What Does He Mean?

Providence Daily Post, March 8, 1861

The President has given to the country an Inaugural Address, and the country is trying to understand it. Every sentence is being discussed in the newspapers, and in almost all public and private circles. The fact that almost everybody turns from the consideration of his language with some degree of uncertainty and dissatisfaction, shows that if the President selected his words with the view of making clear his views, he was, partially at least, unsuccessful. There is some plain talk in the address; but the fact that it is immediately followed by obscurely stated qualifications, renders the study of even the plainest sentences rather tiresome. Evidently enough it is impossible to interpret the address without some consideration of the author’s antecedents, speeches, political creed, and party connections. The deeper we search into these, unfortunately, the stronger becomes the conviction that the President does not mean peace, or even all that he says in favor of it.

Mr. Douglas examines the President in the light of a new comer upon the public stage, and inclines to the belief that he means peace. He says, “On the question of the preservation of the Union by peaceful means, and the settlement of the slavery question by amendments to the Constitution, if I understand the President’s true meaning, I am with him.” Other gentlemen, occupying high positions, and sincerely anxious, as Mr. Douglas is, for the preservation of the Union, might say, very truthfully, that if they understand Mr. Lincoln’s true meaning, they are not with him. It is this true meaning which is in doubt; and this doubt accounts for any seeming difference of position with reference to Lincoln, between Union men.

Now, it seems [to] us that something may be gained, in this search for the true meaning of Mr. Lincoln’s language, even after we have applied all the tests within our reach to what he actually says, by taking cognizance of two facts. The first is, that Mr. Lincoln has certainly spurned and turned his back upon every measure which has been proposed in Congress with any promise of securing peace to the country. The Crittenden proposition was voted down by his friends. The proposition of the Peace Congress was voted down by his friends. And several other measures, intended to restore peace, were voted down by his friends—after they had had an opportunity of ascertaining his views and wishes in regard to them. That he killed these measures, there cannot be to-day, in any intelligent mind, the shadow of a doubt. He did consent to a declaration in the Constitution, to the effect that Congress shall not interfere with slavery in the States. Just such a declaration is found in the platform of his party; and very little, if anything, is gained at this moment, by its adoption in Congress. But we defy any friend of Mr. Lincoln to say that he has made, or sanctioned, or recommended, any measure of conciliation or concession. With a full knowledge that this was precisely what was wanted, he has done no such thing.

The other fact to be considered is, that Mr. Lincoln not only denies the right of secession, but ignores the thing itself. He regards the Union as unbroken. Secession, he says, is either insurrection or revolution. So we have contended. But secession is a fact, nevertheless; and because a State may not legally secede, it is folly to say that seven States have not seceded. Yet Mr. Lincoln does say this; and he gives us to understand—that is to say, we think he gives us to understand—that he will proceed in the administration of the government precisely as though secession were only one of the superstitions of the dark ages. He will not recognize it as a fact, because he cannot excuse it. He will not recognize States as having revolted because he does not find any constitutional right to revolt.

Now, throwing all theories aside, we say that to administer the government upon this principle—to ignore the fact of secession or revolution, or what ever it may be called—in the execution of the federal laws, even to the qualified extent to which Mr. Lincoln pledges himself, must involve the government in a war with the seceded States. To this complexion it must come at last. Sooner or later we must realize that the South has gone out. We may call it revolution, or we may say, in reference to the right of it, as Mr. Lincoln says on another point “The Constitution does not expressly say.” But there stands secession—bold and palpable; and if we refuse to recognize it to-day, we shall have to recognize it, with arms in our hands, to-morrow. It cannot long be dodged. There is an irrepressible conflict between the simple fact which stares us in the face when we look Southward, and the execution of the laws as proposed by the President.

And these considerations confirm us in the belief that the new President means coercion—coercion, we mean, in its offensive sense. We are by no means frightened by this word coercion. We agree with Mr. Douglas when he says, “The word government means coercion. There can be no government without coercion. Coercion is the vital principle upon which all governments rest. Withdraw the right of coercion, (continues Mr. Douglas) and you dissolve your government. If every man would perform his duty and respect the rights of his neighbors, there would be no necessity for any government on earth. The necessity of government is found to consist in the fact that some men will not do right unless coerced to do so. The object of all government is to coerce and compel every man to do his duty, who would not otherwise perform it.” But, as Mr. Douglas admits in the speech from which we have quoted, the question which is now presented to the country, involves either the temporary non-enforcement of federal laws in certain States, or the actual reduction of all the people of those States into subjection to the federal authority. It involves a practical acknowledgment of the fact of secession, or a practical declaration of war against seven, perhaps fifteen States. These States, by the act of their people, have withdrawn their allegiance and expelled the federal authorities. The case, therefore, which they present, is not a case which can be disposed of by establishing the right of coercion, as we are in the habit of acknowledging that right. It is a case of secession, sanctioned or implied, or not denied, or denied only by implication, in our instrument of government, or it is a case of revolution which cannot possibly be ignored. Be it either, this at least is true, that it is a fact. Call it what you please, its existence cannot be denied. There it stands; harmless enough if let alone; destined to die if treated with forbearance; but powerful enough to defeat all efforts to conquer it, if met as an ordinary disregard of law, as Mr. Lincoln proposes to meet it.

If Mr. Lincoln proceeds upon the doctrine of his inaugural, as we understand it, then the question, What can we do? will very soon have to be substituted for that which he discusses. He may prove to the satisfaction of the world that we have a right to annihilate all the Southern States; but the next thing is, to do it. Can we do it? Had we better try?