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THE GREATEST SPEECH OF THE
MEN who write books of history say Daniel Webster is the greatest orator America has ever had, and that the speech called the “Reply to Hayne” is his greatest speech.
At the time, he was Senator from Massachusetts, and the passing of the Tariff Bill in 1828 had roused intense and bitter feeling. Webster had voted for the bill because its measures protected the manufacturing interests of New England. South Carolina was terribly opposed to the bill, so Senator Hayne of South Carolina expressed his opinion of Massachusetts and of Webster in no uncertain terms, and announced that South Carolina had a right to disobey the Tariff Law and would do so.
The next day Webster answered Hayne, setting forth in his four-hour speech what he believed our Constitution stands for, and driving home the facts that the Union must come ahead of the ideas and desires of any state, and that the only possible way to preserve our liberty was by upholding the Union. “Union and Liberty, now and forever, one and inseparable,” were his words.
LIBERTY AND UNION From DANIEL WEBSTER'S REPLY TO HAYNE The people, then, sir, erected this Government. They gave it a Constitution, and in that Constitution they have enumerated the powers which they bestow on it. They have made it a limited Government. They have defined its authority. They have restrained it to the exercise of such powers as are granted; and all others, they declare, are reserved to the States or the people. But, sir, they have not stopped here. If they had, they would have accomplished but half their work. No definition can be so clear as to avoid possibility of doubt; no limitation so precise as to exclude all uncertainty.
Who, then, shall construe this grant of the people? Who shall interpret their will, where it may be supposed they have left it doubtful? With whom do they repose this ultimate right of deciding on the powers of the Government? Sir, they have settled all this in the fullest manner. They have left it with the Government itself, in its appropriate branches.
Sir, the very chief end, the main design, for which the whole Constitution was framed and adopted, was to establish a Government that should not be obliged to act through State agency, or depend on State opinion and State discretion. The people had had quite enough of that kind of Government under the Confederacy. Under that system the legal action -- the application of law to individuals — belonged exclusively to the States. Congress could only recommend — their acts were not of binding force till the States had adopted and sanctioned them. Are we in that condition still? Are we yet at the mercy of State discretion and State construction? Sir, if we are, then vain will be our attempt to maintain the Constitution under which we sit.
But, sir, the people have wisely provided in the Constitution itself, a proper suitable mode and tribunal for settling questions of constitutional law. There are, in the Constitution, grants of powers to Congress, and restrictions on these powers. There are also prohibitions on the States. Some authority must therefore necessarily exist, having the ultimate jurisdiction to fix
DANIEL WEBSTER and ascertain the interpretation of these grants, restrictions, and prohibitions.
The Constitution has itself pointed out, ordained and established that authority. How has it accomplished this great and essential end? By declaring, sir, that “the Constitution and the laws of the United States, made in pursuance thereof, shall be the supreme law of the land, anything in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding."
This, sir, was the first great step. By this the supremacy of the Constitution and laws of the United States is declared. The people so will it. No State law is to be valid, which comes in conflict with the Constitution, or any law of the United States passed in pursuance of it. But who shall decide this question of interference? To whom lies the last appeal? This, sir, the Constitution itself decides also by declaring “that the judicial power shall extend to all cases arising under the Constitution and laws of the United States.” These two provisions, sir, cover the whole ground. They are in truth the keystone of the arch. With these it is a Constitution; without them it is a Confederacy.
If anything be found in the national Constitution, either by original provision, or subsequent interpretation, which ought not to be in it, the people know how to get rid of it. If any construction be established, unacceptable to them, so as to become, practically, a part of the Constitution, they will amend it, at their own sovereign pleasure: but while the people choose to maintain it, as it is; while they are satisfied with it, and refuse to change it, who has given, or who can give, to the State legislatures a right to alter it, either by interference, construction, or otherwise?
Gentlemen do not seem to recollect that the people have any power to do anything for themselves; they imagine there is no safety for them any longer than they are under the close guardianship of the State legislatures. Sir, the people have not trusted their safety, in regard to the General Constitution, to these hands. They have required other security, and taken other bonds. They have chosen to trust themselves, first, to the plain words of the instrument, and to such construction as the Government itself, in doubtful cases, should put on its own powers, under their oaths of office, and subject to their responsibility to them; just as the people of a State trust their own State governments with a similar power.
Secondly, they have reposed their trust in the efficacy of frequent elections, and in their own power to remove their own servants and agents, whenever they see cause.
Thirdly, they have reposed trust in the judicial power, which in order that it might be trustworthy, they have made as respectable, as disinterested, and as independent as was practicable.
Fourthly, they have seen fit to rely in case of necessity, or high expediency, on their known and admitted power, to alter or amend the Constitution, peaceably and quietly, whenever experience shall point out defects or imperfections.