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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Remarks on the Right of Petition
By John Caldwell Calhoun (1782–1850)
Delivered in the Senate, February 13th, 1840

MR. CALHOUN said he rose to express the pleasure he felt at the evidence which the remarks of the Senator from Kentucky furnished, of the progress of truth on the subject of abolition. He had spoken with strong approbation of the principle laid down in a recent pamphlet, that two races of different character and origin could not coexist in the same country without the subordination of the one to the other. He was gratified to hear the Senator give assent to so important a principle in application to the condition of the South. He had himself, several years since, stated the same in more specific terms: that it was impossible for two races, so dissimilar in every respect as the European and African that inhabit the southern portion of this Union, to exist together in nearly equal numbers in any other relation than that which existed there. He also added that experience had shown that they could so exist in peace and happiness there, certainly to the great benefit of the inferior race; and that to destroy it was to doom the latter to destruction. But he uttered these important truths then in vain, as far as the side to which the Senator belongs is concerned.  1
  He trusted the progress of truth would not, however, stop at the point to which it has arrived with the Senator, and that it will make some progress in regard to what is called the right of petition. Never was a right so much mystified and magnified. To listen to the discussion, here and elsewhere, you would suppose it to be the most essential and important right: so far from it, he undertook to aver that under our free and popular system it was among the least of all our political rights. It had been superseded in a great degree by the far higher right of general suffrage, and by the practice, now so common, of instruction. There could be no local grievance but what could be reached by these, except it might be the grievance affecting a minority, which could be no more redressed by petition than by them. The truth is, that the right of petition could scarcely be said to be the right of a freeman. It belongs to despotic governments more properly, and might be said to be the last right of slaves. Who ever heard of petition in the free States of antiquity? We had borrowed our notions in regard to it from our British ancestors, with whom it had a value for their imperfect representation far greater than it has with us; and it is owing to that that it has a place at all in our Constitution. The truth is, that the right has been so far superseded in a political point of view, that it has ceased to be what the Constitution contemplated it to be,—a shield to protect against wrongs; and has been perverted into a sword to attack the rights of others—to cause a grievance instead of the means of redressing grievances, as in the case of abolition petitions. The Senator from Ohio [Mr. Tappan] has viewed this subject in its proper light, and has taken a truly patriotic and constitutional stand in refusing to present these firebrands, for which I heartily thank him in the name of my State. Had the Senator from Kentucky followed the example, he would have rendered inestimable service to the country….  2
  It is useless to attempt concealment. The presentation of these incendiary petitions is itself an infraction of the Constitution. All acknowledge—the Senator himself—that the property which they are presented to destroy is guaranteed by the Constitution. Now I ask: If we have the right under the Constitution to hold the property (which none question), have we not also the right to hold it under the same sacred instrument in peace and quiet? Is it not a direct infraction then of the Constitution, to present petitions here in the common council of the Union, and to us, the agents appointed to carry its provisions into effect and to guard the rights it secures, the professed aim of which is to destroy the property guaranteed by the instrument? There can be but one answer to these questions on the part of those who present such petitions: that the right of such petition is higher and more sacred than the Constitution and our oaths to preserve and to defend it. To such monstrous results does the doctrine lead.  3
  Sir, I understand this whole question. The great mass of both parties to the North are opposed to abolition: the Democrats almost exclusively; the Whigs less so. Very few are to be found in the ranks of the former; but many in those of the latter. The only importance that the abolitionists have is to be found in the fact that their weight may be felt in elections; and this is no small advantage. The one party is unwilling to lose their weight, but at the same time unwilling to be blended with them on the main question; and hence is made this false, absurd, unconstitutional, and dangerous collateral issue on the right of petition. Here is the whole secret. They are willing to play the political game at our hazard, and that of the Constitution and the Union, for the sake of victory at the elections. But to show still more clearly how little foundation there is in the character of our government for the extravagant importance attached to this right, I ask the Senator what is the true relation between the government and the people, according to our American conception? Which is principal and which agent? which the master and which the servant? which the sovereign and which the subject? There can be no answer. We are but the agents—the servants. We are not the sovereign. The sovereignty resides in the people of the States. How little applicable, then, is this boasted right of petition, under our system, to political questions? Who ever heard of the principal petitioning his agent—of the master, his servant—or of the sovereign, his subject? The very essence of a petition implies a request from an inferior to a superior. It is not in fact a natural growth of our system. It was copied from the British Bill of Rights, and grew up among a people whose representation was very imperfect, and where the sovereignty of the people was not recognized at all. And yet even there, this right so much insisted on here as being boundless as space, was restricted from the beginning by the very men who adopted it in the British system, in the very manner which has been done in the other branch, this session; and to an extent far beyond. The two Houses of Parliament have again and again passed resolutions against receiving petitions even to repeal taxes; and this, those who formed our Constitution well knew, and yet adopted the provision almost identically contained in the British Bill of Rights, without guarding against the practice under it. Is not the conclusion irresistible, that they did not deem it inconsistent with the right of “the citizens peaceably to assemble and petition for a redress of grievance,” as secured in the Constitution? The thing is clear. It is time that the truth should be known, and this cant about petition, not to redress the grievances of the petitioners, but to create a grievance elsewhere, be put down….  4
  I know this question to the bottom. I have viewed it under every possible aspect. There is no safety but in prompt, determined, and uncompromising defense of our rights—to meet the danger on the frontier. There all rights are strongest, and more especially this. The moral is like the physical world. Nature has incrusted the exterior of all organic life, for its safety. Let that be broken through, and it is all weakness within. So in the moral and political world. It is on the extreme limits of right that all wrong and encroachments are the most sensibly felt and easily resisted. I have acted on this principle throughout in this great contest. I took my lessons from the patriots of the Revolution. They met wrong promptly, and defended right against the first encroachment. To sit here and hear ourselves and constituents, and their rights and institutions (essential to their safety), assailed from day to day—denounced by every epithet calculated to degrade and render us odious; and to meet all this in silence,—or still worse, to reason with the foul slanderers,—would eventually destroy every feeling of pride and dignity, and sink us in feelings to the condition of the slaves they would emancipate. And this the Senator advises us to do. Adopt it, and the two houses would be converted into halls to debate our rights to our property, and whether, in holding it, we were not thieves, robbers, and kidnappers; and we are to submit to this in order to quiet the North! I tell the Senator that our Union, and our high moral tone of feeling on this subject at the South, are infinitely more important to us than any possible effect that his course could have at the North; and that if we could have the weakness to adopt his advice, it would even fail to effect the object intended.  5
  It is proper to speak out. If this question is left to itself, unresisted by us, it cannot but terminate fatally to us. Our safety and honor are in the opposite direction—to take the highest ground, and maintain it resolutely. The North will always take position below us, be ours high or low. They will yield all that we will and something more. If we go for rejection, they will at first insist on receiving, on the ground of respect for petition. If we yield that point and receive petitions, they will go for reference, on the ground that it is absurd to receive and not to act—as it truly is. If we go for that, they will insist on reporting and discussing; and if that, the next step will be to make concession—to yield the point of abolition in this District; and so on till the whole process is consummated, each succeeding step proving more easy than its predecessor. The reason is obvious. The abolitionists understand their game. They throw their votes to the party most disposed to favor them. Now, sir, in the hot contest of party in the Northern section, on which the ascendency in their several States and the general government may depend, all the passions are roused to the greatest height in the violent struggle, and aid sought in every quarter. They would forget us in the heat of battle; yes, the success of the election, for the time, would be more important than our safety; unless we by our determined stand on our rights cause our weight to be felt, and satisfy both parties that they have nothing to gain by courting those who aim at our destruction. As far as this government is concerned, that is our only remedy. If we yield that, if we lower our stand to permit partisans to woo the aid of those who are striking at our interests, we shall commence a descent in which there is no stopping-place short of total abolition, and with it our destruction.  6
  A word in answer to the Senator from Massachusetts [Mr. Webster]. He attempted to show that the right of petition was peculiar to free governments. So far is the assertion from being true, that it is more appropriately the right of despotic governments; and the more so, the more absolute and austere. So far from being peculiar or congenial to free popular States, it degenerates under them, necessarily, into an instrument, not of redress for the grievances of the petitioners, but as has been remarked, of assault on the rights of others, as in this case. That I am right in making the assertion, I put it to the Senator—Have we not a right under the Constitution to our property in our slaves? Would it not be a violation of the Constitution to divest us of that right? Have we not a right to enjoy, under the Constitution, peaceably and quietly, our acknowledged rights guaranteed by it, without annoyance? The Senator assents. He does but justice to his candor and intelligence. Now I ask him, how can he assent to receive petitions whose object is to annoy and disturb our right, and of course in direct infraction of the Constitution?  7
  The Senator from Ohio [Mr. Tappan], in refusing to present these incendiary and unconstitutional petitions, has adopted a course truly constitutional and patriotic, and in my opinion, the only one that is so. I deeply regret that it has not been followed by the Senator from Kentucky in the present instance. Nothing short of it can put a stop to the mischief, and do justice to one-half of the States of the Union. If adopted by others, we shall soon hear no more of abolition. The responsibility of keeping alive this agitation must rest on those who may refuse to follow so noble an example.  8

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