The Question of Coercion

Trenton Daily True American, March 11, 1861

In the course of the animated discussion to which the secession movement has given rise, the question as to the propriety of the employment of the coercive powers of the Government against the seceded States, with a view of exacting from them allegiance to the laws of a Union which they have solemnly abjured, has formed the leading topic, and has been argued with much more ill temper and vehemence than is conducive to a rational solution of the important problem. Followed through all its various phases, and stripped of all side-issues and unimportant points, the argument finally resolves itself into the momentous question, whether the Government at Washington shall acknowledge the independence of the Southern Confederacy, or whether, refusing to do so, it shall embark in the mad and Quixotic attempt of conquering and holding the seceded States in subjection. Strange to say, the latter policy, opposed as it is to the dictates of reason, of principle and of prudence, is not without its clamorous advocates. These are confined with few, if any, exceptions, to the so-called Republican party. Having succeeded by a persistent course of intolerance and invective, pursued in the name of the North, in alienating the affections of the Southern people, and thus destroying the most sacred and only permanent tie which linked the States in one common brotherhood, and finally by a gross and unjust perversion of the Constitution driving them to the terrible alternative of secession in preference to inequality, they now insist that force shall be employed against them, pretending to believe that by such means the Union can be preserved. The ambiguity of Mr. LINCOLN'S inaugural renders it impossible to determine to what extent he shares in these sentiments. True, he speaks of executing the laws, &c., but this is only to be done, he says, "as far as practicable"—a reservation which admits of a wide scope of interpretation. Beyond the certainty that the government at Washington will refuse to recognize the Southern Confederacy, we are at a loss as to what the exact policy towards it will be.

Whatever that policy may be, however, it is to be hoped that the administration will not fall into the egregious error of applying the remedies usually applied to mobs. This is not a question whether mob-rule shall be allowed to prevail over law. The people of seven States acting in concert, and under an organized government, cannot be confounded with a turbulent mob swayed by the impulse or passion of the hour. The party or the government which would so confound it, is unable to appreciate the magnitude of the crisis through which we are passing, and would make a most fatal mistake. MACAULAY says:—"It is all very well to talk of confronting sedition boldly, and enforcing the law against those who would disturb the public peace. No doubt a tumult caused by a local and temporary irritation ought to be suppressed with promptitude and vigor. ... But woe to the government which cannot distinguish between a nation and a mob! Woe to the government which thinks that a great, a steady, a long-continued movement of the public mind is to be stopped like a street riot! This error has been twice fatal to the great house of BOURBON." These admonitions of the great statesman and historian apply with obvious force to the case under consideration. And we would add to them the wise and patriotic words of ANDREW JACKSON'S farewell address, in which, alluding to a war of sections, he said:—"If such a struggle is once begun, and the citizens of one section of the country arrayed in arms against those of another in doubtful conflict, let the battle result as it may, there will be an end to the Union, and with it an end to the hopes of freedom. ... But the Constitution cannot be maintained, nor the Union preserved, in opposition to the public feeling, by the mere exertion of the coercive powers confided to the general government." These are not the opinions of a timid, vacillating mind, but of a man whose public career afforded conclusive evidence that he possessed in an eminent degree the will to confront and the temerity to grapple with any emergency.—Let those who invoke coercion in the name of JACKSON ponder them carefully.

But the advocates of a war policy insist that "the laws must be enforced at all hazards" and the "government vindicated." They desire to test "whether we have a government or not" and urge that if the government fails to assert its power "it will be humiliated in the eyes of the world." These are not new arguments; they are such as prevailed with Lord NORTH and the other minions of GEORGE III in their futile efforts to "crush out" American Independence. Tyrannical and unjust as was the cause in which those efforts were put forth, there was, at least, a certain degree of consistency in their advocacy by the opponents of Republican institutions and the friends and defenders of a monarchial form of government. But the American government is founded on an idea, and the world does not expect to see it maintained by force against the will of any considerable portion of its citizens. The British government was humiliated much more by its failure to vindicate its authority in the American Colonies, than it would have been had it yielded to their just demands. Our government would incur no humiliation whatever, nor would American institutions suffer any detriment, if, in view of the extraordinary magnitude of the secession movement, and the number of States combined in its support, it were to refrain from an appeal to arms, as inconsistent with the genius of the government, and leave a solution of the difficulty to time. Prudence, principle and sound expediency all conspire in dictating this policy. We are no advocates of a Southern Confederacy per se.—We deplore the act of secession as a great political wrong, and as a greater political misfortune. Could we have made our feeble voice heard, we would have persuaded our Southern brothers against withdrawing from the great family of States.—We would have done this because they were our friends,—not our enemies.—But they have left us in anger, and we would not force them back, because in making the attempt we should not only have to deal with them as enemies, but we would blot out the last vestige of friendly feeling and make them our foes forever hereafter. And if we had the will and the power to force them back, we could only hold them as a conquered people at the forfeiture of that equality which forms the essential element of our Republic. A Union maintained by such means would be worse than a mockery. Let not history record that the American government was ever guilty of the stupendous folly of risking the real blessings we enjoy in pursuit of what JACKSON in his parting words pronounced, and what a moment's calm reflection must convince us is a chimera.