The Civil War: New York Daily News: The Right of States to Secede

November 16, 1860

With the idea of secession permeating the public discourse, there were questions of whether states even had the right to secede. These questions were not confined to academics and lawyers; even the newspapers of New York City explored these questions—one of which, the New York Daily News, was a conservative newspaper that had supported John C. Breckinridge in the election of 1860.

In that newspaper, it was written: “The people often act without reflection. Statesmen and politicians, either contracting the sentiment of the populace or influenced by ambitious motives, encourage the action of the people upon an erroneous and often fatal idea.” Secession was one such sentiment that had circulated. It had gone from an idea for resolving the emerging crisis between the states to a more serious proposal by some throughout the country. But, according to this newspaper, such withdrawal of states from the Union would lead to “loss of name, loss of national existence, civil war, servile war, loss of liberty, and, ultimately, the subjugation and overthrow of the most glorious Republic which ever existed.”

It was a republic that the Articles of Confederation created, and in that document was proof that secession was not legal. The Articles of Confederation stated the object of the states forming their confederacy “was to form a permanent union for the mutual support and protection of each other.” In fact, the Articles of Confederation stated that there would be “perpetual union, between the States,” and the Constitution, which came just over a decade later, did not contradict the Articles of Confederation’s statement as to the durability of the Union. Rather, the Constitution stated that it was written and adopted “in order to form a more perfect Union, &c.” The Constitution neither “abrogated [n]or annulled” the Articles of Confederation’s statement that the union shall be perpetual. Thus, with the founding documents not giving any support to secession being legal, the power of states to secede rested with the states themselves—and a majority of those states “must rule” as to secession in order for that secession to be lawful, according to the author.

Once secession occurred, theory became reality; secession’s legality became irrelevant to the public. And once secession occurred, the New York Daily News would change its position; within months, it was no longer showing concern about what the Civil War could bring to the country; instead, it published editorials opposing the Union’s attempts to “coerce” the seceded states.

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