The Past, the Present, and the Future

Washington Daily National Intelligencer, March 21, 1861

In view of the difficulties which surround an adjustment of the questions raised by the dismemberment of the Union, we have come to the conclusion that no authority less final and comprehensive than a General Convention of the States still remaining loyal to their Federal allegiance can be successfully invoked in the premises. We take it for granted that if the separation of the Seceded States is to be permanent, the questions now outstanding between them and the Federal Government are to be settled in some authoritative manner, and we know of no way in which this can be done so appropriately and effectively as by the arbitration of a National Conference. It would be the duty of such Convention to revise the Constitution of the United States, and this might be done in such a way as to bring about a reconstruction of the Union; or, if this should be found impracticable, provision might be made for contracting the limits of the Union so as to comprise only the States acceding to the project of a Constitution submitted as the fruits of its labors. In the propositions of the late Peace Conference we have already the basis of constitutional amendments, which, in substance if not in form, might be taken as the general rallying cry of conservative men in proceeding to the election of delegates to such Convention from all the States. The work of the Peace Conference, so far from falling to the ground, might thus be made the means of assuring the return of a majority of the delegates committed to its general principles, and thus the proceedings of the National Convention would be restrained within just limits, without diverging into the contrarieties of opinion springing, from the predominance of sectional antagonisms over the spirit of concession and compromise.

As no one proposes the subjugation of the Seceded States, it follows that the adjustment of their relations to the Federal Government can be arranged only by their voluntary return to the Union or by the definite recognition of their independence out of it. As soon as it shall be made apparent that the people of the Seceded States desire a permanent separation from their former confederates, it would seem to be the part of wisdom and sound policy for the people of the United States to acquiesce in that desire. Nothing can be gained in the interest of peace or dignity, or good neighborhood or reciprocal trade, by a persistent refusal to ascertain and fix disputed relations which must be adjusted in the end, and which can be more satisfactorily adjusted by negotiations before war than by negotiations after war.

And this leads us to remark that the people of the loyal States have an interest in the adjustment of this question at an early day, so soon as it shall be satisfactorily ascertained (if it should be so ascertained) that the secession of the Confederate States is definitive; for, in the interval, a vacancy exists in the representation of the Seceding States in Congress, but as the new apportionment of Federal representation, consequent on the late census, proceeds on the assumption that these States still form a part of the Union,— it follows that the people of the adhering States are pro tanto deprived of the additional representation they would receive in case the ratio of representation should be fixed with exclusive reference to the population, which acknowledges fealty to the Constitution and laws of the United States.

There is also another consideration which pleads strongly in favor of adjusting this question according to the accomplished facts of our political situation, as soon as all the indications shall infallibly point to a permanent dissolution of the Union. We allude to the adoption of amendments to the Constitution of the United States. One such, having been proposed by Congress at its late session, is already pending before the several States, and if a National Convention is called others will be submitted. By the terms of the Constitution it is required that such amendments shall be ratified by three-fourths of all the States. The secession of seven States has reduced to twenty-seven the number of States still adhering to the Constitution, and if the former are to be regarded, in spite of their alleged secession, as integral members of the Union, it will be in the power of any two States to defeat the ratification of amendments to the Constitution; for the ratification of twenty-six out of the thirty-four States will be necessary to procure the requisite majority of three-fourths. In the presence of such facts it is obvious that there is a point beyond which it would be absurd to push the exactions of theory in opposition to the dictates of political prudence.

If, then, the developments of the ensuing year shall leave no doubt respecting the determination of the people in the Seceded States to maintain their present attitude towards the United States, we shall advocate the policy of their recognition by our Government, and this, among other questions, might be referred to the arbitrament of a National Convention, which would be called to make arrangements with especial reference to this matter. In the mean time, and equally in behalf of both Governments, we shall not cease to inculcate the duty of patience and the arts of peace.