John Lothrop Motley.

The causes of the American civil war. A letter to the London Times online

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E 458



Chap. En-^rf
















(SUCCESSOR TO ^y . a. T O W N S E N D i CO.,)





To THE Editor of tiik London Times :

The de facto question in America has been referred
at last to the dread arl)itrament of civil war. Time and
events must determine whether tlie "great Kepublic"
is to disappear from the roll of nations, or whether it is
destined to survive the storm which has gathered over
its head. There is, perhaps, a readiness in England to
prejudge the case; a disposition not to exult in our
downfall, hut to accept the fact ; for nations, as well as
■ individuals, may often be addressed in the pathetic lan-
guage of the poet —

" Donee eris felix, multos numerabis amieos,
Tempora cum fuerint nub 11a, nullus erit."

Yet the trial by the ordeal of battle has hardly com-
menced, and it would be presumptuous to aifect to pen-
etrate the veil of even the immediate future. But the
question de jure is a diiferent one. The right and the
wrong belong to the past, are hidden by no veil, and
may easily be read by all who -are not wilfully* blind.


Yet it is often asked, Why have the Americans taken
lip arms? Why has the United States government
plunored into what is sometimes called " this wicked
war?"" Especially it is thought amazing in England
that the President should have recently called for a
graat army of volunteers and regulars, and that the in-
habitants of the free states should have sprung forward
as one man at his call, like men suddenly relieved from
a spell. It would have been amazing had the call been
longer delayed. The national flag, insulted and defied
for many months, had at last been lowered, after the
most astonishing kind of siege recorded in history, to
an armed and organized, rebellion ; and a prominent
personage in the government of the Southern " Confed-
eracy" is reported to have proclaimed amid the exulta-
tions of victory that before the first of May the same
cherished emblem of our nationality should be struck
from the Capitol at Washington. An advance of the
" Confederate troops" upon the city ; the flight or cap-
tivity of the President and his Cabinet ; the seizure of
the national archives, the national title deeds, and the
whole national machinery of foreign intercourse and
internal administration by the Confederates; and the
proclamation from the American palladium itself of the
Montgomery Constitution in place of the one devised
by Washington, Madison, Hamilton, and Jay — a Con-
stitution in which slavery should be the universal law
of the land, the corner-stone of the political edifice —
were events which seemed for a few days of intense
anxiety almost probable.

Had this really been the result without a blow struck
in defence of the national government and the old con-


stitution, it is certain that the contumely poured forth
upon the free states by their domestic enemies and by
the world at large would have been as richly deserved
as it would have been amply bestowed. At present
such a catastrophe seems to have been averted. But
the levy in mass of such a vast number of armed men
in the free states, in swift response to the call of the
President, shows how deep and pervading is the attach-
ment to the constitution and to the flag of Union in the
hearts of the nineteen millions who inhabit those states.
It is confidently believed, too, that the sentiment is not
wholly extinguished in the nine million white men who
dwell in the slave states, and.that, on the contrary, there
exists a large party throughout that country who be-
lieve that the Union furnishes a better protection for
life, property, law, civilization, and liberty, than even
the indefinite extension of African slavery can do.

At any rate, the loyalty of the free states has proved
more intense and })assionate than it had ever been sup-
posed to be before. It is recognized throughout their
whole people that the constitution of 1787 had made us a
nation. The eftbrts of a certain class of politicians for
• a long period had been to reduce our commonwealth to
a confederacy. So long as their eflPorts had been con-
fined to argument, it was considered suificient to answer
the argument ; but now that secession, instead of remain-
ing a topic of vehement and subtle discussion, has ex-
panded into armed and fierce rebellion and revolution,
civil war is the inevitable result. It is the result fore-
told by sagacious statesmen almost a generation ago, in
the days of the tariflf "nullification." "To begin with
nullification," said Daniel Webster in 1833, " with the


avowed intention, nevertheless, not to proceed to seces-
sion, dismemberment, and general revolution, is as if
one were to take the plunge of IN^lagara, and cry out
that he would stop half-way down." And now the
plunge of secession -has been taken, and we are all
struggling in the vortex of general revolution.

The body politic known for seventy years as the
United States of America is not a csnfederacy^ not a
compact of sovereign states, not a copartnership ; it is a
conirnonicealth, of which the constitution drawn up at
Philadelphia by the Convention of 1787, over which
Washington presided, is the organic, fundamental law.
We had already had enough of a confederacy. The thir-
teen rebel provinces, afterwards the thirteen original
independent states of America, had been united to each
other during the revolutionary war by articles of con-
federacy. '■'■The said states hereby enter into a firm
league of friendship ivith each otherP Such was the
language of 1781, and the league or treaty thiis drawn
up was ratified, not by the people of the states, but by
the state governments— the legislative and executive
bodies, namely, in their corporate capacity.

The Continental Congress, which was the central ad-
ministrative board during this epoch, was a diet of
envoys from sovereign states. It had no power to act on
individuals. It could not command the states. It could
move only by requisitions and recommendations. Its
functions were essentially diplomatic, like those of the
States-General of the old Dutch republic, like those of
the niodern Germanic confederation.

We were a league of petty sovereignties. AVhen the
war had ceased, .vvhen our independence had been ac-


kuowledi^ed in 1783, we sank raj^idly into a condition of
utter impotence, imbecility, anarchy. We had achieved
our independence, but we had not constructed a nation.
We were not a body politic. No laws could be enforced,
no insurrections suppressed, no debt collected. Neither
property nor life was secure. Great Britain had made
a treaty of peace with us, but she scornfully declined a
treaty of commerce and amity; not because we had been
rebels, but because we were not a state — because we
were a mere dissolving league of jarring provinces, inca-
pable of guarantying the stipulations of any commercial
treaty. We were unable even to fulfil the condition of
the treaty of peace and enforce the stipulated collection
of debts due to British subjects; and Great Britain re-
fused, in consequence, to give up the military posts
which she held within our frontiers.

For twelve years after the acknowledgment of our
mdepeyuleiice we were mortified by the spectacle of for-
eign soldiers occupying a long chain of fortresses south
of the great lakes and upon our own soil. We were a
confederacy. We were sovereign states. And these
were the fruits of such a confederacy and such sov-
ereignty. It was, until the immediate present, the
darkest hour of our history. But tlipre were patriotic
and sagacious men in those days, and their efforts at last
rescued us from the condition of a confederacy. The
" Constitution of the United States" was an organic law,
enacted by the sovereign people of that whole territory
which is commonly called in geographies and histories
the United States of America. It was empowered to
act directly, by its own legislative, judicial and execu-
tive machinery, upon every individual in the country.


It could seize liis property, it could take liis life, for
causes of which itself was the judge. The states were
distinctly prohibited from opposing its decrees, or from
exercising any of the great functions of sovereignty.
The Union alone was supreme, " anything in the consti-
tution and laws of the states to the contrary notwith-
standing." Of what significance, then, was the title of
" sovereign " states, arrogated in later days b}^ com-
munities which had voluntarily abdicated the most vital
attributes of sovereignty ?

But, indeed, the words " sovereign " and " sdv-
ereignty " are purely inapplicable to the American sys-
tem. In the Declaration of independence the provinces
declare themselves " free and independent states," but
the men of those days knew that the word " sovereign "
was a term of feudal origin. When their connection
wnth a time-honored feudal monarchy was abruptly sev-
ered the word " sovereign " had no meaning for us. A
sovereign is one who acknowledges no superior, who pos-
sesses the highest authority without control, who is su-
preme in power. How could any one state of the
United States claim such characteristics at all, least of
all after its inhabitants, in their primary assemblies, had
voted to submit themselves, without limitation of time,
to a constitution which was declared supreme? The
only intelligible source of power in a country beginning
its history da novo after a revolution, in a land never
subjected to military or feudal conquest, is the will of
the people of the whole land as expressed by a majority.
At the present moment, unless the soflthern revolution
shall prove successful, the United States government is
a fact, ail cstablislied authority. In the period between


1783 and 1787 we were in chaos. In May of 1787' the
convention met at Philadelphia, and, after some months'
deliberation, adopted with unprecedented unanimity the
project of the great law, which, so soon as it should be
accepted by the people, was to be known as the Consti-
tution of the United States.

It was not a compact. TTAo ever heard of a compact
to which there were no parties^ or who ever heard of a
compact made hy a single party with himself? Yet
the name of no state is mentioned in the whole docu-
ment ; the states themselves are only mentioned to re-
ceive commands or prohibitions, and the " people of the
United States" is the siiigle party by whom alone the
instrument is executed.

The constitution was not drawn up by the states, it
was not promulgated in the name of the states, it was
not ratified by the states. The states never acceded to
it, and possess no power to secede from it. It " was or-
dained and established" over the states by a power su-
perior to the states — by the people of the whole land in
their aggregate capacity, acting through conventions of
delegates expressly chosen for the purpose within each
state, independently of the state governments, after the
project had been framed.

There had always been two parties in the country
during the brief but pregnant period between the abju-
ration of British authority and the adoption of the Con-
stitution of 1787. There was a party advocating state
rights and local self-government in its largest sense, and
a party favoring a more consolidated and national gov-
ernment. The National or Federal party triumphed in
the adoption of the new government. It was strenu-


ously supported and bitterly opposed on exactly the
same grounds. Its friends and foes both agreed that it
had put an end to the system of confederacy. Whether
it were an advantageous or a noxious change, all agreed
that the thing had been done.

" In all our deliberations (says the letter accompany-
ing and recommending the constitution to the people)
we kept steadily in view that which appeared to us the
greatest interest of every true American, the consolida-
tion of our TJnion^ in which is involved our prosperity,
safety, perhaps our national existence.'''' {Journal of the
Convention, 1 Story, 368.)

And an eloquent opponent denounced the proj^ect for
this very same reason :

" That this is a consolidated government (said Henry)
is demonstrably clear. The language is, ' we the peo-
ple,' instead of ' we the states.' It must be one great
consolidated national government of the j3eople of all the

And the Supreme Court of the United States, after
the government had been established, held this language
in an important case, " Gibbons agt. Ogden :"

" It has been said that the states were sovereign, were
completely independent, and were connected with each
other by a league. This is true. But when these allied
sovereignties converted their league into a government,
when they converted their Congress of ambassadors into
a legislature, empowered to enact laws, the whole charac-
ter in which the states appear underwent a change."

There was never a disposition in any quarter in the
early day-s of our constitutional history to deny this
great fundamental principle of the Republic.


"Ih the most elaborate expositions of the constitu-
tion by its friends (says Justice Story), its character as a
permanent form of government, as a fundamental law,
as a supreme rule, which no state was at liberty to dis-
regard, to suspend, or to annul, was constantly admitted
and insisted upon.'^ (1 Story, 325.)

The fears of its opponents, then, were that the new
system would lead to a strong, to an over-centralized
government. The fears of its friends were that the cen-
tral power of theory would pirove inefficient to cope
with the local, or state forces, in practice. The inexpe-
rience of the last thirty years and the catastrophe of the
present year, have shown which class of fears were the
more reasonable.

Had the Union thus establislied in 1787 been a con-
federacy, it might have been argued, with more or less
plausibility, that the states which peaceably acceded to
it, might at pleasure peaceably secede from it. It is
none the less true that such a proceeding would have
stamped the members of the convention — Washington,
Madison, Jay, Hamilton and their colleagues — with
utter incompetence ; for nothing can be historically
more certain than that their object was to extricate us
from the anarchy to which that principle had brought

^'■However gross a heresy it may he (say the federal-
ists, recommending the new constitution), to maintain
that a party to a compact has a right to revoke that
compact, the doctrine has had respectable advocates.
The possihility of such a question shows the necessity
of laying the foundation of our national government
deeper than in the mere sanction of delegated author-


ity. The fabric of American empire ought to rest on
the solid basis of the consent of the people."

Certainly, the most venerated expounders of the con-
stitution — Jay, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent, Story, "Web-
ster — were of opinion that the intention of the conven-
tion to establish a permanent consolidated government,
a single commonwealth, had been completely successful.

" The great and fundamental defect of the confedera-
tion of 1781 (says Chancellor Kent), which led to its
eventual overthrow, was that, in imitation of all former
confederacies, it carried the decrees of the federal council
to the states in their sovereign capacity. The great and
incurable defect of all former federal governments, such
as the Amphictyonic, Achjean, and Lycian Confederacies,
and the Germanic, Helvetic, Hanseatic and Dutch Re-
publics, is that they Avere sovereignties over sovereignties.
The first eifort to relieve the people of the country from
this state of national degradation and ruin came from
Virginia. The general convention afterwards met at
Philadelphia in May, 1787. The plan was submitted to
a convention of delegates chosen by the people at large
in each state for assent and ratification. Such a mea-
sure was laying the foundations of the fabric of our
national polity where alone they ought to be laid — on the
broad consent of the people." (1 Kent, 225.)

It is true that the consent of the people was given by
the inhabitants voting in each state ; but in what other
conceivable way could the people of the whole country
have voted ? "They assembled in the several states,"
said Story ; " but where else could they assemble?"

/Secession is, in brief , the return to chaos from which
we einerged three-quarters of a century since. No logi-


cal sequence can be more perfect. If one state lias a
right to secede to-daj, asserting what it calls its sover-
eignty, another may, and probably will, do the same
to-morrow, a third on the next day, and so on, until there
are none to secede from. Granted the premises that
each state may peaceabl}' secede from the Union, it fol-
lows that a county may peaceably secede from a state,
and a town from a county, until there is nothing left
but a horde of individuals all seceding from each other.
The theoi-y that the people of a whole country in their
aggregate capacity are supreme is intelligible ; and it
has been a fact, also, in America for seventy years.
But it is impossible to show, if the people of a state be
sovereign, that the people of a county or of a village,
and the individuals of the village, are uot equally sov-
ereign, and justified in "resuming their sovereignty"
when their interest or their caprice seems to impel them.
The process of disintegration brings back the commu-
nity to barbarism, precisely as its converse has built up
commonwealths — whether empires, kingdoms, or repub-
lics — out of original barbarism.

Established authority, whatever the theory of its ori-
gin, is a fact. It should never be lightly or capriciously
overturned. They who venture on the attempt should
weigh well the responsibility which is upon them.
Above all, they must expect to be arraigned for their
deeds before the tribunal of the civilized world and of
future ages — a court of last appeal, the code of which
is based on the Divine principles of right and reason,
w^hich are dispassionate and eternal. No man, on either
side of the Atlantic, with Anglo-Saxon blood in his
veins, will dispute the right of a people, or of any por-


tion of a people, to rise against oppression, to demand
redress of grievances, and in case of denial of justice to
take Tip arms to vindicate the sacred principles of lib-
erty. Few Englishmen or Americans will deny that
the sonrce of government is the consent of the governed,
or that any nation has the right to govern itself accord-
inoj to its own will. When the silent consent is champed
to fierce i*emonstrance the revolution is impending.

The right of revolution is iudispntable. It is written
on the whole record of our race. British and American
history is made up of rebellion and revolution. Many
of the crowned kings were rebels or nsurpers. Hamp-
den, Pym and Oliver Cromwell; Washington, Adams
and Jefferson — all were rebels. It is no word of re-
proach. But these men all knew the work they had set
themselves to do. They never called their rebellion
"peaceable secession." They were sustained by the
consciousness of right when they overthrew established
authority, but they meant to overthrow it. They meant
rebellion, civil war, bloodshed, infinite suffering for
themselves and their whole generation, tor they ac-
counted them welcome substitutes for insulted liberty
and violated right. There can be nothing plainer, then,
than the American right of revolution. But, tlien, it
shonld be called revolution. "Secession, as a revolu-
tionary right," said Daniel Webster in the Senate, nearly
thirty years ago, in words that now sound prophetic —
"is intelligible. As a right to be proclaimed in the
midst of civil commotions^ and asserted at the head of
armies^ I can understand it. But as a practical right,
existing under the constitution, and in conformity with
its provisions, it seems to be nothing but an absurdity.


for it supposes resistance to government under the au-
thority of government itself; it supposes dismember-
ment without violating the principles of Union ; it sup-
poses the violation of oaths without responsibility ; it
supposes opposition to law without crime ; it supposes
the total overthrow of government without revolution.*'

The men who had conducted the American people
through a long and fearful revolution were the founders
of the new commonwealth which permanently super-
seded the subverted authority of the crown. They
placed the foundations on the unbiassed, untrammelled
consent of the people. They were sick of leagues, of
petty sovereignties, of governments which could not
crovern a single individual. The framers of the consti-
tution, which has now endured three-quarters of a cen-
tury, and under which the nation has made a material
and intellectual progress never surpassed in history,
were not such triflers as to be ignorant of the conse-
quences of their own acts. The constitution which they
offered, and which the people adopted as its own, talked
not of sovereign states — spoke not the word confederacy.
In the very preamble to the instrument are inserted the
vital words which show its character, " We, the people
of the United States, to insure a more perfect union,
and to secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and.
our posterity, do ordain and establish this constitution^
Sic volo, sic juheo. It is the language of a sovereign
solemnly speaking to the world. It is the promulgation
of a great law, the norma agendi of a new common-
wealth. It is no compact.

" A compact (says Blackstone) is a promise proceed-
ing from us. Law is a command directed to us. The


language of a compact is, We will or will not do this ;
that of a law is, Thou shalt or shalt not do it." (1 B.
38, 44, 45.)

And this is throughout the language of the constitu-
tion. Congress shall do this ; the President shall do
that ; the states shall not exercise this or that power.
Witness, for example, the important clauses by which
the " sovereign" states are shorn of all the great attri-
butes of sovereignty — no state shall coin money, nor
emit bills of credit, nor pass ex j^ost facto laws, nor laws
impairing the obligation of contracts, nor maintain
armies and navies, nor grant letters of marque, nor
make compacts with other states, nor hold intercourse
with foreign powers, nor grant titles of nobility ; and
that most significant phrase, " this constitution, and the
laws made in pursuance thereof, shall he the sujpreme
law of the land^

Could language be more imperial ? Could the claim
to state "sovereignty" be more completely disposed of
at a word ? How can that be sovereign, acknowledging
no superior, supreme, which has voluntarily accepted a
supreme law from something which it acknowledges as
superior ?

The constitution is perpetual, not provisional or tem-
porary. It is made for all time — " for ourselves and our
posterity." It is absolute within its sphere. " Tliis con-
stitution shall be the supreme law of the land, anything
in the constitution or laws of a state to the contrary not-
withstanding." Of what value, then, is a law of a state
declarino; its connection with the Union dissolved ? The
constitution remains supreme, and is bound to assert its
supremacy till overpowered by force. The use of force


— of armies and navies of whatever strength — in order
to compel obedience to the civil and constitutional au-
thority, is not ^'■wicked war^'' is not civil war, is not war
at all. So long as it exists tlie government is obliged to
put forth its strength when assailed. The President, who
has taken an oath before God and man to maintain the
constitution and laws, is perjured if he yields the con-
stitution and laws to armed rebellion without a strug-
gle. He knows nothing of states. Within the sphere of

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Online LibraryJohn Lothrop MotleyThe causes of the American civil war. A letter to the London Times → online text (page 1 of 3)