Neutrality Impossible

Providence Evening Press, May 7, 1861

The more reflection that is given to the proposed neutrality of certain "Border States" in the tremendous struggle that has been initiated, the more conclusively the impracticability of the idea is demonstrated. The very suggestion presupposes relations which have no existence, and the theory of such a policy assumes to decide what is really the whole question at issue in the contest between the Government and the loyalists on the one hand, and the secession leaders and their adherents on the other. The neutral attitude in which it is sought to place these States is not requested as a favor in their behalf, for it is an "armed neutrality;" a phrase which implies preparation to repel by force of arms either the government or the revolutionists, if they do not respect it. It could not be regarded as an obligatory position, without applying to the other non-seceded States also, which would at once preclude aid to the Government from any of them, and the entire dispute would thus be settled by the triumph of the seceders. We see instantly that such an idea as that is so incompatible with the existence of a Federal Government that the common Government of the United States has been itself but a baseless idea from the first, in this view. For inasmuch as a government must have a guaranty of strength against domestic as well as foreign foes, and the government of the United States depends upon the strength of States which must withhold it in this case, the imaginary fabric necessarily vanishes at the first test.

The neutrality of States, then, in a conflict between the Federal government and others of the States, cannot be a duty, but must stand, if it does stand, on the footing of a right. The neutral State must be such because it elects to be, in the exercise of an option which constitutionally belongs to it. A doctrine like this, while it would not necessitate the disappearance of the confederation at the first trial, would assign to it a very precarious vitality. The government could never know what it had to depend upon, and its functions must soon come to an end under such a regime.

The notion that a State has the right to withhold itself from the support of the government in any war, and can even defy the administration on the subject, virtually erects into a foreign power a part of the area comprehended under the government. In the present domestic war, it carries with it the affirmation of the "right of secession," for if there is no such right, then it is as much the manifest duty of a State to assist the President in suppressing the seceders' rebellion, as any rebellion not composed of States. Neutrality could only be justified on the ground that a seceding State cannot rightfully be compelled to return to its allegiance. Hence, any member of the Union, that undertakes to remain neutral in this contest, either confesses a negative dereliction to its obligations, or positively arrays itself against the government on the great issue in controversy. For the government's position is not merely that the recusant States have no good cause for seceding, but that they have no right to secede at all.

We have on former occasions remarked upon the indispensable prerogative of the Federal Government to make such military use of any road or spot as military reasons may dictate. This prerogative is itself fatal to the neutrality of the State in which the Government exercises it. For any community whose territory is of right made to serve the purposes of a belligerent party, is, by the law of nations, amenable to the other party for such use of it. If the use is not a matter of right, then the sovereignty over that soil must claim and enforce redress for the violation committed.

Here is the country entering upon a war that cannot cost, on the United States side of it, less than half a million dollars a day, and quite probably a great deal more. We speak of the direct expense. Are the Border States to repudiate any share of this? If they do, they will cease to be neutrals, through the necessary action that must be taken to compel them to recognize their share of it. If they do not repudiate it, then they are contributing to the cost of carrying on hostilities, and it is idle for them to pretend neutrality. Their own citizens will be engaged on both sides, and meet each other in deadly combat. They not only must, but speedily will take part in the fray, and the sooner the pretence to the contrary is abandoned, the better it will be for all concerned.