The Right of Peaceable Secession

Cincinnati Daily Press, November 21, 1860

The thing that politicians in their haste, are most likely to overlook in the organic principle of their own government, perhaps it might be said that this is the thing of which, in general, they have the least practical conception. We all admit that the organic principle of our form of polity is the right of self-government—the will of the people constantly active in the frame-work and administration. We hold that the right of self-government is a native right, inherent in humanity, and vested, for its own purposes, in every body of people; and yet we are prone to forget that, as a corollary from this idea, we have no title to impose any species of constraint upon the self-governing power of other communities.

So it has been in all ages of the world. The Grecian Republics saw nothing inconsistent in their claim to exercise despotic authority over their provinces. The Republics of Switzerland had their subject cantons, which they taxed and governed regardless of the principle upon which they founded their own title to independence; and the people of the thirty odd Republics of the United States find it impossible to get over the notion that their brethren in the Territories need some sort of outside permission before they can attain to the right to govern themselves.

South Carolina—we employ the name of a single State to indicate the whole of those be they more or less, who assume a similar position—South Carolina talks of seceding from the Confederacy of North American States; and the question—urgent in proportion to the probability that she will carry her talk into effect—is, What then? We suspect that the question is purely a fancy one; like thousands of others which the people will, and therefore the journals are obliged to discuss: but it is up; and we should be, as the orators say, "recreant to our duty," if we should fail to meet it with a solemnity commensurate with its possible importance.

We believe that the right of any member of this Confederacy to dissolve its political relations with the others and assume an independent position is absolute—that, in other words, if South Carolina wants to go out of the Union, she has the right to do so, and no party or power may justly say her nay. This we suppose to be the doctrine of the Declaration of Independence when it affirms that governments are instituted for the protection of men in their lives, liberties, and the pursuit of happiness; and that "whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness."

Whether the Government of the United States is such an one as is best calculated to protect the lives, liberties and so forth, of the people of South Carolina, is a question which they alone are legally qualified to decide. We may have our opinions; but our opinions, whatever they may be, are not, and can not be made, binding upon them. When the people of the British Colonies declared the Government of the Mother Country intolerable, they did it as the result of their own reflection and experience: nor did they deem it necessary to inquire whether King George, his counsellors or his home subjects, concurred in their convictions. They thought it wrong and a burden, and therefore they threw it off. The world has pronounced a clear verdict in favor of their right to choose, and of the correctness of their conclusions.

If this view of the legal aspects of the case is correct, it goes to settle the entire question. What is to be done? Simply nothing. Will we go to imitate the conduct of the "British tyrant," which we have in so many thousand forms condemned, and send armies and navies to South Carolina to reduce her to subjection? The idea of forcing men to belong to and carry on their share of the machinery of a government—of which the very essence is the free will of the constituent parts to act as they please, or not to act if they prefer, is to the last degree preposterous. Let South Carolina, in God's name, go if she wants to. The fact that she does want to, constitutes all the title that is necessary. Let her go in peace; and the States of the North would be violators of the fundamental doctrine of the Declaration of American Independence, if they should take any forcible measures to prevent her departure.

If our opinion were asked upon the point, we should say that South Carolina has no good reason to offer for leaving the Union, nor any substantial cause of complaint against it, and that her conduct at the present time is as unjust in its professed aims as it is ridiculous in its demonstrations. But this misjudgment and folly works no disfranchisement. She has still the right to judge, and to act upon her judgment; and the only party to which she is responsible for the correctness of her decision is herself. It is a curious circumstance, however, that it is in the South we find the advocates both of the right of secession and of the right of coercion. The general voice of the North is, we believe, in favor of permitting South Carolina to go out of the Union, or not to go out of it, as she prefers. It is otherwise with the South, where the doctrine of the right of coercion pretty generally obtains. The South may, therefore, be quite safely left to itself; nor is it improbable that upon this very point of the right of peaceable secession there will be an almost irrepressible conflict.