America. A history
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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.Now the several States parted with a certain amount of their sovereignty, and vested it in a General Government. The General Government was to levy taxes, to coin money, to regulate commercial relations with foreign countries, to establish post-offices and post-roads, to establish courts of law, to declare war, to raise and maintain armies and navies, to make treaties, to borrow money on the credit of the United States. The individual States expressly relinquished the right to perform these sovereign functions.
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.