Written in September 1864, this selection was part of a larger piece outlining why Abraham Lincoln must be defeated in the upcoming election. Of interest is Burr's take on the sovereignty of the several states and their relationship to, and rights within the Union to self-determination.
Incidentally, James Madison's quote comes from his report on the Virginia Resolutions, 1800. Burr's references to the proposed secession of the New England states may have come from various sources. The most famous New England secession proposal issued from the Hartford Convention, 1814.
August Glen-James, editor
There is no Constitutional power in the Federal Government to hold them. States are not the subjects of the Federal Government, to be kept down at the point of the bayonet, like revolted colonies of Austria or Russia. They call themselves “sovereign, free, and independent bodies.” Such was their character when they formed the Federal Government. Of this sovereignty no item was surrendered. They delegated but surrendered no powers. A “delegated” is only a lent power.
Who dare promise that, in the anarchy and revolution which are quite sure to follow the re-election of Lincoln, we shall not be split up into three or four confederacies instead of two? The clash of self-interest—of political and social hate—is already dividing the East and the West apart. The war impoverishes the western States as rapidly as it enriches those of New England. There are but few intelligent men in the whole West who will say that they believe that this condition of things can go on four years longer without driving the western States to set up for themselves, to keep the wealth of their lands from being entirely consumed by the selfishness of the manufacturing capital of New England. Four years more of war would destroy the West. Four years more of Lincoln might bring upon us the issue of half a dozen confederacies instead of two. While this state of war and revolution lasts, there is no safety from further disintegration. Self-interest will finally decide the action of all the States. There is no Constitutional power in the Federal Government to hold them. States are not the subjects of the Federal Government, to be kept down at the point of the bayonet, like revolted colonies of Austria or Russia. They call themselves “sovereign, free, and independent bodies.” Such was their character when they formed the Federal Government. Of this sovereignty no item was surrendered. They delegated but surrendered no powers. A “delegated” is only a lent power. Suppose the great States of the West should say, “The Constitution sets forth the object of the Union to be to ‘ensure domestic tranquility, and to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our children,’ and the general welfare of the several States; but now, since by the triumph of selfish sectionalism, the objects and the terms of the compact are broken—since it is no longer a protection and a blessing, but a source of exhaustion and oppression to us, we declare ourselves, as free and independent sovereign bodies, absolved from the said compact.” What is the just power of the Federal Government to prevent them? The Federal Government is not even a party to the compact. Madison, the father of the Constitution, declared that:
“The Constitution of the United States was formed by the sanction of the States, given by each in its sovereign capacity. It adds to the stability and dignity, as well as to the authority of the Constitution, that is rests on this legitimate and solid foundation. 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, whether the compact made by them be violated: and, consequently, that as the parties to it, they must themselves decide, in the last resort, such questions as may be of sufficient magnitude to require their interposition.”
The Democratic party was established, under Jefferson and Madison, for the very purpose of defending and preserving this self-evident truth. Such was the platform of the party from the time of its foundation to the election of Lincoln. Such has, indeed, been the popular doctrine of all the States down to the beginning of this revolutionizing war. The New England States have several times practically acted upon this doctrine, and taken preliminary steps towards resuming their delegated powers, and leaving the Union. The Union was established upon the voluntary basis, and nothing but the free consent of all the States can ever change it to an involuntary basis. The Federal Government has really nothing to say about the matter, as it is not a party to the compact. Its duties are to administer the laws to the best of its ability, under or within the limits of the Constitution, and there its powers end.
Now, if through the political and social disintegration which must follow the continuance of the war, the western States should take the steps which Massachusetts four several times threatened to take, and withdraw from the Union for their own welfare and safety, would we allow Lincoln to drag us into a war upon those States? Would we join him in cutting the throats of the people of those free, sovereign, and independent States, because they choose to exercise their clear right to “judge in the last resort,” as to the place they wish to hold in the family of States? No; after our criminal and foolish attempt and failure to coerce the southern States, we should be more likely to surrender Lincoln to the authorities of those States, that they might deal with him as Virginia did with old John Brown, for making war upon that State. If the western States make up their mind to leave, we shall have neither the right nor the power to make war upon them, to hold them in a hated embrace. Thank God the power of this Administration to make war upon anybody is well nigh ended. The serpent’s fang is broken. Should Lincoln be re-elected, he will only have power to make still wider the political and social breaches he has already produced, and to get himself and his confreres hanged. But this just result may cost the people billion more of debt, and another ocean of blood. So that nobody, not even Lincoln himself, has anything but misfortune and misery to expect from his re-election.
Burr, C. Chauncey. The Old Guard: A Monthly Journal, Devoted to the Principles of 1776 and 1787, Vol. II--1864. Forgotten Books, 2012. Originally published in 1864 by Van Evrie, Horton and Co., New York.