New Constitutional Guarantees

Richmond Whig and Public Advertiser, February 2, 1860

The object of the proposed "Conference" of the Southern States, as explained by the able and distinguished Commissioner from South Carolina, is to demand of the Northern States new Constitutional guarantees for the protection and security of the rights of the South. In other words, amendments to the Constitution are to be proposed such amendments, too, as there is no probability of obtaining, as Col. Memminger himself frankly admits; and yet, if these amendments are not granted by the Northern States, the Southern States will forthwith secede from the Union.

As for ourselves, we have already expressed our opposition to the objects of the South Carolina Commissioner. We want no conference at present looking to a dissolution of the Federal Union, nor do we want any tampering or tinkering with the Federal Constitution. We concur with the Louisville Journal, that no new Constitutional guarantees are required, or can be obtained, or would be of any sort of value, if procured. The whole thing, therefore, according to our judgment, is simply and palpably a mere excuse for disunion. It is the flimsy pretext with which to cover over a great moral and national wrong in distinct and present contemplation.

God and our fathers have already given to the American people the most perfect provision for the protection of human right and liberty that the world has ever seen. The Federal Government, representing the sovereignty of the nation, and the State governments, representing the sovereignty of each state, in that wondrous combination which Divine and human wisdom have concurred in producing, present a more real and effectual guard against oppression, while all the legitimate purposes of government are fully provided for, than was ever effected before by any division of power between separate States of the realm.

This provision is not a mere paper constitution. It is a real and substantive thing, the result of our actual condition and history. It is a "power ordained of God" most manifestly, for His Providence brought it into being, and the highest human wisdom has gratefully accepted the blessing and sought with assiduous care to guard the inestimable treasure.

The principle of this glorious provision is that the Federal Government can execute its own laws by its own sovereign authority, while its jurisdiction is restricted to a limited range of subjects. The State governments by an equal sovereignty execute their laws over a much larger range of the ordinary subjects of legislation. Thus each government is in the constant and habitual exercise of sovereign power. In ordinary governments there is no resource against oppression but individual resistance, or the irregular, feeble, and injurious expedient of conspiracy and rebellion. But in the American constitution the attempted oppression of the stronger central government can be met at once and effectually by the organized resistance of an actual working government, just as sovereign and just as legitimate as the usurping power. The theoretical right of every man to maintain his liberty and to resist oppression is thus clothed with all the sanctity of a national act, and armed with all the power of a prepared and legitimate government. And this is the very highest guarantee and protection that human right and liberty can have.

Human wisdom cannot get beyond this. You cannot invent a system that will work itself smoothly along without ever calling in aid human responsibility. The "ultima ratio" is the necessary condition of all right.—The perfection of our system is that it clothes that condition with effective and salutary power.

The fathers of the Republic understood all this very well, and therefore upon the first flagrant instance of unconstitutional and oppressive legislation by the Federal Government, the States of Virginia and Kentucky, in 1798-9, at once announced them determination to exercise their sovereign authority in resistance to that legislation; and they called upon the other State governments to do the same thing. This determination was accompanied with this plain and distinct declaration:—"That the General Assembly of Virginia doth unequivocally express a firm resolution to maintain and defend the Constitution of the United States, and the Constitution of this State against every aggression, either foreign or domestic."

These men of nerve and intellect knew very well the stern arbitrament to which they were appealing for the maintenance of their liberties, and they knew that that arbitrament was the ultimate and only sanction of all human right. But they just as well understood and fully appreciated the persuasive and effective power of that "ultima ratio," when applied by sovereign States and working governments.

A generation later the amateur statesman of South Carolina took up these same resolutions and put upon them the fanciful and notable interpretation of PEACEABLE NULLIFICATION AND PEACEABLE SECESSION. Gen. Jackson battered the former of these notions so unmercifully that both have been out of countenance ever since.

Now the same men are trying to delude the South into a demand for "constitutional guarantees." What are these and what will they be worth?

Has not experience amply demonstrated that all the mere written checks and balances of the Constitution have been easily and constantly overborne by popular majorities? Only the great conservative feature of the independent sovereignty of the Federal and of the State Governments remains in its integrity and in its power.

Do the South Carolina gentlemen mean that the Constitution must fasten down the country in marble rigidity to its present condition of progress and population? That the whole subject of slavery shall be taken away from the State governments, none being allowed in future either to adopt or to abolish it; and that the representation in Congress shall be divided with arithmetical equality between the two sections? If the claim has any distinct meaning at all, this absurdity must be the bright conception.

But even such an impracticable arrangement, if it could be effected, would be no security against a storm of popular fanaticism, or against the easy and convenient process of purchasing a few recusant Senators. The real security at last is in the power and integrity of the respective State Governments. This is all that we need as men capable of freedom and of self-government. The present cry for further constitutional protection is more delusive and far more childish than the exploded conceit of peacable nullification. Its only design is to allure the South into a position which will precipitate disunion.

We therefore appeal to the members of the Virginia Legislature, without distinction of party, to beware how they take a step in so fatal a direction. We throw out to them a warning in time, and we hope they may have sagacity and patriotism enough to heed it.