James Madison Papers

James Madison to A Friend of Union & State Rights [Alexander Rives], 1 January 1833


I have rec. the letter signed "A friend of Union & State rights" inclosing two printed Essays under the same signature.

It is not usual to answer communications without the proper names to them. But the ability & motives disclosed in the Essays induce me to say in compliance with the wish expressed, that I do not consider the proceedings of Virginia in 98-99 as countenancing the doctrine that a State may at will secede from its constitutional compact with the other States. A rightful secession requires the consent of the others, or an abuse of the compact, absolving the seceding party from the obligations imposed by it

In order to understand the reasoning on one side of a question it is necessary to keep in view the precise state of the question, and the positions and arguments on the other side. This is particularly necessary in questions arising under our novel & compound System, of Govt and much error and confusion have grown out of a neglect of this precaution.

The case of the Alien & Sedition acts was a question between the Govt. of the U. S. and the Constituent Body; Virga. making an appeal to the latter agst. the assumption of power by the former.

The case of a claim in a State to secede from its union with the others, resolves itself into question among the States themselves as parties to a Compact

In the former case it was asserted agst. Virga. that the States had no right to interpose a legislative declarations of opinion, on a Constitutional point; nor a right to interpose at all agst. a decision of the Supreme Court of the U. S. which was to be regarded as a Tribunal from which there could be no appeal.

The object of Virga. was to vindicate legislative declarations of opinion, to designate the several constitutional modes of interposition by the States agst. abuses of power; and to establish the ultimate authority of the States as parties to & members of the Constitution, to interpose agst. the decisions of the Judicial as well as other branches, of the Govt: the authority of the Judicial being in no sense ultimate out of the purview & forms of the Constitution.

Much use has been made of the term "respective" in the 3d. Resolution of Virga. which asserts the right of the States in cases of sufficient magnitude to interpose for maintaining within their respective limits the authorities &c appertaining to them; the term "respective" being construed to mean a constitutional right in each State separately to decide on & to resist by force encroachments within its limits. But, to say nothing of the distinction between ordinary & extreme cases, it is observable in this as in other instances throughout the Resolutions, the plural number "States", is used in referring to them; that a concurrence & co-operation of all might well be contemplated, in interpositions for effecting the objects within each; and that the language of the closing Resolution corresponds with this view of the 3d. The course of reasoning in the Report on the Resolutions required the distinction between a State & States It surely does not follow from the fact, of the States or rather people embodied in them, having as parties to the compact, no tribunal above them, that in controverted meanings of the Compact, a minority of the parties can rightfully decide against the majority; still less that a single party can decide against the rest, and as little that it can at will withdraw itself altogether, from a compact with the rest

The characteristic distinction between free Govts. and Govts. not free is that the former are founded on compact, not between the Govt & those for whom it acts, but among the parties creating the Govt. Each of these being equal, neither can have more right to say that the compact has been violated and dissolved, than every other has to deny the fact, and to insist on the execution of the bargain An inference from the doctrine that a single State has a right to secede, at its will from the rest is that the rest wd. have an equal right to secede from it, in other words to turn it, against its will out of its Union with them. Such a doctrine would not, till of late, have been palatable any where, and no where less so than where it is now most contended for.

A careless view of the subject might find an analogy between State secession, and personal individual expatriation. But the distinction is obvious and essential. Even in the latter case, whether regarded as a right impliedly reserved in the original Social compact, or as a reasonable indulgence, it is not exempt from certain condition It must be used without injustice or injury to the Community from which the expatriating party separates himself. Assuredly he could not withdraw his portion of territory from the common domain. In the case of a State seceding from the Union its domain would be dismembered, & other consequences  brought on not less obvious than pernicious.

I ought not to omit my regret, that in the remark on Mr Jefferson & myself, the names had not been transposed

Having many reasons for marking this letter Confidential I must request that its publicity may not be permitted in any mode or thro’ any channel. Among the reasons is the risk of misapprehensions or misconstructions, so common without more attention & more development, than I could conveniently bestow on what is said.

J. M

Wishing to be assured that the letter has not miscarried, a single line, acknowledging its receipt will be acceptable.

Draft (DLC).

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