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THE attempt to describe the progress of a contest, in which the existence of a great nation has been involved, may fitly be preceded by a rapid review of the origin of the organic law of that nation, and of the previous efforts of discontented individuals, parties, or States, to resist, divide, or overthrow its government.
The thirteen colonies which united in the effort to throw off the British yoke, in 1775, had some points of agreement, but more of difference. Their agreement arose from the purpose, common to them all, of resisting oppression; their differences were the result of diverse origin, different modes of life, and divergent views of the essential characteristics of a free government.
The Articles of Confederation or alliance of these colonies, adopted by most of them in 1778, proved a very weak and imperfect compact. Under it, the thirteen independent sovereignties were bound together rather by the moral attraction of a common purpose, than by that thorough affiliation which alone could make them a united nation. The collection of taxes, the adoption and enforcement of national measures, and that unity of action which would command the respect of foreign powers, were difficult, if not impossible, under such a compact; and the use of force for the accomplishment of any one of these objects contravened the cardinal principle of the Revolution, that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.
It was felt, in all quarters, that a constitution or compact of greater stringency, and which should engage more thoroughly the confidence and consent of the people, was needed; but so diverse were the views of the different States and of the leading statesmen, that it seemed hardly possible that an instrument could be framed which would receive general approval. Yet the attempt was made; the initiative being taken by Virginia, whose legislature, in 1786, recommended the calling of a convention at Annapolis, to endeavor to adopt some articles of agreement providing for a more efficient taxation, the prosecution of commerce, &c. In this convention but eight States were represented, and the delegates, fully convinced of the magnitude and radical character of the changes required, contented themselves with calling a Convention to meet in the ensuing spring (1787), to recommend such alterations in and additions to the Articles of Confederation as they might deem necessary. In that Convention, to which were sent the most eminent statesmen of each State, and to which we owe our Federal Constitution, there was a
great diversity of views. Two extreme parties appeared in the Convention the advocates of a strong government, in which the States should surrender a greater part of their rights to the nation, and which should be governed by a president, with almost regal powers, elected for life; and the supporters of a mere Confederation of States, somewhat stronger than that already existing, yet carefully guarded against any tendencies to centralization-in other words, the Federal and the State Rights parties. To the former belonged, with some exceptions, the delegates from New England, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and North Carolina; to the latter, most of those from the other States, though the great name of Washington was on the side of a strong government. Neither party were entirely successful. But early in the session of the Convention one thing was decided: that the Constitution was to bind the whole people, and not to be a mere State compact; that the people of the United States were to be one nation, and not an aggregation of sovereign States. This point settlek, there were still many others on which the delegates differed; and when the Constitution was completed and submitted to the people for ratification, neither Washington, Jefferson, nor Franklin concealed the fact that there were portions of it which were not wholly satisfactory to them. In the course of its ratification by the people of the different States, many amendments were suggested, and when, at last, after some slight changes, it became the bond of union of the nation, there were many, both in this and foreign countries, who predicted a brief existence to the nation thus consolidated.
It has proved, however, a bond of greater strength than even its friends dared to hope, and though some needful modifications have been made by the concurrent vote of the people who first adopted it, it has with each successive decade, and we might say, indeed, with each successive year, won a higher place in the love and admiration of the nation.
There have been, it is true, occasional efforts to transcend its provisions, to violate its obligations, or to subvert its spirit, but these have been the acts of a few restless and misguided individuals, or at most of a portion only of the citizens of two or three States, until the commencement of the Great Rebellion.
A brief notice of these manifestations of hostility to the national authority may not be inappropriate. The first in the order of time was the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, in Western Pennsylvania. The Federal Government, after its organization under the Constitution, had assumed the debts incurred by the several States in the war for independence, and in order to provide for the payment of the interest and the eventual liquidation of the principal of that debt, it became necessary to adopt a rigorous system of taxation. Heavy duties were laid on imported liquors, and the manufacture of whiskey, rum, gin, &c., which was very extensive in several of the States, was made to bear a part of the burden, in the way of an excise duty. The chief crop of Western Pennsylvania at that period was rye, which was almost entirely manufactured into whiskey, and sent east for the purchase
of other needed commodities. The enhancement of the price of this liquor, in consequence of the exise duty, created intense excitement, and led to active resistance of the collectors and inspectors of the stills appointed by the Government, some of whom were subjected to personal indignities and violence, in their attempts to perform their duties. The law was modified, at the instance of the class who are always desirous of a compromise in such cases; but the malcontents would accept no terms short of its entire repeal, and resisted the collection of the tax till July, 1794. At that time the United States marshal was ordered to take a posse of armed men an serve warrants upon thirty offending distillers. He was successful in the service of the writs except in the case of one person, who made an armed resistance, compelled the officers to fly for their lives, and burned the house of the district inspector. Encouraged by this success, the insurgents now called out a force of seven thousand men, stopped and robbed the mail, under pretext of ascertaining who were in complicity with the government, and proceeded to array themselves in open opposition to the national authority. General Washington, then President, issued his proclamation commanding the insurgents to disperse, and this proving ineffectual, he called out a force of fifteen thousand men from Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania to suppress the rebellion. It being understood that every man found in arms would be arrested and hung, the insurgents became appalled, and, calling a convention at Parkinson's Ferry, adopted resolutions of entire submission. General Lee, with the Federal force, proceeded to the insurgent district, and, the excise officers performing their duties with very little opposition, proclaimed an amnesty.
In 1798, the efforts of certain French revolutionists and their sympathizers to involve this country in a war with England, and the violence of their denunciations of President Adams, who opposed their policy, led to the passage by Congress of the alien acts and the sedition law. The former gave the President power for two years to order all such aliens as he might deem dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States to leave the country, and made provision also for registering the names and residences of aliens. These laws were never enforced, the President not deeming it necessary. The sedition law punished, by heavy fines, any attempt to excite insurrection or to conspire against the Government, also the publication of any false, scandalous, or malicious writings against the President, or other officers of Government or Congress. The operation of this act was also limited to two years. The Anti-Federalists, who were then in opposition, saw in the passage of these laws the opportunity of defeating the Federal party, and attaining to power. They accordingly denounced them with great severity, and introduced resolutions, taking strong ground in favor of State rights, into the legislatures of Virginia and Kentucky; those in the former State being drawn by James Madison, and those in the latter drafted originally by Thomas Jefferson, though subsequently modified, and stripped of some of their objectionable passages by George Nicholas. Mr. Madison's resolutions, though avowing the doctrine that the Federal Government
is a compact between the States as States, a doctrine utterly repudiated elsewhere, proposed no nullification of the laws of Congress, and Mr. Madison himself subsequently explained that no extra-constitutional measures were intended. The original draft of Jefferson's resolutions was more objectionable. The eighth resolution declared, that when Congress assumes powers not delegated by the people (the States themselves being the sole judges), "a nullification of the act is the right, remedy, and that every State has a natural right, in cases not within the compact, to nullify, of their own authority, all assumptions of power by others within their limits." These resolutions passed the two legislatures, with the more objectionable passages altered, and were sent to the legislatures of the other States for their concurrence, but not one concurred. The object of their authors was, nevertheless, accomplished; the ensuing presidential election resulted in the success of the Anti-Federalists, and Thomas Jefferson was chosen President. But the poisonous seeds, thus carelessly sown, in due time sprang up and bore fruit which their author would have repudiated as heartily as any other patriot of his time. The doctrine that a State has the power and right to nullify the acts of the National Government, when she may deem them unconstitional or injurious to her interests, is one of the prime heresies of secession.
The conspiracy of Aaron Burr, to found an empire in the West, was rather the mad scheme of an ambitious and reckless adventurer, than a serious attempt at the overthrow of our Government, and it is unnecessary to speak of it particularly here.
The next manifestation of a spirit hostile to the Government came from New England. The commerce of the New England States, after the Revolution and in the early years of the present century, had become very extensive. Salem, Boston, Newburyport, and other seaports of Massachusetts, were largely engaged in the East India trade; New Bedford, Gloucester and Marblehead in the fisheries; and the fleets of Providence and Newport, Rhode Island, were found in almost equal numbers on the coasts of continental Europe, Asia, and Africa. The ship-owners of Portland, in the district of Maine, and of the Connecticut ports, nearly monopolized the trade with the West Indies and South America. The embargo act of 1807, following, as it did, the Berlin and Milan decrees, and the orders in council, proved the ruin of this commerce, and excited deep and bitter feeling against the Government in those States. An emissary from Great Britain, one John Henry, who visited them at this time, is said to have done something toward fostering this dissatisfaction.
The declaration of war, in 1812, was regarded by the commercial class in Massachusetts and Connecticut as an added wrong, and a strong "peace party" was organized, which caused the support given to the war to be feeble and inefficient. The militia from those States, nevertheless, did good service during the first two years of the war; but the Government having called them to the defence of other sections, the ports of New England were unprotected against the ravages of the enemy. Meanwhile the Government had, from want of resources, been compelled to impose upon these States the duty of
looking after their own defence, while it refused to allow them to furnish State officers to command their troops. This excited further complaint, and the entire New England States became strongly dissatisfied with the Government, and with the Southern and Central States, which favored the war. On the 15th of December, 1814, a convention of delegates from the five States (Maine was as yet a district of Massachusetts) met in secret session at Hartford, Connecticut. They remained in session till January 5th, 1815, and two weeks later published a report and series of resolutions adopted by them. The first of these recommended the legislatures of the New England States to protect their citizens from the operation of acts passed by Congress, subjecting them to forcible drafts, conscriptions, or impressments, not authorized by the Constitution; the second recommended that the States be empowered to defend themselves, and that they should have for this purpose their proportion of the taxes collected; the third advised each State to defend itself against foreign foes; the fourth suggested several amendments to the Federal Constitution, making the white population the basis of the apportionment of taxation and representation, requiring a vote of two-thirds of both Houses for the admission of new States, for the interdiction of foreign trade, and for making war, except in defence of territory actually invaded, the restriction of the power of Congress in laying an embargo to a period of sixty days, making naturalized citizens ineligible to civil office, and prohibiting the election of President for two successive terms, or of two successive Presidents, from the same State. They also recommended, in case these resolutions, when submitted to the General Government through the several States, should not receive attention, if peace should not be concluded, and the interests of the New England States were still neglected, that another convention should be called at Boston, with such powers and instructions as the exigencies of the case might require. The report accompanying these resolutions, though moderate in tone and expressing attachment to the Union, contained views harmonizing to some extent with the State Rights doctrine of Mr. Jefferson's resolutions of 1798.
Here was, it will be seen, no proposed violation of the Constitution, no insurrectionary movement, but simply the carrying out to its ultimate results of the State Rights heresy. But, moderate as were the measures proposed by this Hartford Convention, compared with those which have since been propounded in other parts of the Union, they met with no general approval from the people of the New England States. The people of Connecticut were stimulated by them to more active loyalty, and the only expression of opinion they called forth in the other States was one of decided disapprobation.
The close of the war, very soon after, may have had its effect in producing this result; but it is certain that nearly every member of that convention was, in consequence of his connection with it, consigned to political oblivion.
The excitement consequent upon the application of Missouri for admission into the Union with a constitution recognizing slavery, again imperilled for a time the existence of our national Government.