The convention sat for four months. The great work which occupied it divided the country into two parties. One party feared most the evils which arise from weakness of the governing power, and sought relief from these in a close union of the States under a strong government. Another party dwelt more upon the miserable condition of the over-governed nations of Europe, and feared the creation of a government which might grow into a despotism. The aim of the one was to vest the largest possible measure of power in a central government. Hamilton, indeed – to whom the British Constitution seemed the most perfect on earth – went so far as to desire that the States should be merely great municipalities, attending only, like an English corporation, to their own local concerns. The aim of the other was to circumscribe the powers accorded to the general government – to vindicate the sovereignty of the individual States, and give to it the widest possible scope. These two sets of opinions continued to exist and conflict for three-quarters of a century, till that which assigned an undue dominion to what were called State Rights, perished in the overthrow of the great Rebellion.
Slowly and through endless debate the convention worked out its plan of a government. The scheme was submitted to Congress, and thence sent down to the several States. Months of fiery discussion ensued. Somewhat reluctantly, by narrow majorities, in the face of vehement protests, the Constitution was at length adopted under which the thirteen States were to become so great.
Great Britain has no written Constitution. She has her laws; and it is expected that all future laws shall be in tolerable harmony with the principles on which her past legislation has been founded. But if Parliament were to enact, and the Sovereign to sanction, any law at variance with these principles, there is no help for it. Queen, Lords, and Commons are our supreme authority, from whose decisions there lies no appeal. In America it is different. There the supreme authority is a written Constitution. Congress may unanimously enact, and the President may cordially sanction, a new law. Two or three judges, sitting in the same building where Congress meets, may compare that law with the Constitution. If it is found at variance with the Constitution, it is unceremoniously declared to be no law, and entitled to no man’s obedience. With a few alterations, this Constitution remains in full force now – gathering around it, as it increases in age, the growing reverence of the people. The men who framed it must have been very wise. The people for whom it was framed must possess in high degree the precious Anglo-Saxon veneration for law. Otherwise the American paper Constitution must long ago have shared the fate of the numerous documents of this class under which the French vainly sought rest during their first Revolution.
Each of the thirteen States was sovereign, and the government of America hitherto had been merely a league of independent powers.
These powers were intrusted to two Houses of Legislation and a President. The House of Representatives is composed of two hundred and forty-three members. The members hold their seats for two years, and are paid five thousand dollars annually. Black men and Indians were not allowed to vote; but all white men had a voice in the election of their representatives. To secure perfect equality of representation, members are distributed according to population. Thus, in 1863 a member was given to every 124,000 inhabitants. Every ten years a readjustment takes place, and restores the equality which the growth of the intervening period has disturbed.
The large States send necessarily a much larger number of members to the Lower House than the small States do. Thus New York sends thirty-one, while Rhode Island sends only two, Delaware and Florida only one. The self-love of the smaller States was wounded by an arrangement which resembled absorption into the larger communities. The balance was redressed in the constitution of the Upper Chamber – the Senate. That body is composed of seventy-six members, elected by the legislatures of the States. Every State, large or small, returns two members. The small States were overborne in the Lower House, but in the Senate they enjoyed an importance equal to that of their most populous neighbours. The senators are elected for six years, and are paid at the same rate as the members of the House of Representatives.
The head of the American Government is the President. He holds office for four years. Each State chooses a number of persons equal to the total number of members whom it returns to the Houses of Legislation. These persons elect the President. They elect also a Vice-President, lest the President should be removed by death or otherwise during his term of office. All laws enacted by Congress must be submitted to the President. He may refuse to pass them – sending them back with a statement of his objections. But should both Houses, by a vote of two-thirds of their number, adhere to the rejected measures, they become law in spite of the President’s veto. The President appoints his own Cabinet Ministers, and these have no seats in Congress. Their annual reports upon the affairs of their departments are communicated to Congress by the President, along with his own Message. The President is Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy. With concurrence of the Senate, he appoints ambassadors, judges of the Supreme Court, and other public officers.
Every State has a government after the same pattern, composed of two Houses of Legislation and a Governor. These authorities occupy themselves with the management of such affairs as exclusively concern their own State, and have, therefore, not been relinquished to the General Government. They legislate in regard to railway and other public companies. They see to the administration of justice within their own territory, unless in the case of crimes committed against the Government. They pass such laws as are required in regard to private property and rights of succession. Above all, they retained all the powers of which they were ever possessed in regard to slavery. The Constitution gave Congress authority to suppress the importation of slaves after the year 1808. Not otherwise was the slave-question interfered with. That remained wholly under the control of the individual States.
But the men who framed this Constitution, however wise, were liable to err. And if they were found in after years to have erred, what provision – other than a revolution – was made for correcting their mistakes? A very simple and very effective one. When two-thirds of both Houses of Legislation deem it necessary that some amendment of the Constitution should be made, they propose it to the legislatures of the several States. When three-fourths of these judicatories adopt the proposal, it becomes a part of the Constitution. There have been in all fifteen amendments adopted, most of them very soon after the Constitution itself came into existence.
And now the conditions of the great experiment are adjusted. Three million Americans have undertaken to govern themselves. Europe does not believe that any people can prosper in such an undertaking. Europe still clings to the belief that, in every country, a few Heaven-sent families must guide the destinies of the incapable, child-like millions. America – having no faith in Heaven-sent families – believes that the millions are the best and safest guides of their own destinies, and means to act on that belief. On her success great issues wait. If the Americans show that they can govern themselves, all the other nations will gradually put their hands to the same ennobling work.
1789 A.D. The first step to be taken under the new Constitution was to elect a President. There was but one man who was thought of for this high and untried office. George Washington was unanimously chosen. Congress was summoned to meet in New York on the 4th of March. But the members had to travel far on foot, or on horseback. Roads were bad, bridges were few; streams, in that spring-time, were swollen. It was some weeks after the appointed time before business could be commenced.
That Congress had difficult work to do, and it was done patiently, with much plain sense and honesty. As yet there was no revenue, while everywhere there was debt. The General Government had debt, and each of the States had debt. There was the Foreign Debt – due to France, Holland, and Spain. There was the Army Debt – for arrears of pay and pensions. There was the Debt of the Five Great Departments – for supplies obtained during the war. There was a vast issue of paper money to be redeemed. There were huge arrears of interest. And, on the other hand, there was no provision whatever for these enormous obligations.
Washington, with a sigh, asked a friend, “What is to be done about this heavy debt?” “There is but one man in America can tell you,” said his friend, “and that is Alexander Hamilton.” Washington made Hamilton Secretary to the Treasury. The success of his financial measures was immediate and complete. “He smote the rock of the national resources,” said Daniel Webster, “and abundant streams of revenue gushed forth. He touched the dead corpse of the public credit, and it sprang upon its feet.” All the war debts of the States were assumed by the General Government. Efficient provision was made for the regular payment of interest, and for a sinking fund to liquidate the principal. Duties were imposed on shipping, on goods imported from abroad, and on spirits manufactured at home. The vigour of the Government inspired public confidence, and commerce began to revive. In a few years the American flag was seen on every sea. The simple manufactures of the country resumed their long interrupted activity. A National Bank was established. Courts were set up, and judges were appointed. The salaries of the President and the great functionaries were settled. A home was chosen for the General Government on the banks of the Potomac; where the capital of the Union was to supplant the little wooden village – remote from the agitations which arise in the great centres of population. Innumerable details connected with the establishment of a new government were discussed and fixed. Novel as the circumstances were, little of the work then done has required to be undone. Succeeding generations of Americans have approved the wisdom of their early legislators, and continue unaltered the arrangements which were framed at the outset of the national existence.
Thirty years of peace succeeded the War of Independence. There were, indeed, passing troubles with the Indians, ending always in the sharp chastisement of those disagreeable savages. 1804 A.D. There was an expedition against Tripoli, to avenge certain indignities which the barbarians of that region had offered to American shipping. There was a misunderstanding with the French Directory, which was carried to a somewhat perilous extreme. 1789 A.D. A desperate fight took place between a French frigate and an American frigate, resulting in the surrender of the former. But these trivial agitations did not disturb the profound tranquillity of the nation, or hinder its progress in that career of prosperity on which it had now entered.
Washington was President during the first eight years of the Constitution. 1799 A.D. He survived his withdrawal from public life only three years, dying, after a few hours’ illness, in the sixty-eighth year of his age. His countrymen mourned him with a sorrow sincere and deep. Their reverence for him has not diminished with the progress of the years. Each new generation of Americans catches up the veneration – calm, intelligent, but profound – with which its fathers regarded the blameless Chief. To this day there is an affectionate watchfulness for opportunities to express the honour in which his name is held. To this day the steamers which ply upon the Potomac strike mournful notes upon the bell as they sweep past Mount Vernon, where Washington spent the happiest days of his life, and where he died.
America was well contented during many years to be merely a spectator of the Great European War. In spite of some differences which had arisen, she still cherished a kindly feeling towards France – her friend in the old time of need. She had still a bitter hatred to England, her tyrant, as she deemed, and her cruel foe. But her sympathies did not regulate her policy. She had no call to avenge the dishonour offered to royalty by the people of France. As little was it her business to strengthen France against the indignation of outraged monarchs. Her distance exempted her from taking any part in the bloody politics of Europe, and she was able to look quietly on while the flames of war consumed the nations of the Old World. Her ships enjoyed a monopoly. She traded impartially with all the combatants. The energies of Europe were taxed to the uttermost by a gigantic work of mutual destruction. The Americans conveyed to the people thus unprofitably occupied the foreign articles of which they stood in need, and made great gain of their neighbours’ madness.
1806 A.D. But the time came when France and England were to put forth efforts more gigantic than before, to compass the ruin of each other. England gave out a decree announcing that all the coasts of France and her allies were in a state of blockade, and that any vessels attempting to trade with the blockaded countries were liable to seizure. At that time nearly all the Continent was in alliance with France. Napoleon replied by declaring the British Isles in a state of blockade. These decrees closed Europe against American vessels. Many captures were made, especially by English cruisers. American merchants suffered grievous losses, and loudly expressed their just wrath against the wicked laws which wrought them so much evil.
There was another question out of which mischief arose. England has always maintained that any person who has once been her subject can never cease to be so. He may remove to another country; he may become the citizen of another state. English law recognizes no such transaction. England claims that the man is still an English subject – entitled to the advantages of that relation, and bound by its obligations. America, on the other hand, asserted that men could lay down their original citizenship, and assume another – could transfer their allegiance – could relinquish the privileges and absolve themselves from the obligations which they inherited. The Englishmen who settled on her soil were regarded by her as American citizens and as nothing else.
Circumstances arose which bestowed dangerous importance upon these conflicting doctrines. England at that time obtained sailors by impressment. That is to say, she seized men who were engaged on board merchant vessels, and compelled them to serve on board her ships of war. It was a process second only to the slave-trade in its iniquity. The service to which men were thus introduced could not but be hateful. There was a copious desertion, as opportunity offered, and America was the natural refuge. English ships of war claimed the right to search American vessels for men who had deserted; and also for men who, as born English subjects, were liable to be impressed. It may well be believed that this right was not always exercised with a strict regard to justice. It was not always easy to distinguish an Englishman from an American. Perhaps the English captains were not very scrupulous as to the evidence on which they acted. The Americans asserted that six thousand men, on whom England had no shadow of claim, were ruthlessly carried off to fight under a flag they hated; the English Government admitted the charge to the extent of sixteen hundred men. The American people vehemently resented the intolerable pretension of England. Occasionally an American ship resisted it, and blood was freely shed.
1807 A.D. When England and France decreed the closing of all European ports against commerce, America hastened to show that she could be as unwise as her neighbours. Congress prohibited commerce with the European powers which had so offended. The people, wiser than their rulers, disapproved this measure; but the Government enforced it. The President was empowered to call out militia and employ armed vessels to prevent cargoes of American produce from leaving the country. It was hoped that England and France, thus bereaved of articles which were deemed necessary, would be constrained to repeal their injurious decrees.
Thus for four years commerce was suspended, and grass grew on the idle wharves of New York and Philadelphia. The cotton and tobacco of the Southern States, the grain and timber of the North, were stored up to await the return of reason to the governing powers of the world. Tens of thousands of working people were thrown idle. The irritation of the impoverished nation was fast ripening towards war.
America wanted now the wise leadership which she enjoyed at the period of her revolutionary struggle. Washington had never ceased to urge upon his countrymen the desirableness of being on good terms with England. But Washington was dead, and his words were not remembered. Franklin was dead, Hamilton had fallen by the murdering hand of Aaron Burr. There was a strong party eager for war. The commercial towns on the sea-board dreaded the terrible ships of England, and desired to negotiate for redress of grievances. The people of the interior, having no towns to be bombarded, preferred to try their strength with England in battle. Some attempts at negotiation resulted in failure. June 18, 1812 A.D. At length Congress ended suspense by passing a Bill which declared war against Great Britain.
It was a bolder challenge than America supposed it to be. England, indeed, had her hands full, for the power of her great foe seemed to be irresistible. But even then the axe was laid to its roots. In that same month of June Napoleon crossed the river Niemen and entered Russia upon his fatal march to Moscow. A few weeks before, the Duke of Wellington had wrenched from his grasp the two great frontier fortresses of Spain, and was now beginning to drive the French armies out of the Peninsula. England would soon have leisure for her new assailant; but all this was as yet unseen.
When war was declared, England possessed one thousand ships of war, and America possessed twenty. Their land forces were in like proportion. England had nearly a million of men under arms. America had an army reckoned at twenty-four thousand, many of them imperfectly disciplined and not yet to be relied upon in the field. Her treasury was empty. She was sadly wanting in officers of experience. She had declared war, but it was difficult to see what she could do in the way of giving effect to her hostile purposes.
But she held to these purposes with unfaltering tenacity. Four days after Congress had resolved to fight, England repealed those blockading decrees which had so justly offended the Americans. There remained now only the question of the right of search. The British Minister at Washington proposed that an attempt should be made to settle peaceably this sole remaining ground of quarrel. The proposal was declined. The American war party would not swerve from its unhappy determination. The first efforts of the Americans were signally unsuccessful. They attacked Canada with an army of two thousand five hundred men. But this force had scarcely got upon Canadian ground when it was driven back. August, 1812 A.D. It was besieged in Fort Detroit by an inferior British army and forced to surrender. The unfortunate General Hull, who commanded, was brought to trial by his angry countrymen and sentenced to be shot. He was pardoned, however, in consideration of former services.
A second invasion followed, closed by a second surrender. During two other campaigns the Americans prosecuted their invasion. Ships were built and launched upon the great lakes which lie between the territories of the combatants. Sea-fights were fought, in one of which the American triumph was so complete that all the British vessels surrendered. Many desperate engagements took place on shore. Some forts were captured; some towns were burned. Many women and children were made homeless; many brave men were slain. But the invaders made no progress. Everywhere the Canadians, with the help of the regular troops, were able to hold their own. It was a coarse method of solving the question which was in dispute between the countries, and it was utterly fruitless.