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CHAPTER XXIII

CH. XXIII.

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THE CHARLESTON CONSPIRATORS

S President Buchanan might have foreseen, his inconsistent message proved satisfactory to neither friend nor foe. The nation was on the eve of rebellion and had urgent need of remedial acts, not of temporizing theories, least of all theories which at the late Presidential election had been rejected as errors and dangers. The message served as a topic to initiate debate in Congress; but this debate, resting only on the main subject long enough to cover the Chief Magistrate's views and recommendations as a whole, with almost unanimous expressions of dissent, and even of contempt, passed on to words of mutual defiance and open declarations of revolutionary purpose.

The conspirators in the Cabinet had done their work. By the official declarations of the President of the United States, the Government had tied its own hands had resolved and proclaimed the duty and policy of non-resistance to organized rebellion. Henceforth disunionists, secessionists, nullifiers, and conspirators of every kind had but to combine under alleged State action, and through the instrumentalities of State Legislatures and State conventions cast off without let or hinder

ance their Federal obligations by resolves and ordi- CH. XXIII. nances. The semblance of a vote, a few scratches of the pen, a proclamation, and a new flag, and at once without the existence of a corporal's squad, or the smell of burnt powder, there would appear on the horizon of American politics, if not a de jure at least a de facto State!

If there had hitherto been any doubt or hesitation in the minds of the principal secession leaders of the South, it vanished under the declared policy of inaction of the Federal Administration. The President's message was a practical assurance of immunity from arrest and prosecution for treason. It magnified their grievances, specifically pointed out a contingent right and duty of revolution, acknowledged that mere public sentiment might override and nullify Federal laws, and pointedly bound up Federal authority in narrow legal and Constitutional restrictions. It was blind as a mole to find Federal power, but keen-eyed as a lynx to discover Federal impotence.

The leaders of secession were not slow to avail themselves of the favorable situation. Between the date of the message and the incoming of the new and possibly hostile Administration there intervened three full months. It was the season of political activity- the period during which legislatures meet, messages are written, and laws enacted. It afforded ample time to authorize, elect, and hold State conventions. Excitement was at fever heat in the South, and public sentiment paralyzed, despondent, and divided at the North.

Accordingly, as if by a common impulse, the secession movement sprang into quick activity and

CH. XXIII. united effort. Within two months the States of South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas, in the order named, by formal ordinances of conventions, declared themselves separated from the Union. The recommendation of Yancey's "scarlet letter" had been literally carried out; the Cotton States were precipitated into revolution.

In this movement of secession the State of South Carolina was the enthusiastic pioneer. At the date of the President's message she had already provided by law for the machinery of a convention, though no delegates had been elected. Nevertheless, her Legislature at once plunged pell-mell into the task of making laws for the new condition of independent sovereignty which by common consent the convention was in a few days to declare. Questions of army and navy, postal communication, and foreign diplomacy, for the moment eclipsed the baser topics of estray laws or wolf-scalp bounties, and the little would-be Congress fully justified the reported sarcasm of one of her leading citizens that "the Palmetto State was too small for a republic and too large for a lunatic asylum."

But, with all their outward fire and zeal for nationality, her politicians were restrained by an under-current of prudence. A revolution even under exceptional advantages is a serious thing.

Therefore the agitators of South Carolina scanned the President's message with unconcealed eagerness. In that paradox of assertions and denials, of purposes to act and promises to refrain, they found much to assure them, but also something to cause doubt. "As I understand the

message of the President of the United States," CH. XXIII. explained Mr. Magrath to the South Carolina Con

vention, "he affirms it as his right, and constitutional duty, and high obligation to protect the property of the United States within the limits of South Carolina, and to enforce the laws of the Union within the limits of South Carolina. He says he has no constitutional power to coerce South Carolina, while at the same time he denies to her the right of secession. It may be, and I apprehend it will be, Mr. President, that the attempt to coerce South Carolina will be made under the pretense of protecting the property of grath in the the United States within the limits of South Carolina. I am disposed, therefore, at the very threshold to test the accuracy of this logic, and test the conclusions of the President of the United States."

President Buchanan had indeed declared in his message that the Constitution gave the Federal Government no power to coerce a State. He had further said that the laws gave him no authority to execute civil or criminal process or suppress an insurrection with the help of the militia, or the army and navy, "in a State where no judicial authority exists to issue process, and where there is no marshal to execute it, and where, even if there were such an officer, the entire population would constitute one solid combination to resist him."

So far as mere political theories could go, this was certainly an important concession to the conspirators. In virtue of these doctrines, they could proceed, without danger to life and property, to hold conventions, pass secession ordinances, resign and refuse Federal offices, repudiate Northern

Speech of
Mr. Ma-

South Carolina Convention, Dec. 19, 1860. "An

nual Cyclo

pedia," 1861, p. 649.

"Mr. Buchanan's Adminis

tration," p. 126.

CH. XXIII. debts, and effectively stop all Federal mails at the State line. But reading another passage in this paradoxical message of President Buchanan, they found these other propositions and purposes, involving a flat contradiction, and which with sufficient reason excited the apprehensions of Mr. Magrath and his fellow-conspirators. Said the

message:

"The same insuperable obstacles do not lie in the way of executing the laws for the collection of the customs. The revenue still continues to be collected as heretofore at the custom-house in Charleston, and should the collector unfortunately resign, a successor may be appointed to perform this duty.

"Then in regard to the property of the United States in South Carolina. This has been purchased for a fair equivalent 'by the consent of the Legislature of the State,' 'for the erection of forts, magazines, arsenals,' etc., and over these the authority 'to exercise exclusive legislation' has been expressly granted by the Constitution to Congress. It is not believed that any attempt will be made to expel the United States from this property by force; but if in this I should prove to be mistaken, the officer in command of the forts has received orders to act strictly on the defensive. In such "Mr. Buch- a contingency the responsibility for consequences would rightfully rest upon the heads of the assailants."

anan's

Adminis

tration," p. 126.

It was, of course, in vain that Mr. Magrath and other South Carolina constitutional expounders protested against this absurd want of logic. It was in vain that they could demonstrate that pro

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