Chapter 1:

  • True value of the Federal principle.
  • -- historical examples. -- Coleridge's prophecy. -- Early mission of the American Union. -- how terminated. -- the American system of Government a mixed one. -- the Colonial period. -- first proposition of a General Congress. -- declaration of Independence. -- articles of Confederation. -- their occasion and origin. -- nature of the compact. -- peace-treaty of 1783. -- analysis of the nature and value of the Confederation. -- how it was terminated. -- the Convention of 1787. -- character of the men who composed it. -- political idolatry in America. -- parties in the Convention. -- the question of representation. -- the novelty of the American Constitution the result of an accident. -- State Rights. -- Amendments to the Constitution. -- nature of the American Union. -- not a consolidated nationality. -- the right of Secession. -- the Union not the proclamation of a new civil polity. -- not a political revolution. -- a convenience of the States, with no mission apart from the States. -- the two political schools of America. -- Consolidation and State Rights. -- how the slavery question was involved. -- a sharp antithesis. -- the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions. -- Webster and Calhoun, the anti-types of Northern and Southern statesmanship. -- Mr. Calhoun's doctrines. -- “nullification” a Union-saving measure. -- its ingenuity and conservatism. -- Calhoun's profound statesmanship. -- injustice to his memory. -- how the South has been injured by false party names

There is nothing of political philosophy more plainly taught in history than the limited value of the Federal principle. It had been experimented upon in various ages of the world — in the Amphictyonic Council, in the Achaean league, in the United Provinces of Holland, in Mexico, in Central America, in Columbia, and in the Argentine republic; in all these instances the form of government established upon it had become extinct, or had passed into the alternative of consolidation or anarchy and disintegration. Indeed, it is plain enough that such a form of government is the resource only of small and weak communities; that it is essentially temporary in its nature; and that it has never been adopted by States which had approached a mature condition, and had passed the period of pupillage. It is not to be denied that the Federal principle is valuable in peculiar circumstances and for temporary ends. But it is essentially not [34] permanent; and all attempts to make it so, though marked for certain periods by fictitious prosperity and sudden evidences of material activity and progress, have ultimately resulted in intestine commotions and the extinction of the form of government. What, indeed, can be more natural than that the members of a confederation, after they have advanced in political life and become mature and powerful, should desire for themselves independence and free action, and be impatient of a system founded on their early and past necessities!

Coleridge, the acute English scholar and philosopher, once said that he looked upon the American States as “splendid masses to be used by and by in the composition of two or three great governments.” For more than a generation past it was considered by a party in America, as well as by intelligent men in other parts of the world, that the American Union, as a confederation of States, had performed its mission, and that the country was called to the fulfilment of another political destiny.

And here it is especially to be remarked that those statesmen of the South, who for more than thirty years before the war of 1861 despaired of the continuation of the Union, were yet prompt to acknowledge its benefits in the past. There could be no dispute about the success of its early mission; and no intelligent man in America dared to refer to the Union without acknowledging the country's indebtedness to it in the past. It had peopled and fertilized a continent; it had enriched the world's commerce with a new trade; it had developed population, and it was steadily training to manhood the States which composed it, and fitting them for the responsibility of a new political life. The party that insisted at a certain period that the interests of the Southern States demanded a separate and independent government, simply held the doctrine that the country had outlived the necessities of the Union, and had become involved in the abuses of a system, admirable enough in its early conception, but diverted from its original objects and now existing only as the parent of intolerable rivalries, and the source of constant intestine commotions.

With reference to these abuses, it must be remarked here that although the Federal principle was the governing one of the American Union, yet such Union was not purely a confederation of States; it was mixed with parts of another system of government; and that the subordination of the Federal principle to these produced many additional causes of disruption, which plainly hurried the catastrophe of separation and war.

But before coming to the subject of these abuses, it will be necessary to determine the true nature and value of the Union. We must go back to an early period of American history; we must explore the sources of the great political parties in the country; and we must enumerate among the causes of disunion not only the inherent weakness of the Federal principle, but those many controversies which aided and expedited the result, [35] and in which the true idea of the Union was violated, the government distorted to the ends of party, and faction put in the place of a statesmanship that sought long but in vain to check its vile ambition and avert the final result.

When the thirteen colonies in North America resolved to throw off the yoke of Great Britain, committees of correspondence were established in each colony. In May, 1774, after Lord Dunmore dissolved a patriotic Virginia House of Burgesses, eighty-nine of its members met at the Raleigh Tavern, in Williamsburg, and, among other acts, recommended that all the colonies should send deputies to a General Congress, to watch over the united interests of all, and deliberate upon and ascertain the measures best adapted to promote them.

On the 4th of July, 1776, the Congress published a Declaration of Independence. It declared that tile colonies were “free and independent States,” thus asserting their separate State sovereignty, and expressly negativing the idea of consolidation, held by New Hampshire, who on the 15th of June, 1776, voted that the Thirteen United Colonies ought to be declared “a free and independent State.”

At this time the only common agent of the States was a Congress which really had no legislative power. Its action was generally wise, and therefore cheerfully acquiesced in and made efficient by the principals. But as the war continued, its pressure became heavier; men, money, and supplies were needed; and often the resolutions of Congress were either wholly neglected or positively repudiated by the States. It became apparent that the common agent must be clothed with actual power, and this could only be done by an express agreement between the States, whereby each should bind itself to observe certain rules, and obey certain regulations adopted to secure the common safety.

It was thus that the first Confederation of the American States-the articles of which were adopted by the several States in 1777-originated in the necessities of the war waged by them against Great Britain for their independence. A common danger impelled them to a close alliance, and to the formation of a confederation, by the terms of which the colonies, styling themselves States, entered “severally into a firm league of friendship with each other for their common defence, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare, binding themselves to assist each other against all force offered to or attacks made upon them or any of them, on account of religion, sovereignty, trade or any other pretence whatever.”

In order to guard against any misconstruction of their compact, the several States made explicit declaration, in a distinct article, that “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.” [36]

The objects and character of this confederation or union were thus distinctly defined. Under its terms the war of the Revolution was successfully waged, and resulted in the treaty of peace with Great Britain in 1783, by the terms of which the several States were, each by name, recognized to be independent.

As the Confederation originated in the necessities of the war against Great Britain, it was these necessities which determined its character and measured its powers. It was something more than a military alliance; for it was intended to unite the resources of the States, to make a common financial fund, and to “secure the public credit at home and abroad.” Partial and imperfect as was the union it established, it accomplished a great historical work, and dated an important era; it supplied what scarcely anything else could have supplied — a political bond between colonies suddenly erected into sovereign States; it was the stepping stone to a firmer association of the States, and a more perfect union. In this sense are to be found its true offices and value. Lines of exasperated division had been drawn between the colonies; the sharp points of religious antagonism had kept them at a distance; the natural difficulties of intercourse and the legislative obstructions of trade had separated them; differences of government, contrast of manners, diversity of habits had contributed to the estrangement; and in these circumstances a bond of union, however slightly it held them, was important as the initial of their political association, and was educating them for the new and enlarged destiny dated with their independence.

We have implied that the Confederation was a bond of very partial and imperfect effect. It practically existed not more than two years; although its nominal term in history is eight years. It was debated for nearly five years. It was not consummated until 1781. It was full of glaring defects; it had no power to enforce the common will of the States; it had no jurisdiction of individuals; it had but a mixed and confused power over foreign relations, and tile treaties it might make were dependent on commercial regulations of the different States. Having outlived the prime necessity that originated it during the war, its cohesive powers gradually gave way; it yielded to the impressions of new events; and it is remarkable that the association formed under it and entitled a Perpetual Union was practically terminated by the uninterrupted free will of the States which composed it.

A convention of delegates assembled from the different States at Philadelphia in May, 1787. It had been called by Congress “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 and the prefer. [37] nation of the Union.” This was the Convention that erected the two famous political idols in America: the Constitution of 1789 and the Union formed under it, and entitled itself to the extravagant adulation of three generations as the wisest and best of men.

This adulation is simply absurd. The language in the call of the Convention was singularly confused. The men who composed it were common flesh and blood, very ignorant, very much embarrassed, many of them unlettered, and many educated just to that point where men are silly, visionary, dogmatic and impracticable.

Hildreth, the American historian, has made a very just remark, which describes the cause of the unpopularity of his own compositions. He says: “In dealing with our revolutionary annals, a great difficulty had to be encountered in the mythic, heroic character above, beyond, often wholly apart from the truth of history, with which, in the popular idea, the fathers and founders of our American Republic have been invested. American literature having been mainly of the rhetorical cast, and the Revolution and the old times of the forefathers forming standing subjects for periodical eulogies, in which every new orator strives to outvie his predecessors, the true history of those times, in spite of ample records, illustrated by the labors of many diligent and conscientious inquirers, has yet been almost obliterated by declamations which confound all discrimination and just appreciation in one confused glare of patriotic eulogium.” 1 [38]

The Constitution formed by this Convention, although singularly deficient-and so far from being esteemed by American demagogueism as “almost of Divine authority,” actually one of the loosest political instruments in the world-contained one admirable and novel principle, which grew out of the combination of circumstances in the debate. One party in the Convention plausibly contended that its power was limited to a mere revision and amendment of the existing Articles of Confederation, and that it was authorized to add nothing to the Federal principle. Another party favoured the annihilation of the State governments. A third party stood between these extremes, and recommended a “national” government in the sense of a supreme power with respect to certain objects common between the States and committed to it. But when on this third plan the question of representation arose, it was found that the large States insisted upon a preponderating influence in both houses of the National Legislature, while the small States insisted on an equality of representation in each house; and out of this conflict came the mixed representation [39] of the people and the States, each in a different house of Congress; and on this basis of agreement was reared the Constitution of the United States of America.

The great novelty of this Constitution — the association of the principle of State sovereignty with a common government of delegated powers acting on individuals under specifications of authority, and thus, therefore, not merely a Federal league — is scarcely to be esteemed as an a priori discovery, and to be ascribed, as American vanity would have it, to the wisdom of our forefathers. The mixed representation of the people and the States originated, as we have seen, in a jealousy sprung in the Convention, and is better described as the fruit of an accident than the elaborate production of human wisdom. It was a compromise. It simply extricated the Convention from a dead-lock of votes between the large and the small States as to the rule of representation. But it was of immense importance as the initial and necessary measure of the combination of State sovereignty with the simple republic. There is reason to suppose that the framers of the Constitution did not fully comprehend the importance of the great political principle on which they had stumbled, with its long train of consequences, and that, as often happens to simple men, they had fallen upon a discovery, of the value of which they had but a dim apprehension.

The principle involved in the measure of the Convention referred to was more fully and perfectly developed in the Amendments, which were the fruit of the legislative wisdom of the States, not of that of the Convention, and were designed to give a full development and a proper accuracy to what was certainly ill-performed work in it. The following Amendments were embodied in the official declarations of at least six of the States, coupled with their ratification of the Constitution, and made by them the conditions precedent to such ratification.

The enumeration, in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

The Union, thus constituted, was not a consolidated nationality. It was not a simple republic, with an appendage of provinces. It was not, on the other hand, a mere league of States with no power to reach individuals. It was an association of sovereign States with a common authority qualified to reach individuals within the scope of the powers delegated to it by the States, and employed with subjects sufficient to give it for certain purposes the effect of an American and national identity.

At the separation from the British Empire, the people of America preferred the establishment of themselves into thirteen separate sovereignties; [40] instead of incorporating themselves into one. To these they looked up for the security of their lives, liberties, and properties. The Federal government they formed to defend the whole against foreign nations in time of war, and to defend the lesser States against the ambition of the larger. They were afraid of granting power unnecessarily, lest they should defeat the original end of the Union; lest the powers should prove dangerous to the sovereignties of the particular States which the Union was meant to support, and expose the lesser to being swallowed up by the larger.

The articles of the first Confederation had provided that “the Union shall be perpetual.” Notwithstanding this, as we have seen, another convention subsequently assembled which adopted the present Constitution of the United States. Article VII. provided that “the ratifications of nine States shall be sufficient for the establishment of this Constitution, between the States ratifying the same.” In effect, this Constitution was ratified at first by only a portion of the States composing the previous Union, each at different dates and in its sovereign capacity as a State, so that the second Union was created by States which “seceded” from the first Union, three of which, in their acts of ratification, expressly reserved the right to secede again. Virginia, in giving her assent to the Constitution, said: “We, the delegates of the people of Virginia, duly elected, etc., etc., do, in the name and in behalf of the people of Virginia, declare and make known that the powers granted under the Constitution, being derived from the people of the United States, may be resurped by them whenever the same shall be perverted to their injury or oppression.” The State of New York said that “the powers of Government may be re-assumed by the people whenever it shall become necessary to their happiness.” And the State of Rhode Island adopted the same language.

The reader of American history must guard his mind against the errour that the Union was, in any sense, a constitutional revolution, or a proclamation of a new civil polity. The civil institutions of the States were already perfect and satisfactory. The Union was nothing more than a convenience of the States, and had no mission apart from them. It had no value as an additional guaranty of personal liberty, nor yet for its prohibitions of invasion of individual rights. These had been declared with equal clearness and vigour five centuries before in the Great Charter at Runnymede, had been engrafted upon the Colonial Governments, and were the recognized muniments of American liberty.

The novelty and value of the Federal Constitution was the nice adjustment of the relations of the State and Federal Governments, by which they both became co-ordinate and essential parts of one harmonious system; the nice arrangement of the powers of the State and Federal Governments, by which was left to the States the exclusive guardianship of their domestic affairs, and of the interests of their citizens, and was granted to the Federal [41] Government the exclusive control of their international and inter-State relations;the economy of the powers of the States with which the Federal Government was endowed; the paucity of subjects and of powers, withdrawn from the States, and committed to the Federal Government. It was the recognition of the idea of Confederation — the appreciation of the value of local self-government. It was the recognition that the States were the creators and their powers were inherent, and that the Federal Government was the creature and its powers were delegated.

The two great political schools of America — that of Consolidation and that of State Rights — were founded on different estimates of the relations of the General Government to the States. All other controversies in the political history of the country were subordinate and incidental to this great division of parties. We see, at once, how it involved the question of negro-slavery in the South. The agitation of this question was a necessity of the Consolidation doctrine, which was mainly the Northern theory of the government; for duty being the correlative of power, the central government at Washington was responsible for the continuance or existence of slavery in proportion to its power over it. On the other hand, the State Rights party assented to the logical integrity of the proposition that if the government had been consolidated into one, slavery might have been abolished, or made universal throughout the whole; but they claimed that the States had retained their sovereignty, for the reason, among others, that they desired to avoid giving any pretext to the General Gov eminent for attempting to control their internal affairs; and they, therefore, contended that the Northern party could with no more reason assail the domestic institutions of the South than they could attack the similar institutions of Cuba and Brazil.

The difference between the State Rights and Consolidation schools may be briefly and sharply stated. The one regarded the Union as a compact between the States: the other regarded the Union as a national government set up above and over the States. The first adopted its doctrine from the very words of the Constitution; the seventh article for the ratification of the Constitution reading as follows:

The ratification of the Conventions of nine States shall be sufficient for the establishment of this constitution between the States so ratifying the same.

The great text of the State Rights school is to be found in the famous Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798. These resolutions are properly to be taken as corollaries drawn from those carefully-worded clauses of the Constitution, which were designed to exclude the idea that the separate and independent sovereignty of each State was merged into [42] one common government and nation. The Virginia resolutions were drawn up by Mr. Madison, and the Kentucky resolutions by Mr. Jefferson. The first Kentucky resolution was as follows:

“ 1st. Resolved, That the several States comprising the United States of America, are not united on the principle of unlimited submission to their general government, but that by compact under the style and title of a Constitution for the United States, and of amendments thereto, they constituted a general government, for special purposes, delegated to that government certain definite powers, reserving each State to itself, the residuary mass of right to their own self-government; and that whensoever the general government assumes undelegated powers, its acts are unauthoritative, void, and of no force; that to this compact each State acceded, as a State, and is an integral party; that this government created by this compact, was not made the exclusive or final judge of the extent of the powers delegated to itself, since that would have made its discretion and not the Constitution the measure of its powers; but that as in all other cases of compact among parties having no common judge, each party has an equal right to judge for itself, as well of infractions as of the mode and measure of redress.”

The most formidable conflict between these two schools of politics took place during the memorable tariff controversy of 1831-2, in which Daniel Webster of Massachusetts and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, the most remarkable antitypes of Northern and Southern statesmanship, joined in debate, explored the entire field of controversy, searched every feature and principle of the government, and left on record a complete and exhausting commentary on the whole political system of America.

Mr. Calhoun was logician enough to see that the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions involved the right of Secession. But he was not disposed to insist upon such a remedy. He lived in a time when, outside of his own State, there was a strong sentimental attachment to the Union; and he would have been a reckless politician, who would then have openly braved popular passion on this subject. Indeed Mr. Calhoun professed, and perhaps not insincerely, an ardent love for the Union. In a speech to his constituents in South Carolina, he declared that he had “never breathed any opposite sentiment,” and that he had reason to love the Union, when he reflected that nearly half his life had been passed in its service, and that whatever public reputation he had acquired was indissolubly connected with it.

It was the task of the great South Carolina politician to find some remedy for existing evils short of Disunion. He was unwilling, either to violate his own affections or the popular idolatry for the Union; and at the same time he was deeply sensible of the oppression it devolved upon the South. The question was, what expedient could be found to accommodate the overruling anxiety to perpetuate the Union, and the necessity of checking the steady advance of Northern aggression and sectional [43] domination in it. Mr. Calhoun did succeed in accommodating these two considerations. He hit upon one of the most beautiful and ingenious theories in American politics to preserve and perfect the Union, and to introduce into it that principle of adaptability to circumstances, which is the first virtue of wise governments. He proposed that in cases of serious dispute between any State and the General Government, the matter should be referred to a convention of all the States for its final and conclusive determination. He thus proposed, instead of destroying the Union, to erect over it an august guardianship, and instead of bringing it to the tribunal of popular passion, to arraign it only before the assembled sovereign States which had created it.

Mr. Calhoun abundantly explained his doctrine. “Should,” said he, “the General Government and a State come into conflict, we have a higher remedy: the power which called the General Government into existence, which gave it all of its authority, and can enlarge, contract, or abolish its powers at its pleasure, may be invoked. The States themselves may be appealed to, three-fourths of which, in fact, form a power, whose decrees are the Constitution itself, and whose voice can silence all discontent. The utmost extent then of the power is, that a State acting in its sovereign capacity, as one of the parties to the constitutional compact, may compel the government, created by that compact, to submit a question touching its infraction to the parties who created it.” He insisted with plain reason that his doctrine, so far from being anarchical or revolutionary, was “the only solid foundation of our system and of the Union itself.” His explanation of the true nature of the Union was a model of perspicuity, and an exposition of the profoundest statesmanship. In opposition to a certain vulgar and superficial opinion, that the State institutions of America were schools of provincialism, he held the doctrine that they were in no sense hostile to the Union, or malignant in their character; that they interpreted the true glory of America; and that he was the wisest statesman who would constantly observe “the sacred distribution” of power between the General Government and the States, and bind up the rights of the States with the common welfare.

It is a curious instance of Northern misrepresentation in politics and of their cunning in fastening a false political nomenclature upon the South, that the ingenious doctrine of Mr. Calhoun, which was eminently conservative, and directly addressed to saving the Union, should have been entitled “Nullification,” and its author branded as a Disunionist. Unfortunately, the world has got most of its opinions of Southern parties and men from the shallow pages of Northern books; and it will take it long .o learn the lessons that the system of negro servitude in the South was not “Slavery;” that John C. Calhoun was not a “Disunionist;” and that the war of 1861, brought on by Northern insurgents against the [44] authority of the Constitution, was not a “Southern rebellion.” Names are apparently slight things; but they create the first impression; they solicit the sympathies of the vulgar; and they often create a cloud of prejudice which the greatest exertions of intelligence find it impossible wholly to dispel. But it is not the place here to analyze at length the party terms of America; and the proper definition of the words we have referred to as falsely applied to the South will appear, and will be easily apprehended in the general argument and context of our narrative,

1 We find in 1866, even after the experience of the war, President Johnson declaring that the authours of the Constitution were divinely inspired; that “they needed and obtained a wisdom superiour to experience.” This is silly extravagance, if not worse. We shall see that there was one element of originality and of great virtue in the Constitution; but apart from this, the sober student of history, looking over three generations of fierce political conflict in America, must be struck by the enormous defects and omissions of an instrument that has shared so much the undue admiration of mankind.

In another work the authour has enumerated in the paragraphs quoted below the defective texts of the Constitution:

It is impossible to resist the thought, that the framers of the Constitution were so much occupied with the controversy of jealousy between the large and the small States that they overlooked many great and obvious questions of government, which have since been fearfully developed in the political history of America. Beyond the results and compromises of that jealousy, the debates and the work of the Convention show one of the most wonderful blanks that has, perhaps, ever occurred in the political inventions of civilized mankind. They left behind them a list of imperfections in political prescience, a want of provision for the exigencies of their country, such as has seldom been known in the history of mankind.

A system of negro servitude existed in some of the States. It was an object of no solicitude in the Convention. The only references in the Constitution to it are to be found in a provision in relation to the rendition of fugitives “ held to service or labour,” and in a mixed and empirical rule of Popular representation. However these provisions may imply the true status of slavery, how much is it to be regretted that the Convention did not make (what might have been made so easily) an explicit declaration on the subject, that would have put it beyond the possibility of dispute, and re moved it from even the plausibility of party controversy!

For many years the very obvious question of the power of the General Government to make internal improvements' has agitated the councils of America: and yet there is no text in the Constitution to regulate a matter which should have stared its authours in the face, but what may be derived, by the most forced and distant construction, from the powers of Congress “to regulate commerce,” and to “ declare war,” and “ raise and support armies.”

For a longer period, and with a fierceness once almost fatal to the Union, has figured in the politics of America “ the tariff question,” a contest between a party for revenue and a party for protective prohibitions. Both parties have fought over that vague platitude of the Constitution, the power of Congress “ to regulate commerce; ” and in the want of a more distinct language on a subject of such vast concern, there has been engendered a controversy which has progressed from the threshold of the history of the Union up to the period of its dissolution.

With the territorial possessions of America, even at the date of the Convention, and with all that the future promised in the expansion of a system that yet scarcely occupied more than the water-slopes of a continent, it might be supposed that the men who formed the Constitution would have prepared a full and explicit article for the government of the territories. That vast and intricate subject — the power of the General Government over the territories, the true nature of these establishments, the status and political privileges of their inhabitants — is absolutely dismissed with this bald provision in the Constitution of the United States:

New States may be admitted by Congress into this Union. Art. IV., Sec. 3.

In addition to these flagrant omissions of the Constitution may be observed a fault, which it was sought to correct in the Constitution of the Confederate States, and which has latterly grown much upon public attention. It is that defective construction of the Cabinet, which excludes all the ministers of the government from any participation in the legislative councils. The practical consequences of this defective organization of the government is, that the relations between the Executive and Congress have gradually descended to a back-door communication, in which the Executive has lost its dignity, and American politics been severely scandalized. The relations of the British ministry to Parliament are such that a vote of censure, any night, may change the administration of public affairs. There is no such faculty of adaptation in the American system. If there is a variance between the Executive and Congress, the former communicates with its partisans in that body through the back-door and lobby, and the practical consequences are bribery, corruption, and all sorts of devious and unworthy appliances to the legislation of the country.

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