Peaceable Secession

Greenfield Gazette and Courier, February 11, 1861

It is plain that there is no constitutional right for the secession of states from the Union. They have the right recognized in the Declaration of Independence to change their form of government, but that is in fact a revolutionary right. This right,—of revolution—every lover of popular freedom must acknowledge. It is the only protection often which the masses have against the tyranny of men in power. It is this right which justified our rebellion against Great Britain in the Revolutionary War. The Constitution seems designed to curb this right somewhat, lest it should be resorted to on trivial occasions and to secure personal ends, as in Mexico and South America. Under the old confederacy, a state had a right to secede and act as an independent nation. Foreseeing that this right might sometime be abused, and states without just cause withdraw from their connection with the others, and thus cause disturbance, the Constitution was adopted, one object of which was, (see preamble) "to insure domestic tranquil[l]ity,"—that is, subdue fractious states or citizens to obedience by "coercion": "to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity,"—that is, to make the liberty secured by the Constitution perpetual—"for our posterity"—till posterity should cease: and then the Constitution would not be wanted longer.

If the seceding states have thrown themselves on this revolutionary right, for causes to themselves satisfactory, and if it is a right, then, to be just and consistent, we ought to let them go, unless their constitutional obligations override their right to secede. They have by adopting the Constitution deposited with the faithful states the right of coercion; and if these states should exercise it, the seceders would really have no cause to complain. Yet, it is not probable that such an event as the secession of half a dozen states was contemplated, and hence it may be said there is no clause in the Constitution adapted to such a condition of things, and at all events it would be proper for the General Government to consider whether it would not be better to regard the right of revolution and allow the discontents to go off, than to exercise the constitutional right of coercion to keep them in an unwilling and sullen subjection. It may seem to us that it would be better to preserve the Union intact; but we are not omniscient. It is conceivable that it might be for the general benefit of the people that a separation should take place. It does not look more certain to us that our highest prosperity and happiness would be promoted by the perpetuity of the Union, than it did to our British forefathers that the continued dependence of the old thirteen colonies on the mother country was essential to the highest prosperity of that mother. Yet, what Briton will not tell you now, that his country is vastly better off with us an independent nation than she would have been had we remained colonies to this time? Man cannot see far into the future. The disruption of the Union may be a benefit to both sections; and in our opinion, it would be preferable to a civil war by which we should conquer the South and hold her as an enemy in our bosom,—or as a prisoner in his cell. A compulsory connection must be a very unpleasant one, and could hardly be maintained except by a large army, which might lead to an ultimate military dictatorship.

The question arises then, whether it is not best to let them go peaceably: to receive their commissioners and treat with them on terms and conditions. Let them take what public property is in their limits and see if they can do better without than with us. We have no doubt that a treaty of trade and commerce could be made with every one, and in six months southern trade would be just as good and abundant as it ever was. Even the navigation of the Mississippi, which is perhaps the most difficult matter of all to settle satisfactorily, would probably be arranged for the mutual benefit of both confederacies, for it is quite as much for the interest of the slave states on the river to keep the navigation free as it is for the western states. The only other source of real difficulty would be the city of Washington and that would be settled easily if Maryland remains in the Union. If she should wish to secede, it might be necessary to have a conflict: for the possession of Washington is of such importance that the North will not hear one word about giving it up. It has been built chiefly with her money, and its possession would have such an effect upon the army and navy, that nobody could think of giving it up. Now, does it belong to Maryland[?] Its territory once did, but it does not now; nor has it been built by her. It is wholly and exclusively a city of the Union, and the Union must and will keep it. Present indications are that Maryland will resist the arts and seductions of the seceders and remain in the Union, in which case there would be no trouble.

If the above views suggested are correct, the government made a mistake in treating so cavalierly the commissioners sent by South Carolina. But this error might be retrieved, and the course of peace inaugurated if any disposition for such a settlement should be indicated.

Meantime, [the] government should be energetic in defending its property and maintaining its rights everywhere, until they shall be honorably surrendered agreeably to contract. Firmness in defense of rights while they exist, with willingness to adjust difficulties peaceably, will be most likely to produce an amicable and beneficial settlement.

While suggesting the above views, we are by no means disunionists. It seems to us clear that it is best for all parties to go on as we have done. But if part of the people will not; if they so hate the Union that they will fight to get out of it, and we must force them into an unwilling subjugation, holding them as captives rather than as associates; then it may be a question whether all parties would not be benefitted [sic] more by a separation than by such a Union. The matter should be thought of.