Secession and the Revenue Laws

Philadelphia Press, January 15, 1861

There is great danger, at this moment, of some portion of the Northern and Southern minds being led astray by the false use of words. Men will agree that the Union should be preserved at all hazards, but will instantly disagree when they come to discuss the mode of its preservation. The touchstone of this mere logomachy is just this—shall the laws of the United States be enforced, say in South Carolina? It is not a question about coercing that State, but about enforcing the United States laws in it, so far as those laws need to be enforced.

Can South Carolina, upon any constitutional ground, say that those laws shall not be enforced within her limits? If that be admitted, then the old exploded heresy of nullification of Mr. CALHOUN is right, and it follows that General JACKSON, and HENRY CLAY, and DANIEL WEBSTER, and EDWARD LIVINGSTON, and all that class of great statesmen, were wrong.

But if they were right (and who will deny that they were?), South Carolina cannot say, upon any constitutional grounds, that the United States law shall not be enforced within her limits. Knowing, right well, how false her old position was, that State to-day takes the new one of her right to secede from the Union, and declares herself to have done so, and that, therefore, the United States laws are inoperative within her limits. The whole North, with a few inconsiderable exceptions, and, we believe, a great majority of the honest people of the Southern States, do not believe in this new-fangled right of secession in any other form than as that ultimate right of rebellion against tyranny, of which man cannot divest himself by any constitutional or social compact.

That is the belief of the people, and the interpretation which they put upon the Constitution of the United States. It is the interpretation, as well, of the whole line of Presidents and of American statesmen from WASHINGTON down to these days. South Carolina denies and defies that interpretation, and proceeds to act on the line of that denial and defiance.

Can we coerce South Carolina to alter her views and opinions? By no means. Let her entertain them if she pleases, so long as she entertains them as mere political abstractions. If it pleases her to think herself out of the Union, let her think so. But she cannot legally resist the execution of the United States laws, or seize the United States property within her limits.

If her citizens will not serve as United States postmasters, the United States cannot compel them to do so. But they must not resist the passage of the United States mail on the post-roads in South Carolina. No law of South Carolina can make such resistance lawful.

If her citizens will not serve as United States judges, or marshals, or jurors, the United States cannot compel them to do so. But they cannot lawfully resist such persons as please to serve in those capacities, nor can any of her laws make such resistance lawful, or such service unlawful.

If her citizens will not serve as collectors of the United States revenue, and in the other fiscal offices, the United States cannot compel them to serve. But they cannot legally resist such persons as do serve. No law of South Carolina can make such resistance lawful.

If she does not choose to send members to Congress or to vote for President, she cannot be compelled to do either thing.

If the forts of the United States upon her sea coast displease her, and she covets the possession of them, she can only lawfully obtain them by an act of Congress ceding them to her. To seize them when ungarrisoned or by force, and to maintain them forcibly against the Federal Government, is levying war upon the United States, and that is high treason by the Constitution.

Now, these are the main points of resistance by South Carolina, and of collision between her and the Union. They are powers of sovereignty, that she has once yielded up, and now claims the right to resume at her own will and pleasure. The United States say that she cannot so resume them. And that is the issue.

It is not the policy of our Government to settle any such questions as these by war. It is not the wish of any considerable body of the people to do it, and that is proved by the intense repose of the North and West and East at this very moment. The idea of marching armies into the South, and subjugating States, has not been seriously entertained. At a time and under circumstances like the present, the central authority of the nation acts purely on the defensive. Its object is simply to hold its own, not to grasp at anything beyond. Conquest, subjugation, coercion, war with views of either, are objects of an offensive policy. Why should South Carolina be conquered, or subjugated, or coerced? She is not a foreign Power, however much she may think she is. She is still a sister State, and it is still hoped that the, land of MARION, and SUMPTER, and PINCKNEY will remain a sister State “to the last syllable of recorded time.”

It is not necessary to quarrel with her about the post-roads. If there are obstructions and difficulties placed by her in the way, we can withdraw the United States post-contracts and mail-service, so far as they are within her limits, and let her try, in her sovereign capacity, to furnish postal facilities to her citizens as best she may, while we refuse to recognize her arrangements, or to allow any connection of them with the United States mail-service. The pressure upon her own people, and o f her own people, as well as that from neighboring States, would soon settle that difficulty if the secession mania does not meanwhile spread over nearly the whole South.

We would not enforce the administration of justice just now in the United States Courts in South Carolina. The judge has resigned. There need be no haste to fill the vacancy. There would be a necessary suspension of business until a successor was appointed, at any rate, and it can make no difference whether that is a suspension of a couple of months, or of as many years. There is no use of seeking collisions at this precise moment of time.

With regard to the customs revenues in South Carolina, it may be questionable whether the best plan is to send a new collector or to repeal the acts creating the several ports of entry on the coast of South Carolina. This latter arrangement would avoid the collision of two sets of officers, and would prevent trade with foreign countries. It would be proper, we suppose, to prohibit coast-wise trade to and from the ports of South Carolina, whilst she is in her present attitude of armed defiance of the United States. In the enforcement of the revenue laws, the forts become of primary importance. Their guns cover just so much ground as is necessary to enable the United States to enforce their laws. The ground on which they stand has been bought from its private owners and paid for by the United States, and South Carolina has assented to the cession. Those forts the United States must maintain. It is not a question of coercing South Carolina, but of enforcing the revenue laws. We cannot allow a sovereign State to nullify the revenue laws—to which point the whole question reverts, whether the process by which she undertakes to accomplish that end is called nullification or secession. The practical point, either way, is—whether the revenue laws of the United States shall or shall not be enforced at those three ports, Charleston, Beaufort, and Georgetown, or whether they shall or shall not be made free ports, open to the commerce of the world, with no other restrictions upon it than South Carolina shall see proper to impose.

If the forts are not maintained by the United States, then the revenue laws can only be enforced by blockade, and that upon a dangerous, nay, an almost impossible cruising ground. It would be a monstrous mistake to allow those forts, that command those ports, to pass into or remain in the hands of South Carolina. They are the only point around which there need be any fighting, if the people of South Carolina will fight. And fighting for the possession of those forts, they are fighting directly against the United States, and are guilty of rebellion and treason.

Maintaining or retaking those forts, then, is not coercing South Carolina. It is but retaining in the hands of the United States, or recapturing, rightfully, what belongs to them. They are a convenient means of enforcing the revenue laws of the United States, and of protecting South Carolina and other States from foreign invasion, both of which are high sovereign duties of the United States. They are, also, a convenient means of restraining treason and rebellion, which is also a high sovereign duty.

No one dreams of coercing South Carolina; but, on the other hand, no one dreams of letting her coerce the Union. The forts are to be held to enforce the revenue laws, not to conquer that State. The talk about coercing a sovereign State is got up by desperate demagogues to lead the people astray, and divide them upon false issues, whilst treason stalks boldly on to do its hellish work. It is a mere mask of treason.

We would not have a soldier to march upon South Carolina, hardly under any conceivable circumstances. If she chooses to rush upon their forts, upon her own head be the blood of her gallant sons. She must neither be allowed to hold or to take them. That battle can be fought in and around them. That is all of her soil that the United States claims. That belongs to the United States; is essential to their sovereignty, and must be maintained, come what may.

It is the enforcement of the revenue laws, NOT the coercion of the State, that is the question of the hour. If those laws cannot be enforced, the Union is clearly gone; if they can, it is safe.