The Duty of the Government and People

Philadelphia Daily Evening Bulletin, January 14, 1861

It will not do to underrate this tremendous question which the American people have to settle. That we are upon the very edge of the most fearful civil war that the world has yet seen, we fully believe. On the edge, we say. It is the earnest hope of every patriot that the nation may yet step back. But how can this be accomplished?

Three plans only have been proposed as embodying the duty of the Government and people of the United States at this juncture. The first is to allow peaceable secession. "Let them go," it is said. "The South can never be coerced," say others. To this view of the case there are two or three sufficient answers. The first is, that there can be no peaceable secession. It cannot be, as we see in the events now transpiring in the South. The first movement of each seceding State is to seize upon the Government forts and provoke war. The Union is openly insulted by the feeblest of these States.

It cannot be, because the result of secession would be a war upon the borders over fugitive slaves. The line must be run somewhere, and wherever it is, there will be an immense frontier over which fugitives will pass, and wherever it is, there will be a bloody and prolonged conflict.

It cannot be, because to allow secession once or any where, is to give up the very idea of the Union. There is no law without penalty; there is no government without power. If every fragment of this nation can secede whenever passion or faction dictates, then indeed we have a miserable imbecility of a country, that will fall to pieces, because it is not worth preserving. A monarchy, anything with strength in it, is better than the anarchy that would follow the establishment of the principle that the Union contains in it its own dissolution, whenever any body becomes tired of it. Treason is then a mere name, and loyalty, by parity of reason, becomes also a mere name. Who could live under the flag of such a Union without shame, or who would be willing to die for such a miserable abortion of a Government? This weak idea, then, of "let them go," must be abandoned, at once and forever.

The next plan is to effect a compromise. If any conciliation, which did not violate essential principles, would avail, it is certain that the great mass of the North would cordially consent to it. It seems, however, to show the intensity of the difficulty which is around us, that compromise has been tried in every shape, and hitherto without success. Committees of thirteen and of thirty-three; Northern men; Southern men; border State men; caucuses of Pennsylvanians; of Democrats; of Republicans—every form of proposition and consultation and debate has been tried. The votes both in the Senate and the House on the Crittenden resolutions, which embody substantially the border State proposition, though those votes were not direct, yet seem decisive against them.

Mr. Hunter's proposition seems to have taken every one by surprise. It is strange that any sensible man could suppose that a dual government would not contain in it, from the very beginning, the elements of strife and dissolution.

We have already spoken of Mr. Seward's speech, the most eagerly looked for of the whole session, as embodying the views of the new premier. It is exceedingly patriotic in sentiment and kindly in tone. But will it satisfy the South? Brim-full as it is of conciliatory feeling, and appealing to all that we have been most accustomed to regard as Americans, will the South yet consider it as placing them in that commanding position which they have hitherto occupied in the Union? And if not, will they be content with its assurances, so unquestionably true, that the vast body of the North do not desire to deprive them of any constitutional right?

Mr. Seward's desire is to refrain himself, and restrain the North from irritating the South. He knows well that ours is a government of opinion. He sees the difficulty of attempting force within the lines of a Republic. All good citizens must sympathize with this patriotic effort. So long as there is a lingering hope that these strange steps of the South may be retraced, let us welcome them in the Union.

But if this effort of Mr. Seward, like all other efforts of reconciliation should fail, then there seems to be but one ultimatum. Mr. Seward himself cautiously alluded to it. The great States of New York and Pennsylvania, by overwhelming majorities, offer their whole resources to the President, to be used in sustaining the laws. The whole power of the Government must be brought to bear against any form of opposition to its sovereignty. Our very salvation lies in it. It is not merely a question about keeping South Carolina or Florida in the Union. The question concerns the very possibility of the existence of a Republic. If we dare not shed the blood of a citizen of South Carolina, then Massachusetts may rebel if Congress pass a free trade bill, and California may secede if we refuse to pass the Pacific Railroad bill, and the feeble imbecility called a government, at Washington, could only give advice to these States.

All men agree that some things are dearer than life. A man's religion is: else the blood of the martyrs could never have been the seed of the Church. Liberty, in the noblest part of history, was so regarded. But law, sovereignty, is more essential than all things else. "It springs," says Hooker, "from the bosom of God." It is the very atmosphere of the universe. Without it all things gasp and die. It is the very power that upholds all things. Religion, liberty, commerce, art, science, all fall together into a heap of ruins, without a sovereign power whose strength is the law. Hence the Roman Lictors, in the purest age of that great nation, bore the axe and rods which have become the very emblems of the Republic—swift strength to enforce the law. Hence, in great emergencies, a Dictator was appointed with absolute authority, because the sovereign power must make itself efficient against anarchy at all hazards.

We say, with great seriousness, to our fellow-citizens, that the very essence and idea of a nation tremble now in the balance. If, all conciliation failing, every olive branch spurned, there is not power in this Union to descend upon treason like God's lightning and consume it, then there is nothing to fill the pages of our future history but despotism. For that is the logical end of anarchy.