Secession, the Folly of the Hour
Boston Daily Atlas and Bee, November 12, 1860
The most prominent, and indeed almost the only topic of political interest just now, is the rumored insane attempt of a few hot-headed fanatics, to induce the people of a few slave States to secede from the American Union. There is in this nothing new, unexpected, or alarming. The truth is, the slave States have neither the right, the power, nor the inclination to secede—therefore they will not. Let us consider the matter a little. The right of a sovereign confederated State to withdraw has been often asserted, and is now believed in by many men both South and North; but it has been generally denied, and the arguments in its favor controverted by all the ablest statesmen and patriots of the country. Mr. Webster's argument against the right of secession is, in our judgment, unanswerable, and we suggest to those who think the right of secession defensible, a perusal of that great statesman's opinion. So long as the several States retain, as they now do, sovereign control, within their own domain, of all their local affairs, and are not interfered with by the federal authorities in those State concerns, it is absurd to claim the right of secession. Those concerns that are committed to the exclusive jurisdiction and control of the federal government, were so committed by the original confederated States, with the distinct understanding that the States should not attempt to resume these delegated powers. They have no more right to claim the rendering back to them of these federal prerogatives, than the general government has to claim any control over subjects of special and exclusive State jurisdiction.
In only one conceivable contingency could the right to secede be maintained, and that goes back to the primal right of revolution, of rebellion against an existing government. Should the federal government undertake to take away from a State the control of its State affairs, within its State jurisdiction, then a State might claim the right of revolutionary resistance, on the ground that the federal government had itself violated the compact and rendered it null and void. But no man pretends that any such case as this has arisen, or is likely to arise. The rights of no State have been interfered with by the federal government, nor is there any purpose, declared or supposed, on the part of the present or the incoming administration to give any such provocation to rebellion. If it be said that the rights of some States have been interfered with by other States, acting in their separate capacity of State sovereignty, this although true would not meet the case nor afford any basis for revolution. A law of Massachusetts may be oppressive of a citizen of South Carolina, but even if so, it is operative only within Massachusetts domain and jurisdiction. Exactly so with the laws of South Carolina, which are unjust towards citizens of Massachusetts. Besides, if there are cases of this sort in one section of the country, there are as many and as flagrant in the other, and the only defensible mode of redress or adjustment is through the arbitration of Congress and the judicial tribunals of the country.
If the federal government should attempt to invade the domain of State rights, that would be despotism and cause of resistance—but there is no such cause, and there will be none. Should any State attempt to resume powers expressly yielded to the federal government, that would be treason, and would justify the exercise of forcible means by the federal government to bring back the offending State to its allegiance to the Constitution and the Union. But no such case has arisen—none will arise. There is, therefore, no existing right of secession, and the claim for it is utterly indefensible. Secession ought not to be, and that is one of the strongest reasons why it never will be.
Secondly, the slave States have not the power to secede. Unless permitted by the federal government quietly to withdraw, they cannot go. It is absurd to suppose that a President and a Congress and a judiciary sworn to maintain the Constitution and the laws will ever permit a State to secede. If they should, they would violate their oaths and become participants in the crime of treason. The only other possible method of secession is by violence, involving the nullification of the federal laws and armed resistance to the federal authority. In such a contest the slave States would be speedily and deservedly crushed by the strong arm of power. They have neither the wealth, the intelligence, the arts, the arms, nor the character, requisite to maintain the struggle.
The preponderance of all these elements of power is so largely with those States that will remain loyal to the confederacy, as to render the idea of the ability of the slave States to secede utterly preposterous. The only results to the rebellious States would be a bloody strife confined entirely to their own territory, the immediate and violent abolition of slavery, the destruction of their commerce, the ruin of all their material interests and finally a forced submission to the authority they had resisted and the government they had defied. This we say in no spirit of unkindness or boasting, but because these are the incontrovertible facts which no appeals of passion or flourishes of rhetoric can remove or change.
Thirdly, the slave States have no inclination to secede. A reckless and passionate minority, a very small minority, of the people of three or four States are preaching disunion. But they are all either intriguing politicians or are adventurers, who are playing upon the fears of the people and raising an uproar in Ephesus because "their craft is in danger." They see in the accession of the Republican party to power the certain end of that reign of terrorism over the expression of public opinion at the South, by means of which they have so long climbed to places of political power and exercised a domination in the federal government.
They are not in the least apprehensive of the abolition of slavery, or of any aggression upon southern rights by the administration of Abraham Lincoln; but they do apprehend and with good reason that their political ascendancy in the South is about to terminate, and that power there will soon pass into the hands of the patriotic, liberty-loving men of that section of the country. This and this alone is the Banquo's ghost that rises to disturb their feast, and foreseeing this they are making use of the temporary excitement and the disappointment consequent upon defeat, to secure to themselves snug places in Congress and in lucrative local offices at home; to illustrate—let South Carolina only elect to the United States Senate Gov. Gist, who is a candidate for the seat, and who has just issued his silly and treasonable disunion proclamation, and Gist will at once subside—he understands the real gist of this business, and, his coveted office secured, he will forthwith "roar you as gently as any sucking dove," and advise the Palmetto secessionists to wait for some overt act!
As for the rest, the great mass of the southern people desire no secession or disunion; they are loyal to the government, patriotic in their feelings, and laugh to scorn the treason and the nonsense of the braggarts and demagogues with whose presence and blatant bellowings they are now afflicted. Nobody in the free States need feel any anxiety about secession. The people of the South will take care of these agitators—if they don't, Old Abe will. If ever any actual attempt is made to subvert the Constitution or destroy the Union, if any assault is made upon the integrity of the Republic by fanatics from any section or party, the lawabiding, loyal and patriotic men of the slave States will stand as a wall of fire against them, and will meet and roll back their turbulent hosts, as the solid cliffs of the ocean shore beat back the angry surges of the sea.
Such is our judgment of the prospect and the probability of secession and disunion; and until philosophy is false, experience vain, reason powerless, facts converted into fiction, self-interest no longer the main-spring of human action, and principle extinct, that judgment will be vindicated and verified by the events of the future.