C. Chauncey Burr on the Legitimacy of Coercion and the Civil War

Many constitutional issues arose when the Civil War began concerning the right of the Federal government to conduct war operations against the Southern states. In this excerpt, Burr addresses some interesting ideas concerning the issue. This selection comes from an article entitled, The Democrats in Congress, dated 1863.

August Glen-James, editor

This Constitution does not attempt to coerce sovereign bodies—States in their political capacities; no coercion is applicable to such bodies.

The truth is, that the opposition is self-stultified by admitting the right of the Federal Government to make war upon a State under any circumstances. A State is not the subject of the Federal Government. It is a sovereign body, not legally liable to be coerced with arms. Judge Ellsworth, explaining the Constitution of the United States (which he helped to frame) to the Convention of Connecticut, says: “This Constitution does not attempt to coerce sovereign bodies—States in their political capacities; no coercion is applicable to such bodies.” Every Democratic member of Congress knows this. He knows that as States are not subjects, they cannot be guilty of rebellion. A sovereign body may resume lent powers, but it cannot rebel. Surely the attempt of a State to resume its sovereign powers, whatever it may be called, is not rebellion. Those powers, in the language of Mr. Madison, the Father of the Constitution, were never surrendered, for, as he says: “a delegated is not a surrendered power.” The same is asserted in the Resolutions of ‘98: “The States being the parties to the Constitutional compact, and in their sovereign capacity, it follows of necessity that there can be no tribunal above their authority, to decide in the last resort, such questions as may be of sufficient magnitude to require their interposition.” These resolutions of ‘98 have been the platform of the Democracy, on which it has won its proud triumph, for nearly three quarters of a century. They have been looked upon by all parties as a sort of supplement to the Constitution. The Democrats in Congress understand this matter—they know that the war which the Abolitionists are carrying on is a revolution—is a violation of the Constitution, and necessarily destructive of the government formed by our fathers—More so a thousand times than secession, which only denies the jurisdiction of the Federal Government, leaving the Government itself whole and perfect in every part for all who wish to enjoy it.

The reason why the Democrats in Congress have not been able to keep together in a solid column against the Lincoln revolution is, that they are themselves, all the time, standing on untenable ground. The admission of the right of the Federal Government to make war upon the States, under any circumstances, is fatal to Democratic unity and coherence. Thus the opposition in Congress is demoralized, either by ignorance of the nature of the Federal Government, or by cowardice. Perhaps the honorable gentlemen will shrink from the charge of cowardice, and say that they are governed by policy—that the people are not yet prepared for the whole truth, &c. When will they be prepared for the truth, if you are all the time teaching them falsehood by your acts and votes? What an excuse is this to even assist the bloody revolutionists in tearing our Government to pieces, because the people are not prepared for the truth! . . .

The truth is, that the people have never believed this war to be right. Nine out of ten of the Democratic masses know it to be wrong; but they have been dragged into its support by the cowardice or the treachery of men who occupy the position of leaders. When the Democratic members of Congress get the pluck and manhood to lay the axe at the root of the tree—to boldly, defiantly declare that the Federal Government has no right to wage such a war, and that, therefore, every man who gives either men or money to it commits a crime against his country, we shall see that the people are ready for any action which will stop this bloody and brutal revolution. If weak or shallow men cry out, “What, would you let the South go in peace?” answer, “Would it not be better to let them go in peace than to drive them out in blood?” Would you violate the Constitution, batter down the fundamental principles of our Government, murder a million of our people, and saddle your own shoulders with a debt you can never pay, in a vain effort to force back an unwilling people? The Union was created upon the voluntary principle. It can never stand upon any other. No wise man, no friend of freedom wishes it to stand upon any other. There is a necessity, as unconditional as that of death, that this Union must perish the instant it ceases to be a voluntary bond of fraternal States.

To attempt to keep it in existence by the sword, is to make war upon the fundamental principles of liberty and government established by our fathers—is to sink the grand work of their hands in blood. That is what the Abolitionists are doing, and the Democratic members of Congress, instead of grappling this monstrous despotism by the throat, and crying aloud for the people to fly to the rescue of liberty, are beating the air with the coward’s excuse of policy.

It is true that some members have the pluck to declare that the party in power is murdering the nation, but their words are emasculated by concessions which carry them half way over to the revolutionists. There is no middle ground here. The war is the eternal destruction of the Union—is despotism—is death to the great principle of self-government established by Washington. It is a crime against liberty which admits of no action but that of uncompromising and implacable hostility to it. If the present Democratic members of Congress cannot manfully grapple with this liberty-destroying monster, let those be sent next time who can.

Burr, C. Chauncey. Old Guard, Vol. II, 1863. [p. 88]