One of the central themes of the Civil War was the nature of the Union. Was the Union one of a consolidated nature or was it a federation of sovereign states, each with the ability to determine, for itself, the interpretation of the Constitution and its application within its own borders? What does "We the People of the United States" actually mean? Copperhead, C. Chauncey Burr, had some thoughts on the subject.
Italics are in the original.
August Glen-James, editor
The government established by this Constitution is not of consolidated States, but of "United States." United and consolidated, are words of very different import. Had the design been to form a government of one consolidated people, the Preamble would have read We the People of America. But there is no such body politic known as, The People of America.
The Preamble reads:
We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
This Preamble fully sets forth the reasons which led our fathers to establish the Union, and affords a perfect key to the true interpretation of the Constitution.
The term "We the People of the United States," at once defines the nature of the Federal government--it is a government of States, and not of the People, as a consolidated body. This preamble recognizes State individuality, in opposition to the idea of the consolidation of the States into one vast National body. It was no part of the design of our fathers to form such a consolidated government. The government established by this Constitution is not of consolidated States, but of "United States." United and consolidated, are words of very different import. Had the design been to form a government of one consolidated people, the Preamble would have read We the People of America. But there is no such body politic known as, The People of America. The name of our government is the "United States"--that is, as the French has it--"Les Etas Unis"--the States United. The term, "We the People," in this preamble, is of precisely the same import as the phrase "the people of the several States" in the second section of the first Article of this Constitution. In the Constitutional Convention of Virginia, Patrick Henry, referring to the phraseology of this Preamble, exclaimed--"What right had the framers of the Constitution to say "We the people," instead of "We the States?" Mr. Madison replied--"Who are the parties to the government? The people; but not the people as composing one great body; but the people as composing "thirteen sovereignties."
This Preamble sets forth the object of the Constitution to be "to form a more perfect Union." The idea of union and not consolidation is still affirmed. We hear a great deal, at the present time [i.e., 1864], about the "National Government," the "National forces," &c.; but no such language is found in the Constitution. On the contrary, the word "National" was designedly banished from that instrument, as implying a principle inimical to the purposes of the convention. In the first draft of a Constitution introduced to the Convention by Governor Randolph, the opening resolution declared, "That it is the opinion of this committee, that a national government ought to be formed." When this came up for discussion, Judge Ellsworth, of the State of Connecticut, said, "I propose, and therefore move, to expunge the word national from the first resolve, and place in the room of it, "government of the United States." This passed unanimously, which voted this now popular word, "national," out of the Constitution, as something contraband of the nature of the government which they were endeavoring to establish. In the debate on this matter, Mr. Lansing of the State of New York, said, "I am already of the opinion, that I am not authorized to accede to a system which will annihilate the State governments. When many of the states are so tenacious of their rights on this point, can we expect that thirteen States will surrender their governments up to a national plan." Those who advocated the "national plan," were in such a small minority in the convention, that they at once abandoned the idea, and gracefully yielded to the plan of a government of co-equal, sovereign and independent States.
This preamble further sets forth the object of the constitution to be, to "ensure domestic tranquility, and to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity." this then was the object of the formation of the Union. As long as it secures to the States these great and inestimable blessings of "domestic tranquility" and "liberty," every party to the compact is bound faithfully to support it. But whenever it becomes destructive of the objects for which it was formed, it is clearly the right of the States whose "domestic tranquility" and "liberty" may be endangered to assert their original sovereign powers for their own protection and happiness. The position laid down by Daniel Webster that "a compact broken on one part is broken on all" is one that no sane man disputes. This ground is fully affirmed in the following clause of the Resolutions of "'98:" "The States, then, being the parties to the Constitutional compact, and in their sovereign capacity, it follows of necessity that there can be no tribunal above their authority, to decide, in the last resort, such questions as may be of sufficient magnitude to require their interposition." It has sometimes been denied that the States adopted the Constitution in the capacity of sovereign bodies, because it was done in conventions of the people. Even Chief Justice Story seems to have labored under a delusion growing out of this fact. It is true the constitution was ratified by the people; but not by the people of the whole United States as one body, but by the people of the "several States," assembled each in its distinct and separate statehood, to ratify or reject the constitution as it pleased in its own sovereign powers. Had the people designed to adopt a constitution, in their collective capacity as one great nation, there could have been no calling of separate state conventions, but delegates would have been chosen from all the states to one general convention, for the purpose of deliberating upon the question of adoption or rejection.
Burr, C. Chauncey. Notes on the Constitution of the United States, With Expositions of the Most Eminent Statesmen and Jurists. J. F. Feeks, New York, 1864. PP. 5-8.