The President's Message

Detroit Free Press, December 7, 1860

If in ordinary times there have been people who have been content to gather the substance of the annual message of the President in other ways than by reading it themselves, the number of such is greatly reduced at the present time. Probably no message of a President has been awaited by the whole country with so much interest as that of President BUCHANAN transmitted to Congress on Tuesday, and none has been so universally read as will have been that.

The President at once goes to the all-absorbing subject. He states correctly the causes of the lamentable condition of affairs, or the cause, rather, for there is really but one,—that is, the continuous, persistent and rapidly growing agitation in the North of the slavery question during the past quarter of a century, and the aggressive form which this agitation has assumed, producing, as its natural consequence, vague conceptions of liberty and discontent among the servile population and stimulating insurrection. The President rightly declares that “no political union, however fraught with blessings and benefits in all other respects, can long continue, if the necessary consequence be to render the homes and the firesides of nearly half the parties to it habitually and hopelessly insecure.”

The President wholly denies the constitutional right of a State to secede. If the right existed, he tells us, the Union would be a rope of sand. But, in his opinion, the Federal government has no constitutional right to prevent a State from seceding! His argument against the constitutional right of secession is sound; it is unassailable; and it will seem strange to most people that after he had made it he should himself turn round and attempt to assail it—that he should make the Union a rope of sand at any rate. If a State has not the right to secede, it follows as a logical consequence that the power rests somewhere to prevent it. It is certain that the power exists in the government of the United States to enforce the constitution and laws of the United States, and the exercise of this power is all that is necessary to prevent secession. When the President had so conclusively shown that a State has not the constitutional right to secede, he should have followed up the same line of argument by showing that the Federal government has not the constitutional right to permit a State to secede. It strikes us that the President has surrendered the whole ground of the power of the Federal government to preserve itself, and has opened the way, if his view were the true one, for a State or any number of States to bid good bye to the Union at any time and on any pretence. We are not now arguing as to what should be the particular policy of the Federal government in the present juncture, but against the dangerous and utterly inadmissible doctrine that the Federal government has not the constitutional power to preserve itself. The President says that to coerce a State is to declare war against her. Not so. There is no coercion except to uphold the constitution and laws in every State. If the people of a State do not choose to have postoffices, it is not necessary to the execution of the laws that postoffices should be forced upon them, but they cannot set up postoffices on their own account; and so with regard to the operation of other Federal laws,—they may not be carried out in all their parts, but they cannot be resisted nor subverted. The broad legal proposition may be laid down that a State can only go out of the Union by an amendment of the constitution establishing the right and prescribing the manner of exercising it. But we do not desire to discuss this question now; we only desire to seize the first opportunity to protest against the novel and alarming doctrine which the President has announced.

We are glad that there is room for more general concurrence in the remedy which the President proposes for the existing disorders. This remedy is in the nature of what he calls an “explanatory amendment” of the constitution, embracing three special points, viz; line and its extension to the Pacific, by amendment of the constitution, would be an acceptable compromise to the South; if so, perhaps it would be as acceptable to the North as to stand by the constitution as it is.

The President undertakes to justify his Lecompton policy. He had better have omitted that undertaking, for that policy the people of the United States have emphatically condemned and they will never reverse their judgment. It was that policy which gave the republican party the power to bring upon the country the present woes, and the less the President says about it the better for his fame. However, his defence is rather apologetic than otherwise. He says:

“1. An express recognition of the right of property in slaves in the States where it now exists or may hereafter exist.“2. The duty of protecting this right in all the common Territories throughout their Territorial existence, and until they shall be admitted as States into the Union, with or without slavery, as their constitutions may prescribe.“3. A like recognition of the right of the master to have his slave, who has escaped from one State to another, restored and ‘delivered up’ to him, and of the validity of the fugitive slave law enacted for this purpose, together with a declaration that all State laws impairing or defeating this right are violations of the constitution, and are consequently null and void.”

We can cordially endorse these propositions with the understanding that, as to the second proposition, its meaning is that slaves are property in the common Territories, that they stand upon precisely the same footing as other property, and are entitled to the same protection as other property. We can cordially endorse the propositions with this understanding, and conscientiously declare that there is nothing in them that ought not to command the approval of the whole northern people.

There is no certainty that the Union can be preserved by any action in the direction above indicated, but it is certain that it cannot be preserved without some such action. And this the North cannot understand a moment too soon. The South will not sit down in the future under the same state of things that has prevailed of late. Slavery must be let alone in the States where it exists, the fugitive slave law must be faithfully executed, and whatever rights the Supreme Court adjudges to slavery in the Territories must be insured, or separation of the South from the North, in some form, will speedily ensue. If it shall not be by mutual agreement, it will be by revolution, for it cannot be by secession. Down to this point is the issue narrowed, and it is for the northern people now to make up their minds how they will meet it. It is possible that, with regard to the Territories, the re-establishment of the Missouri compromise

“Had I treated the Lecompton constitution as a nullity, and refused to transmit it to Congress, it is not difficult to imagine, whilst recalling the position of the country at that moment, what would have been the disastrous consequences, both in and out of the Territory, from such a dereliction of duty on the part of the Executive.”

Nobody ever asked him to treat the Lecompton constitution as a nullity. It was his duty to transmit it to Congress, and there his duty ended. But he went further and made the support of it, in Congress and out, a test of democracy. If he had done his simple duty regarding it, and nothing more, the democratic party would not have been split, and LINCOLN would not have been President.

Other parts of the message invite comment, but this we must defer.