The Message

Philadelphia North American and United States Gazette, December 5, 1860

The President truly says, at the outset, that no great and tangible fact of evil has fallen on the country during the year just closed, that nothing of oppression or of special misfortune has been endured by the south or the north. There is agitation at the south, however—an agitation which he should have declared unnecessary as well as injurious to those who indulge in and promote it. Being injurious to all concerned, and useful by no possibility to any, the President of the United States should have made an effort to allay it for once, and not an effort to stimulate it by again falsely charging on the great body of the northern people an intention to interfere with southern security. This style of arguing that the north meditates aggression, and seeks power only to use it offensively, has planted the very root of the popular discontent now prevailing at the south. We would have been glad to record its omission from the last message of Mr. Buchanan.

The argument which the President puts forth in regard to the right to resist a constitutional election is sound, and his statement that the very position of the chief executive renders him conservative is also sound and just. Apprehensions that Mr. Lincoln will invade the rights of any section are not justified by his past history, and on a mere contingency of such danger it is most unwise to break up the Union and to wreck the fortunes of the south first of all. The President says there is no single act of Congress or law in existence impairing, in the slightest degree, the rights of the south in their peculiar property. There is no probability of the passage of such a law, he says, and were such a law enacted the Supreme Court stands as a barrier strong enough to overthrow any such legislation. The act of the Legislature of Kansas Mr. Buchanan declares will be declared a nullity by the Supreme Court if ever tested. Even the State laws, if any such exist, tending to obstruct the operation of the Fugitive Slave law, are equally harmless before the Supreme Court. Mr. Buchanan does not presume that the incoming President will violate his duty. What stronger argument can be made against the justice of the present position of the south than this? It is satisfactory and complete. It is the truth, and we thank Mr. Buchanan. for stating it, as it was his duty to do.

The message argues fairly and justly as to the character of the Union and the nature of the ties and obligations which bind us together. No right of secession exists. It never occurred to any individual that the labors of the founders of this nation could be frustrated by the secession of single States. It is demonstrated by the nature and extent of the powers conferred by the general government that the Union formed was a perpetual Union. "They placed both the sword and the purse under its control—the highest attributes of sovereignty." The President proceeds to set forth the conditions on which this government, intended from the outset to be great and powerful, was founded, stating them forcibly and clearly in the main, and closing by demonstrating that revolution alone can change it, or overthrow it, or sever a State from it. This is the truth, and we proceed to see in what light he regards the revolution now threatened—a revolution which has no justification, by his own showing, in present or past injuries; no footing in the original terms of union, nor in any rights then reserved to the States or the people.

On this branch of the subject the President first declares it his duty solely to execute the laws, an obligation from which no human power has absolved him; but, while this declaration is a fair one, he evades its force, as regards a most important point, by substantially recognizing the extinction of the Federal administration of justice there already. Is not this a great error? The resignation of a judge or marshal is not the extinction of the court. Has the President appointed successors, as it was his duty to do? Has he cared for the preservation of records, and for the important duties that belong to him in the maintaining of this court? We fear he has not, from the wording of the message; yet it is scarcely credible that he, as President, should dare assume so great a responsibility as the recognition and acceptance of an act so grave as the destruction of a branch of the Federal judiciary. The declaration to this effect in the message is an error of the very highest rank.

As to the forts and the revenue the message is clear and in the main correct; they must be preserved against violation by any force whatever. The message is also correct as to the right of the President to consider or to open any question whatever with any single State as an independent authority. We hope the most rigid observance of this separate position will be continued, and that no lapsus of duty, implying discretion of this sort, such as appears to have occurred in regard to the federal judiciary in South Carolina, will again be permitted. The President has, with a fair degree of accuracy and justice, stated his obligation to enforce the laws everywhere, and to recognize no movement as justifiable or legal which attempts to contravene the authority of the general government. Though the mildest possible form in which revolution ever was or ever can be met, there may be cases requiring this degree of mildness, and at present we will not demand more. The country did not expect so much, perhaps, of Mr. Buchanan.

The message proceeds to offer advice to Congress as to the further duty of the aggregate power of the government, and as to the mode in which it shall deal with revolution in this case. On this point we are surprised to find that he has come to views quite at variance with those of the opening of his message. He believes that no power has been delegated to Congress to suppress revolution in a State; this government of so much power becomes powerless in the very crisis which tries its strength. If resistance to the laws is attempted by a State government, such resistance cannot be suppressed because to do so would be making war on a State, in [is?] his argument; and if this position is correct, the legal ties which bind the Union are less than ropes of sand. This part of the message, if it were not extra-judicial, and therefore of no more value than any individual's opinion, would destroy the whole force of the statements of duty which precede it, for if a President can act on principles so loose he can destroy all law and all order when he will. We believe, however, that this part of the message was prepared in a spirit of weak concession to the disunion elements of the Cabinet, and was intended to cater to the prevailing sentiment of the disunion States. We regret this error, not because we advocate coercion, or assume now to say what the duty of the general government may be when the exigency comes, but because we deprecate the loosening of all restraints and the release of all penalties at a time when such release directly incites to the worst acts of treason to the only power which can preserve the nation in peace.

As an alternative through which the Union may still be preserved, the message proceeds to suggest amendment of the Constitution by the addition of an "explanatory amendment" on the subject of slavery. This explanation is in three points—the first declaring a national recognition of the right of property in slaves in the States; the second the duty of protecting this right in all the territories; and the third a recognition of the right of recapture, and a declaration that all obstructive acts of the free States are null and void. We do not wish to pronounce upon measures of conciliation in advance of any declaration of sentiment by the body of the Opposition in Congress, but we have no expectation that the only real point in these propositions would ever be ratified as an amendment to the national Constitution. It is a grave matter to open the Constitution again to alteration, and the attempt to do so would produce much, if not dangerous, discussion. The points named are all below the rank of constitutional provisions, also, whatever their merit. The case is really an inadequate one, and it would be as unnecessary as it is inadequate in any other state of the public mind than the present.

So much for the Presidential message on the gravest event yet known to our history—a treatment of the case characteristic of the President we have now. With much soundness of argument, we have singular inadequacy of results, but we hope that in the brief period yet remaining to the author of this message, we shall have nothing to lament of greater and graver error.

There is nothing further of importance in the Message except what relates to the finances and the tariff. It is said that great efforts have been made to reduce the annual expenditure, and if to exhaust the public resources by the shortest process be such an effort, the case is a clear one. Both Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Cobb have accomplished great results in depleting the Treasury, so that money could not be freely expended. The most the message says on this point is mere stuff. On the tariff, Mr. Buchanan renews his recommendation of specific duties, this time calling his policy a free trade policy, and the opposite of protection. A year since he said precisely the reverse. Great Britain is cited as having a great .free trade policy and universal specific duties; and, though the fact may be unknown to Mr. Buchanan, other people are well aware that Great Britain is even now far beyond us in recognizing the protective principle in her revenue policy. It is of little consequence with what words this Administration goes out; we all know it by its bitter fruits and its incessant contradictions and self stultifications. On finances it has shamefully and totally failed, sinking the country in debt some eighty millions of dollars in a time of uninterrupted peace, and leaving the Treasury in utter confusion, as well as bankruptcy.