Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Government's Right to Self-Defence

As Americans got ready to go to war, James Russell Lowell--the editor of the Atlantic Monthly magazine--wrote essay after essay on critical issues. "The Government's Right to Self-Defence" appeared in the February 1861 issue (which is not the one pictured here). In it, Lowell argued that the North had to defend the principle of majority rule, which the South had violated.

Lowell castigates President Buchanan for indecision and lack of action. It seems that everyone was angry at Buchanan for his refusal to act, which I can understand; the president's insistence on acting only according to the law was an excellent principle, but the country was in a situation that had not been properly provided for in the law. I'm not sure that Buchanan's ideals can really be called indecision, but that's what it looked like, and it's landed him on a lot of "Worst President" lists.

Lowell argues that the Southern states have shown their true autocratic colors by threatening secession. He says that as long as things were going their way, they were happy to endorse the idea of majority rule, but as soon as that stopped, they threw a tantrum and wanted to quit:

It cannot be too distinctly stated or too often repeated that the discontent of South Carolina is not one to be allayed by any concessions which the free states can make with dignity or even safety. It is something more radical and of longer standing than distrust of the motives or probable policy of the Republican Party. It is neither more nor less than a disbelief in the very principles on which our government is founded. So long as they practically retained the government of the country, and could use its power and patronage to their own advantage, the plotters were willing to wait; but the moment they lost that control, by the breaking up of the Democratic Party, and saw that their chance of ever regaining it was hopeless, they declared openly the principles on which they have all along been secretly acting.

Denying the constitutionality of special protection to any other species of property or branch of industry, and in 1832 threatening to break up the Union unless their theory of the Constitution in this respect were admitted, they went into the late presidential contest with a claim for extraordinary protection to a certain kind of property already the only one endowed with special privileges and immunities. Defeated overwhelmingly before the people, they now question the right of the majority to govern, except on their terms, and threaten violence in the hope of extorting from the fears of the free states what they failed to obtain from their conscience and settled convictions of duty. Their quarrel is not with the Republican Party but with the theory of democracy. ...

His conclusion is that the Republic is far too important to give up without a struggle, and that war is justified because secession is, itself, an act of aggression against the Union.

And lastly--don't you love Lowell's beard?

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