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DOCTRINE OF COERCION.
Views of President Buchanan, Madison, and Senator Johnson-Letters
of Ex-President Buchanan-Forbearance of both President Buchanan and Lincoln towards the South.
It can be no satisfaction to any true American citizen to entertain the belief that any President of the United States has ever been guilty of treason, or an inclination towards treason, either in act or thought. On the contrary, it must be a subject of congratulation to every such citizen to know, if it really be the fact, that we have never get had a President of whom it may not be said, “ He was honestly devoted to what he conscientiously believed to be the best interests of this country; in a word, he was a patriot.”
In the heat of party excitement, accusations more or less grave have been made against each and all of our presidents, not excepting the Father of his Country; but probably no one of them has ever been pursued with charges more serious or with a rancor more unrelenting than James Buchanan, not only during his presidency and the subsequent years of his retirement, but since his death.
I do not propose to enter upon a discussion of the questions generally which divided the Democratic and Republican parties at and after his election, but to touch briefly upon two points only: 1. The unjust censure cast upon Mr. Buchanan in the allegation that he was opposed to coercing the seceding States; and, 2. The charge that he favored the South to an extent in its nature treasonable.
Regarding the first allegation, it would be presumption in me to attempt to offer any observations of my own after Judge Black's able exposition of this subject in the June number of The Galaxy; but I think it will be interesting to the general reader to hear what Mr. Buchanan himself says on this much-controverted doctrine, and, as I have his book before me, entitled “ Mr. Buchanan's Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion,” published in 1866, I will make a copious extract from it.
To illustrate his views, he quotes from his annual message of December 3, 1860, to Congress, going at length into facts and arguments to show that the right of a State to secede from the Union does not exist under the Constitution. He says:
“In order to justify secession as a constitutional remedy, it must be on the principle that the Federal Government is a mere voluntary association of States, to be dissolved at pleasure by any one of the contracting parties. If this be so, the Confederacy is a rope of sand, to be penetrated and dissolved by the first adverse wave of public opinion in any of the States. In this manner our thirty-three States may resolve themselves into as many petty, jarring, and hostile republics, each one retiring from the Union without responsibility whenever any sudden excitement might impel them to such a course. By this process a Union might be entirely broken into fragments in a few weeks, which cost our forefathers many years of toil, privation, and blood to establish. Such a principle is wholly inconsistent with the history as well as the character of the Federal Constitution.”
After enforcing this patriotic view of the subject, demonstrating the illegality and folly as well as the wickedness of secession, he proceeds:
"Then follows the opinion expressed in the message, that the Constitution has conferred no power on the Federal Government to coerce a State to remain in the Union. [The italicizing is his.] The following is the language: 'The question, fairly stated, is, Has the Constitution dele. gated to Congress the power to coerce a State into submission which is attempting to withdraw from the Confederacy? If answered in the affirmative, it must be on the principle that the power has been conferred upon Congress to make war against a State.
“After much serious reflection [this and the following paragraph he quoted from his message] I have arrived at the conclusion that no such power has been delegated to Congress or to any other department of the Federal Government. It is manifest, upon an inspection of the Constitution, that this is not among the specific and enumerated powers granted to Congress; and it is equally apparent that its exercise is not necessary and proper for carrying into execution any one of these powers. So far from this power having been delegated to Congress, it was expressly refused by the convention which framed the Constitution.
It appears from the proceedings of that body that on the 31st May, 1787, the clause “authorizing an exertion of the force of the whole against a delinquent State” came up for consideration. Mr. Madison opposed it in a brief but powerful speech, from which I shall extract but a single sentence. He observed: “The use of force against a State would look more like a declaration of war than an infliction of punishment, and would probably be considered by the party attacked as a dissolution of all previous compacts by which it might be bound " Upon his motion the clause was unanimously postponed, and was never, I believe, again presented. Soon afterward, on the 8th of June, 1787, when incidentally adverting to the subject, he said: “Any government for the United States formed on the supposed practicability of using force against the unconstitutional proceedings of the States would prove as visionary and fallacious as the government of Congress,” evidently meaning the then existing Congress of the old Confederation.'
"The Republican party have severely but unjustly criticised this portion of the message, simply because they have not chosen to take the distinction between the power to make war against a State in its sovereign character, and the undoubted power to enforce the laws of Congress directly against individual citizens thereof within its limits. It was chiefly to establish this very distinction that the Federal Constitution was framed. The Government of the old Confederation could act only by requisitions on the different States, and these, as we have seen, obeyed or disobeyed according to their own discretion. In case of disobedience, there was no resort but to actual force against them, which would at once have destroyed the Confederacy. To remove the necessity for such a dangerous alternative, the present Constitution, passing over the governments of the States, conferred upon the Government of the United States the power to execute its own laws directly against their people. Thus all danger of collision between the Federal and State authorities was removed, and the indissoluble nature of the Federal Union established. The Republican party have, notwithstanding, construed the message to mean a denial by the President of the power to enforce the laws against the citizens of a State after secession, and even after actual rebellion, The whole tenor, not only of this message, but of the special message of January 8, 1861, contradicts and disproves this construction. Indeed, in the first clause of the message immediately preceding that relied upon, and whilst South Carolina bidly rushing to secession, he expressed his determination to execute the revenue laws whenever these should be resisted, and to defend the public property against all assaults. And in the special message, after South Carolina and other States had seceded, he reiterated this declaration, maintaining both his right and his duty to employ military force for this purpose. Having proved secession to be a mere nullity, he considered the States which had seceded to be still within the Union, and their people equally bound as they had been before to obey the laws.
“The disunionists, unlike the Republicans, placed the correct construction upon both messages, and therefore denounced them in severe terms.
“The President was gratified to observe that Senator Johnson, of Tennessee, a few days after the date of the first message, placed this subject in its true light, and thereby exposed himself to similar denunciations. In his speech of December 18, 1860 (“Congressional Globe,' p. 119), he says, “I do not believe the Federal Government has the power to coerce a State, for by the eleventh amendment of the Constitution of the United States it is expressly provided that you cannot even put one of the States of this Confederacy before one of the courts of the country as a party. As a State, the Federal Government has no power to coerce it ; but it is a member of the compact to which it agreed in common with the other States, and this Government has the right to pass laws, and to enforce those laws upon individuals within the limits of each State. While the one proposition is clear, the other is equally so. This Government can, by the Constitution of the country, and by the laws enacted in conformity with the Constitution, operate upon individuals, and has the right and the power not to coerce a State, but to enforce and execute the law upon individuals within the limits of a State.'
"Sound doctrine, and in conformity with that of the framers of the Constitution! Any other might, according to Mr. Madison, have been construed by the States in rebellion as a dissolution of their connection with the other States, and recognized them as independent belligerents on equal terms with the United States. Happily, our civil war was undertaken and prosecuted in self-defence, not to coerce a State, but to enforce the execution of the laws within the States against individuals, and to suppress an unjust rebellion raised by a conspiracy among them against the Government of the United States."
Such was Mr. Buchanan's belief in regard to the power of the general Government to coerce a State. His official acts were made to conform to this conviction, and out of this came the charge of weakness and treachery which will also meet, not so much by any remarks of my own as by the testimony readily at hand of other witnesses entitled to the fullest credit. The facts, however, speak for themselves. Judge Black, in the article referred to, has presented Mr. Buchanan's position in this regard clearly and truthfully, and I venture the opinion that there are few, if any, fair-minded persons of any political party whatever, who, when they bring to mind the actual state of things existing during the closing months of Mr. Buchanan's administration, will not admit that great injustice has been done him by the thoughtless accusations against him of timidity, weakness, and treachery. That he was cautious there is no doubt, and it is equally certain now that in his caution there was great wisdom. Had he been rash, instead of cautious and forbearing as he was, in all probability active hostilities would have been inaugurated in January or February, 1861. Maryland as well as Virginia would have been forced to declare for secession, the rebels would have seized and held Washington, as I firmly believe it was their intention to do, and, as was also their purpose I am just as firmly convinced, Mr. Lincoln's inauguration would have been prevented. The city was swarming with secessionists both in and out of office, and there was a feeling of insecurity fearful to contemplate, which found relief only when, through the patriotic foresight of the Hon. Joseph Holt, Secretary of War, supported by the President and the rest of the Cabinet, a well-appointed body of United States troops was brought here from the West to preserve the public peace. The policy of the Government, however, was purely defensive; and this policy and the effect of it cannot be better illustrated than by the answer made by Mr. Holt, in a publication, in September, 1865, to the false charge that the cannon of Fort Sumter had “ been muzzled by treaty stipulations."