The Propositions of the Washington Convention
Providence Daily Journal, March 1, 1861
The propositions of the Washington Convention appear in an other column. It was for a long time doubtful whether the commissioners would agree upon any report. More than once those who desired an agreement have despaired of seeing one reached. But at last a series of propositions, based on those which Mr. Guthrie presented some days ago, yet differing from them in several respects, received the votes of a majority of the States represented in the body. These propositions are now before Congress, accompanied by the request of the convention that the people of the various States be permitted to say whether they desire to adopt the amendments to the constitution therein suggested.
Though we have never cherished very high hopes that any, except indirect benefits, would result from the labors of the convention, we are not of those who would look with the least prejudice upon any commendable plan of settlement because it came from the convention rather than from Congress. If our judgment approved it we would advocate it, whether suggested by one body of men or by another.
But we have grave doubts whether an adjustment of the present difficulties will be directly reached through the path indicated by the convention. Let us notice a few of the obstacles which their scheme must encounter. We will say nothing about any prejudice which may exist in Congress against the convention; though we can readily understand that some of the members of Congress may look with no friendly eye upon a body of men who undertake, however respectfully, to suggest to them what they should do. But, waiving this point, there are many men who are opposed on principle to making any important change of the constitution, and particularly in times of excitement like the present. It is necessary too to have the vote not merely of a majority, but of two-thirds of each House. But still, suppose that this vote should be secured. Suppose that a number of members who do not approve of the propositions, are willing to lay them before the people, and that thus the question is sent out to the various States.
The close vote by which they were adopted in convention does not inspire very sanguine hopes of their receiving the approval of three-fourths of the States. They will have to undergo a thorough examination and sifting. At the very outset we want to know what is the real feeling of the border States about them. It is of no use for the northern States to proceed unless the border slave States desire this change. The amendments are offered to satisfy a discontent on their part and not to appease us. We are abundantly satisfied with the constitution as it is. Now we are confronted at once with the fact that Virginia, North Carolina and Maryland voted against these propositions in convention. Did the commissioners from those States fairly represent the public sentiment of their constituents? If they did, if these three great States really will not be satisfied with the proposed amendments, why should they be made? Our opinion is that the States are more loyal to the Union than the vote of their commissioners would indicate. But the northern States will want some conclusive evidence on that point.
Of course there will be a great diversity of opinions respecting the propositions themselves. As we understand the first section, neither Congress nor the territorial legislature of New Mexico will have power to prevent a Mississippian from taking his negro slaves into that territory and keeping them there, unless a federal court decides that he has no right to keep them there. It will be said, however, that no Mississippian or other slaveholder will take his slaves there, any more than he will to Colorado, where slavery is not forbidden, and for the same reason, that he cannot make it profitable. We shall be reminded that while for the last ten years slavery has had full liberty to plant itself there, it has succeeded in carrying only twenty-four slaves into the territory, and that, therefore, neither under this law nor any other, will slavery, as a matter of fact, gain a foothold there. Of all this people must judge for themselves. For our part we are free to say that we think the project to admit New Mexico as a State is decidedly preferable to this, and should be very glad to see it substituted for this first section.
The second section is open to objections. It smacks of Calhoun's old system of dual government.
The third section will be opposed by all those who insist on the right and the power of Congress to abolish slavery, if it pleases, on soil under the exclusive jurisdiction of the United States. Nor do we see clearly how the right to touch at ports with slaves, which is recognized, is practically to be distinguished from the right of transit, which is forbidden. May a Virginian take fifty slaves to New York on his way with them to Texas? May he stop at New York? If so, how long?
The sixth section we are opposed to. We think that the consent of all the States ought not to be required for any amendment to the constitution.
We hope it is not heterodox in these days of secession, to say that we should have been pleased to hear from the convention some explicit condemnation of the doctrine of secession. It has become a question whether we do not need in the constitution some express declaration on this point. At all events, when guarantees are asked on other points, we should like to have some definite understanding with our friends in the south upon this disputed question. Mr. Doolittle, we observe, offers a proviso as an amendment to the first section, touching this matter. We cannot comprehend how our government can ever be stable and strong, if any State has a right to secede when she pleases. We may settle all other questions as often and as satisfactorily as we please; but if this one remains open, if the doctrines of Mason and Toombs are correct, and those of Andrew Johnson wrong, if the border States do not agree with us in denying in toto the doctrine of secession, we do not well see how our Union can be compact and permanent.
But, at all events, there can be no rash action on the propositions of the convention. If Congress decides by a two-thirds vote to-day to send them to the States, there must necessarily be a long delay before the States can pass upon them. It requires, too, the approval of three-fourths of the States to give them the force of amendments to the constitution. We shall all have ample time to consider the subject. We shall be glad if, by the aid of this convention, or by any other means, we find the initial step towards an honorable adjustment of our national difficulties.