Buchanan’s message, the Constitution was not formed, but forming. It was then undergoing almost daily changes in the hands of its framers. Mr. Madison’s proposition, pending at the time when he spoke the words cited by the President, was to give Congress an absolute veto power on all State laws, which he believed to be an abundant check on any revolutionary State legislation. The proposition was rejected. The Constitution received its final shape, and as it came out of the hands of its moulders, it turned out to be a Constitution which did not act and operate upon States, but upon the people of the States as citizens of one common country. Hence there was no necessity for any provision to enforce allegiance from delinquent States. There is ample power given to the Federal Government to enforce the laws of the country upon the citizens of each State, and that is certainly sufficient to break any resistance, whatever legal appearance by State legislation it may assume. States are forbidden to enter into any treaty, alliance, or confederation; to grant letters of marque or reprisal; coin money; emit bills of credit; lay duties on imports or exports; lay any duty on tonnage; keep troops or ships of war in time of peace; enter into any agreement or compact with another State, or with a foreign power, or engage in war. Now can any State secede without immediately exercising any of these forbidden powers, and can she plead the act of secession as a justification for the exercise thereof? Mr. Buchanan himself calls secession a revolutionary proceeding. Hence a declaration of secession by any State is under the Constitution a nullity.

It is to be simply ignored. Should the State proceed to carry out any of the forbidden powers, it would bring its citizens, not the State, into instant collision with the Constitutional authorities. Those citizens then would act simply as citizens of the United States, and would be so considered. No act of their convention or legislature, as they are all by the Constitution in subordination to the laws of the United States, would excuse or justify them. If such citizens resist the law, they are guilty of a crime provided for by the laws. If they act in mass and by concert in such resistance, or attack the authorities of the United States, they are levying war against the United States, and are guilty of treason. If the existing officers of the United States resign or refuse to act, as being citizens of the rebellious States, others may be immediately appointed who will act. The army and navy, the militia of the Union, will support them and put down all resistance. Should the citizens for a while refuse to support a State government, and thereby destroy for a time the existence of the State, the State would become temporarily a territory of the United States, to be governed as a territory until some of its citizens would reassume the State government. In regard to the question whether or not the right of secession was retained by the respective States, it may be well to revert to the opinion of that great and wise man, whose expositions of the Constitution have by universal consent received almost the force of the Constitutional clauses themselves—Judge Marshall. In the well known case of M’Culloch vs. the State of Maryland, 4 Whealon’s Rep., 316, the Chief Justice says: “In discussing this question the counsel for the State of Maryland have deemed it of importance in the construction of the Constitution to consider that instrument not as emanating from the people, but as the act of sovereign and independent States. The powers of the General Government it has been said, are delegated by the States, who alone are truly sovereign and must be exercised in subordination to the States, who alone possess supreme dominion. It would be difficult to sustain this proposition. The convention which framed the Constitution, was indeed elected by the State Legislatures. But the instrument, when it came from their hands, was a mere proposal, without obligation or pretensions to it. It was reported to the then existing Congress of the United States, with a request that it might ‘be submitted to a convention of delegates chosen in each State by the people thereof, under the recommendation of its Legislature for their assent and ratification.’ This mode of proceeding was adopted; and by the Convention, by Congress and by the State Legislatures, the instrument was submitted to the people. They acted upon it in the only manner in which they can act safely, effectively and easily, on such a subject, by assembling in Convention. It is true they assembled in their several States, and where else should they have assembled? No political dreamer was ever wild enough to think of breaking down the lines which separate the States and of compounding the American people into one common mass. Of consequence, when they act, they act in their States.

But the measures they adopt do not, on that account, cease to be the measures of the people themselves, or become the measures of the State Governments.” “From these Conventions” Judge Marshall continues, “the Constitution derives its whole authority. The Government proceeds directly from the people, is ‘ordained and established’ in the name of the people, and is declared to be ordained, ‘in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility and secure the blessings of liberty to themselves and their posterity.’ The assent of the States in their sovereign capacity is implied in calling a Convention, and thus submitting that instrument to the people. But the people were at perfect liberty to accept or reject it, and their act was final. It required not the affirmance of, and could not be negatived by, the State Government. The Constitution, thus adopted, was of complete obligation and bound the State sovereignties. To the formation of a league, such as was the Confederation, the State sovereignties were certainly competent. But when ‘in order to from a more perfect Union,” it was deemed necessary to change this alliance into an effective government, possessing great and sovereign power, and acting directly on the people, the necessity of referring it to the people, and of deriving its power directly from them, was felt and acknowledged by all. The government of the Union, then, is emphatically and truly a government of the people. In form and substance it emanates from them. Its powers are granted by them, and are to be exercised directly on them and for their benefit.

“If any one proposition could commend the universal assent of mankind, we might expect it would be this—that the government of the Union, though limited in its power, is supreme within its sphere of action. This would seem to result necessarily from its nature. It is the government of all; its powers are delegated by all; it represents all and acts for all. Though any one State may be willing to control its operation, no State is willing to allow others to control them. The nation, on those subjects on which it can act, must necessarily bind its component parts. But this question is not left to mere reason—the people have in express terms decided it by saying ‘This Constitution and the laws of the United States, which shall be made in pursuance thereof, shall be the supreme law of the land,’ and by requiring that the members of the State Legislatures and the officers of the executive and judicial departments of the States shall take the oath of fidelity to it.”

The fatal error of Mr. Buchanan is that he recognizes secession at all as an act of the State, and as bearing on its relation to the nation. To us, the citizens of South Carolina for instance, when they resist the laws of the Union, are merely individuals—citizens of the United States. All public officers in that State, even the State officers, it is to be presumed—as such is the case in all other States—have expressly sworn allegiance to the United States, in swearing to support the Constitution. All naturalized citizens in said State have taken this express oath, and all others are presumed by law to have taken it, by the very act of being born on American soil. So much for the right of secession.

But conceding secession to be clearly revolutionary, there seems to be an opinion afloat, North and South, that good policy, and love of peace and harmony, and sentiment of fraternal feelings, all conspire, in a case of emergency, to set aside our federal compact by consent, and to permit all unwilling States to step out of the Union. It were very much to be regretted if these, as yet vague and undefined views, should become general. They seem to be exceedingly short sighted, and are fraught with the most dangerous consequences should they prevail and control the action of the loyal States. The length to which this paper has already extended, admonishes to brevity. But some remarks cannot be suppressed. There should be no desire to force the citizens of South Carolina, or any other State, into submission, because we have the power to do so, and because men usually find a certain satisfaction, not to say pleasure, in exercising power. We ought not to compel them to stay, for they may think differently. We ought not to apply force because we think they have acted wrong, and ought to be punished. Nothing of all that ought to enter into the minds of the Unionists. They ought to be compelled, by force, to stay in the Union, because otherwise the rest of the Union will also perish. Once admit the principle that a State ought not to be coerced because otherwise a conflict at arms might ensue, and the stability of the remaining government is forever gone. Bad men and aspiring men will soon be found in every State to stir up the people to a sense of imaginary wrongs, alleged to be inflicted by the general government, or even sister States. The threat of secession would be made after the passage of every such contested measure; and assuredly would it be raised after every closely fought election by the succumbing party, whether with an actual view of separation or with the mere purpose of recovering by concession and compromise the power lost by the verdict of the people. A Union, after the secession of but one State, brought about by mere menace on one part and fear of a conflict on the other, would not be worth living under. Our present Government, by the common accord of enlightened mankind, is the best which ever existed. We owe it to ourselves, we owe it to our posterity, we owe it to the whole world, to preserve it in its integrity. If, in doing so, we have to draw the sword and to shed blood, we do it simply for self preservation, in self defence. If our favorite brother were in a fit of frenzy to attack us with a murderous weapon, we would be justified before God and men in slaying him, to prevent our own destruction. No cause of war was ever more sacred than would be the defence and preservation of our Union. It is a struggle for all that we hold dear, for all our material, for all or moral interests, for the highest ideas of mankind. Contrasted with the object of such a war, the protection of our flag from insult by a neighboring nation, the acquisition of territory from a troublesome contiguous power, which are often considered sufficient reasons to justify war, in which the blood of our people is freely poured out, and its treasure is lavishly spent, sink into utter insignificance. And after a little reflection the people of this country, North and South, with few exceptions, will rally under the banner of our Union, and the disunionists will scatter like chaff before the stern and resolute columns of the men who are determined to prove that they will defend our Constitution, and the blessings of liberty involved in its integrity, to the last extremity.

It is said, that there is no use in compelling the citizens of States to stay in the Union against their will; that the first drop of blood shed will forever dissolve the fraternal bond, morally. Those who say so, seem to disregard all the teachings of history. The greatest and now most powerful European nations had their centuries of civil war. The republican armies of France, under the exciting strains of the “Marseillaise,” marched not only against the foreign invaders, but with the same alacrity against the royalists of “la Vendee and Toulon,” and the refractionists of Lyons, the second city of the Republic. Had the National Government acted with less spirit and energy, France would have been dismembered, and fallen a prey to the coalition of the crowned heads of Europe. Deplorable as was the sanguinary civil war, yet it consolidated France, and a few years afterwards obliterated the traces of the most violent civil commotions. The war of the American Independence was a civil war in many respects, and even amongst the colonists themselves, there was a strong tory party. Switzerland within only a few years past, had to cement her Union by the blood of her citizens. Several Cantons, in the end numbering no less than seven out of twenty-three had asserted, that the Federal Diet had passed laws infringing their Cantonal (State) Sovereignty, by requiring from the several Cantonial Governments, the suppression of Convents, the expulsion of the order of Jesuits, and other steps, which they considered unjustifiable and against the Constitution. They had formed a league for mutual protection, (Sonder-Bund) and being morally supported by all the kingly powers of Europe, England alone (Palmerston) excepted, and secretly promised material aid from Austria. They proclaimed resistance against the federal power, recalled their Representatives from the Diet, raised an army of forty thousand men. The Federal Government, undaunted by the alarming danger, in the face of the menaces of Austria and France, acted with promptness and vigor. It saw that a moment’s hesitation would imperil their constitution, their liberty, their independence and power. It raised an army of one hundred thousand men; marched into the seceding Cantons, and owing to the great superiority of numbers in two or three not very bloody engagements, put down the insurrection. Its wisdom was equal to the energy of the Swiss Government. The immense armament made resistance hopeless, thereby not only sparing the blood of the people, but also inflicting no wound on the pride and spirit of those who had to submit.

The refractory Cantons were some of the original ones, who formed the Swiss Confederacy; its inhabitants were the descendants of the men who broke the steeled ranks of the Austrian knights at Semparh and Moorgarten; they were not cowards, but men who would have held out to the very last, if there had been left them the slightest chance of success. Ever since the dissolution of the Separate League in 1847, Switzerland has progressed rapidly in prosperity and wealth. The people are more fraternal and consolidated now than they ever were before.

These remarks are submitted in perfect candor. They are not intended to add to the excitement already existing. But our situation must be looked in the face. The consequences of a crumbling to pieces of our Government, the fairest political fabric which ever existed, on the one side, and the consequences of civil war on the other, have to be calmly considered. They have to be weighed and balanced against one another. It seems clear that the Union, even at the cost of civil war, which would be short if the Federal Government would imitate the energy and sagacity of the Swiss Diet, is to be preferred to disunion, which would make weak and powerless, both the severed parts, and assuredly lead to war between those parts in a very short time. It is to be hoped that the secessionists will soon in their own States meet with a powerful opposition. The people at large will surely recoil from the gulf of revolution, if they have time given to reflect, and to recollect that there is not one solitary measure of our Federal Government of which even their most ultra men make any pretence to complain.