The Test of Self-Government
Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, December 24, 1860
Some mornings ago we published an article from the Savannah (Ga.) Times, the argument of which was, that the great American experiment of popular government had failed, and that the nation being now in a state of rapid and unquestionable disintegration, we should betake ourselves to Constitutional Monarchy as a preservation against the horrors of anarchy or uncertain military despotism. To the eyes of the Times it had been abundantly proved that the popular theory in government had failed, while on the other hand it had been proved to them, in the example of Great Britain, that Constitutional Monarchy had not failed, but on the contrary that it seemed specially fitted and adapted to the genius of the Anglo-Saxon race. The article of the Times was ably and carefully written, and, however much our American prejudices may have refused to sympathize with its tone, yet there was no denying the fact that there was much that was sensible and just and even practical in its premises and in its arguments therefrom. It is to the minds of thousands of patriotic people in this land, at this present time, a matter of serious distrust as to whether our attempt at popular government has not indeed failed. Infidels in democracy are at this moment a good deal plentier than infidels in religion. And they are not your high-born people—rich and far removed (so to speak,) from the populace—but they are your everyday men of the world, who do the business of the country and possess large stores of theoretical and practical knowledge. They are beginning to look upon popular government as about played out, and as being incapable, like the mule, of perpetuating itself or its species. In fine, they don't believe, or at least they seriously doubt, that if once brought to the test our institutions it won't stand the strain. The London prints, edited by the most practical and intelligent minds in Great Britain, have done much to superinduce this feeling in the American mind. Their articles, written with great ability, have been extensively copied, weighed and considered in the light of threatened events. Many years ago, what are called the Tory Quarterlies and High Church periodicals took learned ground against the possible perpetuity of a Democracy like ours. We read many of these articles and in common with all Americans, only felt a sort of a Pharasaical pity for the authors. We confess that at this time we recall their specious logic with quite another feeling.—The signs of the times do indicate, deny it as we may, that there is imminent danger that those writers shall prove prophets in their day, and that the Democratic theory has failed under our experiment.—The hard-money men always contended that the fallacy of the banking system was shown in a financial crisis—that then it was utterly incompetent to answer the ends of its establishment. In a like manner the reviewers argued concerning the theory of Republican government. It was inevitable, they reasoned, that when one portion of a Democracy became antagonistic to the other, that the whole should not go to pieces. There was no independent central power as in the case of Great Britain against Ireland to put down disaffection or rebellion. In other words, and in the language of Mr. Buchanan's message, the government rested alone on public opinion. The more recent articles of the English liberal press, and the reproduction and comments upon them by a portion of our press, convinces us that the doubt about the working of our institutions that but a few years ago, was a little cloud no larger than a man's hand, has grown and increased, until it is now largely overspreading the political horizon. Now, it is contended, is the time of times, when we need the fullest play of the preservative element in our system. And where is it? ask the foreign press. And where is it? sure enough, echo thousands of sad American voices. The belief is gaining ground, that it is no where; that our machinery is exactly like so much defective fire enginery that has a screw loose at a desolating conflagration, and is utterly powerless to stay it. The English press point triumphantly to the fact that malcontents in all their colonies and dependencies—at home and abroad—have, in turn, been brought under the strong arm of their central, self-preservative power. Even India cannot rebel with impunity. The government is everywhere respected, and people of every nationality, even Americans, have at different times preferred the Cross of St. George to all other flags, for protection. An observable fact about these late articles of the English press, is, that they are not written in any thing but a tone deprecatory of a dissolution of the American Union. Coming as they do, from some of the most philanthropic and most statesmanlike minds of the British nation, they rise to the solemn magnitude of the danger, and to the proprieties befitting such times of peril, and indicate an anxiety and earnest solicitude that is second only to our own. The English people would have no pleasure in the death of our nationality. Our failure will recoil with awful force upon them. They know it, and feel it. Then they would stand alone, a single green spot of freedom in the great waste of a world wide despotism. Yet, with all their sympathies for our institutions, they begin to fear that their days are numbered. And no one can deny that their apprehensions are not well grounded. The spectacle of the recent canvass has been presented to them, and its merits were almost as fully understood by them as by ourselves. And now, in the light of those merits, and of all the scenes and incidents of the canvass and since, they begin with one accord to think that we shall fail as a united people. And now the question is for us, do they, looking over our heads, with a clearer vision—certainly see our inevitable dissolution? With the anguish of heart in which Esau lifted up his voice and wept over the realization that his birthright had gone, hopelessly and forever gone, the patriot should consider this question.
It is a question awful and sacred as the rescue of the Ark of the Covenant, and we confess that it is with a despondency akin to despair that we dwell upon the chances of success. And our reason is this: What has happened has taken place under the forms of the Constitution. That Constitution prescribes in explicit terms the mode of a Presidential election, who is eligible to a candidacy, and what his duties and powers are if successful. Under that Constitution—under its several specifications—the people of every State in this Union of States went into an election. As a matter of course, all the parties to the canvass could not be successful. One candidate had to be chosen, either by the people or their representatives, and three candidates had to be beaten. This necessary result was just as apparent at the commencement as at the end of the canvass. The party that was successful, had the same candidate, the same platform, the same record, the same everything at the starting in that they had at the coming out. The other parties knew all this—saw it all just as plain and fully and satisfactorily at the first as at the last, and seeing and knowing and understanding it all, they entered the lists, and took their chances of success. They tried hard to succeed, made every possible combination, used every strategy of war, used money, used government patronage, used everything available, but to no effect.—They were beaten—fairly, honorably, constitutionally, overwhelmingly beaten.—What is the sequel? They submit, of course? No; they do not. Two parties, for the most part, do. The third does not. It was not their intention to submit from the first. From the very beginning they played foul. It was arranged that if they were beaten they would repudiate. And they have repudiated.—They have raised a foreign flag—the flag of treason—and have scouted and hooted from their housetops and shipping the flag of their country, the glorious Stars and Stripes. This is our position before the eyes of the English people and before the world. Seeing this position, is it wonderful that they distrust the issue of popular government? They can say with perfect legitimacy, your position has proved our conclusions. It makes no odds for the legitimacy of those conclusions, who of you is right or wrong. The fact that you each accepted the issue tendered by the other, and upon it went to the country, and a portion of you were beaten, and afterwards repudiated the popular voice constitutionally expressed, proves all we say. Suppose you compromise this time. Next four years some similar complication will likely befall you. Some other party will have some similar grievances, as was the case in 1832, and they in their turn will repudiate the verdict of the country. It remains with you now to make the grand test, and show that your government is proof against the anarchical element. Failure now is demoralization forever. Will we be able to pass through the ordeal? Will we, in the face and against the hopes of anxious millions in the old world, turn the hands back on the dial plate of progress, and prove that popular institutions are impossible in practice. Will we, of Western Virginia, seek to induce or avert this result? Do we intend to stand by the Union of these States?—to preserve our heritage—to rescue the greatest and noblest trust ever committed to a people—or will we fall clown and let the insidious treason now working in our midst, flourish over us[?] Fellow citizens, discarding all party, clinging only to the hope of a home and a country, we warn you of this treason.—We do not ask you to embrace our views of politics, or any body else's. God forbid that we should do such a thing in an hour like this. But we only ask of you, as you value the magnitude of the interest that is common to us all, to take your stand firmly and uncompromisingly on the side of the Union.