Thoughts on Political Self-Determination


With a coming national election that looks as fractious and contentious as the one in 1860 on the horizon, it is worth looking back to view the opinions of Northerners observing the Southern States depart the fraternal union of States. While sober statesmen saw the solution to the dilemma in an amicable separation into two fraternal unions, the revolutionaries behind Lincoln saw an opportunity to end the republic and replace it by force with despotism. So ended the Founders experiment in self-government.

Bernhard Thuersam, Executive Director
Cape Fear Historical Institute
Post Office Box 328
Wilmington, NC 28402

Thoughts on Political Self-Determination:

President (James) Buchanan, in his message to Congress on the 3rd of December, 1860, said:
"The fact is that our Union rests upon public opinion and can never be cemented by the blood of its citizens shed in civil war. If it cannot live in the affections of the people it must one day perish. Congress possesses many means of preserving it by conciliation; but the sword was not placed in their hands to preserve it by force."

Edward Everett, writing on the 2nd of February, 1861, to the Union Meeting called to assemble in Faneuil Hall, said:
"To expect to hold fifteen States in the Union by force is preposterous. The idea of a civil war….is too monstrous to be entertained for a moment. If our sister States must leave us, in the name of Heaven, let them go in peace."

Wendell Phillips, speaking in New Bedford, Massachusetts on April 9, 1861 said:
“But I am sorry that a gun should be fired at Fort Sumter or that a gun should be fired from it for this reason: Here are a series of States girding the Gulf who think that their peculiar institutions require that they should have a separate government. They have a right to decide that question without appealing to you or me. A large body of people, sufficient to make a nation, have come to the conclusion that they will have a government of a certain form. Who denies them the right? Standing with the principles of ’76 behind us, who can deny them the right?”

Abraham Lincoln speaking on the 15th of November, 1860 said:

"My own impression is, leaving myself room to modify my opinion, if, upon further investigation, I should see fit to do so, that this government possesses both the authority and the power to maintain its own integrity. That, however, is not the ugly point of the matter. The ugly point is the necessity of keeping the Government together by force—as ours should be a Government of fraternity."

(Virginia’s Attitude Toward Slavery and Secession, Beverley Mumford, 1909)