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Listed Under:  Conscription Act, Civil War

New York Times

The Conscription a Great National Benefi

Citation Information:"The Conscription a Great National Benefit." New York Times, v. 12, Monday, July 13, 1863.

The National Enrollment Act, the enforcement of which was commenced in this City on Saturday, will be carried into execution until the quota of the State of New York and of every State in the Union shall be raised and in the field. It may not be necessary that a man of those drafted shall ever go into line of battle during this war. Yet it is a national blessing that the Conscription has been imposed. It is a matter of prime concern that it should now be settled, once for all, whether this Government is or is not strong enough to compel military service in tis defence. More than any other one thing, this will determine our durability as a Republic and our formidableness as a nation. Once establish that not only the property, but the personal military service of every ablebodied citizen is a the command of the national authorities, constitutionally exercised, and both successful rebellion and successful invasion are at once made impossible for all time to come. From that time it will be set down as a known fact that the United States is the most solidly based Government on the face of the earth.

The standing reproach against the Republican form of government hitherto has been, that its superior freedom was obtained at the expense of its security. It has been deemed a very comfortable sort of Government for fair weather, but quite unfit for a storm. A Federal Republic, made up like ours of distinct States, has been considered particularly weak. Every philosophical writer who has treated of our institutions, has put his finger upon the weakness fo the central authority as the special reason for doubting their perpetuity. DeTocqueville himself, much as he admired our constitutional system, did not hesitate to say, "It appears to me unquestionable that if any portion of the Union seriously desired to separate itself from the other States, they would not be able, nor indeed would they attempt, to prevent it." and to illustrate the helplessness of the federal authority, he cites from a letter of Jefferson's to Lafayette the statement that, "during the war of 1812, four of the Eastern States were only attached to the Union like so many inanimate bodies to living men." Everybody knows that one of the chief embarrassments of that war was the unwillingness of some of the State authorities to surrender the control of their military forces to the Federal Executive. Another of these embarrassments was the great difficulty of keeping the armies up to the necessary figure, notwithstanding extraordinary bounties for the encouragement of the enlistments. The Secretary of War, at that period, in his strait for soldiers, proposed a Conscription system, but it was deemed by Congress dangerous and impracticable, and hardly obtained a hearing.

In fact, up to the last year the popular mind had scarcely bethought itself for a moment that the power of an unlimited Conscription was, with the sanction of Congress, one of the living powers of the government in time of war. The general notion was that Conscription was a feature that belonged exclusively to despotic Governments, and that the American reliance could only be upon volunteered effort, as prompted by patriotic feeling or pecuniary inducements. It was not until the second year of this terrible rebellion that the public mind began seriously to question whether it would answer to depend entirely upon these precarious stimulants; and even then it began to question only in a whisper. Even the boldest shrank; for they well understood how quickly the factious enemies of the Government would seize upon the old hated word Conscription, and do their best with it to make the war itself odious. But as the war lingered on without result, the Government gradually braced itself up to the responsibility of demanding under the mild name of a National Enrollment bill, what was in reality nothing less than a Conscription law on the European model. Congress, after deliberation, framed and passed such a law. The great practical question now to be determined is whether such a law can be sustained or not in other words, whether this American Republic has or has not the plenary power of its own defence which is possessed by a European monarchy.

For a time after the act was passed, the chiefs of faction were free in their threats that any attempt to carry it out should be resisted by force and arms. In some few localities they succeeded in working up popular passion against its first processes, even to a fighting place; but it was very quickly made apparent that the people at large would never sustain any such resort to violence, and that it was worse than idle to contend thus with the Government. Since then, the talk of these factionists on the platform and in their newspaper organs has been that the appeal shall be carried to the ballot-box. They flatter themselves that, by working diligently upon the basest motives and meanest prejudices, they can secure popular majorities that will force a repeal of the measure, or at least deter the Government from carrying it out to its complete execution.

Well, let them do their worst. We want it determined whether the majority of the American people can be induced by any such influences to abandon the cause of their country. So far as the Government itself is concerned, we have no fear that it will fail to do its duty. Every day adds new evidence that it means to go straight on to the complete enforcement of the act. The world will now have a better chance to judge than ever before what the real strength of this Republic is. And unless we greatly mistake, it will be seen that an overwhelming majority of the people will stand by the Government in this exercise of the mightiest of its powers; and will show a proud satisfaction in demonstrating that freemen are as capable as subjects and serfs of abiding any needful requirements for the national safety. No people on the face of the earth have such reason to submit to the extremist sacrifices for the salvation of their Government; and , if conscription be necessary to replenish its struggling armies, no population, we undertake to say, has ever endured it with more patience or cheerfulness than the American people will now do. The Government is the people's Government, and the people will never consent that their Government shall suffer in a critical hour for the want of a power which is not grudged even the worse Government when its existence is threatened. When it is once understood that our national authority has the right, under the Constitution, to every dollar and every right arm in the country for its protection, and that the great people recognize and stand by that right, thenceforward, for all time to come this Republic will command a respect, both at home and abroad, far beyond any ever accorded to it before. It will be a new and priceless security against all future rebellion and wanton foreign attack.