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should hesitate much before I would advise such action as I am in the habit of advising to those who ask my opinions.
In 1852 the Democratic party at Baltimore adopted the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions, with Mr. Madison's report, as their text and creed. No man who professes to believe those doctrines can deny the sovereignty of the States. No man who professes to believe those doctrines can deny that the Constitution is a compact between States and that the States are the judges in the last resort of the meaning of that compact; and no man who admits that the Constitution is a compact between States, to which each State acceded as a State, can deny the right to secede, whenever any State sees fit. To talk of secession, therefore, being a revolutionary right is to use terms with a looseness and want of signification, a want of accuracy, that render discussion upon such a question utterly impossible between men who use these terms with definite meanings and those who use them vaguely.
When political communities, when nations, when States, enter into compacts with each other, the effect is to bind all their citizens. When the State of Texas ratified the Constitution of the United States it was a matter of not the slightest importance whether I or any other citizen of that State approved or disapproved of the ratification. We were bound by it. Eo instanti the laws of the United States became operative within the limits of that State, and we were bound to obey those laws. When Texas, in her sovereign capacity, when the political power which made this compact, shall revoke the ratification, the laws of the United States cease there to operate, and the citizens of Texas cease to owe any obedience to the laws of the United States, because the laws of the United States extend over the limits of the United States, and Texas, having ceased to be one of the States of this Union, of course the operation and effect of those laws stop at her limits. These are plain propositions which those who call themselves Democrats profess, and those who are Democrats believe.
Has a State the right to withdraw without cause? Has a State the right to withdraw with cause? I say that it is a matter of not the slightest consequence whether there be cause or not. Each State must act for herself and upon her own responsibility, and the only thing in the message of the President which he says cannot be done is the only thing that I believe can be done by this Government when a State has withdrawn, and that is to declare war. By the Constitution of the United States the Federal Government has the right to declare war. We can to-day declare war against England or against any of the great European powers. There is no cause for declaring war; but suppose we declare it: war exists; letters of marque and reprisal can be issued; their commerce can be cut up; their towns can be burned and their forts bombarded. Who can prevent it! There is the question. Suppose that Great Britain and the United States put each a different construction upon one of their treaties: the right or the wrong does not alter the fact. The United States Government can this day revoke the ratification of any treaty between her and Great Britain.
1 In that instant.
Now, then, the treaty being revoked, what is the remedy? If it is done in bad faith, if it is done without sufficient cause, the only certain result will be political infamy. The nation that breaks its treaties without cause is disgraced in the eyes of civilized man. War may result, but the treaty nevertheless would be dissolved and the citizens released from all obligations to obey it. When, then, one of these States revokes the treaty, as it is called in our platform-because the second Kentucky resolution says that it is a compact under the style and title of a Constitution for the United States, to which each State acceded as a State, and a compact between nations is a treaty-if, then, one of these States shall revoke that treaty, resume all the powers which she had delegated to the Federal Government, and vest them in her own State government, that very instant, I say, the State is, by operation of law, out of the Union; her citizens cease to owe obedience to the laws of the United States ; and she is, to all intents and purposes, a foreign power. This Government can declare war if it sees fit, because it has the war-making power. The question then arises, should it declare war? The answer must be found in the breast of each man who is authorized to administer the powers of this Government.
I say, then, a State has a right, with or without cause, to withdraw; that this Government can, with or without cause, declare war.
I say when a State has withdrawn she is out of the Union, and her citizens cease to owe obedience to the laws of this Government; and when this Government has declared war, with or without reason, that war exists, and all citizens found fighting under the banner of the State to which they owe their allegiance must be treated as prisoners of war if taken in battle; those who are found in the ranks of the enemy will be treated as traitors and executed by the authorities of the States which they have traitorously taken up arms against.
Now, this matter of war has been talked of this morning. I have no threats to make. The fact is, like Sempronius, my thoughts are turned on peace. I do not think one of these cotton States, or even one of the tobacco States, withdrawing from this Union will be any cause of war. If it is or is not, this Government can declare war; and I judge that the gentlemen upon the other side of the Chamber hardly suppose that we will be stopped in our course by any apprehension that war will be the result. Surely we do not expect to make war on them. We intend to assert only that great principle which is set forth in a document for which they have such high admiration-I mean the Declaration of Independence-that every people have a right to live under such form of government as suits them. If this Government does not suit us, we will leave it. When we leave it we will not leave it as rebels, nor as traitors, nor irregularly. But the State governments will call conventions; the people will be heard; they will vote; and, unless a large majority of the people of each one of these States are in favor of resuming the powers, the powers will not be resumed. When a large number of the people of any one of these States shall conclude that they will live more happily or more prosperously under another government, they will assert that right by reforming their constitution, and erecting another government upon the ruins of the one which they have destroyed.
I regretted much to see in the message the doctrine set forth that a State had not the right constitutionally to secede, and the further error fallen into by the President that this doctrine was one of late origin. I hold in my hand, sir, Elliot ’s “Debates," in which the ratifications of the different States are printed; and it seems that when New York came to ratify the Constitution—there being very great doubt as to the expediency of forming a confederation such as was proposed by this Constitution, and there being bitter hostility on the part of many, there being many doubts as to how the new Government would operate the people of New York, by their deputies assembled in convention, in the very articles of ratification, declared explicitly in these words:
“That the powers of Government may be reassumed by the people, whensoever it shall become necessary to their happiness.”—Elliot's Debates on Federal Constitution, 1787, Vol. I., p. 361.
* Evidently a mistake. In Addison's "Cato" the "voica" of Sempronius was “for war.”
Now, I ask any Senator upon either side of this floor what is the plain rule of construing contracts? If a partnership is about to be entered into by individuals, and they refer it to an attorney who is to draw up the articles of agreement, and when they come to sign it, and after it has been signed by some, one of the parties inserts above his signature an additional qualification, is there a court of justice in a civilized nation that will not hold that that new stipulation is as much a part of the compact as if it had been inserted in the body of it! Then I say that, according to the law, of nations, each one of these States has a right to secede, and the right would be a perfect one without any reservation, either in the ratifications or in the Constitution itself. But I go further: I say that, though this right was complete and perfect in itself, yet when New York came to ratify she made that explicit about which a quibble might have been raised between lawyers; and that, New York having reserved to herself the right to reassume the powers therein delegated whenever it became necessary to her happiness, that became a perfect constitutional right on the part of New York, and it became also a perfect constitutional right on the part of every other State which, either previously or subsequently to that time, became a party to the compact.
I heard this morning a letter read which was written by one of the Northwestern Senators (Mr. Doolittle of Wisconsin), wherein he talked about having bought us and owning us. people of Florida are purchased, the people of Louisiana are purchased, the people of Texas are purchased, and we are not to be permitted to live under such a government as we see fit! Do they propose to irritate us still more! It can produce no such effect upon me. I feel that perfect inexplicable stillness which a man always does when he feels that he is perfectly secure. Now, sir, if I doubted as to whether the people of the State in which I live would submit to Black Republican rule or not, I might feel some degree of irritation; but, knowing, as I do, that, as soon as those people can get into convention, they will revoke the ratification of the Constitution and again assume their position of separate nationality, and govern themselves by such laws as they see fit; knowing and feeling that, I am not at all disturbed by the presence of these Senators upon the other side, or by any idle vaporings that they may indulge in. All this will come about in good time. State after State will go out of the Union. When you have a working majority, you can declare war against us if you see fit; if you do not, probably a new treaty will be entered into between the high contracting parties one of peace and amity, when we have revoked that of common defence and general welfare. We choose, at least so far as I am concerned, to give no reason for this high sovereign act. We are the judges; and when we choose to revoke the ratification of this Constitution we will do it; and if you choose to declare war we shall not object. The right it perfect on both sides; and each will exercise its own discretion as to the expediency of the act.
While I do not intend to go into any recapitulation of the wrongs that we have suffered, and the dangers that we are about to incur by submitting longer to our present condition, I will deny a single proposition of the Senator from New Hampshire, which is that we are attempting to reverse the rule that a majority should govern. Now, sir, I admit that a constitutional majority has a right to govern; and I would never have thought of resisting the inauguration of any President who was elected by a constitutional majority. I know that there is much truth, there is much philosophy in Dogberry's saying, “An two men ride of a horse, one must ride behind”; and if we proposed to remain in this Union we should undoubtedly submit to the inauguration of any man who was elected by a constitutional majority. We propose nothing of that sort. We simply say that a man who is distasteful to us has been elected, and we choose to consider that as a sufficient ground for leaving the Union, and we intend to leave the Union. Then, if you desire
, it, bring us back. When you undertake that and have accomplished it, you may be like the man who purchased the elephant -you may find it rather difficult to decide what you will do with the animal. (Laughter.]
There is one matter in the message in reference to which, at the proper time, I shall introduce a resolution in order to prevent any bad effects which may flow from it-I allude to the portion of the message in which the President speaks of having sent orders to the officers commanding the forts at Charleston to stand on the defensive. I wish to know the extent of those orders; and I wish to know that in order that we may now provide for the evil which he may precipitate upon us.
The people of South Carolina are a law-abiding people. They are not in the habit of having mobs in that country. They propose to meet in convention-that convention being called by the government of the State; and I entertain no doubt that that convention will pass a solemn ordinance revoking the ratification of the treaty which binds them to the other States. In the meantime they, as a matter of course, will not attempt to inter