Loyalty to the Constitution, or the Government?
Imagine today an officer in the US armed forces resigning his commission because the government has violated the US Constitution. The Americans quoted below clearly understood where the specific and delegated powers of the general government ended, and where their loyalty lay. It was not loyalty to a government or symbol such as a flag; or to each new inhabitant of the Oval Office; it was loyalty to their homes and people, and to the unchanging document that protected the governed as they were free to choose the government under which they live, whenever and however they saw fit.
Bernhard Thuersam, Executive Director
Cape Fear Historical Institute
Post Office Box 328
Wilmington, NC 28402
Loyalty to the Constitution, or the Government?
"When officers sympathetic to the South realized that there would be no yielding on either side, and that there would be war, the resignations (from the US Navy)that began as a trickle in early April became a flood during the second half of the month. From December to the end of April (1861), 222 officers whose loyalty apparently lay with the Confederacy had resigned. These officers represented almost two-thirds of the total who would eventually resign on these grounds. One of the factors that probably accelerated the resignations in addition to the outbreak of fighting and the prospect of many more months of it, was the requirements of the Lincoln administration that an oath of loyalty be sworn to the United States government. Civilian employees were required to take this oath, perhaps for the first time, and officers of both services were required to reaffirm their oath of loyalty to their service and country. In the Navy, loyalty oath forms were printed and sent to all ships and stations where commanding officers demanded compliance. Refusal to comply resulted in a virtual forced resignation.
Captain Robert Tansil, USMC, (stated in his resignation):
"In entering the public service, I took an oath to support the Constitution, which necessarily gives me the right to interpret it. Our institutions, according to my understanding, are founded upon the principle and right of self-government. The States, in forming the Confederacy (in 1783) did not relinquish that right, and I believe that each State has a clear and unquestionable right to secede whenever the people thereof think proper, and the Federal Government has no legal or moral authority to use physical force to keep them in the Union. Entertaining these views, I cannot conscientiously join in a war against any of the States which have already seceded or may hereafter secede, either North or South, for the purpose of coercing them back into the Union."
One of the strongest letters of resignation was submitted by Lieutenant James B. Lewis to Secretary Welles from Charlestown, (western) Virginia:
"The General Government having been converted into a military despotism & when I entered the service (then an honorable one), I was sworn to support the Constitution of the United States. That having been set aside, "the higher law" (of Seward) compels me to resign & I do hereby resign my position as Lieutenant in the United States Navy….It is with deep mortification that I recognize the fact of the utter failure…in the experiment in constitutional liberty. What a spectacle (to) all intelligent minds is the immolation of the cardinal principles of the Declaration of Independence (those Virginia fought through a seven years war to establish) "the consent of the governed & to institute new governments." The despotism has usurped the place of constitutional liberty."
Officers of the highest rank were also dismissed summarily, particularly if they, like Captain Isaac Mayo, took the trouble to attack the Lincoln administration. Writing from his Maryland estate, he asserted:
"For more than half a century it has been the pride of my life to hold office under the Government of the United States. For twenty-five, I have engaged in active sea-service and have never seen my flag dishonored, or the American arms disgraced by defeat. It was the hope of my old age that I might die, as I have lived, an officer in the Navy of a free government. This hope has been taken from me. In adopting the policy of coercion, you have denied to millions of freemen the rights of the Constitution and in its stead, you have placed the will of a sectional party. As one of the oldest soldiers of America, I protest—in the name of humanity—against this "war against brethren!" I cannot fight against the Constitution while pretending to fight for it. You will therefore oblige me by accepting my resignation."
Commander Matthew Fontaine Maury, Superintendent of the US Naval Observatory, (submitted an) initial letter of resignation …only one sentence in length. "Sir, I beg leave herewith to resign into your hands my commission as a Commander in the Navy of the United States." Secretary Welles replied that…the President…wished him to state his reasons for wishing to resign. Six days after having sent the resignation, Maury sent his statement of reasons:
"Our once glorious Union is gone; the State through which I confessed allegiance to the Federal Government has no longer any lot or part in it; Neither have I. I deign to go with my people & with them to share its fortunes of our own State together. Such are the reasons for tendering my resignation, and I hope that the President will find them satisfactory…"
(And from) Lieutenant James J. Waddell who was serving on the USS John Adams…
"The people of North Carolina having withdrawn their allegiance to the Government of the late Confederacy of the United States…I return to "His Excellency the President of the United States," the commission which appointed me a Lieutenant…In thus separating myself from association which I have cherished for twenty years, I wish it to be understood that no doctrine of the rights of secession, nor wish of the disunion of the States impel me, but simply because my home is the home of my people in the South, and I could not bear arms against them."
(Going South, US Navy Officer Resignations & Dismissals On The Eve of the Civil War, William S. Dudley, Naval Historical Foundation, 1981, pp. 12-23_)