The People, the States, and the Union

Providence Daily Post, November 19, 1860

When the people of the thirteen Colonies felt the necessity of a government which should direct the operations of a general war and provide for the welfare of the whole country, the several States formed "a league of friendship," and adopted the Articles of Confederation. The war of the Revolution tested the value of those Articles as a rule for the government of the States, and the defects discovered were sought to be remedied by the adoption of the Constitution of the United States. A new principle was then adopted; and the new government formed, emanated from the people of the United States and not from the States themselves. That this was clearly the intention of the framers of the Constitution appears from the words of the preamble to that instrument: "We the people of the United States." The Constitution was not adopted by the Legislatures of the respective States as it would have been had it been intended to form a new league, but by conventions composed of delegates elected for the purpose by the people. It has already been fully shown what were the sentiments of the early statesmen of the country as to the right of the people of each State to adopt the Constitution in such a manner as to reserve to themselves the power of seceding from the Union. But we have also the authoritative language of the Supreme Court of the United States to point out the true meaning of our Constitution. In the case of Martin vs. Hunter, reported in the first of Wheaton's Reports, Judge Story says: "The Constitution of the United States was ordained and established, not by the States in their sovereign capacity, but emphatically as the preamble declares, 'by the people of the United States.' The people had a right to prohibit to the States the exercise of any powers which were, in their judgment, incompatible with the objects of the general compact; to make the powers of the State governments in given cases, subordinate to those of the nation; or to reserve to themselves those sovereign authorities which they might not choose to delegate to either. The Constitution was not therefore necessarily carved out of existing State sovereignties, nor a surrender of powers, already existing in State institutions. The instrument was not intended to provide merely for the exigencies of a few years, but was to endure through a long lapse of ages, the events of which were locked up in the inscrutable purposes of Providence."

The complete subordination of the States to the general government, in cases where there is concurrent authority, on the same subjects given or reserved by the constitution to the States and general government, was clearly pointed out by the Supreme Court in the case of Houston vs. Moore, reported in the 5th of Wheaton. Judge Story delivering the opinion of the Court, then said: "Where the laws of the States and of the Union are in direct and manifest collision on the same subject, those of the Union being 'the supreme law of the land' are of paramount authority, and the State laws, so far and so far only, as such incompatibly [sic] exists, must necessarily yield."

The illegality of any laws passed by any State Legislature with a view of abrogating the authority of the United States within the limits of such State, is perspicuously pointed out by Chief Justice Marshall in his opinion delivered in the case of Cohen vs. Virginia, 6th of Wheaton, in which he says: "That the United States forms, for many and for most important purposes, a single nation has not yet been denied. In war we are one people. In making peace we are one people. In all commercial regulations we are one and the same people. In many other respects, the American people are one; and the government which is alone capable of controlling and managing their interests, in all these respects, is the Government of the Union. It is their government, and in that character they have no other. America has chosen to be in many respects and to many purposes a nation; and for these purposes, her government is complete; to all these powers it is competent. The people have declared, that in the exercise of all powers given for these objects, it is supreme. It can, then, in effecting these objects, legitimately control all individuals or governments within the American territory. The constitution and laws of a State, so far as they are repugnant to the constitution and laws of the United States, are absolutely void. Mere States are constituent parts of the United States. They are members of our great empire—for some purposes sovereign, for some purposes subordinate."

Such being the relation which the States bear to the Union, what utter folly is it to talk of the right of any State to secede! No one State has even the right of revolution. That right belongs to the people of the whole nation. A State or the people of a State may rebel against the government of the United States, but when such rebellion takes place, it will be the duty of the general government to crush such rebellion with all the power given to it by the Constitution. It is to be hoped that no attempt at rebellion will be made by any considerable portion of the people of this country; but there can be no doubt in the mind of any intelligent person as to the manner in which any such attempt should be treated. Our fathers declared their purpose to be "to form a more perfect union." If any State can secede at pleasure, our government is but a rope of sand. A successful rebellion or secession by a few States now, will be followed by a new rebellion or secession a few years hence, when the States remaining after the first secession shall adopt a line of policy towards some portion of the country, which shall be deemed a cause or made a pretext for a new declaration of independence or an alliance with some foreign power. It is the duty of the North to pursue a mild but firm policy towards the people of the South. If this can be done, all will yet be well. Repeal our obnoxious laws, which make our citizens believe their duties as citizens of the State and citizens of the United States, are conflicting. We have not much hope that this will be done; for the effort to accomplish it, will be met by the rabid and fanatical men of the Republican party, with the cry that we are yielding or succumbing to the threats of the South. Let the conservative, the Union men of the North, of Rhode Island, heed not the ravings of such men, but demand of their servants in the Legislature, that they remove from our statutes every cause of complaint that we are unfaithful in letter or in spirit to the national compact. Such action is demanded of us as patriots and statesmen. Do this, and insist that the Union shall be maintained by all the powers conferred upon the general government by the Constitution.