The Jubilee of the Constitution
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, 1789, 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 corselet 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 Hampden--for trial by jury--the Habeas Corpus and Magna Charta.
But the English lawyers had decided that Parliament was omnipotent--and Parliament, in its omnipotence, instead of trial by jury and the Habeas Corpus, enacted admiralty courts in England to try Americans for offences 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 Hampden 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....
The dissolution of allegiance to the British crown, the severance of the colonies from the British Empire, and their actual existence as independent States, 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 all 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 twelfth 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 dis-united 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 charter. The cornerstone of the one was right, that of the other was power....
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.
None of these indispensably necessary powers were ever conferred by the State Legislatures upon the Congress of the federation; and well was it that they never were. The system itself was radically defective. Its incurable disease was an 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, was the basis of the Confederate Union.
In the 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 payments 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 eighteenth of April, 1788--"the pride and boast of America, that the rights for which she contended were the rights of human nature."
At his residence at Mount Vernon, in March, 1785, the first idea was started of a revisal of the Articles of Confederation, by the 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, 1785, 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. Then, 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 by 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 thirtieth day of April, 1789--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 in practice, though not as a theory, for it had been working itself into the mind of man for many ages, and had been especially expounded in the writings of Locke, though it 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.