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The Secession of Virginia, and the American Civil War

The Illustrated London News, vol. 38, no. 1089, pp. 455-456.

May 18, 1861


The new secession movement in the Border Slave States, which may be called the second chapter of the American Revolution of 1861, has been followed so instantaneously by the commencement of a civil war, the destruction of arsenals and navy-yards, and the mustering of hosts on a scale unprecedented in the history of the New World, as to blur to the eyes of the casual reader the logical sequence of events, and completely to overslough some important aspects of the crisis. We saw the revolution break out in December, rage triumphantly during January, and carry off the seven Cotton-growing States of the Union; then, during February and March, subside; and, lastly, in April break out afresh in the very States which had just overcome it. At first sight this seems anomalous, but the anomaly yields to a close scrutiny of the transactions of the last three months. That scrutiny will bring into relief the governing fact that the immediate cause of the revolutionary movement in the Border Slave States in April is quite distinct from the occasion which led to the secession of the seven Confederate States in December and January last. South Carolina and her six sisters exercised their alleged constitutional right of secession because the executive department of the Federal Government was about to fall into the hands of a party which professed a carefully-limited and very moderate hostility to the extension of slavery. The Border States, on the other hand, bore Mr. Lincoln's election meekly, but the march of events immediately thereafter subjected their loyalty to a succession of new and unlooked-for tests. The withdrawal from Washington of the senators and representatives of the seceding States created a state of things which had not been contemplated by the adhering Slaves States. It gave the majority in both Houses of the Federal Legislature to the party which represented the prevailing ideas and interests of the Northern people. Nor was that majority over scrupulous in taking advantage of its unexpected ascendancy in Congress. The enactment of the Morrill Tariff against the united opposition of all the Southern senators and representatives remaining in the Capitol was certainly the very reverse of conciliatory. The "Crittenden Compromise" and the other propositions favoured by the Union men of the eight adhering Slave States were rejected by the Republicans, who, indeed, could not assent to them without abandoning the very principles which called their party into existence, which animated them under defeat, and finally led them to victory. All this while the Secession leaders of the Border States, among whom were most of the well-known and long-trusted Coryphaei of Southern opinion—Mason and Hunter, Breckinridge and Clingman, Pryor and Floyd—were indefatigable in inflaming the public mind of their States, so as to precipitate it [sic] into a policy of secession and revolution. Circumstances favoured their undertaking, they were able to point to the rejection of all offers of compromise, to the injustice of the Morrill Tariff, and to the permanent alteration of the equilibrium in Congress in consequence of the withdrawal of the representatives of the seceding States.

Nevertheless, their efforts were at first signally frustrated. The people were more conservative, more "submissive," than their leaders. In Delaware and Maryland the Union party were so strong that it was not thought necessary to take a plebiscitum on the subject; in Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, and Arkansas the people voted secession down by large majorities. But, although they repudiated secession as a policy, they did not repudiate it as a principle. The Legislatures and extraordinary Conventions of these States laid it down that a sovereign State had a right to secede whenever it saw fit, and, consequently, that any attempt on the part of the Federal Government to levy war on the seceded States would be a tyrannical and unconstitutional abuse of power. Such was the position of things in the adhering Slave States when Mr. Lincoln came into office on the 4th of March, and such it continued for another month. The United and Confederate States maintained a sort of armed truce; Mr. Lincoln's and Mr. Seward's well-known aversion to bloodshed favoured its prolongation; the Cabinet threw out the idea of the evacuation of Fort Sumter as a "feeler," gilding the pill with the assurance of the "strategic necessity" of the act. How long the Unionists of the eight adhering Slave States could have maintained their ascendancy over the Secessionists, had the truce been prolonged and broadened into a peaceful recognition of the independence of the Confederate States, it is bootless now to inquire, for two new elements were destined to enter into the combination which immediately broke up the tacit understanding which existed between Mr. Lincoln, the Unionists of the Border States, and Mr. Jefferson Davis. Those elements were the Morrill Tariff and the public opinion of the Northern

Page 456

States. The former ill-timed piece of legislation came into operation on April 1, and the Northern importers, on paying the higher scale of duties, lost no time in complaining that the lower rate was still in force at Savannah, Mobile, and New Orleans. "Either," said they, "enforce your tariff impartially, South as well as North, or recognise the independence of the Confederate States and plant your custom-houses along the new Southern frontier line of the United States." The justice of this claim was not to be gainsaid, but the manifestations of public opinion at the North were still more influential in forcing Mr. Lincoln (probably against his own desire) to pursue a more energetic course towards the Seceders. The Northerners revolted at the idea of abandoning Fort Sumter; they began to ask wherein Mr. Lincoln was an improvement on Mr. Buchanan. They demanded that the garrisons of Forts Sumter and Pickens should be relieved at any cost. Before this imperious demonstration of popular feeling the Cabinet of Washington gave way. On the 8th of April it became known that a squadron had left New York with sealed orders. The bombardment and capitulation of Fort Sumter ensued on the 12th and 13th. Mr. Lincoln's proclamation calling for 75,000 men "to suppress illegal combinations, and to cause the laws to be duly executed," was issued on the 15th. The response which the Northern people gave to this proclamation is one of the many very remarkable politica [sic] events of this century. Before the week was over Massachusetts troops were fighting their way through Baltimore to the Federal capital, and a blockade of the Southern ports had been proclaimed. Now, if ever, was the time for the Border Slave States to enforce their views of constitutional law, or to submit without reserve to the construction put upon the Constitution by the Northerners. The choice of Virginia was soon made. She seceded; but it is important to remember that the occasion for this act was not, as in the case of the seven original seceders, the election of Mr. Lincoln, but the, in her view, unconstitutional action of the President in making war on his own authority, and without the consent of Congress, on the seceded States. The secession ordinance of Virginia has not yet been published; but when the injunction of secrecy is withdrawn the world will see that the revolution in Virginia stands on better constitutional and legal grounds than revolutions generally do. In Europe a legal and constitutional revolution is a paradox. It has been reserved for the ambitious and innovating politicians of the New World to make such a novel contribution to political science.

Maryland is now the chief theatre of the war; and it is a singular instance of the conspicuous injustice of revolutions that she, the most conservative, humane, and loyal of the Slave States, should have to bear the brunt of this great struggle between the two sections of the late Union. She suffers for sins not her own. For the last twenty years she has held herself aloof from the aggressive policy of the Southern ultras, and has steadily advocated the cause of peace and quietness. One of her senators voted against the repeal of the Missouri compromise; and, by casting her suffrage for Mr. Fillmore, in 1856, when all her Southern sisters voted for Mr. Buchanan, she declared her neutrality in the most emphatic manner. Unlike all the other Slave States, she has permitted the growth of a large free-coloured population in her midst. This class of her inhabitants, which in 1790 numbered only 3000, had grown to 90,000 in 1860; while her slaves, which were 103,000 in 1790, had fallen to 87,000 in 1860. Her aggregate population is 687,000, so that her slave element only amounts to one in eight of her people. While the other Southern States have of late years passed measures proscribing free people of colour, the white men of Maryland, who, if free blacks are a nuisance, had more reason to complain than the people of any other Southern State, always refused to pass any Acts limiting their right to settle or hold property in that State. Recurring to recent political events, we observe that the loyalty of her present Governor (Mr. Hicks), in refusing to call a special Session of the Legislature when requested to do so by the Secessionists of his State, received the unbounded praise of Northern Governors, Legislatures, and Journals. When President Lincoln recently called for 75,000 troops the Governors of Delaware and Maryland were the only two Southern Governors who responded favourably to the demand. Unfortunately for the peace of this Conservative State, she lay on the highway between the Northern States and the city of Washington. The sight of Massachusetts soldiers passing through the streets of Baltimore, the chief city of Maryland, aroused the resentments of a mob of road-paviors, and the first blood of the revolution was shed in this city. The people of Baltimore and the Governor of the State then demanded that no more Federal troops should pass through Maryland. This was equivalent to a request that Washington should be evacuated, as that city can only be approached through Virginia or Maryland. President Lincoln, actuated by a feeling of humanity, which certainly has not increased his popularity in the North, consented to bring the troops to Washington via Annapolis, so as to avoid Baltimore, but, to the reiterated complaint that this modified order too was in derogation of the rights of Maryland as a Sovereign State after her Governor had forbidden the passage of any more Federal troops through her borders, the President made the following characteristic reply:—"They (the troops) can't come under the earth, and they can't fly over it, and, mathematically, they must come across it. Why, Sir, those Carolinians are now crossing Virginia, and, hang me, what can I do?" The good sense of this dictum is very apparent, but its constitutionality is extremely doubtful. Furthermore, Annapolis, the capital of Maryland, is now garrisoned by Federal troops, and a Federal army of occupation keeps open the line of communication between that city and Washington. The Maryland Legislature, which assembled on the 26th ult., was summoned to meet at Frederick City, as Annapolis is under the control of New York and Massachusetts volunteers. A late arrival brings the intelligence that that body, notwithstanding the irritating circumstances under which it met, declared in favour of the Union by a majority of fifty-three against thirteen. It is to be hoped this decision will turn aside the wrath of the Northerners, and that the war-cloud will discharge its lightning elsewhere than on Maryland.

Inter arma leges silent! Amid the passions roused by the first scenes of civil war the United States' Constitution falls to the ground. But if the restraints of constitutional law are infringed in one instance, why not in others? This is how the Northerners are now arguing. They are complaining of the "imbecility" of President Lincoln, as they complained of the "imbecility" of his predecessor. "Let the troops be sent through Baltimore, and by no other route. If resistance be made let Baltimore be laid in ashes. Why not seize or disperse the members of the Maryland Legislature? Why nor invade Virginia, seize Richmond, and hang a hundred of the notorious traitors who nestle there? Why not send a flotilla down the Mississippi and chastise New Orleans herself?" Schemes yet more extreme and revolutionary are openly canvassed by journals like the New York Times, which a few weeks ago prided themselves on being conservative on the question of slavery. It is intimated that the love of the Union is so strong with the Northern masses that, rather than see it destroyed, in their desperation they will make war against the Seceders a war of liberation to the African race. Will Mr. Lincoln retract all his solemn pledges, and enlarge the objects and strategy of the war, in obedience to the vindictive clamour of Northern public opinion? The humane and upright character of the man—a man little prone to follow the multitude to do what, in his opinion, was evil—warrants us in believing that he will confine the war within the limits admittedly imposed upon him by the Constitution of the Federal Government. But if he does take such a stand, and hold to it firmly, we may expect to hear him denounced by his supporters as bitterly as was Mr. Buchanan, who denied that the Constitution gave the President any power whatever to act against a seceding State.

We propose to continue from time to time, in another part of this Journal, the discussion of those questions of permanent interest to the jurist, the historian, and the politician which are brought forward by this remarkable revolution. Among other topics which will receive consideration are the State right of secession, and the influence of physical geography in determining the extent of the disintegration which the late United States are destined to suffer in consequence of the events which began to operate last winter, and are still passing before our eyes.

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