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Northern Editorials on Peaceable Secession

Northern Editorials on Peaceable Secession
AI visualization of Southern politicians discussing secession in late 1860.

In November 1860, just after Abraham Lincoln's election, the abolitionist editor and publisher Horace Greeley, who earlier that year had been writing ominously about "the hanging of traitors," suddenly took a dovish turn, declaring that "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."

Greeley even invoked Thomas Jefferson on "the inalienable right of communities to alter or abolish forms of government that have become oppressive or injurious." And while he didn't mention Jefferson's first inaugural address, I found this line from Greeley's editorial:

If anybody sees fit to meditate Disunion, let them do so unmolested.

reminiscent of this passage from Jefferson's address:

If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.

However, Greeley seemingly broke with Jefferson, author of the Kentucky Resolution of 1798, which had championed states' rights of nullification, when Greeley wrote:

We must ever resist the asserted 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.

This discrepancy was ironic in view of the fact that Northern states were, if anything, going beyond Jefferson's (and later John C. Calhoun's) doctrine of nullification by refusing to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, which, disgusting as it was, had constitutional backing. And as historian David M. Potter pointed out, given Greeley's rather swift return to advocating coercion of the South,

Clearly, the abhorrence of force which is attributed to Greeley as of November, 1860, was, if sincere, both brief and out of character.

Still, Greeley's was not a lone Northern Republican voice for peaceable secession during the waning months of the antebellum period. The pro-Lincoln Cincinnati Daily Commercial, for example, wrote on March 23, 1861:

The experiment of an independent Government, will be tried by the seceded States. There is no doubt remaining on that subject. The Government which has been inaugurated in the Cotton States, is that of the minority of the people over which it is proclaimed — it is , and while it exists will be, a Government where the few rule the many. It is not, however, the province of the General Government, to maintain the rights of the majorities that armed with Constitutional power to govern, abjectly permit themselves to be governed. The people of the South have been basely deceived and terribly wronged by the secessionists. We must trust them in good time to avenge themselves and the nation. Vengeance belongs to them, and they will in due season perform the work that will vindicate their manhood, and make the account even. When the Union men have their feet upon the necks of the disunionists, and returning to the principles of the fathers of the Republic, engage in the good work of rebuilding the Union and making it stronger and more beneficent than ever, the world will learn that the vital idea of the capacity of the people for self-government, did not perish when the fanatics of a few States committed political suicide; and that idea will shine forth over the nations, in hopeful beauty, like the morning star telling of the coming glory of the sun.
The Southern people have to make their election in the issues that have been thrust upon the country in the name of their section. They have slavery, and have now the unqualified responsibility of their own destiny. It is conceded they can go out of the Union if they want to do so. The border slave States are in a position that they cannot long maintain, indeed that cannot long be tolerable. They must speedily join the secessionists - pass under the yoke set up at Montgomery, and commit themselves to the keeping of the tyran[n]ous plantocracy of the Cotton States or they must unequivocally and unconditionally remain in and stand by the Union. They can have all its guarantees in good faith and liberal measure, but in return they must abide by its obligations, maintain its dignity, defend its honor, obey and enforce its laws, and identify themselves with it unreservedly. Otherwise they are not for the Union. Their contingent disunion policy is an endorsement of anarchy, and is insulting, as well as injurious, to the real friends of Union.
It is obvious that the Government is at present, owing to the treachery of the late Administration, and the unworthy caution of the late Congress, almost powerless. Mr. LINCOLN found, in entering upon the duties of his office, a hard complication of strange and humiliating necessities, both civil and military. He found the Union disrupted, — in fact, if not according to constitutional law. Congress had refused to grant additional powers to meet the emergency. The treasury was empty, the navy inefficient, the army insignificant. He had to take the Government and the country as he found them, disorganized and disintegrated. It is much easier to name the things that he can not do, than the things that he can do. But it would be the weakness of cowardice, or a want of understanding, for him or for the country, to flinch from the consideration of all the facts. The "current events and experience" by which he promised to be guided, must, we are convinced, soon lead him to lend the whole influence of his Administration to the accomplishment of the peaceful separation of the disaffected from the adhering States of the Union; and in doing this, it may be necessary not only to mortify exceedingly the national pride, which as a people we have cultivated to an extraordinary degree, but to sacrifice some of the formalities by which the action of the Government is hedged about. The dream of an ocean-bound republic, which has been so grateful to Young America, we yet hope to see realized; but in the meantime there is room for several flourishing nations on this continent; and the sun will shine as brightly and the rivers run as clear — the cotton fields will be as white and the wheat fields as golden — when we acknowledge the Southern Confederacy as before. We would not undervalue the Union. It has ministered to our national pride, as well as to the prosperity of the whole country. But when it is gone, we will still have our fruitful and inviting soil and clime - our seats and channels of commerce — and the unequaled capacity of the people for productive labor.

If you'd like to sample the range of opinions being expressed at the North during this period, Google Books has free downloads of both volumes of Howard Cecil Perkin's compliation Northern Editorials on Secession Volume 1 here; Volume 2 here.

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