January 3, 1861: Senator Douglas on the crisis

Stephen A. Douglas
Stephen A. Douglas

The Illinois State Register of January 16, 1861 published extensive excerpts from a January 3 speech by Senator Douglas. I have pulled out some brief passages here that give a general idea of his views. He begins by acknowledging that South Carolina has successfully seceded from the Union by an act of revolution, which he regards as illegal, but a fait accompli. He does not, however, think that this situation should be allowed to continue. For one thing, disunion is anathema to the landlocked western states.

I have said that I cannot recognize nor countenance the right of secession. Illinois, situated in the interior of the continent, can never acknowledge the right of the states bordering on the seas to withdraw from the Union at pleasure, and form alliances among themselves and with other countries, by which we shall be excluded from all access to the ocean, from all intercourse and commerce with foreign nations. We can never consent to be shut up within the circle of a Chinese wall, erected and controlled by others without our permission; or to any other system of isolation by which we shall be deprived of any communication with the rest of the civilized world. Those states which are situated in the interior of the continent can never assent to any such doctrine. Our rights, our interests, our safety, our existence as a free people, I forbid it! The north-western states were ceded to the United States before the constitution was made, on condition of perpetual union with the other states. The territories were organized, settlers invited, lands purchased, and homes made, on the pledge of your plighted faith of perpetual union.

He also holds that the government can use military action to enforce its laws in the seceded state (or states).

Nor do I sympathize at all in the apprehensions and misgivings I hear expressed about coercion. We are told that inasmuch as our government is founded upon the will of the people, or the consent of the governed, there fore coercion is incompatible with republicanism. Sir, the word government means coercion. There can be no government without coercion. Coercion is the vital principle upon which all governments rest. Withdraw the right of coercion, and you dissolve your government. If every man would perform his duty and respect the rights of his neighbors voluntarily, there would be no necessity for any government on earth. The necessity of government is found to consist in the fact that some men will not do right unless coerced to do so. The object of all government is to coerce and compel every man to do his duty, who would not otherwise perform it. Hence I do not subscribe at all to this doctrine that coercion is not to be used in a free government. It must be used in all governments, no matter what their form or what their principles.

However, he also holds that war on South Carolina (and possibly other states that plan to secede) would lead to permanent disunion, and argues that compromise is the best course, advocating something like the Crittenden proposals.

In my opinion, we have reached a point where disunion is inevitable, unless some compromise, founded upon mutual concession, can be made. I prefer concession to a dissolution of the Union. When I avow myself in favor of compromise, I do not mean that one side should give up all that it has claimed, nor that the other side should give up everything for which it has contended. Nor do I ask any man to come to my standard; but I simply say that I will meet every one half way who is willing to preserve the peace of the country, and save the Union from disruption upon principles of compromise and concession.

In my judgment, no system of compromise can be effectual and permanent which does not banish the slavery question from the halls of congress and the arena of federal politics, by irrepealable constitutional provision. We have tried compromises by law, compromises by act of congress; and now we are engaged in the small business of crimination and recrimination, as to who is responsible for not having lived up to them in good faith, and for having broken faith. I want whatever compromise is agreed to, placed beyond the reach of party polities and partisan policy, by being made irrevocably in the constitution itself, so that every man that holds office will be bound by his oath to support it.

I’m curious about the Crittenden compromise proposal, which includes the proviso Douglas recommends here that the amendments would be made immune to repeal. I don’t see how it’s possible to amendment the Constitution in a manner that can’t be repealed. The clause that says the other amendments can’t be repealed can surely be repealed itself. Or am I mistaken?

This entry was posted in Causes of the war, South Carolina, Stephen A. Douglas. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to January 3, 1861: Senator Douglas on the crisis

  1. Trey says:

    I am not a Constitutional lawyer, nor any other type of lawyer, so my comments are based on rational thought. I would fell that any admendment that stated that it could not be repealed, can, in effect, be repealed by a majority of those eligible to vote on such repeal. That was the basic principle of having an Constitution.

    As for Mr. Douglas’s thoughts that an interior state would be prevented from having lawfull commerce by a state bordering the ocean, or prevented from communication by such act, I would venture to say that this is due to his myopic view of the world and that his thoughts of a “strong federal government”. He supports this line of thought with the statements regarding coercion being a foundation of a government. In reality, it is now coercion which compells citizens to follow the laws of the land. Free choice is no longer an option. In the 1850’s the states were the strong form of government in the United States. This was demostrated by the fact that the military was all voluntary at that time and was, for the bulk of it, part of the states’ command and control.

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