The First Act of Illegal Violence
Chicago Daily Post, December 29, 1860
The telegraph brings us the news that yesterday the State authorities of South Carolina took armed possession of Fort Moultrie and Castle Pinckney. This act is the initial point of aggression, and it becomes one of serious consideration for the people. The Constitution of the United States, when adopted, contained a provision, giving to Congress exclusive legislative authority over the seat of government and over all places, which, by the consent of the several states should be occupied by the nation for forts, dock yards, arsenals or other needful public buildings. Under this clause the general government has purchased the sites, and erected public buildings, forts, dock yards, navy yards, custom houses, light houses, post offices, hospitals, and perhaps other public buildings. In each case, however, the United States, demanded and required, preliminary to any purchase or expenditure, that the State, by solemn act of the legislature, should cede absolutely to the United States the privilege of exclusive jurisdiction over the site, and in the building erected thereon. Such has been the action of the States and the federal government, since the formation of the government. The State of South Carolina, however, has recently passed an ordinance, repealing all former acts of that State by which the Constitution and its amendments were ratified and by which the sovereignty of the Union was admitted.
In other words, so far as South Carolina has the power, South Carolina has abolished her union with the other States, and put an end to all her compacts and obligations unto her sister States. So long as the acts of South Carolina were confined to mere declarations on paper, her abjurations and her secessionizing amounted to nothing. But when South Carolina invades the property of the United States, seizes upon the public treasure and the public mail, when she sends troops into a fort of the United States and captures or expels the force left there to maintain it for the Union, then South Carolina goes beyond empty paper declaration, and puts the individuals who may do her bidding in these acts, in the position of "levying war against" the United States. That act is by the Constitution declared to be treason.
We do not discuss this matter as a political one—this is not a political paper—but we discuss it purely as a legal question, involving, as it does, the grave question whether we have any government at all that has the power of protecting the property of the people. If we have no government invested with such power, then the fathers of this Republic instead of being revered for their wisdom and sanctified for their patriotism, should be execrated for having palmed off upon the world a solemn fraud, and for having handed down to their posterity a miserable cheat.
We remember that some years ago, a mob of wild fanatics attacked the federal court house in the city of Boston, where the officers of the United States held a miserable negro a captive. It was then asked, had the federal government the power and authority to protect its own officers in its own buildings, where by constitution and law, the federal government had exclusive jurisdiction? That question was promptly answered by the President of the United States, under whose orders the United States marines were marched from the Charlestown navy yard to the court house in Boston, and there, behind glittering bayonets, with iron chains stretched across all approaches to the temple of justice, the judicial officers maintained their position, defied the lawless, and executed their duty. For a while, abolition madmen shrieked of State sovereignty and of the tyranny of the federal government, but the American people, from their innate loyalty to law and order thanked the Executive for his promptness and for the fidelity with which he preserved the national power and authority.
Yesterday another armed mob, not in Boston, but in Charleston, suddenly seized upon one of the national buildings. They have seized not upon a peaceful court-room, but upon one of the national forts, one of the buildings provided by the nation for the national defence. What is to be done? What has been done? Instead of imitating the example set him by Pierce, the unhappy old man who is at the head of national affairs, is wringing his hands and exclaiming that to send troops to Charleston would but excite the mob to greater madness.
What has his forbearance accomplished? A gallant and experienced officer was in command; that officer was charged with the responsibility of protecting these forts. As commander he advised the President that his force was not sufficient. The President refused him succor, and directly informed the leaders of the mob that he would not re-inforce Anderson's garrison. The President will not perform his duty; he violates the law, he stands shivering before the men who in pompous language bid the government defiance. Such a ruler is worse than the despot whose dominion was overthrown by the American revolution. The government which will not protect its people from an armed mob, is as criminal as the government which opens the ports to an external enemy. Gen. Hull surrendered Fort Detroit to the enemies of his country, without firing a gun, and the act has been blazoned with all its infamy upon the history of the world. Is it possible for Buchanan's surrender of Fort Moultrie to escape an equally infamous memory[?]
The State of South Carolina claims the right to secede, to withdraw from her contracts. We do not intend to discuss her right to do so, but we think that according to every principle of law, justice and equity a State cannot, any more than individuals, throw off contracts and obligations to which other States are parties, without the consent of those other States. By the express terms of the contract, exclusive jurisdiction was vested in the United States. While South Carolina may desire to resume her jurisdiction, her deed of cession stands in the way, and she is as effectually barred from so doing, until the United States shall relinquish their authority and yield their consent, as if the government had actually moved the Forts from her harbor and placed them in the waters of New York. Contracts are mutual, and one party cannot impair or destroy them without the consent of the other. Having therefore, taken possession of Fort Moultrie, without the consent of the Congress of the United States, South Carolina has, through her agents, committed an act of unlawful violence, which in the individuals perpetrating it, is rank treason.
It is the duty of the President to employ the powers of the government to put down that treason. The miserable Mormons, the negroes of Boston, the vagabond gang of Montgomery in Kansas, have all felt the prompt severity of the federal power. Is insurrection less insurrection because it is approved by the traitorous resolutions of a convention in Charleston? If the President will not do his duty, then Congress owes it to the Union, to impeach him, and hurl him from the seat which he has disgraced by his cowardice, if not by his complicity with open and avowed traitors.