Obrazy na stronie
PDF
ePub

tion of it would warrant the sedition-law. Government with us depended for its existence upon the affections of the people. In its preservation the people were interested. Any attempt, by the publication of falsehood to discredit government, and thereby to impair the public confidence in it, was an offence against the people; it was wrong in morality, and ought to be punished. What honest man would complain of a law, which forbids the propagation of malice, slander, and falsehood? What good citizen would not delight in a law, which, while it punishes the above vices, tends to perpetuate the government of his choice? And yet a law of that sort, he said, afforded a fertile topic of abuse and misrepresentation.'

General Lee then observed that, “ thou shalt not lie," was one of the ten commandments: it was one of the injunctions of the sedition-law. Whoever considered the freedom of speech abridged by the divine law? No man unless lunatic; nor could the freedom of the press be so deemed, without a misconstruction of the Constitution, or of the sedition-law.

This state, he said, had from the Revolution enacted laws of the same sort. In 1776, a committee was appointed for the revision of our laws. Messrs. Pendleton, Wythe, Jefferson, Mason and Lee, composed the committee; able, honourable, and eminent citizens. Among their proposed bills, was to be found one on the subject of libels. A reference to this bill would show its minute resemblance to the sedition-law. Autho. rity such as that just quoted, General Lee said, could not fail in guarding the committee from accrediting the intemperate censures issued against Congress. He would proceed, he said, to another authority in point of time and subject, though one of the respectable gentlemen just named, and the very one of all others to whom gentlemen on the other side attached most weight. Mr. Jefferson, in his correspondence with Mr. Madison, respecting the new Constitution, maintains, said General Lee, the doctrine we contend for. He (Mr. Jefferson) expressly says, that in preventing the abridgment of the freedom of the press, punishment for uttering falsehoods ought not to be inhibited. (3 Jeff

. Mem. 25.) The same doctrine is expressed by the same gentleman, in his Notes on Vir. ginia. (Notes on Va., Appendix No. II., p. 233.)

However, General Lee said, he would refer to an authority still higher, the General Assembly of this state in 1776. That august body, the champions of American rights, the patriots who composed our state Constitution, passed a law on this subject in the following words: “That, if any person residing, or being within this commonwealth shall, from and after the publication hereof, by any word, open deed, or act, advisedly and willingly, maintain and defend the authority, jurisdiction, or power of the king, or parliament of Great Britain, the person so offending, being legally convicted thereof, shall be punished with fine and imprisonment, to be ascertained by a-jury, so that the fine exceed not the sum of twenty thousand pounds, nor the imprisonment the term of five years :" « and that any person who shall maliciously and advisedly endeavour to excite the people to resist the government of this commonwealth as by law esta. blished, or persuade them to return to a dependence upon the crown of Great Britain, or who shall maliciously, or advisedly terrify and discou

[ocr errors]

rage the people from enlisting into the service of the commonwealth, or dispose them to favour the enemy, every person so offending, and being thereof legally convicted, shall be punished with fine and imprisonment as aforesaid."

· These men, General Lee said, formed our Constitution, and these men passed the law of which the quotation is an extract. They must have understood their own work; they could not mean to violate the Constitution. The law then was not unconstitutional in their opinions, and yet it must be so, if the doctrine now advanced be accurate.

The Constilutions of the state and of the United States, provide in terms equally strong for the security of the freedom of the press. The law above quoted, passed by the state, and the sedition-law, passed by Con. gress, were of the same sort in word, spirit, and object. If the first be no violation of the state Constitution, the second could not be deemed a violation of the United States Constitution. Other laws passed by the state, all tending to justify the opinions which he and those who thought with him held, General Lee said, might be referred to; especially the law against the divulgers of false news and the law against treason. It had been fully observed by the worthy member from Prince George, that the word “freedom” of the press had a definite meaning; and he had proved incontestably what this technical meaning was, to wit, a freedom from every restraint in printing, but not a freedom from punishment, if the printing was in its tendency injurious to an individual or to the com. munity.

It appeared plainly to his mind then, that the resolutions asserted an untruth, when they charged the two laws with violation of the Constitu. tion. But it seems, he said, that the laws are inexpedient and unwise. of their expediency and wisdom the people have made Congress the sole judge. They have the best information ; their object must be the public good, and it was presumable that the measure was wise and neces. sary, or their adoption would not have taken place. He would not, he said, examine the question of expediency of the laws, but would examine the expediency of the resolutions. Admitting for a moment, that the laws were unconstitutional, he contended that the course pursued by the reso. lutions was inadmissible. Prudence frowned on the indecorum and hos. tility which their face showed, nor was it to be presumed that contumely to the sovereignty of the Union was the likeliest way to obtain a repeal of the laws. The very reverse must happen. Why, then, recur to such an expedient, if the object of repeal be the real object? He hoped that he should be pardoned, he said, when he suspected that repeal of the laws was not the leading point in view. Promotion of disunion and separation of the states, struck him as objects which the resolutions covered. What evils so great could befall the American people ? Every measure squinting at such disasters ought to be spurned with zeal. Let us, then, said he, put our veto on the resolutions. Was an individual, he observed, to apply to his friend for redress of some supposed injury, the application would be conveyed in terms polite and friendly. So ought it to be when a state applied to the United States. But why not wait for the operation of the constitutional checks? The united system was made by the whole

people, for the management of all affairs national. The same people instituted state governments, for the management of all state affairs. These systems held concurring jurisdiction over some subjects, and of course might occasionally interfere. Who, then, was the proper arbiter between them? Not the state government: the people had given them no such power. The people themselves, the creators of both systems, were the proper judges. Their decision was obtainable under the rules of the Constitution in the revolving elections. The judiciary also was a source of correction of legislative evil; a source fixed by the Constitution, and adequate to cure violations of the same like those now alleged. The state legislatures might also act, but it must be by proposing amendments to the Constitution in either way therein delineated.

If then the laws were deemed unconstitutional, let the question, he said, be left to the people, to the judges: or let the legislature come forward with a proposition for amending the doubtful parts

of the Constitution; or with a respectful and friendly memorial, urging Congress to repeal the laws. Thus would our union be strengthened, our friendship perpetuated.

The state judges, he said, had on many occasions interposed when this legislature had passed laws unconstitutional. The remedy had cured the disorder, and tranquillity remained undisturbed. So would do the federal judges. They were as respectable, as trustworthy as were the state judges ; in them as much confidence ought to be reposed. For his part, he said, he felt as much confidence; nor could he admit the force of those distinctions which gentlemen laboured to establish, tending to discriminate in favour of state judges and state officers. They were all citizens alike, bound to do their duty; clothed with the authority of the people, and directed by the will of the people. Whether called state or federal judges, sheriff or marshal, was a light and unimportant circumstance.

The resolutions, General Lee said, struck him as recommending resistance. They declared the laws null and void. Our citizens thus think. ing, would disobey the laws. This disobedience would be patronised by the state, and could not be submitted to by the United States. Insurrection would be the consequence. We have had one insurrection lately, and that without the patronage of the legislature. How much more likely might an insurrection happen, which seemed to be advised by the Assem. bly? The scene in Pennsylvania turned out to be a comedy: the same attempt here, he feared, would issue in tragedy. Let us, said he, avoid these numerous ills. All the states are interested in our decision, both as to their reputation and tranquillity. He requested gentlemen then to be temperate, to reject the proffered paper, and adopt some other course.

Division among ourselves at this time, he said, encouraged invasion. He could not bring himself to believe that gentlemen meant to invite the enemy to our country. He could not attribute to gentlemen such motives. But what signified the goodness of their intentions, if their measures produced the effect ?

General Lee then concluded by entreating gentlemen to pause. Take this one rash step, said he, and you will be carried step by step till you land in misery, or submit quietly with derision settled upon your heads. Should my efforts, Mr. Chairman, be unavailing, I shall lament my coun.

we the

try's fate, and acquiesce in my country's will; and amidst the surrounding calamities, derive some consolation from recollecting my humble exertions to stop the mad career.

Mr. CURETON said, that there had been silence in the committee for some time; and if no other gentleman was disposed to speak, he hoped the question would then be put. The debate had engaged their attention for several days past, and he expected that every member of the committee had made up his mind upon the question.

Mr. John Taylor's resolutions were read by the clerk.

Mr. PETER JOHNSTON then arose, and acknowledged his incompetency to throw any light upon the subject, but hoped to be indulged with a few observations in answer to the gentleman from Westmoreland. He had contended that the states were not parties to the compact, but the people. Mr. Johnston denied the position, and said that every fact in the history of the government would contradict it. If the confederation was formed by states, the states alone possessed the power of dissolving it. And when it was found incompetent, the states, and not the people, directed a convention to frame the Constitution. When that was framed, their power was at an end. The members of it, it was true, were the representatives of the mass of the people of America. But, when the system was framed, it was submitted to the conventions of the people of the several states. If those conventions then assembled under the auspices of the legislatures of the different states, the states were parties. Should the words, people,” then change the nature of the compact, contrary to the historical facts of the day? He thought not.

Mr. Johnston then cited the fourth section of the fourth article of the Constitution, which declares, “ that the United States shall guarantee to every state in this Union a republican form of government, &c.” Also the fifth article, which declares, that “the Congress, whenever two-lhirds of both houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose amendments to this Constitution, or on the application of ihe legislatures of two-thirds of the several states, shall call a convention for proposing amendments, which in either case shall be valid to all intents and purposes, as part of this Constitution, when ratified by the legislatures of three-fourths of the several states, or by conventions of three-fourths thereof, as the one or the other mode of ratification may be proposed by the Congress, &c.” From these clauses, he conceived, an irrefragable argument was deducible in favour of his idea. It had been said, however, that from the expression conventions in this article, the states were not parties. Mr. Johnston contended that they were, as the other expressions in this article were as strongly in favour of the states being parties, as the word conventions could be in favour of the people being parties. The truth was, that both the states and the people were parties.

He then made several observations in answer to General Lee's argu. ment upon the matter of compromise between the states. This gentle. man, too, he said, had asserted that the alien-law extended to prevent offences, and not to punish them. This Mr. Johnston denied, and proceeded to point out the real case of the alien under the law of Congress. He understood the law was designed for alien-friends. There was also an

alien-enemy law; and if the former related to alien-enemies, it would have had reference to the latter. But it was general; it related therefore to both. He mentioned the argument of General Lee respecting the entry of aliens into a country, but observed that this point had been before spoken to.

Mr. Johnston also referred to the remarks of Mr. George K. Taylor upon the rights of aliens, and contended that an alien was entitled to jus. tice. If so, he was entitled to the means of obtaining justice, to which a fair trial was indispensable, but was deprived of it by this law. It was in vain to say that the President would not abuse the power. If it was not warrantable by the Constitution, it was still objectionable. It had been said, too, that citizens might live in peace notwithstanding the law. That neither, was any argument if the law was unconstitutional. The gentleman from Westmoreland had placed a particular construction on the word persons. In doing that, the gentleman should have recollected the case of a certain description of persons excluded by the laws of this state from entering the same. The same gentleman had read extracts too from the sedition-law, to show that there must be intent and purpose, in order to bring men within the law. Mr. Johnston asked how intent and purpose were to be made out but by words? To illustrate which he mentioned Lyon's case; and then asked how an intent could be proved, but by deductions from words ? Was that any security? An evil intent might be deduced from words, by which none was ever designed. He mentioned as an instance, the story lately circulated amongst them respecting Mr. Tazewell, our senator. It would be, moreover, in the power of the tools of government to place a construction on words which might destroy the person speaking them. The gentleman from Westmoreland had also read extracts from the law of the state respecting aliens, and insisted that Congress had the same right as the state to pass such a law. This Mr. Johnston denied, and contended that the states in that respect had sove. reign power, and that Congress had no such power, but à defined and limited power only. To prove which he read the first clause of the ninth section of the first article, in the following words : “ The migration or im. portation of such persons as any of the states now existing, shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited prior to the year 1808, &c. ;" and then asked, if any law having that effect, had been passed before the adoption of the Constitution ? There had not; therefore such clause was in. serted. Mr. Jefferson's letter too, had been produced, but was that to be quoted to govern the committee on the occasion ? The Constitution should be their guide. And even Mr. Jefferson's letter, as it was stated, did not extend to the business in question; it related only to private regula. tions.

Mr. Johnston then proceeded to consider the consequences of the sedition-law; and among others, conceived that the public opinion, heretofore found so useful, would be repressed, would be punished by it. Was that the liberty which was guaranteed by the Constitution ? No; it was a shameful attack upon both. All the gentlemen who had spoken upon this question, (except the gentleman from Caroline,) instead of arguing the constitutional point, had addressed themselves to the passions. He

« PoprzedniaDalej »