« PreviousContinue »
THE TRUE VALUE OF THE FEDERAL PRINCIPLE.-HISTORICAL EXAMPLES.-COLERIDGE'S PRO-
THERE is nothing of political philosophy more plainly taught in history than the limited value of the Federal principle. It had been experimented upon in various ages of the world-in the Amphictyonic Council, in the Achæan league, in the United Provinces of Holland, in Mexico, in Central America, in Columbia, and in the Argentine republic; in all these instances the form of government established upon it had become extinct, or had passed into the alternative of consolidation or anarchy and disintegration. Indeed, it is plain enough that such a form of government is the resource only of small and weak communities; that it is essentially temporary in its nature; and that it has never been adopted by States which had approached a mature condition, and had passed the period of pupillage. It is not to be denied that the Federal principle is valuable in peculiar circumstances and for temporary ends. But it is essentially not
permanent; and all attempts to make it so, though marked for certain periods by fictitious prosperity and sudden evidences of material activity and progress, have ultimately resulted in intestine commotions and the extinction of the form of government. What, indeed, can be more natural than that the members of a confederation, after they have advanced in political life and become mature and powerful, should desire for themselves independence and free action, and be impatient of a system founded on their early and past necessities!
Coleridge, the acute English scholar and philosopher, once said that he looked upon the American States as "splendid masses to be used by and by in the composition of two or three great governments." For more than a generation past it was considered by a party in America, as well as by intelligent men in other parts of the world, that the American Union, as a confederation of States, had performed its mission, and that the country was called to the fulfilment of another political destiny.
And here it is especially to be remarked that those statesmen of the South, who for more than thirty years before the war of 1861 despaired of the continuation of the Union, were yet prompt to acknowledge its benefits in the past. There could be no dispute about the success of its early mission; and no intelligent man in America dared to refer to the Union without acknowledging the country's indebtedness to it in the past. It had peopled and fertilized a continent; it had enriched the world's commerce with a new trade; it had developed population, and it was steadily training to manhood the States which composed it, and fitting them for the responsibility of a new political life. The party that insisted at a certain period that the interests of the Southern States demanded a separate and independent government, simply held the doctrine that the country had outlived the necessities of the Union, and had become involved in the abuses of a system, admirable enough in its early conception, but diverted from its original objects and now existing only as the parent of intolerable rivalries, and the source of constant intestine commotions.
With reference to these abuses, it must be remarked here that although the Federal principle was the governing one of the American Union, yet such Union was not purely a confederation of States; it was mixed with parts of another system of government; and that the subordination of the Federal principle to these produced many additional causes of disruption, which plainly hurried the catastrophe of separation and war.
But before coming to the subject of these abuses, it will be necessary to determine the true nature and value of the Union. We must go back to an early period of American history; we must explore the sources of the great political parties in the country; and we must enumerate among the causes of disunion not only the inherent weakness of the Federal principle, but those many controversies which aided and expedited the result,
and in which the true idea of the Union was violated, the government distorted to the ends of party, and faction put in the place of a statesmanship that sought long but in vain to check its vile ambition and avert the final result.
When the thirteen colonies in North America resolved to throw off the yoke of Great Britain, committees of correspondence were established in each colony. In May, 1774, after Lord Dunmore dissolved a patriotic Virginia House of Burgesses, eighty-nine of its members met at the Raleigh Tavern, in Williamsburg, and, among other acts, recommended that all the colonies should send deputies to a General Congress, to watch over the united interests of all, and deliberate upon and ascertain the measures best adapted to promote them.
On the 4th of July, 1776, the Congress published a Declaration of Independence. It declared that the colonies were "free and independent States," thus asserting their separate State sovereignty, and expressly negativing the idea of consolidation, held by New Hampshire, who on the 15th of June, 1776, voted that the Thirteen United Colonies ought to be declared “a free and independent State."
At this time the only common agent of the States was a Congress which really had no legislative power. Its action was generally wise, and therefore cheerfully acquiesced in and made efficient by the principals. But as the war continued, its pressure became heavier; men, money, and supplies were needed; and often the resolutions of Congress were either wholly neglected or positively repudiated by the States. It became apparent that the common agent must be clothed with actual power, and this could only be done by an express agreement between the States, whereby each should bind itself to observe certain rules, and obey certain regulations adopted to secure the common safety.
It was thus that the first Confederation of the American States-the articles of which were adopted by the several States in 1777-originated in the necessities of the war waged by them against Great Britain for their independence. A common danger impelled them to a close alliance, and to the formation of a confederation, by the terms of which the colonies, styling themselves States, entered "severally into a firm league of friendship with each other for their common defence, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare, binding themselves to assist each other against all force offered to or attacks made upon them or any of them, on account of religion, sovereignty, trade or any other pretence whatever.”
In order to guard against any misconstruction of their compact, the several States made explicit declaration, in a distinct article, that “ 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."
The objects and character of this confederation or union were thus distinctly defined. Under its terms the war of the Revolution was successfully waged, and resulted in the treaty of peace with Great Britain in 1783, by the terms of which the several States were, each by name, recognized to be independent.
As the Confederation originated in the necessities of the war against Great Britain, it was these necessities which determined its character and measured its powers. It was something more than a military alliance; for it was intended to unite the resources of the States, to make a common financial fund, and to "secure the public credit at home and abroad.” Partial and imperfect as was the union it established, it accomplished a great historical work, and dated an important era; it supplied what scarcely anything else could have supplied-a political bond between colonies suddenly erected into sovereign States; it was the stepping stone to a firmer association of the States, and a more perfect union. In this sense are to be found its true offices and value. Lines of exasperated division had been drawn between the colonies; the sharp points of religious antagonism had kept them at a distance; the natural difficulties of intercourse and the legislative obstructions of trade had separated them; differences of government, contrast of manners, diversity of habits had contributed to the estrangement; and in these circumstances a bond of union, however slightly it held them, was important as the initial of their political association, and was educating them for the new and enlarged destiny dated with their independence.
We have implied that the Confederation was a bond of very partial and imperfect effect. It practically existed not more than two years; although its nominal term in history is eight years. It was debated for nearly five years. It was not consummated until 1781. It was full of glaring defects; it had no power to enforce the common will of the States; it had no jurisdiction of individuals; it had but a mixed and confused power over foreign relations, and the treaties it might make were dependent on commercial regulations of the different States. Having outlived the prime necessity that originated it during the war, its cohesive powers gradually gave way; it yielded to the impressions of new events; and it is remarkable that the association formed under it and entitled a “Perpetual Union " was practically terminated by the uninterrupted free will of the States which composed it.
A convention of delegates assembled from the different States at Philadelphia in May, 1787. It had been called by Congress "for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation, and reporting to Congress and the several legislatures such alterations and provisions therein, as shall, when agreed to in Congress, and confirmed by the States, render the Federal Constitution adequate to the exigencies and the preser
vation of the Union." This was the Convention that erected the two famous political idols in America: the Constitution of 1789 and the Union formed under it, and entitled itself to the extravagant adulation of three generations as the wisest and best of men.
This adulation is simply absurd. The language in the call of the Convention was singularly confused. The men who composed it were common flesh and blood, very ignorant, very much embarrassed, many of them unlettered, and many educated just to that point where men are silly, visionary, dogmatic and impracticable.
Hildreth, the American historian, has made a very just remark, which describes the cause of the unpopularity of his own compositions. He says: "In dealing with our revolutionary annals, a great difficulty had to be encountered in the mythic, heroic character above, beyond, often wholly apart from the truth of history, with which, in the popular idea, the fathers and founders of our American Republic have been invested. American literature having been mainly of the rhetorical cast, and the Revolution and the old times of the forefathers forming standing subjects for periodical eulogies, in which every new orator strives to outvie his predecessors, the true history of those times, in spite of ample records, illustrated by the labors of many diligent and conscientious inquirers, has yet been almost obliterated by declamations which confound all discrimination and just appreciation in one confused glare of patriotic eulogium.” *
* We find in 1866, even after the experience of the war, President Johnson declaring that the authours of the Constitution were divinely inspired; that "they needed and obtained a wisdom superiour to experience." This is silly extravagance, if not worse. We shall see that there was one element of originality and of great virtue in the Constitution; but apart from this, the sober student of history, looking over three generations of fierce political conflict in America, must be struck by the enormous defects and omissions of an instrument that has shared so much the undue admiration of mankind.
In another work the authour has enumerated in the paragraphs quoted below the defective texts of the Constitution :
"It is impossible to resist the thought, that the framers of the Constitution were so much occupied with the controversy of jealousy between the large and the small States that they overlooked many great and obvious questions of government, which have since been fearfully developed in the political history of America. Beyond the results and compromises of that jealousy, the debates and the work of the Convention show one of the most wonderful blanks that has, perhaps, ever occurred in the political inventions of civilized mankind. They left behind them a list of imperfections in political prescience, a want of provision for the exigencies of their country, such as has seldom been known in the history of mankind."
"A system of negro servitude existed in some of the States. It was an object of no solicitude in the Convention. The only references in the Constitution to it are to be found in a provision in relation to the rendition of fugitives 'held to service or labour,' and in a mixed and empirical rule of popular representation. However these provisions may imply the true status of slavery, how much is it to be regretted that the Convention did not make (what might have been made so easily) an explicit declaration on the subject, that would have put it beyond the possibility of dispute, and removed it from even the plausibility of party controversy!