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State Rights and Federal Assumptions in America

The Illustrated London News, vol. 42, no. 1196, p. 341.

March 28, 1863


The great and fundamental doctrine of State rights in America, derived originally from the Royal charters by which the several colonies were established by the British Crown, was felt by the founders of American Independence to be the only possible basis upon which their Republican liberty could subsist. An immense territorial empire or monarchy, extending over the greater part of the continent, is possible, though undesirable; because its principle is the concentration of power and authority in the hands of one strong, skilful, and able individual, who becomes the head and chief of the army, and, by means of the army, governs the people by exacting obedience to his supreme will. But a great territorial republic, as extensive as that of the United States in the time of Washington, if popular liberty were to be assured within its limits, was only possible by the decentralisation and diffusion of power, and by the jealous supremacy of the several sovereign commonwealths, within their original jurisdiction, in all matters of internal liberty. The idea was that the first allegiance of an American was due to the State of which he was a citizen; and so strongly was the idea rooted and enforced, that to this moment no man is or can become a citizen of the "United States." The native of Massachusetts is a citizen of Massachusetts, and not of the United States; and the foreigner or immigrant who settles in the country must choose his State, and qualify himself by residence in it, before he can take out letters of naturalisation. It takes five years to make him a citizen of New York; but he can acquire the privilege in six months in some of the rising States of the West, that are too urgently in want of people to till the land and drive off the marauding Indians to afford to be particular. A league of commonwealths, each governing itself, but united for purposes of defence against foreigners, and especially against England, who was thought to be capable of reannexing her rebellious colonies if they did not adhere closely together to resist her aggression, was the scheme of American liberty and independence that recommended itself to the judgment of the great men of the Washingtonian era. By that scheme each State had its own constitution, its own legislature, its own executive chief magistrate, and its own militia; and the Federal or Central Government--kept within the limits of the Constitution by the Judiciary of the Supreme Court--had but a shadow of power, except in its relations to the outer world. Externally the Union was everything--internally it was nothing. So long as this idea was rigidly acted upon, the American Republics, with their nominal and scarcely felt central government, were free, prosperous, and happy. In proportion to the increase of the number of the States, and the extension of the Union backwards from the Atlantic seaboard towards the Pacific, ought to have been the jealousy entertained of any attempt at the centralisation of power. The States, as States, were entirely free. The only liberty denied them by the voluntary compact into which they entered was the liberty to make war upon each other, or to subvert, or endeavour to subvert, by external agencies, their separate Constitutions. To all other intents and purposes each State was free to shape its laws according to the social wants, necessities, observances, and prejudices of its people. Massachusetts and New York were free to abolish negro slavery

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within their boundaries; South Carolina and Georgia were free to retain it. At a later period the commonwealths of Indiana and Illinois were free to prevent the ingress or settlement of any coloured people within their lines. In no sense whatever were these States to be considered provinces of an empire or subdivisions of a unity, such as the English counties and French departments at the present day. In England the law of Northumberland is the law of Devonshire; but in America the law of Maine is not the law of Pennsylvania, nor the law of Pennsylvania the law of New York or New Jersey. If the States had continued to respect in each other their solemnly secured rights, it is highly probable that the whole continent of North America would have been in due time covered with a congeries of free and happy Republics, and that Canada and the British colonies in the north, and Mexico and the Isthmian territories in the south, would have, one by one, asked to form part of the American Union, and been formally admitted to the enjoyment of the privilege. This would, indeed, have been a noble Government. Had it been perpetuated, negro slavery would have gradually died out, because it would have proved unprofitable as well as wrong. War would have been at an end, except against any European Power that assumed the aggressive, which it would not have done against so stupendous a resistance as America would have offered. The principle of self-government would have been triumphantly asserted; and the American commonwealths would have presented to the world a sublimer spectacle than history has ever yet recorded--the spectacle of a free, untaxed, highly civilised, and progressive people, working out, under the most favourable circumstances, and with the widest facilities for growth and development, the fortunes of the race, and solving happily the great problem of the destinies of humanity.

But this was not to be. The third generation after Washington misunderstood and perverted the fundamental doctrine of Republican freedom. New men, with new ideas, came upon the scene. The scum, the dregs, the refuse, and the rascality of Europe--everybody who had lost or could not obtain a chance in the Old World--flocked into the New; and, knowing nothing of the delicate machinery by which the slender fabric of the Federal power was upheld, they set to work to destroy it. The civil war now raging shows with what success they laboured. They did not bring into the New World with them any knowledge of the checks and counter-checks, the nice balances and fine adjustments of the most complicated Constitution ever adopted by a civilised people; and they ignorantly interfered with its working, till the machine split with a noise that has startled the world. They were aided by the New England Puritans and Educationalists, whose ideas were mainly derived from European literature at a time when America had no literature of its own; and, as this class looked much more fondly to the realisation of their dream of being a great and dominant rather than a free and happy people, they strengthened the Federal power whenever they had the opportunity, and weakened the State power, which was the best guarantee of their own liberties. The manufacturing interest in New England and Pennsylvania, with a view ostensibly to the development of national industry, but really with the design of their own enrichment, agitated the question of a protective tariff, by which they might compel the agricultural people of the South and West to buy native goods at double, and often treble, the price at which a better class of fabrics could have been imported from England. This was one of the first of the many predisposing causes of disunion which were introduced and fostered by those who wished to make America one nation instead of a partnership of nations. In due time, after the emancipation by Great Britain of the slaves in the West India Islands, the attempt was made to elevate negro slavery in America into the dignity and importance of a national instead of a sectional question. For nearly thirty years the question was agitated, but mostly by the European and Puritanic elements of American society--the sole results being, first to exasperate the Southern States against the busybodies of the North, who would not confine themselves to their own business; and, secondly, to strengthen the South in its determination, not only to uphold and maintain, but to justify, the institution. And all this was done in the false assumption that the Union was a nation, and that the Federal Government had both the right and the power to interfere with the State constitutions whenever it thought it just and expedient. Questions of free trade and tariff, extension of territory, and the abolition of slavery, were but the different phases assumed from time to time by the one great and paramount question of the Federal against the State authority. The clearest-headed and most patriotic men of America foresaw the inevitable result, and deprecated the encroachment with all the energy they could command. As the North increased in population more rapidly than the South, in consequence of the influx not only of ignorant but of unprincipled and reckless foreigners from Europe, and the South held out the more tenaciously to State rights the more vehemently they were attacked, the conviction forced itself upon the minds of all its leading men that the disruption of the Union was only a question of time. They did not wish to expedite it; nor, could they have ruled the country on the doctrine of State Rights, as enforced by the decisions of the Supreme Court, would they ever have thought of breaking up the nominal Union, under which all the States had so marvelously prospered. But they were too constantly goaded on the slavery question, and too constantly taxed in all articles of foreign produce by the operation of a protectional tariff, exclusively beneficial to Northern manufacturers, to be otherwise than dissatisfied with the partnership to which they seemed to be doomed. The North refused to take warning. Strong in theory, it despised fact. It required justice to the negro, even though the white race should be ruined, and the black along with it. Ultimately, as all the world knows, the Southern people took the remedy into their own hands by secession, and were willing to forfeit many solid advantages derived from the Union, in order that they might be free from the constant interference of the North with their system of labour. They could not abolish slavery, even if they wished to do so; for four millions of slaves could not be suddenly set free without danger to themselves as well as ruin to their masters; and when they knew that the agitation in the negro's favour was got up in Massachusetts and other New England States, in the midst of communities that treated the negro as a social pariah, they hurled against the North the imputation of hypocrisy as well as illegality, and declined to have further partnership with it.

The North has misunderstood liberty and the principles of its own Government through the whole course of these unhappy disputes and the horrible war that has grown out of them. It was itself free from the guilt of slavery, and that ought to have been enough. Attempting coercion by the sword, it has attempted what was beyond its right and its province, and has suffered accordingly. Those who take to the sword perish by the sword. And, under the operation of so-called military necessities, it has lost its own liberties without doing the smallest particle of good to the black men whom it attempted to free, or removing a single obstacle that blocks the way to universal emancipation.

Twenty millions of white Northern men exist under a Despotism; and four millions of black Southern men remain just what and where they were before the war commenced. And all this has happened, because the Northern Americans wanted to be a nation when they were not a nation; and attacked that principle of State sovereignty and local self-government which was the only possible basis on which their Republican form of government could subsist. But they were a proud people, and needed to be taught a lesson of humility. They are receiving it at this moment, and all the world looks on with sympathy and wonder.

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