Charles E. (Charles Erasmus) Fenner.

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petual." In view of this clause, it was vehemently contended
that, without the consent of all, no i)ortiou of the States had the
right to withdraw from a Union which all of them had solemnly
covenanted with each other should last forever.

These objections Avere overborne by the Convention of 1787,
and the Constitution of the United States had its origin in the
assertion of the right of the States to secede from the confedera-
tion previously existiug; for the going into eflect of that consti-
tution was, by its terms, made to depend, not upon the assent of
all the States, but upon the assent of nine onl}', each one of them
acting separately and independently.

Did not this action concede that the right to withdraw from a
Federal Union \\ as a right that inhered in the States prior to the
establisliment of the present Constitution? And if in the latter
instrument we can tind no surrender of that right, how can it be
denied that it was reserved to the States ?

ISTay, more; how does it happen that the clause in the articles
of confederation, which had declared the Union thereby
formed to be "perpetual," aud which had been the foundation of
the arguments against the right of secession therefrom, was omit-
ted froni the Constitution?

"Can such things be,
And oveiconif us like a suuinier's cloud,
Witliout our si)ecial wonder?"


"NVt- miyht pause here, and ask, in all candor, whether, if tlie
Southern States erred iu believing and asserting the right of
secession, the fault does not rest on the shoulders of those who
framed the Constitution 1

Unless there is something in the essential nature of the govern-
ment establislied by the Constitution, or in the eharax^ter of the
parties who established it, or in the nature and mode of the con-
sent upon which it rests, which is inconsistent with the right of
secession in the States, it is difficult to conceive how such right
could be disputed.

The doctrine that the Constitution was a cojupact, voluntarily
entered into between sovereign and independent States, purely
federal in its character, and diliering from the former articles of
confederation, not as to the nature of the consent upon which it
was founded nor as to the character of the parties thereto, but
only as to the kind and extent of the powers granted to the gen-
eral government and the mode of their execution, may be said to
have passed substantially unchallenged for considerably more
than a quarter of a century after its adoption. That doctrine
blazes forth in every step taken in the formation and adoption of
the Constitution; in Mr. Madison's resolution adopted by the
Virginia Legislature appointing commissioners to meet such com-
missioners as may be ai^pointed by the other States, to take into
consideration trade and commercial regulations ; in the address
of the convention of those commissioners, subsequently held at
Annapolis, which recommended a "general meeting of the States,
in a future convention," with powers extending "to other objects
than those of commerce;" in the consequent commissioning of
delegates by the several States to the convention of 1787, with
instructions to join "in devising and discussing all such altera-
tions and further provisions as may be necessary to render the
Federal Constitution adequate to the exigencies of the Union f
in the organization of that convention, under which every State,
large or small, had an equal and independent unit vote; in the
submission of the instrument for ratification to a convention of
the people of each separate State, which, thus acting indepen-
dently and alone, gave its own consent to the proposed compact;
in the letter of the convention recommending its ratifiitation,
which expressly described the government proposed therein as
"the Federal government of these States;" and finally, in the mode


of i»roiiiulgatit)ii directed, which provided that ''as soon as the
conventions of nine States shall have ratified this Constitution,"
a day should be fixed on wliich "electors should be ajjpointed by
the several States which sliall have ratified the same."

The sanu* doctrine likewise appears in the ordinances of ratifi-
cation of several of the States, in the debates of the convention
itself and in those of the various State conventions — denied only
by the opponents of the Constitution, always at!irnied by its

It is repeatedly and explicitly proclaimed in the Federalist. It
appears in the writings and utterances of all the fathers of the
Constitution, of Hamilton as well as of Madison, of TS^ashing-
ton, Franklin, Gerry, Wilson, Morris, of those who favored as
well as those who feared a strong- government. It is emphati-
cally announced not only in the extreme Kentucky resolutions,
but in the famous Virginia resolutions of 1798, the first from the
pen of Jefferson, the last from that of Madison, the latter of
which declared that they viewed " the powers of the Federal
Government as resulting from the compact to which the States
were parties." These resolutions formed thereafter the corner
stone of the great States Eights party, wliich repeatedly swept
the country and whicli elected Jefferson, Madison, ]\Ionroe and
Jackson to the Presidency.

Even the Supreme Court of the United States had declared
tliat the Constitution was a compact to which the States were

The first purely Juridical work on the Constitution was pul)-
lislied in 182.5 by Wdliam Rawle, an eminent jurist of Phila-
delphia, who. writing" as a jurist and not as a politician, did not
hesitate to declare that '' the Union was an association of Ee-
publics," that the Constitution was a compact between the Statesj
that ''it dle, not of America,
but of the United States, each (State) enjoying sovereign power,
and, of course, equal rights."

Time and the occasion admonish me that 1 must arrest here
the discussion of this interesting historical question. 1 have, of
course, barely indicated the faint outlines of the grand argument


sustainiiio: tlie riglit of secession. Those who desire to go deep-
er may consult those great storehouses of facts and principles,
theVorks of Calhoun, Bledsoe, Stephens, Sage, and our immortal
leader, Jetterson Davis.

It is not for me dogmatically to proclaim that we were right
and that the supporters of the Union were wrong. I sliall have
a4,'compIislied a duty, and shall, as I believe, have rendered a
service to the whole Union, if what I have said shall contribute
to confirm the Southern people in the veneration and respect
justly due to tlie cause for which their fathers fought, and, at the
same time, to moderate the vehemence with Avhich many of the
Northern people have denounced that cause as mere wicked and
unreasoning treason. The war may have established that the
Constitution no longer bhids the States by a mere love tie, but
by a Gordian knot, which only the sword can sever ; yet all
patriots will admit that the safest guarantee of its permanence
must lie in the mutual respect and forbearance from insult of all
sections of the people toward each other.

Far be it from me to impugn the motives of those who ad-
vocated and enforced the indissolubility of the Union.

In union the States had achieved their independence. In
union, at a later time, during the infancy of the Eepublic, they
had defied again the power of the mightiest nation of the earth,
and had vindicated their capacity to protect and defend the
rights which they had so dearly won. In union they had sub-
dued the savage, leveled jnimeval forests, subjected vast wilder-
nesses to the sway of peaceful pox)ulations and happy hus-
bandry, borne the ensign of the Eepublic to the capital of a
foreign foe, extended their frontiers till they embraced a
continent and swelled their population to a strength which
might defy the world in arms. In union the sails of their com-
merce whitened every sea, wealth poured in affluent streams into
their laps, education flourished, science and art took root and
grew apace, and those ancient foes, religion and toleration, lib-
erty and law, public order and individual freedom, locked hands
and worked together to magnify and glorify the grandest, hap-
piest and freest people that ever flourished "in the tides of time."

The contemplation of this exhilarating spectacle naturally
tightened the bands of the Union and infiamed the minds of the


people with a deep i)atriotisin, which teiulcd iiKtre and more to
centre ronnd the Federal Government.

When, in IS.v), wliih' the still being- nnrolled, npon a comparatively trilling
occasion, behind the absurd spectre of Nullification appeared the
gigantic figure of the Right of Secessicm, i)anoplied though it
was from head to foot in the armor of the Constitution, it struck
terror to the souls of the lovers of the Union, and shook even
the firm ])oise of the aged jMadison. It threatened at a touch and
uj^on inadequate cause to crumble into ruin the grand fabric
which had been builded with such pain and had risen to such
majestic height.

It conjured up before the quick imagination of Mr. Webster
that terrible vision of a Union quenched in blood, of " States
discordant, dissevered, belligerent," of strength frittered away
by division, of liberty imperilled by the conflicts of her de-
votees, of the high hopes of humanity blasted by the ambi-
tions, dissensions and conflicting interests of jarring sovereign-

In my humble judgment Mr. "Webster's was the grand-
est civic intellect that America has produced. The most prodi-
gious achievement of his eloquence and genius was the success
with which he darkened and, to the minds of nmny, actually
obliterated the clear historical record which I have heretofore
exhibited, confuted the very authors of the Constitution as to
the meaning and etfect of their own language, and may be said
substantially to have created and imposed upon the American
people a new and different Constitution from that under which
they had lived for so considerable a period.

Yet we must forgive unich to the motives and inspirations upon
which he acted.

Ah, well had it been if all the followers of Mr. Webster had
been inspired by his own deep respect for the guaranties and
limitations of the Constitution.

Time and inclination alike restrain me from any particular
notice of the direct causes which provoked the actual assertion
of the right of secession.

Suffice it to say that events occurred and conflicts arose which
rendered impossible the continuance of a voluntary union. The
predestined strife was not to be averted. Passion usnri)ed the


seat of reason. Dissension swelled into defiance, eliiding- grew
into fierce recrimination, constant (quarrel ripened into liate. In
vain did those who clung to the Constitntion seek "upon the
heat and tlanie of this distemper to sprinkle cool patience."
Fourteen Xorthern States, in their so-termed '' personal liberty
bills," openly nullified the Constitution in that very clause which
had been the ccuidition .

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Online LibraryCharles E. (Charles Erasmus) FennerOration → online text (page 2 of 5)