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The right to make treaties, declare war, levy taxes, exercise exclusive legislative and judicial powers, are all functions of sovereign power. The Union makes the States for these functions and purposes no longer sovereign. The allegiance of the citizens of the States, in all such matters in the first instance, is transferred to the United States. As American citizens they owe obedience to the Constitution of the United States, and to all laws made in conformity with the powers it has vested in Congress. Secession, or the claim that each State has the right to withdraw from the Union, died in the great civil conflict. The world has been shown that there is nothing stronger or more stable than what Lincoln called “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
Constitutions a Growth.—Constitutions do not spring into existence at once, but are of slow growth representing the movement of public opinion through long periods of years. The struggles of the people are for the purpose of formulating that opinion. Our Federal Constitution is not alone the work of the great men who met at Philadelphia in 1787. They did, indeed, produce what Gladstone declared to be the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man; but it is rather the fruitage of the seeds sown along the pathway of the English race from the shores of northern Germany to those of greater America. We may see the freedom-loving Germanic people living in their little tuns, amid the forest and marshes, and governing themselves by means of the town meeting—the tungemot-in which all freemen had voice. Then came the representative democracy of the county meeting or shire-mot along with the earlier pure democracy of the tungemot.
Amid the turmoil of the Danish invasions these principles
may have been obscured at times, but became clear again in times of peace. When the feudalism of the Normans was established, the traditions of the people still kept the memory of these earlier liberties bright, and the Magna Charta compelled the kings to grant popular freedom in larger measure. In our study of history it will be seen that privileges once granted to the people cannot easily be withdrawn.
Many historians and students of civil institutions regard the Petition of Right, in the reign of Charles I., as of equal importance with the Great Charter. Certainly, it was a bold assertion of rights by the representatives of the people. It showed the confidence of Parliament in the righteousness of its cause, and the determination to oppose the divine right of kings and to establish the real rights of the people. In this school of action the lesson of the justice of resistance to oppression was learned. When the Revolution of 1688 gave England new rulers who accepted the crown under conditions, another victory for popular freedom was gained.
In the new world, the Virginia House of Burgesses is the first instance of popular government. The Mayflower Compact is the Constitution in embryo. The various Frames of Government-the “Great Law" and the “Charter of Privileges” —set forth the same strife for the freedom of the people.
The Declaration of Independence, one of the most noble of documents connected with the history of our country, was a strong bond of union and did much to hold the States together. No American who would know thoroughly the history of this country can afford to be ignorant of its contents. And the Articles of Confederation, when we consider fully the time in which they appeared, were a bond of union worthy of careful consideration. With all their weakness, a careful study of their character must always be of value.
A review of the faults of the Articles of Confederation, as revealed in the experiences of the time of trial, will well prepare the student to begin the study of the Federal Constitution. The personnel of the Convention is worthy of attention, and the work shows the greatness of the men who took part in framing the great instrument. It consists of many compromises in which no one obtained what he desired in every instance. These men were wise enough to see that there was room for diversity of opinion, and that in mutual concession something worth while could be accomplished.
And yet the Federal Constitution is not a fixed, unalterable thing, but has been undergoing changes ever since its adoption. Fifteen amendments have modified it very materially from what it was when the Convention closed. Great decisions rendered by the Supreme Court have given new life to its provisions. Political customs have in some cases taken the place of methods prescribed in the text. In the election of a President, the Electors really carry out the will of the National Convention of the successful party. But the force that keeps the mechanism of a party at work is public opinion, and the character of this opinion depends upon the quality of the work done by the several party conventions.
The saying of Gladstone, that the Constitution of the United States is the most marvelous document ever struck off at a given moment by the brain of man, is erroneous in its common acceptation at least. Taken broadly, it is doubtless true, but analytically it is misleading. Clause after clause in verbatim language was copied from colonial charters, and ideas and phraseology were selected from English and Dutch precedents. As it was a growth, an evolution, so the student of the history of government knows that innovations are not suddenly injected into law whenever some one person may
desire them. By normal processes of progressive thought, by almost unconscious adaptation of mild improvements upon old ways, are new conditions recognized and means to meet them adopted. At last, so large is the progress, so definite the sum of the small and gradual betterments, that the people frankly agree to an open change in the organic law in order to comprehend and retain them.
Constitutional Convention of 1787.—The historian John Fiske says that the members of this Convention contained among themselves a greater amount of political sagacity than had ever before been brought together within the walls of a single room. The best and wisest men in the country were present. Washington was chosen president of the Convention. Among the ablest of the members were Benjamin Franklin, James Wilson, and Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania; Alexander Hamilton of New York; Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut; Rufus King of Massachusetts; Charles C. Pinckney of South Carolina; and James Madison of Virginia.
Organization of the Government in 1789.-The first task which came upon the Congress of the United States in 1789 was the organization of the government. The fact that the organization to-day is essentially unchanged from that which was then established shows how well this work was done. Four of the executive departments were established: State, Treasury, War, and Justice. At the head of these departments Washington placed respectively Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Henry Knox, and Edmund Randolph. John Jay was appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. In this connection the historical order of the establishment of the executive departments has value in the study of civics.