The Great Issue, and How to Melt It

Philadelphia Inquirer, March 21, 1861

On the morning after the inauguration of President LINCOLN, we pointed out an unpretending little paragraph in his Address that "appears to contemplate some action of a National Convention, by which civil war may be averted, through a recognition of the independence of the separated States, by the people acting in their highest sovereign capacity." This paragraph is in these words:—"The Chief Magistrate derives all his authority from the people, and they have conferred none upon him to fix lines for the separation of the States. The people themselves can do this if they choose." In this lies the clue to what must eventually be the policy of the Administration towards the seceded States, and the sooner that policy is shaped into action the better.

While our lively and spicy contemporaries of the "Metropolis" are making the most out of their daily discussions about the probable evacuation of Fort Sumter—as if that was the great question of the day—we are of the opinion that the President and his Cabinet regard it as of very small importance, compared with the grave trouble which lies behind it. That trouble is, how to receive, and what answer to make to the Commissioners from the Confederate States. The decision of this comprehensive question includes the settlement of all collateral matters, such as the maintenance of the forts, the collection of the revenue, the enforcement of the laws, and all others. More than this, it embraces the momentous issue of peace or war. The course to be pursued with these Commissioners, with all its train of serious consequences, is, moreover, the immediate issue, and we have not the slightest doubt that the feasibility of some sort of recognition of them or their Government is now engaging the earnest attention of the Executive. If their presence and their business were not to be acknowledged in some fashion, that determination would have been pronounced in some way long before this.

What, then, may be said to the Confederate Commissioners consistent with the dignity and honor of the country and the official declaration of the Executive that he has no power "to fix lines for the separation of the States," and which, at the same time, will not close the door to peace. We have heard this suggested. When the Commissioners present themselves to the Executive, he might say to them:—

"Gentlemen, you come here as the representatives of a Government which I do not know and cannot yet acknowledge. It claims to have been established by a portion of the people of the United States, who wish to separate from the present Union. I have no proof that the people have established your Government, or have the desire to separate their States from the United States. On the contrary, I have abundant evidence that large numbers of the people of the States for which you assume to speak are against the whole secession movement. They may be the minority, or they may be the majority; but, in either case, this Government is in duty bound to consult their wishes and protect their rights until the undoubted sentiment of the people is ascertained. I must, therefore, say to you, go back to your principals, and inform them that after they have submitted the work of their Conventions and their Congress to a vote of the people, and it shall have been approved by them, I will so far recognize the de facto character of their Government as to call the Congress of the United States together immediately, with a recommendation to that body to take the steps necessary to a proper and peaceful acknowledgment of the independence of the separated States."

How could the Commissioners dispose of such a response as this but by admitting its reason and force? It is pacific, it is just, it is consistent with the dignity and honor of a free Republic, and would disarm the Montgomery Government of all its pretexts looking towards collision. It is an appeal to the judgment of the people of the Seceded States. If they really wish disunion, let them say so in a manner so unmistakable as to release the General Government from its obligations to those who may not favor Secession. If the Disunion sentiment is so unanimous in the Cotton States as the Secessionists declare, there can be no risk to them in submitting the question to the only true test. Should it so result that the people deliberately decide upon separation, who would wish to retain them in the Union against their will? They could only be held by force of arms, and there is no place in our scheme of government for conquered provinces. It rests on the consent of the governed.

We have an abiding faith, that if the settlement of this Secession controversy shall be thus cast upon the people of the States that have been carried out of the Union by Conventions, it will be promptly and emphatically settled in favor of the Union by at least four of the seven States of the new Confederacy. If, on the contrary, they shall, at a full and free election, decide otherwise, there is no practicable alternative but to acknowledge their separate independence. In such an event, it would be the duty of the Executive to take such steps as would enable the people of the United States "to fix the line for the separation of the States," as indicated in his Inaugural Address.