Fundamental Principles Involved
New Orleans Daily Picayune, January 15, 1861
The Northern journals come freighted with threatenings to bring back the seceding States into the Union by force. Senators in Congress of the Republican side talk of it as a high duty, and public gatherings of their partisans endorse the sentiment. Governors of Northern States make it a leading topic of their official messages, and here and there a bellicose member of some State Legislature, or a blazing patriot in some town meeting, calls upon the Northern States to put themselves on a war footing at once, to organize State armies with a lavish disregard of the cost, to be tendered to the federal authorities "to maintain the Government."
The favorite form of expression in which these resolves are clothed is, that it is the first and highest duty "to maintain the Union." But a Union upheld by a war, which is made necessary by the revolting of many large and powerful States from an unfriendly and oppressive Government, is condemned at once by the act. When armies and fleets are employed to keep a confederation of States together, it is a mockery to send them forth as messengers of union. It is for the subjugation of the minority section to the will of the majority, and every element which makes it a circle of consenting States in a harmonious Union disappears under the crushing process. To talk of war, therefore, as the means of perpetuating a Union is a mockery. It might perpetuate a Government, but that Government will cease to be a federative one, and will contain within itself essential traits of a military despotism—the retention, by superior force, of an unwilling people in political bondage, to a Government which they had unanimously risen to throw off. The Government so established, if such a monstrous thing could ever be established, would have no principles remaining in common with those which make the true theory of the constitution of the present Government, a departure from which has brought on the present convulsion. A war to "maintain the Union" is simply, therefore, a war to extinguish the Union, and to maintain a Government such as was never contemplated by any of the States which compose it, and which would not be tolerated by any State now, if there were a question of creating or restoring a Government.
The clamor for dealing with these grave issues by the sword is so intolerably aggressive in spirit and in purpose that its effect is seen in the rallying the most hesitating of the border slave States into a common cause with each other to proclaim unflinching opposition to such sentiments, and a unanimous determination that no such attempt shall be made without being resisted to the last extremity, on the first step, and on the borders of the first invaded State.
Suppose it granted, that in point of logic, under the forms of the existing constitution, the right of secession does not exist; that one State cannot secede, nor two States, nor five nor six, nor any number of States. What then? Are these awful issues to be treated on naked considerations of power, or technical considerations of jurisdiction only? If we must yield to all governments because they are established and because they have the forms of regularity, and can make out a good paper title, the American Revolution was a crime, and the Boston port bill, by which Great Britain undertook to punish Massachusetts for interrupting the payment of duties on tea, was a lawful exercise of the power to collect revenue.
What has been reasoned before—in behalf of the right of self-protection against an oppressive government—will be reasoned again; what has been done before, to maintain that right, will be done again, subject to the same invincible rule of human conduct, as set forth in the Declaration of Independence—that "mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed."
If the action of the Southern States be indeed what these Northerners describe it, altogether revolutionary, what then? The magnitude and unanimity of the movement lifts it above any possible association with rebellion, for an accomplished rebellion is a successful revolution, and what revolution could be more perfectly completed than this promises to be within a few days—in all its forms—than it is already, studied in the point of view in which public law looks upon the change of government. Five of the cotton States have already formally abolished the whole machinery of federal authority within their limits, and displaced all the federal officers. The federal forts and arsenals, with a few exceptions, are occupied by State troops. Each State has its own separate government organized, and its people are arming for State protection. In a few weeks they will probably have a provisional government for the whole; and that government will be accepted by three millions of people. There will then be no vestige of the federal authority left within their borders, except a few soldiers in some beleaguered fortress.
Now, a confederacy thus formed and a government thus created make an established State as completely as though independence had been won by ten years of battle. The principle of State sovereignty will have carried the country in a few weeks to a consummation which under a consolidated State or a despotic government would have been effected only through sore travails and with infinite internal disorders. No disorders need be apprehended with these, except from without; and such a development of popular will and the sovereign energy of State organization would clearly place any external invader in the wrong. No theory of the rights of government other than that which impelled the conduct of George III in the last century, and Francis Joseph of Austria in this, would justify an invasion to overthrow a government established principally among themselves by three millions of people, in their separate but concurrent communities, for their own security and happiness.
That invasion would be one for reconquest of a country as completely independent before the world as the Dutch Republics were after they had expelled the Spanish troops, and much more so than any of the feeble South American Republics were when the Governments of Europe took them into the society of nations. If, then, as these violent men at the North assume, secession is rebellion and rebellion must be put down; were it not better to consider that a rebellion, if they be pleased so to call it, which is so widespread, thoroughly organized, and sustained, and accomplished, makes a revolution which must be encountered by a war for conquest, as distinctly as though it were a foreign country they propose to overrun.
We say nothing here of the costs and chances and direful consequences of such an unnatural war. These will doubtless have their full weight in the councils of the real people of the North, when the fact of the actual formation of a complete and harmonious Southern Government calls upon them to consider as well the state of the whole country and the true relations of the dissevered parts to each other, as to take out of the hands of the political managers, whose violence now seems to threaten implacable and undying war, the power to attempt the fulfillment of such purposes. The main fact to be considered by them, and at the North, is that from present demonstrations there will be presented to them a new government, erected by a people of the same language and blood, in the exercise of the indestructible right of all communities to provide for their own safety and happiness. They must determine whether they will go to war, interminable and hopeless war, to subvert it. If not, will they accept it, as the basis of a re-arrangement of rights and securities under a new confederation, to embrace the whole? Or, acknowledging the necessity which denounces the separation, undertake to live in peace between friendly and coterminous, if divided, governments.
It is the earnest prayer of all hearts—not fired to frenzy by passionate partisanship—that so terrible a choice, among these alternatives, may not be made—for subjugation by war, rather than negotiation for peace. The signs are not favorable, but they are not decisive. Selfish politicians, bellicose preachers, angry partisans and an incendiary press, have uttered a great deal of fiery and threatening talk, but the point of a full knowledge of the position and inflexible purposes of the people of the South is not yet reached by the controlling masses who will have to fight, and to pay, against the judgment and conscience of multitudes—against the instincts and interests of still more.
The steady advance of action in the South towards concentration and absolute unanimity, on every essential point in these disputes, and upon resistance to the attempt to close them by the sword, and the mighty considerations with which it appeals to the undivided American sentiment in behalf of the natural right of communities to self-government, to the precedents of our own history, our own treatment of other separate States, and our own recorded assertions of the principles of public law; and to the concessions which their justice has extorted, in our own day, from the mightiest sovereigns in Europe, ought to be our absolute security against the employment of any invading force whatever, the immediate tender of a satisfactory plan for a perfect reunion, or the recognition of separate independence.
Whether such wise counsels prevail at the North or not, foreign Governments will look only to the fact that a Government is established. If it have only a provisional Government, as in the case of mere insurrectionists, that is a sufficient dominion de facto for admitting the carrying on of commerce under the authorities in possession of the control of the local affairs. A Southern Government, fully organized and supported by the whole body of its own people, could not be excluded from intercourse with the rest of the world by the Mexican process of giving notice of the right of recovery to be used hereafter. Neither England nor France is to be prevented from seeking supplies indispensable to their own convenience and subsistence by such new fulminations of obsolete doctrines.
But this involves too many considerations to be treated in an article which has already grown under the pen to the length of this.