previous next

The right of secession—a Review of Bledsoe's able work. From the Times-dispatch, October 20-27, 1907.

An Epitome of the views of Webster, Calhoun and other famous statesmen.

By Frederick Wilmer Sims, Louisa, Va.
“Is Davis a Traitor, or Was Secession a Constitutional Right, Previous to the War of 1861?” By Albert Taylor Bledsoe, A. M., L. L. D., late professor of mathematics in the University of Virginia. Republished by Mary Barksdale Newton, in memory of her husband, Virginius Newton, of Richmond, Va. The Hermitage Press, Inc., 1907, Richmond, Va.

As expressed in its preface:

“It is not the design of this book to open the subject of secession” (but merely to discuss that subject from the standpoint of abstract right), ‘in order to vindicate the character of the South for loyalty, and to wipe off the charges of treason and rebellion from the names and memories of Jefferson Davis, “StonewallJackson, Albert Sydney Johnston, Robert E. Lee and all who fought and suffered in the great war of coercion.’

The recent Confederate Reunion at Richmond; Va., where gathered once again the survivors of the historic struggle of 1861-5, makes timely the republication of the work under review; and, as a valuable contribution to the history of this subject, this work should be included in all public libraries and generally read.

It is true that it cannot be claimed for this work that it is a dispassionate summary of the arguments which have been advanced on both sides of the great question which it discusses. It was written too close to the culmination of the deadly strife in arms for this to be expected. It does not contain altogether a complete statement of the arguments which have been advanced in support of the position taken by the author; and it [167] fails to bring out the full force of the opposing arguments. It, however, presents many of such arguments, pro and con, in a new and forceful way, and no student of the subject should lose the benefit of the reasoning and of the historic research displayed in this work.

Preamble to the Constitution.

The history of the authorship of the initial clause of our Federal Constitution, ‘We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union . . . do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of Ameica’; and of the writing of it by Gouverneur Morris, the draftsman of the ‘committee on style’; and of its adoption by the whole convention in absolute silence, is peculiarly instructive and interesting reading.

In this connection will be remembered Mr. Calhoun's suggestion, in his debate with Mr. Webster in 1833, that this phraseology—‘We, the people,’ etc.—was used as expressing only the condition of the people under the old Confederacy and before the adoption of the Federal Constitution, as it speaks of a time before such adoption, and was not intended to express the condition in which the people would exist after the adoption of such Constitution. The historical explanation of the use of this language, disclosed by the work under review, is much more satisfactory.

The reasoning of the author, based on the Federalist, the Madison papers, the debates of the convention and on what was at the time of such convention know of the history, compacts between, and confederations of, sovereign States, seems conclusive of the proposition that the Federal Constitution was formed by a compact between the original acceding States, in their capacity as sovereign States, acting for themselves and for the people of the several States, respectively; and that such Constitution was not formed by the people of the United States as a whole, acting individually and nationally, with respect to the nationel powers delegated.

It will be remembered that Mr. Calhoun brought all the weight of his great character and fervid eloquence to maintain [168] the affirmative of that proposition; and that Mr. Webster combatted such affirmative in that epoch-making speech of his in 1833—even more memorable and able than that delivered by him in his perhaps more famous debate with Mr. Payne. Indeed, it seems to have been assumed by Mr. Calhoun as an elemental and unassailable proposition, and conceded by Mr. Webster (strange as it may seem now, reviewing the question from his standpoint), that it would inevitably result from this that, whatever sovereign States may have bound together, they could put asunder.

But did this conclusion necessarily follow?

Viewing the question in the light of past history alone, it would seem that it did. Assigning to sovereign States the attributes therefore considered as inhering in the very nature of sovereignty, it would seem that the States of 1787 could not, ‘in order to form a more perfect union,’ or for any other purpose, yield and surrender any portion of their sovereignty in such a manner as to bind posterity.

Virginia S action.

Virginia, indeed, that there might be left no doubt as to her conception of this matter, acting for her people, in her ordinance of ratification of the Federal Constitution, expressly reserved the right to resume the powers delegated to the Federal Government, ‘whenever the same shall be perverted to their injury or oppression.’

The idea of the individual citizen having surrendered, absolutely, certain natural rights, in order that civil society or government might be formed, under the theory of the ‘original contract,’ the ‘social contract,’ the ‘social compact,’ or the ‘implied social compact,’ discussed by numerous European writers, —some treating such ‘contract’ or ‘compact’ as having been in fact made, some as wholly imaginary and some as implied,— was familiar to the framers of our Federal Constitution. But the conception that a sovereign State could make such surrender, absolutely, of certain sovereign rights, in order to form civil society or government, was, at the time of the formation and adoption of our Federal Constitution, wholly new. [169]

Pelatiah Webster, in 1783, first expressed the idea that a Federal Government could be formed that ‘should act, not on the States, but directly on individuals.’ (To him Dr. Bledsoe refers in note on page 52 of the work under review, but inadvertently gives the credit of the idea mentioned to Noah Webster.) The former, it is true, conceived the idea of the possibility of a divided sovereignty; but even by him, the idea that the States could surrender, absolutely, certain sovereign rights—as individuals might surrender certain natural rights—seems not to have been clearly defined. He saw as but ‘through a glass, darkly’ on this subject. In truth neither he nor any of his contemporaries had any aid toward reaching the conclusion that a divided sovereignty might be made absolute, from any historic light upon the matter.

Hannis Taylors view.

As we now know, as expressed by many modern writers and speakers, but by none more clearly and suscinctly than by the learned author, Mr. Hannis Taylor, in his article in the North American Review (Vol. 185, No. 8, pp. 816-7):

From the days of the Greek Leagues down to the making of the present Constitution of the United States, all Federal Governments have been constructed upon a single plan, at once clumsy and inefficient. The most perfect of the Greek Leagues was the Achaian, of which the founders realy knew nothing . . .

The only Federal Governments with whose internal organizations the builders of the Federal Republic were really familiar, and whose histories had any practical effect upon their work, were those which had grown up between the Low-Dutch communities, at the mouth of the Rhine, and the High-Dutch communities in the mountains of Switzerland and upon the plains of Germany. Down to the making of our present Federal Constitution, the confederation of Swiss Cantons, the United Provinces of the Netherlands, and the German Confederation, really represented the total advance made by the modern world in the structure of Federal Governments. Such advance was embodied in the idea of a Federal system made up of a union of States, cities, or districts, representatives from which composed a single Federal Assembly, whose supreme power could be brought to [170] bear, not upon individual citizens, but upon cities of States of such. The basic principle upon which all such fabrics rested was the requisition system, under which the Federal head was simply endowed with the power to make requisitions for men and money upon the States or cities composing the league for Federal purposes; while the States alone, in their corporate capacity, possessed the power to execute and enforce them. The first advance made by the English colonies in America in the path of Federal union ended with the making of our first Federal Constitution embodied in what is known as the Articles of Confederation. Up to that point nothing new had been achieved; the fruit of the first effort was simply a confederation on the old plan, with the Federal power vested in a single assembly that could deal only through the requisition system with the States as States.

The same author last quoted then clearly shows that the idea, first conceived by Pelatiah Webster, that a supreme Federal Government might be formed ‘acting directly upon the subject or citizen, and not upon the cities of States composing the league,’ was an original contribution by our Federal Constitution. He says (Idem p. 822):

When the final analysis is made, it appears that our career as a nation has so far given birth to only three basic political ideas, which may be considered as original contributions to the science of politics :

(1) Constitutional limitations on legislative power, a State creation, from which resulted the power of courts to declare legislative acts null and void . . .

(2) Interstate citizenship, . . . which originated in the Articles of Confederation .

(3) The idea of supreme Federal Government strictly organized and operating directly on the citizen, and not on the States composing the federation . . .

The idea of a supreme Federal Government, such as that formed by our Federal Constitution, being, therefore, an absolutely new contribution by it to the science of politics, without any precedent in history, and the basic principle upon which it rests being that of the possibility of a divided sovereignty—a [171] thing therefore by all and since by many, deemed an impossibility — the Federal Government to be supreme with respect to certain—sovereign powers delegated to it and surrendered by the States; and the State Governments, or the people thereunder, to remain sovereign and supreme with respect to certain powers not delegated to the States, or to the people thereof—it needed no Cassandra to foretell that long years of debate, and, perchance, the trial by wage of battle, would be needed to define and fix the resultant effect of so momentous an innovation in matters of government.

And this indeed has come to pass.

Was the delegation and surrender by the States of a portion of their sovereign power to the Federal Government absolute—irrevocable? Upon this pivotal question the decision turned.

That it was not so intended by the framers of the Federal Constitution, or, if so intended, that they did not dare avow such an intention, is matter of historic knowledge. That if such an avowal had been made, the Federal Constitution would not have been ratified or adopted by the necessary number of three-fourths of the States, is matter of like knowledge. That for many years following the adoption of such Constitution such an intention found no advocates, but that the contrary view prevailed, both north and south, is equally demonstrated by history. Mr. Webster (Daniel) himself, when, in one of his later speeches, he said: ‘I do not hesitate to say and repeat that if the Northern States refuse wilfully and deliberately to carry into effect that part of the Constitution which respects the restoration of fugitive slaves, the South would be no longer bound to keep the compact. A bargain broken on one side is broken on all sides’ (see page 101 of Dr. Bledsoe's work), appears not to have had clearly defined in his mind the idea for which he had in former years so strenuously contended, that the States entering into the Federal compact had surrendered absolutely and irrevocably the sovereign powers delegated to the Federal Government. There was, indeed, up to the very commencement of hostilities, no settled conviction on this subject, even in the North, contrary to the historic view of it, which prevailed almost unanimously in the South. As Mr. Henderson, in his most admirable work (Stonewall Jackson, Vol. I., page 117), says: [172]

Mr. Lincoln's predecessor in the presidential chair had publicly proclaimed that coercion was both illegal and inexpedient; and for the three months which intervened between the secession of South Carolina and the inauguration of the Republican President, the Government made not the slightest attempt to interfere with the peaceable establishment of the new Confederacy. Nota single soldier reinforced the garrisons of the military posts in the South. Not a single regiment was recalled from the Western frontiers, and the seceded States, without a word of protest, were permitted to take possession, with few exceptions, of the forts, arsenals, navy yards and custom-houses which stood in their own territory. It seemed that the Federal Government was only waiting until an amicable arrangement might be arrived at as to the terms of separation.

If, in addition to the words in which she had assented to the Constitution, further justification were needed for the belief of Virginia in the right of secession, it was assuredly to be found in the apparent want of unanimity on so grave a question even in the Republican party, and in the quiescent attitude of the Federal Government.

It remained, therefore, for the stern arbitrament of war to decide what was before undecided, namely, that the framers of the Federal Constitution had builded stronger than they knew, or, at least, than they had avowed; and that they had indeed contributed to posterity a new principle of political science, to-wit: that sovereignty may be divided, and that a sovereign State may yield and surrender absolutely and irrevocably certain of its sovereign rights, even as an individual may yield and surrender absolutely and irrevocably certain of his natural rights, in order to form civil government.

Meanwhile, until this momentuous decision was so made, it was but following the dictates of the highest patriotism and loyalty to truth, as Dr. Bledsoe clearly demonstrates, for ‘all who fought and suffered in the great war of coercion’ to hazard their all, as they did in that great struggle, with an unselfish devotion that in itself is a priceless heritage to posterity.

As so admirably said by that inimitable historian (Mr. Henderson) last quoted (Vol. I. p. 123):

The North, in resolving to maintain the Union by force of [173] arms, was upheld by the belief that she was acting in accordance with the Constitution. The South, in asserting her independence and resisting coercion, found moral support in the same conviction, and the patriotism of those who fought for the Union was neither purer nor more ardent than the patriotism of those who fought for States' rights. Long ago, a Parliament of that nation to which Jackson and so many of his compatriots owed their origin, made petition to the Pope that he should require the English King to respect the independence of Scotland, and mind his own affairs. So long as 100 of us are left alive, said the signatories, “we will never in any degree be subjected to the English. It is not for glory, or for riches, or for honor that we fight, but for liberty alone, which no good man loses but with his life.” More than 500 years later, for the same noble cause and in the same uncompromising spirit, the people of Virginia made appeal to the God of Battles.

The whole of this admirable summary, by an impartial historian, is applicable to the South as a whole, and forecasts, if it does not indeed itself pronounce, the final judgment of history.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
1861 AD (2)
1833 AD (2)
October 27th, 1907 AD (1)
October 20th, 1907 AD (1)
1907 AD (1)
1865 AD (1)
1787 AD (1)
1783 AD (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: