The Mouth of the Mississippi

Chicago Daily Tribune, December 18, 1860

The leaders of the secession movement seem to have recognized the fact that the commerce of the Mississippi river is an impediment to their treasonable schemes—that the Northwest has too vast an interest in that creek to tolerate for a moment the thought of its falling into the hands of a foreign power—that even Missouri and Kentucky have scruples, under this head, which they do not entertain from a moral or political stand-point. Hence we hear it proclaimed from Washington that the free navigation of the Mississippi is not to be impeded by secession, that under the maritime laws of the world, it must remain an open highway for commerce and travel to all nations inhabiting its shores and valleys. This is a very pleasant sort of speech. It has a most peaceful and mercantile seeming. It suggests long continued profits in the steamboat and rafting interest, no less than regular dividends among corn factors and sugar merchants. But how is it proposed to answer these questions:

I. On whose authority do these persons speak, who have awakened to the needs of the Northwestern commerce, and its vastly sacred character? What right have they to pledge the Southern people to an observance of the laws of nations in respect of navigable rivers? Who are they? What are their local habitations and their names respectively? We pause for a reply.

II. If these parties were authorized to speak for the whole Southern people, or for a majority of them, how can the present generation of slave-drivers bind the next generation? How can the Louisiana of 1860 bind the Louisiana of 1880? What guaranty have we that our right in the Mississippi, recognized to-day by those in whose power it is placed by secession, will be respected six months hence when some irritating event may have suggested the confiscation of a Northern cargo by an Arkansas mob? We pause for a reply to this also.

III. What is the meaning of the phrases "free navigation" and "law of nations?" Four years ago the Missouri river was a national highway. The Constitution and laws of the United States, more potent than any law of nations, guarantied the free navigation of that stream to all citizens. But scores of steamboats were stopped, searched and pillaged. Hundreds of persons migrating peacefully to Kansas were robbed and turned backward penniless. Persons coming down were sent up-stream, and persons going up were sent down-stream. Of what utility would have been the law of nations in this case except to justify immediate war? We pause for reply again.

IV. Of what use is the free navigation of the Mississippi if every cargo which goes towards the Gulf is required to pass through custom house, and pay duties at New Orleans? Mississippi steamers cannot navigate the Atlantic, nor can New York or Liverpool merchantmen sail up the Mississippi. Everything which goes down or comes up must break bulk at New Orleans; everything must be regularly entered at that port, and must be subject to such laws as Louisiana or the Southern Confederacy may choose to enact. What is to be done about this?

V. In the event of war, which some people deem inevitable if secession takes place and which all deem probable, would the free navigation of the Mississippi still be respected? Would Northern passengers still be allowed free transit, and Northern goods free passage, from Cairo southward? The government of the United States is strong enough to secure this desideratum at all times. Is public opinion at the South able to do so? Is the law of nations likely to be effectual in this regard? We pause for reply once more.

—Until satisfactory answers can be given to all these questions we commend the officious mouth-pieces of disunion to indulge in no more platitudes about the free navigation of the Mississippi. If the Northwest were never so fondly charmed with secession in the abstract, her citizens would insist to the last extremity upon guaranties in this particular which should be not only probable and promising, but absolutely certain in all contingencies.