Stop and Think--What Is Secession?

Nashville Daily Patriot, November 19, 1860

The laws of the United States operate so gently and so seldom upon the people individually, that we are scarcely aware of their existence. But, at this juncture, we would appeal to every citizen to bear in mind that these laws are not addressed to the States, but to each individual person in the Union. For example, the United States Statute says to the citizen: "You shall not prevent or retard the transportation of the mails." Now, suppose Tennessee should pass an act forbidding the passage of United States mails through the State, and direct the issuance of process to arrest and stop the carriers, and to take the mail-bags away from them; and suppose a magistrate should, in obedience to the act, issue such a process, and a sheriff or other officer should arrest the carrier and seize his mail, what would follow? Would the United States government proceed against Tennessee? Not at all. The magistrate who issued the process, and the officer who executed it, would be indicted in the Circuit Court of the United States, and be brought to trial there. Do we flatter ourselves that the defendants could make a successful defense by pleading that they acted under the authority of the act of the Legislature? If so, we only deceive ourselves. The Court would inform us that the laws of the United States directing the transportation of the mails, and making it a crime to retard their progress, is supreme, and the act of the State Legislature forbidding it, void. The defendants would be convicted and fined. Now, how is the execution of this judgment of the Court to be prevented? It could not be done, except by the defendant himself or by the government of Tennessee. Let us suppose the marshal, armed with a writ of execution commanding him to make the fine out of the defendant's property, to come to make the money by seizing the defendant's horse. If the defendant resists the execution of the process, then he incurs the guilt of resisting the process and the laws of the United States; and for this he is indictable. Besides this, the marshal has the power, conferred on him by law, to summon a posse to assist him in seizing the horse. But suppose the people will not obey the summons, and thereby the marshal is prevented from executing the process of the courts; in that case the marshal reports the case to the proper department at Washington. The President is notified of the facts; and as he is sworn to see the laws executed, he will send an armed force to assist the marshal to make the money, and perform his duty. The defendant would find himself too weak to cope with the marshal thus assisted; and now nothing remains but to submit, or appeal to the Governor of the State to assist him in resisting the process, and the forces of the General Government. Then, suppose the Governor should raise a military force to prevent the execution of the process, the government of the United States and their armed forces are brought face to face, in a case in which the United States are clearly in the right, and we imagine that every one will concede that the right ought and must prevail.

Now, it may be said to all this: "Tennessee, can find a remedy in this case by seceding from the Union." How? Suppose Tennessee, even by a convention, should solemnly declare herself out of the Union; but the government of the United States refuses to recognize the declaration of the convention, and turning aside from this act of Tennessee, still persists in enforcing the judgment against the defendant, pursuing him still, as a private individual, having no excuse for his resistance, and proceeds to enforce the judgment by military force? Either the State must at last acquiesce, or must oppose force by force. If she resorts to this alternative; still the United States will not proceed against the State; but, finding the people of the State with arms in their hands resisting the lawful authority of the Union, seize them and bring them to trial for treason, and punish them capitally. Blood is now shed, and it is said that this blood could never be appeased, but must beget a fatal hatred in the minds of the people against the government. Why? Would not every government, in the case supposed, shed the blood of the opposers of the law? Has not every government shed the blood of those who have incurred the guilt of doing what is forbidden under capital penalties? Could any government exist without this power? So, likewise, in a case where a citizen of one State sues and recovers a judgment in the Federal Courts against the citizen of another State. So, in the case of a fugitive slave, pursued under the act of Congress. So, in the execution of all constitutional laws of the Federal Government.

What does all this prove? It proves—that going out of the Union by solemn acts of State Legislatures or conventions does not absolve the individual citizen from the obligation to obey the laws of the Union, and notwithstanding the act of secession the individual still continues subject to the laws of the Union, and nothing can protect him from the penalties of the violated law, but the use of superior force. In all such cases the President's duty is plain. He is bound to execute the laws. He cannot, even, be relieved from it by an act of Congress, for Congress has no such power, and any act of the kind would be void. In any of the cases supposed, nothing short of an act of the whole people, in convention, can discharge the President from his obligation to enforce the national laws against all violators of them, and from employing the whole power with which he is invested by the Constitution and laws to discharge that duty.

Secession, therefore, by the people of a State, is a nullity in law, and every citizen of the State continues, in spite of secession, still a citizen of the Union, liable to the penalties of the laws of the Union; and every act of resistance to the laws of the government, either by one man or one hundred thousand is a crime, and can only be made innocent by the people of the United States, in convention. The contrary doctrine would give us a government without law, without order, without safety either for life, liberty or property—just no government at all. It will thus be seen that in the outset, the violation of the law by a single individual is simply a crime; if there be organized resistance to law by many it may be rebellion or nullification; and if by a State under the auspices of the Legislature, it is called secession. In principle and essence they are all the same, and in no form does the act free itself from the quality of criminality.

But it may be urged that if this view be accepted as correct, the people could have no recourse against oppression, and that they would be at once reduced to the yoke of any tyranny which government saw proper to impose. This is untrue, because the government belongs to the people and the laws are theirs. They have the power to alter, amend or repeal the laws at their will, in a constitutional and peaceful manner. If their agents or representatives have enacted laws distasteful to them, let them take the earliest opportunity to modify or abolish such distasteful enactments. They have the unobstructed power to redress all such grievances in peace. If it is still urged that obstinate and adverse majorities may rise up and prevent such redress, we reply, they must prove that by the effort. This is our duty here in Tennessee, and it is the duty of every State in the Union. We shall pursue this subject.