I left off yesterday with the constitution finally having been ratified by the State of Rhode Island, and the question of whether or not the people of America still enjoyed the right of self-determination. The answer to that question isn’t as easy to find as one might think; there are many things that come into play that one must consider before coming to any firm yes or no answer.
First one must consider what status the States held after the constitution went into effect. Before I can even begin to discuss that we must first discuss the difference between the two terms federal and national as they pertain to our system of government; two terms people mistakenly believe mean the same thing. On top of all that we also have to ask ourselves whether or not the constitution actually created a consolidated union or whether it left the States as being sovereign and independent political entities.
A federal government is one whose authority extends only to the States in their sovereign and independent capacity. For instance, a federal government may be concerned with the common defense of all the component States which comprise the union, or it may be concerned with enacting laws that ensure that the citizens of each State enjoy the same rights and privileges as those of another. However, under a federal system of government the legislature cannot enact laws the directly affect the lives, liberty or property of the individuals; at least not without crossing over and becoming a national form of government.
A national form of government, on the other hand, is one consolidates the individual units, [States], under a central authority, and one whose authority extends to the people themselves. Under a national form of government the States may still exist, but their powers are severely diminished and, when it comes to what political power they hold, they exist more in name than in fact.
A week before the delegates began arriving in Philadelphia to begin their deliberations over what to do to improve the Articles of Confederation James Madison wrote a letter to George Washington in which he stated, “Conceiving that an individual independence of the States is utterly irreconcileable with their aggregate sovereignty; and that a consolidation of the whole into one simple republic would be as inexpedient as it is unattainable, I have sought for some middle ground, which may at once support a due supremacy of the national authority, and not exclude the local authorities wherever they can be subordinately useful.”
The key to understanding Madison’s intent is his use of the word subordinately when referring to whatever residual power they were to have under his plan for a new system of government. Subordinate is the opposite of supreme, or sovereign; which is what the constitution declares itself to be in Article 6. Another way of explaining the difference between something that is supreme and something that is subordinate is the relationship between master and slave.
So even before the convention had come together Madison had planned on subjugating the States under a supreme federal head; thereby diminishing their authority. Yet in Federalist 45, (in an effort to calm the fears of the citizens of New York over the fact that this new system of government would annihilate State authority), Madison declared, “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected.
The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.”
So on one hand we have Madison saying that the States are only to be subordinately useful, and on the other hand he says that the States are to enjoy their own sphere of authority which the central government has no authority to intrude upon. The question one must ask is, which position are we to accept as Madison’s real intent?
Arguing in favor of ratification, Pelatiah Webster wrote, “…critics like Brutus have no reason to fear the Constitution because this new constitution leaves all 13 States as Republics, just as it found them, but all confederated under the direction and control of a federal head for certain defined national purposes only…” Now if you were paying attention you would have seen that Mr. Webster included both the words national and federal in regards to the authority delegated to the central government; so which one actually applies.
If we truly were to have a federal system, then the adoption of that system should have been accomplished by the various State Legislatures, for it was upon them that the federal authority would extend. However, since a national system extends to the people as a body, then it only makes sense that they be the ones to either accept or reject any system of government that might affect them in their lives and their liberty.
This question, whether we were to become a country with a federal or a national system of government, was one of the first questions asked by the Anti-Federalist Brutus, “The first question that presents itself on the subject is, whether a confederated government be the best for the United States or not? Or in other words, whether the thirteen United States should be reduced to one great republic, governed by one legislature, and under the direction of one executive and judicial; or whether they should continue thirteen confederated republics, under the direction and controul of a supreme federal head for certain defined national purposes only?”
That is but one of the reasons Patrick Henry was so vehemently opposed to the constitution; for it consolidated the States into a nation under a strong central authority. It is why, on June 5, 1788, Mr. Henry rose before the Virginia Ratifying Assembly and said, “I rose yesterday to ask a question which arose in my own mind. When I asked that question, I thought the meaning of my interrogation was obvious: The fate of this question and of America may depend on this: Have they said, we, the States? Have they made a proposal of a compact between states? If they had, this would be a confederation: It is otherwise most clearly a consolidated government. The question turns, Sir, on that poor little thing-the expression, We, the people, instead of the States, of America.”
This argument over whether we are under a federal or national form of government may appear to be insignificant to the topic of this series of articles; but it forms the basis of all that is to follow, and therefore is of great importance.
The next question we must ask ourselves is, what purpose should government serve? The problem I encounter with that question arises when people look at it from the perspective of someone living in modern times rather than what those who actually adopted the constitution felt was the purpose which government should serve. This is best summed up by something Thomas Jefferson wrote to William Johnson in 1823, “On every question of construction (of the Constitution) let us carry ourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit of the debates, and instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the text, or invented against it, conform to the probable one in which it was passed.”
To do that with any degree of efficiency one could study the debates both for and against the constitution, and the arguments presented for and against it during the various State Ratifying Assemblies. Or, one could simply go back and read the Declaration of Independence to see why governments are instituted among men; wherein I believe it says that the purpose of government is to secure the rights of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
In his first essay under the pseudonym Brutus, Robert Yates wrote, “If the constitution, offered to your acceptance, be a wise one, calculated to preserve the invaluable blessings of liberty, to secure the inestimable rights of mankind, and promote human happiness, then, if you accept it, you will lay a lasting foundation of happiness for millions yet unborn; generations to come will rise up and call you blessed. … But if, on the other hand, this form of government contains principles that will lead to the subversion of liberty — if it tends to establish a despotism, or, what is worse, a tyrannic aristocracy; then, if you adopt it, this only remaining assylum for liberty will be shut up, and posterity will execrate your memory.”
I think that makes it pretty darn clear as to why or why not people should adopt any constitution and accept any form of government it outlines – to preserve the invaluable blessings of liberty.
The truth of the matter is, and this is easily verified if you would but research it, that those who called themselves Federalists were actually Nationalists, for they favored a strong central government that would be more concerned with building America into a mighty empire than it would in the preservation of liberty.
Patrick Henry also warned his fellow Virginians about this as well when he said, “You are not to inquire how your trade may be increased, nor how you are to become a great and powerful people, but how your liberties can be secured; for liberty ought to be the direct end of your Government.”
Yet as soon as this new system of government went into operation and George Washington was sworn in as our first president under the newly ratified constitution, it began showing its Nationalistic tendencies. This was due, in large part, to the fact that Washington chose Alexander Hamilton to be his Secretary of Treasury.
If you had read Madison’s Notes on the Constitutional Convention you would have recalled that Alexander Hamilton proposed an elective monarchy with absolute authority over the States. Although his proposal was soundly rejected, he never abandoned his ideology, and the moment he was chosen to be Secretary of the Treasury he worked tireless towards increasing the power and authority of the central government.
It could very well be said that Alexander Hamilton is the patriarch of the Deep State, or Shadow Government; as all the shadow government consist of is people in unelected positions who hold a vast amount of power within the government; which allows them to control the overall policy of that government. But, I get ahead of myself…
The concept of self-determination implies that the people willfully accept whatever form of government exists and has the authority to enact laws they must obey; and this is true regardless of whether it is federal or national in nature. In other words, the degree to which the people enjoy self-determination is equal to the degree in which they consent to their system of government.
I do not want to stray too far off tract here, but what if one person, or a group of people decide that they no longer consent to being governed by a government because they feel that the laws being passed violate their unalienable rights? If they are forced to accept whatever laws the government imposes upon them, then it ceases being government by consent and becomes government by coercion and duress; the bane of liberty.
After all, the Declaration of Independence does say that it is the right of the people to alter or abolish their system of government; it just fails to mention whether that decision has to be unanimous or if it could be exercised individually, or by the States.
To find an answer to that we could look to Thomas Jefferson’s first Inaugural Address, wherein he states, “If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”
I’m pretty certain the reason Jefferson said that is because there was a group of New England Federalists who threatened to secede from the Union if he were to be elected. I don’t want to get too far ahead, but secession is the ultimate tool for defending the right to self-determination. If we truly have a system that depends upon the consent of those it governs, then at any time the governed retain the right to revoke their consent and return the their status as if they were never a part of the Union. The government, as a creation of the people, has absolutely no authority to force anyone to accept its authority and jurisdiction over them; not if it wants to claim that it defends freedom anyway.
As I mentioned, there were those in some New England States, Timothy Pickering being the loudest among them, who argued for secession because they feared or disliked the policies of the Jefferson administration. But they weren’t the only ones who considered seceding.
Decades before the Civil War Northern abolitionists argued for secession from the South because they disliked the idea of slavery spreading into newly admitted States. In his newspaper, The Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison called for secession, stating that the constitution was created, and that it was time to “…set the captive free by the potency of truth and to secede from the government.”
Yet there were those who felt that secession was not permitted under the constitution; Joseph Story, John Marshall and Alexander Hamilton being among them. They argued that the constitution was ratified by the people at large, not the people of the individual states, and therefore to be undone only the people at large could do so. However, if that is truly the case, why did they hold distinct and separate Ratifying Assemblies? Why not just hold a national ratifying assembly where delegates from each State would meet and discuss whether or not to adopt the proposed constitution?
Of course there is an answer to that; said answer being that it was the intent all along that once the States adopted the constitution they lost their sovereignty and independence and became part of an inseparable Union under a strong authoritarian government. But oh, that would imply that those who wrote the constitution were bad, and that they had evil intent from the moment they gathered together in Philadelphia. Well, one can only come to the conclusion that the facts lead them to; and I’ll leave you to form your own conclusions about that.
But the most damning evidence supporting the idea of secession comes from James Madison himself. Madison took copious notes of everything and gave specific instructions to his wife that upon his death certain notes were to be released to the public, while others were to remain private. However, upon the death of his wife some of his more private notes became public as well. Among them is a piece of correspondence sent to him by another Virginian, John Taylor.
In this letter Taylor speaks of the antagonizing interests that were dividing the country in 1794, saying, “Every measure proposed by the federalist was opposed by the anti-federalists, and the differences between the two parties appeared to be irreconcilable. The Constitution had, in fact, been formed by men representing two opposing schools of thought, and it was inevitable that the contest which had only been checked by a compromise in the Constitutional Convention should be renewed in a wider arena once the Constitution went into operation.”
In a memorandum sent to James Madison, John Taylor writes, “On the 8th or 9th instant, T. [Taylor] asked leave of absence in the Senate, and expressed seriously his intention to resign. K. [Rufus King], soon after invited T. into one of the committee rooms, and informed him, that he wished to converse with him seriously and candidly upon a very important subject. He said it was utterly impossible for the union to continue. That the southern and eastern people thought quite differently. That the former cloged and counteracted every operation of government.” He then went on to say, “The eastern would never submit to their [the South’s] politicks, and that under these circumstances, a dissolution of the union by mutual consent was preferable to a certainty of the same thing, in a less desirable mode.”
This is important because Madison went to such great lengths to keep this discussion from falling into the hands of the public. Yet it proves that he recognized that the States could come to an agreement that would sever the political bonds that held them together; thereby undoing all his efforts to form a more perfect union. It also shows that, at that particular point in time, the concept of self-determination was alive and well in America.
And this, I suppose, is as good a place as any to pause and let you digest what you have just read. Stay tuned, there will be more…