New Orleans Daily Picayune, October 31, 1860
When clouds obscure the heavens and winds have rendered the point to which his vessel has drifted uncertain, the prudent seaman avails himself of any opportunity to take an observation and learn his real bearings. Not less important is it, in the midst of the political storm that now sweeps over the land, for each elector to compare his present position with well-known landmarks, in order to see whether he is not drifting wide from sound principles and making a dangerous proximity to anarchy and confusion.
Insensibly, in time of ordinary quiet, all departures are made from the true principles that underlie the foundation of government. When passion is aroused, the fearless and defiant annunciation of even an indefensible and most dangerous doctrine, often passes with the multitude as a happy inspiration, and they are ready to grant it approval without the slightest examination.
Something of this is witnessed at the present moment in regard to the new idea of the present day, presented under the title of peaceful secession.
The public mind has become excited in view of the dangers, now real, that encompass the nation. The threats of encroachment upon the rights of a minority section of the Union, uttered with the earnestness of a wild fanaticism, are well calculated to arouse the most sluggish and trustful to anxiety, and to prompt the suspicious to measures of defense. Prosperity beyond example, increase in power and wealth beyond parallel, success in every department of individual and public life, but renders the shadow of coming evil the more noticeable and gives it the deeper gloom.
In casting about for a point of safety from the gathered storm, we are invited to seek peaceful secession. To avoid danger we are told quietly to withdraw from it. To overthrow the power of the North we are advised to secede peacefully from the Union and quietly, without fear of molestation from without, to set up for ourselves. No one dreams the North will consent to such an act. It is not, therefore, considered as a party to it.
If it were possible, what does this advice of peaceful secession involve? The surrender of all the common property of the States that comprise the Union; the abandonment of a joint interest in the public treasury, the navy, the national storehouses, the arsenals and manufactories of arms and munitions of war, and the entire public domain outside of organized States, is an essential element of such a secession. The very object of all the controversy between the free and slave sections of the Republic is, then, to be given up in order to escape the possible evils that continuance in the Union may ripen. This is the most intolerable of all possible submission. It is a base surrender, when holding an almost impregnable position, on the appearance of the enemy. To escape the possible creation of free States out of all the unoccupied territory of the United States, we are to abandon it to the quiet possession of freedom—give up all right even to vote, and remonstrate, and act to prevent such a consummation.
But it is said that after seceding we will call for a division of the joint property. But what power shall arbitrate between those now aliens to each other? Will the North, after the South has seceded, be any more willing to grant its just demands, than while it was an integral part of the Republic, with acknowledged rights and common interest? Will it generously give up what has been abandoned, sinking its hostility to slavery before a new birth of generosity to those, whom as brethren, it opposed? Or can that be expected from the arts of diplomacy out of the Union which could not be gained in it? No one dreams of such a conclusion. It is impracticable and impossible.
Then we will assert our rights with our swords, say the peaceful secessionists. Ah, but this is no longer peaceful. It is war, revolution, an appeal from the diplomacy of the Cabinet, from the voluntary justice of adversaries, to the might of the strong arm and the stout heart. Peaceful secession is a myth. It is a mere phrase to conceal the sad train of events that are inevitably to follow.
But whether a secession be peaceful or not, cannot depend solely upon the seceding party. Composed as this nation is of a series of equal States, if one break the compact and puts the General Government out of its territories, if its power be not there maintained, it falls to pieces of its own weight. Its strength consists not so much in armies and navies as in the acknowledged supremacy of the law. It is powerful in the States because it is hedged about by a species of reverence by public opinion. Those who desire to keep the fabric together must, therefore, in some shape resist secession of a single State. We have already seen how the government has met such defiance of its authority on two occasions at least, in both of which bloodshed would have followed, but for the adjustment of the difficulty before the first gun had been fired.
The States Rights men who framed the famous Kentucky and Virginia resolutions were far from originating this doctrine of peaceable secession of a single State or a series of States by their own will and without the consent of all parties to the federal compact.
That veteran defender of States rights, old Father Ritchie, who had such an influence upon the opinion of Virginia politicians of his time, and, we may add, upon the Democratic party of his time, wrote as follows in the Richmond Enquirer, of November 1, 1814:
No man, no association of men, no State, or set of States, has a right to withdraw itself from this Union of its own account. The same power which knit us together can unknit. The same formality which formed the links of the Union is necessary to dissolve it. The majority of States which formed the Union must consent to the withdrawal of any one branch of it. Until that consent has been obtained any attempt to dissolve the Union or distract the efficacy of its constitutional laws is treason—treason to all intents and purposes.
How far the leaders of the present day have departed from the doctrine of the fathers. How necessary to take an observation, lest we be seduced by false modern lights upon the rocks of destruction. Madison has placed his opinion on record on this point with all the explicitness and directness of which the English language is susceptible. The constitution, he said, could not be accepted conditionally; it must be unconditionally—without reserve.
Secession is, then, but a name for revolution. We have the right to revolutionize whenever the Government is no longer tolerable. But in that attempt we take all the consequences. We return to chaos again, if possible, to reconstruct government out of its confused elements.
With so much yet of hope before us—with such an army of allies on Northern soil, who if now borne down in the struggle will not give up the cause, this last, extreme remedy will not be rashly sought. Between us now and that terrible issue, lie a long period of civic battles, where the might of intellect, strong in the panoply of truth and justice, will do heroic devoirs for the South and a Constitutional Union.