Shall We Have a Federal Union?

New-York Daily Tribune, February 27, 1861

The border Slave States make certain enormous demands of the American People, as the condition of their future allegiance to the General Government. Many well-meaning, but short-sighted persons clamor for these concessions, in the hope of thereby preserving the Union. They forget that the nature of the concessions demanded, as well as the fact of making them at all, under existing circumstances, will involve the destruction of the Central Power, and must result, if granted, in a dissolution of the Federal Government altogether.

The border Slave States are said to be desirous to maintain the Union. We wish it were so, but unhappily they have, at the outset, assumed a fatal position. They say that the enforcement of the United States laws in any seceding community will be considered "coercion," and that, if it be attempted, they will go with the South. What, then, do they propose to us? A Government which cannot be enforced! Laws which inflict no penalty in case of their violation! But can any human authority be respectable without the means to make itself respected? Can the body politic survive in a state of permanent paralysis?

Now, what are the concessions demanded? The resignation of the very principles and measures on which an overwhelming majority of the People have just instructed the Federal Administration to insist; the establishment of the very policy which the popular verdict has so emphatically condemned; the incorporation into the Constitution of the very Breckinridge Platform which even the corrupt Democratic party was compelled to repudiate!

Suppose we succumb to the will of the minority. Suppose we stifle our convictions, desert our principles, stultify ourselves in our own eyes and in those of our antagonists, and guarantee the perpetuation and extension of Slavery over all present and future territory south of 36° 30'. Suppose, also, that the seceding States are thereby pacified, and induced to resume the outward forms of Union. What then? All this will not preserve nor restore our national unity. On the contrary, it will have destroyed it forever; for we shall have established a new and fatal precedent. Henceforth, the bare majority of any single State can nullify our Government at its pleasure. To-day it is Carolina, to-morrow it may be Rhode Island or Delaware which assumes to dissolve the Confederacy. The will of the majority of the American people constitutionally expressed can no longer decide anything. We have established anarchy and inaugurated chronic civil war. Hereafter, Congress will no longer be a legislature, but a debating society. Its enactments will not be laws, but mere empty expressions of sentiment. The judicial functions of the Supreme Court of the United States will be superseded. The supreme power will be vested solely in the Legislatures of the States, and the forms of national unity will henceforth be an idle mockery. The only real alternative, therefore, is between the enforcement of Federal authority upon every citizen of the United States who resists it, or an actual dissolution of the Federal Government.

If, in our effort to enforce the Federal laws, we find it necessary, or expedient, to slough off the fifteen Slave States, we shall at least have left us a Federal Union of nineteen homogeneous States, free, populous and powerful, with an efficient central organization and a continent for its developement. The Southern Confederacy, on the contrary, vitiated by the suicidal principle of State Secession, will be only an aggregated disintegration, a rope of sand, a tossing, incoherent chaos of petty nationalities. There can be no question as to the result. Rent by internal discords and jealousies, the seceding States will, one by one, abolish Slavery and return, under the irresistible force of social gravitation, to the peaceful haven of national unity, under the Constitution handed down to us by our fathers.

The vital question, then, for our consideration is not whether Freedom or Slavery is to be the future guide of the Federal Government, but whether we shall have a Federal Government at all. If so, it must be by prompt, decisive action. We must either treat the fact of Southern Secession as a revolution, and recognize the independence of the seceding States; or we must confront it as treason, and put it down by the military forces of the loyal States. Either course will be frank, honorable and comprehensible. Either mode of action will result in a permanent Federal nationality. Any other proceedings involve a logical fallacy, and must result in imbecility and failure. Shall we maintain a national existence? Shall we have a Federal Union?