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SPEECH ON THE OREGON BILL - John C. Calhoun, Union and Liberty: The Political Philosophy of John C. Calhoun 
Union and Liberty: The Political Philosophy of John C. Calhoun, ed. Ross M. Lence (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1992).
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SPEECH ON THE OREGON BILL
[June 27, 1848]
By 1848, both sides of the sectional controversy were becoming more rigidly entrenched. Fewer and fewer men believed that dialogue could resolve the differences between the North and South. Calhoun, however, would not be dissuaded from the powers of analysis. In his speech on the status of the Oregon territory, he presents a point-by-point refutation of arguments defending the exclusion of slavery from the territories on the basis of the U.S. Constitution, the Ordinance of 1787, the Missouri Compromise, and the intentions and thoughts of Thomas Jefferson. Calhoun calls upon the North to recognize its obligations under the Constitution and to stop its policies of aggression, and he calls upon the South to take action to defend itself before it is too late.
Ironically, by the end of his own speech, Calhoun himself seemed to have abandoned hope that meaningful dialogue was possible. In his clearest statement on the conflict between freedom and equality, Calhoun perceived that the real source of conflict between the North and South was, in the final analysis, based on fundamental beliefs about human nature, and not upon principles of political practice. Beginning from a false premise, a vast majority of people on both sides of the Atlantic have come to confuse the three states of man: individual, political, and social. If, posits Calhoun, our Union and government should perish, a historian writing about the dissolution of the American political system will find that the remote cause of the crisis originated in the hypothetical proposition that “all men are born free and equal.” This theoretical truism has been repeated so often that it is now taken as axiomatic. And from this small beginning, writes Calhoun, a pernicious teaching has won sway in the world that holds individual liberty in higher regard than the liberty of the community and the safety of the society. Developing the arguments and reasoning that characterize his Disquisition on Government, Calhoun argues that liberty is not a natural right of individual men—no matter how often the phrase is repeated—but a blessing bestowed on a people as a reward for their intelligence, virtue, and patriotism.
There is a very striking difference between the position on which the slaveholding and non-slaveholding States stand, in reference to the subject under consideration. The former desire no action of the Government; demand no law to give them any advantage in the territory about to be established; are willing to leave it, and other territories belonging to the United States, open to all their citizens, so long as they continue to be territories—and when they cease to be so, to leave it to their inhabitants to form such governments as may suit them, without restriction or condition, except that imposed by the constitution, as a prerequisite for admission into the Union. In short, they are willing to leave the whole subject where the constitution and the great and fundamental principles of self-government place it. On the contrary, the non-slaveholding States, instead of being willing to leave it on this broad and equal foundation, demand the interposition of the Government, and the passage of an act to exclude the citizens of the slaveholding States from emigrating with their property into the territory, in order to give their citizens and those they may permit, the exclusive right of settling it, while it remains in that condition, preparatory to subjecting it to like restrictions and conditions when it becomes a State. The 12th section of this bill is intended to assert and maintain this demand of the non-slaveholding States, while it remains a territory, not openly or directly, but indirectly, by extending the provisions of the bill for the establishment of the Iowa Territory to this, and by ratifying the acts of the informal and self-constituted government of Oregon, which, among others, contains one prohibiting the introduction of slavery. It thus, in reality, adopts what is called the Wilmot Proviso, not only for Oregon, but, as the bill now stands, for New Mexico and California. The amendment, on the contrary, moved by the Senator from Mississippi, near me (Mr. Davis), is intended to assert and maintain the position of the slaveholding States. It leaves the territory free and open to all the citizens of the United States, and would overrule, if adopted, the act of the self-constituted Territory of Oregon and the 12th section, as far as it relates to the subject under consideration. We have thus fairly presented the grounds taken by the non-slaveholding and the slaveholding States, or, as I shall call them, for the sake of brevity, the Northern and Southern States, in their whole extent for discussion.
The first question which offers itself for consideration is—Have the Northern States the power which they claim, to prevent the Southern people from emigrating freely, with their property, into territories belonging to the United States, and to monopolize them for their exclusive benefit?
It is, indeed, a great question. I propose to discuss it calmly and dispassionately. I shall claim nothing which does not fairly and clearly belong to the Southern States, either as members of this Federal Union, or appertain to them in their separate and individual character; nor shall I yield any thing which belongs to them in either capacity. I am influenced neither by sectional nor party considerations. If I know myself, I would repel as promptly and decidedly any aggression of the South on the North, as I would any on the part of the latter on the former. And let me add, I hold the obligation to repel aggression to be not much less solemn than that of abstaining from making aggression; and the party which submits to it when it can be resisted, to be not much less guilty and responsible for consequences than that which makes it. Nor do I stand on party grounds. What I shall say in reference to this subject, I shall say entirely without reference to the Presidential election. I hold it to be infinitely higher than that and all other questions of the day. I shall direct my efforts to ascertain what is constitutional, right and just, under a thorough conviction that the best and only way of putting an end to this, the most dangerous of all questions to our Union and institutions, is to adhere rigidly to the constitution and the dictates of justice.
With these preliminary remarks, I recur to the question—Has the North the power which it claims under the 12th section of this bill? I ask at the outset, where is the power to be found? Not, certainly, in the relation in which the Northern and Southern States stand to each other. They are the constituent parts or members of a common Federal Union; and, as such, are equals in all respects, both in dignity and rights, as is declared by all writers on governments founded on such union, and as may be inferred from arguments deduced from their nature and character. Instead, then, of affording any countenance or authority in favor of the power, the relation in which they stand to each other furnishes a strong presumption against it. Nor can it be found in the fact that the South holds property in slaves. That, too, fairly considered, instead of affording any authority for the power, furnishes a strong presumption against it. Slavery existed in the South when the constitution was framed, fully to the extent, in proportion to the population, that it does at this time. It is the only property recognized by it; the only one that entered into its formation as a political element, both in the adjustment of the relative weight of the States in the Government, and the apportionment of direct taxes; and the only one that is put under the express guaranty of the constitution. It is well known to all conversant with the history of the formation and adoption of the constitution, that the South was very jealous in reference to this property; that it constituted one of the difficulties both to its formation and adoption; and that it would not have assented to either, had the convention refused to allow to it its due weight in the Government, or to place it under the guaranty of the constitution. Nor can it be found in the way that the territories have been acquired. I will not go into particulars, in this respect, at this stage of the discussion. Suffice it to say, the whole was acquired either by purchase, out of the common funds of all the States—the South as well as the North—or by arms and mutual sacrifice of men and money; which, instead of giving any countenance in favor of the power claimed by the North, on every principle of right and justice, furnishes strong additional presumption against it.
But, if it cannot be found in either, if it exists at all, the power must be looked for in the constitutional compact, which binds those States together in a Federal Union; and I now ask, can it be found there? Does that instrument contain any provision which gives the North the power to exclude the South from a free admission into the territories of the United States with its peculiar property, and to monopolize them for its own exclusive use? If it in fact contains such power, expressed or implied, it must be found in a specific grant, or be inferred by irresistible deduction, from some clear and acknowledged power. Nothing short of the one or the other can overcome the strong presumption against it.
That there is no such specific grant may be inferred, beyond doubt, from the fact that no one has ever attempted to designate it. Instead of that, it has been assumed—taken for granted without a particle of proof—that Congress has the absolute right to govern the territories. Now, I concede, if it does in reality possess such power, it may exclude from the territories whom or what it pleases, and admit into them whom or what it pleases; and of course may exercise the power claimed by the North to exclude the South from them. But I again repeat, where is this absolute power to be found? All admit that there is no such specific grant of power. If, then, it exists at all, it must be inferred from some such power. I ask where is that to be found? The Senator from New York, behind me (Mr. Dix), points to the clause in the constitution, which provides that “Congress shall have power to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory and other property belonging to the United States.” Now, I undertake to affirm and maintain, beyond the possibility of doubt, that, so far from conferring absolute power to govern the territories, it confers no governmental power whatever; no, not a particle. It refers exclusively to territory, regarded simply as public lands. Every word relates to it in that character, and is wholly inapplicable to it considered in any other character than property. Take the expression “dispose of” with which it begins. It is easily understood what it means when applied to lands; and is the proper and natural expression regarding the territory in that character, when the object is to confer the right to sell or make other disposition of it. But who ever heard the expression applied to government? And what possible meaning can it have when so applied? Take the next expression, “to make all needful rules and regulations.” These, regarded separately, might, indeed, be applicable to government in a loose sense; but they are never so applied in the constitution. In every case where they are used in it, they refer to property, to things, or some process, such as the rules of Court, or of the Houses of Congress for the government of their proceedings; but never to government, which always implies persons to be governed. But if there should be any doubt in this case, the words immediately following, which restrict them to making “rules and regulations respecting the territory and other property of the United States,” must effectually expel it. They restrict their meaning, beyond the possibility of doubt, to territory regarded as property.
But if it were possible for doubt still to exist, another and conclusive argument still remains to show that the framers of the constitution did not intend to confer by this clause governmental powers. I refer to the clause in the constitution which delegates the power of exclusive legislation to Congress over this District and “all places purchased by the consent of the legislature of the State in which the same may be for the erection of forts, magazines, arsenals, dockyards, and other needful buildings.” The places therein referred to are clearly embraced by the expression, “other property belonging to the United States,” contained in the clause I have just considered. But it is certain, that if it had been the intention of the framers of the constitution to confer governmental powers over such places by that clause, they never would have delegated it by this. They were incapable of doing a thing so absurd. But it is equally certain, if they did not intend to confer such power over them, they could not have intended it over territories. Whatever was conferred by the same words, in reference to one, must have been intended to be conferred in reference to the other, and the reverse. The opposite supposition would be absurd. But, it may be asked why the term—territory—was omitted in the delegation of exclusive legislation to Congress over the places enumerated? Very satisfactory reasons may, in my opinion, be assigned. The former were limited to places lying within the limits and jurisdiction of the States, and the latter to public land lying beyond both. The cession and purchase of the former, with the consent of the State within which they might be situated, did not oust the sovereignty or jurisdiction of the State. They still remained in the State, the United States acquiring only the title to the place. It, therefore, became necessary to confer on Congress, by express delegation, the exercise of exclusive power of legislation over this District and such places, in order to carry out the object of the purchase and session. It was simply intended to withdraw them from under the legislatures of the respective States within which they might lie, and substitute that of Congress in its place, subject to the restrictions of the constitution and the objects for which the places were acquired, leaving, as I have said, the sovereignty still in the State in which they are situated, but in abeyance, as far as it extends to legislation. Thus, in the case of this District, since the retrocession to Virginia of the part beyond the Potomac, the sovereignty still continues in Maryland in the manner stated. But the case is very different in reference to territories, lying as they do beyond the limits and jurisdictions of all the States. The United States possess not simply the right of ownership over them, but that of exclusive dominion and sovereignty; and hence it was not necessary to exclude the power of the States to legislate over them, by delegating the exercise of exclusive legislation to Congress. It would have been an act of supererogation. It may be proper to remark in this connection, that the power of exclusive legislation, conferred in these cases, must not be confounded with the power of absolute legislation. They are very different things. It is true that absolute power of legislation is always exclusive, but it by no means follows that exclusive power of legislation or of government is likewise always absolute. Congress has the exclusive power of legislation, as far as this Government is concerned, and the State legislatures as far as their respective governments are concerned—but we all know that both are subject to many and important restrictions and conditions which the nature of absolute power excludes.
I have now made good the assertion I ventured to make, that the clause in the constitution relied on by the Senator from New York, so far from conferring the absolute power of government over the territory claimed by him, and others who agree with him, confers not a particle of governmental power. Having conclusively established this, the long list of precedents, cited by the Senator to prop up the power which he sought in the clause, falls to the ground with the fabric which he raised; and I am thus exempted from the necessity of referring to them, and replying to them one by one.
But there is one precedent, referred to by the Senator, unconnected with the power, and on that account requiring particular notice. I refer to the ordinance of 1787, which was adopted by the old Congress of the Confederation while the convention that framed the constitution was in session, and about one year before its adoption—and of course on the very eve of the expiration of the old Confederation. Against its introduction, I might object that the act of the Congress of the Confederation cannot rightfully form precedents for this Government; but I waive that. I waive also the objection that the act was consummated when that Government was in extremis, and could hardly be considered compos mentis. I waive also the fact that the ordinance assumed the form of a compact, and was adopted when only eight States were present, while the articles of confederation required nine to form compacts. I waive also the fact, that Mr. Madison declared that the act was without shadow of constitutional authority, and shall proceed to show, from the history of its adoption, that it cannot justly be considered of any binding force.
Virginia made the cession of the territory north of the Ohio, and lying between it and the Mississippi and the lakes, in 1784. It now contains the States of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and a very considerable extent of territory lying north of the latter. Shortly after the cession, a committee of three was raised, of whom Mr. Jefferson was one. They reported an ordinance for the establishment of the territory, containing, among other provisions, one, of which Mr. Jefferson was the author, excluding slavery from the territory after the year 1800. It was reported to Congress, but this provision was struck out. On the question of striking out, every Southern State present voted in favor of it; and, what is more striking, every Southern delegate voted the same way, Mr. Jefferson alone excepted. The ordinance was adopted without the provision. At the next session, Rufus King, then a member of the old Congress, moved a proposition, very much in the same shape as the sixth article (that which excludes slavery) in the ordinance as it now stands, with the exception of its proviso. It was referred to a committee, but there was no action on it. A committee was moved the next or the subsequent year, which reported without including or noticing Mr. King’s proposition. Mr. Dane was a member of that committee, and proposed a provision the same as that in the ordinance as it passed, but the committee reported without including it. Finally, another committee was raised, at the head of which was Mr. Carrington of Virginia, and of which Mr. Dane was also a member. That committee reported without including the amendment previously proposed by him. Mr. Dane moved his proposition, which was adopted, and the report of the committee thus amended became the ordinance of 1787.
It may be inferred from this brief historical sketch, that the ordinance was a compromise between the Southern and Northern States, of which the terms were, that slavery should be excluded from the territory upon condition that fugitive slaves, who might take refuge in the territory, should be delivered up to their owners, as stipulated in the proviso of the sixth article of the ordinance. It is manifest, from what has been stated, that the South was unitedly and obstinately opposed to the provision when first moved; that the proposition of Mr. King, without the proviso, was in like manner resisted by the South, as may be inferred from its entire want of success, and that it never could be brought to agree to it until the provision for the delivery up of fugitive slaves was incorporated in it. But it is well understood that a compromise involves not a surrender, but simply a waiver of the right or power; and hence in the case of individuals, it is a well-established legal principle, that an offer to settle by compromise a litigated claim, is no evidence against the justice of the claim on the side of the party making it. The South, to her honor, has observed with fidelity her engagements under this compromise; in proof of which, I appeal to the precedents cited by the Senator from New York, intended by him to establish the fact of her acquiescence in the ordinance. I admit that she has acquiesced in the several acts of Congress to carry it into effect; but the Senator is mistaken in supposing that it is proof of a surrender, on her part, of the power over the territories which he claims for Congress. No, she never has, and I trust never will, make such a surrender. Instead of that, it is conclusive proof of her fidelity to her engagements. She has never attempted to set aside the ordinance, or to deprive the territory, and the States erected within its limits, of any right or advantage it was intended to confer. But I regret that as much cannot be said in favor of the fidelity with which it has been observed on their part. With the single exception of the State of Illinois—be it said to her honor—every other State erected within its limits has pursued a course, and adopted measures, which have rendered the stipulations of the proviso to deliver up fugitive slaves nugatory. Wisconsin may, also, be an exception, as she has just entered the Union, and has hardly had time to act on the subject. They have gone further, and suffered individuals to form combinations, without an effort to suppress them, for the purpose of enticing and seducing the slaves to leave their masters, and to run them into Canada beyond the reach of our laws—in open violation, not only of the stipulations of the ordinance, but of the constitution itself. If I express myself strongly, it is not for the purpose of producing excitement, but to draw the attention of the Senate forcibly to the subject. My object is to lay bare the subject under consideration, just as a surgeon probes to the bottom and lays open a wound, not to cause pain to his patient, but for the purpose of healing it.
I come now to another precedent of a similar character, but differing in this—that it took place under this Government, and not under that of the old Confederation; I refer to what is known as the Missouri Compromise. It is more recent and better known, and may be more readily despatched.
After an arduous struggle of more than a year, on the question whether Missouri should come into the Union with or without restrictions prohibiting slavery, a compromise line was adopted between the North and the South; but it was done under circumstances which made it nowise obligatory on the latter. It is true, it was moved by one of her distinguished citizens (Mr. Clay); but it is equally so, that it was carried by the almost united vote of the North against the almost united vote of the South; and was thus imposed on the latter by superior numbers in opposition to her strenuous efforts. The South has never given her sanction to it, or assented to the power it asserted. She was voted down, and has simply acquiesced in an arrangement which she has not had the power to reverse, and which she could not attempt to do without disturbing the peace and harmony of the Union—to which she has ever been averse. Acting on this principle, she permitted the Territory of Iowa to be formed, and the State to be admitted into the Union, under the compromise, without objection; and that is now quoted by the Senator from New York to prove her surrender of the power he claims for Congress.
To add to the strength of this claim, the advocates of the power hold up the name of Jefferson in its favor, and go so far as to call him the author of the so-called Wilmot Proviso, which is but a general expression of a power of which the Missouri compromise is a case of its application. If we may judge by his opinion of that case, what his opinion was of the principle, instead of being the author of the proviso, or being in its favor, no one could be more deadly hostile to it. In a letter addressed to the elder Adams in 1819, in answer to one from him, he uses these remarkable expressions in reference to the Missouri question:
The banks, bankrupt law, manufactures, Spanish treaty, are nothing. These are occurrences, which, like waves in a storm, will pass under the ship. But the Missouri question is a breaker on which we lose the Missouri country by revolt, and what more, God only knows.
To understand the full force of these expressions, it must be borne in mind that the questions enumerated were the great and exciting political questions of the day, on which parties divided. The banks and bankrupt law had long been so. Manufactures, or what has since been called the protective tariff, was at the time a subject of great excitement, as was the Spanish treaty, that is, the treaty by which Florida was ceded to the Union, and by which the western boundary between Mexico and the United States was settled, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific ocean. All these exciting party questions of the day Mr. Jefferson regarded as nothing, compared to the Missouri question. He looked on all of them as in their nature fugitive; and, to use his own forcible expression, “would pass off under the ship of State like waves in a storm.” Not so that fatal question. It was a breaker on which it was destined to be stranded. And yet his name is quoted by the incendiaries of the present day in support of, and as the author of, a proviso which would give indefinite and universal extension of this fatal question to all the territories! It was compromised the next year by the adoption of the line to which I have referred. Mr. Holmes of Maine, long a member of this body, who voted for the measure, addressed a letter to Mr. Jefferson, inclosing a copy of his speech on the occasion. It drew out an answer from him which ought to be treasured up in the heart of every man who loves the country and its institutions. It is brief: I will send it to the Secretary to be read. The time of the Senate cannot be better occupied than in listening to it:
To John Holmes.
April 22, 1820
I thank you, dear sir, for the copy you have been so kind as to send me of the letter to your constituents on the Missouri question. It is a perfect justification to them. I had for a long time ceased to read newspapers, or pay any attention to public affairs, confident they were in good hands, and content to be a passenger in our bark to the shore from which I am not distant. But this momentous question, like a fire-bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed, indeed, for the moment; but this is a reprieve only, not the final sentence. A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper. I can say, with conscious truth, that there is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would to relieve us from this heavy reproach, in any practicable way. The cession of that kind of property (for so it is misnamed) is a bagatelle, which would not cost me a second thought, if in that way a general emancipation and expatriation could be effected; and gradually, and with due sacrifices, I think it might be. But, as it is, we have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other. Of one thing I am certain, that as the free passage of slaves from one State to another would not make a slave of a single human being who would not be so without it, so their diffusion over a greater surface would make them individually happier, and proportionally facilitate the accomplishment of their emancipation, by dividing the burden on a greater number of coadjutors. An abstinence, too, from this act of power, would remove the jealousy excited by the undertaking of Congress to regulate the condition of the different descriptions of men composing a State. This certainly is the exclusive right of every State, which nothing in the constitution has taken from them, and given to the General Government. Could Congress, for example, say that the non-freemen of Connecticut shall be freemen, or that they shall not emigrate into any other State?
I regret that I am now to die in the belief that the useless sacrifice of themselves by the generation of 1776, to acquire self-government and happiness to their country, is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and that my only consolation is to be, that I shall live not to weep over it. If they would but dispassionately weigh the blessings they will throw away against an abstract principle, more likely to be effected by union than by scission, they would pause before they would perpetrate this act of suicide on themselves, and of treason against the hopes of the world. To yourself, as the faithful advocate of the Union, I tender the offering of my high esteem and respect.
Mark his prophetic words! Mark his profound reasoning!
It [the question] is hushed for the moment. But this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographical line coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived, and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated, and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper.
Twenty-eight years have passed since these remarkable words were penned, and there is not a thought which time has not thus far verified, and, it is to be feared, continue to verify until the whole will be fulfilled. Certain it is, that he regarded the compromise line as utterly inadequate to arrest that fatal course of events, which his keen sagacity anticipated from the question. It was but a “reprieve.” Mark the deeply melancholy impression which it made on his mind:
I regret that I am to die in the belief that the useless sacrifice of themselves by the generation of 1776, to acquire self-government and happiness for themselves, is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and that my only consolation is to be, that I shall live not to weep over it.
Can any one believe, after listening to this letter, that Jefferson is the author of the so-called Wilmot Proviso, or ever favored it? And yet there are at this time strenuous efforts making in the North to form a purely sectional party on it, and that, too, under the sanction of those who profess the highest veneration for his character and principles! But I must speak the truth: while I vindicate the memory of Jefferson from so foul a charge, I hold he is not blameless in reference to this subject. He committed a great error in inserting the provision he did in the plan he reported for the government of the territory, as much modified as it was. It was the first blow—the first essay “to draw a geographical line coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political.” It originated with him in philanthropic, but mistaken views of the most dangerous character, as I shall show in the sequel. Others, with very different feelings and views, followed, and have given to it a direction and impetus, which, if not promptly and efficiently arrested, will end in the dissolution of the Union, and the destruction of our political institutions.
I have, I trust, established beyond controversy, that neither the ordinance of 1787, nor the Missouri compromise, nor the precedents growing out of them, nor the authority of Mr. Jefferson, furnishes any evidence whatever to prove that Congress possesses the power over the territory, claimed by those who advocate the 12th section of this bill. But admit, for the sake of argument, that I am mistaken, and that the objections I have urged against them are groundless—give them all the force which can be claimed for precedents—and they would not have the weight of a feather against the strong presumption which I, at the outset of my remarks, showed to be opposed to the existence of the power. Precedents, even in a court of justice, can have but little weight, except where the law is doubtful, and should have little in a deliberative body in any case on a constitutional question—and none, where the power to which it has been attempted to trace it does not exist, as I have shown, I trust, to be the case in this instance.
But, while I deny that the clause relating to the territory and other property of the United States, confers any governmental, or that Congress possesses absolute, power over the territories, I by no means deny that it has any power over them. Such a denial would be idle on any occasion, but much more so on this, when we are engaged in constituting a territorial government, without an objection being whispered from any quarter against our right to do so. If there be any Senator of that opinion, he ought at once to rise and move to lay the bill on the table, or to dispose of it in some other way, so as to prevent the waste of time on a subject upon which we have no right to act. Assuming, then, that we possess the power, the only questions that remain are—whence is it derived? and, what is its extent?
As to its origin, I concur in the opinion expressed by Chief Justice Marshall, in one of the cases read by the Senator from New York, that it is derived from the right of acquiring territory; and I am the more thoroughly confirmed in it from the fact that I entertained the opinion long before I knew it to be his. As to the right of acquiring territory, I agree with the Senator from New York, that it is embraced, without going further, both in the war and treaty powers. Admitting, then—what has never been denied, and what it would be idle to deny in a discussion which relates to territories acquired both by war and treaties—that the United States have the right to acquire territories, it would seem to follow, by necessary consequence, that they have the right to govern them. As they possess the entire right of soil, dominion, and sovereignty over them, they must necessarily carry with them the right to govern. But this Government, as the sole agent and representative of the United States—that is, the States of the Union in their federal character—must, as such, possess the sole right, if it exists at all. But, if there be any one disposed to take a different view of the origin of the power, I shall make no points with him—for whatever may be its origin, the conclusion would be the same, as I shall presently show.
But it would be a great error to conclude that Congress has the absolute power of governing the territories, because it has the sole or exclusive power. The reverse is the case. It is subject to many and important restrictions and conditions, of which some are expressed and others implied. Among the former may be classed all the general and absolute prohibitions of the constitution; that is, all those which prohibit the exercise of certain powers under any circumstance. In this class is included the prohibition of granting titles of nobility; passing ex post facto laws and bills of attainder; the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, except in certain cases; making laws respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting its free exercise; and every other of like description, which conclusively shows that the power of Congress over the territories is not absolute. Indeed, it is a great error to suppose that either this or the State Governments possess, in any case, absolute power. Such power can belong only to the supreme ultimate power, called sovereignty, and that, in our system, resides in the people of the several States of the Union. With us, governments, both federal and State, are but agents, or, more properly, trustees, and, as such, possess, not absolute, but subordinate and limited powers; for all powers possessed by such governments must, from their nature, be trust powers, and subject to all the restrictions to which that class of powers are.
Among them, they are restricted to the nature and the objects of the trust; and hence no government under our system, federal or State, has the right to do any thing inconsistent with the nature of the powers intrusted to it, or the objects for which it was intrusted; or to express it in more usual language, for which it was delegated. To do either would be to pervert the power to purposes never intended, and would be a violation of the constitution—and that in the most dangerous way it could be made, because more easily done and less easily detected. But there is another and important class of restrictions which more directly relate to the subject under discussion. I refer to those imposed on the trustees by the nature and character of the party, who constituted the trustees and invested them with the trust powers to be exercised for its benefit. In this case it is the United States, that is, the several States of the Union. It was they who constituted the Government as their representative or trustee, and intrusted it with powers to be exercised for their common and joint benefit. To them in their united character the territories belong, as is expressly declared by the constitution. They are their joint and common owners, regarded as property or land; and in them, severally, reside the dominion and sovereignty over them. They are as much the territories of one State as another—of Virginia as of New York, of the Southern as the Northern States. They are the territories of all, because they are the territories of each; and not of each, because they are the territories of the whole. Add to this the perfect equality of dignity, as well as of rights, which appertain to them as members of a common federal Union, which all writers on the subject admit to be a fundamental and essential relation between States so united; and it must be manifest that Congress, in governing the territories, can give no preference or advantage to one State over another, or to one portion or section of the union over another, without depriving the State or section over which the preference is given, or from which the advantage is withheld, of their clear and unquestionable right, and subverting the very foundation on which the Union and Government rest. It has no more power to do so than to subvert the constitution itself. Indeed, the act itself would be subversion. It would destroy the relation of equality on the part of the Southern States, and sink them to mere dependants of the Northern, to the total destruction of the federal Union.
I have now shown, I trust, beyond controversy, that Congress has no power whatever to exclude the citizens of the Southern States from emigrating with their property into the territories of the United States, or to give an exclusive monopoly of them to the North. I now propose to go one step further, and show that neither the inhabitants of the territories nor their legislatures have any such right. A very few words will be sufficient for the purpose; for of all the positions ever taken, I hold that which claims the power for them to be the most absurd. If the territories belong to the United States—if the ownership, dominion and sovereignty over them be in the States of this Union, then neither the inhabitants of the territories, nor their legislatures, can exercise any power but what is subordinate to them: but if the contrary could be shown, which I hold to be impossible, it would be subject to all the restrictions, to which I have shown the power of Congress is; and for the same reason, whatever power they might hold, would, in the case supposed, be subordinate to the constitution, and controlled by the nature and character of our political institutions. But if the reverse be true—if the dominion and sovereignty over the territories be in their inhabitants, instead of the United States—they would indeed, in that case, have the exclusive and absolute power of governing them, and might exclude whom they pleased, or what they pleased. But, in that case, they would cease to be the territories of the United States the moment we acquired them and permitted them to be inhabited. The first half-dozen of squatters would become the sovereigns, with full dominion and sovereignty over them; and the conquered people of New Mexico and California would become the sovereigns of the country as soon as they became the territories of the United States, vested with the full right of excluding even their conquerors. There is no escaping from the alternative, but by resorting to the greatest of all absurdities, that of a divided sovereignty—a sovereignty, a part of which would reside in the United States, and a part in the inhabitants of the territory. How can sovereignty—the ultimate and supreme power of a State—be divided? The exercise of the powers of sovereignty may be divided, but how can there be two supreme powers?
We are next told that the laws of Mexico preclude slavery; and assuming that they will remain in force until repealed, it is contended that, until Congress passes an act for their repeal, the citizens of the South cannot emigrate with their property into the territory acquired from her. I admit the laws of Mexico prohibit, not slavery, but slavery in the form it exists with us. The Puros are as much slaves as our negroes, and are less intelligent and well treated. But, I deny that the laws of Mexico can have the effect attributed to them. As soon as the treaty between the two countries is ratified, the sovereignty and authority of Mexico in the territory acquired by it becomes extinct, and that of the United States is substituted in its place, carrying with it the constitution, with its overriding control, over all the laws and institutions of Mexico inconsistent with it. It is true, the municipal laws of the territory not inconsistent with the condition and the nature of our political system would, according to the writers on the laws of nations, remain, until changed, not as a matter of right, but merely of sufferance, and as between the inhabitants of territory, in order to avoid a state of anarchy, before they can be brought under our laws. This is the utmost limit to which sufferance goes. Under it the peon system would continue; but not to the exclusion of such of our citizens as may choose to emigrate with their slaves or other property, that may be excluded by the laws of Mexico. The humane provisions of the laws of nations go no further than to protect the inhabitants in their property and civil rights, under their former laws, until others can be substituted. To extend them further and give them the force of excluding emigrants from the United States, because their property or religion are such as are prohibited from being introduced by the laws of Mexico, would not only prevent a great majority of the people of the United States from emigrating into the acquired territory, but would give a higher authority to the extinct power of Mexico over the territory than to our actual authority over it. I say the great majority, for the laws of Mexico not only prohibit the introduction of slaves, but of many other descriptions of property, and also the Protestant religion, which Congress itself cannot prohibit. To such absurdity would the supposition lead.
I have now concluded the discussion, so far as it relates to the power; and have, I trust, established beyond controversy, that the territories are free and open to all of the citizens of the United States, and that there is no power, under any aspect the subject can be viewed in, by which the citizens of the South can be excluded from emigrating with their property into any of them. I have advanced no argument which I do not believe to be true, nor pushed any one beyond what truth would strictly warrant. But, if mistaken—if my arguments, instead of being sound and true, as I hold them beyond controversy to be, should turn out to be a mere mass of sophisms—and if in consequence, the barrier opposed by the want of power, should be surmounted, there is another still in the way, that cannot be. The mere possession of power is not, of itself, sufficient to justify its exercise. It must be, in addition, shown that, in the given case, it can be rightfully and justly exercised. Under our system, the first inquiry is: Does the constitution authorize the exercise of the power? If that be decided in the affirmative, the next is: Can it be rightfully and justly exercised under the circumstances? And it is not, until this, too, is decided in the affirmative, that the question of the expediency of exercising it, is presented for consideration.
Now, I put the question solemnly to the Senators from the North: Can you rightly and justly exclude the South from territories of the United States, and monopolize them for yourselves, even if, in your opinion, you should have the power? It is this question I wish to press on your attention with all due solemnity and decorum. The North and the South stand in the relation of partners in a common Union, with equal dignity and equal rights. We of the South have contributed our full share of funds, and shed our full share of blood for the acquisition of our territories. Can you, then, on any principle of equity and justice, deprive us of our full share in their benefit and advantage? Are you ready to affirm that a majority of the partners in a joint concern have the right to monopolize its benefits to the exclusion of the minority, even in cases where they have contributed their full share to the concern? But, to present the case more strongly and vividly, I shall descend from generals to particulars, and shall begin with the Oregon Territory. Our title to it is founded first, and in my opinion, mainly on our purchase of Louisiana; that was strengthened by the Florida treaty, which transferred to us the title also of Spain; and both by the discovery of the mouth of the Columbia river by Capt. Gray, and the exploration of the entire stream, from its source down to its mouth, by Lewis and Clark. The purchase of Louisiana cost fifteen millions of dollars; and we paid Spain five millions for the Florida treaty; making twenty in all. This large sum was advanced out of the common funds of the Union, the South, to say the least, contributing her full share. The discovery was made, it is true, by a citizen of Massachusetts; but he sailed under the flag and protection of the Union, and of course, whatever title was derived from his discovery, accrued to the benefit of the Union. The exploration of Lewis and Clark was at the expense of the Union. We are now about to form it into a territory; the expense of governing which, while it remains so, must be met out of the common fund, and towards which the South must contribute her full share. The expense will not be small. Already there is an Indian war to be put down, and a regiment for that purpose, and to protect the territory, has been ordered there. To what extent the expense may extend we know not, but it will, not improbably, involve millions before the territory becomes a State. I now ask, Is it right, is it just, after having contributed our full share for the acquisition of the territory, with the liability of contributing, in addition, our full share of the expense for its government, that we should be shut out of the territory, and be excluded from participating in its benefits? What would be thought of such conduct in the case of individuals? And can that be right and just in Government, which any right-minded man would cry out to be base and dishonest in private life? If it would be so pronounced in a partnership of thirty individuals, how can it be pronounced otherwise in one of thirty States?
The case of our recently acquired territory from Mexico is, if possible, more marked. The events connected with the acquisition are too well known to require a long narrative. It was won by arms, and a great sacrifice of men and money. The South, in the contest, performed her full share of military duty, and earned a full share of military honor; has poured out her full share of blood freely, and has and will bear a full share of the expense; has evinced a full share of skill and bravery, and if I were to say even more than her full share of both, I would not go beyond the truth; to be attributed, however, to no superiority in either respect, but to accidental circumstances, which gave both its officers and soldiers more favorable opportunities for their display. All have done their duty nobly, and high courage and gallantry are but common attributes of our people. Would it be right and just to close a territory thus won against the South, and leave it open exclusively to the North? Would it deserve the name of free soil, if one-half of the Union should be excluded and the other half should monopolize it, when it was won by the joint expense and joint efforts of all? Is the great law to be reversed—that which is won by all should be equally enjoyed by all? These are questions which address themselves more to the heart than the head. Feeble must be the intellect which does not see what is right and just, and bad must be the heart, unless unconsciously under the control of deep and abiding prejudice, which hesitates in pronouncing on which side they are to be found. Now, I put the question to the Senators from the Noah: What are you prepared to do? Are you prepared to prostrate the barriers of the constitution, and in open defiance of the dictates of equity and justice, to exclude the South from the territories and monopolize them for the North? If so, vote against the amendment offered by the Senator from Mississippi (Mr. Davis); and if that should fail, vote against striking out the 12th section. We shall then know what to expect. If not, place us on some ground where we can stand as equals in rights and dignity, and where we shall not be excluded from what has been acquired at the common expense, and won by common skill and gallantry. All we demand is to stand on the same level with yourselves, and to participate equally in what belongs to all. Less we cannot take.
I turn now to my friends of the South, and ask: What are you prepared to do? If neither the barriers of the constitution nor the high sense of right and justice should prove sufficient to protect you, are you prepared to sink down into a state of acknowledged inferiority; to be stripped of your dignity of equals among equals, and be deprived of your equality of rights in this federal partnership of States? If so, you are wofully degenerated from your sires, and will well deserve to change condition with your slaves; but if not, prepare to meet the issue. The time is at hand, if the question should not be speedily settled, when the South must rise up, and bravely defend herself, or sink down into base and acknowledged inferiority; and it is because I clearly perceive that this period is favorable for settling it, if it is ever to be settled, that I am in favor of pressing the question now to a decision—not because I have any desire whatever to embarrass either party in reference to the Presidential election. At no other period could the two great parties into which the country is divided be made to see and feel so clearly and intensely the embarrassment and danger caused by the question. Indeed, they must be blind not to perceive that there is a power in action that must burst asunder the ties that bind them together, strong as they are, unless it should be speedily settled. Now is the time, if ever. Cast your eyes to the North, and mark what is going on there; reflect on the tendency of events for the last three years in reference to this the most vital of all questions, and you must see that no time should be lost.
I am thus brought to the question, How can the question be settled? It can, in my opinion, be finally and permanently adjusted but one way, and that is on the high principles of justice and the constitution. Fear not to leave it to them. The less you do the better. If the North and South cannot stand together on their broad and solid foundation, there is none other on which they can. If the obligations of the constitution and justice be too feeble to command the respect of the North, how can the South expect that she will regard the far more feeble obligations of an act of Congress? Nor should the North fear that, by leaving it where justice and the constitution leave it, she would be excluded from her full share of the territories. In my opinion, if it be left there, climate, soil and other circumstances would fix the line between the slaveholding and non-slaveholding States in about 36° 30′. It may zigzag a little, to accommodate itself to circumstances—sometimes passing to the north, and at others passing to the south of it; but that would matter little, and would be more satisfactory to all, and tend less to alienation between the two great sections, than a rigid, straight, artificial line, prescribed by an act of Congress.
And here, let me say to Senators from the North—you make a great mistake in supposing that the portion which might fall to the south of whatever line might be drawn, if left to soil, and climate, and circumstances to determine, would be closed to the white labor of the North, because it could not mingle with slave labor without degradation. The fact is not so. There is no part of the world where agricultural, mechanical, and other descriptions of labor are more respected than in the South, with the exception of two descriptions of employment, that of menial and body servants. No Southern man—not the poorest or the lowest—will, under any circumstance, submit to perform either of them. He has too much pride for that, and I rejoice that he has. They are unsuited to the spirit of a freeman. But the man who would spurn them feels not the least degradation to work in the same field with his slave, or to be employed to work with them in the same field or in any mechanical operation; and, when so employed, they claim the right, and are admitted, in the country portion of the South, of sitting at the table of their employers. Can as much, on the score of equality, be said for the North? With us the two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black; and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals, if honest and industrious, and hence have a position and pride of character of which neither poverty nor misfortune can deprive them.
But I go further, and hold that justice and the constitution are the easiest and safest guard on which the question can be settled, regarded in reference to party. It may be settled on that ground simply by non-action—by leaving the territories free and open to the emigration of all the world, so long as they continue so; and when they become States, to adopt whatever constitution they please, with the single restriction, to be republican, in order to * their admission into the Union. If a party cannot safely take this broad and solid position and successfully maintain it, what other can it take and maintain? If it cannot maintain itself by an appeal to the great principles of justice, the constitution, and self-government, to what other, sufficiently strong to uphold them in public opinion, can they appeal? I greatly mistake the character of the people of this Union, if such an appeal would not prove successful, if either party should have the magnanimity to step forward and boldly make it. It would, in my opinion, be received with shouts of approbation by the patriotic and intelligent in every quarter. There is a deep feeling pervading the country that the Union and our political institutions are in danger, which such a course would dispel.
Now is the time to take the step, and bring about a result so devoutly to be wished. I have believed, from the beginning, that this was the only question sufficiently potent to dissolve the Union, and subvert our system of government; and that the sooner it was met and settled, the safer and better for all. I have never doubted but that, if permitted to progress beyond a certain point, its settlement would become impossible, and am under deep conviction that it is now rapidly approaching it—and that if it is ever to be averted, it must be done speedily. In uttering these opinions I look to the whole. If I speak earnestly, it is to save and protect all. As deep as is the stake of the South in the Union and our political institutions, it is not deeper than that of the North. We shall be as well prepared and as capable of meeting whatever may come, as you.
Now, let me say, Senators, if our Union and system of government are doomed to perish, and we to share the fate of so many great people who have gone before us, the historian, who, in some future day, may record the events ending in so calamitous a result, will devote his first chapter to the ordinance of 1787, lauded as it and its authors have been, as the first of that series which led to it. His next chapter will be devoted to the Missouri compromise, and the next to the present agitation. Whether there will be another beyond, I know not. It will depend on what we may do.
If he should possess a philosophical turn of mind, and be disposed to look to more remote and recondite causes, he will trace it to a proposition which originated in a hypothetical truism, but which, as now expressed and now understood, is the most false and dangerous of all political errors. The proposition to which I allude, has become an axiom in the minds of a vast majority on both sides of the Atlantic, and is repeated daily from tongue to tongue, as an established and incontrovertible truth; it is, that “all men are born free and equal.” I am not afraid to attack error, however deeply it may be intrenched, or however widely extended, whenever it becomes my duty to do so, as I believe it to be on this subject and occasion.
Taking the proposition literally (it is in that sense it is understood), there is not a word of truth in it. It begins with “all men are born,” which is utterly untrue. Men are not born. Infants are born. They grow to be men. And concludes with asserting that they are born “free and equal,” which is not less false. They are not born free. While infants they are incapable of freedom, being destitute alike of the capacity of thinking and acting, without which there can be no freedom. Besides, they are necessarily born subject to their parents, and remain so among all people, savage and civilized, until the development of their intellect and physical capacity enables them to take care of themselves. They grow to all the freedom of which the condition in which they were born permits, by growing to be men. Nor is it less false that they are born “equal.” They are not so in any sense in which it can be regarded; and thus, as I have asserted, there is not a word of truth in the whole proposition, as expressed and generally understood.
If we trace it back, we shall find the proposition differently expressed in the Declaration of Independence. That asserts that “all men are created equal.” The form of expression, though less dangerous, is not less erroneous. All men are not created. According to the Bible, only two, a man and a woman, ever were, and of these one was pronounced subordinate to the other. All others have come into the world by being born, and in no sense, as I have shown, either free or equal. But this form of expression being less striking and popular, has given way to the present, and under the authority of a document put forth on so great an occasion, and leading to such important consequences, has spread far and wide, and fixed itself deeply in the public mind. It was inserted in our Declaration of Independence without any necessity. It made no necessary part of our justification in separating from the parent country, and declaring ourselves independent. Breach of our chartered privileges, and lawless encroachment on our acknowledged and well-established rights by the parent country, were the real causes, and of themselves sufficient, without resorting to any other, to justify the step. Nor had it any weight in constructing the governments which were substituted in the place of the colonial. They were formed of the old materials and on practical and well-established principles, borrowed for the most part from our own experience and that of the country from which we sprang.
If the proposition be traced still further back, it will be found to have been adopted from certain writers on government who had attained much celebrity in the early settlement of these States, and with whose writings all the prominent actors in our revolution were familiar. Among these, Locke and Sydney were prominent. But they expressed it very differently. According to their expression, “all men in the state of nature were free and equal.” From this the others were derived; and it was this to which I referred when I called it a hypothetical truism. To understand why, will require some explanation.
Man, for the purpose of reasoning, may be regarded in three different states: in a state of individuality; that is, living by himself apart from the rest of his species. In the social; that is, living in society, associated with others of his species. And in the political; that is, being under government. We may reason as to what would be his rights and duties in either, without taking into consideration whether he could exist in it or not. It is certain, that in the first, the very supposition that he lived apart and separated from all others, would make him free and equal. No one in such a state could have the right to command or control another. Every man would be his own master, and might do just as he pleased. But it is equally clear, that man cannot exist in such a state; that he is by nature social, and that society is necessary, not only to the proper development of all his faculties, moral and intellectual, but to the very existence of his race. Such being the case, the state is a purely hypothetical one; and when we say all men are free and equal in it, we announce a mere hypothetical truism; that is, a truism resting on a mere supposition that cannot exist, and of course one of little or no practical value.
But to call it a state of nature was a great misnomer, and has led to dangerous errors; for that cannot justly be called a state of nature which is so opposed to the constitution of man as to be inconsistent with the existence of his race and the development of the high faculties, mental and moral, with which he is endowed by his Creator.
Nor is the social state of itself his natural state; for society can no more exist without government, in one form or another, than man without society. It is the political, then, which includes the social, that is his natural state. It is the one for which his Creator formed him, into which he is impelled irresistibly, and in which only his race can exist and all its faculties be fully developed.
Such being the case, it follows that any, the worst form of government, is better than anarchy; and that individual liberty, or freedom, must be subordinate to whatever power may be necessary to protect society against anarchy within or destruction from without; for the safety and well-being of society is as paramount to individual liberty, as the safety and well-being of the race is to that of individuals; and in the same proportion, the power necessary for the safety of society is paramount to individual liberty. On the contrary, government has no right to control individual liberty beyond what is necessary to the safety and well-being of society. Such is the boundary which separates the power of government and the liberty of the citizen or subject in the political state, which, as I have shown, is the natural state of man—the only one in which his race can exist, and the one in which he is born, lives, and dies.
It follows from all this that the quantum of power on the part of the government, and of liberty on that of individuals, instead of being equal in all cases, must necessarily be very unequal among different people, according to their different conditions. For just in proportion as a people are ignorant, stupid, debased, corrupt, exposed to violence within and danger from without, the power necessary for government to possess, in order to preserve society against anarchy and destruction becomes greater and greater, and individual liberty less and less, until the lowest condition is reached, when absolute and despotic power becomes necessary on the part of the government, and individual liberty extinct. So, on the contrary, just as a people rise in the scale of intelligence, virtue, and patriotism, and the more perfectly they become acquainted with the nature of government, the ends for which it was ordered, and how it ought to be administered, and the less the tendency to violence and disorder within, and danger from abroad, the power necessary for government becomes less and less, and individual liberty greater and greater. Instead, then, of all men having the same right to liberty and equality, as is claimed by those who hold that they are all born free and equal, liberty is the noble and highest reward bestowed on mental and moral development, combined with favorable circumstances. Instead, then, of liberty and equality being born with man; instead of all men and all classes and descriptions being equally entitled to them, they are high prizes to be won, and are in their most perfect state, not only the highest reward that can be bestowed on our race, but the most difficult to be won—and when won, the most difficult to be preserved.
They have been made vastly more so by the dangerous error I have attempted to expose, that all men are born free and equal, as if those high qualities belonged to man without effort to acquire them, and to all equally alike, regardless of their intellectual and moral condition. The attempt to carry into practice this, the most dangerous of all political error, and to bestow on all, without regard to their fitness either to acquire or maintain liberty, that unbounded and individual liberty supposed to belong to man in the hypothetical and misnamed state of nature, has done more to retard the cause of liberty and civilization, and is doing more at present, than all other causes combined. While it is powerful to pull down governments, it is still more powerful to prevent their construction on proper principles. It is the leading cause among those which have placed Europe in its present anarchical condition, and which mainly stands in the way of reconstructing good governments in the place of those which have been overthrown, threatening thereby the quarter of the globe most advanced in progress and civilization with hopeless anarchy, to be followed by military despotism. Nor are we exempt from its disorganizing effects. We now begin to experience the danger of admitting so great an error to have a place in the declaration of our independence. For a long time it lay dormant; but in the process of time it began to germinate, and produce its poisonous fruits. It had strong hold on the mind of Mr. Jefferson, the author of that document, which caused him to take an utterly false view of the subordinate relation of the black to the white race in the South; and to hold, in consequence, that the former, though utterly unqualified to possess liberty, were as fully entitled to both liberty and equality as the latter; and that to deprive them of it was unjust and immoral. To this error, his proposition to exclude slavery from the territory northwest of the Ohio may be traced, and to that the ordinance of ’87, and through it the deep and dangerous agitation which now threatens to ingulf, and will certainly ingulf, if not speedily settled, our political institutions, and involve the country in countless woes.