The Contradictions of the President's Message

San Francisco Daily Alta California, December 22, 1860

We called attention, yesterday, to the extraordinary contradictions contained in Mr. Buchanan's message to Congress. At the outset, he gives us the following definition of the character of the General Government:

The Constitution of the United States is as much a part of the Constitution of each, and is as binding on the people, as though it had been specifically inserted therein. This Government, therefore, is a great and powerful Government, invested with all the attributes of sovereignty, and of the special subjects to which its authority extends. Its framers never intended to implant in its bosom the seeds of its own destruction, nor were they guilty of the absurdity of providing for its own dissolution; nor was it intended by its framers to be the "baseless fabric of a vision," which, by the touch of the enchanter, would vanish into thin air"—but a substantial and mighty fabric, capable of standing the slow decay of time, and defying the storms of ages. Indeed, many zealous patriots of that day, have indulged fears that a government of such high powers might violate the reserved rights of the States, and wisely did they adopt the rule of a strict construction of those powers, to prevent the danger; and they did not fear, nor had they reason to imagine, that the Constitution would ever be so interpreted, to enable any State by her own act, and without consent of sister States, to discharge her people from all or any of their federal obligations.

The views put forward by Mr. Buchanan coincide with those entertained by Andrew Jackson. It is probable that it was from the celebrated proclamation of the Hero of the Hermitage in the case of the nullification movement in 1832 that he derives many of the ideas above set forth. In that document, Jackson made use of the following language:

The Constitution of the United States, then, forms a government and not a league, and whether it be formed by compact between the States or in any other manner, its character is the same. It is a government in which all the people are represented, which operates directly on the people individually, not upon the states—they retained all the power they did not grant. But each State having expressly parted with so many powers as to constitute, jointly with the other states, a single nation, cannot, from that period, possess any right to secede, because such secession does not break a league, but destroys the unity of the nation; and any injury to that unity is not only a breach which would result from the contravention of a compact, but it is an offense against the whole union. To say that any State may at pleasure secede from the Union, is to say that the United States are not a nation; because it would be a solecism to contend that any part of a nation might dissolve its connection with the other parts, to their injury or ruin, without committing any offense.

Starting from the same premises as Andrew Jackson, our present Chief Magistrate arrives at a precisely opposite conclusion. After stating that the framers of the Constitution were not guilty of so great an absurdity as "to implant in its bosom the seeds of its own destruction," and that it could not be interpreted "to enable any State by her own act, and without the consent of sister States, to discharge her people from all or any of their federal obligations," he gives it as his opinion that there is no power in the government to prevent secession. His words are as follow:

The course of events is so rapidly hastening forward, that the emergency may arrive when you may be called upon to decide the momentous question, whether you possess the power, by force of arms, to compel a State to remain in the Union. I should feel myself recreant to my duty, were I to fail to express an opinion on the important subject. The question, fairly stated, is, Has the Constitution delegated to Congress the power to force a State into submission, which is attempting to withdraw, or has already withdrawn from the Confederacy? If answered in the affirmative, it must be on the principle that the power has been conferred upon Congress to declare and make war against a State. After much serious reflection I have arrived at the conclusion that no such power has been delegated to Congress, or to any other department of the Federal Government. It is manifest, upon an inspection of the instrument, that this is not among the specific and enumerated powers granted to Congress, and it is equally apparent that its exercise is not necessary and proper for carrying into execution any one of those powers. So far from this power having been delegated to Congress, it was especially refused by the Convention which formed the Constitution.

Different, altogether, was the conclusion at which Andrew Jackson arrived. In his proclamation, in 1833, he said:

This, then, is the position in which we stand. A small majority of the citizens of one State of the Union have elected delegates to a State Convention; that Convention has ordained that all the revenue laws of the United States must be repealed, or that they are no longer a member of the Union. The Governor of that State has recommended to the Legislature the raising of an army to carry this secession into effect, and that he may be empowered to give clearances to vessels in the name of the State. No act of violent opposition to the laws has yet been committed, but such a state of things is hourly apprehended; and it is the intent of this instrument to proclaim not only that the duty imposed on me by the Constitution, to "take care that the laws be faithfully executed," shall be performed to the extent of the powers already vested in me by law, or of such others as the wisdom of Congress shall devise and intrust to me for that purpose; but to warn the citizens of South Carolina, who have been deluded into an opposition to the laws, of the danger they will incur by obedience to the illegal and disorganizing ordinance of the convention—to exhort those who have refused to support it, to persevere in their determination to uphold the Constitution and laws of their country, and to point out to all the perilous situation into which the good people of that State have been led—and that the course they are urged to pursue is one of ruin and disgrace to the very State whose rights they affect to support.

There is nothing in the documentary history of the Government in which we can find a parallel for the extraordinary contradictions into which Mr. Buchanan has fallen, save and except the celebrated Archy decision of our own Supreme Court. Andrew Jackson held that by the adoption of the Constitution, the several States, for certain general purposes, that is to say, the making of treaties, the declaration of war, and so forth, became parts of a nation, not members of a league, and that hence it was his duty, and the duty of Congress, to put down rebellion. Mr. Buchanan holds views precisely similar, but from them he deduces that Congress has no power to reduce a refractory State to submission. Are we to regard this as simply an attempt to ride two horses going in different directions—a feat which never was, and never will be performed, or as the mere drivel of senility?

It is not with the general views expressed by Mr. Buchanan that we find fault, but with his logic. It was only by assuming that the Constitution was nothing but a compact, or league between sovereigns—that the several States did not differ essentially from partners in a firm who had a right to retire when there was just complaint against the general management of affairs, that he could reach the conclusion that Congress has no power to force a State into submission. Starting from this point, it would have been competent for him to suggest the policy which ought to be pursued in the present emergency. It must be admitted that the danger at this time is much greater than it was in 1832.

At that period only one State assumed an attitude of rebellion against the General Government; now there are grounds for the apprehension that several are at least disaffected. The general sentiment of the country is adverse to a resort to force, for such a proceeding would not differ from an attempt to mend a glass tumbler with a hammer. Even Horace Greeley, of the Tribune, has declared, that if "any considerable portion of the Republic should deliberately resolve to go out, he would resist all coercive measures, designed to keep it in;" and further, "that he never hoped to live in a republic, whereof one section was pinned to the residue by bayonets." If the Cotton States should determine upon secession let them have their frolic out. Before long, they will be anxious to come back again. It is the interest of the Border Slave States to maintain the Union as it stands, and when passion has cooled down, they will be ready to step in, and in the capacity of mediators make all right again. It would be a different thing, however, if only one or two states should attempt to go out. Self-preservation might require that they should be held by the strong hand.