The American Republic
Constitution of the United States
THE constitution of the United States is twofold, written and unwritten, the constitution of the people and the constitution of the government.
The written constitution is simply a law ordained by the nation or people instituting and organizing the government; the unwritten constitution is the real or actual constitution of the people as a state or sovereign community, and constituting them such or such a state. It is Providential, not made by the nation, but born with it. The written constitution is made and ordained by the sovereign power, and presupposes that power as already existing and constituted.
The unwritten or Providential constitution of the United States is peculiar, and difficult to understand, because incapable of being fully explained by analogies borrowed from any other state historically known, or described by political philosophers. It belongs to the GrÊco-Roman family, and is republican as distinguished from despotic constitutions, but it comes under the head of neither monarchical nor aristocratic, neither democratic nor mixed constitutions, and creates a state which is neither a centralized state nor a confederacy. The difficulty of understanding it is augmented by the peculiar use under it of the word state, which does not in the American system mean a sovereign community or political society complete in itself like France, Spain, or Prussia, nor yet a political society subordinate to another political society and dependent on it. The American States are all sovereign States united, but, disunited, are no States at all. The rights and powers of the States are not derived from the United States, nor the rights and powers of the United States derived from the States.
The simple fact is, that the political or sovereign people of the United States exists as united States, and only as united States. The Union and the States are coeval, born together, and can exist only together. Separation is dissolution – the death of both. The United States are a state, a single sovereign state; but this single sovereign state consists in the union and solidarity of States instead of individuals. The Union is in each of the States, and each of the States is in the Union.
It is necessary to distinguish in the outset between the United States and the government of the United States, or the so-called Federal government, which the convention refused, contrary to its first intention to call the national government. That government is not a supreme national government, representing all the powers of the United States, but a limited government, restricted by its constitution to certain specific relations and interests. The United States are anterior to that government, and the first question to be settled relates to their internal and inherent Providential constitution as one political people or sovereign state. The written constitution, in its preamble, professes to be ordained by “We, the people of the United States.” Who are this people? How are they constituted, or what the mode and conditions of their political existence? Are they the people of the States severally? No; for they call themselves the people of the United States. Are they a national people, really existing outside and independently of their organization into distinct and mutually independent States? No; for they define themselves to be the people of the United States. If they had considered themselves existing as States only, they would have said “We, the States,” and if independently of State organization, they would have said “We, the people,” do ordain, &c.
The key to the mystery is precisely in this appellation United States, which is not the name of the country, for its distinctive name is America, but a name expressive of its political organization. In it there are no sovereign people without States, and no States without union, or that are not united States. The term united is not part of a proper name, but is simply an adjective qualifying States, and has its full and proper sense. Hence while the sovereignty is and must be in the States, it is in the States united, not in the States severally, precisely as we have found the sovereignty of the people is in the people collectively or as society, not in the people individually. The life is in the body, not in the members, though the body could not exist if it had no members; so the sovereignty is in the Union, not in the States severally; but there could be no sovereign union without the States, for there is no union where there is nothing united.
This is not a theory of the constitution, but the constitutional fact itself. It is the simple historical fact that precedes the law and constitutes the law-making power. The people of the United States are one people, as has already been proved: they were one people, as far as a people at all, prior to independence, because under the same Common Law and subject to the same sovereign, and have been so since, for as united States they gained their independence and took their place among sovereign nations, and as united States they have possessed and still possess the government. As their existence before independence in distinct colonies did not prevent their unity, so their existence since in distinct States does not hinder them from being one people. The States severally simply continue the colonial organisations, and united they hold the sovereignty that was originally in the mother country. But if one people, they are one people existing in distinct State organizations, as before independence they were one people existing in distinct colonial organizations. This is the original, the unwritten, and Providential constitution of the people of the United States.
This constitution is not conventional, for it existed before the people met or could meet in convention. They have not, as an independent sovereign people, either established their union, or distributed themselves into distinct and mutually independent States. The union and the distribution, the unity and the distinction, are both original in their constitution, and they were born United States, as much and as truly so as the son of a citizen is born a citizen, or as every one born at all is born a member of society, the family, the tribe, or the nation. The Union and the States were born together, are inseparable in their constitution, have lived and grown up together; no serious attempt till the late secession movement has been made to separate them; and the secession movement, to all persons who knew not the real constitution of the United States, appeared sure to succeed, and in fact would have succeeded if, as the secessionists pretended, the Union had been only a confederacy, and the States had been held together only by a conventional compact, and not by a real and living bond of unity, The popular instinct of national unity, which seemed so weak, proved to be strong enough to defeat the secession forces, to trample out the confederacy, and maintain the unity of the nation and the integrity of its domain.
The people can act only as they exist, as they are, not as they are not. Existing originally only as distributed in distinct and mutually independent colonies, they could at first act only through their colonial organizations, and afterward only through their State organizations. The colonial people met in convention, in the person of representatives chosen by colonies, and after independence in the person of representatives chosen by States. Not existing outside of the colonial or State organizations, they could not act outside or independently of them. They chose their representatives or delegates by colonies or States, and called at first their convention a Congress; but by an instinct surer than their deliberate wisdom, they called it not the Congress of the confederate, but of the United States, asserting constitutional unity as well as constitutional multiplicity. It is true, in their first attempt to organize a general government, they called the constitution they devised Articles of Confederation, but only because they had not attained to full consciousness of themselves; and that they really meant union, not confederation, is evident from their adopting, as the official style of the nation or new power, united, not confederate States.
That the sovereignty vested in the States united, and was represented in some sort by the Congress, is evident from the fact that the several States, when they wished to adopt State constitutions in place of colonial charters, felt not at liberty to do so without asking and obtaining the permission of Congress, as the elder Adams informs us in his Diary, kept at the time; that is, they asked and obtained the equivalent of what has since, in the case of organizing new States, been called an “enabling act.” This proves that the States did not regard themselves as sovereign States out of the Union, but as completely sovereign only in it. And this again proves that the Articles of Confederation did not correspond to the real, living constitution of the people. Even then it was felt that the organization and constitution of a State in the Union could be regularly effected only by the permission of Congress; and no Territory can, it is well known, regularly organize itself as a State, and adopt a State constitution, without an enabling act by Congress, or its equivalent. New States, indeed, have been organized and been admitted into the Union without an enabling act of Congress; but the case of Kansas, if nothing else, proves that the proceeding is irregular, illicit, invalid, and dangerous. Congress, of course, can condone the wrong and validate the act, but it were better that the act should be validly done, and that there should be no wrong to condone. Territories have organized as States, adopted State constitutions, and instituted State governments under what has been called “squatter sovereignty;” but such sovereignty has no existence, because sovereignty is attached to the domain; and the domain is in the United States. It is the offspring of that false view of popular sovereignty which places it in the people personally or generically, irrespective of the domain, which makes sovereignty a purely personal right, not a right fixed to the soil, and is simply a return to the barbaric constitution of power. In all civilized nations, sovereignty is inseparable from the state, and the state is inseparable from the domain. The will of the people, unless they are a state, is no law, has no force, binds nobody, and justifies no act.
The regular process of forming and admitting new States explains admirably the mutual relation of the Union and the several States. The people of a Territory belonging to the United States or included in the public domain not yet erected into a State and admitted into the Union, are subjects of the United States, without any political rights whatever, and, though a part of the population, are no part of the sovereign people of the United States, They become a part of that people, with political rights and franchises, only when they are erected into a State, arid admitted into the Union as one of the United States. They may meet in convention, draw up and adopt a constitution declaring or assuming them to be a State, elect State officers, senators, and representatives in the State legislature, and representatives and senators in Congress, but they are not yet a State, and are, as before, under the Territorial government established by the General Government. It does not exist as a State till recognized by Congress and admitted into the Union, The existence of the State, and the rights and powers of the people within the State, depend on their being a State in the Union, or a State united, Hence a State erected on the national domain, but itself outside of the Union, is not an independent foreign State, but simply no State at all, in any sense of the term. As there is no union outside of the States, so is there no State outside of the Union; and to be a citizen either of a State or of the United States, it is necessary to be a citizen of a State, and of a State in the Union. The inhabitants of Territories not yet erected into States are subjects, not citizens – that is, not citizens with political rights. The sovereign people are not the people outside of State organization, nor the people of the States severally, but the distinct people of the several States united, and therefore most appropriately called the people of the United States.
This is the peculiarity of the American constitution, and is substantially the very peculiarity noted and dwelt upon by Mr. Madison in his masterly letter to Edward Everett, published in the “North American Review,” October, 1830.
“In order to understand the true character of the constitution of the United States,” says Mr. Madison, “the error, not uncommon, must be avoided of viewing it through the medium either of a consolidated government or of a confederated government, whilst it is neither the one nor the other, but a mixture of both. And having, in no model, the similitudes and analogies applicable to other systems of government, it must, more than any other, be its own interpreter, according to its text and the facts in the case.
“From these it will be seen that the characteristic peculiarities of the constitution are: 1. The mode of its formation, 2. The division of the supreme powers of government between the States in their united capacity and the States in their individual capacities.
“1. It was formed not by the governments of the component States, as the Federal Government, for which it was substituted, was formed; nor was it formed by a majority of the people of the United States as a single community, in the manner of a consolidated government. It was formed by the States; that is, by the people in each of the States, acting in their highest sovereign capacity, and formed consequently by the same authority which formed the State constitution.
“Being thus derived from the same source as the constitutions of the States, it has within each State the same authority as the constitution of the State, and is as much a constitution in the strict sense of the term, within its prescribed sphere, as the constitutions of the States are within their respective spheres; but with this obvious and essential difference, that, being a compact among the States in their highest capacity, and constituting the people thereof one people for certain purposes, it cannot be altered or annulled at the will of the States individually, as the constitution of a State may be at its individual will.
“2. And that it divides the supreme powers of government between the government of the United States and the governments of the individual States, is stamped on the face of the instrument; the powers of war and of taxation, of commerce and treaties, and other enumerated powers rested in the government of the United States, are of as high and sovereign a character as any of the powers reserved to the State governments.”
Mr. Jefferson, Mr. Webster, Chancellor Kent, Judge Story, and nearly all the old Republicans, and even the old Federalists, on the question as to what is the actual constitution of the United States, took substantially the same view; but they all, as well as Mr. Madison himself, speak of the written constitution, which on their theory has and can have only a conventional value. Mr. Madison evidently recognises no constitution of the people prior to the written constitution, from which the written constitution, or the constitution of the government, derives all its force and vitality. The organization of the American people, which he knew well, – no man better, – and which he so justly characterizes, he supposes to have been deliberately formed by the people themselves, through the convention – not given them by Providence as their original and inherent constitution. But this was merely the effect of the general doctrine which he had adopted, in common with nearly all his contemporaries, of the origin of the state in compact, and may be eliminated from his view of what the constitution actually is, without affecting that view itself.
Mr. Madison lays great stress on the fact that though the constitution of the Union was formed by the States, it was formed, not by the governments, but by the people of the several States; but this makes no essential difference, if the people are the people of the States, and sovereign in their severally, and not in their union. Had it been formed by the State governments with the acquiescence of the people, it would have rested on as high authority as if formed by the people of the State in convention assembled. The only difference is, that if the State ratified it by the legislature, she could abrogate it by the legislature; if in convention, she could abrogate it only in convention. Mr. Madison, following Mr. Jefferson, supposes the constitution makes the people of the several States one people for certain specific purposes, and leaves it to be supposed that in regard to all other matters, or in all other relations, they are sovereign; and hence he makes the government a mixture of a consolidated government and a confederated government, but neither the one nor the other exclusively. Say the people of the United States were one people in all respects, and under a government which is neither a consolidated nor a confederated government, nor yet a mixture of the two, but a government in which the powers of government are divided between a general government and particular governments, each emanating from the same source, and you will have the simple fact, and precisely what Mr. Madison means, when is eliminated what is derived from his theory of the origin of government in compact. It is this theory of the conventional origin of the constitution, and which excludes the Providential or real constitution of the people, that has misled him and so many other eminent statesmen and constitutional lawyers.
The convention did not create the Union or unite the States, for it was assembled by the authority of the United States who were present in it. The United States or Union existed before the convention, as the convention itself affirms in declaring one of its purposes to be “to provide for a more perfect union.” If there had been no union, it could not and would not have spoken of providing for a more perfect union, but would have stated its purpose to be to create or form a union. The convention did not form the Union, nor in fact provide for a more perfect union; it amply provided for the more perfect representation or expression in the General government of the Union already existing. The convention, in common with the statesmen at the time, recognized no unwritten or Providential constitution of a people, and regarded the constitution of government as the constitution of the state, and consequently sometimes put the state for the government. In interpreting its language, it is necessary to distinguish between its act and its theory. Its act is law, its theory is not. The convention met, among other things, to organize a government which should more perfectly represent the union of the States than did the government created by the Articles of Confederation. The convention, certainly, professes to grant or concede powers to the United States, and to prohibit powers to the States; but it simply puts the state for the government. The powers of the United States are, indeed, grants or trusts, but from God through the law of nature, and are grants, trusts, or powers always conceded to every nation or sovereign people. But none of them are grants from the convention. The powers the convention grants or concedes to the United. States are powers granted or conceded by the United States to the General government it assembled to organize and establish, which, as it extends over the whole population and territory of the Union, and, as the interests it is charged with relate to all the States in common, or to the people as a whole, is with no great impropriety called the government of the United States, in contradistinction from the State governments, which have each only a local jurisdiction. But the more exact term is, for the one, the general government, and for the others, particular governments, as having charge only of the particular interests of the State; and the two together constitute the government of the United States, or the complete national government; for neither the General government nor the State government is complete in itself. The convention developed a general government, and prescribed its powers, and fixed their limits and extent, as well as the bounds of the powers of the State or particular governments; but they are the United States assembled in convention that do all this, and, therefore, strictly speaking, no powers are conceded to the United States that they did not previously possess. The convention itself, in the constitution it ordained, defines very clearly from whom the General government holds its powers. It holds them, as we have seen, from “We, the people of the United States;” not we, the people of the States severally, but of the States united. If it had meant the States severally, it would have said, We, the States; if it had recognized and meant the population of the country irrespective of its organization into particular States, it would have said simply, We, the people. By saying “We, the people of the United States,” it placed the sovereign power where it is, in the people of the States united, The convention ordains that the powers not conceded to the General government or prohibited to the particular governments, “are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people,” But the powers reserved to the States severally are reserved by order of the United States, and the powers not so reserved are reserved to the people. What people? The first thought is that they are the people of the States severally; for the constitution understands by people the state as distinguished from the state government; but if this had been its meaning in this place, it would have said, “are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people” thereof. As it does not say so, and does not define the people it means, it is necessary to understand by them the people called in the preamble “the people of the United States.” This is confirmed by the authority reserved to amend the constitution, which certainly is not reserved to the States severally, but necessarily to the power that ordains the constitution – “We, the people of the United States.” No power except that which ordains is or can be competent to amend a constitution of government. The particular mode prescribed by the convention in which the constitution of the government may be amended has no bearing on the present argument, because it is prescribed by the States united, not severally, and the power to amend is evidently reserved, not indeed to the General government, but to the United States; for the ratification by any State or Territory not in the Union counts for nothing. The States united, can, in the way prescribed, give more or less power to the General government, and reserve more or less power to the States individually. The so-called reserved powers are really reserved to the people of the United States, who can make such disposition of them as seems to them good.
The conclusion, then, that the General government holds from the States united, not from the States severally, is not invalidated by the fact that its constitution was completed only by the ratification of the States in their individual capacity. The ratification was made necessary by the will of the people in convention assembled; but the convention was competent to complete it and put it in force without that ratification, had it so willed. The general practice under the American system is for the convention to submit the constitution it has agreed on to the people, to be accepted or rejected by a plebiscitum; but such submission, though it may be wise and prudent, is not necessary. The convention is held to be the convention of the people, and to be clothed with the full authority of the sovereign people, and it is in this that it differs from the congress or the legislature. It is not a congress of delegates or ministers who are obliged to act under instructions, to report their acts to their respective sovereigns for approval or rejection; it is itself sovereign, and may do whatever the people themselves can do. There is no necessity for it to appeal to a plebiscitum to complete its acts. That the convention, on the score of prudence, is wise in doing so, nobody questions; but the convention is always competent, if it chooses, to ordain the constitution without appeal. The power competent to ordain the constitution is always competent to change, modify, or amend it. That amendments to the constitution of the government can be adopted only by being proposed by a convention of all the States in the Union, or by being proposed by a two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress, and ratified by three-fourths of the States, is simply a conventional ordinance, which the convention can change at its pleasure. It proves nothing as it stands but the will of the convention.
The term ratification itself, because the term commonly used in reference to treaties between sovereign powers, has been seized on, since sometimes used by the convention, to prove that the constitution emanates from the States severally, and is a treaty or compact between sovereign states, not an organic or fundamental law ordained by a single sovereign will; but this argument is inadmissible, because, as we have just seen, the convention is competent to ordain the constitution without submitting it for ratification, and because the convention uses sometimes the word adopt instead of the word ratify. That the framers of the constitution held it to be a treaty, compact, or agreement among sovereigns, there is no doubt, for they so held in regard to all constitution of government; and there is just as little doubt that they intended to constitute, and firmly believed that they were constituting a real government. Mr. Madison’s authority on this point is conclusive. They unquestionably regarded the States, prior to the ratification of the constitution they proposed, as severally sovereign, as they were declared to be by the old Articles of Confederation, but they also believed that all individuals are sovereign prior to the formation of civil society. Yet very few, if any, of them believed that they remained sovereign after the adoption of the constitution; and we may attribute to their belief in the conventional origin of all government, – the almost universal belief of the time among political philosophers, – the little account which they made of the historical facts that prove that the people of the United States were always one people, and that the States never existed as severally sovereign states.
The political philosophers of the present day do not generally accept the theory held by our fathers, and it has been shown in these pages to be unsound and incompatible with the essential nature of government. The statesmen of the eighteenth century believed that the state is derived from the people individually, and held that sovereignty is created by the people in convention. The rights and powers of the state, they held, were made up of the rights held by individuals under the law of nature, and which the individuals surrendered to civil society on its formation. So they supposed that independent sovereign states might meet in convention, mutually agree to surrender a portion of their rights, organize their surrendered rights into a real government, and leave the convention shorn, at least, of a portion of their sovereignty. This doctrine crops out everywhere in the writings of the elder Adams, and is set forth with rare ability by Mr. Webster, in his great speech in the Senate against the State sovereignty doctrine of General Hayne and Mr. Calhoun, which won for him the honorable title of Expounder of the Constitution – and expound it he, no doubt, did in the sense of its framers. He boldly concedes that prior to the adoption of the constitution, the people of the United States were severally sovereign states, but by the constitution they were made one sovereign political community or people, and that the States, though retaining certain rights, have merged their several sovereignty in the Union.
The subtle mind of Mr. Calhoun, who did not hold that a state can originate in compact, proved to Mr. Webster that his theory could not stand; that, if the States went into the convention sovereign States, they came out of it sovereign States; and that the constitution they formed could from the nature of the case be only a treaty, compact, or agreement between sovereigns. It could create an agency, but not a government. The sovereign States could only delegate the exercise of their sovereign powers, not the sovereign powers themselves. The States could agree to exercise certain specific powers of sovereignty only in common, but the force and vitality of the agreement depended on the States, parties to the agreement, retaining respectively their sovereignty. Hence, he maintained that sovereignty, after as before the convention, vested in the States severally. Hence State sovereignty, and hence his doctrine that in all cases that cannot come properly before the Supreme Court of the United States for decision, each State is free to decide for itself, on which he based the right of nullification, or the State veto of acts of Congress whose constitutionality the State denies. Mr. Calhoun was himself no secessionist, but he laid down the premises from which secession is the logical deduction; and large numbers of young men, among the most open, the most generous, and the most patriotic in the country, adopted his premises, without being aware of this fact any more than he himself was, and who have been behind none in their loyalty to the Union, and in their sacrifices to sustain it, in the late rebellion.
The formidable rebellion which is now happily suppressed, and which attempted to justify itself by the doctrine of State sovereignty, has thrown, in many minds, new light on the subject, and led them to re-examine the historical facts in the case from a different point of view, to see if Mr. Calhoun’s theory is not as unfounded as he had proved Mr. Webster’s theory to be. The facts in the case really sustain neither, and both failed to see it: Mr. Calhoun because be had purposes to accomplish which demanded State sovereignty, and Mr. Webster because he examined them in the distorting medium of the theory or understanding of the statesmen of the eighteenth century. The civil war has vindicated the Union, and defeated the armed forces of the State sovereignty men; but it has not refuted their doctrine, and as far as it has had any effect, it has strengthened the tendency to consolidation or centralism.
But the philosophy, the theory of government, the understanding of the framers of the constitution, must be considered, if the expression will be allowed, as obiter dicta, and be judged on their merits. What binds is the thing done, not the theory on which it was done, or on which the actors explained their work either to themselves or to others. Their political philosophy, or their political theory, may sometimes affect the phraseology they adopt, but forms no rule for interpreting their work. Their work was inspired by and accords with the historical facts in the case, and is authorized and explained by them. The American people were not made one people by the written constitution, as Mr, Jefferson, Mr. Madison, Mr. Webster, and so many others supposed, but were made so by the unwritten constitution, born with and inherent in them.