To William Cabell Rives
Montpr, March 12, 1833
I have recd your very kind letter of the 6th, from Washington, and by
the same mail a copy of your late Speech in the Senate, for which I tender my
thanks. I have found as I expected, that it takes a very able and enlightening
view of its subject. I wish it may have the effect of reclaiming to the
doctrine & language held by all from the birth of the Constitution, &
till very lately by themselves, those who now Contend that the States have
never parted with an Atom of their sovereignty, and consequently that the
Constitutional band which holds them together, is a mere league or partnership,
without any of the characteristics of sovereignty or nationality.
It seems strange that it should be necessary to disprove this novel and
nullifying doctrine, and stranger still that those who deny it should be
denounced as Innovators, heretics & Apostates. Our political system is
admitted to be a new Creation — a real nondescript. Its character
therefore must be sought within itself, not in precedents, because there are
none, not in writers whose comments are guided by precedents. Who can tell at
present how Vattel and others of that class, would have qualified (in the
Gallic sense of the term) a Compound & peculiar system with such an example
of it as ours before them.
What can be more preposterous than to say that the States as united, are
in no respect or degree, a Nation, which implies sovereignty, altho'
acknowledged to be such by all other Nations & Sovereigns, and maintaining
with them, all the in ternational relations, of war & peace, treaties,
commerce, &c, and, on the other hand and at the same time, to say that the
States separately are compleatly nations & sovereigns, although they can
separately neither speak nor harken to any other nation, nor maintain with it
any of the international relations whatever and would be disowned as Nations if
presenting themselves in that character.
The milliners it appears, endeavor to shelter themselves under a
distinction between a delegation and a surrender of powers. But if the powers
be attributes of sovereignty & nationality & the grant of them be
perpetual, as is necessarily implied, where not otherwise expressed,
sovereignty & nationality according to the extent of the grant are
effectually transferred by it, and a dispute about the name, is but a battle of
words. The practical result is not indeed left to argument or inference. The
words of the Constitution are explicit that the Constitution & laws of the
U. S. shall be supreme over the Constitution & laws of the several States,
supreme in their exposition and execution as well as in their authority.
Without a supremacy in those respects it would be like a scabbard in the hand
of a soldier without a sword in it. The imagination itself is startled at the
idea of twenty four independent expounders of a rule that cannot exist, but in
a meaning and operation, the same for all.
The conduct of S. Carolina has called forth not only the question of
nullification, but the more formidable one of secession. It is asked whether a
State by resuming the sovereign form in which it entered the Union, may not of
right withdraw from it at will. As this is a simple question whether a State,
more than an individual, has a right to violate its engagements, it would seem
that it might be safely left to answer itself. But the countenance given to the
claim shows that it cannot be so lightly dismissed. The natural feelings which
laudably attach the people composing a State, to its authority and importance,
are at present too much excited by the unnatural feelings, with which they have
been inspired agst their brethren of other States, not to expose them, to the
danger of being misled into erroneous views of the nature of the Union and the
interest they have in it. One thing at least seems to be too clear to be
questioned, that whilst a State remains within the Union it cannot withdraw its
citizens from the operation of the Constitution & laws of the Union. In the
event of an actual secession without the Consent of the Co States, the course
to be pursued by these involves questions painful in the discussion of them.
God grant that the menacing appearances, which obtruded it may not be followed
by positive occurrences requiring the more painful task of deciding them?
In explaining the proceedings of Virga in 98-99, the state of things at
that time was the more properly appealed to, as it has been too much
overlooked. The doctrines combated are always a key to the arguments employed.
It is but too common to read the expressions of a remote period thro' the
modern meaning of them, & to omit guards agst misconstruction not
anticipated. A few words with a prophetic gift, might have prevented much error
in the glosses on those proceedings. The remark is equally applicable to the
Having thrown these thoughts on paper in the midst of interruptions
added to other dangers of inaccuracy, I will ask the favor of you to return the
letter after perusal. I have latterly taken this liberty with more than one of
my corresponding friends. And every lapse of very short periods becomes now a
fresh apology for it.
Neither Mrs. M. nor myself have forgotten the promised visit which
included Mrs. Rives, and we flatter ourselves the fulfilment of it, will not be
very distant. Meanwhile we tender to you both our joint & affecte.
P. Script. I inclose a little pamphlet rec. a few days ago, which so
well repaid my perusal, that I submit it to yours, to be returned only at your
leisure. It is handsomely written, and its matter well chosen &
interesting. A like task as well executed in every State wd. be of historical
value; the more so as the examples might both prompt & guide researches,
not as yet too late but rapidly becoming so.