“Then in regard to the property of the United States in South Carolina. This has been purchased for a fair equivalent ’by the consent of the Legislature of the State,’ ’for the erection of forts, magazines, arsenals,’ etc., and over these the authority ‘to exercise exclusive legislation’ has been expressly granted by the Constitution to Congress. It is not believed that any attempt will be made to expel the United States from this property by force; but if in this I should prove to be mistaken, the officer in command of the forts has received orders to act strictly on the defensive. In such a contingency the responsibility for consequences would rightfully rest upon the heads of the assailants.”
It was, of course, in vain that Mr. Magrath and other South Carolina constitutional expounders protested against this absurd want of logic. It was in vain that they could demonstrate that protecting the property of the Union was but another name for coercion; that if the President could lawfully from another State appoint a successor to the Federal collector, he could in the same manner appoint a successor to the Federal judge, district attorney, and marshal; that if he could execute the revenue laws he could execute the steamboat laws, the postal laws, or the criminal laws; that if, with Federal bayonets, he could stop a mob at the door of the custom-house, he could do the same at the door of the court-room; that it would be no more offensive war to employ a regiment to protect a bonded warehouse than a jail; a shipping dock than a post-office; a dray-load of merchandise passing across a street than a mail car in transitu across a State; that coercing a Charleston belle to pay the custom duties on her silk gown, and a Palmetto orator to suffer the imposition of foreign tribute on his champagne was in fact destroying the whole splendid theory of exclusive State sovereignty.
It followed, therefore, that the issue was not one of constitutional theory, but of practical administration; not of legislation, but of war. The argument of the President’s message was palpably illogical and ridiculous, but there in black and white stood his intention to collect the revenue and protect the public property; yonder in the bay were Pinckney, Moultrie, and Sumter; under the flag of the Union was a devoted band of troops and a brave officer, with orders to hold the fort.
For the present, then, the wall of Fort Moultrie was the iron collar around the neck of the coveted “sovereignty” of South Carolina. How to break that fetter was the narrow, simple problem. A half-finished inclosure of brick walls, standing in the midst of sand-hills which gave commanding elevations, and buildings which effectually masked the approach of an assaulting column, and containing, all told, but sixty men to guard 1500 feet of rampart. The street rabble of Charleston could any night clamber over the thinly defended walls, and at least a score of companies of minute men, drilled and equipped, could be brought by rail from the interior of the State to garrison and hold it. But what then? That would bring Federal troops in Federal ships of war, and in a short, quick struggle the substantial standing preparations of the Government would overcome the extemporized preparations of the State, and the insurrection would be hopelessly quelled.