The Constitution consummated the work commenced by the Declaration of Independence—a work in which the people of the North American Union had achieved the most transcendent act of power that social man in his mortal condition can perform…
Editor’s Note: John Quincy Adams, at the time a former President of the United States and member of the United States House of Representatives, delivered this address, “The Jubilee of the Constitution: A Discourse,” in New York on April 30, 1839, before the New York Historical Society, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the inauguration of George Washington as President of the United States.
When in the epic fable of the first of Roman Poets, the Goddess mother of Æneas delivers to him the celestial armor, with which he is to triumph over his enemy, and to lay the foundations of Imperial Rome, he is represented as gazing with intense but confused delight on the crested helm that vomits golden fires—
His hands the fatal sword and corslet hold,
One keen with temper’d steel—one stiff with gold.
He shakes the pointed spear, and longs to try
The plated cuishes on his manly thigh;
But most admires the
shield’s mysterious mould,
And Roman triumphs rising on the gold.—
For on that shield the heavenly smith had wrought the anticipated history of Roman glory, from the days of Æneas down to the reign of Augustus Caesar, contemporaneous with the Poet himself.
FELLOW-CITIZENS AND BRETHREN, ASSOCIATES OF THE NEW YORK HISTORICAL SOCIETY –
Would it be an unlicensed trespass of the imagination to conceive, that on the night preceding the day of which you now commemorate the fiftieth anniversary—on the night preceding that thirtieth of April, one thousand seven hundred and eighty-nine, when from the balcony of your city-hall, the chancellor of the state of New York, administered to George Washington the solemn oath, faithfully to execute the office of President of the United States, and to the best of his ability, to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States—that in the visions of the night, the guardian angel of the Father of our country had appeared before him, in the venerated form of his mother, and, to cheer and encourage him in the performance of the momentous and solemn duties that he was about to assume, had delivered to him a suit of celestial armor—a helmet, consisting of the principles of piety, of justice, of honor, of benevolence with which from his earliest infancy he had hitherto walked through life, in the presence of all his brethren—a spear, studded with the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence—a sword, the same with which he had led the armies of his country through the war of freedom, to the summit of the triumphal arch of independence—a corslet and cuishes of long experience and habitual intercourse in peace and war with the world of mankind, his contemporaries of the human race, in all their stages of civilization—and last of all, the Constitution of the United States, a SHIELD embossed by heavenly hands, with the future history of his country.
Yes, gentlemen! on that shield, the CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES was sculptured (by forms unseen, and in characters then invisible to mortal eye,) the predestined and prophetic history of the one confederated people of the North American Union.
They had been the settlers of thirteen separate and distinct English colonies, along the margin of the shore of the North American continent contiguously situated, but chartered by adventurers of characters variously diversified, including sectarians, religious and political, of all the classes which for the two preceding centuries had agitated and divided the people of the British islands—and with them were intermingled the descendants of Hollanders, Swedes, Germans, and French fugitives from the persecution of the revoker of the Edict of Nantes.
In the bosoms of this People, thus heterogeneously composed, there was burning, kindled at different furnaces, but all furnaces of affliction, one clear, steady flame of LIBERTY. Bold and daring enterprise, stubborn endurance of privation, unflinching intrepidity in facing danger, and inflexible adherence to conscientious principle, had steeled to energetic and unyielding hardihood the characters of the primitive settlers of all these Colonies. Since that time two or three generations of men had passed away—but they had increased and multiplied with unexampled rapidity; and the land itself had been the recent theatre of a ferocious and bloody seven years’ war between the two most powerful and most civilized nations of Europe, contending for the possession of this continent.
Of that strife the victorious combatant had been Britain. She had conquered the provinces of France. She had expelled her rival totally from the continent over which, bounding herself by the Mississippi, she was thenceforth to hold divided empire only with Spain. She had acquired undisputed control over the Indian tribes, still tenanting the forests unexplored by the European man. She had established an uncontested monopoly of the commerce of all her colonies. But forgetting all the warnings of preceding ages—forgetting the lessons written in the blood of her own children, through centuries of departed time, she undertook to tax the people of the colonies without their consent.
Resistance, instantaneous, unconcerted, sympathetic, inflexible resistance like an electric shock startled and roused the people of all the English colonies on this continent.
This was the first signal of the North American Union. The struggle was for chartered rights—for English liberties—for the cause of Algernon Sidney and John Hambde—for trial by jury—the Habeas Corpus and Magna Charta.
But the English lawyers had decided that Parliament was omnipotent—and Parliament in their omnipotence, instead of trial by jury and the Habeas Corpus enacted admiralty courts in England to try Americans for offenses charged against them as committed in America—instead of the privileges of Magna Charta, nullified the charter itself of Massachusetts Bay; shut up the port of Boston; sent armies and navies to keep the peace, and teach the colonies that John Hambden was a rebel, and Algernon Sidney a traitor.
English liberties had failed them. From the omnipotence of Parliament the colonists appealed to the rights of man and the omnipotence of the God of battles. Union! Union! was the instinctive and simultaneous cry throughout the land. Their Congress, assembled at Philadelphia, once-twice had petitioned the king; had remonstrated to Parliament; had addressed the people of Britain, for the rights of Englishmen—in vain. Fleets and armies, the blood of Lexington, and the fires of Charlestown and Falmouth, had been the answer to petition, remonstrance and address.
Independence was declared. The colonies were transformed into States. Their inhabitants were proclaimed to be one people, renouncing all allegiance to the British crown; all co-patriotism with the British nation; all claims to chartered rights as Englishmen. Thenceforth their charter was the Declaration of Independence. Their rights, the natural rights of mankind. Their government, such as should be instituted by themselves, under the solemn mutual pledges of perpetual union, founded on the self-evident truths proclaimed in the Declaration.
The Declaration of Independence was issued, in the excruciating agonies of a civil war, and by that war independence was to be maintained. Six long years it raged with unabated fury, and the Union was yet no more than a mutual pledge of faith, and a mutual participation of common sufferings and common dangers.
The omnipotence of the British Parliament was vanquished. The independence of the United States of America, was not granted, but recognized. The nation had “assumed among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station, to which the laws of nature, and of nature’s God, entitled it”—but the one, united people, had yet NO GOVERNMENT.
In the enthusiasm of their first spontaneous, unstipulated, unpremeditated union, they had flattered themselves that no general government would be required. As separate states they were all agreed that they should constitute and govern themselves. The revolution under which they were gasping for life, the war which was carrying desolation into all their dwellings, and mourning into every family, had been kindled by the abuse of power—the power of government. An invincible repugnance to the delegation of power, had thus been generated, by the very course of events which had rendered it necessary; and the more indispensable it became, the more awakened was the jealousy and the more intense was the distrust by which it was to be circumscribed.
They relaxed their union into a league of friendship between sovereign and independent states. They constituted a Congress, with powers co-extensive with the nation, but so hedged and hemmed in with restrictions, that the limitation seemed to be the general rule, and the grant the occasional exception. The articles of confederation, subjected to philosophical analysis, seem to be little more than an enumeration of the functions of a national government which the congress constituted by the instrument was not authorized to perform. There was avowedly no executive power.
The nation fell into an atrophy. The Union languished to the point of death. A torpid numbness seized upon all its faculties. A chilling cold indifference crept from its extremities to the center. The system was about to dissolve in its own imbecility—impotence in negotiation abroad—domestic insurrection at home, were on the point of bearing to a dishonorable grave the proclamation of a government founded on the rights of man, when a convention of delegates from eleven of the thirteen states, with George Washington at their head, sent forth to the people, an act to be made their own, speaking in their name and in the first person, thus: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty, to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
This act was the complement to the Declaration of Independence; founded upon the same principles, carrying them out into practical execution, and forming with it, one entire system of national government. The Declaration was a manifesto to the world of mankind, to justify the one confederated people, for the violent and voluntary severance of the ties of their allegiance, for the renunciation of their country, and for assuming a station themselves, among the potentates of the world—a self-constituted sovereign—a self-constituted country.
In the history of the human race this had never been done before. Monarchs had been dethroned for tyranny—kingdoms converted into republics, and revolted provinces had assumed the attributes of sovereign power. In the history of England itself, within one century and a half before the day of the Declaration of Independence, one lawful king had been brought to the block, and another expelled, with all his posterity, from his own kingdom, and a collateral dynasty had ascended his throne. But the former of these revolutions had by the deliberate and final sentence of the nation itself, been pronounced a rebellion, and the rightful heir of the executed king had been restored to the crown. In the latter, at the first onset, the royal recreant had fled—he was held to have abdicated the crown, and it was placed upon the heads of his daughter and of her husband, the prime leader of the conspiracy against him. In these events there had been much controversy upon the platform of English liberties—upon the customs of the ancient Britons; the laws of Alfred, the Witenagamote of the Anglo-Saxons, and the Great Charter of Runnymede with all its numberless confirmations. But the actors of those times had never ascended to the first foundation of civil society among men, nor had any revolutionary system of government been rested upon them.
The motive for the Declaration of Independence was on its face avowed to be “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind.” Its purpose to declare the causes which impelled the people of the English colonies on the continent of North America, to separate themselves from the political community of the British nation. They declare only, the causes of their separation, but they announce at the same time their assumption of the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, among the powers of the earth.
Thus their first movement is to recognize and appeal to the laws of nature and to nature’s God, for their right to assume the attributes of sovereign power as an independent nation.
The causes of their necessary separation, for they begin and end by declaring it necessary, alleged in the Declaration, are all founded on the same laws of nature and of nature’s God—and hence as preliminary to the enumeration of the causes of separation, they set forth as self-evident truths, the rights of individual man, by the laws of nature and of nature’s God, to life, to liberty, to the pursuit of happiness. That all men are created equal. That to secure the rights of life, liberty and the pursuits of happiness, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. AU this is by the laws of nature and of nature’s God, and of course presupposes the existence of a God, the moral ruler of the universe, and a rule of right and wrong, of just and unjust, binding upon man, preceding all institutions of human society and of government. It avers, also, that governments are instituted to secure these rights of nature and of nature’s God, and that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of those ends, it is the right of THE PEOPLE to alter, or to abolish it, and to institute a new government—to throw off a government degenerating into despotism, and to provide new guards for their future security. They proceed then to say that such was then the situation of the Colonies, and such the necessity which constrained them to alter their former systems of government.
Then follows the enumeration of the acts of tyranny by which the king, parliament, and people of Great Britain, had perverted the powers to the destruction of the ends of government, over the Colonies, and the consequent necessity constraining the Colonies to the separation.
In conclusion, the Representatives of the United States of America, in general Congress assembled, appealing to the Supreme judge of the world for the rectitude of their intentions, do, in the name and by the authority of the good people of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare that these United Colonies, are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British crown; and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain, is, and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as free and independent States, they have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent States may of right do. The appeal to the Supreme judge of the world, and the rule of right and wrong as paramount events to the power of independent States, are here again repeated in the very act of constituting a new sovereign community.
It is not immaterial to remark, that the Signers of the Declaration, though qualifying themselves as the Representatives of the United States of America, in general Congress assembled, yet issue the Declaration, in the name and by the authority of the good people of the Colonies—and that they declare, not each of the separate Colonies, but the United Colonies, free and independent States. The whole people declared the Colonies in their united condition, of RIGHT, free and independent States.
The dissolution of allegiance to the British crown, the severance of the Colonies from the British empire, and their actual existence as Independent States, thus declared of right, were definitively established in fact, by war and peace. The independence of each separate State had never been declared of right. It never existed in fact. Upon the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the dissolution of the ties of allegiance, the assumption of sovereign power, and the institution of civil government, are all acts of transcendent authority, which the people alone are competent to perform—and accordingly, it is in the name and by the authority of the people, that two of these acts—the dissolution of allegiance, with the severance from the British empire, and the declaration of the United Colonies, as free and independent States, were performed by that instrument.
But there still remained the last and crowning act, which the People of the Union alone were competent to perform—the institution of civil government, for that compound nation, the United States of America.
At this day it cannot but strike us as extraordinary, that it does not appear to have occurred to any one member of that assembly, which had laid down in terms so clear, so explicit, so unequivocal, the foundation of alt just government, in the imprescriptible rights of man, and the transcendent sovereignty of the people, and who in those principles, had set forth their only personal Vindication from the charges of rebellion against their king, and of treason to their country, that their last crowning act was still to be performed upon the same principles. That is, the institution, by the people of the United States, of a civil government, to guard and protect and defend them all. On the contrary, that same assembly which issued the Declaration of independence, instead of continuing to act in the name, and by the authority of the good people of the United States, had immediately after the appointment of the committee to prepare the Declaration, appointed another committee, of one member from each Colony, to prepare and digest the form of confederation, to be entered into between the Colonies.
That committee reported on the 12th of July, eight days after the Declaration of Independence had been issued, a draft of articles of confederation between the Colonies. This draft was prepared by John Dickinson, then a delegate from Pennsylvania, who voted against the Declaration of Independence, and never signed it—having been superseded by a new election of delegates from that State, eight days after his draft was reported.
There was thus no congeniality of principle between the Declaration of independence and the Articles of Confederation. The foundation of the former was a superintending Providence—the rights of man, and the constituent revolutionary power of the people. That of the latter was the sovereignty of organized power, and the independence of the separate or disunited States. The fabric of the Declaration and that of the Confederation, were each consistent with its own foundation, but they could not form one consistent symmetrical edifice. They were the productions of different minds and of adverse passions—one, ascending for the foundation of human government to the laws of nature and of God, written upon the heart of man—the other, resting upon the basis of human institutions, and prescriptive law and colonial charters. The comer stone of the one was right—that of the other was power.
The work of the founders of our Independence was thus but half done. Absorbed in that more than Herculean task of maintaining that independence and its principles, by one of the most cruel wars that ever glutted the furies with human woe, they marched undaunted and steadfast through that fiery ordeal, and consistent in their principles to the end, concluded, as an acknowledged sovereignty of the United States, proclaimed by their people in 1776, a peace with that same monarch, whose sovereignty over them they had abjured in obedience to the laws of nature and of nature’s God.
But for these United States, they had formed no Constitution. Instead of resorting to the source of all constituted power, they had wasted their time, their talents, and their persevering, untiring toils, in erecting and roofing and buttressing a frail and temporary shed to shelter the nation from the storm, or rather a mere baseless scaffolding on which to stand, when they should raise the marble palace of the people, to stand the test of time.
Five years were consumed by Congress and the State Legislatures, in debating and altercating and adjusting these Articles of Confederation. The first of which was:
Each State retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States in Congress assembled.
Observe the departure from the language, and the consequent contrast of principles, with those of the Declaration of independence.
Each state RETAINS its sovereignty, etc.—where did each State get the sovereignty which it retains? In the Declaration of Independence, the delegates of the Colonies in Congress assembled, in the name and by the authority of the good people of the Colonies, declare, not each Colony, but the United Colonies, in fact, and of right, not sovereign, but free and independent States. And why did they make this declaration in the name and by the authority of the one people of all the Colonies? Because by the principles before laid down in the Declaration, the people, and the people alone, as the rightful source of all legitimate government, were competent to dissolve the bands of subjection of all the Colonies to the nation of Great Britain, and to constitute them free and independent States. Now the people of the Colonies, speaking by their delegates in Congress, had not declared each Colony a sovereign, free and independent State—nor had the people of each Colony so declared the Colony itself, nor could they so declare it, because each was already bound in union with all the rest; a union formed de facto, by the spontaneous revolutionary movement of the whole people, and organized by the meeting of the first Congress, in 1774, a year and ten months before the Declaration of Independence.
Where, then, did each State get the sovereignty, freedom and independence, which the articles of confederation declare it retains? —not from the whole people of the whole union—not from the Declaration of Independence—not from the people of the state itself. It was assumed by agreement between the legislatures of the several States, and their delegates in Congress, without authority from or consultation of the people at all.
In the Declaration of Independence, the enacting and constituent party dispensing and delegating sovereign power, is the whole people of the United Colonies. The recipient party, invested with power, is the United Colonies, declared United States.
In the articles of confederation, this order of agency is inverted. Each state is the constituent and enacting party, and the United States in Congress assembled, the recipient of delegated power—and that power, delegated with such a penurious and carking hand, that it had more the aspect of a revocation of the Declaration of independence than an instrument to carry it into effect.
It well deserves the judicious inquiry of an American statesman, at this time, how this involuntary and unconscious usurpation upon the rights of the people of the United States, originated and was pursued to its consummation.
In July, 1775, soon after the meeting of the second revolutionary Congress, and a year before the Declaration of Independence, Dr. Franklin had submitted to their consideration, a sketch of articles of confederation between the colonies, to continue until their reconciliation with Great Britain, and in failure of that event, to be perpetual.
The third article of that project provided “that each colony shall enjoy and retain as much as it may think fit, of its own present laws, customs, rights, privileges, and peculiar jurisdictions within its own limits; and may amend its own constitution, as shall seem best to its own assembly or convention.” Here was and could be no assertion of sovereignty.
This plan appears to have been never discussed in Congress. But when, on the 7th of June, 1776, the resolution of independence was offered and postponed, another resolution was submitted and carried for the appointment of a committee of one member from each colony, to prepare and digest a form of a confederation.
The third article of the draft reported by that committee, was in these words:
Each colony shall retain as much of its present laws, rights, and customs, as it may think fit, and reserve to itself the sole and exclusive regulation and government of its internal police, in all matters that shall not interfere with the articles of this confederation.
The first article had declared the names of the confederacy to be the United States of America.
By the second, the colonies “unite themselves, so as never to be divided by any act whatever,” and entered into a firm league of friendship with each other.
From the 12th of July to the 20th of August, 1776, the report of the committee was debated almost daily, in a committee of the whole house, and they reported to Congress a new draft, the first article of which retained the name of the confederacy.
The second left out the warm-hearted Union, so as never to be divided by any act whatever, and only severally entered into a firm league of friendship for special purposes. By the third, “Each state reserves to itself the sole and exclusive regulations and government of its internal police in all matters that shall not interfere with the Articles of this Confederation.”
The gradual relaxation of the fervid spirit of union which had quickened every sentence of the Declaration of Independence, is apparent in these changes of phraseology and omission.
The articles reported by the committee of the whole were laid aside on the 20th of August, 1776, and were not resumed till the 7th of April, 1777.
They were then taken up, and pertinaciously and acrimoniously debated two or three times a week till the 15th of November, 1777, when they were adopted by Congress in a new and revised draft.
And here the reversal of the fundamental principles of the Declaration of Independence was complete, and the symptoms of disunion proportionally aggravated. The first article instead of the name declared the style of the confederacy to be the United States of America. Even in this change of a single word, there was the spirit of disunion; a name being appropriately applied to the unity, and a style to the plurality of the aggregate body.
An alteration still more significant was the inversion in the order of the second and third articles. In all the former drafts, in the sketch presented by Dr. Franklin in 1775, in the draft reported by the select committee in July, 1776, and in that reported after full debate by the committee of the whole house to Congress, on the 20th of August, 1776, the union had been constituted in the second article, and the reservation of separate rights not interfering with the articles of the confederation, had been made in the third.
But now the reservation of separate rights came first in order, appeared as the second article, and instead of being confined to internal police, and all matters that shall not interfere with the articles of this confederation, was transformed into a direct assertion of sovereignty, not in the people of each state, but in each state. And thus it was that each state had acquired that sovereignty, which the third article, now made the second, declared it retained. It was a power usurped upon the people, by the joint agency of the state legislatures and of their delegates in Congress, without any authority from the people whatever. And with this assertion of sovereignty, each state retained also every power, jurisdiction and right, not by the confederation expressly delegated to the United States in Congress assembled. And then came limping on in the third article, degraded from its place as the second, the firm league of friendship of these several states with each other, for their common defence, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare.
In the debates upon these articles of confederation, between the 7th of October, and the 17th of November, the conflict of interests and of principles between the people of the whole Union, and each of the states, was strongly marked. The first question was upon the mode of voting in Congress.
It was moved that in determining questions, each state should have one vote for every fifty thousand white inhabitants.
That each state should have a right to send one delegate to Congress for every thirty thousand of its inhabitants—each delegate to have one vote.
That the quantum of representation of each state should be computed by numbers proportioned to its contribution of money or tax laid and paid into the public treasury.
These propositions, all looking to a representation proportional to numbers or to taxation, that is, to persons or property, were all rejected, and it was resolved that in determining questions each state should have one vote.
Then came the question of the common charges and expenses. The first proposition was that they should be proportioned to the number of inhabitants of each state. Then to the value of all property, excepting household goods and wearing apparel, both of which were rejected, and the proposition was fixed according to the quantity of land granted and surveyed, with the estimated improvements thereon.
But the great and insurmountable difficulty, left altogether unadjusted by these articles of confederation, was to ascertain the boundaries of each of these sovereign states. It was proposed that these boundaries should be ascertained by them; for which purpose the state Legislatures should lay before Congress a description of the territorial lands of each of their respective states, and a summary of the grants, treaties, and proofs, upon which they were claimed or established.
It was moved that the United States, in Congress assembled, should have the sole and exclusive right and power to ascertain and fix the western boundary of such states as claimed to the South sea; and to dispose of all land beyond the boundary so ascertained, for the benefit of the United States.
And that the United States in Congress assembled, should have the sole and exclusive right and power to ascertain and fix the western boundary of such states, as claimed to the Mississippi or South sea, and to lay out the land beyond the boundary so ascertained, into separate and independent states, from time to time, as the numbers and circumstances of the people might require.
All these propositions were rejected, and the articles of confederation were sent forth to the sovereign, free and independent states for ratification, without defining or ascertaining the limits of any one of them; while some of them claimed to the South sea, and others were cramped up within a surface of less than fifteen hundred square miles.
It is further remarkable that in the progress of these debates, the institution of an executive council, which in all the previous drafts had been proposed, was struck out, and instead of it was substituted a helpless and imbecile committee of the states, never but once attempted to be carried into execution, and then speedily dissolved in its own weakness.
Such was the system, elaborated with great, persevering, and anxious deliberation; animated with the most ardent patriotism; put together with eminent ability and untiring industry, but vitiated by a defect in the general principle—in the departure from the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence; the natural rights of man, and the exclusive, sovereign, constituent right of the people.
The result corresponded with this elementary error. The plan of confederacy was sent forth to the state Legislatures with an eloquent and pathetic letter, pointing out the difficulties and delays which had attended its formation, urging them candidly to review the difficulty of combining in one general system the various sentiments and interests of a continent divided into so many sovereign and independent communities. Assuring them that the plan proposed was the best which could be adapted to the circumstances of all, and that alone which afforded any tolerable prospect of general ratification; and urging its immediate adoption in the following deeply affecting and impressive admonition:
We have reason to regret the time which has elapsed in preparing this plan for consideration. With additional solicitude we look forward to that which must be necessarily spent before it can be ratified. Every motive loudly calls upon us to hasten its conclusion.
More than any other consideration, it will confound our foreign enemies, defeat the flagitious practices of the disaffected, strengthen and confirm our friends, support our public credit, restore the value of our money, enable us to maintain our fleets and armies, and add weight and respect to our councils at home, and to our treaties abroad.
In short, this salutary measure can no longer be deferred. It seems essential to our very existence as a free people; and without it we may soon be constrained to bid adieu to independence, to liberty and safety – blessings which from the justice of our cause, and the favor of our Almighty Creator, visibly manifested in our protection, we have reason to expect, if in an humble dependence on his divine providence, we strenuously exert the means which are placed in our power.
In this solemn, urgent, and emphatic manner, and with these flattering and sanguine anticipations of the blessings to be showered upon their country by this cumbrous and complicated confederacy of sovereign and independent states, was this instrument transmitted to the state Legislatures; and so anxious were the framers of it for the sanction of the states at the earliest possible moment, that it was recommended to the executive of each of the states to whom it was addressed, if the Legislature was not assembled at the time of its reception, to convene them without delay.
Not such however was the disposition of the several state Legislatures. Each of them was governed as it naturally and necessarily must be by the interests and opinions predominating within the state itself. Not one of them was satisfied with the articles as they had been prepared in Congress. Every state Legislature found something objectionable in them. They combined the enormous inconsistency of an equal representation in Congress of states most unequal in extent and population, and an imposition of all charges, and expenses of the whole, proportioned to the extent and value of the settled and cultivated lands in each. A still more vital defect of the instrument was that it left the questions of the limits of the several states and in whom was the property of the unsettled crown-lands, not only unadjusted, but wholly unnoticed.
The form of ratification proposed by Congress, was that each of the state Legislatures should authorize their delegates in Congress to subscribe the Articles; and in their impatience for a speedy conclusion, two motions were made to recommend that the states should enjoin upon their delegates invested with this authority, to attend Congress for that purpose, on or before the then ensuing first of May or tenth of March.
These however did not prevail. This extreme anxiety for the prompt and decisive action of the states, upon this organization of the confederacy, was the result of that same ardent and confiding patriotism so unforeseeing, and yet so sincere, which could flatter itself with the belief that this nerveless and rickety league of friendship between sovereign, independent, disunited states, could confound the foreign enemies of the Union, defeat the practices of the disaffected, support the credit of the country, restore the value of their depreciating money, enable them to maintain fleets and armies, and add weight and respect to their counsels at home, and to their treaties abroad.
This fervid patriotism, and all these glowing anticipations were doomed to total disappointment. Seven months passed away, and on the 22nd of June, 1778, Congress proceeded to consider the objections of the states to the articles of confederation. Those of Maryland were first discussed and rejected. Those of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina, followed, and all shared the same fate. No objections were presented by New Hampshire or Virginia. Delaware and North Carolina had no representation then present, and Georgia only one member in attendance.
On the 9th of July, 1778, the Articles were signed by the delegates of New Hampshire, Massachusetts bay, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and South Carolina.
The delegates from New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland, informed Congress that they had not yet received powers to ratify and sign. North Carolina and Georgia were not represented—and the ratification of New York was conditional that all the other states should ratify.
The delegates from North Carolina signed the Articles on the 21st of July, 1778. Those of Georgia on the 24th of the same month. Those of New Jersey on the 26th of November, 1778. Those of Delaware on the 22nd of February, and 5th of May, 1779—but Maryland held out to the last and positively refused the ratification, until the question of the conflicting claims of the Union, and of the separate states to the property of the crown—lands should be adjusted. This was finally accomplished by cessions from the claiming states to the United States, of the unsettled lands, for the benefit of the whole Union.
Is it not strange again that it appears not to have been perceived by any one at that time that the whole of this controversy arose out of a departure from the principles of the Declaration of Independence, and the substitution of state sovereignty instead of the constituent sovereignty of the people, as the foundation of the Revolution and of the Union. The war from the beginning had been, and yet was, a revolutionary popular war. The colonial governments never had possessed or pretended to claim sovereign power. Many of them had not even yet constituted themselves as independent States. The Declaration of independence proclaims the natural rights of man, and the constituent power of the people to be the only sources of legitimate government. State sovereignty is a mere argument of power, without regard to right—a mere reproduction of the omnipotence of the British parliament in another form, and therefore not only inconsistent with, but directly in opposition to, the principles of the Declaration of independence.
The cessions of the claiming states of the crown lands to the Union, originated the territorial system, and eventuated in the ordinance for the government of the North Western Territory. It also removed the insuperable objection of the State of Maryland to the articles of confederation, and her delegates signed them on the 1st of March, 1781, four years and four months after they had been submitted by Congress to the sovereign states, with a solemn averment that they could no longer be deferred; that they seemed essential to the very existence of the Union as a free people; and that without them they might be constrained to bid adieu to independence, to liberty, and safety.
But the dispute relating to the jurisdiction and property of the crown lands, was only one of a multitude of stumbling blocks which were perpetually crossing the path of the new nation, in the collisions between the principles of the Declaration of independence and the sovereignty of the separate states. In the adjustment of that, both the systems were substantially set aside. For the claiming states, by the cessions themselves, abandoned their pretensions, so far as that interest was concerned, to the rights of independent state sovereignty, and the Congress of the confederation by an enactment of the ordinance for the government of the North Western Territory, assumed an authority which had not been delegated to them, either by the constituent sovereign people, or by the separate sovereign states.
The articles of confederation had withheld from Congress, the power of regulating the commerce of the Union, and of levying money by taxation upon the people; yet they were authorized to make war and conclude peace—to contract debts and bind the nation by treaties of commerce. The war was raging in its most inveterate fury, and to defray its indispensable charges and expenses, the only power of Congress was to issue requisitions to the states, which their sovereign power complied with, or disregarded, or rejected, according to their sovereign will and pleasure.
So seldom had this been to furnish the required supplies, that even before the first ratification of the articles of confederation, on the 3rd of February, 1781, it had been resolved that it be recommended to the several states, as indispensably necessary, that they vest a power in Congress, to levy for the use of the United States, a duty of five percent ad valorem, at the time and place of importation, upon all foreign goods, wares, and merchandise of foreign growth and manufactures, imported after the 1st of May, 1781; also a like duty upon all prize-goods, to be appropriated to the discharge of the principal and interest of the debts contracted on the faith of the United States, for the support of war.
Indispensably necessary! But according to the principles of the Declaration of independence, the state legislatures themselves had no authority to confer this power upon Congress. It was taxation—one of the powers which the people alone are competent to bestow—and which their servants, the state legislatures, if they possessed it themselves, had no right to delegate to any other body.
Upon the principles of state sovereignty—power without right, this authority might have been conferred upon Congress by the state legislatures, and several of them did enact laws for bestowing it. But by the articles of confederation, no alteration of them could be effected without the consent of aft the states, and Rhode island, the smallest state in the Union, inflexibly held out in the refusal to grant the indispensably necessary power. Virginia granted and soon repealed it. Congress issued bills of credit as long as they had any credit; but all the states did the same till their bottomless paper depreciated to a thousand for one, and then vanished by a universal refusal to receive it. Congress issued four successive requisitions upon the states, for their respective quotas to pay the debts and current expenses of the Union. Not one of the states paid one half the amount of its contribution. Congress borrowed money in France, in Spain, in Holland, and obtained it there when they could not raise a dollar at home, and they were compelled to resort to new loans to pay the interest upon those that had preceded.
Under the pressure of all these distresses, the cause of independence was triumphant. Peace came. The United States of America were recognized as free and independent, and as one People took the station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitled them among the powers of the earth. But their confederacy of sovereign states was as incompetent to govern them in peace as it had been to conduct them in war. The first popular impulse to union had carried them through the war. As that popular impulse died away, the confederation had supplied its place with hope and promise, the total disappointment of which, though discovered before the peace, was providentially not permitted to prevent its conclusion.
Peace came. The heroic leader of the revolutionary armies surrendered his commission. The armies were disbanded, but they were not paid. Mutiny was suppressed; but not until Congress had been surrounded by armed men, demanding justice, and appealed in vain for protection to the sovereign state within whose jurisdiction they were sitting. A single frigate, the remnant of a gallant navy, which had richly shared the glories, and deeply suffered the calamities of the war, was dismantled and sold. The expenses of the nation were reduced to the minimum of a peace establishment, and yet the nation was not relieved. The nation wanted a government founded on the principles of the Declaration of Independence—a government constituted by the people.
The commerce, navigation, and fisheries of the nation, had been annihilated by the war. But as a civilized nation cannot exist without commerce, an illicit trade with the enemy had sprung up towards the close of the war, highly injurious to the common cause, but which Congress had not the power to suppress. The same causes had given rise to another practice not less pernicious and immoral, by which privateersmen ransomed the prizes captured from the enemy at sea—that is, by releasing the captured vessel for a contribution taken in bills upon the owner of the prize, which were punctually paid, thereby converting the trade of the privateer into a species of gambling piracy.
These practices ceased with the peace. But the commerce of the United States, for want of a regulating power, was left at the mercy of foreign and rival traders. Britain immediately took advantage of this weakness, declined entering into any commercial treaty with us, which Congress had proposed, and brought to bear upon the American trade all the weight of her navigation laws. Massachusetts and Virginia made the experiment of counteracting laws, the only effect of which was to exclude a little remnant of their trade from their own ports, and to transfer it to the ports of neighboring states.
On the 18th of April, 1783, Congress renewed the demands upon the states, for authority to levy an impost duty, specific on sundry articles of importation, and five per cent ad valorem on others, to raise not quite one million of dollars, or about two fifths of the annual interest accruing upon the public debt; and that the states should themselves establish some system for supplying the public treasury with funds, for the punctual payment of the other three fifths of the annual interest; and also, for an alteration in the articles of confederation, changing the proportional rule of contribution of the states, from the surface of settled land to the numbers of population.
And on the 30th of April, 1784, Congress recommended to the state legislatures to vest the United States in Congress assembled, for the term of fifteen years, with powers to prohibit importations of merchandise in foreign vessels of nations with whom the United States had no treaties of commerce, and to prohibit foreigners, unless authorized by treaty, from importing into the United States, merchandise, other than the produce or manufacture of their own country. In other words, to enact a navigation law.
None of these indispensably necessary powers were ever conferred by the state legislatures upon the Congress of the confederation; and well was it that they never were. The system itself was radically defective. Its incurable disease was ail apostasy from the principles of the Declaration of independence. A substitution of separate state sovereignties, in the place of the constituent sovereignty of the people, as the basis of the confederate Union.
But in this Congress of the confederation, the master minds of James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, were constantly engaged through the closing years of the Revolutionary War, and those of peace which immediately succeeded. That of John Jay was associated with them shortly after the peace, in the capacity of Secretary to the Congress for Foreign Affairs. The incompetency of the articles of confederation for the management of the affairs of the Union at home and abroad, was demonstrated to them by the painful and mortifying experience of every day. Washington, though in retirement, was brooding over the cruel injustice suffered by his associates in arms, the warriors of the Revolution; over the prostration of the public credit and the faith of the nation, in the neglect to provide for the payment even of the interest upon the public debt; over the disappointed hopes of the friends of freedom; in the language of the address from Congress to the States of the 18th of April, 1783—“the pride and boast of America, that the rights for which she contended were the rights of human nature.”
At his residence of Mount Vernon, in March, 1785, the first idea was started of a revisal of the articles of confederation, by an organization of means differing from that of a compact between the state Legislatures and their own delegates in Congress. A convention of delegates from the state Legislatures, independent of the Congress itself, was the expedient which presented itself for effecting the purpose, and an augmentation of the powers of Congress for the regulation of commerce, as the object for which this assembly was to be convened. In January, 1786, the proposal was made and adopted in the Legislature of Virginia, and communicated to the other state Legislatures.
The Convention was held at Annapolis, in September of that year. It was attended by delegates from only five of the central states, who on comparing their restricted powers, with the glaring and universally acknowledged defects of the confederation, reported only a recommendation for the assemblage of another convention of delegates to meet at Philadelphia, in May, 1787, from all the states and with enlarged powers.
The Constitution of the United States was the work of this Convention. But in its construction the Convention immediately perceived that they must retrace their steps, and fall back from a league of friendship between sovereign states, to the constituent sovereignty of the people, from power to right—from the irresponsible despotism of state sovereignty, to the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence. In that instrument, the right to institute and to alter governments among men was ascribed exclusively to the people—the ends of government were declared to be to secure the natural rights of man: and that when the government degenerates from the promotion to the destruction of that end, the right and the duty accrues to the people, to dissolve this degenerate government and to institute another. The Signers of the Declaration further averred, that the one people of the United Colonies were then precisely in that situation—with a government degenerated into tyranny, and called upon by the laws of nature and of nature’s God, to dissolve that government and to institute another. Men in the name and by the authority of the good people of the Colonies, they pronounced the dissolution of their allegiance to the king, and their eternal separation from the nation of Great Britain—and declared the United Colonies independent States. And here as the representatives of the one people they had stopped. They did not require the confirmation of this Act, for the power to make the Declaration had already been conferred upon them by the people; delegating the power, indeed, separately in the separate colonies, not by colonial authority, but by the spontaneous revolutionary movement of the people in them all.
From the day of that Declaration, the constituent power of the people had never been called into action. A confederacy had been substituted in the place of a government; and state sovereignty had usurped the constituent sovereignty of the people.
The Convention assembled at Philadelphia had themselves no direct authority from the people. Their authority was all derived from the state legislatures. But they had the articles of confederation before them, and they saw and felt the wretched condition into which they had brought the whole people, and that the Union itself was in the agonies of death. They soon perceived that the indispensably needed powers were such as no state government; no combination of them was by the principles of the Declaration of Independence competent to bestow. They could emanate only from the people. A highly respectable portion of the assembly, still clinging to the confederacy of states, proposed as a substitute for the Constitution, a mere revival of the articles of confederation, with a grant of additional powers to the Congress. Their plan was respectfully and thoroughly discussed, but the want of a government and of the sanction of the people to the delegation of powers, happily prevailed. A Constitution for the people, and the distribution of legislative, executive, and judicial powers, was prepared. It announced itself as the work of the people themselves; and as this was unquestionably a power assumed by the Convention, not delegated to them by the people, they religiously confined it to a simple power to propose, and carefully provided that it should be no more than a proposal until sanctioned by the confederation Congress, by the state Legislatures, and by the people of the several states, in conventions specially assembled, by authority of their Legislatures, for the single purpose of examining and passing upon it.
And thus was consummated the work, commenced by the Declaration of Independence. A work in which the people of the North American Union, acting under the deepest sense of responsibility to the Supreme Ruler of the universe, had achieved the most transcendent act of power, that social man in his mortal condition can perform. Even that of dissolving the ties of allegiance which he is bound to his country—of renouncing that country itself—of demolishing its government, of instituting another government, and of making for himself another country in its stead.
And on that day, of which you now commemorate the fiftieth anniversary—on that 30th day of April, one thousand seven hundred and eighty-nine, was this mighty revolution, not only in the affairs of our own country, but in the principles of government over civilized man, accomplished.
The revolution itself was a work of thirteen years—and had never been completed until that day. The Declaration of independence and the Constitution of the United States, are parts of one consistent whole, founded upon one and the same theory of government, then new, not as a theory, for it had been working itself into the mind of man for many ages, and been especially expounded in the writings of Locke, but had never before been adopted by a great nation in practice.
There are yet, even at this day, many speculative objections to this theory. Even in our own country, there are still philosophers who deny the principles asserted in the Declaration, as self-evident truths—who deny the natural equality and inalienable rights of man—who deny that the people are the only legitimate source of power—who deny that all just powers of government are derived from the consent of the governed. Neither your time, nor perhaps the cheerful nature of this occasion, permit me here to enter upon the examination of this anti-revolutionary theory, which arrays state sovereignty against the constituent sovereignty of the people, and distorts the Constitution of the United States into a league of friendship between confederate corporations. I speak to matters of fact. There is the Declaration of Independence, and there is the Constitution of the United States—let them speak for themselves. The grossly immoral and dishonest doctrine of despotic state sovereignty, the exclusive judge of its own obligations, and responsible to no power on earth or in heaven, for the violation of them, is not there. The Declaration says it is not in me. The Constitution says it is not in me.
The confederacy of sovereign states has made itself known by its fruits; but there is one observation so creditable to our revolutionary fathers, that it ought never to be overlooked. The defects of the confederacy were vices of the institution, and not of the men by whom it was administered. The jealousy of delegated power pervaded every part of the articles of confederacy, and indeed, almost all the separate constitutions. The prevailing principle of every provision made under the influence of this distrusting maxim, was that the same power should not long be intrusted to the same hands—but it never extended to the exclusion of any person from office, after a designate term of service in another. One of the articles of confederation had interdicted every person from holding the office of a member of Congress more than three years in six. But any member excluded by the expiration of his limited term of service in Congress, was eligible to any other station in the legislative, executive, or judicial departments of his state, or to any office, civil or military, within the general jurisdiction of Congress.
In point of fact, the great measures by which the revolution was commenced, conducted, and concluded, were devised and prosecuted by a very few leading minds, animated by one pervading, predominating spirit. The object of the Revolution was the transformation of thirteen dependent and oppressed English colonies, into one nation of thirteen confederated states. It was as the late Mr. Madison remarked to Miss Martineau, an undertaking to do that which had always before been believed impossible. In the progress to its accomplishment, obstacles almost numberless, and difficulties apparently insurmountable, obstructed every step of the way. That in the dissolution and re-institution of the social compact, by men marching over an untrodden path to the very fountains of human government, great and dangerous errors should have been committed, is but an acknowledgement that the builders of the new edifice were fallible men. But at the head of the convention that formed the Constitution, was George Washington, the leader of the armies of the Revolution—among its prominent members were Benjamin Franklin and Roger Sherman, two of the members of that memorable committee who had reported the Declaration of Independence—and its other members without exception, were statesmen who had served in the councils of the Union, throughout the Revolutionary struggle, or warriors who had contended with the enemy upon the field.
The Signers of the Declaration of independence themselves, were the persons who had first fallen into the error of believing that a confederacy of independent states would serve as a substitute for the repudiated government of Great Britain. Experience had demonstrated their mistake, and the condition of the country was a shriek of terror at its awful magnitude. They did retrace their steps—not to extinguish the federative feature in which their union had been formed: nothing could be wider from their intention—but to restore the order of things conformably to the principles of the Declaration of Independence, and as they had been arranged in the first plans for a confederation. To make the people of the Union the constituent body, and the reservation of the rights of the states subordinate to the Constitution. Hence the delegation of power was not from each state retaining its sovereignty, and all rights not expressly delegated by the states, but from the people of each and of all the states, to the United States in Congress assembled, representing at once the whole people and all the states of the Union.
They retained the federative feature pre-eminently in the constitution of the Senate, and in the complication of its great powers, legislative, executive, and judicial-making that body a participant in all the great departments of constituted power. They preserved the federative principle and combined it with the constituent power of the people in the mode of electing the President of the United States, whether by the electoral colleges, or by the House of Representatives voting by states. They preserved it even in the constitution of the House, the popular branch of the Legislature, by giving separate delegations to the people of each state. But they expressly made the Constitution and constitutional laws of the United States paramount not only to the laws, but to the constitutions of the separate states inconsistent with them.
I have traced step by step, in minute and tedious detail, the departure from the principles of the Declaration of Independence, in the process of organizing the confederation—the disastrous and lamentable consequences of that departure, and the admirable temper and spirit, with which the Convention at Philadelphia returned to those principles in the preparation and composition of the Constitution of the United States. That this work was still imperfect, candor will compel us all to admit, though in specifying its imperfections, the purest minds and the most patriotic hearts differ widely from each other in their conclusions. Distrustful as it becomes me to be of my own judgment, but authorized by the experience of a full half century, during which I have been variously and almost uninterruptedly engaged in both branches of the Legislature, and in the executive departments of this government, and released, by my own rapid approach to the closing scene of life, from all possible influence of personal interest or ambition, I may perhaps be permitted to remark, that the omission of a clear and explicit Declaration of Rights, was a great defect in the Constitution as presented by the Convention to the people, and that it has been imperfectly remedied by the ten Articles of amendment proposed by the first Congress under the Constitution, and now incorporated with it. A Declaration of Rights would have marked in a more emphatic manner the return from the derivative sovereignty of the states, to the constituent sovereignty of the people for the basis of the federal Union, than was done by the words, “We the people of the United States,” in the preamble to the Constitution. A Declaration of Rights, also, systematically drawn up, as a part of the Constitution, and adapted to it with the consummate skill displayed in the consistent adjustment of its mighty powers, would have made it more complete in its unity, and in its symmetry, than it now appears, an elegant edifice, but encumbered with super additions, not always in keeping with the general character of the building itself.
A Declaration of Rights, reserved by the constituent body, the people, might and probably would have prevented many delicate and dangerous questions of conflicting jurisdictions which have arisen, and may yet arise between the general and the separate state governments. The rights reserved by the people would have been exclusively their own rights, and they would have been protected from the encroachments not only of the general government, but of the disunited states.
And this is the day of your commemoration. The day when the Revolution of independence being completed, and the new confederation Republic announced to the world, as the United States of America, constituted and organized under a government founded on the principles of the Declaration of Independence, was to hold her course along the lapse of time among the civilized potentates of the earth.
From this point of departure we have looked back to the origin of the Union; to the conflict of war by which the severance from the mother-country, and the release from the thraldom of a trans-Atlantic monarch, were effected, and to the more arduous and gradual progression by which the new government had been constructed to take the place of that which had been cast off and demolished.
The first object of the people, declared by the Constitution as their motive for its establishment, to form a more Perfect Union, had been attained by the establishment of the Constitution itself; but this was yet to be demonstrated by its practical operation in the establishment of justice, in the ensurance of domestic tranquility, in the provision for the common defence, in the promotion of the general welfare, and in securing the blessings of liberty to the people themselves, the authors of the Constitution, and to their posterity.
These are the great and transcendental objects of all legitimate government. The primary purposes of all human association. For these purposes the confederation had been instituted, and had signally failed for their attainment. How far have they been attained under this new national organization?
It has abided the trial of time. This day fifty years have passed away since the first impulse was given to the wheels of this political machine. The generation by which it was constructed, has passed away. Not one member of the Convention who gave this Constitution to their country, survives. They have enjoyed its blessings so far as they were secured by their labors. They have been gathered to their fathers. That posterity for whom they toiled, not less anxiously than for themselves, has arisen to occupy their places, and is rapidly passing away in its turn. A third generation, unborn upon the day which you commemorate, forms a vast majority of the assembly who now honor me with their attention. Your city which then numbered scarcely thirty thousand inhabitants, now counts its numbers by hundreds of thousands. Your state, then numbering less than double the population of your city as this day, now tells its children by millions. The thirteen primitive states of the revolution, painfully rallied by this constitution to the fold from which the impotence and dis-uniting character of the confederacy, was already leading them astray, now reinforced by an equal number of younger sisters, and all swarming with an active, industrious, and hardy population, have penetrated from the Atlantic to the Rocky Mountains, and opened a paradise upon the wilds watered by the father of the floods. The Union, which at the first census, ordained by this Constitution, returned a people of less than four millions of souls; at the next census, already commanded by law, the semi-centural enumeration since that day, is about to exhibit a return of seventeen millions. Never since the first assemblage of men in social union, has there been such a scene of continued prosperity recorded upon the annals of time.
How much of this prosperity is justly attributable to the Constitution, then first put upon its trial, may perhaps be differently estimated by speculative minds. Never was a form of government so obstinately, so pertinaciously contested before its establishment–and never was human foresight and sagacity more disconcerted and refuted by the event, than those of the opposers of the Constitution. On the other hand its results have surpassed the most sanguine anticipations of its friends. Neither Washington, nor Madison, nor Hamilton, dared to hope that this new experiment of government would so triumphantly accomplish the purposes which the confederation had so utterly failed to effect. Washington—far from anticipating the paint of glory which his administration of this government was to entwine around his brow, transcending the laurel of his then unrivalled military renown, in the interval between the 4th of March, when the meeting of the first Congress had been summoned, and the 14th of April, when he received from them the notification of his election as President of the United States, thus unbosomed to his friend Knox the forebodings of his anxious and agitated mind. “I feel,” wrote he, “for those members of the new Congress, who hitherto have given an unavailing attendance at the theatre of action, For myself, the delay may be compared to a reprieve, for in confidence I tell you, (with the world it would obtain little credit) that my movements to the chair of government will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution. So unwilling am I, in the evening of life, nearly consumed in public cares, to quit a peaceful abode for an ocean of difficulties, without that competency of political skill, abilities, and inclination, which are necessary to manage the helm. I am sensible that I am embarking the voice of the people and a good name of my own, on this voyage, but what returns can be made of them, Heaven alone can foretell. Integrity and firmness are all I can promise: these, be the voyage long or short, shall never forsake me, although I may be deserted by all men: for of the consolations which are to be derived from them, under any circumstances, the world cannot deprive me.”
One of the most indubitable tests of the merit of human institutions for the government of men, is the length of time which they endure; but so fluctuating is the character of nations and of ages, as well as of individuals, that in the history of mankind before our own age, this durability of human governments has been exclusively confined to those founded upon conquests and hereditary power. In summing up the character of William the Conqueror, the Scottish historian, Hume, remarks, that “though he rendered himself infinitely odious to his English subjects, he transmitted his power to his posterity, and the throne is still filled by his descendants; a proof,” says the historian, “that the foundations which he laid, were firm and solid, and that amidst all his violence, while he seemed only to gratify the present passion, he had still an eye toward futurity.”
The descendant from William the Conqueror, who filled the throne of Britain when the Scottish historian made this remark, was the person whom his American subjects, to whom he had rendered himself odious, unseated from that portion of his throne which ruled over them; and in discarding him they had demolished the throne itself for ever. They had resolved for themselves and their posterity, never again to be ruled by thrones. The Declaration of Independence had promulgated principles of government, subversive of all unlimited sovereignty and all hereditary power. Principles, in consistency with which no conqueror could establish by violence a throne to be trodden by himself and by his posterity, for a space of eight hundred years. The foundations of government laid by those who had burnt by fire and scattered to the winds of Heaven, the ashes of this conqueror’s throne, were human rights, responsibility to God, and the consent of the people. Upon these principles, the Constitution of the United States had been formed, was now organized, and about to be carried into execution, to abide the test of time. The first element of its longevity was undoubtedly to be found in itself—but we may, without superstition or fanaticism, believe that a superintending Providence had adapted to the character and principles of this institution, those of the man by whom it was to be first administered. To fill a throne was neither his ambition nor his vocation. He had no descendants to whom a throne could have been transmitted, had it existed. He was placed by the unanimous voice of his country, at the head of that government which they had substituted for a throne, and his eye looking to futurity, was intent upon securing to after ages, not a throne for a seat to his own descendants, but an immoveable seat upon which the descendants of his country might sit in peace, and freedom, and happiness, if so it please Heaven, to the end of time.
That to the accomplishment of this task he looked forward with a searching eye, and even an over-anxious heart, will not be surprising to any who understands his character, or is capable of comprehending the magnitude and difficulty of the task itself.
There are incidental to the character of man two qualities, both developed by his intercourse with his fellow-creatures, and both belonging to the immortal part of his nature; of elements apparently so opposed and inconsistent with each other, as to be irreconcilable together; but yet indispensable in their union to constitute the highest excellence of the human character. They are the spirit of command, and the spirit of meekness. They have been exemplified in the purity of ideal perfection, only once in the history of mankind, and that was in the mortal life of the Savior of the world. It would seem to have been exhibited on earth by his supernatural character, as a model to teach mortal man, to what sublime elevation his nature is capable of ascending. They had been displayed, though not in the same perfection by the preceding legislator of the children of Israel;
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen seed
In the beginning, how the heavens and earth
Rose out of Chaos;
but so little were they known, or conceived of in the antiquity of profane history, that in the poems of Homer, that unrivalled delineator of human character in the heroic ages, there is no attempt to introduce them in the person of any one of his performers, human or divine. In the poem of his Roman imitator and rival, a feeble exemplification of them is shadowed forth in the inconsistent composition of the pious Æneas; but history, ancient or modem, had never exhibited in the real life of man, an example in which those two properties were so happily blended together, as they were in the person of George Washington. These properties belong rather to the moral than the intellectual nature of man. They are not infrequently found in minds little cultivated by science, but they require for the exercise of that mutual control which guards them from degenerating into arrogance or weakness, the guidance of a sound judgment, and the regulation of a profound sense of responsibility to a higher Power. It was this adaptation of the character of Washington to that of the institution over the composition of which lie had presided, as he was now called to preside over its administration, which constituted one of the most favorable omens of it: eventful stability and success.
But this institution was republican, and even democratic. And here not to be misunderstood, I mean by democratic, a government, the administration of which must always be rendered comfortable to that predominating public opinion, which even in the ages of heathen antiquity, was denominated the queen of the world: and by republican I mean a government reposing, not upon the virtues or the powers of any one man—not upon that honor, which Montesquieu lays down as the fundamental principle of monarchy—far less upon that fear which he pronounces the basis of despotism; but upon that virtue which he, a noble of aristocratic peerage, and the subject of an absolute monarch, boldly proclaims as a fundamental principle of republican government. The Constitution of the United States was republican and democratic—but the experience of all former ages had shown that of all human governments, democracy was the most unstable, fluctuating and short-lived; and it was obvious that if virtue—the virtue of the people, was the foundation of republican government, the stability and duration of the government must depend upon the stability and duration of the virtue by which it is sustained.
Now the virtue which had been infused into the Constitution of the United States, and was to give to its vital existence, the stability and duration to which it was destined, was no other than the concretion of those abstract principles which had been first proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence—namely, the self-evident truths of the natural and unalienable rights of man, of the indefeasible constituent and dissolvent sovereignty of the people, always subordinate to a rule of right and wrong, and always responsible to the Supreme Ruler of the universe for the rightful exercise of that sovereign, constituent, and dissolvent power.
This was the platform upon which the Constitution of the United States had been erected. Its VIRTUES, its republican character, consisted in its conformity to the principles proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, and as its administration must necessarily be always pliable to the fluctuating varieties of public opinion; its stability and duration by a Re overruling and irresistible necessity, was to depend upon the stability and duration in the hearts and minds of the people of that virtue, or in other words, of those principles, proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, and embodied in the Constitution of the United States.
With these considerations, we shall be better able to comprehend the feelings of repugnance, of pain, of anguish, of fearful forebodings, with which Washington had consented to be placed at the head of this new and untried experiment to consolidate the people of the thirteen then disunited states into one confederated and permanent happy Union. For his own integrity and firmness he could answer; and these were sufficient to redeem his own personal responsibility—but he was embarking on this ocean of difficulty a good name already achieved by toils, and dangers, and services unparalleled in human history—surpassing in actual value the richest diadem upon earth, and more precious in his estimation than the throne of the universal globe, had it been offered as an alternative to his choice.
He knew the result would not depend upon him. His reliance was upon the good providence of Heaven. He foresaw that he might be deserted by all mankind. The Constitution itself had been extorted from the grinding necessity of a reluctant nation. The people only of eleven of the thirteen primitive states had sanctioned it by their adoption. A stubborn, unyielding resistance against its adoption had manifested itself in some of the most powerful states in the Union, and when overpowered by small majorities in their conventions, had struggled in some instances successfully, to recover their ascendancy by electing to both Houses of Congress members who had signalized themselves in opposition to the adoption of the Constitution. A sullen, embittered, exasperated spirit was boiling in the bosoms of the defeated, then styled anti-Federal party, whose rallying cry was state rights—state sovereignty—state independence. To this standard no small number even of the ardent and distinguished patriots of the Revolution had attached themselves with partial affection. State sovereignty—unlimited state sovereignty, amenable not to the authority of the Union, but only to the people of the disunited state itself, had, with the left-handed wisdom characteristic of faction, assumed the mask of liberty, pranked herself out in the garb of patriotism, and courted the popular favor in each state by appeals to their separate independence—affecting to style themselves exclusively Republicans, and stigmatizing the Federalists, and even Washington himself their head, as monarchists and tories.
On the other hand, no small number of the Federalists, sickened by the wretched and ignominious failure of the Articles of Confederation to fulfil the promise of the Revolution; provoked at once and discouraged by the violence and rancor of the opposition against their strenuous and toilsome endeavors to raise their country from her state of prostration; chafed and goaded by the misrepresentations of their motives, and the reproaches of their adversaries, and imputing to them in turn, deliberate and settled purposes to dissolve the Union, and resort to anarchy for the repair of ruined fortunes—distrusted even the efficacy of the Constitution itself, and with a weakened confidence in the virtue of the people, were inclining to the opinion, that the only practicable substitute for it would be a government of greater energy than that presented by the Convention. There were among them numerous warm and sincere admirers of the British Constitution; disposed to confide rather to the inherent strength of the government than to the self-evident truths of the Declaration of independence, for the preservation of the rights of property and perhaps of persons—and with these discordant feelings and antagonizing opinions, were intermingled on both sides individual interests and ambitions, counteracting each other as in the conduct and management of human affairs they always have and always will—not without a silent and secret mixture of collateral motives and impulses, from the domestic intercourse of society, for which the legislator is not competent to provide, and the effect of which not intuition itself can foresee.
The same calm, but anxious and even distrusting contemplation of the prospect before him, and of the difficulties and dangers which he was destined to encounter in his new career, followed him after he received the annunciation of his election, and the summons to repair to his post. The moment of his departure from the residence of his retirement, was thus recorded in his diary: “About ten o’clock I bade adieu to Mount Vernon, to private life, and to domestic felicity; and with a mind oppressed with more anxious and painful sensations, than I have words to express, set out for New York—with the best disposition to render service to my country in obedience to its call, but with less hope of answering its expectations.”
His progress from Mount Vernon to New York, was one triumphal procession. At Alexandria, at Georgetown, at Philadelphia, at Trenton, at Brunswick, at the borders of the state of New Jersey, at Elizabethtown Point, he was surrounded, addressed, escorted, by crowds of his grateful, confiding, hoping, affectionate fellow-citizens, of all classes, of both sexes, of every age and condition, showering upon him in every variety of form demonstrations of the most enthusiastic attachment. Corporations of magistrates addressed him in strains of pious, patriotic, and fervid eloquence. The soldiers of their country, in the prime of life, in the pride and pomp of war, but in the circumstance of honorable peace, preceded him as a guard of ornament and of glory. At his passage over the Schuylkill bridge, a crown of unfading laurel was unconsciously to himself, dropped by a blooming boy from a thickly laurelled arch upon his head. At Trenton, he was welcomed by a band of aged matrons commemorating his noble defence of them, thirteen years before on that spot, at the turning tide of the War of Independence—while their virgin daughters strewed the path before him with flowers, and chanting a song like that of Miriam, hailed him as their protector, who had been the defender of their mothers. A committee of Congress met him on his approach to the Point, where a richly ornamented barge of thirteen oars, manned by thirteen branch pilots of your own harbor, prepared by your forefathers, then the inhabitants of your bright-starred city, was in waiting to receive him. In this barge he embarked. But the bosom of the waters around her, as she swept along, was as populous as had been the shores. The garish streamers floated upon the gale-songs of enchantment resounded from boat to boat, intermingled with the clashing of cymbals, with the echoing of horns, with the warbling of the flute, and the mellowing tones of the clarinet, weakened, but softened as if into distance, by the murmur of the breeze and the measured dashing of the waters from the oars, till on reaching your city!….. but let his own diary record the emotions of his soul: “The display of boats,”—I quote from his biographer, the lamented late Chief Justice Marshall—“which attended and joined on this occasion, some with vocal, and others with instrumental music on board, the decorations of the ships, the roar of cannon, and the loud acclamations of the people, which rent the sky as I passed along the wharves, filled my mind with sensations as PAINFUL (contemplating the reverse of this scene, which may be the case after all my labors to do good) as they were pleasing.”
How delightful is it, my beloved countrymen, on this festive day of jubilee, commemorating that day so pregnant with your weal or woe, and with that of your children’s children, how delightful is it at the distance of fifty years from that day of promised blessings and of anticipated disappointments, to reflect that all the fairest visions of hope were to be more than realized, and all the apprehensions of wary prudence and self- distrusting wisdom more than dissipated and dispelled.
This is the first essay in a two-part series. Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.