Secession--How Can It Be Accomplished?
Washington National Republican, November 26, 1860
The present indications are, that South Carolina will, through her Convention, which is to meet on the 17th of December, formally declare herself out of the Union. A few other extreme Southern States may follow her example.
We often hear expressions to the effect, that "if South Carolina is determined to secede, let her go—we hope no attempt will be made to detain her," &c. This idea has been thrown out, in various forms, by some of our leading Republican journals. Yet we very much doubt whether many who indulge in such expressions have any very clear ideas, as to their meaning.
No Republicans, we presume, and very few Northern men of any party, are ready to concede the right of a State to separate from the Union, and thus bring about its dissolution, at pleasure. How, then, do they suppose that the Federal Government can "let" a State "go," which may resolve to secede? A vague idea seems to be entertained by some, that the Federal Government may, through the action of some of its departments, agree to the secession of a State, without conceding the absolute right of secession. This, however, is a gross fallacy. What department of the Federal Government does any one suppose possesses the power to consent to a dissolution of the Union? Is it the Executive? Let us examine.
Whenever a State shall assume to secede from the Union, she must necessarily repudiate and set at defiance all Federal laws and Federal authority within her jurisdiction. The Federal Executive, therefore, must either abstain from any attempt to execute the Federal laws within the jurisdiction of such State, or must attempt to overcome resistance by the powers vested in him by the Constitution and laws. To abstain from any attempt to execute the Federal laws, would be simply to admit the absolute right of a State to secede at pleasure, and to acquiesce in the exercise of that right. And this he could not do except in flagrant violation of that clause of the Constitution which enjoins upon him the duty to "take care that the laws be faithfully executed."
Is it supposed that the President and Senate, through the treaty-making power conferred by the Constitution, can consent to the secession of a State? This cannot be, for the plain reason that a treaty can only be made with a foreign Power. So long as a State is in the Union, she cannot be a party to a treaty with a Government of which she is an integral member. She must first get out of the Union, before she can be in a condition to enter into a treaty with the Federal Government.
Can a State be turned out of the Confederacy, and absolved from her allegiance to the Constitution, by an act of Congress? Surely not. Congress, like all other departments of the Federal Government, derives its powers from the Constitution. ...
In short, it is sheer nonsense to talk about permitting a State to secede from the Union. So long as the present Constitution stands, no State can get out of the Union, except by a forcible and successful revolution. The Federal Government is as powerless to consent to the secession of a State as it is to expel a State from the Union without her consent. However desirable it may seem, therefore, that a State whose people are desirous of dissolving their connection with the Federal Union should be permitted to "go in peace," the thing is constitutionally impossible.
We do not deny the power to amend the Constitution, in the mode pointed out by that instrument, so as to provide for the secession of a State or States. But no one who talks about permitting restive States to "go out" proposes to prepare the way by an amendment of the Constitution. In fact, it would be an anomaly in history for the organic law of a Government to provide the means of its own dissolution. Nevertheless, those who think it would be wise to incorporate such a provision into our Constitution may advocate its amendment to that effect without talking sheer nonsense, which is more than we can say of those who, while denying the absolute right of secession, talk of permitting a State to secede under the Constitution as it now stands.
We do not think it wise or prudent to irritate public sentiment at the South by unnecessary threats of coercion. But we may as well look this matter of secession fairly in the face, and see in what it must result, if persisted in. To talk about acquiescing in it, or consenting to it, is only to encourage, with false hopes, the spirit of disloyalty now unhappily rife in certain States of the Union.