How to Secede
New York World, December 15, 1860
The country is in one of those great epochs which make a landmark in history. We are drifting steadily, rapidly, irresistibly, into the horrors of civil war, and our wisest counselors point out no way of escape.
But is the condition of the country really so hopeless? Is our national Constitution—the theme of so much eulogy, the source of so much prosperity—not merely inadequate to the exigency, but incapable of being so modified as to meet it? Has it, not merely shut and locked the door against the peaceful secession of aggrieved and hopelessly disaffected states, but supplied us with no key by which it can possibly be unlocked? Those who think so do injustice to the great statesmen who framed it. We believe, on the contrary, that it is susceptible of being adapted to any emergency that can ever arise in the history of the country.
What is the condition of things that causes all this apprehension and alarm? Why, that one state certainly, and probably four or five states of this Union, have determined to withdraw, and yet, that there is no power in the federal government to allow them to do so, till they have established their independence by a contest of arms. If this is really so, the progress of events has disclosed a grave defect in the fundamental law.
Let us dismiss from view the sufficiency or insufficiency of the reasons alleged by the South for secession. Let us inquire what ought to be done in case a state, with grievances which really made the Union intolerable, should insist on going. In other words, what remedy is there against the tyranny of a majority of the states over the minority? The Supreme court is not a sufficient barrier; for a compact majority of the states would, in the long run, control the organization of the court, by appointing all the judges. A compact majority of the states would ultimately mould all the departments of the government into subserviency to its will. But the tyranny of majorities is the most intolerable of all tyranny. One of the chief duties of government is the protection of minorities. If the federal compact does not already afford them adequate security; if, in the progress of events, we have reached a point where a defect is disclosed in the guarantees of that instrument, a way is still opened out of the difficulty in the provision the Constitution makes for its own amendment.
We know enough of the public sentiment of the country to pronounce, with certainty, that any amendment is impracticable which would make greater concessions to the slaveholding interest, than are made by the compact as it stands. If, then, the South will not be satisfied with a frank concession of all the rights granted by the Constitution, the continuance of the Union is impossible. When this long dreaded conclusion shall be reached, a case is presented which was not in the contemplation of the founders of the Constitution, and for which, therefore, they made no direct provision. But they were too well versed in human affairs not to know that unanticipated events would occur; and they indirectly provided for them in the fifth article, which authorizes amendments, whenever two-thirds of both Houses of Congress, and three-fourths of the states shall deem them necessary.
We therefore submit to the consideration of the country whether the time has not come for an amendment to the Constitution providing for the peaceable secession of states. These threats of dissolving the Union have been held over us about long enough. They have had great influence on the political action of the country, not because the naked fact of separation is anything very formidable, but because secession, as the Constitution now stands, would be the certain forerunner of civil war. If Texas had staid out of the Union, we should get on very well without her; if South Carolina and Georgia had never ratified the Constitution; if Florida had never been purchased from Spain, and Alabama and Mississippi had never been admitted into the Union, we should, nevertheless, have been a prosperous nation. It is not the mere fact that one or two states, more or less, are in the Union or out of the Union, that makes such a mighty difference; but the dangers which must attend a breaking of the compact when it is once formed. It is by compelling us to face the appalling horrors that would accompany separation that the South has been enabled, for the last quarter of a century, to wield an undue influence over the political action of the country. If the present controversy should be patched up it would be only a temporary truce. Like ulcers driven in, it would reappear in another spot with increased virulence.
We can't afford to have this thing constantly recurring. We can't afford to carry along this disease in our political system. Almost any purge is preferable, so it be thorough. Let us have some medicament that will reach the seat of the malady. No matter whether it is emetic or cathartic, the lancet or the cauterizing iron. The tortures of the most "heroic" practitioner are preferable to the disease, if he will only achieve a permanent cure. It is inconsistent with manliness, and it is therefore intolerable, for the majority of the states to be coerced into the abandonment or modification of a policy, which it deems wise, by threats of disunion on the part of the minority. It is inconsistent, also, with a just regard for the rights of the minority to compel them to remain in the Union against their settled conviction that the Union is not for their advantage.
We therefore appeal to the South in a spirit of kindness, of conciliation, and of just regard for their interests and opinions, to unite with us in the adoption of a remedy. It is so simple, so easy, and, if adopted, it would be so surely efficacious that it ought to be regarded as a grand specific for this chronic, national inflammation. It should meet the views of the South, because it would enable any disaffected state to retire, constitutionally, honorably, peaceably, and with the full consent of her sister states, whenever her citizens, after having the question fairly submitted to them, should decide it to be for their interest to go. It ought also to satisfy the North, because it would extract the fangs from this disunion monster, and render its bite harmless. The provision should, of course, be so guarded as to prevent a state from acting on a sudden, hasty impulse, which it would soon repent of. The mode adopted for ascertaining the will of its people should be such as would make it evident that secession is their deliberate judgment and choice.
The South is now acting on its apprehensions, and not on its experience of actual evils. It refuses to wait for overt acts, but it does not allege that the federal government has yet committed any overt acts against it. We appeal to our southern brethren, therefore, to wait till the feasibility of this constitutional remedy which we now propose can be fairly tested. We believe that it would be alike for the advantage of both sections, and hope to find many colaborers in urging it on northern acceptance.