« PreviousContinue »
Sectionalism.--The Right of Petition.—The District of Columbia.—The Missouri Com
promise.—State of Political Parties.—The Tariff Question.—" Aggression."-Mr. Jefferson, on the Missouri Question.—Admission of States before 1820.- Territories Organized in Conformity with the Wishes of the Inbabitants.-State of Sentiment at the North.-Southern Youths in Northern Colleges.- Northern School-books.-Exag. gerated Descriptions of Slavery at the South.
The lamentable spirit of sectionalism, leading, finally, to such disastrous consequences, at first distinctly revealed itself in the presentation of successive petitions to Congress for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. These memorials continued to pour into both Houses from the North, session after session, for a series of years, and gave rise to a great deal of heart-burning among the Southrn members, until the matter culminated in a scene of unparalleled excitement in the Representative Hall, in the year 1837. The comparatively slight consideration which at first they received, in either branch of Congress, was given almost entirely to the question of receiving them at all. Sometimes they had been sent back to the petitioners; or the committees to which, on other occasions, they were referred, had asked to be discharged from further attention to them; or else a brief report or resolution had been adopted, expressive of an entirely adverse view to that of the prayer. Precluded by absolute constitutional limitations, which were supported by the general sense and sentiment of the people, from attacking slavery in the States, the uneasy spirits who assumed to be legislators for the nation, at home, devoted themselves assiduously to the manufacture of petitions, in reference to the internal policy of the seat of government. It probably never occurred to them that those upon the spot, in the discharge of their legislative duties, might be better qualified to judge about such a point than the men, and often the women and children, of remote country towns.
But the absence of knowledge and experience is not a:ways a check to presumption. It is said that “the band which could not build a hovel may destroy a temple;” and if the structure reared by our great forefathers were fated to topple over, nothing was so likely as this continual picking from below to be the primary cause of its destruction. The question of the treatment due to those petitions, and that which involved the powers of Congress touching the topic urged upon it by them, were both matters of no little nicety. The right of petition, under every well-administered government, should be theoretically unlimited, and yet practically subject to all reasonable control in special cases.
Such a case is that, in which the public authorities are as well informed upon the subject, and are presumably as well disposed to do all which can reasonably be done, in the premises, as their constituents. The extreme value of the right of petition exists under governments in which the source of power is liable to be kept ignorant of the wrongs of the subject." In a republic, the popular voice is paramount, and the remedy for every wrong is in the public hands, at the stated seasons appointed for the expression of the popular will. It seems almost a solecism for the sovereign people to complain that their servants deprive them of the right of petition."
Frederick II. of Prussia, for instance, received such petitions into his own hands.
In the Legislature of Massachusetts, some twenty years ago, a gentleman happened to be on a standing committee to which had been referred a petition for the dissolution of the Union. A time and place of hearing were appointed, whereupon this member of the committee declined to attend in bis place. The worthy chairman remonstrated against such contumacy, urging the sacred right of petition, and the duty of hearing what might be said upon every subject proposed. This gentleman requested to be informed, in reply, if the chairman would grant a sitting in case, for example, of a petition for a rail. THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA.
As to the authority of Congress over the District, it was legally exclusive. It often happens, however, that certain moral considerations, going to show intention, give the actual color to law. The public, for example, may acquire a right of way over a parcel of land, which the owner has neglected to seclude to his special use, for a certain number of years. The public title would be the more free from any question, if the mansion of the proprietor were close at hand, so that, being conveniently situated, he seemed purposely to avoid seizing upon any opportunity of objection. In the year 1790, Congress formally accepted the cession, previously made by Virginia and Maryland, of the tract, ten miles square, constituting the District. It included the city of Alexandria, and slarery existed there, and in other parts of the territory. No provision was made in regard to slavery on this tract intended for the peculiar uses of the Government, and for its seat; nor was any memorial received by Congress for the emancipation of the slaves in the District, until more than forty years after Virginia and Maryland had relinquished title to it. It must be admitted that, being exclusively under the legislative control of Congress, the power existed to abolish slavery within the District. The right to do so, whether legal or equitable, may be thought much more questionable. Power, employed by a representative body, except under the specific requirements of law, is always presumed to be equitably exerted. In this instance, there was the original ao ceptance of the territory with slavery existing upon it, and long acquiescence in the claims of the inhabitants, without any question raised in regard to it. New interests connected with the domestic system had grown up there, extending into every one of the slave States. By implication, certainly, here were long established rights, with which it would be injurious, at least, if not illegal as well as inequitable, to interfere. It was evident, also, that of all mortals on the face of the earth, the colored population of Washington was the most easy-going, and, so far as such a population can be, the most comfortable in its condition. All complaints and petitions for their benefit came from persons at a distance, who, as the eyes of members of Congress daily testified to them, were profoundly ignorant of every fact essential to the rightful expression of either judgment or feeling upon the subject.
road to the moon. The head of the committee thought he would ; whereupon the member suggested that such indulgence might be a waste of time, and that in the case in hand it was so clearly out of the power of the Legislature of Massachusetts to dissolve the Union, and contrary to its duty to countenance such a treasonable project, that he should stay away.
Long before this matter came to a point, however, the severe and protracted struggle upon the question of admitting Missouri into the Union had taken place. That State was formed out of part of the territory of the Louisiana purchase. Louisiana was made a State in the year 1812, without objection on the score of slavery. Earnest opposition to its reception was indeed offered, in which Mr. Quincy, of Massachusetts, took a conspicuous part; but this was based upon a denial of constitutional authority to create new States out of territory not originally within the limits of the United States. In the whole of the ancient territory of Louisiana, slavery had been fixed from the time of its settlement. That part of it out of which it was proposed to create the new State of Missouri occupied the same relations to the United States, which the entire domain did as soon as Louisiana was admitted. There was now the advantage, however, that no question of constitutional authority remained. That point had been already passed upon, wrongfully as many thought, yet so determined inevitably, in obedience to the requirements of the case.
It is interesting, at this time, to notice those limitations, by which many of the Northern members of Congress, in 1811, conceived that the General Government was hedged in. Several propositions, conformable to the views of Mr. Quincy, just referred to received considerable support in the Senate. One of them demanded that the consent of each of the State Legislatures be obtained, before the act admitting Louisiana should be held valid. Another asked that a con.
THE MISSOURI COMPROMISE.
stitutional amendment, as a preliminary condition, should be first procured, to empower Congress to admit new States formed of territory outside of the original boundaries of the Union. Both the Senators of Massachusetts voted for these motions, as did the other New England members, with the exception of one from Rhode Island, and another from Ver. mont. And this condition of mind is the more worthy of remark, because the party which held such State right views of the relations between the Union and the several States, under various phases, at that earlier period, made no objection to any stretch of power by the officers of the General Government, at a later date, if exerted against their political opponents, though affecting directly the property and lives of fellow-citizens.
The controversy which arose upon the application of the inhabitants of the Missouri territory, to be received into the Union, began in December, 1818, and continued with various fortunes, until the final determination of the question in February, 1821. In February, 1819, the bill reported by the committee, for the admission of Missouri “ on an equal footing with the original States,” having come up for consideration, an amendment was submitted by a member of the House from New York, providing against the further introduction of slavery, and for the freedom of all children of slaves born in the State after its admission; but allowing the latter to be held to service until the age of twenty-five years, This amendment was acted upon by separate clauses, and the first clause was adopted by a vote of 87 against 76, and the second by a vote of 82 against 78. All of the majority were Northern representatives, but ten members from Northern States voted with the minority. In the Senate, the amendment was stricken out, and no agreement having reached by the two branches during that session, the bill was
In the mean time, a memorial from the people of Maine, asking to be admitted into the Union on an equal footing with the original States, had been presented in the House,