The Civil War: New-York Daily Tribune: The Right of Secession

December 17, 1860

Thurlow Weed, the editor of the Albany Evening Journal and one of the leaders of the Republican Party in New York, had criticized another newspaper editor, Horace Greeley of the New-York Daily Tribune. Weed’s criticism was on the issue of secession and Greeley’s apparent support for it.

Greeley laid out the facts: seven or eight states were preparing to leave the Union, and the sitting president, James Buchanan, had written that “ours is a Government of popular opinion”; if states chose to leave the Union, there was no federal power “to resist or punish” those states.

From Greeley’s point of view, the “Government remonstrates, but acquiesces,” and his newspaper regarded it “unwise to undertake to resist such Secession by Federal force.” There was precedent in favor of secession and thus a basis for self-rule. After all, in the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote that governments “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed; and that, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter to abolish it, and to institute a new government.”

These were the words that rang true when the “Three Millions of colonists in 1776” justified their secession from the British Empire. And during this time, Greeley could not “see how Twenty Millions of people can rightfully hold Ten or even Five in a detested union with them, by military force.” This would simply be coercion, and subjugation, and “we do not think it would be just,” wrote Greeley.

He continued: “if ever ‘seven or eight States’ send agents to Washington to say, ‘We want to get out of the Union,’ we shall feel constrained by our devotion to Human Liberty to say, Let them go! And we do not see how we could take the other side without coming in direct conflict with those Rights of Man which we hold paramount to all political arrangements, however convenient and advantageous.”

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