The Right of States to Secede
New York Daily News, November 16, 1860
The people often act without reflection. Statesmen and politicians, either contracting the sentiment of the populace or influenced by ambitious motives, encourage the action of the people upon an erroneous and often fatal idea. The present agitation at the South is of this nature. If it is not quieted it will bring evils upon this Confederacy, the number and extent of which it is painful to think of, and the termination of which it is impossible to foretell. The Herald and The Tribune both tell us that a State has a right to secede; but can we believe them? Let the reflecting men study the formation of this Government, the only true source of information, and learn for themselves whether a State has such a right or not.
On the Fourth day of July, 1776, thirteen American colonies declared themselves free and independent States. Throwing off their allegiance to the British Crown and the Governments, which at that time consisted of the Provincial, Proprietary and Charter Governments, they established one of their own. In 1774 the first Congress passed the Bill of Rights, which is as dear to us as the Bill of Rights passed during the reign of Charles the First is to Englishmen. The affairs of the Government were conducted by Congress until near the close of the Revolution, without any substantial form of government.
In March, 1781, the last State acceded to the Articles of Confederation, and the Thirteen Independent States became a confederacy called The United States of America. The object of the States in establishing a confederacy under the Articles of Confederation was to form a permanent union. for the mutual support and protection of each other. The intention of parties in forming a contract should always be considered. Knowing the intention of our forefathers, can we violate their contract? Each State, in accepting the Articles of Confederation, was bound by them. It was a contract and was binding. Secessionists ask who would enforce it? We answer, the majority. The Articles commenced thus: “Articles of Confederation and PERPETUAL UNION, between the States of,” 8-c. Then came the articles defining the powers granted by the States to Congress, and the rights reserved to themselves. In Article 13 it says: “And the Articles of this Confederation shall be inviolably observed by every State, and the Union shall be perpetual.” At the close of the last Section in the same Article and immediately preceding the signing of the Articles—that there might be no mistake in the duration of the Union—the language is nearly repeated, viz.: “And that the Articles thereof shall be inviolably observed by the States we respectively represent, and that the Union shall be perpetual.”
One of the main arguments used by persons believing that States have a right to secede is this, that there is no definite time fixed for the duration of the Confederacy. Can anything be more plain than the language used that it is to be perpetual, to endure forever? They will say to this that under the Constitution, which is substituted for the Articles of Confederation, no such language is used. Not until they had signed the Articles of Confederation did they become United States, and in that contract they declared themselves to be United States, and to remain united forever. They, as United States, adopted the Constitution. It reads thus: “Constitution of the United States of America. We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union., &c.” Not to limit the Union, but to make it more perfect! They became United States, and forever under the Articles of Confederation, and neither was abrogated or annulled by the Constitution! In the words of the preamble, both were affirmed. Where does the power lie to alter the compact? In the highest power of the land. In the States themselves and with the Government, as with all corporate bodies, the majority must rule. No decree of a Court can dissolve the States as it can a Corporation. The only power is with the States themselves, and a State once a member of the Confederacy cannot secede without the consent of the others—the majority must rule. If there was any other power to decree the dissolution of the Union, it should be left to that power; but there is none. The General Government cannot coerce a Territory to become a member of the Confederacy. But once having signed the compact and become a member of the Union, it cannot withdraw without the consent of the other members.
If one State has a right to withdraw, all may withdraw; and we should have loss of name, loss of national existence, civil war, servile war, loss of liberty, and, ultimately, the subjugation and overthrow of the most glorious Republic which ever existed. Could Pennsylvania withdraw from the Union if Congress did not impose a high protective tariff on iron, what would be the result? She would have to support a Government at great expense; maintain an army and navy; the tariff she might impose would not benefit her at all; on the contrary, it would prove a detriment; there being no greater comity between her and other countries, the other States would purchase iron where they could buy the cheapest. Bankruptcy of the State would follow, and, consequently, poverty of her citizens. The same rule would apply, in a greater or less degree, to every other State. The whole country, and every individual, would necessarily feel the effects of secession; but it would be most injurious to the seceding States. History tells us that States cannot exist disunited. The compact of these States is binding upon all, and the man who attempts to violate it will be responsible to future generations for the misery which his acts may produce.