The Right of Secession
New-York Daily Tribune, December 17, 1860
The Albany Evening Journal courteously controverts our views on the subject of Secession. Here is the gist of its argument:
"Seven or eight States" have "pretty unanimously made up their minds" to leave the Union. Mr. Buchanan, in reply, says that "ours is a Government of popular opinion," and hence, if States rebel, there is no power residing either with the Executive or in Congress, to resist or punish. Why, then, is not this the end of the controversy? Those "seven or eight States" are going out. The Government remonstrates, but acquiesces. And THE TRIBUNE regards it "unwise to undertake to resist such Secession by Federal force."
If an individual, or "a single State," commits Treason, the same act in two or more individuals, or two or more States, is alike treasonable. And how is Treason against the Federal Government to be resisted, except by "Federal force?"
Precisely the same question was involved in the South Carolina Secession of 1833. But neither President Jackson, nor Congress, nor the People, took this view of it. The President issued a Proclamation declaring Secession Treason. Congress passed a Force Law; and South Carolina, instead of "madly shooting from its sphere," returned, if not to her senses, back into line.
—Does The Journal mean to say that if all the States and their People should become tired of the Union, it would be treason on their part to seek its dissolution?
—We have repeatedly asked those who dissent from our view of this matter to tell us frankly whether they do or do not assent to Mr. Jefferson's statement in the Declaration of Independence that governments "derive their just powers from the consent of the governed; and that, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government," &c., &c. We do heartily accept this doctrine, believing it intrinsically sound, beneficent, and one that, universally accepted, is calculated to prevent the shedding of seas of human blood. And, if it justified the secession from the British Empire of Three Millions of colonists in 1776, we do not see why it would not justify the secession of Five Millions of Southrons from the Federal Union in 1861. If we are mistaken on this point, why does not some one attempt to show wherein and why? For our own part, while we deny the right of slaveholders to hold slaves against the will of the latter, we cannot see how Twenty Millions of people can rightfully hold Ten or even Five in a detested union with them, by military force.
Of course, we understand that the principle of Jefferson, like any other broad generalization, may be pushed to extreme and baleful consequences. We can see why Governor's Island should not be at liberty to secede from the State and Nation and allow herself to be covered with French or British batteries commanding and threatening our City. There is hardly a great principle which may not be thus "run into the ground." But if seven or eight contiguous States shall present themselves authentically at Washington, saying, "We hate the Federal Union; we have withdrawn from it; we give you the choice between acquiescing in our secession and arranging amicably all incidental questions on the one hand, and attempting to subdue us on the other"—we could not stand up for coercion, for subjugation, for we do not think it would be just. We hold the right of Self-Government sacred, even when invoked in behalf of those who deny it to others. So much for the question of Principle.
Now as to the matter of Policy:
South Carolina will certainly secede. Several other Cotton States will probably follow her example. The Border States are evidently reluctant to do likewise. South Carolina has grossly insulted them by her dictatorial, reckless course. What she expects and desires is a clash of arms with the Federal Government, which will at once commend her to the sympathy and cooperation of every Slave State, and to the sympathy (at least) of the Pro-Slavery minority in the Free States. It is not difficult to see that this would speedily work a political revolution, which would restore to Slavery all, and more than all, it has lost by the canvass of 1860. We want to obviate this. We would expose the seceders to odium as disunionists, not commend them to pity as the gallant though mistaken upholders of the rights of their section in an unequal military conflict.
We fully realize that the dilemma of the incoming Administration will be a critical one. It must endeavor to uphold and enforce the laws, as well against rebellious slaveholders as fugitive slaves. The new President must fulfill the obligations assumed in his inauguration oath, no matter how shamefully his predecessor may have defied them. We fear that Southern madness may precipitate a bloody collision that all must deplore. But if ever "seven or eight States" send agents to Washington to say "We want to get out of the Union," we shall feel constrained by our devotion to Human Liberty to say, Let them go! And we do not see how we could take the other side without coming in direct conflict with those Rights of Man which we hold paramount to all political arrangements, however convenient and advantageous.