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[357] encountered. In this dilemma, Alexander Hamilton wrote to James Madison to ask if the Constitution might not be accepted provisionally, with liberty to recede from the Union formed by it, if experience should justify the apprehensions of its adversaries. Mr. Madison promptly and wisely responded1 in the negative, stating that such conditional acceptance had been agitated at Richmond, and rejected as, in fact, no ratification at all. In the same spirit, Mr. Clay likened our Constitutional Union to a marriage, which is either indissoluble at the pleasure of one or both parties, or else no marriage at all.

The Virginia Convention which ratified the Federal Constitution, in the preamble to its Ordinance of Ratification, declared that it was the “impression” of the People of their State that the powers granted by said Constitution, being derived from. the People of the United States, may rightfully be resumed by them, whenever those powers shall be perverted to their injury or oppression. But this is nothing else than the fundamental doctrine of the republican system — that governments are made for the People, not the People for governments; and that the People, consequently, may, from time to time, modify their forms of government in accordance with their riper experience and their enlightened convictions — respecting, of course, the limitations and safeguards they may have seen fit to establish. This right had been set forth, with remarkable clearness and force, in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, and by many of our patriot sages in later days. John Quincy Adams — never remarkably inclined to popularize forms of government — had distinctly affirmed it in a speech in Congress; so had Abraham Lincoln, in one of his debates with Senator Douglas. But the right of a people to modify their institutions is one thing, and the right of a small fraction or segment of a people to break up and destroy a Nation, is quite another. The former is Reform; the latter is Revolution.2

1 Col. Hamilton, having first set before Mr. Madison the formidable obstacles to ratification, proceeded as follows:

You will understand that the only qualification will be the reservation of the right to recede, in case our amendments have not been decided upon in one of the modes pointed out by the Constitution within a certain number of years — perhaps five or seven. If this can, in the first instance, be admitted as a ratification, I do not fear any further consequences.

But Madison knew no ifs in the ratification of our federal pact. His reply, in full, is as follows:

New York, Sunday Evening.
my dear Sir:--Yours of yesterday is this instant come to hand, and I have but a few minutes to answer it.

I am sorry that your situation obliges you to listen to propositions of the nature you describe. My opinion is, that a reservation of a right to withdraw, if amendments be not decided on under the form of the Constitution within a certain time, is a conditional ratification; that it does not make New York a member of the new Union; and, consequently, that she could not be received on that plan. Compacts must be reciprocal — this principle would not, in such a case, be preserved. The Constitution requires an adoption, in toto and forever. It has been so adopted by the other States. An adoption for a limited time would be as defective as an adoption of some of the Articles only. In short, any condition whatever must vitiate the ratification. What the new Congress, by virtue of the power to admit new States, may be able and disposed to do in such case I do not inquire, as I suppose that is not the material point at present. I have not a moment to add more than my fervent wishes for your success and happiness. The idea of reserving a right to withdraw was started at Richmond, and considered as a conditional ratification, which was itself abandoned as worse than a rejection.


2 Hon. Reverdy Johnson, who lived in the same house with John C. Calhoun from 1845 to 1849, and enjoyed a very close intimacy with him, in a letter to Edward Everett, dated Baltimore, June 24, 1861, says:

He [Calhoun] did me the honor to give me much of his confidence, and frequently his Nullification doctrine was the subject of conversation. Time and time again have I heard him, and with ever-increased surprise at his wonderful acuteness, defend it on constitutional grounds, and distinguish it, in that respect, from the doctrine of Secession. This last he never, with me, placed on any other ground than that of revolution. This, he said, was to destroy the Government; and no Constitution, the work of sane men, ever provided for its own destruction. The other was to preserve it — was, practically, but to amend it, and in a constitutional mode.

To the same effect, Hon. Howell Cobb--since, a most notable Secessionist — in a letter to the citizens of Macon, Ga., in 1851, said:

When asked to concede the right of a State to secede at pleasure from the Union, with or without just cause, we are called upon to admit that the framers of the Constitution did that which was never done by any other people possessed of their good sense and intelligence — that is, to provide, in the very organization of the Government, for its own dissolutions. It seems to me that such a course would not only have been an anomalous proceeding, but wholly inconsistent with the wisdom and sound judgment which marked the deliberations of those wise and good men who framed our Federal Government. While I freely admit that such an opinion is entertained by many for whose judgment I entertain the highest respect, I have no hesitation in declaring that the convictions of my own judgment are well settled, that no such principle was contemplated in the adoption of our Constitution.

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