William Ellery Channing.

The complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction online

. (page 164 of 169)
Online LibraryWilliam Ellery ChanningThe complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction → online text (page 164 of 169)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

and the South, and the shades of distinction
are growing fainter. But climate, that mys-
terious agent on the spirit, will never suner
these diversities wholly to disappear; nor is
it best that they should be lost. A nation
with these diflferent elements will have a
richer history, and is more likely to adopt a
wise and liberal policy that will do justice to
our whole nature. The diversities between
the two sections of the community are in-
ducements, rather than objections, to union ;
for narrow and homogeneous communities are
apt to injure and degrade themselves by
stubborn prejudices, and by a short-sighted,
selfish concern for their special interests ; and
it is well for them to form connections which
will help or force them to look far and wide,
to make compromises and sacrifices, and to
seek a larger good.

We have a strong argument for continued
union in the almost insuperable difficulties
which would follow its dissolution. To the
young and inexperienced the formation of
new confederacies and new governments
passes for an easy task. It seems to be
thought that a political union may be got up
as easily as a marriage. But love is the rnia-
gician which levels all the mountains of diffi-
culty in the latter case ; and no love, too often
nothing but selfishness, acts in the former.

Let the Union be dissolved, and new
federal governments must be framed; and
we have little reason to anticipate better than
we now enjoy. Not that our present Consti-
tution is, what it is sometimes called, the per-
fection of political skill. It is the first ex-
periment of a purely representative system ;
and fi^pt experiments are almost necessarily
imperfect. Future ages may smile at our
blameless model of government A more

skilful machinery, more eflncttial checks, wiser
distributions and modifications of power, are
probably to be taught the world by our ex-
perience. But our experience has as yet
been too short to bring us this wisdom,
whilst the circumstances of the present mo-
ment are anything but propitious to an im-
provement on the work of our fiertheis.

The work of framing a government, even
in favourable circumstances, is one of the
most arduous committed to man. The con-
struction of the simplest form of polity, or of
institutions for a single community in mde
stages of society, demands rare wisdom ; and
accordingly the renown of legislators tran-
scends all other fame in history. But to con-
struct a government for a confederacy of
states, ot nations, in a highly complex and
artificial state of society, is a herctdean task.
The Federal Constitution was a higher
achievement than the assertion of our inde-
pendence in the field of battle. If we can
point to any portion of our history as indi-
cating a special Divine Provkience, it was the
consent of so many communities to a frarhe
of govenwnent combining such provisions for
human rights and happiness as we now enjoy.

Break up this Union, reduce these Stsrfes.
now doubled in number, to a fngmentanr
form, and who can hope to live long enough
to see a harmonious reconstroction of thorn
into new confexieracies ? We know how the
present Constitution was obstructed by the
jealousies and passions of States and indi-
viduals. But if these were so formidable at
the end of a struggle ag^nst a common foe
which had knit all hearts, what is not to be
dreaded from the distrusts which must foUow
the conflicts and exasperations of the last
fifty years, and the agony of separation ? It
is no reproadi on me people to say, that
nearly fifty years of peace, and tradle, and
ambition, and prosperity have not nourisbed
as ardent a patriotism as the xevdhitionary
struggle ; for this is a necessaxy resuft of the
principles of human nature. We should
come to our work nu>re selfishly than our
fathers approached theirs. Our interests,
too, are now more complicated, Tarious, in-
terfering, so that a compromise would he
harder. We have lost much of the simpiSdty
of a former time, and our public roen are
greater proficients in intrigue. Were there
natural divisions of the country whidi voold
determine at once the new anangeoiettts of
power, the difficulty would be less; but the
new confederacies would be snfficicxi^ aitii-
trary to open a wide field to sdfish ptetMi:^
Who that knows the obstades whkli f^p^.
selfishness, and corruption thiotr inl^^n^

of a settled government, wiXL .
counter the chances and perils of
a new system under all these t
There is another "


Digitized by VjOOQ IC



U undesirable now to break up the present
order of things. The minds of men eveiywhere
are at this moment more than usually unsettled.
There is much questioning of the past and
the established, and a disposition to push
principles to extremes, without regard to the
modifications which other principles and a
large experience demand. There is a blind
co^dence in the power of man's will and
wisdom over society, an overweening faith in
legislation, a disposition to look to outward
arrsmgements for that melioration of human
ftfiairs which can come onlv from the culture
and i]flx>gTess of the soul, a hope of making by
machinery what is and must be a slow, silent
gro^vth. Such a time is not the best for con-
structing governments and new confederacies.

We are, especiall)r, passing through a stage
of political speculation or opinion, which is,
indeed, necessary under such institutions,
and which may be expected to give place to
higher wisdom, but which is not the roost
propitious for the formation of political insti-
tutions. I refer to false notions as to demo-
cracy, and as to its distinctive benefits; notions
which ought not to surprise us, because a
people are slow to learn the true character
and spirit of their institutions, and generally
acquire thb, as all other knowledge, by some
painful experience. It is a common nodon
nere, as elsewhere, that it is a grand privilege
to govern, to exercise political power; and
that popular institutioils have this special
benefit, that the3r confer the honour and
pleasure of sovereignty on the greatest num-
ber possible. The people are pleased at the
thought of being rulers; and hence all ob-
structions to their immediate, palpable ruling
are regarded with jealousy. It is a gnmd
thing, they fancy, to have Uieir share of king-
ship. Now this is vrrong— a pernicious error.
It is no privilege to govern, but a fearful re-
sponsibihty, and seulom assumed without
guilt The great good to be sought and
hoped from popular institutions is, to be freed
from unnecessary rule, to be governed with
no reference to the glory or gratification of
the sovereign power. The grand good of
popular institutions is Liberty, or the protec-
tion of every man's rights to the full, with the
least possible r«:straint. Sovereigntv, wher-
ever lod£ed, is not a thing to be proud of, or to
be stretched a hand'»-breadtht>eyond need. If
I am to be hedged in on every side, to he fretted
by the perpetual presence of arbitrary will, to
be denied the exercise of my powers, it mat-
ters nothing to me whether the chain is laid on
me by one or manv, by king or people. A des-
pot is not more tolerable for his many heads.

Democracy, considered in itselt, is the
noblest form of government, and the only
one to satisfy a man who respects himseu
And nis fellow-creatures. But if its actual
operation be regarded, we are compelled to

say that it works very imperfectly. It is true
of people as it is of king and nobles, that
they have no great capacity of government.
They ought not to exult at the thought of
being rulers, but to content themselves with
swaying the sceptre within as narrow limits as
the public safety may require. They should
tremble at this function of government, should
exercise it with self-distrust, and be humbled
by the defects of their administration.

I am not impatient of Law. One law I
reverence; that divine, eternal law written on
the rational soul, and revealed with a celestial
brightness in the word and life of Jesus
Christ. But human rulers, be they many or
few, are apt to pay little heed to this law.
They do not easily surrender to it their in-
terests and ambition. It is dethroned in
cabinets, and put to silence in halls of legis-
lation. In the sphere of politics, even men
generally good dispense unscrupulously with a
pure morality, and of consequence we all have
an interest in the limitation of political power.
Such views teach us that one of the first les-
sons to be taught to a people in a democracy
is self-distrust. They should learn that to rule
is the most difficult work on earth ; that in all
ages and countries men have sunk under the
temptations and difficulties of the task ; that
no power is so corrupting as public power, and
that none should be used with greater fear.

By democracy, we understand that a people
governs itself ; and the primary, fundamental
act required of a people is, that it shall lay
such restraints on its OMm powers as will give
the best security against their abuse. This is
the highest purpose of a popular constitution.
A constitution is not merely a machinery for
ascertaining and expressing a people's will,
but much more a provision for keeping that
will within righteous bounds. It is the act of
a people imposing limits on itself, setting
guard on its own passions, and throwing
obstructions in the way of legislation, so as to
compel itself to pause, to deliberate, to hear
all remonstrances, to weigh all rights and
interests, before it acts. A constitution not
framed on these principles must fail of its
end. Now at the present moment these
sound maxims have lost much of their
authority. The people, flattered into blind-
ness, have forgotten their passionateness, and
proneness to abuse power. The wholesome
restraints laid by the present Constitution on
popular impulse are losing their force, and
we have reason to fear that new constitutions
formed at the present moment would want,
more than our present national charter, the
checks and balances on which safety depends.
A wise man knows himself to be weak, and
lays down rules of life which meet his peculiar
temptation. So should a people do. A
people is in danger from fickleness and pas-
sion. The great evil to be feared in a popular

Digitized by VaOOQlC


government U instability, or the sacrifice of barrier against invasions of tfaeConstitntioB 17

great principles to momentary impulses. A extensive combinations of interest or ambkioo.

constitution which does not apply checks and Every department should be a check on fegis^

restraints to these perils cannot stand. Our latioa; but this salutary power there is a <ti^o-

present Constitution has man^ wise provi- aitiontowrest£romthe£xecative;azMlitvo«kl

sions of this character. The division of the hardly find a place in a new ooafederacy.

legislature into twx> branches, and the forma The grand restraining. cooiemaiv« povcr

which retard legislation, are of 0reat value, of the state remains to be menticxied ; it is

But what constitutes the peculiar, advantage tbe Judiciaiy. This is worth mocie to the

of the distinction of legislative chambers is. people than any other department. The inn

that the Senate has so different a character partial administration of a good eode of kics

from the House of Representatives ; that it is the grand result, the pararaonpt goo4 to

represents States, not individuals ; that it is which all political anangemasts sboukl be

chosen by legislatHres. not by primary assem- subordinate. The reign of justioe. which is

blies : and that the term of a senator's ser- the reign of rights and tiberQr, is tbe great

vice is three times the length of that of the boon We should ask from the state. The

popular branch. The Senate is one of the judicial is tbe highest function. Tbe Chid

chief conservative powers in the government. Justice should rank before King or PresideBt.

It has two grand functions ; one to watch the The pomp of a pakice may be cUspensed with ;

rights of the several States, an^ the other, but every imposing solemnity consisient with

not less important, to resist the fluctuations the simplicity of our manners should be com-

of the popular branch. The Senate is a bined in the naU where the laws which secnxe

power raised for a time by the people above every man's rights are administered. To ac-

their own prions, that it ma^ aecsm stability oompUsh the great endof govemmeDt, nothing

to the adminisuation of afiuiirs. - Now this is so important as to secure tbe iiD{Mrtiality

function of the Senate has been ^riously im- and monX independence of jodgcs; and for

paired by the doctrine of " Instructions," a this end they shoukl be appointed for bfe,

doctrine destroying moral independeoce, and sul^ect to removal only for violatioii of duty.

making the senator a passive recipient of This is essential A judge should not hang

momentary impulses which it may be his on the smiles of king or people. In him the

highest duty to withstand. This doctrine is, people ^oidd ereot a power above their own

in every view hurtful. A man in public life temporary will. There ought to be in the

should as far as possible be placed under state something to represent the nuuestyof

influences which give hire dignity of mind, that stable, everlastbig law to which all alike

self-respect, and a deep feeling of responsi- should bow; some power above the sordid

bility. He should go to the nation's council intcresU, and alsof from the strugn^les and in-

with a mind open to all the light which is trigues of ordinary put>lic life, iht depen-

concentrated tlwre, to study and promote the dence of the judge on the breath of party or

broad interests of the nation. He is not to the fleeting passions of the people is a defor^

work as a mere tool, to be an echo of the mity in the state, for which no other excd>

varying voices at a distance, but to do what lenoe in popular institudont can make com-

scems to him right, and to answer to his con? pensation. The grandest spectacle in this

stituents for his conduct at the appointed country is the judiciary power, raised by the

hour for yielding up his trust. Yet were new people to independence of parties and tem>

institutions to be framed at this moment, porary majorities^ taking as its first gnkle tbe

would not the people forget tbe restraint national charter, the fundamental taw, which

which they should impose on themselves, and no parties can toudi, which stands like a rodk.

the respect due to their delegates? and, from amidst the ^actuations of opinion, and deter-

attaching a foolish self-importance to the act mining by this the validity of the laws enacted

of governing, would they not give to their by transient legislatures. Here is the c<m-

momentary feelings more and more tbe con« servative element of the country. Yet it is

duct of public aflairs ? seriously p r o posed to destroy the indepen-

The Constitution contains another provi- dence of the judiciary power, to make the

sion of wise self-distrust on the part of the judge a pensioner on party, by making the

people, in the power of the veto entrusted to ofiice elective for a limited time; and it is not

the President. The President is the only impossible that this pemidous feature might

representative of the people's unity. He is be impressed on new institnticsiswhich m^ht

the head of the nation. He has nothing to spring up at the present time,
do with Districts or States, but to look witb This language wUl not Win me tbe Bsnse ol

an equal eye on the whole country. To hhn Democrat. But I am not amdous to bear

is entrusted a limited negative on the two any name Into which Government enters as
chambers, a negative not simply designed to: the great idea. I want as little government '

-""^rd his own power from encroachment, but- as consists with safety to the rights of alL I

■ect partial legislation, apd t£> be « wish the pec^le to govern no fisrther than they

Digitized by VjOOQ IC



inust. I wish them to place all checks on the
legislature which consist with its efficiency.
I honour the passion for power and rule as
little in the people as in a king. It is a vicious
principle, «xist where it may. If by demo-
cracy he meant the exercise of sovereignty by
the people under all those provisions and self-
imposed restraints which tend inost to secure
equal laws and the rights of each and all, then
I shall be proud to bear its name. But the
unfettered multitude is not deaner to me than
the unfettered king. And yet at the present
moment there is a tendency to remove the
restraints on which the wise and righteous
ei:ertion of the people's power depencte.

The sum of what I have wished to say ]&,
that the union of these States should, if
possible, be kept inviolate, on the ground of
the immense difficulty of constructing new
.confederacies and new governments. The
present state of men's minds is not favourable
to tliis most arduous task. Other consider-
ations might be urged against disunion. But
in all this I do not mean that union is to be
held fast at whatever cost. Vast sacrifices
should be made to it, but not the sacrifice of
duty. For one, I do not wish it to continue, if,
fifter earnest, £aithful effort, the truth should
be made clear that the Free States are not to
be absolved from giving support to slavery.
Better that we should part, than be the police
of thesloverholder, than fight bis battles, than
wage war lo uphold an oppressive institution.

So I say, let the Union be dissevered rather
than receive Teias into the confederacy.
This measure, besides entailing on us evils
of all sorts, would hav£ for its chief end to
bring the whole country under the slave-
power, to make the General Government the
agent of slavery; and this we are boimd to
resist at all hazards. The Free States should
declare that the very act of admitting Texas
will be construed as a dissoli^ion of the Union.

This act would be unconstitutional. The
authors of the Constitution never dreamed of
conferring a power on Congress to attach a
foreign nation to the country, and so to de-
stroy entirely the original balance of power.
It is true that the people acquiesced in the
admission of Louisiana to the Union by
treaty ; but the necessity of the case recon-
ciled them to that dangerous precedent It
was understood that, by fair means or foul,
by negotiation or war, the Western States
would or must possess themselves of the
Mississippi and New Orleans. This was
fegarded as a matter of life or death ; and
therefore the people allowed this great inroad
to take place in the fundamental conditions
of the union, without the appeal whk:h ought
to have been made to the several State
sovereignties. But no such necessity now
exists, and a like action of Congress ought to
be repelled as gross usurpation.

We are always in danger of excessive
jealousy in judging of the motives of other
parts of the country, and this remark may
apply to the present case. The South, if
true to its own interest, would see in Texas a
rival rather than an ally; but at the North it
is suspected that political motives outweigh
the economical. It is suspected that the
desire of annexing Texas has been whetted
by the disclosures of the last census as to the
increase of pmnilation and wealth at the
North. The South, it is said, means to
balance the Free States by adding a new
empire to the confederacy. But on this point
our slave-holding brethren need not be anx-
ious. Without Texas, the South wiH have
very much its own way, and will continue to
exert a disproportionate influence over public
a£^rs. It has within itself elements of
poUtical power more efficient than ours.
The South has abler politicians, and almost
necessarily, because its most opulent class
make politics the business of life. The
North may send wiser statesmen to Congress,
but not men to marshal and govern parties,
not poUtical leaders. The South surpasses
us, not in true eloquence, which is little
known anywhere, but in prompt, bold speech,
a superiority due not only to greater ardour
of feeling, but to a state of society encouraging
the habit, and stimulating by constant action
the faculty, of free and strong utterance on
poUtical subjects ; and such eloquence is no
mean power in popular bodies. The South
has a Ixjider and more unscrupulous charac-
ter, for which the caution and prudence of the
North are not a match. Once more, it has
union, common feeUng, a pecuUar bond in
slavery, to which the divided North can make
no adequate opposition. At the North poli-
tics occupy a second place in men's minds.
Evto in what we call seasons of public excite-
ment, the people think more of private business
than of public affairs. We think more of
property than of political power; and this,
indeed, is the natural result of free institu-
tions. Under these poUtical power is not
suffered to accumulate in a few hands, but is
distributed in minute portions; and even
when thus Umited, it is not permitted to en^
dure, but passes in quick rotation from man
to man. Of consequence, it is an inferior
good to property. Every wise man among
us looks on property as a more sure and last-
ing possession to himself and his family, as
conferring more ability to do good, to gratify
generous and refined tastes, than the posses-
sion of poUtical power. In the South an un-
natural state of things turns men's thoughts
to political ascendency ; but in the Free States
men think little of it. Property is the good
for which they toil perseverfngly from morning
to night. Even the poUtical partisan among
"OS has an eye to prc^crty, and seeks office i^

Digitized by VaOOQlC



the best, perhaps only, way of subsistence.
In this state of things, the South has little to
fear from the North. For one thing we may
contend, that is, for a tariff, for protection to
our moneyed interests ; but if we may be left to
work and thrive, we shall not quarrel for power.

The little sensibility at the North to the
present movements on the subject of Texas is
the best commentary on the spirit of the Free
States. That the South should be suffered to
think for a moment of adding a great country
to the United States for the sake of strength-
ening slavery, demonstrates an absence of
wise political jealousy at the North to which
no parallel can be found in human history.

The union of Texas to us must be an un-
mixed evil. We do not need it on a single
account. We are already too large. The
machine of government hardly creeps on tmder
the weight of so many diverse interests and
such complex functions as burden it now.
Our own natural increase is already too rapid.
New States are springing up too fast ; for in
these there must exist, from the nature of the
case, an excess of adventurous, daring spirits,
whose influence over the government cannot
but be perilous for a time; and it is madness
to add to us a new nation to increase the wild
impulses, the half-civilized forces, whidi now
mingle with our national legislation.

To unite with Texas would be to identify
ourselves with a mighty wrong ; for such was
the seizure of that province by a horde of
adventurers. It would be to ensure the pre-
dominance of the slave-power, to make slavery
a chief national interest, and to pledge us to
the continually increasing prostitution of the
national power to its support. It would be
to begin a career of encroachment on Mexico
which would corrupt and dishonour us, would
complicate and disturb the movements of
government, would create a wasteful patron-
age, and enlarge our military establishments.
It would be to plunge us into war, not onlv
with Mexico, but with foreign powers, which
will not quietly leave us to add the Gulf of
Mexico to our vast stretch of territory along
the Atlantic coast.

To unite Texas to ourselves would be to
destroy our present unity as a people, to sow
new seeds of jealousy. It would be to spread
beyond bounds the space over which the
national arm must be extended; to present
new points of attack and new reasons for
assault, and at the same time to impair the
energy to resist them. Can the Free States
consent to pour out their treasure and blood
like water in order to defend against Mexico
and her European protectors the slave-trodden
fields of distant Texas ? Would the South be

Online LibraryWilliam Ellery ChanningThe complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction → online text (page 164 of 169)