The President's Message

Richmond Enquirer, December 11, 1860

We have hitherto abstained from commenting at any length on this extraordinary document. Had such a message been issued in the commencement of an executive administration, we should have felt it our duty at once to have taken part in the work of a careful examination and exposition of its contents. But recognizing it as the act of an executive on the eve of the relinquishment of power, and which, even in the midst of power, has already been renounced by every political party, and by none more decidedly than by the party which elevated it to power, recognizing, too, the now all important fact that the great political issues of the moment have placed our political relations far beyond the control of the action or inaction of any or all the branches of the General Government, bringing the sovereign States themselves face to face in the attitude of consultive deliberation or of national conflict; under these circumstances, we have seen little necessity, at this time, for long discussion on the subject of the President’s message, since we have not considered it probable that the message can in any manner influence the only arbitrament to which federal relations, by the inevitable force of circumstances, are now referred, that of the tribunal Of STATE ACTION.

On the other hand, however, we are not blind to the existence of an opinion, entertained and expressed by many whose opinions are well entitled to respect, that if the message shall have no other important effect, it may operate to influence State action itself, in some instances to precipitate, in others to embarrass. If this apprehension be wellfounded, then, indeed it is very important that the intent of the President’s message shall be thoroughly sifted and carefully examined, and that its more serious errors should be unsparingly exposed.—With a view to rendering some assistance in this work, we lay before our readers the following outline of comment:

What Is the Intent?

When the President informs us that the present movement at the South is the result, not so much of the infringements of the Constitutional rights of Southern States by Northern Legislatures and the Federal Government, but principally of a pervading apprehension of servile insurrection at the South excited by popular agitation at the North; yet that unless Northern “State Legislatures will repeal their unconstitutional and obnoxious enactments, without unnecessary delay, it is impossible for any human power to save the Union.”—When the President further asserts that the Congress of the United States has never, except possibly in one instance, and that forty years ago, invaded the Constitutional rights of the South; yet admits immediately afterwards that the Congress is at this moment actually withholding Constitutional protection from Southern property in the common Territories. When the President further asserts that it is practically as well as constitutionally impossible for a Territorial Legislature to exclude slavery from a Territory, yet admits that during the past twelve months a Territorial Legislature has maintained such a law on its statute book. When the President further informs us that his successor, elected under the pledge of solemn promises to exercise all his power and influence for the exclusion of slave property from the Territories, for the nullification of the fugitive slave law, and finally for the extinction of slavery in the United States, must yet be “necessarily conservative,” and that for us to believe him capable of doing what he is pledged to do, “would be at war with every principle of justice and of Christian charity.” When the President further informs us that secession is not an act of State sovereignty, but only of revolutionary resistance, justifiable only when the Federal Government shall be guilty of “a deliberate, palpable and dangerous exercise” of powers not granted by the Constitution; yet admits, immediately afterwards, that acts of State Governments, which the Federal Government is powerless to control, will also “justify revolutionary resistance to the Government of the Union.” When the President still denies that such resistance will constitute an act of public war, carried on under the aegis of sovereignty; yet admits, that any attempt on the part of the Federal Government to suppress such an “insurrection” by force of arms, would constitute not only an act of public war, but one so extraordinary in its nature as to be incommensurate with the limited powers of the Federal Government. When the President further asserts that the Federal Executive is constitutionally and practically armed with full power to enforce Federal laws, even in the face of State resistance; yet admits that Congress may not even pass laws necessary for the execution of these powers; and further admits that the mere action of individuals, taken in advance and independent of State action, the mere resignation of offices by Federal officials in a State, is of itself allsufficient to paralyse the whole power of the Federal Executive and judiciary within the State. When the President finally recommends to Congress a call for State action through a Convention of all the States, as the only means now available to preserve the Union, or prevent a conflict of arms among the States.—From all this maze of contradictions, it is impossible to deduce, with any certainty, the real intent and purpose of the President. We are necessarily driven to surmise, and to inference. The only result at which we are enabled to arive, is summed up in the following conclusions:

1st. The President has endeavored to keep himself uncommitted, in his executive capacity, to any line of conduct whatever in the event of State resistance and now endeavors to furnish himself, by anticipation, with a pretext of justification or apology for any line of action or inaction which he may hereafter find it convenient to adopt.

2d. The President recognizes the fact that the General Government is powerless to control the existing crisis, and attempts to demonstrate that, although the Northern States have palpably violated the Constitution to the manifest oppression of the South, united State action in general convention may preclude the necessity for, and, in any event, ought to precede separate State action.

This last recommendation might be worthy of consideration, were it, at this time, at all practicable. But, apart from the fact that some of the Southern States have already determined on separate State action, it is sufficiently obvious that the tone and temper both of the Black Republican States and of their representatives in Congress, is such as to preclude the possibility of obtaining a call for a Federal Convention. In the first instance, at least, there are now but two alternatives presented to each Southern State—that of resistance by separate State action, and that of entire submission to anti-slavery outrage.

Apart from the mere juxtaposition of the President’s self-contradictions, the message offers various instances urgently inviting criticism and correction. Of these we take the opportunity to point out a few:

Congressional Action

It sounds strangely in the ears of Southern men, this deliberate assertion on the part of the President of the United States: “No single act has ever passed Congress, unless we may possibly except the Missouri Compromise, impairing, in the slightest degree, the rights of the South to their property in slaves.”

Has the President forgotten that, in 1845, an act exactly similar to the Missouri Compromise was applied to slavery in the Territories of the new State of Texas? That this act was reiterated in 1850, and has never been repealed by Congress?

Has the President forgotten that, in 1850, property in slaves was directly assailed in the District of Columbia, and has ever since been oppressed, under a disabling act of Congress? Has he forgotten, too, that in the same year, Congress and the President resorted to a combination of squatter-sovereignty, anarchy and military dictation, to exclude slave property from valuable employment in the gold mines of California? Has the President forgotten that, in 1854, Congress repealed a code of laws protecting slave property in Kansas and Nebraska, leaving such property to a great extent without legal protection?

Again. Does the President pretend that Congress may not impair the right of slave property by unfriendly inaction, as well as by hostile action? And is not slave property, at this moment, subjected to oppression through the act of an agent of Congress, whose usurpation of power is tolerated by Congress?

Sovereign Power

It tells sadly for the spread of the doctrine of popular government, when a President of the greatest republic ever known in the world gravely informs us, in a public document, that the powers to coin money, declare war, make peace, conclude treaties, regulate commerce, &c. “embrace the very highest attributes of national sovereignty.”

Yet, Mr. Buchanan it seems, has never yet imagined, that in this country, the power to coin money, or to declare war is not a sovereign power.

Grotius indeed calls each of these a sovereign power. So does Vattel. So do all European, and too many American writers on public law. But, thank God, the philosophy of government, in this land of ours, has taken a giant’s stride beyond all the imaginings of Grotius and Vattel, and all the other publicists combined. In effect and in law, throughout all these United States of America, the power to coin money is no more a sovereign power than is the power to issue a county magistrate’s warrant, or to affix a notarial seal. Towering far above the power of peace and war, of coining money or regulating commerce, there is a governmental power which embraces the sole and peculiar attribute of supremacy. There is one sovereign power, and but one, and that power is the CONSTITUTION-MAKING POWER.

Sovereign power, one and inseparable, remains with the people of each State. They may separate and distribute at will the subordinate powers of national or municipal government, but, wherever placed, these powers still remain merely subsidiary and subordinate, and at all times subjected to that sovereign power which constituted and delegated, and may at any time withdraw or resume them.

Indeed, the President seems to have an inkling of this great truth, when he says: “To the extent of the delegated powers, the Constitution of the United States is as much a part of the Constitution of each State, and is as binding upon its people, as though it had been textually inserted therein.”

Exactly. And the people of a state, assembled in Convention, may, at any time, abrogate their State Constitution, in whole or in part. This is sovereign power.

James Madison has, indeed, ably and conclusively demonstrated that there is a difference between this “federal clause” of each State Constitution, and every other clause, which must be considered whenever the question of abrogation or amendment shall arise. The President evidently misunderstands Mr. Madison’s masterly exposition.

Mr. Madison’s Doctrine

It is with much regret that we see the President adopting, however unadvisedly, the wilful and wicked perversions which Federalist and Black Republican newspapers are now applying to the Virginia doctrine of States Rights, as expounded by James Madison.

A few words will suffice to explain and to vindicate this doctrine. Mr. Madison held that the difference between each State Government and the Federal Government consists in the fact that, while the State Government is the separate agent of one State, the Federal Government is the common agent of all the States. The sovereign people of each State, through their State Constitution, have created a State Government, and delegated to it certain municipal powers. The same sovereign people have, through the Federal Constitution, delegated to the Federal Government certain other municipal powers. That they may, at any time, or on any pretext, or without pretext, abrogate their State Constitution, dismiss their State Government and erect another in its place, none can deny, or has ever ventured to dispute. But the Federal Constitution embodies an element unknown to the State Constitution—the element of national compact.

No State, indeed, has parted with any attribute of her sovereignty. But each sovereign State, on entering the Union, did so, with the necessarily implied compact, that she would preserve the Union, so long as her associate States should respect the conditions of the compact, and so long as her people should not be subjected to intolerable oppression, constitutional or unconstitutional. This compact, however, is upheld by no guarantee, save that of the plighted faith of State Sovereignty.—The Sovereign States were subjected to the dictation of no common arbiter. In case of infraction of the Constitution or of oppression of any sort, real or supposed, each State, for herself, must be the judge of the infraction and of the mode and measure of redress. Each must judge for herself, and act for herself—responsible only before the great tribunal of nations. If one State shall say to the other States: “You have, through your State governments, or through our common federal agents, violated the Constitutional compact—or even, without violating express compacts, subjected my people to oppression—I so judge, and my mode and measure of redress is to absolve myself from this compact.” In such case, the other States may say: “We have an equal right to judge; and our judgment is, that we have respected the compact, and have not oppressed your people. We judge, moreover, that you have sought a false pretext by which to dissolve the compact; that this is an act of bad faith towards us, and one to which we will not submit.” Thus a conflict of judgment may arise among the Sovereign States, and when it so arises, it must be calmed by forbearance, on the one side, or on the other, or on both sides; or it must be settled by formal agreement among the States—or, it must result not in “revolution” in the narrow sense of the word; but in public war, formally declared by State Sovereignties and conducted according to the “jus belli of nations.

This is the doctrine of James Madison, a doctrine which not only upholds the right of secession, but which claims for each Sovereign State the right to employ any mode or measure of redress—whether it be by secession from the Union or the bolder policy of appealing to arms and declaring war against other States to vindicate her right of sovereignty and equality in the Union.

To deduce from this, any denial of the entire sovereignty of a State, Mr. Buchanan must first resort to a perverted statement of its teachings. And we have already shown, that in order to prove any division or concession of State sovereignty, he must renounce the Democratic doctrine of sovereign right, and have recourse to another and a foreign doctrine which draws its teachings from the dogma of the divine right of Kings.