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Tucker's Blackstone

Volume 1 — Appendix
Note D

[Section 2 — Nature of U.S. Constitution; manner of its adoption (cont.)]

5. It is a written contract; considered as a federal compact, or alliance between the states, there is nothing new or singular in this circumstance, as all national compacts since the invention of letters have probably been reduced to that form: but considered in the light of an original, social, compact, it may be worthy of remark, that a very great lawyer, who wrote but a few years before the American revolution, seems to doubt whether the original contract of society had in any one instance been formally expressed at the first institution of a state 20; The American revolution seems to have given birth to this new political phenomenon: in every state a written constitution was framed, and adopted by the people, both in their individual and sovereign capacity, and character. By this means, the just distinction between the sovereignty, and the government, was rendered familiar to every intelligent mind; the former was found to reside in the people, and to be unalienable from them; the latter in their servants and agents: by this means, also, government was reduced to its elements; its object was defined, it's principles ascertained; its powers limited, and fixed; its structure organized; and the functions of every part of the machine so clearly designated, as to prevent any interference, so long as the limits of each were observed. The same reasons operated in behalf of similar restrictions in the federal constitution, whether considered as the act of the body politic of the several states, or, of the people of the states, respectively, or, of the people of the United States, collectively. Accordingly we find the structure of the government, its several powers and jurisdictions, and the concessions of the several states, generally, pretty accurately defined, and limited. But to guard against encroachments on the powers of the several states, in their politic character, and of the people, both in their individual and sovereign capacity, an amendatory article was added, immediately after the government was organized, declaring; that the powers not delegated to the United States, by the constitution; nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states, respectively, or to the people 21. And, still further, to guard the people against constructive usurpations and encroachments on their rights, another article declares; that the enumeration of certain rights in the constitution, shall not be construed to deny, or disparage, others retained by the people 22. The sum of all which appears to be, that the powers delegated to the federal government, are, in all cases, to receive the most strict construction that the instrument will bear, where the rights of a state or of the people, either collectively, or individually, may be drawn in question.

The advantages of a written constitution, considered as the original contract of society must immediately strike every reflecting mind; power, when undefined, soon becomes unlimited; and the disquisition of social rights where there is no text to resort to, for their explanation, is a task, equally above ordinary capacities, and incompatable with the ordinary pursuits, of the body of the people. But, as it is necessary to the preservation of a free government, established upon the principles of a representative democracy, that every man should know his own rights, it is also indispensably necessary that he should be able, on all occasions, to refer to them. In those countries where the people have been deprived of the sovereignty, and have no share, even in the government, it may perhaps be happy for them, so long as they remain in a state of subjection, to be ignorant of their just rights. But where the sovereignty is, confessedly, vested in the people, government becomes a subordinate power, and is the mere creature of the people's will: it ought therefore to be so constructed, that its operations may be the subject of constant observation, and scrutiny. There should be no hidden machinery, nor secret spring about it.

The boasted constitution of England, has nothing of this visible form about it; being purely constructive, and established upon precedents or compulsory concessions betwixt parties at variance. The several powers of government, as has been elsewhere observed, are limited, though in an uncertain way, with respect to each other; but the three together are without any check in the constitution, although neither can be properly called the representative of the people. And from hence, the union of these powers in the parliament hath given occasion to some writers of that nation to stile it omnipotent: by which figure it is probable they mean no more, than to inform us that the sovereignty of the nation resides in that body; having by gradual and immemorial usurpations been completely wrested from the people.

6. It is a compact freely, voluntarily, and solemnly entered into by the several sates, and ratified by the people thereof, respectively: freely, there being neither external, nor internal force, or violence to influence, or promote the measure; the U. States being at peace with all the world, and in perfect tranquility in each state: voluntarily, because the measure had its commencement in the spontaneous acts of the state-legislatures, prompted by a due sense of the necessity of some change in the existing confederation: and, solemnly, as having been discussed, not only by the general convention who proposed, and framed it; but afterwards in the legislatures of the several states, and finally, in the conventions of all the states, by whom it was adopted and ratified.

The progress of this second revolution in our political system was extremely rapid. Its origin may be deduced from three distinct sources: The discontents of the army, and other public creditors; .... the decay of commerce, which had been diverted from its former channels; and the backwardness, or total neglect of the state-legislatures in complying with the requisitions, or recommendations of congress.

The discontents of the army had at several periods, during the war, risen to an alarming height, and threatened, if not a total revolt, at least a general disbandment. They were checked, or palliated by various temporary expedients and resolves of congress; but, not long before the cessation of hostilities, some late applications to congress, respecting the arrears of their pay and depreciation, not having produced the desired effect; an anonymous address to the army, couched in the most nervous language of complaint, made its appearance in camp 23; It contained a most spirited recapitulation of their services, grievances, and disappointments, and concluded with advising, "an appeal from the justice to the fears of government." The effects, naturally to have been apprehended from so animated a performance, addressed to men who felt their own injuries in every word, were averted by the prudence of the commander in chief 24; and congress, as far as in them lay, endeavoured to do ample justice to the army; which was soon after entirely disbanded: but, as congress had not the command of any revenue, requisitions to the states were the only mode, by which funds for the discharge of so honorable a debt, could be procured. The states, already exhausted by a long and burthensome war, were either in no condition to comply with the recommendations of congress, or were so tardy and parsimonious in furnishing the supplies required, that the clamours against the government became every day louder and louder. Every creditor of government, of which there were thousands, besides the army now dispersed among the citizens, became an advocate for the change of such an inefficient government, from which they saw it was in vain to hope for satisfaction of their various demands.

But it is not probable that the discontents or clamors of the creditors of government, alone, would have been sufficient to effectuate a fundamental change in the government, had not other causes conspired to render it's inefficiency the subject of observation and complaint, among another very numerous class of citizens.... these were the commercial part of the people, inhabiting almost exclusively all the sea-ports, and other towns on the continent, and dispersed at small intervals through the whole country. The New-England states, in a great measure, dependent upon commerce, had before the war enjoyed a free trade with the West-India Islands, subject to the crown of Great-Britain; they had likewise maintained a very beneficial intercourse with the French Islands, from whence they drew supplies of molasses for their distilleries. Then whale and cod-fisheries might be said to have been almost monopolized by them, on the American coast; at least the advantages they enjoyed for carrying on these branches of trade, bade fair to exclude every other nation from a competition with them on their native coasts. New-York and Pennsylvania had likewise the benefit of an advantageous furr-trade, through the channels lately occupied by the British posts, on the frontiers of the United States, which by the treaty of peace were to have been evacuated with all convenient speed. The possession of these being still retained, and the utmost vigilance exerted by the British government to prevent any communication with the Indian country; that very lucrative branch of the trade of the United States had been wholly diverted into the channel of Canada.... The ports of the English West-India Islands, which, it was expected would have been open to our vessels, as before the revolution, were, immediately after the conclusion of the peace, strictly prohibited to the American traders: .... those of the French islands were under such restrictions as greatly impaired the former advantageous intercourse with them: ..... The protection formerly enjoyed under the British flag from the depredations of the corsairs of the Barbarian states, being now withdrawn, the commerce with the Mediterranean and the ports bordering thereupon, whither a great part of the produce of the fisheries, as well as the surplus of grain, was exported, was entirely cut off, from the danger of annoyance from those piratical states ... Great-Britain had, formerly, not only afforded a market for the whale oil, but had given a liberal bounty on it, both of which she now ceased to do, and no other country could be found to supply either of these advantages. Thus the sources of commerce in those states, were either dried up, or obstructed on every side, and the discontents prevailing among the newly liberated states, were little short of those of the Israelites in the wilderness.... Commotions in the northern states, seemed to threaten a repetition of the horrors of a civil war; these were ascribed to the inadequacy of the general government to secure or promote the interest and prosperity of the federal union: but whether their origin was not also to be ascribed to the administration of the state governments, is at least highly questionable.

The little regard which was paid to the requisitions of congress for money from the states, to discharge the interest of the national debt, and in particular that part due to foreigners, or foreign states, and to defray the ordinary expences of the federal government, gave rise to a proposition 25, that congress should be authorized, for the period of twenty-five years, to impose a duty of five per cent on all goods imported into the United States. Most of the states had consented to the measure 26, but the number required by the confederation could not be prevailed on to adopt it: New-York and Rhode-Island were particularly opposed to it. Thus a project which might perhaps have answered every beneficial purpose, proposed afterwards by the new constitution, was disconcerted, from the jealousy of granting a limited power for a limited time, by the same people, who, within three years after, surrendered a much larger portion of the rights of sovereignty without reserve.

In addition to this measure, congress in their act of April 18th, 1783, had proposed, that the eighth article of the confederation, which made the value of lands the ratio of contribution from the several states, should be revoked, and instead thereof the ratio should be fixed among the states, in proportion to the whole number of white inhabitants and three-fifths of all other persons, according to a triennial census. This proposition was agreed to in Virginia 27, but like the former, was not acceded to by a sufficient number of the states to form an article of the confederation.... Yet this ratio is precisely the same, which has been since fixed by the new constitution as the rate by which direct taxes shall be imposed on the several states.

The total derangement of commerce, as well as of the finances of the United States, had proceeded to such lengths before the conclusion of the year 1785, that early in the succeeding year commissioners were appointed by the state of Virginia, to meet such commissioners as might be appointed by other states, for the purpose of "considering how far an uniform system in the commercial regulations may be necessary to their common interests, and their permanent harmony; and to report to the several states such an act, relative to that object, as when unanimously ratified by them, would enable congress effectually to provide for the same." The commissioners assembled at Annapolis accordingly, in September 1786, but were met only by commissioners from four of the other twelve states.... They considered the number of states represented to be too few to proceed to business.... but before they separated, wrote a letter to their constituents, recommending the appointment of deputies to meet in Philadelphia the succeeding May, for the purpose of extending the revision of the federal system to all its defects.... In pursuance whereof the legislature of Virginia passed an act, appointing seven commissioners to meet such deputies as may be appointed by other states, to assemble, as recommended, and join in "devising and discussing, all such alterations, and further provisions as may be necessary to render the federal constitution adequate to the exigencies of the union; and in reporting such an act for that purpose to the United States in congress, as when agreed to by them, and duly confirmed by the several states, would effectually provide for the same 28." Similar measures were adopted by all the states in the union, except Rhode Island: deputies assembled from all the other states; but instead of amendments to the confederation, they produced a plan for an entire change of the form of the federal government, and not without some innovation of its principles. The moment of its appearance all the enemies of the former government lifted up their voices in its favour. Party zeal never ran higher without an actual breach of the peace. Had the opposers of the proposed constitution been as violent as its advocates, it is not impossible that matters would have proceeded to some pernicious lengths: but the former were convinced that some change was necessary, which moderated their opposition; whilst the latter were animated in the pursuit of their favourite plan, from an apprehension that no other change was practicable. In several of the states, the question was decided in favour of the constitution by a very small majority of the conventions assembled to consider of its adoption. In North Carolina it was once rejected, and in Rhode Island twice: nor was it adopted by either, until the new government was organized by the ratifying states. Considerable amendments were proposed by several states; by the states of Massachusetts, South Carolina, Virginia, and New York, particularly. It was finally adopted by all the States, after having been the subject of consideration and discussion for a period little short of two years 29.

I have said that the constitution was ratified by the conventions of the several states, assembled for the purpose of considering the propriety of adopting it. As the tenor of the instrument imports that it is the act of the people, and as every individual may, to a certain degree, be considered as a party to it, it will be necessary to add a few words on the subject of representation, and of the power which a majority have to bind the minority.

The right of suffrage is one of the most important rights of a free citizen; and in small states where the citizens can easily be collected together, this right ought never to be dispensed with on any great political question. But in large communities, such a measure, however desirable; is utterly impracticable, for reasons too obvious to be dwelt upon: hence the necessity that the people should appoint a smaller and more convenient number to represent the aggregate mass of the citizens. This is done not only for the purposes of ordinary legislation, but in large states, and on questions which require discussion and deliberation, is the most eligible mode of proceeding, even where the vote of every individual of the nation should be desired. Therefore, when the convention at Philadelphia had made their report, the ordinary legislatures, with great propriety, recommended the appointment of state-conventions, for the sole and especial purpose of considering the propriety of adopting the constitution, thus proposed by the convention of the states. The deputies in most of the counties were chosen according to the prevailing sentiments of the people in favour of the constitution, the opinions of the candidates being generally previously known. It is much to be wished that this had been universally the case, since the will of the people would in that case have been unequivocally expressed.

The right of the majority to bind the minority, results from a due regard to the peace of society; and the little chance of unanimity in large societies or assemblies, which, if obtainable, would certainly be very desirable; but inasmuch as that is not to be expected, whilst the passions, interests, and powers of reason remain upon their present footing among mankind, in all matters relating to the society in general, some mode must be adopted to supply the want of unanimity. The most reasonable and convenient seems to be, that the will of the majority should supply this defect; for if the will of the majority is not permitted to prevail in questions where the whole society is interested, that of the minority necessarily must. The society therefore, in such a case, would be under the influence of a minority of its members, which, generally speaking, can on no principle be justified.

It is true there are cases, even under our own constitution, where the vote of a bare majority is not permitted to take effect; but this is only in points which have, or may be presumed to have, received the sanction of a former majority, as where an alteration in the constitution is proposed. In order, therefore, to give the greater stability to such points, they are not permitted to be altered by a bare majority: in cases also which are to be decided by a few, but which may, nevertheless, affect a variety of interests, it was conceived to be safest to require the assent of more than a bare majority; as, in concluding treaties with foreign nations, where the interests of a few states may be vitally affected, while that of a majority may be wholly unconcerned. Or, lastly, where the constitution has reposed a corresponding trust in different bodies who may happen to disagree in opinion; as, where the president of the United States shall return a bill to congress with his reasons for refusing his assent to it; in all these cases more than a bare majority are required to concur in favour of any measure, before it can be carried into complete effect.

7th. It is a compact by which the several states and the people thereof, respectively, have bound themselves to each other, and to the federal government.

Having shewn that the constitution had its commencement with the body politic of the several states; and, that its final adoption and ratification was, by the several legislatures referred to, and completed by conventions, especially called and appointed for that purpose, in each state; the acceptance of the constitution, was not only an act of the body politic of each state, but of the people thereof respectively, in their sovereign character and capacity: the body politic was competent to bind itself so far as the constitution of the state permitted, but not having power to bind the people, in cases beyond their constitutional authority, the assent of the people was indispensably necessary to the validity of the compact, by which the rights of the people might be diminished, or submitted to a new jurisdiction, or in any manner affected. From hence, not only the body politic of the several states, but every citizen thereof, may be considered as parties to the compact, and to have bound themselves reciprocally to each other, for the due observance of it and, also, to have bound themselves to the federal government, whose authority has been thereby created, and established.

8. Lastly. It is a compact by which the federal government is bound to the several states, and to every citizen of the United States.

Although the federal government can, in no possible view, be considered as a party to a compact made anterior to its existence, and by which it was, in fact, created; yet as the creature of that compact, it must be bound by it, to its creators, the several states in the union, and the citizens thereof. Having no existence but under the constitution, nor any rights, but such as that instrument confers; and those very rights being in fact duties; it can possess no legitimate power, but such, as is absolutely necessary for the performance of a duty, prescribed and enjoined by the constitution. Its duties, then, become the exact measure of its powers; and wherever it exerts a power for any other purpose, than the performance of a duty prescribed by the constitution, it transgresses its proper limits, and violates the public trust. Its duties, being moreover imposed for the general benefit and security of the several states, in their politic character; and of the people, both in their sovereign, and individual capacity, if these objects be not obtained, the government will not answer the end of its creation: it is therefore bound to the several states, respectively, and to every citizen thereof, for the due execution of those duties. And the observance of this obligation is enforced, by the solemn sanction of an oath, from all who administer the government 31.

The constitution of the United States, then being that instrument by which the federal government hath been created; its powers defined, and limited; and the duties, and functions of its several departments prescribed; the government, thus established, may be pronounced to be a confederate republic, composed of several independent, and sovereign democratic states, united for their common defence, and security against foreign nations, and for the purposes of harmony, and mutual intercourse between each other; each state retaining an entire liberty of exercising, as it thinks proper, all those parts of its sovereignty, which are not mentioned in the constitution, or act of union, as parts that ought to be exercised in common. It is the supreme law of the land 32, and as such binding upon the federal government; the several states; and finally upon all the citizens of the United States.... It can not be controlled, or altered without the express consent of the body politic of three fourths of the states in the union, or, of the people, of an equal number of the states. To prevent the necessity of an immediate appeal to the latter, a method is pointed out, by which amendments may be proposed and ratified by the concurrent act of two thirds of both houses of congress, and three fourths of the state legislatures: but if congress should neglect to propose amendments in this way, when they may be deemed necessary, the concurrent sense of two thirds of the state legislatures may enforce congress to call a convention, the amendments proposed by which, when ratified by the conventions of three fourths of the states, become valid, as a part of the constitution. In either mode, the assent of the body politic of the states, is necessary, either to complete, or to originate the measure 33.

Here let us pause a moment, and reflect on the peculiar happiness of the people of the United States, thus to possess the power of correcting whatever errors may have crept into the constitution, or may hereafter be discovered therein, without the danger of those tremendous scenes which have convulsed every nation of the earth; in their attempts to ameliorate their condition; a power which they have already more than once successfully exercised. "Americans," says a writer whom I have before quoted, "ought to look upon themselves, at present, as almost the sole guardians and trustees of republican freedom: for other nations are not, as we are, at leisure to shew it in its true and most enticing form. Whilst we contemplate with a laudable delight, the rapid growth of our prosperity, let us ascribe it to its true cause; the wholesome operation of our new political philosophy. Whatever blessings we enjoy, over and above what are to be found under the British government, whatever evils we avoid, to which the people of that government are exposed; for all these advantages are we indebted to the separation that has taken place, and the new order of things that has obtained among us. Let us be thankful to the parent of the universe, that he has given us, the first enjoyment of that freedom, which: is intended in due time for the whole race of man. Let us diligently study the nature of our situation, that we may better know how to preserve and improve its advantages. But above all, let us study the genuine principles of DEMOCRACY, and steadily practice them, that we may refute the calumnies of those who would bring them into disgrace.

"Let us publish to the world, and let our conduct verify our assertions, that by democracy we mean not a state of licentiousness, nor a subversion of order, nor a defiance of legal authority. Let us convince mankind, that we understand by it, a well ordered government, endued with energy to fulfil all its intentions, to act with effect upon all delinquents, and to bring to punishment all offenders against the laws: but, at the same time, not a government of usurpation; not a government of prescription; but a government of compact, upon the ground of equal right, and equal obligation; in which the rights of each individual spring out of the engagement he has entered into, to perform the duties required of him by the community, whereby the same rights in others, are to be maintained inviolate."

That mankind have a right to bind themselves by their own voluntary acts, can scarcely be questioned: but how far have they a right to enter into engagements to bind their posterity likewise? Are the acts of the dead binding upon their living posterity, to all generations; or has posterity the same natural rights which their ancestors have enjoyed before them? And if they have, what right have any generation of men to establish any particular form of government for succeeding generations?

The answer is not difficult: "Government," said the congress of the American States, in behalf of their constituents, "derives its just authority from the consent of the governed." This fundamental principle then may serve as a guide to direct our judgment with respect to the question. To which we may add, in the words of the author of Common Sense, a law is not binding upon posterity, merely, because it was made by their ancestors; but, because posterity have not repealed it. It is the acquiescence of posterity under the law, which continues its obligation upon them, and not any right which their ancestors had to bind them.

Until, therefore, the people of the United States, whether the present, or any future generation, shall think it necessary to alter, or revoke the present constitution of the United States, it must be received, respected, and obeyed among us, as the great and unequivocal declaration of the will of the people, and the supreme law of the land.


20. 1. Blacks. Com. 47.

21. Amendments to C. U. S. art 12

22. Ibidem. art. 11

23. See the Remembrancer vol. 18. p. 72. Carey's Museum vol. 1. 302.

24. Ibidem, p. 120. Had General Washington no other claim to the gratitude of his country, his conduct on that occasion, alone, would have entailed an unextinguishable debt of gratitude upon it, to all posterity.

25. See Resolves of Congress, April 18th, 1783.

26. Oct. 1783, c. 31. Revised Code, p. 219. May 1784. c. 21.

27. Acts of 1784, c. 31.

28. Acts of 1786, c. 8.

[29. Separate file.]

[30. Is a footnote to Footnote 29, and appears in that file.]

31. C. U. S. Art. 2. §. 1. and Art. 6.

32. C. U. S. Art. 6.

33. Ibidem, Art. 5.


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