Northerners Opposed to Coercion
June 1, 2023 | View PDF
Jefferson Davis not only received verbal criticism, he was also subjected to physical abuse when he was held in a Union prison awaiting a trial that never happened; however, he never backed down from his belief in the sovereignty of the States. In 1846, Davis described the only source of the Federal Government’s powers: “I answer, it is the creature of the States; as such it could have no inherent power, all it possesses was delegated by the States.” Many Northerners agreed that the Union is voluntary and ultimate sovereignty lies with the creators of the federal republic—the States. The people of the respective States determined, through their representatives, which coalition they would be part of.
On January 21, 1861, in an emotional and grief-laden chamber, Davis resigned from the U.S. Senate, explaining: “Senators, we recur to the compact which binds us together; we recur to the principles upon which our Government was founded; and when you deny them, and when you deny to us the right to withdraw from a Government which thus perverted threatens to be destructive of our rights, we but tread in the path of our fathers when we proclaim our independence….”
A large number of Northerners who agreed with Davis openly expressed their beliefs. A few examples include:
Thomas Reynolds, Democratic ex-Governor of Missouri and Chief Justice of the Illinois Supreme Court, said on December 28, 1860: “I am heart and soul with the South. She is right in principle from the Constitution.”
Gerald Hallock and David Hale, staunch opponents of the Republican Party’s coercive tactics, published The Journal of Commerce. Their anti-coercion stance was met with the U.S. Post Office’s refusal to carry their papers.
President James Buchanan explained to Edwin Stanton that the Constitution does not provide any power to the federal government to coerce a seceding State.
In his book, American Conflict, Horace Greeley wrote: “There was not a moment when a large portion of the Northern Democracy was not hostile to any form or shade of coercion. Many openly condemned and stigmatized a war on the South as atrocious, unjustifiable, and aggressive.”
Massachusetts lawyer, editor, and author John T. Morse wrote in his two-volume biography about Lincoln. “History is crowded with tales of despots, but of no despot who thought or decided with the taciturn independence which marked this president [Lincoln] of the Free American Republic in regard to coercing seceding States.”
Edward Everett, Massachusetts Whig politician, educator, and pastor said: “If our sister States must leave us, in the name of Heaven let them go in peace.”
In February 1862, author Nathaniel Hawthorne revealed his Jeffersonian inclinations by stating: “It would be too great an absurdity…to spend all our Northern strength, for the next generation, in holding on to a people who insist on being let loose.”
Several abolitionists associated with William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips opposed coercion. Even some Republicans opposed forcing seceded States back into the Union; Stanton biographer George Gorham noted this split. The 1860 Republican Party Platform stated: “we denounce the lawless invasion by armed force of the soil of any State or Territory, no matter under what pretext, as among the gravest of crimes.” Clearly, Lincoln disagreed with this part of his party’s platform since he and his supporters demanded an unbroken Union. Conversely many prominent Republicans, e.g., Horace Greeley and Salmon Chase were originally fine with disunion.
Greeley summed up the South’s desire for independence in November 1860: “…we maintain that they have a perfect right to discuss it; nay, we hold with Jefferson to the inalienable right of communities to alter or abolish forms of government that have become oppressive or injurious, and if the Cotton States decide that they can do better out of the Union than in it, we insist on letting them go in peace. The right to secede may be a revolutionary one, but it exists nevertheless, and we don’t see how one party can have a right to do what another has a right to prevent.” [Greeley later became a supporter of Lincoln’s war.]
The Confederate States’ failure to gain independence dealt a near deathblow to voluntary government. As H.L. Mencken noted, “The American people, North and South, went into the [Civil] war as citizens of their respective states, they came out as subjects, and what they thus lost they have never got back.” However, as Jefferson Davis said: "The principle for which we contend is bound to reassert itself, though it may be at another time and in another form."
Jefferson Davis’ birthday is June 3rd and deserves remembrance. Davis was all that the modern critics hate– he was a Christian, a Confederate, and a believer in consensual government.
Sources: Truths of History, by Mildred Lewis Rutherford (Harrisonburg, Virginia: Old South Institute Press, 2009); George Lunt, Origin of the Late War (University of Michigan Reprint Series, 2006); “Nathaniel Hawthorne disses Abe Lincoln,” by Peter Carlson, from U.S. History in Context; The Gray Book: A Confederate Catechism, by Lyon Gardner Tyler, (Wiggins, Mississippi: Crown Rights Book Co.—The Liberty Reprint Series, 1997); “H.L. Mencken Quotations,” from Freedom Writer at https://www.hugedomains. com/domain_profile.cfm?d=freedomwriter.com “Jefferson Davis quotes,” from AZ Quotes, at https://www.azquotes.com/quote/658598; and Jefferson Davis—The Unforgiven, by Grady McWhiney (Biloxi, Mississippi: The Beauvoir Press, 1989). Jefferson Davis’ birthday is on June 3rd. It has long been recognized as a State Holiday in Alabama.