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Under the first head he remarked:
“It is only in our united character that we are known as an empire, that our independence is acknowledged, that our power can be regarded, or our credit supported among foreign nations. The treaties of European powers with the United States will have no validity, on a dissolution of the Union. We may find, by our own unhappy experience, that there is a natural and necessary progression from the extreme of anarchy to the extreme of tyranny; and that arbitrary power is most easily established on the ruins of liberty abused to licentiousness.
How prophetic this warning, and how appropriate to the present time! The good and great man, to whom human liberty and his country are so much indebted, proclaims that 6 an indissoluble union of the States under one federal head is essential to the existence of the United States as an independent power," and utters his solemn monition of the consequences of disruption. Yet, it seems, but little heed was given to his counsels, and accident brought about what the wisest and best men failed to accomplish by appeals to patriotism, or even to interest. The congress, in 1785, issued an address to the States, in which they earnestly urged upon them the necessity of adopting a new provision, that "the United States, in congress assembled, should have the sole and exclusive right of regulating the trade of the States, as well with foreign nations as with each other.”
This was the first step in that series of proceedings so full of great events to us, and to the world. Every attempt to bring the State legislatures into harmony of action had failed. The meeting proposed by Virginia was fixed to take place at Annapolis in May. In the mean time New Jersey, in agreeing to the proposition, had the sagacity to enlarge the objects of the meeting, by suggesting that other important matters should be taken into consideration.
The meeting at Annapolis was so thinly attended that its members adjourned without taking any action, but adopted the idea of New Jersey, and addressed a letter to the States, recommending a general convention, “ to take into consideration the whole situation of the United States, and to devise such further provisions as should appear necessary to render the Constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union.” On the report of the Commissioners, the Virginia legislature called a convention of delegates from all the States, to meet in Philadelphia in May, to take into consid
0 Marshall's Life of Washington.
eration the whole state of the Union, at the same time appointing George Washington as a delegate from the Old Dominion. Washington declined to act, but the Virginia legislature would not appoint a delegate in his place. These proceedings resulted in the convention which adopted the present Constitution ; and, as Webster remarks, “the Commonwealth of Virginia is entitled to the honor of commencing the work of establishing it.” Thus the Constitution was the child of pressing commercial necessity. Unity and identity of commerce among all the States was its seminal principle. It had been found absolutely impossible to excite or foster enterprise in trade under the influence of discordant and jarring State regulations. The country was losing all the advantages of its position. The revolution itself was beginning to be regarded as a doubtful blessing.* The Federal Government, condemned to impotence by its Constitution, and no longer sustained by the presence of a common danger, saw the outrages offered to its flag by the great nations of Europe, while it was scarcely able to maintain its ground against the Indian tribes, and to pay the interest of the debt which had been contracted during the war of Independence. It was already on the verge of destruction, when it officially proclaimed its inability to conduct the government, and appealed to the constituent authority of the nation. And here is a picture of what the government would again become, if the South Carolina doctrine of nullification and secession were permitted to prevail. This abdication of congress, the ruling power of the nation, is the most sublime and solemn moment in American history. It is a novelty in the history of society, to see a great people turn a calm and scrutinizing eye upon itself, when apprised by the national legislature that the wheels of Government had stopped, to see it carefully examine the extent of the evil, and patiently wait for two whole years until a remedy was discovered, which it voluntarily adopted without having wrung a tear or a drop of blood from mankind. I
The greatest apprehension existed, among the friends of union and strong government, for the success of the cause, especially when they found that Washington was unwilling to attend. Many discountenanced it, because the mode of calling it was deemed irregular, and some objected to it, because it was not so constituted as to give authority to the plan which should be devised. But the great mass of opposition originated in a devotion to State sovereignty and in hostility to any considerable augmentation of the federal power.
o Daniel Webster. | Congress made this declaration on the 21st February, 1787.
At this time, alarming commotions agitated Massachusetts and all New England, which had a potent influence not only in constraining the various States to send delegates to the convention, but in controlling the decisions at which they arrived. An insurrection broke out in the old Bay State, called Shay's rebellion, from its leader. It revealed the dangers to which the Republic was exposed, and, at the same time, suggested the necessity of a guarantee to the States against domestic insurrection—a provision which was not to be found in the old Constitution. Those causes of discontent, which existed after the restoration of peace, were particularly operative in New England. The great exertions which had been made by the states of that section, in the course of the war, had accumulated a mass of debt, the payment of which was þurdensome. The restlessness produced by the uneasy situation of individuals, combined with lax notions concerning public and private faith, and erroneous opinions, which confound liberty with an exemption from legal control, produced a state of things which startled all reflecting men, and demonstrated to many the indispensable necessity of clothing Government with powers sufficiently ample for the protection of the rights of the peaceable and quiet, from the invasions of the licentious and turbulent part of the community. Against lawyers and courts the strongest resentments were exhibited, and tumultuous assemblages arrested the course of the law. In the mind of Washington, these tumults excited profound emotion. General Knox, who had just returned from New England, estimated the force of the insurgents at twelve or fifteen thousand, and found that a majority of the people of Massachusetts were in opposition to the Government. Some of the leaders avowed its subversion to be their object, together with the abolition of debts, the division of property, and a reunion with Great Britain. The malcontents were in close connection with Vermont, and that district was in negotiation with the Government of Canada.
Washington advised that, “if the insurgents had real grievances, they ought to be redressed immediately, but, if not, that the force of the Government should be employed against them at once, and, if that was inadequate, all would be convinced that the superstructure was bad or wanted support.” Ostensibly on account of the danger which threatened the frontier, but really with a view to the situation of affairs in Massachusetts, Congress had agreed to augment the military establishment to a corps of 2,000 men, and had sent the Secretary of War, General Knox, to secure the arsenal at Springfield.
This recommendation removed all objection to the regularity of the convention, and had its effect on Washington himself, who was now persuaded to give his consent to attend. At the time and place appointed, the representatives of twelve states met. They were not delegated by the people, but by the State legislatures. In Rhode Island alone a spirit sufficiently hostile was found, to prevent the election of deputies on an occasion so generally deemed momentous. Having unanimously chosen Washington for their President, the convention proceeded, with closed doors, to discuss the important questions submitted to its consideration. Warm and animated were the debates upon the new form of government, and it was. found that there would be no agreement. Opposing interests and clashing opinions must be harmonized and compromised, or all would be lost. The great difficulty was, to induce the states to part with enough of their sovereign powers to form a strong central government. The small states insisted that there should be only one vote for each State, as in the confederations of Switzerland and the Dutch Republic, and, like those republics, also, that there should be only one house in Congress, in fact, only a Senate. The large states, on the contrary, maintained that the representation ought to be in proportion to numbers. A compromise was at length effected, by arranging that there should be two houses, but that one of them should represent the State legislatures, and have equal votes, but the other, the whole mass of the people, in proportion to numbers. Thus the government was rendered both federal and national at the same time.* Taxation was to be in the ratio of
• Secret Debates on the Constitution, and John Quincy Adams' Life of Madison.
representation, and, for slaves, every five were to be counted as three free men. The other compromises on the institution of slavery are familiar to our readers. Religion, which in other governments has proved so great a source of disquietude, was not debated in the convention, but afterwards an important amendment was made to the Constitution, providing against that danger. The powers of regulating commerce, taxation and currency, of making war and peace, the suppression of rebellion against the general government, and the right to protect a State from the insurrection of its citizens, and its republican form of government from being subverted, were among the most important conferred on the general government. In England, notwithstanding its constitution, Parliament is omnipotent, and, no matter how subversive of liberty its enactments may be, the judges have no right to question them and must administer the law as they find it. Here, the supreme court is the arbiter to determine whether congress makes a law in conformity with the Constitution or not, and to pronounce it null and void, or otherwise, accordingly. Not only by the new Constitution are the people for the first time directly represented in congress, but they elect the executive head of the
nation. The Government is thus democratic to the utmost extent; the majority rule, while at the same time its will is concentrated in a strong executive.
The best way to judge of the spirit and intention of a legislative act is by its preamble, and the preamble of the Constitution, in a few comprehensive and expressive words, tells the whole story of its meaning. It runs :
“We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States."
It will be observed, that now, for the first time, the whole people acted in the formation of the Union of the States. The ratification of the Constitution was, not by the legislatures, as heretofore, but by conventions of the people. The convention which drew up the Constitution was composed of delegates chosen by the State legislatures. The conventions which ratified it were chosen directly by the people themselves. The States, therefore, in their corporate capacity, proposed the Constitution, and the people adopted it,