We Prefer the Law

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The bill to limit exemptions, as reported by the House Military Committee…ends by a sweeping clause which is to enable the Secretary of War (that is to say the President) to exempt or detail any other person or persons he, the President, may think proper…. He is to exempt such planters, etc., “as he may be satisfied will be more useful to the country in the pursuits of agriculture,” and such other persons “as he may be satisfied ought to be exempted . . . on account of publick necessity, justice, or equity.” It is always He that is to be satisfied; not the law; not the country; only that sentiment profoundly hidden in the bosom of the Chief Magistrate…. Thus, in passing this act…Congress will pretend to designate who should be exempted…and then leave it to an irresponsible individual to nullify that law.

…We suppose it will be admitted that nobody should be exempted for his own private profit and ease. We suppose it will be admitted that it should not be left to the President to see the public necessity and justice of exempting, for example, his own historiographer, or the mailing clerks and reporters of his own newspaper; and that in the case of any other of his own flatterers, sycophants or political supporters he might perchance be too easily “satisfied” of the expediency of detailing such complaisant persons for agricultural pursuits and the pleasures of the chase.

In short, the grievance and sore evil of the country is, and has been, that the conscription acts have not been executed; and that there are thousands of persons throughout the Confederate States avoiding their military duty to the country …by reasons of details which satisfy the President…but are not so well calculated to satisfy the general publick, and…those faithful soldiers who have stood in the gap of invasion…. Those soldiers know that there are certain laws for putting citizens of fighting age into the army; they know that they are there by virtue of those laws; and they often wonder how and why certain gentlemen of their respective neighborhoods, younger and stronger than they…can evade their plain duty…. They cannot all be planting and hoeing corn… . They cannot all be engaged in Government works; they cannot all be writing histories of the War. No; but they have all contrived somehow to satisfy the feeling deep in the President’s bosom that it is right, or expedient, or at any rate convenient, to detail them for domestick duties.

The fact that this system enables the Executive to create a large class of personal and political supporters who owe him, perhaps their lives, and at all events their ease and comfort, and who may become ready tools for any enterprise against the liberties of the land, is an evil, indeed… . The army needs men; and that so urgently as to raise the question of arming negroes: and the interest at stake is more than life or death; it is independence and prosperity and honour, or oppression, and beggary and shame, for us all. Yet we see a large portion of the flower of the land (physically) sedulously avoiding military duty, through their influence and interest with somebody or other…. Flow many thousands may have been exempted and detailed by the Secretary of War, “under the direction of the President,” is to us unknown. And now Congress, instead of carefully revising its list of exemptions and making them a law, and providing that the law shall be enforced, is preparing…to abdicate the most important duty it has, and after specifying a few cases of persons who shall be exempt…to leave all the rest of this vast jurisdiction in the irresponsible hands of the President, who is to satisfy himself—and his friends—and nobody else.

We may be very singular; but we prefer to live under the laws of the land.

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