"I do not intend here to enter into a statement of grievances; I do not intend here to renew that war of crimination which for years past has disturbed the country, and in which I have taken a part perhaps more zealous than useful; but I call upon all men who have in their hearts a love of the Union, and whose service is not merely that of the lip, to look the question calmly but fully in the face, that they may see the true cause of our danger, which, from my examination, I believe to be that a sectional hostility has been substituted for a general fraternity, and thus the Government rendered powerless for the ends for which it was instituted. The hearts of a portion of the people have been perverted by that hostility, so that the powers delegated by the compact of union are regarded not as means to secure the welfare of all, but as instruments for the destruction of a part—the minority section. How, then, have we to provide a remedy? By strengthening this Government? By instituting physical force to overawe the States, to coerce the people living under them as members of sovereign communities to pass under the yoke of the Federal Government? No, sir; I would have this Union severed into thirty-three fragments sooner than have that great evil befall constitutional liberty and representative government. Our Government is an agency of delegated and strictly limited powers. Its founders did not look to its preservation by force; but the chain they wove to bind these States together was one of love and mutual good offices. They had broken the fetters of despotic power; they had separated themselves from the mother-country upon the question of community independence; and their sons will be degenerate indeed if, clinging to the mere name and forms of free government, they forge and rivet upon their posterity the fetters which their ancestors broke....
"The remedy for these evils is to be found in the patriotism and the affection of the people, if it exists; and, if it does not exist, it is far better, instead of attempting to preserve a forced and therefore fruitless Union, that we should peacefully part and each pursue his separate course. It is not to this side of the Chamber that we should look for propositions; it is not here that we can ask for remedies. Complaints, with much amplitude of specification, have gone forth from the members on this side of the Chamber heretofore. It is not to be expected that they will be renewed, for the people have taken the subject into their own hands. States, in their sovereign capacity, have now resolved to judge of the infractions of the Federal compact, and of the mode and measure of redress. All we can usefully or properly do is to send to the people, thus preparing to act for themselves, evidence of error, if error there be; to transmit to them the proofs of kind feeling, if it actuates the Northern section, where they now believe there is only hostility. If we are mistaken as to your feelings and purposes, give a substantial proof, that here may begin that circle which hence may spread out and cover the whole land with proofs of fraternity, of a reaction in public sentiment, and the assurance of a future career in conformity with the principles and purposes of the Constitution. All else is idle. I would not give the parchment on which the bill would be written that is to secure our constitutional rights within the limits of a State, where the people are all opposed to the execution of that law. It is a truism in free governments that laws rest upon public opinion, and fall powerless before its determined opposition.
"The time has passed, sir, when appeals might profitably be made to sentiment. The time has come when men must of necessity reason, assemble facts, and deal with current events. I may be permitted in this to correct an error into which one of my friends fell this morning, when he impressed on us the great value of our Union as measured by the amount of time and money and blood which were spent to form this Union. It cost very little time, very little money, and no blood. It was one of the most peaceful transactions that mark the pages of human history. Our fathers fought the war of the Revolution to maintain the rights asserted in their Declaration of Independence."
Mr. Powell: "The Senator from Mississippi will allow me to say that I spoke of the Government, not of the Union. I said time and money and blood had been required to form the Government."
Mr. Davis: "The Government is the machinery established by the Constitution; it is the agency created by the States when they formed the Union. Our fathers, I was proceeding to say, having fought the war of the Revolution, and achieved their independence—each State for itself, each State standing out an integral part, each State separately recognized by the parent Government of Great Britain—these States as independent sovereignties entered into confederate alliance. After having tried the Confederation and found it to be a failure, they, of their own accord, came peacefully together, and in a brief period made a Constitution, which was referred to each State and voluntarily ratified by each State that entered the Union; little time, little money, and no blood being expended to form this Government, the machine for making the Union useful and beneficial. Blood, much and precious, was expended to vindicate and to establish community independence, and the great American idea that all governments rest on the consent of the governed, and that the people may at their will alter or abolish their government, however or by whomsoever instituted.
"But our existing Government is not the less sacred to me because it was not sealed with blood. I honor it the more because it was the free-will offering of men who chose to live together. It rooted in fraternity, and fraternity supported its trunk and all its branches. Every bud and leaflet depends entirely on the nurture it receives from fraternity as the root of the tree. When that is destroyed, the trunk decays, and the branches wither, and the leaves fall; and the shade it was designed to give has passed away for ever. I cling not merely to the name and form, but to the spirit and purpose of the Union which our fathers made. It was for domestic tranquillity; not to organize within one State lawless bands to commit raids upon another. It was to provide for the common defense; not to disband armies and navies, lest they should serve the protection of one section of the country better than another. It was to bring the forces of all the States together to achieve a common object, upholding each the other in amity, and united to repel exterior force. All the custom-house obstructions existing between the States were destroyed; the power to regulate commerce transferred to the General Government. Every barrier to the freest intercourse was swept away. Under the Confederation it had been secured as a right to each citizen to have free transit over all the other States; and under the Union it was designed to make this more perfect. Is it enjoyed? Is it not denied? Do we not have mere speculative question of what is property raised in defiance of the clear intent of the Constitution, offending as well against its letter as against its whole spirit? This must be reformed, or the Government our fathers instituted is destroyed. I say, then, shall we cling to the mere forms or idolize the name of Union, when its blessings are lost, after its spirit has fled? Who would keep a flower, which had lost its beauty and its fragrance, and in their stead had formed a seed-vessel containing the deadliest poison? Or, to drop the figure, who would consent to remain in alliance with States which used the power thus acquired to invade his tranquillity, to impair his defense, to destroy his peace and security? Any community would be stronger standing in an isolated position, and using its revenues to maintain its own physical force, than if allied with those who would thus war upon its prosperity and domestic peace; and reason, pride, self-interest, and the apprehension of secret, constant danger would impel to separation.
"I do not comprehend the policy of a Southern Senator who would seek to change the whole form of our Government, and substitute Federal force for State obligation and authority. Do we want a new Government that is to overthrow the old? Do we wish to erect a central Colossus, wielding at discretion the military arm, and exercising military force over the people and the States? This is not the Union to which we were invited; and so carefully was this guarded that, when our fathers provided for using force to put down insurrection, they required that the fact of the insurrection should be communicated by the authorities of the State before the President could interpose. When it was proposed to give to Congress power to execute the laws against a delinquent State, it was refused on the ground that that would be making war on the States; and, though I know the good purpose of my honorable friend from Missouri is only to give protection to constitutional rights, I fear his proposition is to rear a monster, which will break the feeble chain provided, and destroy rights it was intended to guard. That military Government which he is about to institute, by passing into hostile hands, becomes a weapon for his destruction, not for his protection. All dangers which we may be called upon to confront as independent communities are light, in my estimation, compared with that which would hang over us if this Federal Government had such physical force; if its character was changed from a representative agent of States to a central Government, with a military power to be used at discretion against the States. To-day it may be the idea that it will be used against some State which nullifies the Constitution and the laws; some State which passes laws to obstruct or repeal the laws of the United States; some State which, in derogation of our rights of transit under the Constitution, passes laws to punish a citizen found there with property recognized by the Constitution of the United States, but prohibited by the laws of that State.
"But how long might it be before that same military force would be turned against the minority section which had sought its protection; and that minority thus become mere subjugated provinces under the great military government that it had thus contributed to establish? The minority, incapable of aggression, is, of necessity, always on the defensive, and often the victim of the desertion of its followers and the faithlessness of its allies. It therefore must maintain, not destroy, barriers.
"I do not know that I fully appreciate the purpose of my friend from Missouri; whether, when he spoke of establishing military posts along the borders of the States, and arming the Federal Government with adequate physical power to enforce constitutional rights (I suppose he meant obligations), he meant to confer upon this Federal Government a power which it does not now possess to coerce a State. If he did, then, in the language of Mr. Madison, he is providing, not for a union of States, but for the destruction of States; he is providing, under the name of Union, to carry on a war against States; and I care not whether it be against Massachusetts or Missouri, it is equally objectionable to me; and I will resist it alike in the one case and in the other, as subversive of the great principle on which our Government rests; as a heresy to be confronted at its first presentation, and put down there, lest it grow into proportions which will render us powerless before it.
"The theory of our Constitution, Mr. President, is one of peace, of equality of sovereign States. It was made by States and made for States; and for greater assurance they passed an amendment, doing that which was necessarily implied by the nature of the instrument, as it was a mere instrument of grants. But, in the abundance of caution, they declared that everything which had not been delegated was reserved to the States, or to the people—that is, to the State governments as instituted by the people of each State, or to the people in their sovereign capacity.
"I need not, then, go on to argue from the history and nature of our Government that no power of coercion exists in it. It is enough for me to demand the clause of the Constitution which confers the power. If it is not there, the Government does not possess it. That is the plain construction of the Constitution—made plainer, if possible, by its amendment.
"This Union is dear to me as a Union of fraternal States. It would lose its value if I had to regard it as a Union held together by physical force. I would be happy to know that every State now felt that fraternity which made this Union possible; and, if that evidence could go out, if evidence satisfactory to the people of the South could be given that that feeling existed in the hearts of the Northern people, you might burn your statute-books and we would cling to the Union still. But it is because of their conviction that hostility, and not fraternity, now exists in the hearts of the people, that they are looking to their reserved rights and to their independent powers for their own protection. If there be any good, then, which we can do, it is by sending evidence to them of that which I fear does not exist—the purpose of your constituents to fulfill in the spirit of justice and fraternity all their constitutional obligations. If you can submit to them that evidence, I feel confidence that, with the assurance that aggression is henceforth to cease, will terminate all the measures for defense. Upon you of the majority section it depends to restore peace and perpetuate the Union of equal States; upon us of the minority section rests the duty to maintain our equality and community rights; and the means in one case or the other must be such as each can control."
The resolution of Mr. Powell was eventually adopted on the 18th of December, and on the 20th the Committee was appointed, consisting of Messrs. Powell and Crittenden, of Kentucky; Hunter, of Virginia; Toombs, of Georgia; Davis, of Mississippi; Douglas, of Illinois; Bigler, of Pennsylvania; Rice, of Minnesota; Collamer, of Vermont; Seward, of New York; Wade, of Ohio; Doolittle, of Wisconsin; and Grimes, of Iowa. The first five of the list, as here enumerated, were Southern men; the next three were Northern Democrats, or Conservatives; the last five, Northern "Republicans," so called.
The supposition was that any measure agreed upon by the representatives of the three principal divisions of public opinion would be approved by the Senate and afterward ratified by the House of Representatives. The Committee therefore determined that a majority of each of its three divisions should be required in order to the adoption of any proposition presented. The Southern members declared their readiness to accept any terms that would secure the honor of the Southern States and guarantee their future safety. The Northern Democrats and Mr. Crittenden generally cooeperated with the State-Rights Democrats of the South; but the so-called "Republican" Senators of the North rejected every proposition which it was hoped might satisfy the Southern people, and check the progress of the secession movement. After fruitless efforts, continued for some ten days, the Committee determined to report the journal of their proceedings, and announce their inability to attain any satisfactory conclusion. This report was made on the 31st of December—the last day of that memorable and fateful year, 1860.
Subsequently, on the floor of the Senate, Mr. Douglas, who had been a member of the Committee, called upon the opposite side to state what they were willing to do. He referred to the fact that they had rejected every proposition that promised pacification; stated that Toombs, of Georgia, and Davis, of Mississippi, as members of the Committee, had been willing to renew the Missouri Compromise, as a measure of conciliation, but had met no responsive willingness on the part of their associates of the opposition; and he pressed the point that, as they had rejected every overture made by the friends of peace, it was now incumbent upon them to make a positive and affirmative declaration of their purposes.
Mr. Seward, of New York, as we have seen, was a member of that Committee—the man who, in 1858, had announced the "irrepressible conflict," and who, in the same year, speaking of and for abolitionism, had said: "It has driven you back in California and in Kansas; it will invade your soil." He was to be the Secretary of State in the incoming Administration, and was very generally regarded as the "power behind the throne," greater than the throne itself. He was present in the Senate, but made no response to Mr. Douglas's demand for a declaration of policy.
Meantime the efforts for an adjustment made in the House of Representatives had been equally fruitless. Conspicuous among these efforts had been the appointment of a committee of thirty-three members—one from each State of the Union—charged with a duty similar to that imposed upon the Committee of Thirteen in the Senate, but they had been alike unsuccessful in coming to any agreement. It is true that, a few days afterward, they submitted a majority and two minority reports, and that the report of the majority was ultimately adopted by the House; but, even if this action had been unanimous, and had been taken in due time, it would have been practically futile on account of its absolute failure to provide or suggest any solution of the territorial question, which was the vital point in controversy.
No wonder, then, that, under the shadow of the failure of every effort in Congress to find any common ground on which the sections could be restored to amity, the close of the year should have been darkened by a cloud in the firmament, which had lost even the silver lining so long seen, or thought to be seen, by the hopeful.
[Footnote 19: The following extract from a letter of the Hon. O. R. Singleton, then a Representative of Mississippi in the United States Congress, in regard to the subject treated, is herewith annexed:
"Canton, Mississippi, July 14, 1877.
"In 1860, about the time the ordinance of secession was passed by the South Carolina Convention, and while Mississippi, Alabama, and other Southern States were making active preparations to follow her example, a conference of the Mississippi delegation in Congress, Senators and Representatives, was asked for by Governor J. J. Pettus, for consultation as to the course Mississippi ought to take in the premises.
"The meeting took place in the fall of 1860, at Jackson, the capital; the whole delegation being present, with perhaps the exception of one Representative.
"The main question for consideration was: 'Shall Mississippi, as soon as her Convention can meet, pass an ordinance of secession, thus placing herself by the side of South Carolina, regardless of the action of other States; or shall she endeavor to hold South Carolina in check, and delay action herself, until other States can get ready, through their conventions, to unite with them, and then, on a given day and at a given hour, by concert of action, all the States willing to do so, secede in a body?'
"Upon the one side, it was argued that South Carolina could not be induced to delay action a single moment beyond the meeting of her Convention, and that our fate should be hers, and to delay action would be to have her crushed by the Federal Government; whereas, by the earliest action possible, we might be able to avert this calamity. On the other side, it was contended that delay might bring the Federal Government to consider the emergency of the case, and perhaps a compromise could be effected; but, if not, then the proposed concert of action would at least give dignity to the movement, and present an undivided Southern front.
"The debate lasted many hours, and Mr. Davis, with perhaps one other gentleman in that conference, opposed immediate and separate State action, declaring himself opposed to secession as long as the hope of a peaceable remedy remained. He did not believe we ought to precipitate the issue, as he felt certain from his knowledge of the people, North and South, that, once there was a clash of arms, the contest would be one of the most sanguinary the world had ever witnessed.
"A majority of the meeting decided that no delay should be interposed to separate State action, Mr. Davis being on the other side; but, after the vote was taken and the question decided, Mr. Davis declared he would stand by whatever action the Convention representing the sovereignty of the State of Mississippi might think proper to take.
"After the conference was ended, several of its members were dissatisfied with the course of Mr. Davis, believing that he was entirely opposed to secession, and was seeking to delay action upon the part of Mississippi, with the hope that it might be entirely averted.
"In some unimportant respects my memory may be at fault, and possibly some of the inferences drawn may be incorrect; but every material statement made, I am sure, is true, and if need, can be, easily substantiated by other persons.
"Very respectfully, your obedient servant,"
(Signed) "O. R. Singleton." ]
[Footnote 20: Mr. Crittenden had been a life-long Whig. His first entrance into the Senate was in 1817, and he was a member of that body at various periods during the ensuing forty-four years. He was Attorney-General in the Whig Cabinets of both General Harrison and Mr. Fillmore, and supported the Bell and Everett ticket in 1860.]
[Footnote 21: The vote was nineteen yeas to twenty nays; total, thirty-nine. As the consent of two thirds of each House is necessary to propose an amendment for action by the States, twenty-six of the votes cast in the Senate would have been necessary to sustain the proposition. It actually failed, therefore, by seven votes, instead of one.]
Preparations for withdrawal from the Union.—Northern Precedents.—New England Secessionists.—Cabot, Pickering, Quincy, etc.—On the Acquisition of Louisiana.—The Hartford Convention.—The Massachusetts Legislature on the Annexation of Texas, etc., etc.
The Convention of South Carolina had already (on the 20th of December, 1860) unanimously adopted an ordinance revoking her delegated powers and withdrawing from the Union. Her representatives, on the following day, retired from their seats in Congress. The people of the other planting States had been only waiting in the lingering hope that some action might be taken by Congress to avert the necessity for action similar to that of South Carolina. In view of the failure of all overtures for conciliation during the first month of the session, they were now making their final preparations for secession. This was generally admitted to be an unquestionable right appertaining to their sovereignty as States, and the only peaceable remedy that remained for the evils already felt and the dangers apprehended.
In the prior history of the country, repeated instances are found of the assertion of this right, and of a purpose entertained at various times to put it in execution. Notably is this true of Massachusetts and other New England States. The acquisition of Louisiana, in 1803, had created much dissatisfaction in those States, for the reason, expressed by an eminent citizen of Massachusetts, that "the influence of our [the Northeastern] part of the Union must be diminished by the acquisition of more weight at the other extremity." The project of a separation was freely discussed, with no intimation, in the records of the period, of any idea among its advocates that it could be regarded as treasonable or revolutionary.
Colonel Timothy Pickering, who had been an officer of the war of the Revolution, afterward successively Postmaster-General, Secretary of War, and Secretary of State, in the Cabinet of General Washington, and, still later, long a representative of the State of Massachusetts in the Senate of the United States, was one of the leading secessionists of his day. Writing from Washington to a friend, on the 24th of December, 1803, he says:
"I will not yet despair. I will rather anticipate a new confederacy, exempt from the corrupt and corrupting influence and oppression of the aristocratic democrats of the South. There will be (and our children, at farthest, will see it) a separation. The white and black population will mark the boundary."
In another letter, written a few weeks afterward (January 29, 1804), speaking of what he regarded as wrongs and abuses perpetrated by the then existing Administration, he thus expresses his views of the remedy to be applied:
"The principles of our Revolution point to the remedy—a separation. That this can be accomplished, and without spilling one drop of blood, I have little doubt....
"I do not believe in the practicability of a long-continued Union. A Northern Confederacy would unite congenial characters and present a fairer prospect of public happiness; while the Southern States, having a similarity of habits, might be left to 'manage their own affairs in their own way.' If a separation were to take place, our mutual wants would render a friendly and commercial intercourse inevitable. The Southern States would require the naval protection of the Northern Union, and the products of the former would be important to the navigation and commerce of the latter....
"It [the separation] must begin, in Massachusetts. The proposition would be welcomed in Connecticut; and could we doubt of New Hampshire? But New York must be associated; and how is her concurrence to be obtained? She must be made the center of the Confederacy. Vermont and New Jersey would follow of course, and Rhode Island of necessity."
Substituting South Carolina for Massachusetts; Virginia for New York; Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama, for New Hampshire, Vermont, and Rhode Island; Kentucky for New Jersey, etc., etc., we find the suggestions of 1860-'61 only a reproduction of those thus outlined nearly sixty years earlier.
Mr. Pickering seems to have had a correct and intelligent perception of the altogether pacific character of the secession which he proposed, and of the mutual advantages likely to accrue to both sections from a peaceable separation. Writing in February, 1804, he explicitly disavows the idea of hostile feeling or action toward the South, expressing himself as follows:
"While thus contemplating the only means of maintaining our ancient institutions in morals and religion, and our equal rights, we wish no ill to the Southern States and those naturally connected with them. The public debts might be equitably apportioned between the new confederacies, and a separation somewhere about the line above suggested would divide the different characters of the existing Union. The manners of the Eastern portion of the States would be sufficiently congenial to form a Union, and their interests are alike intimately connected with agriculture and commerce. A friendly and commercial intercourse would be maintained with the States in the Southern Confederacy as at present. Thus all the advantages which have been for a few years depending on the general Union would be continued to its respective portions, without the jealousies and enmities which now afflict both, and which peculiarly embitter the condition of that of the North. It is not unusual for two friends, when disagreeing about the mode of conducting a common concern, to separate and manage, each in his own way, his separate interest, and thereby preserve a useful friendship, which without such separation would infallibly be destroyed."
Such were the views of an undoubted patriot who had participated in the formation of the Union, and who had long been confidentially associated with Washington in the administration of its Government, looking at the subject from a Northern standpoint, within fifteen years after the organization of that Government under the Constitution. Whether his reasons for advocating a dissolution of the Union were valid and sufficient, or not, is another question which it is not necessary to discuss. His authority is cited only as showing the opinion prevailing in the North at that day with regard to the right of secession from the Union, if deemed advisable by the ultimate and irreversible judgment of the people of a sovereign State.
In 1811, on the bill for the admission of Louisiana as a State of the Union, the Hon. Josiah Quincy, a member of Congress from Massachusetts, said
"If this bill passes, it is my deliberate opinion that it is virtually a dissolution of this Union; that it will free the States from their moral obligation; and as it will be the right of all, so it will be the duty of some, definitely to prepare for a separation—amicably if they can, violently if they must."
Mr. Poindexter, delegate from what was then the Mississippi Territory, took exception to these expressions of Mr. Quincy, and called him to order. The Speaker (Mr. Varnum, of Massachusetts) sustained Mr. Poindexter, and decided that the suggestion of a dissolution of the Union was out of order. An appeal was taken from this decision, and it was reversed. Mr. Quincy proceeded to vindicate the propriety of his position in a speech of some length, in the course of which he said:
"Is there a principle of public law better settled or more conformable to the plainest suggestions of reason than that the violation of a contract by one of the parties may be considered as exempting the other from its obligations? Suppose, in private life, thirteen form a partnership, and ten of them undertake to admit a new partner without the concurrence of the other three; would it not be at their option to abandon the partnership after so palpable an infringement of their rights? How much more in the political partnership, where the admission of new associates, without previous authority, is so pregnant with obvious dangers and evils!"
It is to be remembered that these men—Cabot, Pickering. Quincy, and others—whose opinions and expressions have been cited, were not Democrats, misled by extreme theories of State rights, but leaders and expositors of the highest type of "Federalism, and of a strong central Government." This fact gives their support of the right of secession the greater significance.
The celebrated Hartford Convention assembled in December, 1814. It consisted of delegates chosen by the Legislatures of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, with an irregular or imperfect representation from the other two New England States, New Hampshire and Vermont, convened for the purpose of considering the grievances complained of by those States in connection with the war with Great Britain. They sat with closed doors, and the character of their deliberations and discussions has not been authentically disclosed. It was generally understood, however, that the chief subject of their considerations was the question of the withdrawal of the States they represented from the Union. The decision, as announced in their published report, was adverse to the expediency of such a measure at that time, and under the then existing conditions; but they proceeded to indicate the circumstances in which a dissolution of the Union might become expedient, and the mode in which it should be effected; and their theoretical plan of separation corresponds very nearly with that actually adopted by the Southern States nearly fifty years afterward. They say:
"If the Union be destined to dissolution by reason of the multiplied abuses of bad administration, it should, if possible, be the work of peaceable times and deliberate consent. Some new form of confederacy should be substituted among those States which shall intend to maintain a federal relation to each other. Events may prove that the causes of our calamities are deep and permanent. They may be found to proceed, not merely from the blindness of prejudice, pride of opinion, violence of party spirit, or the confusion of the times; but they may be traced to implacable combinations of individuals or of States to monopolize power and office, and to trample without remorse upon the rights and interests of commercial sections of the Union. Whenever it shall appear that the causes are radical and permanent, a separation by equitable arrangement will be preferable to an alliance by constraint among nominal friends, but real enemies."
The omission of the single word "commercial," which does not affect the principle involved, is the only modification necessary to adapt this extract exactly to the condition of the Southern States in 1860-'61.
The obloquy which has attached to the members of the Hartford Convention has resulted partly from a want of exact knowledge of their proceedings, partly from the secrecy by which they were veiled, but mainly because it was a recognized effort to paralyze the arm of the Federal Government while engaged in a war arising from outrages committed upon American seamen on the decks of American ships. The indignation felt was no doubt aggravated by the fact that those ships belonged in a great extent to the people who were now plotting against the war-measures of the Government, and indirectly, if not directly, giving aid and comfort to the public enemy. Time, which has mollified passion, and revealed many things not then known, has largely modified the first judgment passed on the proceedings and purposes of the Hartford Convention; and, but for the circumstances of existing war which surrounded it, they might have been viewed as political opinions merely, and have received justification instead of censure.
Again, in 1844-'45 the measures taken for the annexation of Texas evoked remonstrances, accompanied by threats of a dissolution of the Union from the Northeastern States. The Legislature of Massachusetts, in 1844, adopted a resolution, declaring, in behalf of that State, that "the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, faithful to the compact between the people of the United States, according to the plain meaning and intent in which it was understood by them, is sincerely anxious for its preservation; but that it is determined, as it doubts not the other States are, to submit to undelegated powers in no body of men on earth"; and that "the project of the annexation of Texas, unless arrested on the threshold, may tend to drive these States into a dissolution of the Union."
Early in the next year (February 11, 1845), the same Legislature adopted and communicated to Congress a series of resolutions on the same subject, in one of which it was declared that, "as the powers of legislation granted in the Constitution of the United States to Congress do not embrace a case of the admission of a foreign state or foreign territory, by legislation, into the Union, such an act of admission would have no binding force whatever on the people of Massachusetts"— language which must have meant that the admission of Texas would be a justifiable ground for secession, unless it was intended to announce the purpose of nullification.
It is evident, therefore, that the people of the South, in the crisis which confronted them in 1860, had no lack either of precept or of precedent for their instruction and guidance in the teaching and the example of our brethren of the North and East. The only practical difference was, that the North threatened and the South acted.
[Footnote 22: George Cabot, who had been United States Senator from Massachusetts for several years during the Administration of Washington.—(See "Life of Cabot," by Lodge, p. 334.)]
[Footnote 23: See "Life of Cabot," p. 491; letter of Pickering to Higginson.]
[Footnote 24: Pickering to Cabot, "Life of Cabot," pp. 338-340.]
[Footnote 25: Letter to Theodore Lyman, "Life of Cabot," pp. 445, 446.]
[Footnote 26: Maine was not then a State.]
False Statements of the Grounds for Separation.—Slavery not the Cause, but an Incident.—The Southern People not "Propagandists" of Slavery.—Early Accord among the States with regard to African Servitude.—Statement of the Supreme Court.—Guarantees of the Constitution.—Disregard of Oaths.—Fugitives from Service and the "Personal Liberty Laws."—Equality in the Territories the Paramount Question.—The Dred Scott Case.—Disregard of the Decision of the Supreme Court.—Culmination of Wrongs.—Despair of their Redress.—Triumph of Sectionalism.
At the period to which this review of events has advanced, one State had already withdrawn from the Union. Seven or eight others were preparing to follow her example, and others yet were anxiously and doubtfully contemplating the probably impending necessity of taking the same action. The efforts of Southern men in Congress, aided by the cooeperation of the Northern friends of the Constitution, had failed, by the stubborn refusal of a haughty majority, controlled by "radical" purposes, to yield anything to the spirit of peace and conciliation. This period, coinciding, as it happens, with the close of a calendar year, affords a convenient point to pause for a brief recapitulation of the causes which had led the Southern States into the attitude they then held, and for a more full exposition of the constitutional questions involved.
The reader of many of the treatises on these events, which have been put forth as historical, if dependent upon such alone for information, might naturally enough be led to the conclusion that the controversies which arose between the States, and the war in which they culminated, were caused by efforts on the one side to extend and perpetuate human slavery, and on the other to resist it and establish human liberty. The Southern States and Southern people have been sedulously represented as "propagandists" of slavery, and the Northern as the defenders and champions of universal freedom, and this view has been so arrogantly assumed, so dogmatically asserted, and so persistently reiterated, that its authors have, in many cases, perhaps, succeeded in bringing themselves to believe it, as well as in impressing it widely upon the world.
The attentive reader of the preceding chapters—especially if he has compared their statements with contemporaneous records and other original sources of information—will already have found evidence enough to enable him to discern the falsehood of these representations, and to perceive that, to whatever extent the question of slavery may have served as an occasion, it was far from being the cause of the conflict.
I have not attempted, and shall not permit myself to be drawn into any discussion of the merits or demerits of slavery as an ethical or even as a political question. It would be foreign to my purpose, irrelevant to my subject, and would only serve—as it has invariably served, in the hands of its agitators—to "darken counsel" and divert attention from the genuine issues involved.
As a mere historical fact, we have seen that African servitude among us—confessedly the mildest and most humane of all institutions to which the name "slavery" has ever been applied—existed in all the original States, and that it was recognized and protected in the fourth article of the Constitution. Subsequently, for climatic, industrial, and economical—not moral or sentimental—reasons, it was abolished in the Northern, while it continued to exist in the Southern States. Men differed in their views as to the abstract question of its right or wrong, but for two generations after the Revolution there was no geographical line of demarkation for such differences. The African slave-trade was carried on almost exclusively by New England merchants and Northern ships. Mr. Jefferson—a Southern man, the founder of the Democratic party, and the vindicator of State rights—was in theory a consistent enemy to every form of slavery. The Southern States took the lead in prohibiting the slave-trade, and, as we have seen, one of them (Georgia) was the first State to incorporate such a prohibition in her organic Constitution. Eleven years after the agitation on the Missouri question, when the subject first took a sectional shape, the abolition of slavery was proposed and earnestly debated in the Virginia Legislature, and its advocates were so near the accomplishment of their purpose, that a declaration in its favor was defeated only by a small majority, and that on the ground of expediency. At a still later period, abolitionist lecturers and teachers were mobbed, assaulted, and threatened with tar and feathers in New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and other States. One of them (Lovejoy) was actually killed by a mob in Illinois as late as 1837.
These facts prove incontestably that the sectional hostility which exhibited itself in 1820, on the application of Missouri for admission into the Union, which again broke out on the proposition for the annexation of Texas in 1844, and which reappeared after the Mexican war, never again to be suppressed until its fell results had been fully accomplished, was not the consequence of any difference on the abstract question of slavery. It was the offspring of sectional rivalry and political ambition. It would have manifested itself just as certainly if slavery had existed in all the States, or if there had not been a negro in America. No such pretension was made in 1803 or 1811, when the Louisiana purchase, and afterward the admission into the Union of the State of that name, elicited threats of disunion from the representatives of New England. The complaint was not of slavery, but of "the acquisition of more weight at the other extremity" of the Union. It was not slavery that threatened a rupture in 1832, but the unjust and unequal operation of a protective tariff.
It happened, however, on all these occasions, that the line of demarkation of sectional interests coincided exactly or very nearly with that dividing the States in which negro servitude existed from those in which it had been abolished. It corresponded with the prediction of Mr. Pickering, in 1803, that, in the separation certainly to come, "the white and black population would mark the boundary"—a prediction made without any reference to slavery as a source of dissension.
Of course, the diversity of institutions contributed, in some minor degree, to the conflict of interests. There is an action and reaction of cause and consequence, which limits and modifies any general statement of a political truth. I am stating general principles—not defining modifications and exceptions with the precision of a mathematical proposition or a bill in chancery. The truth remains intact and incontrovertible, that the existence of African servitude was in no wise the cause of the conflict, but only an incident. In the later controversies that arose, however, its effect in operating as a lever upon the passions, prejudices, or sympathies of mankind, was so potent that it has been spread, like a thick cloud, over the whole horizon of historic truth.
As for the institution of negro servitude, it was a matter entirely subject to the control of the States. No power was ever given to the General Government to interfere with it, but an obligation was imposed to protect it. Its existence and validity were distinctly recognized by the Constitution in at least three places:
First, in that part of the second section of the first article which prescribes that "representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective members, which shall be determined by adding to the whole number of free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, and, excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other persons." "Other persons" than "free persons" and those "bound to service for a term of years" must, of course, have meant those permanently bound to service.
Secondly, it was recognized by the ninth section of the same article, which provided that "the migration or importation of such persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit shall not be prohibited by Congress prior to the year one thousand eight hundred and eight." This was a provision inserted for the protection of the interests of the slave-trading New England States, forbidding any prohibition of the trade by Congress for twenty years, and thus virtually giving sanction to the legitimacy of the demand which that trade was prosecuted to supply, and which was its only object.
Again, and in the third place, it was specially recognized, and an obligation imposed upon every State, not only to refrain from interfering with it in any other State, but in certain cases to aid in its enforcement, by that clause, or paragraph, of the second section of the fourth article which provides as follows:
"No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due."
The President and Vice-President of the United States, every Senator and Representative in Congress, the members of every State Legislature, and "all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several States," were required to take an oath (or affirmation) to support the Constitution containing these provisions. It is easy to understand how those who considered them in conflict with the "higher law" of religion or morality might refuse to take such an oath or hold such an office—as the members of some religious sects refuse to take any oath at all or to bear arms in the service of their country—but it is impossible to reconcile with the obligations of honor or honesty the conduct of those who, having taken such an oath, made use of the powers and opportunities of the offices held under its sanctions to nullify its obligations and neutralize its guarantees. The halls of Congress afforded the vantage-ground from which assaults were made upon these guarantees. The Legislatures of various Northern States enacted laws to hinder the execution of the provisions made for the rendition of fugitives from service; State officials lent their aid to the work of thwarting them; and city mobs assailed the officers engaged in the duty of enforcing them.
With regard to the provision of the Constitution above quoted, for the restoration of fugitives from service or labor, my own view was, and is, that it was not a proper subject for legislation by the Federal Congress, but that its enforcement should have been left to the respective States, which, as parties to the compact of union, should have been held accountable for its fulfillment. Such was actually the case in the earlier and better days of the republic. No fugitive slave-law existed, or was required, for two years after the organization of the Federal Government, and, when one was then passed, it was merely as an incidental appendage to an act regulating the mode of rendition of fugitives from justice—not from service or labor.
In 1850 a more elaborate law was enacted as part of the celebrated compromise of that year. But the very fact that the Federal Government had taken the matter into its own hands, and provided for its execution by its own officers, afforded a sort of pretext to those States which had now become hostile to this provision of the Constitution, not only to stand aloof, but in some cases to adopt measures (generally known as "personal liberty laws") directly in conflict with the execution of the provisions of the Constitution.
The preamble to the Constitution declared the object of its founders to be, "to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity." Now, however (in 1860), the people of a portion of the States had assumed an attitude of avowed hostility, not only to the provisions of the Constitution itself, but to the "domestic tranquillity" of the people of other States. Long before the formation of the Constitution, one of the charges preferred in the Declaration of Independence against the Government of Great Britain, as justifying the separation of the colonies from that country, was that of having "excited domestic insurrections among us." Now, the mails were burdened with incendiary publications, secret emissaries had been sent, and in one case an armed invasion of one of the States had taken place for the very purpose of exciting "domestic insurrection."
It was not the passage of the "personal liberty laws," it was not the circulation of incendiary documents, it was not the raid of John Brown, it was not the operation of unjust and unequal tariff laws, nor all combined, that constituted the intolerable grievance, but it was the systematic and persistent struggle to deprive the Southern States of equality in the Union—generally to discriminate in legislation against the interests of their people; culminating in their exclusion from the Territories, the common property of the States, as well as by the infraction of their compact to promote domestic tranquillity.
The question with regard to the Territories has been discussed in the foregoing chapters, and the argument need not be repeated. There was, however, one feature of it which has not been specially noticed, although it occupied a large share of public attention at the time, and constituted an important element in the case. This was the action of the Federal judiciary thereon, and the manner in which it was received.
In 1854 a case (the well-known "Dred Scott case") came before the Supreme Court of the United States, involving the whole question of the status of the African race and the rights of citizens of the Southern States to migrate to the Territories, temporarily or permanently, with their slave property, on a footing of equality with the citizens of other States with their property of any sort. This question, as we have seen, had already been the subject of long and energetic discussion, without any satisfactory conclusion. All parties, however, had united in declaring, that a decision by the Supreme Court of the United States—the highest judicial tribunal in the land—would be accepted as final. After long and patient consideration of the case, in 1857, the decision of the Court was pronounced in an elaborate and exhaustive opinion, delivered by Chief-Justice Taney—a man eminent as a lawyer, great as a statesman, and stainless in his moral reputation—seven of the nine judges who composed the Court, concurring in it. The salient points established by this decision were:
1. That persons of the African race were not, and could not be, acknowledged as "part of the people," or citizens, under the Constitution of the United States;
2. That Congress had no right to exclude citizens of the South from taking their negro servants, as any other property, into any part of the common territory, and that they were entitled to claim its protection therein;
3. And, finally, as a consequence of the principle just above stated, that the Missouri Compromise of 1820, in so far as it prohibited the existence of African servitude north of a designated line, was unconstitutional and void. (It will be remembered that it had already been declared "inoperative and void" by the Kansas-Nebraska Bill of 1854.)
Instead of accepting the decision of this then august tribunal—the ultimate authority in the interpretation of constitutional questions—as conclusive of a controversy that had so long disturbed the peace and was threatening the perpetuity of the Union, it was flouted, denounced, and utterly disregarded by the Northern agitators, and served only to stimulate the intensity of their sectional hostility.
What resource for justice—what assurance of tranquillity—what guarantee of safety—now remained for the South? Still forbearing, still hoping, still striving for peace and union, we waited until a sectional President, nominated by a sectional convention, elected by a sectional vote—and that the vote of a minority of the people—was about to be inducted into office, under the warning of his own distinct announcement that the Union could not permanently endure "half slave and half free"; meaning thereby that it could not continue to exist in the condition in which it was formed and its Constitution adopted. The leader of his party, who was to be the chief of his Cabinet, was the man who had first proclaimed an "irrepressible conflict" between the North and the South, and who had declared that abolitionism, having triumphed in the Territories, would proceed to the invasion of the States. Even then the Southern people did not finally despair until the temper of the triumphant party had been tested in Congress and found adverse to any terms of reconciliation consistent with the honor and safety of all parties.
No alternative remained except to seek the security out of the Union which they had vainly tried to obtain within it. The hope of our people may be stated in a sentence. It was to escape from injury and strife in the Union, to find prosperity and peace out of it. The mode and principles of their action will next be presented.
[Footnote 27: "There was but little necessity in those times, nor long after, for an act of Congress to authorize the recovery of fugitive slaves. The laws of the free States and, still more, the force of public opinion were the owners' best safeguards. Public opinion was against the abduction of slaves; and, if any one was seduced from his owner, it was done furtively and secretly, without show or force, and as any other moral offense would be committed. State laws favored the owner, and to a greater extent than the act of Congress did or could. In Pennsylvania there was an act (it was passed in 1780, and only repealed in 1847) discriminating between the traveler and sojourner and the permanent resident, allowing the former to remain six months in the State before his slaves would become subject to the emancipation laws; and, in the case of a Federal officer, allowing as much more time as his duties required him to remain. New York had the same act, only varying in time, which was nine months. While these two acts were in force, and supported by public opinion, the traveler and sojourner was safe with his slaves in those States, and the same in the other free States. There was no trouble about fugitive slaves in those times."—(Note to Benton's "Abridgment of Debates," vol. i, p. 417.)]
[Footnote 28: The Supreme Court of the United States in stating (through Chief-Justice Taney) their decision in the "Dred Scott case," in 1857, say: "In that portion of the United States where the labor of the negro race was found to be unsuited to the climate and unprofitable to the master, but few slaves were held at the time of the Declaration of Independence; and, when the Constitution was adopted, it had entirely worn out in one of them, and measures had been taken for its gradual abolition in several others. But this change had not been produced by any change of opinion in relation to this race, but because it was discovered from experience that slave-labor was unsuited to the climate and productions of these States; for some of these States, when it had ceased, or nearly ceased, to exist, were actively engaged in the slave-trade; procuring cargoes on the coast of Africa, and transporting them for sale to those parts of the Union where their labor was found to be profitable and suited to the climate and productions. And this traffic was openly carried on, and fortunes accumulated by it, without reproach from the people of the States where they resided."
This statement, it must be remembered, does not proceed from any partisan source, but is extracted from a judicial opinion pronounced by the highest court in the country. In illustration of the truthfulness of the latter part of it, may be mentioned the fact that a citizen of Rhode Island (James D'Wolf), long and largely concerned in the slave-trade, was sent from that State to the Senate of the United States as late as the year 1821. In 1825 he resigned his seat in the Senate and removed to Havana, where he lived for many years, actively engaged in the same pursuit, as president of a slave-trading company. The story is told of him that, on being informed that the "trade" was to be declared piracy, he smiled and said, "So much the better for us—the Yankees will be the only people not scared off by such a declaration."]
The Original Confederation.—"Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union."—Their Inadequacy ascertained.—Commercial Difficulties.—The Conference at Annapolis.—Recommendation of a General Convention.—Resolution of Congress.—Action of the Several States.—Conclusions drawn therefrom.
When certain American colonies of Great Britain, each acting for itself, although in concert with the others, determined to dissolve their political connection with the mother-country, they sent their representatives to a general Congress of those colonies, and through them made a declaration that the Colonies were, and of right ought to be, "free and independent States." As such they contracted an alliance for their "common defense," successfully resisted the effort to reduce them to submission, and secured the recognition by Great Britain of their separate independence; each State being distinctly recognized under its own name—not as one of a group or nation. That this was not merely a foreign view is evident from the second of the "Articles of Confederation" between the States, adopted subsequently to the Declaration of Independence, which is in these words: "Each State retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States in Congress assembled."
These "Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union between the States," as they were styled in their title, were adopted by eleven of the original States in 1778, and by the other two in the course of the three years next ensuing, and continued in force until 1789. During this period the General Government was vested in the Congress alone, in which each State, through its representatives, had an equal vote in the determination of all questions whatever. The Congress exercised all the executive as well as legislative powers delegated by the States. When not in session the general management of affairs was intrusted to a "Committee of the States," consisting of one delegate from each State. Provision was made for the creation, by the Congress, of courts having a certain specified jurisdiction in admiralty and maritime cases, and for the settlement of controversies between two or more States in a mode specifically prescribed.
The Government thus constituted was found inadequate for some necessary purposes, and it became requisite to reorganize it. The first idea of such reorganization arose from the necessity of regulating the commercial intercourse of the States with one another and with foreign countries, and also of making some provision for payment of the debt contracted during the war for independence. These exigencies led to a proposition for a meeting of commissioners from the various States to consider the subject. Such a meeting was held at Annapolis in September, 1786; but, as only five States (New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Virginia) were represented, the Commissioners declined to take any action further than to recommend another Convention, with a wider scope for consideration. As they expressed it, it was their "unanimous conviction that it may essentially tend to advance the interests of the Union, if the States, by whom they have been respectively delegated, would themselves concur, and use their endeavors to procure the concurrence of the other States, in the appointment of commissioners, to meet at Philadelphia on the second Monday in May next, to take into consideration the situation of the United States, to devise such further provisions as shall appear to them necessary to render the Constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union, and to report such an act for that purpose to the United States in Congress assembled, as, when agreed to by them, and afterward confirmed by the Legislatures of every State, will effectually provide for the same."
It is scarcely necessary to remind the well-informed reader that the terms, "Constitution of the Federal Government," employed above, and "Federal Constitution," as used in other proceedings of that period, do not mean the instrument to which we now apply them; and which was not then in existence. They were applied to the system of government formulated in the Articles of Confederation. This is in strict accord with the definition of the word constitution, given by an eminent lexicographer: "The body of fundamental laws, as contained in written documents or prescriptive usage, which constitute the form of government for a nation, state, community, association, or society." Thus we speak of the British Constitution, which is an unwritten system of "prescriptive usage"; of the Constitution of Massachusetts or of Mississippi, which is the fundamental or organic law of a particular State embodied in a written instrument; and of the Federal Constitution of the United States, which is the fundamental law of an association of States, at first as embraced in the Articles of Confederation, and afterward as revised, amended, enlarged, and embodied in the instrument framed in 1787, and subsequently adopted by the various States. The manner in which this revision was effected was as follows. Acting on the suggestion of the Annapolis Convention, the Congress, on the 21st of the ensuing February (1787), adopted the following resolution:
"Resolved, That, in the opinion of Congress, it is expedient that, on the second Monday in May next, a convention of delegates, who shall have been appointed by the several States, be held at Philadelphia, for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation, and reporting to Congress and the several Legislatures, such alterations and provisions therein as shall, when agreed to in Congress and confirmed by the States, render the Federal Constitution adequate to the exigencies of Government and the preservation of the Union."
The language of this resolution, substantially according with that of the recommendation made by the commissioners at Annapolis a few months before, very clearly defines the objects of the proposed Convention and the powers which it was thought advisable that the States should confer upon their delegates. These were, "solely and expressly," as follows:
1. "To revise the Articles of Confederation with reference to the 'situation of the United States';
2. "To devise such alterations and provisions therein as should seem to them requisite in order to render 'the Federal Constitution,' or 'Constitution of the Federal Government,' adequate to 'the exigencies of the Union,' or 'the exigencies of the Government and the preservation of the Union';
3. "To report the result of their deliberations—that is, the 'alterations and provisions' which they should agree to recommend—to Congress and the Legislatures of the several States."
Of course, their action could be only advisory until ratified by the States. The "Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union," under which the States were already united, provided that no alteration should be made in any of them, "unless such alteration be agreed to in a Congress of the United States, and afterward confirmed by the Legislatures of every State."
The Legislatures of the various States, with the exception of Rhode Island, adopted and proceeded to act upon these suggestions by the appointment of delegates—some of them immediately upon the recommendation of the Annapolis Commissioners in advance of that of the Congress, and the others in the course of a few months after the resolution adopted by Congress. The instructions given to these delegates in all cases conformed to the recommendations which have been quoted, and in one case imposed an additional restriction or limitation. As this is a matter of much importance, in order to a right understanding of what follows, it may be advisable to cite in detail the action of the several States, italicizing such passages as are specially significant of the duties and powers of the delegates to the Convention.
The General Assembly of Virginia, after reciting the recommendation made at Annapolis, enacted: "That seven commissioners be appointed by joint ballot of both Houses of Assembly, who, or any three of them, are hereby authorized, as deputies from this Commonwealth, to meet such deputies as may be appointed and authorized by other States, to assemble in convention at Philadelphia, as above recommended, and to join with them in devising and discussing all such alterations and further provisions as may be necessary to render the Federal Constitution adequate to the exigencies of the Union, and in reporting such an act for that purpose to the United States in Congress, as, when agreed to by them, and duly confirmed by the several States, will effectually provide for the same."
The Council and Assembly of New Jersey issued commissions to their delegates to meet such commissioners as have been, or may be, appointed by the other States of the Union, at the city of Philadelphia, in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, on the second Monday in May next, "for the purpose of taking into consideration the state of the Union as to trade and other important objects, and of devising such other provisions as shall appear to be necessary to render the Constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies thereof."
The act of the General Assembly of Pennsylvania constituted and appointed certain deputies, designated by name, "with powers to meet such deputies as may be appointed and authorized by the other States ... and to join with them in devising, deliberating on, and discussing all such alterations and further provisions as may be necessary to render the Federal Constitution fully adequate to the exigencies of the Union, and in reporting such act or acts for that purpose, to the United States in Congress assembled, as, when agreed to by them and duly confirmed by the several States, will effectually provide for the same."
The General Assembly of North Carolina enacted that commissioners should be appointed by joint ballot of both Houses, "to meet and confer with such deputies as may be appointed by the other States for similar purposes, and with them to discuss and decide upon the most effectual means to remove the defects of our Federal Union, and to procure the enlarged purposes which it was intended to effect; and that they report such an act to the General Assembly of this State, as, when agreed to by them, will effectually provide for the same." (In the case of this State alone nothing is said of a report to Congress. Neither North Carolina nor any other State, however, fails to make mention of the necessity of a submission of any action taken to the several States for ratification.)
The commissions issued to the representatives of South Carolina, by the Governor, refer to an act of the Legislature of that State authorizing their appointment "to meet such deputies or commissioners as may be appointed and authorized by other of the United States," at the time and place designated, and to join with them "in devising and discussing all such alterations, clauses, articles, and provisions, as may be thought necessary to render the Federal Constitution entirely adequate to the actual situation and future good government of the Confederate States," and to "join in reporting such an act to the United States in Congress assembled, as, when approved and agreed to by them, and duly ratified and confirmed by the several States, will effectually provide for the exigencies of the Union." In these commissions the expression, "alterations, clauses, articles, and provisions," clearly indicates the character of the duties which the deputies were expected to discharge.
The General Assembly of Georgia "ordained" the appointment of certain commissioners, specified by name, who were "authorized, as deputies from this State, to meet such deputies as may be appointed and authorized by other States, to assemble in convention at Philadelphia, and to join with them in devising and discussing all such alterations and further provisions as may be necessary to render the Federal Constitution adequate to the exigencies of the Union, and in reporting such an act for that purpose to the United States in Congress assembled, as, when agreed to by them, and duly confirmed by the several States, will effectually provide for the same."
The authority conferred upon their delegates by the Assembly of New York and the General Court of Massachusetts was in each case expressed in the exact words of the advisory resolution of Congress: they were instructed to meet the delegates of the other States "for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation, and reporting to Congress and to the several Legislatures such alterations and provisions therein as shall, when agreed to in Congress, and confirmed by the several States, render the Federal Constitution adequate to the exigencies of the Union."
The General Assembly of Connecticut designated the delegates of that State by name, and empowered them, in conference with the delegates of other States, "to discuss upon such alterations and provisions, agreeable to the general principles of republican government, as they shall think proper to render the Federal Constitution adequate to the exigencies of the Government and the preservation of the Union," and "to report such alterations and provisions as may be agreed to by a majority of the United States in convention, to the Congress of the United States and to the General Assembly of this State."
The General Court of New Hampshire authorized and empowered the deputies of that State, in conference with those of other States, "to discuss and decide upon the most effectual means to remedy the defects of our Federal Union, and to procure and secure the enlarged purposes which it was intended to effect"—language almost identical with that of North Carolina, but, like the other States in general, instructed them to report the result of their deliberations to Congress for the action of that body, and subsequent confirmation "by the several States."
The delegates from Maryland were appointed by the General Assembly of that State, and instructed "to meet such deputies as may be appointed and authorized by any other of the United States, to assemble in convention at Philadelphia, for the purpose of revising the Federal system, and to join with them in considering such alterations and further provisions," etc.—the remainder of their instructions being in the same words as those given to the Georgia delegates.
The instructions given to the deputies of Delaware were substantially in accord with the others—being almost literally identical with those of Pennsylvania—but the following proviso was added: "So, always, and provided, that such alterations or further provisions, or any of them, do not extend to that part of the fifth article of the Confederation of the said States, finally ratified on the first day of March, in the year 1781, which declares that, 'in determining questions in the United States in Congress assembled, each State shall have one vote.'"
Rhode Island, as has already been mentioned, sent no delegates.
From an examination and comparison of the enactments and instructions above quoted, we may derive certain conclusions, so obvious that they need only to be stated:
1. In the first place, it is clear that the delegates to the Convention of 1787 represented, not the people of the United States in mass, as has been most absurdly contended by some political writers, but the people of the several States, as States—just as in the Congress of that period—Delaware, with her sixty thousand inhabitants, having entire equality with Pennsylvania, which had more than four hundred thousand, or Virginia, with her seven hundred and fifty thousand.
2. The object for which they were appointed was not to organize a new Government, but "solely and expressly" to amend the "Federal Constitution" already existing; in other words, "to revise the Articles of Confederation," and to suggest such "alterations" or additional "provisions" as should be deemed necessary to render them "adequate to the exigencies of the Union."
3. It is evident that the term "Federal Constitution," or its equivalent, "Constitution of the Federal Government," was as freely and familiarly applied to the system of government established by the Articles of Confederation—undeniably a league or compact between States expressly retaining their sovereignty and independence—as to that amended system which was substituted for it by the Constitution that superseded those articles.
4. The functions of the delegates to the Convention were, of course, only to devise, deliberate, and discuss. No validity could attach to any action taken, unless and until it should be afterward ratified by the several States. It is evident, also, that what was contemplated was the process provided in the Articles of Confederation for their own amendment—first, a recommendation by the Congress; and, afterward, ratification "by the Legislatures of every State," before the amendment should be obligatory upon any. The departure from this condition, which actually occurred, will presently be noticed.
[Footnote 29: Dr. Worcester.]
[Footnote 30: This definition is very good as far as it goes, but "the form of government" is a phrase which falls short of expressing all that should be comprehended. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say, "which constitute the form, define the powers, and prescribe the functions of government," etc. The words in italics would make the definition more complete.]
The Convention of 1787.—Diversity of Opinion.—Luther Martin's Account of the Three Parties.—The Question of Representation.—Compromise effected.—Mr. Randolph's Resolutions.—The Word "National" condemned.—Plan of Government framed.—Difficulty with Regard to Ratification, and its Solution.—Provision for Secession from the Union.—Views of Mr. Gerry and Mr. Madison.—False Interpretations.—Close of the Convention.
When the Convention met in Philadelphia, in May, 1787, it soon became evident that the work before it would take a wider range and involve more radical changes in the "Federal Constitution" than had at first been contemplated. Under the Articles of Confederation the General Government was obliged to rely upon the governments of the several States for the execution of its enactments. Except its own officers and employees, and in time of war the Federal army and navy, it could exercise no control upon individual citizens. With regard to the States, no compulsory or coercive measures could be employed to enforce its authority, in case of opposition or indifference to its exercise. This last was a feature of the Confederation which it was not desirable nor possible to change, and no objection was made to it; but it was generally admitted that some machinery should be devised to enable the General Government to exercise its legitimate functions by means of a mandatory authority operating directly upon the individual citizens within the limits of its constitutional powers. The necessity for such provision was undisputed.
Beyond the common ground of a recognition of this necessity there was a wide diversity of opinion among the members of the Convention. Luther Martin, a delegate from Maryland, in an account of its proceedings, afterward given to the Legislature of that State, classifies these differences as constituting three parties in the Convention, which he describes as follows:
"One party, whose object and wish it was to abolish and annihilate all State governments, and to bring forward one General Government over this extensive continent of a monarchical nature, under certain restrictions and limitations. Those who openly avowed this sentiment were, it is true, but few; yet it is equally true that there was a considerable number, who did not openly avow it, who were, by myself and many others of the Convention, considered as being in reality favorers of that sentiment....
"The second party was not for the abolition of the State governments nor for the introduction of a monarchical government under any form; but they wished to establish such a system as could give their own States undue power and influence in the government over the other States.
"A third party was what I considered truly federal and republican. This party was nearly equal in number with the other two, and was composed of the delegates from Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and in part from Maryland; also of some individuals from other representations. This party were for proceeding upon terms of federal equality: they were for taking our present federal system as the basis of their proceedings, and, as far as experience had shown that other powers were necessary to the Federal Government, to give those powers. They considered this the object for which they were sent by their States, and what their States expected from them."
In his account of the second party above described, Mr. Martin refers to those representatives of the larger States who wished to establish a numerical basis of representation in the Congress, instead of the equal representation of the States (whether large or small) which existed under the Articles of Confederation. There was naturally much dissatisfaction on the part of the greater States—Virginia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Massachusetts—whose population at that period exceeded that of all the others combined, but which, in the Congress, constituted less than one third of the voting strength. On the other hand, the smaller States were tenacious of their equality in the Union. Of the very smallest, one, as we have seen, had sent no representatives to the Convention, and the other had instructed her delegates, unconditionally, to insist upon the maintenance of absolute equality in the Congress. This difference gave more trouble than any other question that came before the Convention, and for some time threatened to prove irreconcilable and to hinder any final agreement. It was ultimately settled by a compromise. Provision was made for the representation of the people of the States in one branch of the Federal Legislature (the House of Representatives) in proportion to their numbers; in the other branch (the Senate), for the equal representation of the States as such. The perpetuity of this equality was furthermore guaranteed by a stipulation that no State should ever be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate without its own consent. This compromise required no sacrifice of principle on either side, and no provision of the Constitution has in practice proved more entirely satisfactory.
It is not necessary, and would be beyond the scope of this work, to undertake to give a history of the proceedings of the Convention of 1787. That may be obtained from other sources. All that is requisite for the present purpose is to notice a few particulars of special significance or relevancy to the subject of inquiry.
Early in the session of the Convention a series of resolutions was introduced by Mr. Edmund Randolph, of Virginia, embodying a proposed plan of government, which were considered in committee of the whole House, and formed the basis of a protracted discussion. The first of these resolutions, as amended before a vote was taken, was in these words:
"Resolved, That it is the opinion of this committee that a national Government ought to be established, consisting of a supreme legislative, executive, and judiciary."
This was followed by other resolutions—twenty-three in all, as adopted and reported by the committee—in which the word "national" occurred twenty-six times.
The day after the report of the committee was made, Mr. Ellsworth, of Connecticut, moved to strike out the words "national Government" in the resolution above quoted, and to insert the words "Government of the United States," which he said was the proper title. "He wished also the plan to go forth as an amendment of the Articles of Confederation." That is to say, he wished to avoid even the appearance of undertaking to form a new government, instead of reforming the old one, which was the proper object of the Convention. This motion was agreed to without opposition, and, as a consequence, the word "national" was stricken out wherever it occurred, and nowhere makes its appearance in the Constitution finally adopted. The prompt rejection, after introduction, of this word "national," is obviously much more expressive of the intent and purpose of the authors of the Constitution than its mere absence from the Constitution would have been. It is a clear indication that they did not mean to give any countenance to the idea which, "scotched, not killed," has again reared its mischievous crest in these latter days—that the government which they organized was a consolidated nationality, instead of a confederacy of sovereign members.
Continuing their great work of revision and reorganization, the Convention proceeded to construct the framework of a government for the Confederacy, strictly confined to certain specified and limited powers, but complete in all its parts, legislative, executive, and judicial, and provided with the means for discharging all its functions without interfering with the "sovereignty, freedom, and independence" of the constituent States.
All this might have been done without going beyond the limits of their commission "to revise the Articles of Confederation," and to consider and report such "alterations and provisions" as might seem necessary to "render the Federal Constitution adequate to the exigencies of government and the preservation of the Union." A serious difficulty, however, was foreseen. The thirteenth and last of the aforesaid articles had this provision, which has already been referred to: "The Articles of this Confederation shall be inviolably observed by every State, and the union shall be perpetual; nor shall any alteration, at any time hereafter, be made in any of them, unless such alteration be agreed to in a Congress of the United States, and be afterward confirmed by the Legislatures of every State."
It is obvious, from an examination of the records, as has already been shown, that the original idea in calling a Convention was, that their recommendations should take the course prescribed by this article—first, a report to the Congress, and then, if approved by that body, a submission to the various Legislatures for final action. There was no reason to apprehend the non-concurrence of Congress, in which a mere majority would determine the question; but the consent of the Legislatures of "every State" was requisite in order to final ratification, and there was serious reason to fear that this consent could not be obtained. Rhode Island, as we have seen, had declined to send any representatives to the Convention; of the three delegates from New York, two had withdrawn; and other indications of dissatisfaction had appeared. In case of the failure of a single Legislature to ratify, the labors of the Convention would go for naught, under a strict adherence to the letter of the article above cited. The danger of a total frustration of their efforts was imminent.
In this emergency the Convention took the responsibility of transcending the limits of their instructions, and recommending a procedure which was in direct contravention of the letter of the Articles of Confederation. This was the introduction of a provision into the new Constitution, that the ratification of nine States should be sufficient for its establishment among themselves. In order to validate this provision, it was necessary to refer it to authority higher than that of Congress and the State Legislatures—that is, to the People of the States, assembled, by their representatives, in convention. Hence it was provided, by the seventh and last article of the new Constitution, that "the ratification of the Conventions of nine States" should suffice for its establishment "between the States so ratifying the same."
There was another reason, of a more general and perhaps more controlling character, for this reference to conventions for ratification, even if entire unanimity of the State Legislatures could have been expected. Under the American theory of republican government, conventions of the people, duly elected and accredited as such, are invested with the plenary power inherent in the people of an organized and independent community, assembled in mass. In other words, they represent and exercise what is properly the sovereignty of the people. State Legislatures, with restricted powers, do not possess or represent sovereignty. Still less does the Congress of a union or confederacy of States, which is by two degrees removed from the seat of sovereignty. We sometimes read or hear of "delegated sovereignty," "divided sovereignty," with other loose expressions of the same sort; but no such thing as a division or delegation of sovereignty is possible.
In order, therefore, to supersede the restraining article above cited and to give the highest validity to the compact for the delegation of important powers and functions of government to a common agent, an authority above that of the State Legislatures was necessary. Mr. Madison, in the "Federalist," says: "It has been heretofore noted among the defects of the Confederation, that in many of the States it had received no higher sanction than a mere legislative ratification." This objection would of course have applied with greater force to the proposed Constitution, which provided for additional grants of power from the States, and the conferring of larger and more varied powers upon a General Government, which was to act upon individuals instead of States, if the question of its confirmation had been submitted merely to the several State Legislatures. Hence the obvious propriety of referring it to the respective people of the States in their sovereign capacity, as provided in the final article of the Constitution.
In this article provision was deliberately made for the secession (if necessary) of a part of the States from a union which, when formed, had been declared "perpetual," and its terms and articles to be "inviolably observed by every State."
Opposition was made to the provision on this very ground—that it was virtually a dissolution of the Union, and that it would furnish a precedent for future secessions. Mr. Gerry, a distinguished member from Massachusetts—afterward Vice-President of the United States—said, "If nine out of thirteen (States) can dissolve the compact, six out of nine will be just as able to dissolve the future one hereafter."
Mr. Madison, who was one of the leading members of the Convention, advocating afterward, in the "Federalist," the adoption of the new Constitution, asks the question, "On what principle the Confederation, which stands in the solemn form of a compact among the States, can be superseded without the unanimous consent of the parties to it?" He answers this question "by recurring to the absolute necessity of the case; to the great principle of self-preservation; to the transcendent law of nature and of nature's God, which declares that the safety and happiness of society are the objects at which all political institutions aim, and to which all such institutions must be sacrificed." He proceeds, however, to give other grounds of justification:
"It is an established doctrine on the subject of treaties, that all the articles are mutually conditions of each other; that a breach of any one article is a breach of the whole treaty; and that a breach committed by either of the parties absolves the others, and authorizes them, if they please, to pronounce the compact violated and void. Should it unhappily be necessary to appeal to these delicate truths for a justification for dispensing with the consent of particular States to a dissolution of the Federal pact, will not the complaining parties find it a difficult task to answer the multiplied and important infractions with which they may be confronted? The time has been when it was incumbent on us all to veil the ideas which this paragraph exhibits. The scene is now changed, and with it the part which the same motives dictate."
Mr. Madison's idea of the propriety of veiling any statement of the right of secession until the occasion arises for its exercise, whether right or wrong in itself, is eminently suggestive as explanatory of the caution exhibited by other statesmen of that period, as well as himself, with regard to that "delicate truth."
The only possible alternative to the view here taken of the seventh article of the Constitution, as a provision for the secession of any nine States, which might think proper to avail themselves of it, from union with such as should refuse to do so, and the formation of an amended or "more perfect union" with one another, is to regard it as a provision for the continuance of the old Union, or Confederation, under altered conditions, by the majority which should accede to them, with a recognition of the right of the recusant minority to withdraw, secede, or stand aloof. The idea of compelling any State or States to enter into or to continue in union with the others by coercion, is as absolutely excluded under the one supposition as under the other—with reference to one State or a minority of States, as well as with regard to a majority. The article declares that "the ratification of the Conventions of nine States shall be sufficient for the establishment of this Constitution"—not between all, but—"between the States so ratifying the same." It is submitted whether a fuller justification of this right of the nine States to form a new Government is not found in the fact of the sovereignty in each of them, making them "a law unto themselves," and therefore the final judge of what the necessities of each community demand.