The Message

Philadelphia Morning Pennsylvanian, December 5, 1860

The Message of the President was received in this city yesterday, soon after noon—read in several public places to large and anxious crowds, and soon extensively circulated. Never, within our recollection, was there a more intense desire to know the views of the Chief Magistrate. Calumny for once was mute, and all—foes and friends—awed by the solemnity of the crisis, united in respectful attention to the farewell utterences of a wise and experienced statesman. Nor has popular expectation been disappointed, for what the President has said on the engrossing topic which the Constitution required him to discuss, "the state of the Union," is characterized by energy, decision and moderation. There is no abdication of the authority of the Government of the Union. On the contrary, it is expressly and emphatically but not offensively asserted. He does not brandish Federal authority in the face of an excited community. He does not scold. He does not threaten—but in the single phrase, in which he says that the property of the United States in South Carolina shall be defended, and that, if in its defence, human life should be sacrificed, the responsibility will rest on the hands of the assailants. He comprises the distinct but positive expression of the sense of duty which binds him to execute, at all hazards, the laws of the United States. He discusses calmly and intelligently the abstract right of secession. He examines it as a question of history as well as a question of criticism on the Constitution itself, and he comes to the conclusion that it is, after all, but a question of words and phrases and equivocation. "In short," says the President, "let us look it fairly in the face. Secession is neither more nor less than revolution. It may or it may not be a justifiable revolution, but still it is a revolution."

So considering it, applying this view of the Constitution to the state of things existing just now in South Carolina, a less tolerant and sagacious man might easily have been betrayed into broad and rash assertions of the coercive powers of the Government, and into an assumption that, because South Carolina has no right to secede, she ought, by the strong hand, to be forced from her position. It was once wisely said—if we remember rightly, by Sir ROBERT PEEL—that the omnipotence of Parliament was too grand and solemn a thing to be paraded and lightly talked about and threatened—that it ought to be sacredly veiled in the very recesses of the Constitution. If this be true of that arbitrary power—the vast sovereignty known as the Imperial Parliament—how much more true is it of the limited and well-defined power vested in our Federal Government—limited, too, by the express nature of the grants which enacted it, and the reserved rights of the States that support and stand around it. And so the President seems to regard it. So far as the laws of the United States are contravened by her citizens, whether they live in South Carolina or Massachusetts, he will enforce them, and he will not recognize any exemption from obedience to those laws by the authority of a State that claims to have "seceded." But he won't make war, and he thinks Congress has no right to make war upon the State itself. "Suppose," says he, "such a war should result in the conquest of a State, how are we to govern it afterwards? Shall we hold it as a province, and govern it by despotic power? In the nature of things we could not, by physical force, control the will of the people, and compel them to elect Senators and Representatives to Congress, and to perform all the other duties depending upon their own volition, and required from the free citizens of a free State as a constituent member of the Confederacy."

This is sound, constitutional and conservative doctrine,—and not the less so because it is gentle and merciful; and the moral of it all is, the duty of conciliation and a recognition of the power of public sentiment, as constituting the safeguard of our institutions. To that public sentiment, even as represented in Congress, the President appeals. He asks the South, the irritated and justly exasperated South, to pause—to bear the ills, the confessed ills, they have, rather than rush to others that they know not of. He supplicates the North to retrace its steps, to check the spirit of what may well be called sentimental enthusiasm on the subject of domestic slavery—in plainest English, to mind its own business—and thus appealing to both sides of this heated issue, he suggests a practical remedy in an amendment of the Constitution for the territorial question, and a repeal of offensive local legislation.

He thinks that Congress has the remedy in its power, and recommends that it shall propose an "explanatory amendment" to the Constitution on the subject of slavery. He says, "this might originate with Congress or the State Legislatures, as may be deemed most advisable to attain the object." This explanatory amendment would be intended to settle, finally and forever, the true interpretation of the Constitution on the three following points:—

1. An express recognition of the right of property in slaves in the States where it now exists or may hereafter exist.

2. The duty of protecting this right in all the common Territories throughout their territorial existence, and until they shall be admitted as States into the Union, with or without slavery, as their constitutions may prescribe.

3. A like recognition of the right of the master to have his slave, who has escaped from one State to another, restored and "delivered up" to him, and of the validity of the fugitive slave law enacted for this purpose, together with a declaration that all State laws impairing or defeating this right are violations of the Constitution, and are consequently null and void.

It remains to be seen how these recommendations will be received by the country. Such is the temper of the public mind that no man, how ever wise, can pronounce upon the effect of any proposed measure. Human judgment, always fallible, is in the present emergency altogether at fault. If patriotism is not extinct, we may hope for a reaction at the North which will be generously responded to at the South, and which will result in that consummation so devoutly to be wished for, the preservation and perpetuation of this great Republic.

It is gratifying to know that our foreign relations are of the most pleasant and friendly character.

The President adheres to his former recommendation in regard to the Tariff, to wit: specific instead of [ad] valorem duties, on all articles that will admit of it.

We, of course, expect in future to notice the recommendations of the Message more in detail. It is a document that will bear searching scrutiny and close reflection. Our columns are so crowded to-day that we have but little room for comment.