State Rights and the Constitution

Providence Evening Press, November 17, 1860

The character of the present ominous movements at the South naturally and properly directs the popular mind not only to the circumstances under which they take place, and to their consequences, but also to the consideration of "the right of secession" in certain cases. This question has such an intimate connection with the subject so unhappily thrust upon the public, that we need not apologize for resuming its examination. It may be an unpopular proceeding to maintain that right, at a time when it is invoked to support a grievous wrong; but this shall not deter us from upholding the principle at the moment that its attempted perversion, by withdrawing it from its abstract position, gives it especial interest. We conceive that by manifesting our loyalty to the right so far as it exists, we give emphasis to our condemnation of the gross offences committed under its cloak. It is for similar reasons that true religion derives new interest from attempts to commit actual crimes in its name, while its advocates enforce their censure of such wicked conduct, by demonstrating the existence of pure religion.

We must keep constantly in view the purposes for which the Constitution was formed. Hence we must not forget that it was formed by Sovereign States. None of them—not even our own little Commonwealth, the smallest of all,—desired to lose its own individuality, but was anxious to preserve it; else their boundaries would immediately have undergone that complete revision which would have been better suited to the requirements of a consolidated government having its territory divided into departments for merely administrative reasons. Each State assumed to be capable of governing itself. But with the double object of better protection against invasion, and to secure proper relations to each other, the several States were mutually desirous of coming to a solemn arrangement between themselves, which should give them jointly all the advantages of a great nation, without an unnecessary sacrifice of their respective pre-existing rights as Independent Sovereignties. There was entire unanimity in this respect, while the mode in which this common desire could be most surely realized, was, as is well known, a subject which taxed the powers of the ablest statesmen to the utmost. So numerous and serious were the difficulties which presented themselves, that many persons thought the task hopeless; and it was not until some time after all the other States had acceded to the Constitution finally submitted to them, that Rhode Island consented to accept it—so jealous was she lest her sovereign privileges should be in some way overwhelmed by the operation of the new system.

The result of such profound, prolonged and patriotic deliberations, was an instrument which its framers admitted to be not without those imperfections which must pertain to whatever is of human contrivance. Nevertheless, they believed—as well they might—that they had provided so far as was in their power, for all contingencies that could be anticipated so long as the great body of the people should remain true to the patriotism imputed to them, and without which no Constitution could endure. Sensible, however, that the product of their labors was not faultless in every specification, and aware that while experience might reveal defects, the boundless future would almost certainly require changes in the Constitution to adapt it to changes which no man could foretell, they inserted a provision whereby the Constitution might be amended. A bare majority of the States was wisely deemed of inadequate authority to alter the fundamental law, and a three-fourths vote was made requisite for that purpose. It is a significant fact, that although the sovereignty of the States was already rigidly guarded, especially by the institution of the Senate, and although the history of the country proved, and the course of legislation admitted reserved rights on the part of the States, one of the first uses of the amendment clause was to declare, in express terms, that "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, or prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

The importance of strict adhesion to the truth thus impressively declared, cannot be over-estimated. It lies at the very bottom of the Union and its manifold blessings. If we ignore it in practice, the Constitution will be prostituted even under its own forms, to its own subversion by the resulting dissolution of the Union. Consider a moment. What if, as is likely to happen, by the admission of new States or otherwise, three-fourths of the States should be what we call "Free States?" They would then have the "constitutional" power to engraft upon the Constitution any amendment that they might choose. They could, in fact, reconstruct the Constitution to suit themselves. They could abolish slavery by constitutional provision, against all remonstrances on the part of the hopeless minority. They could obliterate all State lines and form a solid government, as the States might have done but did not choose to do in the first instance.

We say that they might do all this under the Constitution, if we once admit any right to disregard those historical antecedents which forbid it. Who does not perceive that even a single State may thus become the sole remaining example of the government ordained by our fathers? and may thus claim the original, undelegated rights of which she cannot be deprived; sovereign rights, which may thus concern her very existence; sovereign rights, by virtue of which she may with dignity gather her full robes of majesty about her and leave the confederacy which would already have left her; sovereign rights, by whose warrant she would be free to pursue the old path so far as might be practicable to her.

Within its own sphere, as recognized by the Constitution, this sovereignty is as perfect as is that of the Federal government in its sphere. It necessarily includes what we call the "right of secession," but which is really the right to keep itself intact from encroachment or annihilation. And this right must be maintained. It must never be surrendered, unless we would establish upon its ruins the reign of anarchy, or of that colossal despotism which the men who achieved our liberties religiously shunned, and against which they uttered their solemn warnings.