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STATE SOVEREIGNTY AND RIGHT OF SECESSION.
FROM the adoption of the Kentucky resolutions of 1798, until the hard logic of war placed the stamp of illegality upon the doctrine, there had always been a strong and influential party, whose fundamental tenets were that the Union was a confederation of sovereign States, which are bound by the laws and the Constitution of the United States, as long as they remain in the Union ; but which may, separately and at their own discretion, withdraw or secede from the Union, whenever they consider the confederation detrimental to themselves. Each State, as a sovereign, was conceded this power.
There were, of course, parties which asserted the sovereignty of the United States, and denied to the States this right of secession.
This contest of principle was another consequence of the failure of the constitutional convention to settle definitely the true relation of the States to · each other and to the Federal State. I do not believe that the arguments for and against the right
of secession, which are to be found in the speeches of Webster and Calhoun, and of Clay and Hayne, and in histories and other books without number, present the matter in its true light. It is not inconsistent with the highest respect for the great men, who participated with so much effect and power in these political debates of the Senate, for the claim to be made that there was a failure on both sides to appreciate and bring to light the real scientific facts of the situation, which justify logically the ultimate settlement of the question. It is with some hesitation that I proceed to present what I consider the true view ; but if there is no defect in my major premise, as explained and developed in the first and second chapters, the conclusion, to which I come in the discussion of the doctrine of State sovereignty and the right of secession, is irresistible.
In this contest, the South was the aggressive party, while the North only resisted the extreme conclusion of the South in respect to the right of a single State to secede, whenever it was to its interest to do so. The Southern claim was that this Union was a confederation of independent, sovereign States; that the Federal Government was the creature of the States, having only that power which the States delegated to it, and that it may be shorn of its power over any single State, whenever that State, in consequence of the violation of the constitutional limita
tions by the United States Government, of which the State is to be the final judge,-decides to secede from the Union, and establish itself as an independent nation.
Without undertaking to present any lengthy statement of the arguments pro and con, it may be pithily stated that the Southern claim of secession rested upon two fundamental principles. One was that of the Declaration of Independence, that “ all governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed ”; the general conclusion being that the governed may legally withdraw that consent, whenever the powers have been tyrannically employed for the oppression of the people. The second principle was that sovereignty was reposed under our constitutional system in the States; and that, in consequence of this fundamental fact, the Union was, under this Constitution as under the Articles of Confederation, only a league or confederation of sovereign States, which combined for purposes of mutual protection, and which consented to a grant to their general agent or government of those powers which were necessary to the promotion of their general welfare; but that any one of these sovereign States, under an application of the first principle (i.e., government by consent of the governed), may withdraw from the Union, whenever it considers itself wronged by the General Government
or its interests prejudiced by remaining in the Union. The opponents of the Southern theory have uniformly admitted the correctness of the principle, that the just powers of government are derived from the consent of the governed; but claim that this Constitution changed the Union from a league into a nation, and vested the sovereignty in the people of the United States.
Both principles are so far false as to be misleading; and the general prevalence of these misconceptions has, in my judgment, been the chief cause of the greatest civil war history has ever recorded. I do not wish to be understood as losing sight of the demand for the abolition of slavery as a cause of the
On the contrary, I recognize it as the immediate occasion of the war; but I claim that the war might have been averted if the entire Southern people had not been educated in the political faith which rested upon these two misleading principles.
The natural and uncontrollable impulse of the human mind is to demand a satisfactory basis for the exercise of governmental authority. The fundamental query of political philosophy is, By what right do those in authority command your and my obedience? This query has at all times required an answer, but it has never been so difficult to give a satisfying answer as now. In the days when the belief in the divine right of kings was general, and
perhaps universal, a satisfactory answer to the ques. tion was readily obtained. No one questioned the right of the Creator of all things to command our obedience; and if the kings were the vicegerents of God upon earth, their authority was derived from God. But when faith in the divine right of kings weakened, and was finally repudiated by the leaders, and perhaps also by the mass, of the civilized people of the world as a fundamental basis for governmental authority, the philosophical minds of the world, under the lead of the English Hobbes and the French Rousseau, developed as a substitute the doctrine of a social contract. If governmental power was not derived from God, it must be derived from the people, who by common agreement established the societies in which we live. This social contract involved, when the people entered into the social organization, the surrender of rights which were enjoyed by individuals in a state of nature, so far as such a surrender may be necessary to the common weal. None of these dreamers actually believed that while the people, in prehistoric times, were living without social organization of any kind, they suddenly came to the conclusion that it was good for them to organize into political bodies and to subject themselves to certain rules for the common good. They did not believe any such marvellous tale. Starting out with the declaration of the mutual