The Possible Alternative

Springfield Daily Republican, February 23, 1861

The democratic members of Congress from the free states, by their manifest disposition to deny to the general government the means of protecting itself and enforcing the laws, show that they wholly mistake the direction which popular opinion is taking. The anti-coercion issue they attempt to make is false because it is premature. That question has not been raised, and is not likely to be at present. The only point yet made, and in it the people of all parties in the free states are agreed, is that secession is not to be recognized either as a right or as a fact. Consequently the states that have declared themselves out of the Union are to be considered as still in the Union, and their independent governments to be ignored. Therefore must the public mails be carried and distributed in these states as usual, unless obstructed, and the United States troops must continue to protect the exposed borders of these states as usual. It is still more indispensable that the government should persist in collecting the revenue at southern ports, or effectually close the ports where. this cannot be done to advantage. Those who pretend to oppose secession and to stand by the government, and yet deny to it the right to do these things, or would withhold from it the essential means, are false to themselves, as well as the country. To refuse to the government the power to maintain itself is to pronounce its destruction. This matter is so clear that all attempts to mislead the people utterly fail, and bring contempt upon those that make them. The people distrust the men who can talk only anti-coercion, when traitors are boldly attempting to subvert and destroy the government.

But notwithstanding that the path of loyalty and patriotism is so plain that no honest man can mistake his duty, it is not to be concealed that there is an ultimate alternative, which events may bring, and another line of policy and duty which the future may force upon us. If it should appear, after suitable time and opportunity for ascertaining public sentiment in the slave states, that a majority of the people of any of those states have a fixed determination to leave the present Union, and that their connection with the Union can only be one of constraint if it is maintained, then the question will present itself in a new aspect. Then the alternative will be to coerce these states and hold them in their present partial connection with the Union, or to allow them to withdraw peaceably and go on with their independent government. Either course involves many and obvious evils to both sections. But if such an exigency comes upon the country the decision of the people will be for peace and acquiescence in disunion, and this not from cowardly fear of the consequences of war, but from a sincere conviction that a Union that can only be maintained by force is not worth the cost. The public mind already inclines strongly to this conclusion. "Let them go, if they will," is the common talk of the people; "we can live without them if they insist upon it."

Suppose there is a peaceful separation by general consent, the terms of which are fixed by a national convention, since Congress has no power under the constitution to provide for so anomalous a state of things; suppose that all the slave states that are really attached to the institution by prejudice or interest go with the cotton confederacy, leaving only Delaware, Kentucky and Missouri, and perhaps a new state formed from western Virginia, in the present Union. In wealth, resources, moral and physical strength, more than two-thirds of the Union will remain. All connection with slavery and all responsibility for it will almost immediately be removed by purging the adhering slave states of the last remains of the institution. The constitution may then be relieved of all recognition and support of slavery, and we shall have a republic in reality as well as in name. It is the sheerest folly to suppose that we cannot go on as strongly and prosperously without the slave states as with them. And, except in the mere matter of extent of territory, we should have lost almost no element of power and national influence, while we should be relieved of a source of weakness and fear growing out of a servile and dangerous population of four millions, which would compensate for many items of loss.

A peaceful separation involves no material loss in commerce and trade. The South can never be commercial to any great extent, and her manufacturing experiments, which have thus far proved costly failures, will be no more likely to succeed under another government. It is a matter of necessity that the southern states should remain agricultural. It is equally [a] matter of necessity that they should trade with the North, whether under the same government or not. The only reason for apprehension on this point is that under the burdens of a new government, and the disorder and confusion that must naturally prevail at the South under the changed state of things, its planters and capitalists, who generally object to secession, will be distrustful, and production and consequently trade will be materially diminished. Suppose then, the southern republic to be peacefully organized and the old Union to go on as it is, minus the seceding states. The free republic of the United States would then be upon a permanent basis, and there would be no place for the secession theory. But the slave confederacy would still be Secessia, and as Virginia, Maryland and the other northern slave states should be gradually depleted of their black population, and their interests and sympathies become more and more homogeneous with those of the free states, what is to prevent their seceding one by one from the South and coming back again to the Union they have left? It would be the natural and almost inevitable course of things. Separation by war, or after a war, would leave less prospect of such re-union, and this is the reason why the ultra secessionists have all along endeavored to bring on a collision.

Do we go for peaceable secession, then? Not at all. Not for secession of any sort. Not for permitting secession in any shape, as things now stand. We merely speculate as to future circumstances in which events may place us. The Union must be maintained, while we have it; the constitution must be obeyed and the laws enforced. But if it shall be demonstrated hereafter that the Union is dissolved in fact, and that if maintained by force it will be only a Union in form and not in substance, then the unanimous decision will be for peaceable dissolution. Of this we have not the slightest doubt. Equally plain is the duty and necessity of the present hour, and if these are met firmly and hopefully the alternative we have considered may never come.