South Carolina and Secession

San Francisco Daily Alta California, February 11, 1861

Since the commencement of the present unhappy troubles a great deal has been written on the subject of the right of secession and all that sort of thing. Before us lies a pamphlet entitled "Secession and Coercion, the relation between the State and Federal Governments," published some weeks since at Sacramento—dedicated "to the Democrats of California, by one of the oldest and humblest of their party," and extensively circulated all over the State, in which some of the questions involved are discussed with much ability. It may be regarded as a brief in the great case of South Carolina vs. the United States, in which the rights of the plaintiffs are fully and ably set forth. The rights of the Loyal States, however, are not touched even incidentally. It is all about South Carolina. Not a word is said of New York and Pennsylvania, and their rights in the premises. The case of the Defendants has yet to be presented—when it is, a different phase will be put on the matter and there will be no doubt of the nature of the verdict which the world will render.

It seems to us, however, that on this subject there has been a great deal of very unprofitable discussion.

If South Carolina has any right to secede, it is a revolutionary right and nothing else. In justification of its course it can only urge that its prosperity would be promoted by independence. It will not be necessary for us to enter into a definition of what a revolutionary right is. In such cases the world is the judge, and those are rights which are maintained. If successful, the leaders will be heroes, if worsted, rebels and traitors. If South Carolina has a right to go out to protect herself, the balance of the Confederacy has the right to keep her in, if by her secession their interests would be endangered. In both cases it is the right of self-preservation, and that right exists independently of constitutions or compacts. In whatever light the matter is considered, we are brought to a stand-still by the ultima ratio. To that and nothing but that all arguments tend. For three-quarters of a century we have been in the habit of deciding upon our foreign and domestic policy in intellectual combat, and the only weapons used were reason and argument. We have entered upon a new and different epoch. The States, North and South, are arming, and the only question before us is as to how peace and harmony can best be restored, and not as to whether we have a constitutional right to cut each other's throats. It will advantage but little to waste time in abstract discussions. We have a living, tangible present, with which to deal.

If the fifteen Southern states, to a man, should determine to quit the Union, no consideration of Constitutional right or wrong will restrain them. It is idle to talk of paper instruments to men with arms in their hands. The most convincing logic is no match for gunpowder. In that event the question presented for deliberation would be whether the interest of the remaining portion of the United States would be best promoted by letting the rebellious states go out in peace, or by whipping them into subjection. No matter how we may refine on the subject, such considerations are bound to govern in the end.

But no such condition of things actually exists. The States foremost in the secession movement are acting from passion and fury. There is not one of them—not even excepting South Carolina, in which a respectable minority cannot be found in favor of the maintenance of the Union. The fact that the interests of both sections will be promoted by the preservation of the Republic in all its fair proportions, not admitting even of argument, it becomes the duty of the Federal Government to use all the power with which it is invested to retard the secession movement, in order that the conservative element, which we have such convincing proof exists in every one of the Southern States, may have an opportunity to make itself felt. To this end the revenue laws should be rigidly enforced, if needs be, with the whole strength of the navy. There can be no collision of any importance, for the South is destitute of vessels-of-war. By the adoption of such a policy, especially if predicated upon just concession, the sober second thought of the rebellious states would be fostered, and before long would bear fruit of harmony and fraternity.