Page images
[blocks in formation]

people choose to maintain it as it is; while they are satisfied with it, and refuse to change it ; who has given, or who can give, to the State legislatures a right to alter it, either by interference, construction, or otherwise ? Gentlemen do not seem to recollect that the people have any power to do any thing for themselves ; they imagine there is no safety for them any longer than they are under the close guardianship of the State legislatures. Sir, the people have not trusted their safety, in regard to the general Constitution, to these hands. They have required other security, and taken other bonds. They have chosen to trust themselves ; first, to the plain words of the instrument, and to such construction as the government itself, in doubtful cases, should put on its own powers, under their oaths of office, and subject to their responsibility to them, just as the people of a State trust their own State governments with a similar power. Secondly, they have reposed their trust in the efficacy of frequent elections, and in their own power to remove their own servants and agents, whenever they see cause. Thirdly, they have reposed trust in the judicial power ; which, in order that it might be trustworthy, they have made as respectable, as disinterested, and as independent as was practicable. Fourthly, they have seen fit to rely, in case of necessity, or high expediency, on their known and admitted power to alter or amend the Constitution, peaceably and quietly, whenever experience shall point out defects or imperfections. And, finally, the people of the United States have, at no time, in no way, directly or indirectly, authorized any State legislature to construe or interpret their high instrument of government; much less to interfere, by their own power, to arrest its course and operation.

If, sir, the people, in these respects, had done otherwise than they have done, their Constitution could neither have been preserved, nor would it have been worth preserving. And, if its plain provisions shall now be disregarded, and these new doctrines interpolated in it, it will become as feeble and helpless a being as its enemies, whether early or more recent, could possibly desire. It will exist in every State but as a poor dependent on State permission. It must borrow leave to be ; and will be no longer than State pleasure, or State discretion, sees fit to grant the indulgence, and to prolong its poor existence.

But, sir, although there are fears, there are hopes also. The people have preserved this, their own chosen Constitution, for forty years, and have seen their happiness, prosperity, and renown grow with its growth, and strengthen with its strength. They are now, generally, strongly attached to it. Overthrown by direct assault, it cannot be; evaded, undermined, nullified, it will not be, if we, and those who shall succeed us here, as agents and representatives of the people, shall conscientiously

[blocks in formation]
[ocr errors]

and vigilantly discharge the two great branches of our public trustfaithfully to preserve, and wisely to administer it.

„Mr. President, I have thus stated the reasons of my dissent to the doctrines which have been advanced and maintained. I am conscious of having detained you and the Senate much too long. I was drawn into the debate, with no previous deliberation such as is suited to the discussion of so grave and important a subject. But it is a subject of which my heart is full, and I have not been willing to suppress the utterance of its spontaneous sentiments. I cannot, even now, persuade myself to relinquish it, without expressing, once more, my deep conviction that, since it respects nothing less than the union of the States, it is of most vital and essential importance to the public happiness.

I profess, sir, in my career, hitherto, to have kept steadily in view the prosperity and honor of the whole country and the preservation of our Federal Union. It is to that Union we owe our safety at home and our consideration and dignity abroad. It is to that Union that we are chiefly indebted for whatever makes us most proud of our country. That Union we reached only by the discipline of our virtues in the severe school of adversity. It had its origin in the necessities of disordered finance, prostrate commerce and ruined credit. Under its benign influences these great interests immediately awoke as from the dead and sprang forth with newness of life. Every year of its duration has teemed with fresh proofs of its utility and its blessings; and although our territory has stretched out wider and wider, and our population spread farther and farther, they have not outrun its protection or its benefits. It has been to us all a copíous fountain of national, social and personal happiness.

I have not allowed myself, sir, to look beyond the Union to see what might be hidden in the dark recess behind. I have not coolly weighed the chances of preserving liberty when the bonds that unite us together shall be broken asunder. I have not accustomed myself to hang over the precipice of disunion to see whether with my short sight, I can fathom the depth of the abyss below ; nor could I regard him as a safe counsellor in the affairs of this government whose thoughts should be mainly bent on considering, not how the Union should be best préserved, but how tolerable might be the condition of the people when it shall be broken up and destroyed.

While the Union lasts we have high, exciting, gratifying prospects spread out before us, for us and our children. Beyond that I seek not to penetrate the veil. God grant that, in my day at least, that curtain may not rise. God grant that on my vision never may be opened what lies behind. When my eyes shall be turned to behold, for the last time, the

[blocks in formation]

sun in heaven, may I not see him shining on the broken and dishonored fragments of a once glorious Union; on States dissevered, discordant, belligerent; on a land rent with civil feuds or drenched, it may be, in fraternal blood! Let their last feeble and lingering glance, rather, behold the gorgeous ensign of the republic, now known and honored throughout the earth, still full high advanced, its arms and trophies streaming in their original lustre, not a stripe erased or polluted, nor a single star obscured, bearing for its motto no such miserable interrogatory as, What is all this worth ? nor those other words of delusion and folly, Liberty first and Union afterwards,-but everywhere, spread all over in characters of living light, blazing on all its ample folds, as they float over the sea and over the land, and in every wind under the whole heavens, that other sentiment, dear to every true American heart-Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable !


THE SECRET OF MURDER [As an example of Webster's forensic oratory we offer a selection from his celebrated argument in the trial for murder of John K. Knapp. In the passage given he soars far above the dry level of legal oratory, and depicts the effect of conscience on the mind of the murderer in sentences of thrilling intensity.]

He has done the murder. No eye has seen him, no ear has heard him. The secret is his own, and it is safe !

Ah! gentlemen, that was a dreadful mistake. Such a secret can be safe nowhere. The whole creation of God has neither nook nor corner where the guilty can bestow it and say it is safe. Not to speak of that eye which pierces through all disguises, and beholds everything as in the splendor of noon ; such secrets of guilt are never safe from detection, even by men. True it is, generally speaking, that “murder will out." True it is, that Providence hath so ordained and doth so govern things that those who break the great law of Heaven by shedding man's blood seldom succeed in avoiding discovery. Especially, in a case exciting so much attention as this, discovery must come, and will come, sooner or later. A thousand eyes turn at once to explore every man, everything, every circumstance, connected with the time and place; a thousand ears catch every whisper; a thousand excited minds intensely dwell on the scene, shedding all their light and ready to kindle the slightest circumstance into a blaze of discovery. Meantime the guilty soul cannot keep its own secret. It is false to itself; or, rather, it feels an irresistible impulse of conscience to be true to itself. It labors under its guilty possession, and knows not what to do with it. The human heart was not made for the residence of such an inhabitant. It finds itself preyed on by a torment,

[blocks in formation]

which it dares not acknowledge to God or man. A vulture is devouring it, and it can ask no sympathy or assistance either from heaven or earth. The secret which the murderer possesses soon comes to possess him ; and, like the the spirits of which we read, it overcomes him, and leads him whithersoever it will. He feels it beating at his heart, rising to his throat, and demanding disclosure. He thinks the whole world sees it in his face, reads it in his eyes, and almost hears its workings in the very silence of his thoughts. It has become his master. It betrays his discretion, it breaks down his courage, it conquers his prudence. / When suspicions from without begin to embarrass him, and the net of circumstances to entangle him, the fatal secret struggles with still greater violence to burst forth. It must be confessed, it will be confessed; there is no refuge from confession but suicide, and suicide is confession.

[His argument closed with a most impressive appeal to the jury. In these words of weight and wisdom Duty stands before us in the grand proportions of the inexorable figure of Fate in the mythology of ancient Greece.]

Gentlemen, your whole concern should be to do your duty, and leave consequences to take care of themselves. You will receive the law from the Court. Your verdict, it is true, may endanger the prisoner's life; but then, it is to save other lives. If the prisoner's guilt has been shown and proved, beyond all reasonable doubt, you will convict him. If such reasonable doubts of guilt still remain, you will acquit him. You are the judges of the whole case. You owe a duty to the public as well as to the prisoner at the bar. You cannot presume to be wiser than the law. Your duty is a plain, straightforward one. Doubtless, we would all judge him in mercy. Towards him, as an individual, the law inculcates no hostility; but towards him, if proved to be a murderer, the law and the oaths you have taken, and public justice, demand that you do your duty.

With consciences satisfied with the discharge of duty, no consequences can harm you. There is no evil that we cannot either face or fly from, but the consciousness of duty disregarded.

A sense of duty pursues us ever. It is omnipresent, like the Deity. If we take to ourselves the wings of the morning and dwell in the utmost parts of the seas, duty performed, or duty violated, is still with us, for our happiness, or our misery. If we say the darkness shall cover us, in the darkness as in the light our obligations are yet with us.

We cannot escape their power nor fly from their presence. They are with us in this life, will be with us at its close ; and in that scene of inconceivable solemnity which lies yet farther onward, we shall still find ourselves surrounded by the consciousness of duty, to pain us wherever it has been violated, and to console us so far as God may have given us grace to perform it.

JOHN C. CALHOUN (1782-1850)


[ocr errors]

F the parliamentary orators of the American "golden age”

three stand decidedly above their fellows, Webster, Clay and

Calhoun, all of them men of genius and orators of remarkable power.

“ The eloquence of Mr. Calhoun,” says Webster, " was part of his intellectual character. It grew out of the qualities of his mind. It was plain, strong, terse, condensed, concise ; sometimes impassioned -still always severe. Rejecting ornament, not often seeking far for illustration, his power consisted in the plainness of his propositions, in the closeness of his logic, and in the earnestness and energy of his manner.” Born in the same year as Webster (1782), the one in South Carolina, the other in New Hampshire, these two men became prominent adversaries in Congress on the question of the stability of the Union, each of them devoting his highest powers to this question pro and con. Throughout his later career Calhoun continued a disunionist. One of the most ardent advocates for the institution of slavery, it was he who led in the agitation on this subject from 1835 to 1850.

SOUTH CAROLINA AND THE UNION [Among the effects of the South Carolina Nullification Ordinance of 1832 was a bill, commonly called the Force Bill, introduced into Congress in 1833, its purpose being to give the President special powers in the collection of the revenue. This measure called forth Mr. Calhoun's vigorous protest of the 15th and 16th of February, from which the following selections are made. Speaking of the Nullification Ordinance, he says :)

It has been objected that the State has acted precipitately. What ! precipitately! after making a strenuous resistance for twelve years—by discussion here and in the other House of Congress; by essays in all forms; by resolutions, remonstrances, and protests on the part of her legislature ; and, finally, by attempting an appeal to the judicial power of the

« PreviousContinue »