Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Andrew Jackson's Proclamation Regarding Nullification 5: "We are ONE PEOPLE"

Posts on Andrew Jackson’s Proclamation Regarding Nullification have been slow in coming because I have been having a hard time, frankly, trying to understand the core of the president’s reasoning.

In a way, this makes sense. Jackson’s Proclamation was an intensely political document, not a logical treatise. At the same, Old Hickory plainly believed that there was an underlying logic to the reasoning that led him to the conclusions he so vehemently expressed. With these precepts in mind, let me soldier on the best I can.

Perhaps the best place to start is here.

At one point in attacking secession Jackson set up what amounted to a straw man. Jackson asserted that the claimed right to secede was predicated upon the theory that the Constitution is a “compact between sovereign States who have preserved their whole sovereignty.” (Emphasis added.) From the nature of such a compact, as Jackson characterized the argument, it followed that “they [States] can break it when in their opinion it has been departed from by the other States.” Here is Jackson’s entire paragraph:
This right to secede is deduced from the nature of the Constitution, which they say is a compact between sovereign States who have preserved their whole sovereignty, and therefore are subject to no superior; that because they made the compact, they can break it when in their opinion it has been departed from by the other States. Fallacious as this course of reasoning is, it enlists State pride, and finds advocates in the honest prejudices of those who have not studied the nature of our government sufficiently to see the radical error on which it rests.

I term Jackson’s characterization a “straw man” because he created an argument that rested upon an assumption that virtually everyone would have rejected. Whether or not the states retained “sovereignty” in some or many respects, virtually no one contended that they “preserved their whole sovereignty.” From the beginning, the Federalists shouted from the rooftops that the theory underlying the Constitution involved divided sovereignty. Even if you contended that the States remained sovereign in many respects, clearly they had ceded sovereignty with respect to at least certain, specified matters to the federal government.

The question, then, from the perspective of the nullifiers, was not whether the States had preserved their "whole" sovereignty, but rather whether they had preserved so much of their sovereignty as reserved the right to nullify or secede.

Having set up this straw man, however, Jackson did not attack it on the limited ground that I suggested in the foregoing paragraph -- that the States did not reserve the right to nullify or secede. He went much further, adopting a Websterian position that shocked those who both opposed nullification (and secession) yet believed that the States retained substantial sovereignty and were wary of “consolidation.” “The people of the United States,” Jackson declared, rather than the states themselves, were the parties to the “compact”:
The people of the United States formed the Constitution, acting through the State legislatures [note that Jackson refers to "State legislatures" rather than to the conventions that ratified the Constitution], in making the compact, to meet and discuss its provisions, and acting in separate conventions when they ratified those provisions; but the terms used in its construction show it to be a government in which the people of all the States collectively are represented.

Even worse, the president proceeded to declare that Americans were “ONE PEOPLE”, and drove home the point by pointing to the election of national officers:
We are ONE PEOPLE in the choice of the President and Vice President. Here the States have no other agency than to direct the mode in which the vote shall be given. The candidates having the majority of all the votes are chosen. The electors of a majority of States may have given their votes for one candidate, and yet another may be chosen. The people, then, and not the States, are represented in the executive branch.

Similarly, Jackson maintained, the manner of electing members to the House of Representatives indicated that the People as a whole, not the States, had the most direct relationship with the federal government:
In the House of Representatives there is this difference, that the people of one State do not, as in the case of President and Vice President, all vote for all the members, each State electing only its own representatives. But this creates no material distinction. When chosen, they are all representatives of the United States, not representatives of the particular State from which they come. They are paid by the United States, not by the State; nor are they accountable to it for any act done in performance of their legislative functions; and however they may in practice, as it is their duty to do, consult and prefer the interests of their particular constituents when they come in conflict with any other partial or local interest, yet it is their first and highest duty, as representatives of the United States, to promote the general good.

President Jackson pointedly omitted discussion of the Senate. Senators were then elected by state legislatures, a fact that contradicted the argument.

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