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Democracy in America I: Chapter XVIII, part VI

If the sovereignty of the Union were to engage in a struggle with that of the States at the present day, its defeat may be confidently predicted; and it is not probable that such a struggle would be seriously undertaken. As often as a steady resistance is offered to the Federal Government it will be found to yield. Experience has hitherto shown that whenever a State has demanded anything with perseverance and resolution, it has invariably succeeded; and that if a separate government has distinctly refused to act, it was left to do as it thought fit.z

But even if the Government of the Union had any strength inherent in itself, the physical situation of the country would render the exercise of that strength very difficult.a The United States cover an immense territory; they are separated from each other by great distances; and the population is disseminated over the surface of a country which is still half a wilderness. If the Union were to undertake to enforce the allegiance of the confederate States by military means, it would be in a position very analogous to that of England at the time of the War of Independence.

However strong a government may be, it cannot easily escape from the consequences of a principle which it has once admitted as the foundation of its constitution. The Union was formed by the voluntary agreement of the States; and, in uniting together, they have not forfeited their nationality, nor have they been reduced to the condition of one and the same people. If one of the States chose to withdraw its name from the contract, it would be difficult to disprove its right of doing so; and the Federal Government would have no means of maintaining its claims directly, either by force or by right. In order to enable the Federal Government easily to conquer the resistance which may be offered to it by any one of its subjects, it would be necessary that one or more of them should be specially interested in the existence of the Union, as has frequently been the case in the history of confederations.

If it be supposed that amongst the States which are united by the federal tie there are some which exclusively enjoy the principal advantages of union, or whose prosperity depends on the duration of that union, it is unquestionable that they will always be ready to support the central Government in enforcing the obedience of the others. But the Government would then be exerting a force not derived from itself, but from a principle contrary to its nature. States form confederations in order to derive equal advantages from their union; and in the case just alluded to, the Federal Government would derive its power from the unequal distribution of those benefits amongst the States.

If one of the confederate States have acquired a preponderance sufficiently great to enable it to take exclusive possession of the central authority, it will consider the other States as subject provinces, and it will cause its own supremacy to be respected under the borrowed name of the sovereignty of the Union. Great things may then be done in the name of the Federal Government, but in reality that Government will have ceased to exist.b In both these cases, the power which acts in the name of the confederation becomes stronger the more it abandons the natural state and the acknowledged principles of confederations.

In America the existing Union is advantageous to all the States, but it is not indispensable to any one of them. Several of them might break the federal tie without compromising the welfare of the others, although their own prosperity would be lessened. As the existence and the happiness of none of the States are wholly dependent on the present Constitution, they would none of them be disposed to make great personal sacrifices to maintain it. On the other hand, there is no State which seems hitherto to have its ambition much interested in the maintenance of the existing Union. They certainly do not all exercise the same influence in the federal councils, but no one of them can hope to domineer over the rest, or to treat them as its inferiors or as its subjects.

It appears to me unquestionable that if any portion of the Union seriously desired to separate itself from the other States, they would not be able, nor indeed would they attempt, to prevent it; and that the present Union will only last as long as the States which compose it choose to continue members of the confederation. If this point be admitted, the question becomes less difficult; and our object is, not to inquire whether the States of the existing Union are capable of separating, but whether they will choose to remain united.

Amongst the various reasons which tend to render the existing Union useful to the Americans, two principal causes are peculiarly evident to the observer. Although the Americans are, as it were, alone upon their continent, their commerce makes them the neighbors of all the nations with which they trade. Notwithstanding their apparent isolation, the Americans require a certain degree of strength, which they cannot retain otherwise than by remaining united to each other. If the States were to split, they would not only diminish the strength which they are now able to display towards foreign nations, but they would soon create foreign powers upon their own territory. A system of inland custom-houses would then be established; the valleys would be divided by imaginary boundary lines; the courses of the rivers would be confined by territorial distinctions; and a multitude of hindrances would prevent the Americans from exploring the whole of that vast continent which Providence has allotted to them for a dominion. At present they have no invasion to fear, and consequently no standing armies to maintain, no taxes to levy. If the Union were dissolved, all these burdensome measures might ere long be required. The Americans are then very powerfully interested in the maintenance of their Union. On the other hand, it is almost impossible to discover any sort of material interest which might at present tempt a portion of the Union to separate from the other States.

When we cast our eyes upon the map of the United States, we perceive the chain of the Alleghany Mountains, running from the northeast to the southwest, and crossing nearly one thousand miles of country; and we are led to imagine that the design of Providence was to raise between the valley of the Mississippi and the coast of the Atlantic Ocean one of those natural barriers which break the mutual intercourse of men, and form the necessary limits of different States. But the average height of the Alleghanies does not exceed 2,500 feet; their greatest elevation is not above 4,000 feet; their rounded summits, and the spacious valleys which they conceal within their passes, are of easy access from several sides. Besides which, the principal rivers which fall into the Atlantic Ocean – the Hudson, the Susquehanna, and the Potomac -take their rise beyond the Alleghanies, in an open district, which borders upon the valley of the Mississippi. These streams quit this tract of country, make their way through the barrier which would seem to turn them westward, and as they wind through the mountains they open an easy and natural passage to man. No natural barrier exists in the regions which are now inhabited by the Anglo-Americans; the Alleghanies are so far from serving as a boundary to separate nations, that they do not even serve as a frontier to the States. New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia comprise them within their borders, and they extend as much to the west as to the east of the line. The territory now occupied by the twenty-four States of the Union, and the three great districts which have not yet acquired the rank of States, although they already contain inhabitants, covers a surface of 1,002,600 square miles,c which is about equal to five times the extent of France. Within these limits the qualities of the soil, the temperature, and the produce of the country, are extremely various. The vast extent of territory occupied by the Anglo-American republics has given rise to doubts as to the maintenance of their Union. Here a distinction must be made; contrary interests sometimes arise in the different provinces of a vast empire, which often terminate in open dissensions; and the extent of the country is then most prejudicial to the power of the State. But if the inhabitants of these vast regions are not divided by contrary interests, the extent of the territory may be favorable to their prosperity; for the unity of the government promotes the interchange of the different productions of the soil, and increases their value by facilitating their consumption.

It is indeed easy to discover different interests in the different parts of the Union, but I am unacquainted with any which are hostile to each other. The Southern States are almost exclusively agricultural. The Northern States are more peculiarly commercial and manufacturing. The States of the West are at the same time agricultural and manufacturing. In the South the crops consist of tobacco, of rice, of cotton, and of sugar; in the North and the West, of wheat and maize. These are different sources of wealth; but union is the means by which these sources are opened to all, and rendered equally advantageous to the several districts.

The North, which ships the produce of the Anglo-Americans to all parts of the world, and brings back the produce of the globe to the Union, is evidently interested in maintaining the confederation in its present condition, in order that the number of American producers and consumers may remain as large as possible. The North is the most natural agent of communication between the South and the West of the Union on the one hand, and the rest of the world upon the other; the North is therefore interested in the union and prosperity of the South and the West, in order that they may continue to furnish raw materials for its manufactures, and cargoes for its shipping.

The South and the West, on their side, are still more directly interested in the preservation of the Union, and the prosperity of the North. The produce of the South is, for the most part, exported beyond seas; the South and the West consequently stand in need of the commercial resources of the North. They are likewise interested in the maintenance of a powerful fleet by the Union, to protect them efficaciously. The South and the West have no vessels, but they cannot refuse a willing subsidy to defray the expenses of the navy; for if the fleets of Europe were to blockade the ports of the South and the delta of the Mississippi, what would become of the rice of the Carolinas, the tobacco of Virginia, and the sugar and cotton which grow in the valley of the Mississippi? Every portion of the federal budget does therefore contribute to the maintenance of material interests which are common to all the confederate States.

Independently of this commercial utility, the South and the West of the Union derive great political advantages from their connection with the North. The South contains an enormous slave population; a population which is already alarming, and still more formidable for the future. The States of the West lie in the remotest parts of a single valley; and all the rivers which intersect their territory rise in the Rocky Mountains or in the Alleghanies, and fall into the Mississippi, which bears them onwards to the Gulf of Mexico. The Western States are consequently entirely cut off, by their position, from the traditions of Europe and the civilization of the Old World. The inhabitants of the South, then, are induced to support the Union in order to avail themselves of its protection against the blacks; and the inhabitants of the West in order not to be excluded from a free communication with the rest of the globe, and shut up in the wilds of central America. The North cannot but desire the maintenance of the Union, in order to remain, as it now is, the connecting link between that vast body and the other parts of the world.

The temporal interests of all the several parts of the Union are, then, intimately connected; and the same assertion holds true respecting those opinions and sentiments which may be termed the immaterial interests of men.

yThis chapter is one of the most curious and interesting portions of the work, because it embraces almost all the constitutional and social questions which were raised by the great secession of the South and decided by the results of the Civil War. But it must be confessed that the sagacity of the author is sometimes at fault in these speculations, and did not save him from considerable errors, which the course of events has since made apparent. He held that “the legislators of the Constitution of 1789 were not appointed to constitute the government of a single people, but to regulate the association of several States; that the Union was formed by the voluntary agreement of the States, and in uniting together they have not forfeited their nationality, nor have they been reduced to the condition of one and the same people.” Whence he inferred that “if one of the States chose to withdraw its name from the contract, it would be difficult to disprove its right of doing so; and that the Federal Government would have no means of maintaining its claims directly, either by force or by right.” This is the Southern theory of the Constitution, and the whole case of the South in favor of secession. To many Europeans, and to some American (Northern) jurists, this view appeared to be sound; but it was vigorously resisted by the North, and crushed by force of arms.

The author of this book was mistaken in supposing that the “Union was a vast body which presents no definite object to patriotic feeling.” When the day of trial came, millions of men were ready to lay down their lives for it. He was also mistaken in supposing that the Federal Executive is so weak that it requires the free consent of the governed to enable it to subsist, and that it would be defeated in a struggle to maintain the Union against one or more separate States. In 1861 nine States, with a population of 8,753,000, seceded, and maintained for four years a resolute but unequal contest for independence, but they were defeated.

Lastly, the author was mistaken in supposing that a community of interests would always prevail between North and South sufficiently powerful to bind them together. He overlooked the influence which the question of slavery must have on the Union the moment that the majority of the people of the North declared against it. In 1831, when the author visited America, the anti-slavery agitation had scarcely begun; and the fact of Southern slavery was accepted by men of all parties, even in the States where there were no slaves: and that was unquestionably the view taken by all the States and by all American statesmen at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, in 1789. But in the course of thirty years a great change took place, and the North refused to perpetuate what had become the “peculiar institution” of the South, especially as it gave the South a species of aristocratic preponderance. The result was the ratification, in December, 1865, of the celebrated 13th article or amendment of the Constitution, which declared that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude – except as a punishment for crime – shall exist within the United States.” To which was soon afterwards added the 15th article, “The right of citizens to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States, or by any State, on account of race, color, or previous servitude.” The emancipation of several millions of negro slaves without compensation, and the transfer to them of political preponderance in the States in which they outnumber the white population, were acts of the North totally opposed to the interests of the South, and which could only have been carried into effect by conquest. – Translator’s Note.

z See the conduct of the Northern States in the war of 1812. “During that war,” says Jefferson in a letter to General Lafayette, “four of the Eastern States were only attached to the Union, like so many inanimate bodies to living men.”

a The profound peace of the Union affords no pretext for a standing army; and without a standing army a government is not prepared to profit by a favorable opportunity to conquer resistance, and take the sovereign power by surprise. [This note, and the paragraph in the text which precedes, have been shown by the results of the Civil War to be a misconception of the writer.]

b Thus the province of Holland in the republic of the Low Countries, and the Emperor in the Germanic Confederation, have sometimes put themselves in the place of the union, and have employed the federal authority to their own advantage.

c See “Darby’s View of the United States,” p. 435. [In 1890 the number of States and Territories had increased to 51, the population to 62,831,900, and the area of the States, 3,602,990 square miles. This does not include the Philippine Islands, Hawaii, or Porto Rico. A conservative estimate of the population of the Philippine Islands is 8,000,000; that of Hawaii, by the census of 1897, was given at 109,020; and the present estimated population of Porto Rico is 900,000. The area of the Philippine Islands is about 120,000 square miles, that of Hawaii is 6,740 square miles, and the area of Porto Rico is about 3,600 square miles.]

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