James Madison letter to William Rives

James Madison, Letter to William Rives  (1833) 
by James Madison

To William Cabell Rives

Montpr, March 12, 1833

Dear Sir,

I have recd your very kind letter of the 6th, from Washington, and by the same mail a copy of your late Speech in the Senate, for which I tender my thanks. I have found as I expected, that it takes a very able and enlightening view of its subject. I wish it may have the effect of reclaiming to the doctrine & language held by all from the birth of the Constitution, & till very lately by themselves, those who now Contend that the States have never parted with an Atom of their sovereignty, and consequently that the Constitutional band which holds them together, is a mere league or partnership, without any of the characteristics of sovereignty or nationality.

It seems strange that it should be necessary to disprove this novel and nullifying doctrine, and stranger still that those who deny it should be denounced as Innovators, heretics & Apostates. Our political system is admitted to be a new Creation — a real nondescript. Its character therefore must be sought within itself, not in precedents, because there are none, not in writers whose comments are guided by precedents. Who can tell at present how Vattel and others of that class, would have qualified (in the Gallic sense of the term) a Compound & peculiar system with such an example of it as ours before them.

What can be more preposterous than to say that the States as united, are in no respect or degree, a Nation, which implies sovereignty, altho' acknowledged to be such by all other Nations & Sovereigns, and maintaining with them, all the in ternational relations, of war & peace, treaties, commerce, &c, and, on the other hand and at the same time, to say that the States separately are compleatly nations & sovereigns, although they can separately neither speak nor harken to any other nation, nor maintain with it any of the international relations whatever and would be disowned as Nations if presenting themselves in that character.

The milliners it appears, endeavor to shelter themselves under a distinction between a delegation and a surrender of powers. But if the powers be attributes of sovereignty & nationality & the grant of them be perpetual, as is necessarily implied, where not otherwise expressed, sovereignty & nationality according to the extent of the grant are effectually transferred by it, and a dispute about the name, is but a battle of words. The practical result is not indeed left to argument or inference. The words of the Constitution are explicit that the Constitution & laws of the U. S. shall be supreme over the Constitution & laws of the several States, supreme in their exposition and execution as well as in their authority. Without a supremacy in those respects it would be like a scabbard in the hand of a soldier without a sword in it. The imagination itself is startled at the idea of twenty four independent expounders of a rule that cannot exist, but in a meaning and operation, the same for all.

The conduct of S. Carolina has called forth not only the question of nullification, but the more formidable one of secession. It is asked whether a State by resuming the sovereign form in which it entered the Union, may not of right withdraw from it at will. As this is a simple question whether a State, more than an individual, has a right to violate its engagements, it would seem that it might be safely left to answer itself. But the countenance given to the claim shows that it cannot be so lightly dismissed. The natural feelings which laudably attach the people composing a State, to its authority and importance, are at present too much excited by the unnatural feelings, with which they have been inspired agst their brethren of other States, not to expose them, to the danger of being misled into erroneous views of the nature of the Union and the interest they have in it. One thing at least seems to be too clear to be questioned, that whilst a State remains within the Union it cannot withdraw its citizens from the operation of the Constitution & laws of the Union. In the event of an actual secession without the Consent of the Co States, the course to be pursued by these involves questions painful in the discussion of them. God grant that the menacing appearances, which obtruded it may not be followed by positive occurrences requiring the more painful task of deciding them?

In explaining the proceedings of Virga in 98-99, the state of things at that time was the more properly appealed to, as it has been too much overlooked. The doctrines combated are always a key to the arguments employed. It is but too common to read the expressions of a remote period thro' the modern meaning of them, & to omit guards agst misconstruction not anticipated. A few words with a prophetic gift, might have prevented much error in the glosses on those proceedings. The remark is equally applicable to the Constitution itself.

Having thrown these thoughts on paper in the midst of interruptions added to other dangers of inaccuracy, I will ask the favor of you to return the letter after perusal. I have latterly taken this liberty with more than one of my corresponding friends. And every lapse of very short periods becomes now a fresh apology for it.

Neither Mrs. M. nor myself have forgotten the promised visit which included Mrs. Rives, and we flatter ourselves the fulfilment of it, will not be very distant. Meanwhile we tender to you both our joint & affecte. salutations.

P. Script. I inclose a little pamphlet rec. a few days ago, which so well repaid my perusal, that I submit it to yours, to be returned only at your leisure. It is handsomely written, and its matter well chosen & interesting. A like task as well executed in every State wd. be of historical value; the more so as the examples might both prompt & guide researches, not as yet too late but rapidly becoming so.