FROM THE FOUNDATION OF THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT DOWN TO 1830, BOTH THE NORTH AND THE SOUTH HELD THE CONSTITUTION TO BE A COMPACT BETWEEN THE STATES
One of the great difficulties in arguing the question of the relative power of the States and of the Federal Government, consists in the fact that the present generation has grown up under the shadow of the great Federal monster, and has been blinded by its giant proportions. They see around them all the paraphernalia and power of a great government — its splendid capital, its armies, its fleets, its Chief Magistrate, its legislature, and its judiciary—and they find it difficult to realize the fact, that all this grandeur is not self-created, but the offspring of the States.
When our late troubles were culminating, men were heard frequently to exclaim, with plaintive energy, “What! have we no government capable of preserving itself? Is our Government a mere rope of sand, that may be destroyed at the will of the States?” These men seemed to think that there was but one government to be preserved, and that that was the Government of the United States. Less than a century had elapsed since the adoption of the Constitution, and the generation now on the theatre of events had seemingly forgotten, that the magnificent structure, which they contemplated with so much admiration, was but a creature of the States; that it had been made by them for their convenience, and necessarily held the tenure of its life at sufferance. They lost sight of the fact that the State governments, who were the creators of the Federal Government, were the governments to be preserved, if there should be any antagonism between them and the Federal Government; and that their services, as well as their sympathies, belonged to the former in preference to the latter. What with the teachings of Webster and Story, and a host of satellites, the dazzling splendor of the Federal Government, and the overshadowing and corrupting influences of its power, nearly a whole generation in the North had grown up in ignorance of the true nature of the institutions, under which they lived.
This change in the education of the people had taken place since about the year 1830; for, up to that time, both of the great political parties of the country, the Whigs as well as the Democrats, had been State-Rights in doctrine. A very common error has prevailed on this subject. It has been said, that the North and the South have always been widely separated in their views of the Constitution; that the men of the North have always been consolidationists, whilst the men of the South have been secessionists. Nothing can be farther from the truth. Whilst the North and the South, from the very commencement of the Government, have been at swords’ points, on many questions of mere construction and policy,— the North claiming that more ample powers had been granted the Federal Government, than the South was willing to concede,— there never was any material difference between them down to the year 1830, as to the true nature of their Government. They all held it to be a federal compact, and the Northern people were as jealous of the rights of their States under it, as the Southern people.
The Whig Party was a political party active in the middle of the 19th century in the United States of America. Alongside the Democratic Party, it was one of the two major parties in the United States during the late 1830s, the 1840s, and the early 1850s, part of the Second Party System. Four U.S. presidents were affiliated with the Whig party for at least part of their respective terms. Other influential party leaders include Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, William Seward, John J. Crittenden, and Truman Smith.
In proof of this, I have only to refer to a few of the wellknown facts of our political history. Thomas Jefferson penned the famous Kentucky Resolutions of ’98 and ’99. The first of those resolutions is in these words: “Resolved, That the several States comprising the United States of America are not united on the principles of unlimited submission to their general Government; but that by a compact, under the style and title of the Constitution of the United States, and of amendments thereto, they constitute a general Government for special purposes; 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, its co-States forming, as to itself, the other party; that the 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, not the Constitution, the measure of its powers, but that, as in all cases of compact among persons 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 Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions were political statements drafted in 1798 and 1799, in which the Kentucky and Virginia legislatures took the position that the federal Alien and Sedition Acts were unconstitutional. The resolutions argued that the states had the right and the duty to declare as unconstitutional those acts of Congress that were not authorized by the Constitution. In doing so, they argued for states’ rights and strict constructionism of the Constitution. The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798 were written secretly by Vice President Thomas Jefferson (left) and James Madison, respectively.
It is unnecessary to quote the other resolution, as the above contains all that is sufficient for my purpose, which is to show that Mr. Jefferson was a secessionist, and that with this record he went before the American people as a candidate for the Presidency, with the following results: In 1800 he beat his opponent, John Adams, who represented the consolidationists of that day, by a majority of 8 votes in the Electoral College. In 1804, being a candidate for re-election, he beat his opponent by the overwhelming majority of 162, to 14 votes. In the Northern States alone, Mr. Jefferson received 85 votes, whilst in the same States his opponent received but 9. This was a pretty considerable endorsement of secession by the Northern States.
In 1808, Mr. Madison, who penned the Virginia Resolutions of ’98, similar in tenor to the Kentucky Resolutions, became a candidate for the Presidency, and beat his opponent by a vote of 122 to 47; the Northern majority, though somewhat diminished, being still 50 to 39 votes. Mr. Madison was reelected in 1812, and in 1816, James Monroe was elected President by a vote of 183 to his opponent’s 34; and more than one half of these 183 votes came from the Northern States. In 1820, Mr. Monroe was re-elected over John Quincy Adams, of Massachusetts, by a majority of 231 votes to 13. Besides Monroe and Adams, Crawford and Jackson were also candidates, but these two latter received only 11 votes between them. This last election is especially remarkable, as showing that there was no opposition to Jefferson’s doctrine of State Rights, since all the candidates were of that creed. The opposition had been so often defeated, and routed in former elections, that they had not strength enough left to put a candidate in the field.
John Quincy Adams succeeded Mr. Monroe, and his StateRights doctrines are well known. He expressed them as follows: “The indissoluble link of union between the people of the several States of this confederated nation, is, after all, not in the right, but in the heart. If the day should ever come (may heaven avert it) when the affections of the people of these States shall be alienated from each other; when the fraternal spirit shall give way to cold indifference, or collision of interests shall fester into hatred, the bands of political association will not long hold together parties, no longer attracted by the magnetism of conciliated interests, and kindly sympathies; and far better will it be for the people of the dis-united States to part in friendship with each other, than to be held together by constraint. Then will be the time for reverting to the precedents, which occurred at the formation, and adoption of the Constitution, to form again a more perfect union, by dissolving that which could no longer bind, and to leave the separated parts to be reunited by the law of political gravitation to the centre.”
General Jackson succeeded Mr. Adams in 1828, and was reelected in 1832. It was during his administration that the heresy was first promulgated by Mr. Webster, that the Constitution was not a compact between the States, but an instrument of government, “ordained, and established,” by the people of the United States, in the aggregate, as one nation. With respect to the New England States in particular, there is other and more pointed evidence, that they agreed with Mr. Jefferson, and the South down to the year 1830, on this question of State rights, than is implied in the Presidential elections above quoted. Massachusetts, the leader of these States in intellect, and in energy, impatient of control herself, has always sought to control others. This was, perhaps, but natural. All mankind are prone to consult their own interests. Selfishness, unfortunately, is one of the vices of our nature, which few are found capable of struggling against effectually.
The New England people were largely imbued with the Puritan element. Their religious doctrines gave them a gloomy asceticism of character, and an intolerance of other men’s opinions quite remarkable. In their earlier history as colonists, there is much in the way of uncharitableness and persecution, which a liberal mind could wish to see blotted out. True to these characteristics, which I may almost call instincts, the New England States have always been the most refractory States of the Union. As long as they were in a minority, and hopeless of the control of the Government, they stood strictly on their State rights, in resisting such measures as were unpalatable to them, even to the extremity of threatening secession; and it was only when they saw that the tables were turned, and that it was possible for them to seize the reins of the Government, that they abandoned their StateRights doctrines, and became consolidationists.
One of the first causes of the dissatisfaction of the New England States with the General Government was the purchase of Louisiana, by Mr. Jefferson, in 1803. It arose out of their jealousy of the balance of power between the States. The advantages to result to the United States from the purchase of this territory were patent to every one. It completed the continuity of our territory, from the head waters of the Mississippi, to the sea, and unlocked the mouths of that great river. But Massachusetts saw in the purchase, nothing more than the creation of additional Southern States, to contest, with her, the future control of the Government. She could see no authority for it in the Constitution, and she threatened, that if it were consummated, she would secede from the Union. Her Legislature passed the following resolution on the subject: “Resolved, That the annexation of Louisiana to the Union, transcends the Constitutional power of the Government of the United States. It formed a new Confederacy, to which the States [not the people of the United States, in the aggregate] united by the former compact, are not bound to adhere.”
The Louisiana Purchase was the acquisition of the territory of Louisiana by the United States from France in 1803. In return for fifteen million dollars, or approximately eighteen dollars per square mile, the United States nominally acquired a total of 828,000 sq mi. The total cost of all subsequent treaties and financial settlements over the land has been estimated to be around 2.6 billion dollars.
This purchase of Louisiana rankled, for a long time, in the breast of New England. It was made, as we have seen, in 1803, and in 1811 the subject again came up for consideration; this time, in the shape of a bill before Congress for the admission of Louisiana as a State. One of the most able and influential members of Congress of that day from Massachusetts was Mr. Josiah Quincy. In a speech on this bill, that gentlemen uttered the following declaration: “If this bill passes, it is my deliberate opinion that it is virtually a dissolution of the 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 separation, amicably if they can, violently if they must.”
Josiah Quincy III
Former Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives
Josiah Quincy III was a U.S. educator and political figure. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Mayor of Boston, and President of Harvard University. The historic Quincy Market in downtown Boston is named in his honor.
Time passed on, and the difficulties which led to our War of 1812, with Great Britain, began to rise above the political horizon. Great Britain began to impress seamen from New England merchant ships, and even went so far, at last, as to take some enlisted men from on board the United States ship of war Chesapeake. Massachusetts was furious; she insisted that war should be declared forthwith against Great Britain. The Southern States, which had comparatively little interest in this matter, except so far as the federal honor was concerned, came generously to the rescue of the shipping States, and war was declared. But the first burst of her passion having spent itself, Massachusetts found that she had been indiscreet; her shipping began to suffer more than she had anticipated, and she began now to cry aloud as one in pain. She denounced the war, and the Administration which was carrying it on; and not content with this, in connection with other New England States, she organized a Convention, at Hartford, in Connecticut, with a view to adopt some ulterior measures. We find the following among the records of that Convention: “Events may prove, that the causes of our calamities are deep, and permanent. They may be found to proceed not merely from 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 office, and to trample, without remorse, upon the rights and interests of the commercial sections of the Union. Whenever it shall appear, that these causes are radical, and permanent, a separation by equitable arrangement, will be preferable to an alliance, by constraint, among nominal friends but real enemies, inflamed by mutual hatred, and jealousy, and inviting, by intestine divisions, contempt and aggressions from abroad.” Having recorded this opinion of what should be the policy of the New England States, in the category mentioned, the “Journal of the Convention” goes on to declare what it considers the right of the States, in the premises. “That acts of Congress, in violation of the Constitution, are absolutely void, is an indisputable position. It does not, however, consist with the respect, from a Confederate Slate toward the General Government, to fly to open resistance, upou every infraction of the Constitution. The mode, and the energy of the opposition should always conform to the nature of the violation, the intention of the authors, the extent of the evil inflicted, the determination manifested to persist in it, and the danger of delay. But in case of deliberate, dangerous, and palpable infractions of the Constitution, affecting the sovereignty of the State, and liberties of the people, it is not only the right, but the duty, of each State to interpose its authority for their protection, in the manner best calculated to secure that end. When emergencies occur, which are either beyond the reach of judicial tribunals, or too pressing to admit of the delay incident to their forms, States, which have no common umpire, must be their own judges, and execute their own decisions.” These proceedings took place in January, 1815. A deputation was appointed to lay the complaints of New England before the Federal Government, and there is no predicting what might have occurred, if the delegates had not found, that peace had been declared, when they arrived at Washington.
The Hartford Convention was a series of meetings from December 15, 1814 to January 5, 1815, in Hartford, Connecticut, United States, in which the New England Federalist Party met to discuss their grievances concerning the ongoing War of 1812 and the political problems arising from the federal government’s increasing power.
It thus appears, that from 1803-4 to 1815, New England was constantly in the habit of speaking of the dissolution of the Union—her leading men deducing this right from the nature of the compact between the States. It is curious and instructive, and will well repay the perusal, to read the “Journal of the Hartford Convention,” so replete is it with sound constitutional doctrine. It abounds in such expressions as these: “The constitutional compact;” “It must be the duty of the State to watch over the rights reserved, as of the United States to exercise the powers which were delegated;” the right of conscription is ” not delegated to Congress by the Constitution, and the exercise of it would not be less dangerous to their liberties, than hostile to the sovereignty of the States” The odium which has justly fallen upon the Hartford Convention, has not been because of its doctrines, for these were as sound, as we have seen, as the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of ’98 and ’99, but because it was a secret conclave, gotten together, in a time of war, when the country was hard pressed by a foreign enemy; the war having, in fact, been undertaken for the benefit of the very shipping States which were threatening to dissolve the Union on account of it.
Mr. John Quincy Adams, the sixth President of the United States, himself, as is well known, a Massachusetts man, speaking of this dissatisfaction of the New England States with the Federal Government, says: “That their object was, and had been, for several years, a dissolution of the Union and the establishment of a separate Confederation, he knew from unequivocal evidence, although not provable in a court of law; and that in case of a civil war, the aid of Great Britain, to effect that purpose, would be assuredly resorted to, as it would be indispensably necessary to their design.” See Mr. Adams’ letter of Dec. 30th, 1828, in reply to Harrison Gray Otis and others.
We have thus seen, that for forty years, or from the foundation of the Federal Government, to 1830, there was no material difference of opinion between the sections, as to the nature of the league or compact of government which they had formed. There was this difference between the sections, however. The South, during this entire period of forty years, had substantially controlled the Government; not by force, it is true, of her own majorities, but with the aid of a few of the Northern States. She was the dominant or ruling power in the Government. During all this time, she conscientiously adhered to her convictions, and respected the rights of the minority, though she might have wielded her power, if she had been so inclined, to her own advantage.
Constitutions are made for the protection of minorities, and she scrupulously adhered to this idea. Minorities naturally cling to the guarantees and defences provided for them in the fundamental law; it is only when they become strong, when they throw off their pupilage, and become majorities, that their principles and their virtues are really tested. It is in politics, as in religion—the weaker party is always the tolerant party. Did the North follow this example set her by the South? No; the moment she became strong enough, she recanted all the doctrines under which she had sought shelter, tore the Constitution into fragments, scattered it to the winds; and finally, when the South threw herself on the defensive, as Massachusetts had threatened to do, in 1803 and 1815, she subjugated her.
What was the powerful motive which thus induced the North to overthrow the government which it had labored so assiduously with the South to establish, and which it had construed in common with the South, for the period of forty years? It was the motive which generally influences human conduct; it was the same motive which Patrick Henry had so clearly foreseen, when he warned the people of Virginia against entering into the federal compact; telling them, that interested majorities never had, in the history of the world, and never would respect the rights of minorities.
The great “American System,” as it has been called, had in the meantime arisen, championed by no less a personage than Henry Clay of Kentucky. In 1824, and again in 1828, oppressive tariffs had been enacted for the protection of New England manufacturers. The North was manufacturing, the South non-manufacturing. The effect of these tariffs was to shut out all foreign competition, and compel the Southern consumer to pay two prices for all the textile fabrics he consumed, from the clothing of his negroes to his own broadcloth coats. So oppressive, unjust, and unconstitutional were these acts considered, that South Carolina nullified them in 1830. Immediately all New England was arrayed against South Carolina. An entire and rapid change took place in the political creed of that section. New England orators and jurists rose up to proclaim that the Constitution was not a compact between the States. Webster thundered in the Senate, and Story wrote his “Commentaries on the Constitution.” These giants had a herculean task before them; nothing less than the falsifying of the whole political history of the country, for the previous forty years; but their barren and inhospitable section of the country had been touched by the enchanter’s wand, and its rocky hills, and sterile fields, incapable of yielding even a scanty subsistence to its numerous population, were to become glad with the music of the spindle and the shuttle; and the giants undertook the task! How well they have accomplished it, the reader will see, in the course of these pages, when, toward the conclusion of my narrative, he will be called upon to view the fragments of the grand old Constitution, which has been shattered, and which will lie in such mournful profusion around him; the monuments at once of the folly and crimes of a people, who have broken up a government—a free government— which might else have endured for centuries.
Henry Clay addressing the U.S. Senate, Daniel Webster is seated to the left of Clay, John C. Calhoun is to the left of the Speaker’s chair