The Right of Coercion

Hartford Daily Courant, February 11, 1861

One of the bug-bears that the Secessionists have created for the purpose of frightening the timid, is that of COERCION. It is a magic word, but unfortunately its magic applies only to the Federal Government. You cannot coerce a Sovereign State, say these State Right Abstractionists. Is that so? Is our Government so powerless against domestic traitors? Are its hands so tied that it cannot protect its own property against the lawless seizures of State authority? If so, it is a glaring, gross defect in our Constitution. It is worth nothing as a Government, unless there is some idea of force in its very construction. To "govern" means to "coerce." It is involved in the very idea of Government. If such things have been done in South Carolina, under the false but specious plea of State Sovereignty, and the General Government must sit idly and tamely by without reaching out its powerful hand to protect or to punish, what is the Government worth? Its authority is a mere farce, not worth the paper on which the Constitution was engrossed.

Before the formation of the Constitution, each State was an independent community, subject only to its own laws. When Great Britain signed the declaration of our independence and dissolved the colonial condition, it left every State a distinct sovereignty. By assenting to the Constitution of 1788, each State gave up that sovereignty. She surrendered by that vote, absolutely and forever, that right. Whatever was not thus formally given up by the acceptance of the Constitution was retained by the State, such as the internal management of her domestic affairs. The vote to accept the Constitution was a final renunciation of independent sovereignty, which of course involves the right of secession, and the rights of separate action involved in secession. By this Constitution the Federal Government became THE SOVEREIGN with all the rights of restraint and coercion which all Governments necessarily possess.

How idle then this talk about COERCION. If a State rebels, there must be a right in Government to punish the individuals engaged in that rebellion. Without that power, federal authority is a farce, and the existing government will soon terminate in anarchy. The liberty of anarchy cannot be allowed in any community. Better, far better, would it be to live under a despotism.

But you cannot coerce a State. To be sure, a State is but an abstraction. It has no real existence, beyond the tangible, accountable existence of the individuals that compose it. The individual rebel is the accountable being which requires the coercion, and on whom we hope to see it exercised. We prefer the tyrannical exercise of the authority of Government, to the anarchy which the exercised right of secession would produce. GOVERNMENT MUST HAVE POWER. There must be "power" lodged somewhere. The sovereign States now composing this Union, by their solemn votes, voluntarily and deliberately gave this power to the Federal authority. They and their descendants are bound by this contract forever. Nothing but the unanimous consent of all the contracting parties can release any one from this binding obligation.