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Chapter 4:

  • The heresy of secession
  • -- originated in New England -- maintained by Josiah Quincy and the Hartford Convention, by Mr. Rawle and Mr. John Quincy Adams, but opposed by the South -- Southern secession dates from South Carolina nullification -- its character and history -- the Compromise tariff of 1888 -- the nullifiers agitate for secession -- Mr. Calhoun -- Mr. Cobb against it -- warnings of the Democratic party -- they are treated with contempt -- secession encouraged by the Republicans -- the cotton States led to believe they would be allowed to depart in peace -- President Buchanan warned them against this delusion.

The alleged right of secession, or the right of one or more States to withdraw from the Union, is not a plant of Southern origin. On the contrary, it first sprung up in the North. At an early period after the formation of the Constitution, many influential individuals of New England became dissatisfied with the union between the Northern and Southern States, and were anxious to dissolve it. ‘This design,’ according to Mr. John Quincy Adams, ‘had been formed in the winter of 1803-4, immediately after and as a consequence of the acquisition of Louisiana.’1 This he disclosed to Mr. Jefferson, in the year 1809. About the same time, to the confidential friends of Mr. Jefferson he ‘urged that a continuance of the embargo much longer would certainly be met by forcible resistance, supported by the Legislature and probably by the judiciary of the State [Massachusetts]. That to quell that resistance, if force should be resorted to by the Government, it would produce a civil war; and that, in that event, he had no doubt the leaders of the party would secure the cooperation with them of Great Britain. That their object was, and had been for several years, a dissolution of [87] the Union, and the establishment of a separate Confederation, he knew from unequivocal evidence, although not provable in a court of law; and that in case of a civil war, the aid of Great Britain to effect that purpose would be assuredly resorted to, as it would be indispensably necessary to the design.’

Afterwards, in 1828, whilst President of the United States, he reaffirmed the statement made to Mr. Jefferson, and said: ‘That project, I repeat, had gone to the length of fixing upon a military leader for its execution; and although the circumstances of the times never admitted of its execution, nor even of its full development, I had yet no doubt in 1808 and 1809, and have no doubt at this time, that it is the key of all the great movements of these leaders of the Federal party in New England, from that time forward till its final catastrophe in the Hartford Convention.’ It is but fair to observe that these statements were denied by the parties implicated, but were still adhered to and again reaffirmed by Mr. Adams.

In this connection we may cite the speech delivered by Mr. Josiah Quincy, a leading and influential Representative from Massachusetts, on the 14th January, 1811.2 In this he boldly avows and defends both the right and the duty of States to separate from the Union, should Congress pass the bill then pending before them, ‘to enable the people of the Territory of Orleans to form a Constitution and State Government, and for the admission of such State [Louisiana] into the Union on an equal footing with the original States.’

He alleges ‘that the principle of this bill materially affects the liberties and rights of the whole people of the United States. To me it appears that it would justify a revolution in this country, and that in no great length of time may produce it.’ He then proceeds to declare as follows: ‘If this bill passes, it is my deliberate opinion that it is virtually a dissolution of the Union; that it will free the States from their moral obligation, and, as it will be the right of all, so it will be the duty of some, definitely to prepare for a separation, amicably if they can, violently if they must.’ Upon being called to order for the utterance [88] of this sentiment, he repeated it and committed it to writing with his own hand.

The violation of the Constitution involved in this bill was, according to Mr. Quincy, the admission into the Union of a State composed of foreign territory, which had been outside of the limits of the United States when the Constitution was adopted. This, he contended, would result in a serious diminution of the power and influence in the Federal Government, to which Massachusetts and the other old States were justly entitled.

It is curious to observe that he justified a dissolution of the Union by the very same fallacy afterwards employed by the Southern secessionists, in applying to our Government a rule of construction applicable to mere private contracts. ‘Is there,’ said he, ‘a moral principle of public law better settled, or more conformable to the plainest suggestions of reason, than that the violation of a contract by one of the parties may be considered as exempting the other from its obligations’3

Thirty-five members united with Mr. Quincy in voting against this bill, but it passed the House by a vote of 77 to 36.

We shall not refer specially to the proceedings of the Hartford Convention, which assembled in December, 1814, during the existence of our last war with Great Britain. We may observe generally, that this body manifested their purpose to dissolve the Union, should Congress refuse to redress the grievances of which they complained. The peace, however, with Great Britain, terminated their action, and consigned them to lasting and well merited reproach. During this entire period the Southern people opposed and denounced all threats and efforts to dissolve the Union as treasonable, and during the war as giving ‘aid and comfort’ to the enemy.

The right of secession found advocates afterwards in men of distinguished abilities and unquestioned patriotism. In 1825 it was maintained by Mr. William Rawle, of Philadelphia, an eminent and universally respected lawyer, in the 23d chapter of his ‘View of the Constitution of the United States.’ In speaking of him his biographer says, that ‘in 1791 he was appointed District Attorney of the United States, by the Father [89] of his country;’ and ‘the situation of Attorney General was more than once tendered to him by Washington, but as often declined,’ for domestic reasons.4 But to quote a still higher authority, that of Mr. John Quincy Adams. This learned and profound statesman, in 1839, admitted the right of the people of a State to secede from the Union, whilst deprecating its exercise. We copy entire the three paragraphs relating to this subject from his ‘Discourse delivered before the New York Historical Society,’5 on the fiftieth anniversary of General Washington's Inauguration as President of the United States:

In the calm hours of self-possession, the right of a Stateto nullify an act of Congress, is too absurd for argument, and too odious for discussion. The right of a State to secede from the Union, is equally disowned by the principles of the Declaration of Independence. Nations acknowledge no judge between them upon earth, and their Governments, from necessity, must in their intercourse with each other decide when the failure of one party to a contract to perform its obligations, absolves the other from the reciprocal fulfilment of his own. But this last of earthly powers is not necessary to the freedom or independence of States, connected together by the immediate action of the people of whom they consist. To the people alone is there reserved, as well the dissolving, as the constituent power, and that power can be exercised by. them only under the tie of conscience, binding them to the retributive justice of Heaven.

With these qualifications, we may admit the same right as vested in the people of every State in the Union, with reference to the General Government, which was exercised by the people of the United Colonies, with reference to the supreme head of the British empire, of which they formed a part; and under these limitations have the people of each State in the Union a right to secede from the confederated Union itself.

Thus stands the right. But the indissoluble link of union between the people of the several States of this confederated nation is, after all, not in the right, but in the heart. If the day should ever come (may Heaven avert it) when the affections of the people of these States shall be alienated from each other; [90] when the fraternal spirit shall give way to cold indifference, or collision of interest shall fester into hatred, the bands of political association will not long hold together parties no longer attracted by the magnetism of conciliated interests and kindly sympathies; and far better will it be for the people of the disunited States to part in friendship from each other, than to be held together by constraint. Then will be the time for reverting to the precedents which occurred at the formation and adoption of the Constitution, to form again a more perfect union, by dissolving that which could no longer bind, and to leave the separated parts to be reunited by the law of political gravitation to the centre.

These high authorities in the North made no impression on the Southern people. Southern secession was the bitter fruit of South Carolina nullification.

Nullification did not spring from the slavery question. It originated exclusively from hostility to a protective tariff. In the belief of the people of South Carolina, the tariff laws afforded extravagant and unconstitutional protection to domestic manufactures, greatly to their injury. They were convinced that the high import duties exacted from them enhanced unjustly the price of the articles they consumed, and at the same time depreciated the value of the cotton and other articles which they produced and exported; and that all their losses were so many forced contributions to enrich Northern manufacturers at their expense.

In this belief the people of the State were nearly unanimous; but they were almost equally divided as to whether nullification was an appropriate and constitutional remedy. Nullification assumes that each State has the rightful power to absolve itself from obedience to any particular law of Congress which it may deem oppressive, and to resist its execution by force; and yet in regard to all other laws to remain a constituent member of the Union. Thus in each State, though still under the same General Government, a different code might be in force, varying with every degree of latitude. This would produce ‘confusion worse confounded.’ Even secession can be sustained by much more plausible arguments than such a paradox.

Mr. John C. Calhoun was the acknowledged leader of the [91] Nullification party. As a member of the House of Representatives he had borne a conspicuous part in the declaration and prosecution of the war of 1812 against Great Britain. He had been Secretary of War during nearly the whole eight years of Mr. Monroe's Presidency, and had displayed great administrative ability in organizing and conducting his Department. He was elected in 1824, and afterwards reelected in 1828, Vice-President of the United States, and still held this high office. He possessed eminent reasoning powers, but, in the opinion of many, was deficient in sound practical judgment. He was terse and astute in argument; but his views were not sufficiently broad and expanded to embrace at the same time all the great interests of the country, and to measure them according to their relative importance. It was his nature to concentrate all his powers on a single subject; and this, for the time being, almost to the exclusion of all others. Although not eloquent in debate, he was rapid, earnest, and persuasive. His powers of conversation were of the highest order; and it was his delight to exert them in making proselytes, especially of the young and promising. It is but just to add that his private life was a model of purity.

Under his auspices, the State Convention of South Carolina, in November, 1832, passed the well-known Nullification Ordinance. By this they declared that all the tariff acts then in force had been passed in violation of the Constitution of the United States; and that they were ‘null, void, and no law, nor binding upon this State, its officers or citizens.’ They also ordained that should the Federal Government attempt to carry these acts into effect within the limits of South Carolina, ‘the people of this State will thenceforth hold themselves absolved from all further obligation to maintain or preserve their political connection with the people of the other States, and will forthwith proceed to organize a separate Government, and to do all other acts and things which sovereign and independent States of right do.’6

This declaration was the germ of Southern secession. It asserted the right and the duty of South Carolina to secede from the Union and establish an independent Government, [92] whenever the Federal Government should attempt to execute the tariff laws within its limits.

At this period a large and influential minority, almost amounting to a majority of the people of South Carolina, were opposed to nullification. This party embraced the Federal judges, and the collectors and other revenue officers at the different ports. They did not believe nullification to be either a rightful or constitutional remedy for grievances, which notwithstanding they felt keenly in common with their fellow-citizens. So hostile did the parties become toward each other in the progress of the conflict, that there was imminent danger they might resort to civil war. The minority stood ready to aid the Government in enforcing the tariff laws against the nullifiers.

The Convention, in their address to the people of the United States,7 proposed terms of compromise, with which should Congress comply, South Carolina would repeal the nullifying ordinance. Professing their willingness ‘to make a large offering to preserve the Union,’8 and distinctly declaring that it was a concession on their part, they proposed to consent to a tariff imposing the same rate of duty on the protected as on the unprotected articles, ‘provided that no more revenue be raised than is necessary to meet the demands of the Government for constitutional purposes, and provided, also, that a duty substantially uniform be imposed upon all foreign imports.’ Thus their ultimatum was a uniform ad valorem horizontal tariff for revenue alone, without any discriminations whatever in favor of domestic manufactures.

At this crisis Mr. Calhoun resigned the office of VicePresi-dent, and on the 12th December, 1832, took his seat in the Senate as one of the Senators from South Carolina, for the purpose of advocating the measures he had advised. Strange to say, South Carolina substantially succeeded in accomplishing her object by the passage of the ‘Compromise Act’ of 2d March, 1833.9 Under it, Congress provided for a gradual reduction of existing duties on all foreign articles competing in the home market with our domestic manufactures, until they should finally [93] sink, on the 30th June, 1842, to a uniform rate of 20 per cent. ad valorem, from and after which period this reduced duty only should be collected. Mr. Calhoun supported the bill and voted for its passage. South Carolina accepted the concession, and repealed the ordinance of nullification.

Mr. Calhoun, notwithstanding this success, was never able to indoctrinate the Southern people outside of his own State with the heresy of nullification. It soon became odious to the whole country, and has since passed into universal disrepute. But not so with its twin sister secession.

Whilst these proceedings were pending, General Jackson was ready and willing to enforce the laws against South Carolina, should they be resisted, with all the means in his power. These were, however, inadequate for the occasion. New legislation was required to enable him to act with vigor and success. For this he applied to Congress in an elaborate message of the 16th January, 1833.10 This was not granted until the passage of the ‘Compromise Act’ had rendered such legislation unnecessary. In fact, this act and ‘the Force Bill,’ as it was then called, conferring on him the necessary powers, were approved by General Jackson on the same day (2d March, 1833). Such was, at this crisis, the jealousy of executive power in Congress, that the only effective enactments of this bill were to expire, by their own limitation, at the end of the next session of Congress (June, 1834). Here it may be proper to observe, that Congress refused to revive them throughout the entire session of 186-61, and to confer upon President Buchanan the same powers for the collection of the revenue which they had, but only for this brief period, conferred on President Jackson.

The majority in South Carolina, encouraged by success in bringing Congress to terms on the tariff question, and smarting under the reproach of nullification, soon threw aside all reserve and rushed from this heresy into that of secession. In this they were not long after joined by the minority which had resisted nullification. The formidable aspect assumed by anti-slavery at the North consolidated the union between the nullifiers and the anti-nullifiers. Then followed the exchange of violent and virulent [94] denunciations between the slavery and anti-slavery factions, North and South, each furnishing combustibles to the other, as though they had been in alliance to destroy the Union. Although the people of South. Carolina had thus become almost unanimous in their hostility to the Union, they were nevertheless divided into two parties, denominated ‘Disunionists’ and ‘Cooperationists.’ Both were equally resolved on secession; they differed merely as to the point of time for making the movement. Whilst the former advocated immediate action by the State alone, the latter were in favor of awaiting the cooperation of one or more of the other slaveholding States.

The time-honored and Union-loving Whig and Democratic parties no longer existed in South Carolina They had passed away amid the din of disunion. Mr. Calhoun, from the termination of nullification until the day of his death (31st March, 1850), made the wrongs and dangers of the South his almost constant theme. These he much exaggerated. In his last great speech to the Senate,11 on the 4th March, 1850, a few days before his death, which, from physical weakness, was read by Mr. Mason, the Senator from Virginia, he painted these wrongs in glowing colors, and predicted that if they were not speedily redressed disunion must inevitably follow. He asked the North ‘to do justice, by conceding to the South an equal right in the acquired. [Mexican] territory, and to do her duty by causing the stipulations in regard to fugitive slaves to be faithfully fulfilled; to cease the agitation of the slave question,’ and to provide for such an amendment to the Constitution as would restore to the South the means of self-protection. It is worthy of remark, that, extreme as he was, he never, on any occasion, asked for a repeal of the Missouri Compromise.

Although the earnest and impassioned appeals of Mr. Calhoun made a deep impression on the people of the Southern States, yet outside of South Carolina these failed to convince the masses that they ought to resort to extreme measures. Whilst satisfied they were suffering grievous wrongs from the Abolitionists, they were yet willing to abide by the compromise measures of 1850, and to seek redress by constitutional efforts [95] within the Union. Such, it is our confident belief, continued to be the genuine sentiments of a very large majority of their people even in the cotton States for a number of years after the death of Mr. Calhoun. Still complaining, yet still hoping, they could not be persuaded to adopt rash measures, by all the zeal and eloquence of pro-slavery demagogues with which they were infested.

The friends of the Union calculated much upon the persistent opposition to South Carolina doctrines so long maintained by Georgia. Indeed Mr. Cobb, in his canvass for Governor, had made an able and powerful argument before the people of that State against the right of secession; and this was a principal reason for his selection for a seat in the Cabinet of Mr. Buchanan. Without the cooperation of this great and influential State a successful movement toward disunion would have been impracticable.

It was not until after the breaking up of the Charleston and Baltimore Conventions, as we have before observed, that the people of the cotton States, having lost all hopes of security and redress within the Union, began seriously to determine to go out of it. By this time they had become thoroughly indoctrinated with a belief in the right of secession; and they began to think earnestly of putting it into practice.

Throughout the Presidential canvass, the cotton States openly declared their purpose to secede should Mr. Lincoln be elected. In this they were now unfortunately in earnest. In ominous contrast with their former blustering, they now assumed a quiet and determined tone. No sound judging man, unless blinded by prejudice, could doubt their fixed resolution, unless the Republican party should concede their equal rights within the Territories; should cease to assail slavery in the States; should repeal the personal liberty laws of Northern Legislatures, and should fairly carry into execution the Fugitive Slave Laws. Besides, they felt confident of their power. Their territory was larger and contained a greater population than that of the thirteen original States which had established their independence against the forces of the British Empire. They, also, hoped to bring the border slaveholding States, which still remained true [96] to the Union, into their alliance. They knew that if invaded, the Northern armies, in order to reach them, must march through these States, which they hoped would deny a right of passage to the invaders.

The Democratic party, justly appreciating the danger, everywhere throughout the canvass warned their countrymen of its approach. The Republican party, on the other hand, treated these warnings as mere electioneering expedients, and in derision ridiculed the Democrats as ‘Union savers.’ They confidently predicted that the threats of the cotton States would end in smoke, as they had ended heretofore; that they would not dare to secede; but even if they should, they could within a brief period be reduced to obedience by the overwhelming physical power of the North.

With strange inconsistency, however, immediately after Mr. Lincoln's election much was said and written by Republicans in the North calculated to delude the cotton States into the belief that they might leave the Union without serious opposition. The New York Tribune, deservedly their leading and most influential journal, giving tone to its party everywhere, contributed much to encourage this delusion. It was doubtless actuated by hostility to a continued union with slaveholding States. Acting in the spirit of the quotation already made from the oration of John Quincy Adams before the New York Historical Society, it on the 9th of November, but three days after Mr. Lincoln's election, announced such sentiments as the following: ‘If the cotton States shall become satisfied that they can do better out of the Union than in it, we insist on letting them go in peace. The right to secede may be a revolutionary one, but it exists nevertheless. * * * We must ever resist the right of any State to remain in the Union and nullify or defy the laws thereof. To withdraw from the Union is quite another matter; and whenever a considerable section of our Union shall deliberately resolve to go out, we shall resist all Coer-Cive measure designed to keep it in. We hope never to live in a Republic whereof one section is pinned to another by bayonets.’

And again on the 17th December, three days before the [97] secession of South Carolina: ‘If it [the Declaration of Independence] justifies the secession from the British Empire of three millions of colonists in 1776, we do not see why it would not justify the secession of five million of Southrons from the Federal Union in1861. If we are mistaken on this point, why does not some one attempt to show whereinand why I For our own part, while we deny the right of slaveholders to hold slaves against the will of the latter, we cannot see how twenty millions of people can rightfully hold ten, or even five, in a de tested Union with them by military force. * * * If seven or eight contiguous Stat shall present themselves authentically at Washington, saying, “We hate the Federal Union; we have withdrawn from it; we give you the choice between acquiescing in our secession and arranging amicably all incidental questions on the one hand and attempting to subdue us on the other,” we could not stand up for coercion, for subjugation, for we do not think it would be just. We hold the right of self-government even when invoked in behalf of those who deny it to others.So much for the question of principle.’

In this course the ‘Tribune’ persisted from the date of Mr. Lincoln's election until after his inauguration, employing such remarks as the following: ‘Any attempt to compel them by force to remain would be contrary to the principles enunciated in the immortal Declaration of Independence, contrary to the fundamental ideas on which human liberty is based.’

Even after the cotton States had formed their confederacy, and adopted a provisional Constitution at Montgomery, on the 23d February, 1861, it gave them encouragement to proceed in the following language: ‘We have repeatedly said, and we once more insist,that the great principle embodied by Jefferson in the Declaration of American Independence, that Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, is sound and just; and that if the Slave rates, the Cotton Stat, or the Gulf States only, choose to form an independent nation, they have A clear Moral right to do 80. Whenever it shall e clear that the great body of Southern people have become conclusively alienated from the Union, and anxious to escape from it, we will do our best to forward our their views.’ [98]

In a similar spirit, leading Republicans everywhere scornfully exclaimed, ‘Let them go;’ ‘We can do better without them;’ ‘Let the Union slide,’ and other language of the same import.

In addition to all these considerations, the persistent refusal of Congress, from the first until the last hour of the session of 1860-61, to take a single step in preparing for armed resistance to the execution of the laws, served to confirm the cotton States in the opinion that they might ‘depart in peace.’

The people of the cotton States, unfortunately for themselves, were also infatuated with the belief, until the very last moment, that in case they should secede they would be sustained by a large portion if not the whole Democratic party of the North. They vainly imagined that this party, which had maintained their constitutional rights whilst they remained in the Union, would sustain them in rebellion after they had gone out of it. In this delusion they were also greatly encouraged by sympathy and support from influential and widely circulated Anti-Republican journals in the North, and especially in the city of New York.

It was in vain, therefore, that the late President warned them, as he often did, against this delusion. It was in vain he assured them that the first cannon fired against either Fort Moultrie or Fort Sumter would arouse the indignant spirit of the North—would heal all political divisions amongst the Northern people, and would unite them as one man in support of a war rendered inevitable by such an act of rebellion.

1 Letter of Dec. 80, 1828, in reply to Harrison Grey Otis and others. Appendix to Randal's Life of Jefferson, vol. III., p. 685. Vide also vol. III, p. 295.

2 Gales & Seaton's Annals of Congress, 1810-11, 8d session, p. 524.

3 Gales & Seaton's Annals of Congress, 1810-11, 3d session, p. 577.

4 Brown's Forum, p. 505.

5 Pages 68, 69.

6 Con. Debates, vol. IX., Part 2d, Appendix, pp. 162, 163.

7 Con. Debates, vol. IX., Part 2d, Appendix, p. 168.

8 Page 172.

9 U. S. Statutes at Large, p. 629.

10 Congressional Debates, vol. IX., part 2d, Appendix, p. 145.

11 Con. Globe, 1849-50, p. 451.

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