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shall not be in danger, therefore, of misunderstanding him, or those who agree with him, if I proceed at once to these resolutions, and consider them as an authentic statement of those opinions, upon the great Constitutional question, by which the recent proceedings in South Carolina are attempted to be justified.
These resolutions are three in number.
The third seems intended to enumerate, and to deny, the several opinions expressed in the President's proclamation, respecting the nature and powers of this Government. Of this third resolution, I purpose, at present, to take no particular no
The two first resolutions of the honorable member affirm these propositions, viz.
1. That the political system, under which we live, and under which Congress is now assembled, is a compact, to which the people of the several States, as separate and sovereign communities, are the parties.
2. That these sovereign parties have a right to judge, each for itself, of any alleged violation of the Constitution by Congress; and, in case of such violation, to choose, each for itself, its own mode and measure of redress.
It is true, Sir, that the honorable member calls this a “constitutional” compact; but still be affirms it to be a compact between sovereign States. What precise meaning, then, does he attach to the term constitutional ? When applied to compacts between sovereign States, the term constitutional affixes to that word compact no definite idea. Were we to hear of a constitutional league or treaty between England and France, or a constitutional convention between Austria and Russia, we should not understand what could be intended by such a league, such a treaty, or such a convention. In these connections, the word is void of all meaning; and yet, Sir, it is easy, quite easy, to see why the honorable gentleman has used it in these resolutions. He cannot open the book, and look upon our written frame of government, without seeing that it is called a constitution. This may well be appalling to bim. It threatens his whole doctrine of compact, and its darling derivatives, nullification and secession, with instant confutation. Because, if he admits our instrument of government to be a constitution, then, for that very reason, it is not a compact between sovereigns; a constitution of government, and a compact between sovereign powers, being things essentially unlike in their very natures, and incapable of ever being the same. Yet the word constitution is on the very front of the instrument. He cannot overlook it. He seeks, therefore, to compromise the matter, and to sink all the substantial sense of the word, while he retains a resemblance of its sound. He introduces a new word of his own, viz. compact, as importing the principal idea, and designed to play the principal part, and degrades constitution into an insignificant, idle epithet, attached to compact. The whole then stands as a “constitutional compact!” And in this way he hopes to pass off a plausible gloss, as satisfying the words of the instrument; but he will find himself disappointed. Sir, I must say to the honorable gentleman, that, in our American political grammar, CONSTITUTION is a noun substantive; it imports a distinct and clear idea, of itself; and it is not to lose its importance and dignity, it is not to be turned into a poor, ambiguous, senseless, unmeaning adjective, for the purpose of accommodating any new set of political notions. Sir, we reject his new rules of syntax altogether. We will not give up our forms of political speech to the grammarians of the school of nullification. By the Constitution, we mean not a “constitutional compact," but, simply and directly, the Constitution, the fundamental law; and if there be one word in the language, which the people of the United States understand, this is that word. We know no more of a constitutional compact between sovereign powers, than we know of a constitutional indenture of copartnership, a constitutional deed of conveyance, or a constitutional bill of exchange. But we know what the Constitution is; we know what the plainly-written, fundamental law is; we know what the bond of our Union and the security of our liberties is; and we mean to maintain and to defend it, in its plain sense and unsophisticated meaning.
The sense of the gentleman's proposition, therefore, is not at all affected, one way or the other, by the use of this word. That proposition still is, that our system of government is but a compact between the people of separate and sovereign States.
Was it Mirabeau, Mr. President, or what other master of the human passions, who has told us that words are things? They are indeed things, and things of mighty influence, not only in addresses to the passions and high-wrought feelings of mankind, but in the discussion of legal and political questions also ; because a just conclusion is often avoided, or a false one reached, by the adroit substitution of one phrase, or one word, for another. Of this we have, I think, another example in the resolutions before us.
The first resolution declares that the people of the several States “ acceded” to the Constitution, or to the constitutional compact, as it is called. This word “ accede," not found either in the Constitution itself, or in the ratification of it by any one of the States, has been chosen for use here, doubtless, not without a well-considered purpose.
The natural converse of accession is secession; and, therefore, when it is stated that the people of the States acceded to the
Union, it may be more plausibly argued that they may secede from it. If, in adopting the Constitution, nothing was done but acceding to a compact, nothing would seem necessary, in order to break it up, but to secede from the same compact. But the term is wholly out of place. Accession, as a word applied to political associations, implies coming into a league, treaty, or confederacy, by one hitherto a stranger to it; and secession implies departing from such league or confederacy. The people of the United States have used no such form of expression in establishing the present Government. They do not say that they accede to a league, but they declare that they ordain and establish a Constitution. Such are the very words of the instrument itself; and in all the States, without an exception, the language used by their conventions was, that they "ratified the Constitution;” some of them employing the additional words “assented to " and "adopted," but all of them “ ratifying." There is more importance than may, at first sight, appear, in the introduction of this new word by the honorable mover of these resolutions. Its adoption and use are indispensable to maintain those premises, from which his main conclusion is to be afterwards drawn. But, before showing that, allow me to remark, that this phraseology tends to keep out of sight the just view of our previous political history, as well as to suggest wrong ideas as to what was actually done when the present Constitution was agreed to. In 1789, and before this Constitution was adopted, the United States had already been in a Union, more or less close, for fifteen years. At least as far back as the meeting of the first Congress, in 1774, they had been, in some measure, and to some national purposes, united together. Before the Confederation of 1781, they had declared independence jointly, and had carried on the war jointly, both by sea and land; and this, not as separate States, but as one people. When, therefore, they formed that Confederation, and adopted its articles as articles of perpetual union, they did not come together for the first time; and, therefore, they did not speak of the States as acceding to the Confederation, although it was a league, and nothing but a league, and rested on nothing but plighted faith for its performance. Yet, even then, the States were not strangers to each other; there was a bond of union already subsisting between them; they were associated, United States; and the object of the Confederation was to make a stronger and better bond of union. Their representatives deliberated together on these proposed Articles of Confederation, and, being authorized by their respective States, finally "ratified and confirmed” them. Inasmuch as they were already in upion, they did not speak of acceding to the new Articles of Confederation, but of ratifying and confirming them; and this language was not used inadvertently, because, in the same instru
ment, accession is used in its proper sense, when applied to Canada, which was altogether a stranger to the existing Union. “Canada," says the 11th article, “ acceding to this Confederation, and joining in the measures of the United States, shall be admitted into the Union.”
Having thus used the terms ratify and confirm, even in regard to the old Confederation, it would have been strange, indeed, if the people of the United States, after its formation, and when they came to establish the present Constitution, bad spoken of the States, or the people of the States, as acceding to this Constitution. Such language would have been ill suited to the occasion. It would have implied an existing separation or disunion among the States, such as never has existed since 1774. No such language, therefore, was used. The language actually employed is, adopt, ratify, ordain, establish.
Therefore, Sir, since any State, before she can prove her right to dissolve the Union, must show her authority to undo what has been done, no State is at liberty to secede, on the ground that she and other States have done nothing but accede. She must show that she has a right to reverse what has been ordained, to unsettle and overthrow what has been established, to reject what the people have adopted, and to break up what they have ratified; because these are the terms which express the transactions which have actually taken place. In other words, she must show her right to make a revolution.
If, Mr. President, in drawing these resolutions, the honorable member had confined himself to the use of Constitutional language, there would have been a wide and awful hiatus between his premises and his conclusion. Leaving out the two words compact and accession, which are not Constitutional modes of expression, and stating the matter precisely as the truth is, his first resolution would have affirmed that the people of the several States ratified this Constitution, or form of government. These are the very words of South Carolina hersell, in her own act of ratification. Let, then, his first resolution tell the exact truth; let it state the fact precisely as it exists; let it say that the people of the several States ratified a Constitution, or form of government; and then, Sir, what will become of his inference in his second resolution, which is in these words, viz. " that, as in all other cases of compact, among sovereign parties, each has an equal right to judge for itself, as well of the infraction as of the mode and measure of redress"? It is obvious, is it not, Sir? that this conclusion requires for its support quite other premises; it requires premises which speak of accession and of compact between sovereign powers; and, without such premises, it is altogether unmeaning.
Mr. President, if the honorable member will truly state what
the people did in forming this Constitution, and then state what they must do if they would now undo what they then did, he will unavoidably state a case of revolution. Let us see if it be not so. He must state, in the first place, that the people of the several States adopted and ratified this Constitution, or form of government; and, in the next place, he must state that they have a right to undo this, that is to say, that they have a right to discard the form of government which they have adopted, and to break up the Constitution which they have ratified. Now, Sir, this is neither more nor less than saying that they have a right to make a revolution. To reject an established government, to break up a political constitution, is revolution.
I deny that any man can state, accurately, what was done by the people, in establishing the present Constitution, and then state, accurately, what the people, or any part of them, must now do to get rid of its obligations, without stating an undeniable case of the overthrow of Government. I admit, of course, that the people may, if they choose, overthrow the Government. But, then, that is revolution. The doctrine now contended for is, that, by nullification or secession, the obligations and authority of the Government may be set aside or rejected, without revolution. But that is what I deny ; and what I say is, that no man can state the case with historical accuracy, and in Constitutional language, without showing that the honorable gentleman's right, as asserted in his conclusion, is a revolutionary right merely; that it does not, and cannot exist, under the Constitution, or agreeably to the Constitution, but can come into existence only when the Constitution is overthrown. This is the reason, Sir, which makes it necessary to abandon the use of Constitutional language for a new vocabulary, and to substitute, in the place of plain historical facts, a series of assumptions. This is the reason why it is necessary to give new names to things, to speak of the Constitution, not as a constitution, but as a compact, and of the ratifications, by the people, not as ratifications, but as acts of accession.
Sir, I intend to hold the gentleman to the written record. In the discussion of a Constitutional question, I intend to impose upon him the restraints of Constitutional language. The people have ordained a Constitution; can they reject it without revolution? They have established a form of government; can they overthrow it without revolution ? These are the true questions.
Allow me now, Mr. President, to inquire further into the extent of the propositions contained in the resolutions, and their necessary consequences.
Where sovereign communities are parties, there is no essential difference between a compact, a confederation, and a league. They all equally rest on the plighted faith of the sovereign party.