Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Virginia Declaration of Rights

In early May, 1776, Congressman John Adams co-sponsored a resolution calling of the colonies to “adopt such government as shall, in the opinion of the representatives of the people, best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents in particular and America in general.”

On May 15, Congress adopted the resolution with a preamble Adams wrote that asserted that the people in their colonies were sovereign and governed themselves by their own consent.  The preamble virtually amounted to a declaration of independence from Great Britain.  The preamble read:

It is necessary that the exercise of every kind of authority under the said Crown should be totally suppressed, and all the powers of government exerted under the authority of the people of the colonies, for the preservation of internal peace, virtue, and good order as well as for the defense of their lives, liberties and properties, against the hostile invasions and cruel depredations of their enemies.

On that same day, the delegates to the Fifth Virginia Convention (the governing body of the colony) assembled in Williamsburg and instructed its delegates in Philadelphia to “propose to that respectable body to declare the United Colonies free and independent states, absolved from all allegiance to, or dependence upon, the crown or parliament of Great Britain.”  The Convention then drafted a declaration of rights and a constitution based upon Congress’ resolution.  Patrick Henry, James Madison, and George Mason were among the notables appointed to the committee to draft the declaration of rights. 

The resulting Virginia declaration of rights was one of the most significant expressions of American Founding principles.  Its Lockean principles of self-government would shape Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia a month later and the American Constitution and Bill of Rights over a decade later. 

When it was adopted on June 12, 1776, the declaration averred the universal principle that all humans have certain fundamental rights by nature that government cannot violate.  The slaveholders of Virginia recognized the import of these universal principles for slavery and added the section about not being divested of those rights “when they enter into a state of society.”   The declaration read, in language that would influence the Declaration of Independence:

That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

The declaration supported the Lockean idea of a social compact that the sovereign people formed a representative government with the purpose of protecting their rights.  It stated, “That all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people; that magistrates are their trustees and servants.” 

The declaration upheld the principle that the same people had a right to rebel against tyrannical government that violated their rights and form a new government.  In language that strongly shaped the Declaration of Independence, the Virginia declaration stated: “Whenever any government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes, a majority of the community hath an indubitable, unalienable, and indefeasible right to reform, alter or abolish it, in such manner as shall be judged most conducive to the public weal.” 

The declaration included several principles of a constitutional republic that would undergird the American system of self-government.  For example, it contained a the ban on “descendible” or “hereditary” privileges and offices.  The declaration also asserted that, “the legislative and executive powers of the state should be separate and distinct from the judicative,” supporting the ideas of Montesquieu for a separation of powers that would influence James Madison at the Constitutional Convention.  An important characteristic of government by consent was to have “frequent, certain, and regular elections” which were fixed and free.

The declaration also placed stringent limits on the power of government and reserved those powers to the consent of the people.  The people could not taxed without their consent, the government could not suspend laws without the consent of the people, and the accused had many rights that the lawful government was bound to respect – know the cause of an accusation, confront witnesses, enjoy a fair and speedy trial by his peers, not incriminate himself, not lose his fundamental rights without due process, or be arrested without a warrant.  These formed the basis of the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments in the Bill of Rights. 

Additional protections in Virginia that would eventually influence the Bill of Rights were no excessive bail, no excessive fines, and no cruel and unusual punishments.  In a strong statement of the importance of the connection between a free press and republican liberty, the declaration stated: “That the freedom of the press is one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty and can never be restrained but by despotic governments.” 

Besides a clause for an armed people forming a militia for the “safe defense of a free state,” the declaration affirmed its opposition to “standing armies, in time of people . . . avoided as dangerous to liberty” and a military that was “under strict subordination to, and be governed by, the civil power.”  Thus, it helped shape the Second Amendment and asserted principles that General George Washington would embody in his actions resigning at the end of the Revolutionary War. 

As in several other statements before and during the Revolutionary War, the Virginians proclaimed that republican self-government was rooted upon the virtue of the people and natural law.  “That no free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.”

Although George Mason sought to include the revolutionary and Lockean idea of religious tolerance into the document, Madison amended the statement to be a broad statement of religious liberty of conscience as a fundamental natural right.  The declaration stated:

That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore, all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other.

The Virginia Declaration of Rights is studied every year by schoolchildren in Virginia, but it should be studied by students and citizens everywhere as one of the core documents of American liberty and Founding principles standing alone and as a document that laid the foundation for our other most important Founding documents. 
Tony Williams is the Program Director of the WJMI and the author of America’s Beginnings: The Dramatic Events that Shaped a Nation’s Character. 

Image: Adoption of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, oil painting by Jack Clifton. Virginia State Artwork Collection: acquired: 1974, Library of Virginia.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Jefferson & Madison and the Principles of American Government

Early in the year 1825, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison corresponded on the subject of a government textbook for the school of law at the recently chartered University of Virginia, which would be opening for classes in March of that year.  Jefferson was the Rector, and his close friend and political collaborator, Madison, was a member of the Board of Visitors.  Declining to prescribe a textbook for any other subjects such as science or mathematics, Jefferson felt that he and Madison were qualified as the “best judges” as to the principles of government that should be taught at the new university. The following two letters ultimately served as the basis for the Resolution of March 4, 1825, adopted by Jefferson, Madison, and the other members of the Board of Visitors, that sets forth an immensely valuable, and profoundly significant description of the authentic sources of the principles of American government and of the Constitution.

Thomas Jefferson to James Madison
Monticello, February 1, 1825
Dear Sir
…In most public seminaries a text-book is prescribed to the several schools as the Norma docendi in them; and this is frequently done by the Trustees. I should not propose this generally in our University because I believe none of us are so much at the heights of science, in the several branches, as to undertake this, and therefore that it will be best left to the Professors, until occasion of interference shall be given. But there is one branch in which I think we are the best judges, and the branch itself is of that interesting character to our state, and to the U S. as to make it a duty in us to lay down the principles which are to be taught. It is that of Government. …I think it a duty to guard against danger by a previous prescription of the texts to be adopted. I enclose you a resolution which I think of proposing at our next meeting, for your consideration, with a prayer that you will correct it freely, and make it what you think it ought to be…
Affectionately yours.
Thomas Jefferson

James Madison to Thomas Jefferson
      Montpellier, February 8, 1825
Dear Sir
…I have looked with attention over your intended proposal of a text book for the Law School. It is certainly very material that the true doctrines of liberty, as exemplified in our Political System, should be inculcated on those who are to sustain and may administer it. It is, at the same time, not easy to find standard books that will be both guides & guards for the purpose. Sidney & Locke are admirably calculated to impress on young minds the right of Nations to establish their own Governments, and to inspire a love of free ones; but afford no aid in guarding our Republican Charters against constructive violations. The Declaration of Independence, though rich in fundamental principles, and saying every thing that could be said in the same number of words, falls nearly under a like observation. The "Federalist" may fairly enough be regarded as the most authentic exposition of the text of the federal Constitution, as understood by the Body which prepared & the Authority which accepted it. Yet it did not foresee all the misconstructions which have occurred; nor prevent some that it did foresee. And what equally deserves remark, neither of the great rival Parties have acquiesced in all its comments. It may nevertheless be admissible as a School book, if any will be that goes so much into detail. It has been actually admitted into two Universities, if not more — those of Harvard and Rhode Island; but probably at the choice of the Professors, without any injunction from the superior authority.

With respect to the Virginia Document of 1799, there may be more room for hesitation. Though corresponding with the predominant sense of the Nation; being of local origin & having reference to a state of Parties not yet extinct, an absolute prescription of it, might excite prejudices against the University as under Party Banners, and induce the more bigoted to withhold from it their sons, even when destined for other than the studies of the Law School. It may be added that the Document is not on every point satisfactory to all who belong to the same Party. Are we sure that to our brethren of the Board it is so? In framing a political creed, a like difficulty occurs as in the case of religion though the public right be very different in the two cases. If the Articles be in very general terms, they do not answer the purpose; if in very particular terms, they divide & exclude where meant to unite & fortify. The best that can be done in our case seems to be, to avoid the two extremes, by referring to selected Standards without requiring an unqualified conformity to them, which indeed might not in every instance be possible. The selection would give them authority with the Students, and might control or counteract deviations of the Professor.

I have, for your consideration, sketched a modification of the operative passage in your draft, with a view to relax the absoluteness of its injunction, and added to your list of Documents the Inaugural Speech and the Farewell Address of President Washington. They may help down what might be less readily swallowed, and contain nothing which is not good; unless it be the laudatory reference in the Address to the Treaty of 1795 with Great Britain which ought not to weigh against the sound sentiments characterizing it.

After all, the most effectual safeguard against heretical intrusions into the School of Politics, will be an Able & Orthodox Professor, whose course of instruction will be an example to his successors, and may carry with it a sanction from the Visitors.
Affectionately yours,
James Madison

Sketch [Resolution for the Board of Visitors].

And on the distinctive principles of the Government of our own State, and of that of the United States, the best guides are to be found in — 1. The Declaration of Independence, as the fundamental act of Union of these States.  2. The book known by the title of the "Federalist," being an Authority to which appeal is habitually made by all & rarely declined or denied by any, as evidence of the general opinion of those who framed & those who accepted the Constitution of the United States on questions as to its genuine meaning. 3. The Resolutions of the General Assembly of Virginia in 1799, on the subject of the Alien & Sedition laws, which appeared to accord with the predominant sense of the people of the U. S.  4. The Inaugural Speech & Farewell Address of President Washington, as conveying political lessons of peculiar value; and that in the branch of the School of law which is to treat on the subject of Government, these shall be used as the text & documents of the School.
[Abbreviations and spelling modernized]
Photo of the Rotunda (c) 2014 by Anna Quillon [used with permission]

Monday, April 28, 2014

Thomas Jefferson and the United States Military Academy at West Point

“The United States Military Academy[1], also known as West Point, was established by President Thomas Jefferson in 1802.

In January 1821, Professor Jared Mansfield wrote to Thomas Jefferson from West Point: "The Superintendent, Officers, Professors, Instructors, & Cadets of the United States Military Academy, impressed, with a high sense of the great services, you have rendered the Nation, & that this Institution, with which they are connected, originated under your patronage, & presidency, are anxious for some special, & appropriate memorial of your person, which may descend to posterity."[2]

The library at the U.S. Military Academy, Mansfield informed Jefferson, had portraits of George Washington and of Jonathan Williams, the academy's first superintendent. Would Jefferson, Mansfield asked, "gratify them" by sitting for Thomas Sully, one of the "best Portrait Painters of our Country," at Monticello?

By 1802, when President Jefferson established the United States Military Academy, he had fully embraced the importance of "useful sciences" in education and in the protection of the young nation. Two years earlier, Jefferson had written to Pierre S. du Pont de Nemours, asking: "What are the branches of science which in the present state of man, and particularly with us, should be introduced into an academy?" Du Pont proposed an all inclusive plan of national education with primary schools, colleges, and four specialty schools -- medicine, mines, social science and legislation, and "higher geometry and the sciences that it explains." With engineering "urging forward the other sciences," this school would be of the greatest benefit to the nation, du Pont explained. As he told Jefferson: "No nation is in such need of canals as the United States, and most of their ports have no means of exterior defense."

Just two months after Jefferson's inauguration, Secretary of War Henry Dearborn announced that the president had "decided in favor of the immediate establishment of a military school at West Point and also on the appointment of Major Jonathan Williams" to direct "the necessary arrangements, at that place for the commencement of the school."

On March 16, 1802, Jefferson affixed his name to the Military Peace Establishment Act, directing that a corps of engineers be established and "stationed at West Point in the state of New York, and shall constitute a Military Academy." The academy's sole function would be to train engineers, and Williams, grandnephew of Benjamin Franklin, was named superintendent. On July 4, 1802, the U.S. Military Academy formally opened for instruction. "Our guiding star," Superintendent Williams said, "is not a little mathematical School, but a great national establishment.  We must always have it in view that our Officers are to be men of Science, and as such will by their acquirements be entitled to the notice of learned societies."

In the War of 1812, the enemy British did not capture any works constructed by a graduate of West Point, and perhaps, as historian Henry Adams suggested, "had an engineer been employed at Washington -- the city would have been easily saved."

Jefferson's military academy, Adams wrote, had "doubled the capacity of the new little American army for resistance, and introduced and scientific character into American life." Jefferson himself said that he "ever considered that establishment as of major importance to our country, and in whatever I could do for it, I viewed myself as performing a duty."

Note: Today, the Thomas Sully portrait of Thomas Jefferson commissioned by the "Superintendent, Officers, Professors, Instructors, & Cadets of the United States Military Academy" hangs at West Point.

[1] This article is from and is based on Christine Coalwell, "West Point: Jefferson's Military Academy." Monticello Newsletter, 12 (Winter 2001).
[2] Jared Mansfield to Thomas Jefferson, January 26, 1821, NWM

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Favorite Quotes from Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson (April 13, 1743 – July 4, 1826) was author of the Declaration of Independence and the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, third president of the United States, and founder of the University of Virginia. He, among all of the founders, voiced the aspirations of a new America as no other individual of his era. As public official, historian, philosopher, plantation owner, and family man, he served his country for over 50 years.  In addition, he was known as an avid inventor, architect and gardener.

In honor of his birthday, here are a few of my favorite quotes from Thomas Jefferson:

“The most fortunate of us, in our journey through life, frequently meet with calamities and misfortunes which may greatly afflict us; and, to fortify our minds against the attacks of these calamities and misfortunes, should be one of the principal studies and endeavours of our lives. The only method of doing this is to assume a perfect resignation to the Divine will, to consider that whatever does happen, must happen; and that by our uneasiness, we cannot prevent the blow before it does fall, but we may add to its force after it has fallen.” --Letter to John Page (15 July 1763)

“A lively and lasting sense of filial duty is more effectually impressed on the mind of a son or daughter by reading King Lear, than by all the dry volumes of ethics, and divinity, that ever were written.” --Letter to Robert Skipwith (3 August 1771)

“The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time; the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them.” --Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774)

“[T]ruth is great and will prevail if left to herself; that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate ; errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.” --A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, Chapter 82 (1779)

“He who permits himself to tell a lie once, finds it much easier to do it a second and third time, till at length it becomes habitual; he tells lies without attending to it, and truths without the world's believing him. This falsehood of tongue leads to that of the heart, and in time depraves all its good dispositions.” --Letter to Peter Carr (19 August 1785)

“The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the atmosphere.”
--Letter to Abigail Smith Adams from Paris while a Minister to France (22 February 1787)

“I had rather be shut up in a very modest cottage with my books, my family and a few old friends, dining on simple bacon, and letting the world roll on as it liked, than to occupy the most splendid post, which any human power can give.” --Letter to Alexander Donald (7 February 1788)

“I consider the foundation of the Constitution as laid on this ground: That "all powers not delegated to the United States, by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States or to the people." To take a single step beyond the boundaries thus specially drawn around the powers of Congress, is to take possession of a boundless field of power, no longer susceptible of any definition.” -- Opinion against the constitutionality of a National Bank (1791)

“Delay is preferable to error.” --Letter to George Washington (16 May 1792)

“I have sworn upon the altar of god eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” --Letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush (23 September 1800)

“The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only legitimate object of good government.” --"To the Republican Citizens of Washington County, Maryland" (March 31, 1809)

“Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.” --First Inaugural Address (4 March 1801)

“[W]hat more is necessary to make us a happy and a prosperous people? …A wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.” --First Inaugural Address (4 March 1801)

“I cannot live without books.” – Letter to John Adams (10 June 1815)

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” --Letter to Colonel Charles Yancey (6 January 1816)

“It is in our lives, and not from our words, that our religion must be read. By the same test the world must judge me.” --Letter to Mrs. Harrison Smith (6 August 1816)

“Lay down true principles and adhere to them inflexibly.” --Letter to Samuel Kercheval (1816)

"Without virtue, happiness cannot be."
--Letter to Amos J. Cook (1816)

"Happiness is the aim of life. Virtue is the foundation of happiness."--Letter to William Short (October 31, 1819)

“[H]onesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom." – Letter to Nathaniel Macon (January 12, 1819)

“I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.” --Letter to William Charles Jarvis (28 September 1820)

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Edmund Burke: Speech on Conciliation with America

Edmund Burke (1729-1797), was an Irish statesman, author, and political philosopher. After moving to England he served for many years in the House of Commons of Great Britain as a member of the Whig party. “Lord North's long administration (1770-1782) was marked by the unsuccessful coercion of the American colonies, by corruption, extravagance, and reaction. Against this policy Burke and his Whig friends could only raise a strong protest. The best of Burke's writings and speeches belong to this period, and may be described as a defense of sound constitutional statesmanship against prevailing abuse and misgovernment.”[1]  His speech on March 22, 1775 before Parliament on the subject of “Conciliation with America” is to be remembered for its wise and insightful counsel to his nation to pursue peace, magnanimity, and uphold British rights & privileges:

“To restore order and repose to an empire so great and so distracted as ours is, merely in the attempt, an undertaking that would ennoble the flights of the highest genius, and obtain pardon for the efforts of the meanest understanding. Struggling a good while with these thoughts, by degrees I felt myself more firm. I derived, at length, some confidence from what in other circumstances usually produces timidity. I grew less anxious, even from the idea of my own insignificance. For, judging of what you are by what you ought to be, I persuaded myself that you would not reject a reasonable proposition because it had nothing but its reason to recommend it.

The proposition is peace. Not peace through the medium of war; not peace to be hunted through the labyrinth of intricate and endless negotiations; not peace to arise out of universal discord, fomented from principle, in all parts of the empire; not peace to depend on the juridical determination of perplexing questions, or the precise marking the shadowy boundaries of a complex government. It is simple peace, sought in its natural course and in its ordinary haunts.

Let the colonies always keep the idea of their civil rights associated with your government-they will cling and grapple to you, and no force under heaven will be of power to tear them from their allegiance. But let it be once understood that your government may be one thing and their privileges another, that these two things may exist without any mutual relation - the cement is gone, the cohesion is loosened, and everything hastens to decay and dissolution. As long as you have the wisdom to keep the sovereign authority of this country as the sanctuary of liberty, the sacred temple consecrated to our common faith, wherever the chosen race and sons of England worship freedom, they will turn their faces towards you. The more they multiply, the more friends you will have, the more ardently they love liberty, the more perfect will be their obedience. Slavery they can have anywhere. It is a weed that grows in every soil. They may have it from Spain, they may have it from Prussia. But until you become lost to all feeling of your true interest and your natural dignity, freedom they can have from none but you. This is the commodity of price, of which you have the monopoly. This is the true Act of Navigation, which binds to you the commerce of the -colonies, and through them secures to you the wealth of the world. Deny them this participation of freedom, and you break that sole bond which originally made, and must still preserve, the unity of the empire. Do not entertain so weak an imagination as that your registers and your bonds, your affidavits and your sufferances, your cockets and your clearances, are what form the great securities of your commerce. Do not dream that your Letters of office, and your instructions, and your suspending clauses are the things that hold together the great contexture of this mysterious whole. These things do not make your government. Dead instruments, passive tools as they are, it is the spirit of the English communion that gives all their life and efficacy to them. It is the spirit of the English constitution which, infused through the mighty mass, pervades, feeds, unites, invigorates, vivffles every part of the empire, even down to the minutest member.

Is it not the same virtue which does every thing for us here in England? Do you imagine, then, that-it is the Land-Tax Act which raises your revenue? that it is the annual vote in the Committee of Supply, which gives you your army? or that it is the Mutiny Bill which inspires it with bravery and discipline? No! surely, no! It is the love of the people; it is their attachment to their government, from the sense of the deep stake they have in such a glorious institution, which gives you your army and your navy, and infuses into both that liberal obedience without which your army would be a base rabble and your navy nothing but rotten timber.

All this, I know well enough, will sound wild and chimerical to the profane herd of those vulgar and mechanical politicians who have no place among us: a sort of people who think that nothing exists but what is gross and material, and who, therefore, far from being qualified to be directors of the great movement of empire, are not fit to turn a wheel in the machine. But to men truly initiated and rightly taught, these ruling and master principles, which in the opinion of such men as I have mentioned have no substantial existence, are in truth everything, and all in all. Magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom; and a great empire and little minds go ill together. If we are conscious of our situation, and glow with zeal to fill our places as becomes our station and ourselves, we ought to auspicate all our public proceedings on America with the old warning of the Church, Sursum corda! We ought to elevate our minds to the greatness of that trust to which the order of Providence has called us. By adverting to the dignity of this high calling, our ancestors have turned a savage wilderness into a glorious empire, and have made the most extensive and the only honorable conquests, not by destroying, but by promoting the wealth, the number, the happiness of the human race. Let us get an American revenue as we have got an American empire. English privileges have made it all that it is; English privileges alone will make it all it can be.”


Saturday, March 15, 2014

Favorite Quotes from James Madison

James Madison, Jr. (March 16, 1751 – June 28, 1836) was an American statesman, political theorist, the fourth President of the United States, and is generally regarded as the "Father of the Constitution." His lovely wife Dolley was his gracious and charming political partner (see: "Mrs. Madison's Wednesday Nights").

In honor of his birthday, here are a few favorite quotes.

“[W]e may define a republic to be…a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people, and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure, for a limited period, or during good behavior…”
Federalist No. 39

“The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.” Federalist No. 47

“Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” Federalist No. 51

“The "Federalist" may fairly enough be regarded as the most authentic exposition of the text of the federal Constitution as understood by the Body [Constitutional Convention] which prepared & and the Authorities [state ratifying conventions] which accepted it.” Letter to Thomas Jefferson, February 8, 1825 (Peterson, 1974, 2. page 383)

“If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, and will promote the General Welfare, the Government is no longer a limited one, possessing enumerated powers, but an indefinite one, subject to particular exceptions.” Letter to Edmund Pendleton, January 21, 1792 (Madison, I, page 546)

“The government of the United States is a definite government, confined to specified objects. It is not like the state governments, whose powers are more general. Charity is no part of the legislative duty of the government.” Speech, House of Representatives (January 10, 1794)

“To provide employment for the poor, and support for the indigent, is among the primary, and, at the same time, not least difficult cares of the public authority.” Letter to Reverend F.C. Schaeffer, January 8, 1820 (Madison, III, page 162)

“The aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust.” Federalist No. 57

“I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power, than by violent and sudden usurpations …” Speech at the Virginia Convention to ratify the Federal Constitution (June 6, 1788)

“[T]he right of freely examining public characters and measures, and of free communication among the people thereon…has ever been justly deemed the only effectual guardian of every other right.” Virginia Resolutions, 1798

“[T]o the press alone; checkered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression.” Madison's Report on the Virginia Resolutions (in the American Memory Collection of the Library of Congress)

“[T]he advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation, the existence of subordinate governments, to which the people are attached, and by which the militia officers are appointed, forms a barrier against the enterprises of ambition, more insurmountable than any which a simple government of any form can admit of. Notwithstanding the military establishments in the several kingdoms of Europe, which are carried as far as the public resources will bear, the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms.” Federalist No. 46

“A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps, both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” Letter to W. T. Barry, August 4, 1822 (Madison, III, page 276

“Liberty and Learning; both best supported when leaning each on the other.” Letter to W. T. Barry, August 4, 1822 (Madison, III, page 279)

“[W]e hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth, "that religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence." Memorial and Remonstrance, 1785

“Among the features peculiar to the political system of the United States, is the perfect equality of rights which it secures to every religious sect…Equal laws, protecting equal rights, are found, as they ought to be presumed, the best guarantee of loyalty and love of country; as well as best calculated to cherish that mutual respect and good will among citizens of every religious denomination which are necessary to social harmony, and most favorable to the advancement of truth.” Letter to Dr. De La Motta, August 1820 (Madison, 1865, III, pages 178-179)

“Conscience is the most sacred of all property …” "Property," March 27, 1792 (Madison, IV, page 478)

“The belief in a God All Powerful wise and good, is so essential to the moral order of the world and to the happiness of man, that arguments which enforce it cannot be drawn from too many sources nor adapted with too much solicitude to the different characters and capacities to be impressed with it.”  Letter to Rev. Frederick Beasley (November 20, 1825)

Madison refers to “Madison, James, Letters and Other Writings of James Madison, Published by order of Congress. 4 volumes. Compiled by William Cabell Rives. Edited by Philip R. Fendall (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1865).”

Monday, March 10, 2014

Frederick Douglass on the Constitution and Slavery

By Tony Williams

In 1860, ex-slave and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, delivered a powerful speech “The Constitution: Is It Pro-Slavery or Anti-Slavery?”  Douglass used the speech to criticize his fellow abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison who called the Constitution a “Covenant with Death” and publicly burned the Constitution because he believed it a pro-slavery document.  This view is very common among many modern academics who discredit the Founders for creating a fundamentally flawed constitutional system rooted upon slavery and extinguished through the efforts of uncompromising abolitionists.  Douglass thought differently.

Douglass was a former slave who had escaped the horrors of slavery.  He was raised on a plantation that was many miles from a mother that he rarely saw.  From a young age, he witnessed the brutal whippings of slavery.  His spirit was nearly ruined by a “slavebreaker,” but Douglass recovered his manhood when he fought back and refused to be whipped again.  He eventually learned to read and learned the power of rhetoric by reading The Columbian Orator.  He finally escaped from slavery through the Underground Railroad and recovered his human dignity.  He became such a powerful speaker that his listeners did not believe he was a former slave. 

In 1860, Douglass systematically goes through the supposedly pro-slavery clauses of the Constitution and demolishes the argument that the Constitution is pro-slavery.  Douglass begins with a strong statement that the Constitution is a Newtonian document with immutable principles rather than a “Living Constitution” that can mean whatever the interpreter wants it to mean. 

What, then, is the Constitution?  I will tell you.  It is no vague, indefinite, floating, unsubstantial, ideal something, coloured according to one’s fancy, now a weasel, now a whale, and now nothing.  On the contrary, it is a plainly written document, not in Hebrew or Greek, but in English . . . . The American Constitution is a written instrument full and complete in itself.  No Court in America, no Congress, no President, can add a single word thereto, or take a single word therefrom.  It is a great national enactment done by the people, and can be altered, amended, or added to by the people.

Many people today believe that Thomas Jefferson did not really mean all people when he wrote “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence and think that they know who Jefferson really meant.  Douglass takes on the same kind of reasoning regarding slavery and the Constitution when he argues that, “The text, and only the text, and not any commentaries or creeds written by those who wished to give the text a meaning apart from its plain meaning . . . . instead of looking to the written paper itself, for its meaning, it were attempted to make us search it out, in the secret motives, and dishonest intentions, of some of the men who took part in writing it.”  For Douglass, the Constitution must “stand or fall, flourish or fade, on its own individual and self-declared character and objects.”

Douglass starts by asserting that the framers purposefully avoided the mention of slavery in the Constitution.  “It so happens that no such words as ‘African slave trade,’ no such words as ‘slave representation,’ no such words as ‘fugitive slaves,” no such words as ‘slave insurrections,’ are anywhere used in that instrument.  These are . . . not the words of the Constitution of the United States.”

As Abraham Lincoln said the same year at his Cooper Union address, paraphrasing James Madison at the Constitutional Convention: “Neither the word ‘slave’ nor ‘slavery’ is to be found in the Constitution . . . and that wherever in that instrument the slave is alluded to, he is called a ‘person.’”
The purpose, Lincoln told his audience was to prevent slavery from being a blot on the American founding and Constitution after slavery had inevitably been extinguished.  The founders did this “on purpose to exclude from the Constitution the idea that there could be property in man.”
Douglass first addresses the Three-Fifths clause of Article I, section 2 and examines the idea of a slaveholding power.  He indirectly demolishes our modern view that it literally meant that the slaves were considered three-fifths of a person.  Do not forget that the South wanted to count the slave as a full person for the purposes of representation.  Douglass also attacks the idea that this did not create a slave power in the Congress nor did it represent anything less than a compromise over representation and taxation.

“A black man in a free State is worth just two-fifths more than a black man in a slave State, as a basis of political power under the Constitution.  Therefore, instead of encouraging slavery, the Constitution encourages freedom by giving an increase of ‘two-fifths’ of political power to free over slave States . . . taking it at its worst, it still leans to freedom, not to slavery,” Douglass avers.

Douglass next addresses the slave trade in Article I, section 9, in which the Congress could not ban the slave trade for 20 years.  The founders, Douglass argues, were not protecting the slave trade and thus slavery with this clause but were “providing for the abolition of the slave trade.”  And, indeed on January 1, 1808, that is exactly what happened when the 1807 bill that President Thomas Jefferson signed, went into effect.  Douglass says that the clause “looked to the abolition of slavery rather than to its perpetuity,” and that the founders intentions “were good, not bad.”

Douglass tackles the “slave insurrection” clause in Article I, section 8.  He states that “there is no such clause” because it is a general statement that the chief executive has the power and duty to suppress all “riots or insurrections” in the interests of maintaining law and order.  Even if Douglass concedes for the sake of argument that it is aimed at slave insurrections, he turns it on its head and states that, “If it should turn out that slavery is a source of insurrection . . . why, the Constitution would be best obeyed by putting an end to slavery, and an anti-slavery Congress would do that very thing.” 

Finally, Douglass discusses the “Fugitive Slave clause” of Article IV, section 9, and believes that it could only be applied to indentured servants and apprentices because slaves were not “bound to service” in the sense that they were contractually obligated to perform “service and labour,” because they could not legally make contracts.

Douglass then examines the larger natural rights principles of the Constitution and argues that they do not support slavery.  The purposes of the new constitutional government as stated in the Preamble – union, defense, welfare, tranquility, justice, and liberty – Douglass tells us, “are all good objects, and slavery, so far from being among them, is a foe to them all.”  He continues, “Its language is ‘we the people;’ not we the white people.” 

Finally, Douglass argues that “there is no word, no syllable in the Constitution to forbid [abolishing slavery].”  The North banned slavery in the wake of the American Revolution, the Northwest Ordinance banned it in that territory, and the Missouri Compromise banned it in the northern part of the Louisiana Territory.  Douglass states that, “The Constitution will afford slavery no protection.” 

Douglass’ speech was aimed as much at the radical abolitionists as slave owners as he thought it remarkably imprudent to say “No union with slaveholders.”  If the North were to let the South secede, then there would be no moral pressure to end slavery in the new confederacy.  Slavery, Douglass tells us, “dreads the presence of an advanced civilization.  It flourishes best where it meets no reproving frowns, and hears no condemning voices.  While in the Union it will meet with both . . . . I am, therefore, for drawing the bond of Union more closely.” 

Tony Williams is the Program Director of the WJMI and the author of four books, including America’s Beginnings: The Dramatic Events that Shaped a Nation’s Character.