Where Is Our Security?
Jabez Lamar Monroe Curry of Alabama
United States House of Representatives, December 9 1859

But, Mr. Clerk, it is not proper that I should disguise the fact, that there are serious apprehensions that that party may not, in consequence of the intensity and fierceness of the anti-slavery sentiment at the North, be able to preserve the Constitution of the country. In that event, where is our hope of redress? where is our security? The very existence of two governments here, the Federal and State governments, implies a division of political power. And these two governments have their origin and sanction in the same source. The Federal no less than the State government is the work of the people of the States. It is a mere agent intrusted with limited powers for the execution of certain specific objects. Its powers are derivative entirely, and liable to be resumed by the States which delegated them. The Federal Constitution is the measure of its authority, and contains all the delegation of powers from the people of the different States. It is a pernicious error, to be repudiated on all occasions, that this Government can lawfully do whatever is not prohibited in the Constitution. Whatever is not delegated to the Government or prohibited to the States, is reserved to the States respectively and separately and to the people thereof; and as one of our profoundest political thinkers has said:

"The boundary between the reserved and delegated powers marks the limits of this Union; the States are united to the extent of the delegated, they are separated beyond that limit."

Mr. Clerk, the history of this country confirms the universal experience in reference to the disposition of men having power to arrogate to themselves more. The apprehensions of some of the founders of the Republic in reference to the dangers which threatened its perpetuity, were ill-founded; the centripetal tendencies have been found to be greater than the centrifugal. Abraham Baldwin, of Georgia, during the last century, remarked that "it was the nature of delegated power to increase. It has been aptly said to be like the screw in mechanics: it holds all it gains, and at every turn gains a little more." This tendency has been fully and repeatedly manifested in our history; and sometimes the States have failed to resist and defeat measures leading to centralism and the absorption of unconstitutional powers by the different departments of the Federal agency.

I said that the existence of two governments implied a division of power. This division of power implies a superior. The existence of limitations and restrictions presupposes the power to control and to enforce. Right here arises the great question - the greatest which can possibly be submitted to the people of this Confederacy - whether the States have the right to judge of the extent of their reserved powers and to defend them against the encroachments of the Federal Government. Mr. Webster, and the Federal school of politicians, held that in all cases not capable of assuming the character of a suit in law or equity, in which event the Supreme Court is the final interpreter, Congress is the final and exclusive judge of the extent of its own powers. Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Calhoun and the State-rights school on the contrary held that the Constitution is a compact between sovereign States; that the States are not united upon a principle of unlimited submission to this government; that this Government, the creature of the States, is not the final and exclusive judge of the powers delegated to itself; but that each State has an equal right to judge for itself, as well of the infraction of the Constitution as of the mode and measure of redress. The Federal doctrine of Mr. Webster centralizes power, consolidates the Government, reduces the States to mere dependent corporations, and destroys limitations and restrictions. A written constitution affords no barrier against the encroachments of the Government and no security for the rights and liberties of the people if the Government can construe the final extent of its own powers and enforce that construction at the point of the bayonet. "Written constitutions," said an old author, "are like spiders' webs that hold only the poor and weak, while the rich and powerful easily break through them." Under this theory, there is no practical, substantive division of power. If the Government, through any or all its departments, can, by construction or usurpation, enlarge its delegation, there are no limitations upon its powers, there being no difference, said Mr. Calhoun, "between a Government having all powers and a Government having the right to take what powers it pleases."

Mr. Clerk, free governments, so far as their protecting power is concerned, are made for minorities, and the Jeffersonian, State-rights theory protects minorities. The South is in a minority at this time; and she should cling to State rights as the sheet-anchor of her safety in her hour of peril. As power is liable to abuse, checks should be imposed. In all possible modes of government, there will be a conflict between sections and interests and classes; it is ineveitable under the present constitution of human nature. All history furnishes no experience to the contrary. Hostile interests are created by legislation. Different interests in the community are disposed to encroach on each other; and, unless there is some power to check and restrain, the weaker must yield to, and go down before, the stronger. If majorities can interpret the Constitution, and enforce that interpretation without check; if the legislative discretion of the other side of the House is the measure of the rights of the South, then the minority will soon become a prey to the ambition and cupidity of the majority.

Gouverneur Morris, in writing to Mr. Pickering - and he is authority I presume on the other side of the House - said that "the legislative lion is not to be entangled in the meshes of a logical net - that the legislature will always make the power they wish to exercise." Limitations of power contained in the Constitution and reservations of undelegated powers are of no avail unless they, for whose benefit they are imposed and reserved, have the power to enforce the limitations and protect the reservations against encroachment. It is idle to expect the delegated powers to protect the reserved; it is nonsense to give a right without a remedy, or a remedy without the means of applying it. It is folly to talk of the minority relying for the protection of their rights upon the privilege of protest, complaint and remonstrance. No, every separate community must be able to protect itself. Power must be met by power.

If the majority can control this Government, interpreting the Constitution as its will, then this Government is a despotism. Whether wise or unwise, whether merciful or cruel, it is a despotism still.

Mr. Clerk, this power of self-protection, according to my judgement and my theory of politics, resides in each State. Each has the right of secession, the right of interposition, for the arrest of evils within its limits. The means of resistance to opperssion are ample; and it is a sad misfortune, sir, that these effective remedies have not been oftener applied. A more frequent application of the remedy would make the will commensurate with the means, inspire moral greatness, embolden courage, make resistance a duty, and equailty a necessity.

Mr. Clerk, if our Democratic friends, with the aid of American friends, or of Republicans, who may come to the rescue, as I trust many of them will, be not able to interpose for the security of the South, and for the preservation of the Constitution, I, for one, shall counsel immediate and effective resistance, and shall urge the people to fling themselves upon the reserved rights and the inalienable sovereignty of the State to which I owe my first and last allegiance. [Applause.]


The Congressional Globe, The Official Proceedings of Congress, Published by John C. Rives, Washington, D. C.
Thirty-Sixth Congress, 1st Session, New Series...No. 6, Monday, December 12, 1859, page 96
and New Series...No. 7, Tuesday, December 13, 1859, page 97