“Such is our situation, and such are our prospects: but notwithstanding the cup of blessing is thus reached out to us, notwithstanding happiness is ours, if we have a disposition to seize the occasion and make it our own; yet, it appears to me there is an option still left to the United States of America, that it is in their choice, and depends upon their conduct, whether they will be respectable and prosperous, or contemptible and miserable as a Nation; This is the time of their political probation; this is the moment when the eyes of the whole World are turned upon them; this is the moment to establish or ruin their national Character forever; this is the favorable moment to give such a tone to our Federal Government, as will enable it to answer the ends of its institution; or this may be the ill-fated moment for relaxing the powers of the Union, annihilating the cement of the Confederation, and exposing us to become the sport of European politics, which may play one State against another to prevent their growing importance, and to serve their own interested purposes. For, according to the system of Policy the States shall adopt at this moment, they will stand or fall; and by their confirmation or lapse, it is yet to be decided, whether the Revolution must ultimately be considered as a blessing or a curse: a blessing or a curse, not to the present age alone, for with our fate will the destiny of unborn Millions be involved.” — Circular Letter to the States, George Washington, June 14, 1783
A great many Americans are deeply concerned today about the size of government, the national debt, and the direction government is going. It’s easy to become demoralized. But if you compare our situation today with the critical period after the battle of Yorktown and after the Peace of Paris we are a thousand times better off. We can solve our problems with a single election. In 1781 they did not have the institutions in place to even cope with the problems.
There was a huge war debt owned by the states and another huge debt owed by the Government itself. But the Continental Congress did not have any way to raise revenue except to beg money from the states and the states were desperate with their own problems. We had states with claims that overlapped one another all the way to the Pacific Ocean. So there was a prospect there was going to be a civil war between the sovereignties
George Washington, in 1783 sent a circular letter to the governors of the states where he raised the question as to whether the American Revolution was going to be a blessing or a curse. Whether self-government was going to work or was it going to be a total failure. We are much better off now if we pull our socks up we can turn things around. For today we have the institutions under the law of the Constitution to make this happen.
Washington was urging the Continental Congress and the governors of the states to come together and form a system of self-government that would create the institution that would insure our revolution was not in vain. In the closing paragraph of his letter Washington stated:
“I now make it my earnest prayer, that God would have you, and the State over which you preside, in his holy protection, that he would incline the hearts of the Citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to Government, to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow Citizens of the United States at large, and particularly for their brethren who have served in the Field, and finally, that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all, to do Justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that Charity, humility and pacific temper.”
The young American nation faced substantial challenges to effective self-government in the years immediately following victory the Battle of Yorktown where there were more French troops fighting than Colonials. Under the Articles of Confederation, the states were separate sovereignties only loosely bound together. The Continental Congress lacked the authority and the means to enable national institutions to respond sufficiently to problems such as war debt, the continuing presence of British soldiers in forts within the Trans-Appalachian region, and foreign trade negotiations.
The Constitutional Convention was convened in May, 1787, to address these issues by composing a constitution that would create political institutions in accordance with the principles of the Declaration of Independence, and that would also enable the functions of good government to be fulfilled. The Framers ultimately argued that improvements in the science of politics enabled them to establish a republican form of government that would be viable over an extended territory.
The ratification of the Constitution in 1789 established a federal government for the United States that was meant to be "a more perfect union," than that which had existed under the Articles of Confederation, and to "establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty" for American citizens present and future. But in order for the Constitution to be agreed to, a compromise had been struck in regards to the slave trade. The unresolved issue of slavery posed a formidable challenge to the American experiment of self-government, a challenge that resulted ultimately in the Civil War.
While Washington’s letter was influential and carried great weight with the governors it was Shea’s Rebellion that finally drove the delegates of the Continental Congress to take action.
The Rebellion was an armed uprising that took place in central and western Massachusetts in 1786 and 1787. The rebellion was named after Daniel Shays, a veteran of the American Revolutionary War and one of the rebel leaders.
The rebellion started on August 29, 1786. It was precipitated by several factors: financial difficulties brought about by a post-war economic depression, a credit squeeze caused by a lack of hard currency, and fiscally harsh government policies instituted in 1785 to solve the state's debt problems. Protesters, including many war veterans, shut down county courts in the later months of 1786 to stop the judicial hearings for tax and debt collection. The protesters became radicalized against the state government following the arrests of some of their leaders, and began to organize an armed force. A militia raised as a private army defeated a Shaysite (rebel) attempt to seize the federal Springfield Armory in late January 1787, killing four and wounding 20. The main Shaysite force was scattered on February 4, 1787, after a surprise attack on their camp in Petersham, Massachusetts. Scattered resistance continued until June 1787, with the single most significant action being an incident in Sheffield in late February, where 30 rebels were wounded (one mortally) in a skirmish with government troops.
The rebellion took place in a political climate where reform of the country's governing document, the Articles of Confederation, was widely seen as necessary. The events of the rebellion, most of which occurred after the Philadelphia Convention had been called but before it began in May 1787, are widely seen to have affected the debates on the shape of the new government. The exact nature and consequence of the rebellion's influence on the content of the Constitution and the ratification debates continues to be a subject of historical discussion and debate.
The Constitutional Convention took place from May 25 to September 17, 1787, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to address problems in governing the United States of America, which had been operating under the Articles of Confederation following independence from Great Britain. Although the Convention was intended to revise the Articles of Confederation, the intention from the outset of many of its proponents, chief among them James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, was to create a new government rather than fix the existing one. The delegates elected George Washington to preside over the Convention. The result of the Convention was the creation of the United States Constitution, placing the Convention among the most significant events in the history of the United States and perhaps the World.
The most contentious disputes revolved around the composition and election of the Senate, how "proportional representation" was to be defined (whether to include slaves or other property), whether to divide the executive power between three persons or invest the power into a single president, how to elect the president, how long his term was to be and whether he could stand for reelection, what offenses should be impeachable, the nature of a fugitive slave clause, whether to allow the abolition of the slave trade, and whether judges should be chosen by the legislature or executive. Most of the time during the Convention was spent on deciding these issues, while the powers of legislature, executive, and judiciary were not heavily disputed. Once the Convention began, the delegates first agreed on the principles of the Convention, then they agreed on Madison's Virginia Plan and began to modify it. A Committee of Detail assembled during the July 4 recess and produced a rough draft. Most of this rough draft remained in place, and can be found in the final version of the constitution. After the final issues were resolved, the Committee on Style produced the final version, and it was voted on and sent to the states.
With the exception of Rhode Island, which refused to participate, the states had originally appointed 70 representatives to the Convention, but a number of the appointees did not accept or could not attend, leaving 55 delegates who would ultimately craft the Constitution.
Almost all of the 55 delegates had taken part in the Revolution, with at least 29 having served in the Continental forces, most in positions of command. All but two or three had served in colonial or state government during their careers. The vast majority (about 75%) of the delegates were or had been members of the Confederation Congress, and many had been members of the Continental Congress during the Revolution. Several had been state governors. Just two delegates, Roger Sherman and Robert Morris, would be signatories to all three of the nation’s founding documents, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution.
More than half of the delegates had trained as lawyers (several had even been judges), although only about a quarter had practiced law as their principal means of business. There were also merchants, manufacturers, shippers, land speculators, bankers or financiers, two or three physicians, a minister, and several small farmers. Of the 25 who owned slaves, 16 depended on slave labor to run the plantations or other businesses that formed the mainstay of their income. Most of the delegates were landowners with substantial holdings, and most, with the possible exception of Roger Sherman and William Few, were very comfortably wealthy. George Washington and Gouverneur Morris were among the wealthiest men in the entire country. For some reason John Jay, one of the authors of the Federal Papers did not attend as did Thomas Jefferson, who was the ambassador the France, and John Adams who was the ambassador to Great Britain.
Soon after September 17, 1787, when the constitution framed at the Philadelphia Convention was signed and dispatched to the Continental Congress, the ratification debate began. The most memorable and authoritative contribution to that debate was made up of a series of seventy-seven articles that first appeared in New York in The Independent Journal and The New York Packet under the pseudonym Publius in the period stretching from October 27, 1787 to April 2, 1788, which were soon thereafter reprinted, along with eight additional articles, in a two-volume work titled The Federalist. Alexander Hamilton initiated the series and saw to the publication of the two volumes. He had hoped to work in tandem with John Jay (1745–1829), but soon after the project’s inception Jay fell ill. He then recruited James Madison, whose contributions turned out to be no less important than those of Hamilton himself. In the first number of the Federalist, Hamilton explained why such an endeavor is necessary and outlined the argument that Publius will make on behalf of ratification. In the tenth number, Madison set out to disprove Montesquieu’s claim that it is impossible to establish a viable republic on an extended territory. In the thirty-ninth number, he defended the republican character of the Constitution and specified that it is to be “neither wholly national nor wholly federal.” In the fifty-first number, he explored the nature and purpose of the separation of powers provided for by the Constitution.
In Federalist No. 1 Hamilton wrote:
“AFTER an unequivocal experience of the inefficiency of the subsisting federal government, you are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution for the United States of America. The subject speaks its own importance; comprehending in its consequences nothing less than the existence of the UNION, the safety and welfare of the parts of which it is composed, the fate of an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world. It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.
I propose, in a series of papers, to discuss the following interesting particulars:
THE UTILITY OF THE UNION TO YOUR POLITICAL PROSPERITY THE INSUFFICIENCY OF THE PRESENT CONFEDERATION TO PRESERVE THAT UNION THE NECESSITY OF A GOVERNMENT AT LEAST EQUALLY ENERGETIC WITH THE ONE PROPOSED, TO THE ATTAINMENT OF THIS OBJECT THE CONFORMITY OF THE PROPOSED CONSTITUTION TO THE TRUE PRINCIPLES OF REPUBLICAN GOVERNMENT ITS ANALOGY TO YOUR OWN STATE CONSTITUTION and lastly, THE ADDITIONAL SECURITY WHICH ITS ADOPTION WILL AFFORD TO THE PRESERVATION OF THAT SPECIES OF GOVERNMENT, TO LIBERTY, AND TO PROPERTY.
In the progress of this discussion I shall endeavor to give a satisfactory answer to all the objections which shall have made their appearance that may seem to have any claim to your attention.”
One of the issues facing the delegates was that of a republic vs. a democracy. Most of the delegates were fearful of a democracy and the tyranny of the majority it could create — something we face today and what the Progressives believe in. On the other hand the delegates were familiar with the writings of Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brede et de Montesquieu in his 1748 book “The Spirit of Laws.”
Montesquieu believed a republic would only work for small states and not in extended territories like the newly formed United States. He described the various forms of government thusly:
“1.8.16: Distinctive Properties of a Republic. It is natural for a republic to have only a small territory; otherwise it cannot long subsist. In an extensive republic there are men of large fortunes, and consequently of less moderation: there are trusts too considerable to be placed in any single subject; he has interests of his own; he soon begins to think that he may be happy and glorious by oppressing his fellow-citizens; and that he may raise himself to grandeur on the ruins of his country.
In an extensive republic, the public good is sacrificed to a thousand private views; it is subordinate to exceptions, and depends on accidents. In a small one, the interest of the public is more obvious, better understood, and more within the reach of every citizen; abuses have less extent, and of course are less protected. The long duration of the republic of Sparta was owing to her having continued in the same extent of territory after all her wars. The sole aim of Sparta was liberty; and the sole advantage of her liberty glory.
It was the spirit of the Greek republics to be as contented with their territories as with their laws. Athens was first fired with ambition, and gave it to Lacedaemon; but it was an ambition rather of commanding a free people than of governing slaves; rather of directing than of breaking the union. All was lost upon the starting up of monarchy, a government whose spirit is more turned to increase of dominion. Excepting particular circumstances, it is difficult for any other than a republican government to subsist longer in a single town. A prince of so petty a state would naturally endeavor to oppress his subjects, because his power would be great, while the means of enjoying it, or of causing it to be respected, would be inconsiderable. The consequence is, he would trample upon his people. On the other hand, such a prince might be easily crushed by a foreign, or even a domestic, force; the people might every instant unite and rise up against him. Now, as soon as the sovereign of a single town is expelled, the quarrel is over; but, if he has many towns, it only begins.
1.8.17: Distinctive Properties of a Monarchy. A monarchical state ought to be of a moderate extent. Were it small, it would form itself into a republic; were it very large, the nobility, possessed of great estates, far from the eye of the prince, with a private court of their own, and secure moreover from sudden executions, by the laws and manners of the country, such a nobility, I say, might throw off their allegiance, having nothing to fear from too slow and too distant a punishment.
Thus, Charlemagne had scarce founded his empire when he was obliged to divide it: whether the governors of the provinces refused to obey; or whether, in order to keep them more under subjection, there was a necessity of parceling the empire into several kingdoms.
After the decease of Alexander, his empire was divided. How was it possible for those Greek and Macedonian chiefs, who were each of them free and independent, or commanders at least of the victorious bands dispersed throughout that vast extent of conquered land, how was it possible, I say, for them to obey?
Attila's empire was dissolved soon after his death; such a number of kings, who were no longer under restraint, could not resume their fetters. The sudden establishment of unlimited power is a remedy, which, in those cases, may prevent dissolution. But how dreadful the remedy, which, after the enlargement of dominion, opens a new scene of misery! The rivers hasten to mingle their waters with the sea; and monarchies lose themselves in despotic power.
1.8.19: Distinctive Properties of a Despotic Government. A large empire supposes a despotic authority in the person who governs. It is necessary that the quickness of the prince's resolutions should supply the distance of the places they are sent to; that fear should prevent the remissness of the distant governor or magistrate; that the law should be derived from a single person, and should shift continually, according to the accidents which incessantly multiply in a state in proportion to its extent.
2.9.1: In What Manner Republics Provide for Their Safety. If a republic be small, it is destroyed by a foreign force; if it be large, it is ruined by an internal imperfection. To this twofold inconveniency democracies and aristocracies are equally liable, whether they be good or bad. The evil is in the very thing itself, and no form can redress it. It is therefore very probable that mankind would have been, at length, obliged to live constantly under the government of a single person, had they not contrived a kind of constitution that has all the internal advantages of a republican, together with the external force of a monarchical, government. I mean, a confederate republic.
This form of government is a convention, by which several petty states agree to become members of a larger one, which they intend to establish. It is a kind of assemblage of societies, that constitute a new one, capable of increasing by means of farther associations, till they arrive to such a degree of power, as to be able to provide for the security of the whole body.
It was these associations that so long contributed to the prosperity of Greece. By these the Romans attacked the whole globe; and by these alone the whole globe withstood them. For, when Rome was arrived to her highest pitch of grandeur, it was the associations beyond the Danube and the Rhine, associations formed by the terror of her arms, that enabled the barbarians to resist her. From hence it proceeds that Holland , Germany, and the Swiss Cantons, are considered in Europe as perpetual republics.
The associations of cities were formerly more necessary than in our times. A weak defenseless town was exposed to greater danger. By conquest, it was deprived not only of the executive and legislative power, as at present, but moreover of all human property. A republic of this kind, able to withstand an external force, may support itself without any internal corruption; the form of this society prevents all manner of inconveniences If a single member should attempt to usurp the supreme power, he could not be supposed to have an equal authority and credit in all the confederate states. Were he to have too great an influence over one, this would alarm the rest; were he to subdue a part, that which would still remain free might oppose him with forces independent of those which he had usurped, and overpower him before he could be settled in his usurpation.
Should a popular insurrection happen in one of the confederate states, the others are able to quell it. Should abuses creep into one part, they are reformed by those that remain sound. The state may be destroyed on one side and not on the other; the confederacy may be dissolved, and the confederates preserve their sovereignty.
As this government is composed of petty republics, it enjoys the internal happiness of each; and, with regard to its external situation, by means of the association, it possesses all the advantages of large monarchies.”
Madison, on the other hand, believed that you could have a republican form of government if it was structured correctly. In one of the most famous and influential of the Federalist Papers, Federalist No. 10, Madison wrote in defense of a republic:
“The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended.
The effect of the first difference is, on the one hand, to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose. On the other hand, the effect may be inverted. Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people. The question resulting is, whether small or extensive republics are more favorable to the election of proper guardians of the public weal; and it is clearly decided in favor of the latter by two obvious considerations:
In the first place, it is to be remarked that, however small the republic may be, the representatives must be raised to a certain number, in order to guard against the cabals of a few; and that, however large it may be, they must be limited to a certain number, in order to guard against the confusion of a multitude. Hence, the number of representatives in the two cases not being in proportion to that of the two constituents, and being proportionally greater in the small republic, it follows that, if the proportion of fit characters be not less in the large than in the small republic, the former will present a greater option, and consequently a greater probability of a fit choice.
In the next place, as each representative will be chosen by a greater number of citizens in the large than in the small republic, it will be more difficult for unworthy candidates to practice with success the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried; and the suffrages of the people being more free, will be more likely to center in men who possess the most attractive merit and the most diffusive and established characters.”
Madison’s arguments for a republic won the day with his proposal for a bicameral legislature (lower and upper houses) along with a district separation and balance of powers between the Legislature, Executive and Judiciary based upon his Virginia Plan. It is this republican form of government that lasted for 226 years — one that faces dangers today from the progressive left.
One of the first articles of the new Constitution (Article I, Section 8) delineated the specific enumerated powers given to Congress. The first 3 of these 18 powers dealt with the power to lay and collect taxes, the borrow money, and to regulate commerce with foreign nations and among the states. As mentioned above these were the most critical issues facing the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation — issues that could lead to a civil war with the newly liberated colonies.
In October, 1798 Jefferson advanced the theory of “nullification” when it came to states where they wished to resist or “nullify” legislation they determined to be unconstitutional. In his remarks on the Draft of the Kentucky Resolutions Jefferson stated:
“Resolved, That a committee of conference and correspondence be appointed, who shall have in charge to communicate the preceding resolutions to the legislatures of the several States; to assure them that this commonwealth continues in the same esteem of their friendship and union which it has manifested from that moment at which a common danger first suggested a common union: that it considers union, for specified national purposes, and particularly to those specified in their late federal compact, to be friendly to the peace, happiness and prosperity of all the States: that faithful to that compact, according to the plain intent and meaning in which it was understood and acceded to by the several parties, it is sincerely anxious for its preservation: that it does also believe, that to take from the States all the powers of self-government and transfer them to a general and consolidated government, without regard to the special delegations and reservations solemnly agreed to in that compact, is not for the peace, happiness or prosperity of these States; and that therefore this commonwealth is determined, as it doubts not its co-States are, to submit to undelegated, and consequently unlimited powers in no man, or body of men on earth: that in cases of an abuse of the delegated powers, the members of the General Government, being chosen by the people, a change by the people would be the constitutional remedy; but, where powers are assumed which have not been delegated, a nullification of the act is the rightful remedy: that every State has a natural right in cases not within the compact, (casus non foederis,) to nullify of their own authority all assumptions of power by others within their limits: that without this right, they would be under the dominion, absolute and unlimited, of whosoever might exercise this right of judgment for them: that nevertheless, this commonwealth, from motives of regard and respect for its co-States, has wished to communicate with them on the subject: that with them alone it is proper to communicate, they alone being parties to the compact, and solely authorized to judge in the last resort of the powers exercised under it, Congress being not a party, but merely the creature of the compact, and subject as to its assumptions of power to the final judgment of those by whom, and for whose use itself and its powers were all created and modified: that if the acts before specified should stand, these conclusions would flow from them; that the General Government may place any act they think proper on the list of crimes, and punish it themselves whether enumerated or not enumerated by the Constitution as cognizable by them: that they may transfer its cognizance to the President, or any other person, who may himself be the accuser, counsel, judge and jury, whose suspicions may be the evidence, his order the sentence, his officer the executioner, and his breast the sole record of the transaction: that a very numerous and valuable description of the inhabitants of these States being, by this precedent, reduced, as outlaws, to the absolute dominion of one man, and the barrier of the Constitution thus swept away from us all, no rampart now remains against the passions and the powers of a majority in Congress to protect from a like exportation, or other more grievous punishment, the minority of the same body, the legislatures, judges, governors, and counselors of the States, nor their other peaceable inhabitants, who may venture to reclaim the constitutional rights and liberties of the States and people, or who for other causes, good or bad, may be obnoxious to the views, or marked by the suspicions of the President, or be thought dangerous to his or their election, or other interests, public or personal: that the friendless alien has indeed been selected as the safest subject of a first experiment; but the citizen will soon follow, or rather, has already followed, for already has a sedition act marked him as its prey: that these and successive acts of the same character, unless arrested at the threshold, necessarily drive these States into revolution and blood, and will furnish new calumnies against republican government, and new pretexts for those who wish it to be believed that man cannot be governed but by a rod of iron: that it would be a dangerous delusion were a confidence in the men of our choice to silence our fears for the safety of our rights: that confidence is everywhere the parent of despotism -- free government is founded in jealousy, and not in confidence; it is jealousy and not confidence which prescribes limited constitutions, to bind down those whom we are obliged to trust with power: that our Constitution has accordingly fixed the limits to which, and no further, our confidence may go; and let the honest advocate of confidence read the alien and sedition acts, and say if the Constitution has not been wise in fixing limits to the government it created, and whether we should be wise in destroying those limits. Let him say what the government is, if it be not a tyranny, which the men of our choice have conferred on our President, and the President of our choice has assented to, and accepted over the friendly strangers to whom the mild spirit of our country and its laws have pledged hospitality and protection: that the men of our choice have more respected the bare suspicions of the President, than the solid right of innocence, the claims of justification, the sacred force of truth, and the forms and substance of law and justice. In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution. That this commonwealth does therefore call on its co-States for an expression of their sentiments on the acts concerning aliens, and for the punishment of certain crimes herein before specified, plainly declaring whether these acts are or are not authorized by the federal compact. And it doubts not that their sense will be so announced as to prove their attachment unaltered to limited government, whether general or particular. And that the rights and liberties of their co-States will be exposed to no dangers by remaining embarked in a common bottom with their own. That they will concur with this commonwealth in considering the said acts as so palpably against the Constitution as to amount to an undisguised declaration that that compact is not meant to be the measure of the powers of the General Government, but that it will proceed in the exercise over these States, of all powers whatsoever: that they will view this as seizing the rights of the States, and consolidating them in the hands of the General Government, with a power assumed to bind the States, not merely as the cases made federal, (casus foederis,) but in all cases whatsoever, by laws made, not with their consent, but by others against their consent: that this would be to surrender the form of government we have chosen, and live under one deriving its powers from its own will, and not from our authority; and that the co-States, recurring to their natural right in cases not made federal, will concur in declaring these acts void, and of no force, and will each take measures of its own for providing that neither these acts, nor any others of the General Government not plainly and intentionally authorized by the Constitution, shall be exercised within their respective territories.” (Emphasis added)
This issue came to head when leaders of South Carolina advanced the idea that a state did not have to follow a federal law and could, in effect, "nullify" the law.
The idea that "states' rights" superseded federal law was promoted by John C. Calhoun, one of the most experienced and powerful politicians in the country, and was, to some extent, a precursor to the secession crisis that would trigger the Civil War 30 years later.
Calhoun and others from South Carolina were outraged by a tariff passed in 1828 that had raised taxes on imports. The 1828 tariff was so controversial, in various regions of the country, that it became known as the Tariff of Abominations.
Calhoun and others felt the tariff unfairly targeted the southern states, and that the states were not obligated by the U.S. Constitution to follow the law. At that time, Calhoun wrote an essay advancing a theory of nullification, in which he made a legal case for states to disregard some federal laws.
In the early 1830s, Calhoun was serving as vice president to Andrew Jackson. With the issue of a tariff again rising to prominence, Calhoun resigned his position, returned to South Carolina, and was elected to the Senate, where he promoted his idea of nullification. For a time it appeared that armed conflict might result if South Carolina seceded from the Union — something they did in 1861.
The crisis was finally put to rest in 1833 when a compromise was reached on a new tariff. But the Nullification Crisis demonstrated that disputes between various regions of the nation could cause enormous problems.
Calhoun became one of America’s greatest public men. He served in the House, Senate, Cabinet, and Vice-Presidency over the course of thirty nine years, during which time he saw the balance of power in the United States tip northward and toward the national government. He undertook to defend state sovereignty by defending the South, and to defend the South by defending slavery. To do this he knew he had to confront the dominant political faith of his age: Equality. Calhoun’s “disquisitions and discourses” were published the year after his death. In them he tried to solve the great problem of American political life: how to protect and preserve local (or regional) communities against centralized democratic power.
In 1840 Calhoun wrote:
“But government, although intended to protect and preserve society, has itself a strong tendency to disorder and abuse of its powers, as all experience and almost every page of history testify. The cause is to be found in the same constitution of our nature which makes government indispensable. The powers which it is necessary for government to possess, in order to repress violence and preserve order, cannot execute themselves. They must be administered by men in whom, like others, the individual are stronger than the social feelings. And hence, the powers vested in them to prevent injustice and oppression on the part of others, will, if left unguarded, be by them converted into instruments to oppress the rest of the community. That, by which this is prevented, by whatever name called, is what is meant by constitution, in its most comprehensive sense, when applied to government.”
It was the same John C. Calhoun, however, who in his 1837 writings on the positive good of slavery stated:
“But I take higher ground. I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good--a positive good. I feel myself called upon to speak freely upon the subject where the honor and interests of those I represent are involved. I hold then, that there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other. Broad and general as is this assertion, it is fully borne out by history. This is not the proper occasion, but, if it were, it would not be difficult to trace the various devices by which the wealth of all civilized.”
The fly in the ointment, however, was the issue of slavery. The new Constitution contained language allowing the slave trade to operate until 1808. Article I, Section 9 stated:
“The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.”
This was the only reference to slavery in the Constitution. This was a necessary compromise to obtain support from the Southern states where farmers and plantation owners depended on slavery for cheap and unpaid labor to produce their crops. However, the Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery in the territories north of the Ohio River where today’s states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota exist. On the other hand the Southwest Ordinance — an act passed by the new Congress in 1790. The Southwest Ordinance served the same purpose for the "Old Southwest" as the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 had for the "territory north-west of the Ohio." While the Southwest Territory comprised the former western districts of North Carolina, South Carolina, and possibly Georgia as far west as the Mississippi River, in practice its provisions for territorial government applied only to the future state of Tennessee. There was no mention of abolishing slavery in this Ordinance.
It was not until the Missouri Compromise when the issue of slavery was addressed based on geographic limits. The Missouri Compromise was passed in 1820 between the pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions in the United States Congress, involving primarily the regulation of slavery in the western territories. It prohibited slavery in the former Louisiana Territory north of the parallel 36°30′ north except within the boundaries of the proposed state of Missouri. To balance the number of "slave states" and "free states," the northern region of what was then Massachusetts was admitted into the United States as a free state to become Maine. Prior to the agreement, the House of Representatives had refused to accept this compromise, and a conference committee was appointed.
A bill to enable the people of the Missouri Territory to draft a constitution and form a government preliminary to admission into the Union came before the House of Representatives in Committee of the Whole, on February 13, 1819. James Tallmadge of New York offered an amendment, named the Tallmadge Amendment that forbade further introduction of slaves into Missouri, and mandated that all children of slave parents born in the state after its admission should be free at the age of 25. The committee adopted the measure and incorporated it into the bill as finally passed on February 17, 1819, by the house. The United States Senate refused to concur with the amendment, and the whole measure was lost. This was a perfect example of the upper house overriding the wishes of the lower house as Madison had proposed.
During the following session (1819–1820), the House passed a similar bill with an amendment, introduced on January 26, 1820, by John W. Taylor of New York, allowing Missouri into the union as a slave state. The question had been complicated by the admission in December of Alabama, a slave state, making the number of slave and free states equal. In addition, there was a bill in passage through the House (January 3, 1820) to admit Maine as a free state.
The Senate decided to connect the two measures. It passed a bill for the admission of Maine with an amendment enabling the people of Missouri to form a state constitution. Before the bill was returned to the House, a second amendment was adopted on the motion of Jesse B. Thomas of Illinois, excluding slavery from the Missouri Territory north of the parallel 36°30′ north (the southern boundary of Missouri), except within the limits of the proposed state of Missouri.
Like many compromises the Missouri Compromise left a bad taste in the mouths of the abolitionist and those who supported slavery. One of the fiercest critics of the Compromise was Thomas Jefferson who called it the “knell of the Union.” In a letter to John Holmes on dated April 22, 1820 Jefferson stated:
“I thank you, dear Sir, for the copy you have been so kind as to send me of the letter to your constituents on the Missouri question. It is a perfect justification to them. I had for a long time ceased to read newspapers, or pay any attention to public affairs, confident they were in good hands, and content to be a passenger in our bark to the shore from which I am not distant. But this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed, indeed, for the moment. But this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper. I can say, with conscious truth, that there is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would to relieve us from this heavy reproach, in any practicable way. The cession of that kind of property, for so it is misnamed, is a bagatelle which would not cost me a second thought, if, in that way, a general emancipation and expatriation could be effected; and, gradually, and with due sacrifices, I think it might be. But as it is, we have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other. Of one thing I am certain, that as the passage of slaves from one State to another, would not make a slave of a single human being who would not be so without it, so their diffusion over a greater surface would make them individually happier, and proportionally facilitate the accomplishment of their emancipation, by dividing the burthen on a greater number of coadjutors. An abstinence too, from this act of power, would remove the jealousy excited by the undertaking of Congress to regulate the condition of the different descriptions of men composing a State. This certainly is the exclusive right of every State, which nothing in the constitution has taken from them and given to the General Government. Could Congress, for example, say, that the non-freemen of Connecticut shall be freemen, or that they shall not emigrate into any other State?
I regret that I am now to die in the belief, that the useless sacrifice of themselves by the generation of 1776, to acquire self-government and happiness to their country, is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and that my only consolation is to be, that I live not to weep over it. If they would but dispassionately weigh the blessings they will throw away, against an abstract principle more likely to be affected by union than by scission, they would pause before they would perpetrate this act of suicide on themselves, and of treason against the hopes of the world. To yourself, as the faithful advocate of the Union, I tender the offering of my high esteem and respect.” (Emphasis added)
In essence Jefferson was predicting a civil war over the issue of slavery — a war that would commence some 41 years later.
In closing I refer to something Alexis de Tocqueville said in his 1840 book “Democracy in America” about tyranny:
“I would like to imagine with what new traits despotism could be produced in the world. I see an innumerable multitude of men, alike and equal, who turn about without repose in order to procure for themselves petty and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them, withdrawn apart, is a virtual stranger, unaware of the fate of the others: his children and his particular friends form for him the entirety of the human race; as for his fellow citizens, he is beside them but he sees them not; he touches them and senses them not; he exists only in himself and for himself alone, and, if he still has a family, one could say at least that he no longer has a fatherland.
Over these is elevated an immense, tutelary power, which takes sole charge of assuring their enjoyment and of watching over their fate. It is absolute, attentive to detail, regular, provident, and gentle. It would resemble the paternal power if, like that power, it had as its object to prepare men for manhood, but it seeks, to the contrary, to keep them irrevocably fixed in childhood; it loves the fact that the citizens enjoy themselves provided that they dream solely of their own enjoyment. It works willingly for their happiness, but it wishes to be the only agent and the sole arbiter of that happiness. It provides for their security, foresees and supplies their needs, guides them in their principal affairs, directs their industry, regulates their testaments, divides their inheritances. Can it not relieve them entirely of the trouble of thinking and of the effort associated with living?
In this fashion, every day, it renders the employment of free will less useful and more rare; it confines the action of the will within a smaller space, and bit by bit it steals from each citizen the use of that which is his own. Equality has prepared men for all of these things: it has disposed them to put up with them and often even to regard them as a benefit.
After having taken each individual in this fashion by turns into its powerful hands, and after having kneaded him in accord with its desires, the sovereign extends its arms about the society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of petty regulations-complicated, minute, and uniform-through which even the most original minds and the most vigorous souls know not how to make their way past the crowd and emerge into the light of day. It does not break wills; it softens them, bends them, and directs them; rarely does it force one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one's acting on one's own; it does not destroy; it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it gets in the way, it curtails, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupefies, and finally it reduces each nation to nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”
Today we are throwing away the efforts of our Founders and Framers of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution for a welfare state described by de Tocqueville. We have gradually for the past 100 years been drifting into a collective dominated by the government shepherd.