Our Patriotic Charge

Excerpts from Upshur on the Federal Government, 1868
Reprinted by St. Thomas Press, Houston
Compiled by michael-donald

It is truly and wisely remarked by the Federalist, that “a power over a man’s subsistence is a power over his will.” As little as possible of this power should be entrusted to the Federal Government, and even that little should be watched by a power authorized and competent to arrest its abuses.

That power can be found only in the States.

In this consists the great superiority of the federative system over every other. In that system, the Federal Government is responsible, not directly to the people en masse, but to the people in their character of distinct political corporations. However easy it may be to steal power from the people, governments do not so readily yield to one another.

Under a federative system, the people are not liable to be acted on…by those influences which are so apt to betray and enslave them, under a consolidated government.

The right of interposition belongs, not to the people in the aggregate, but to the people in separate and comparatively small subdivisions. And even in these subdivisions, they can act only through the forms of their own separate governments.

These are necessarily slow and deliberate, affording time for excitement to subside, and for passion to cool. Having to pass through their own governments, before they reach that of the United States, they are forbidden to act until they have had time for reflection, and for the exercise of a cool and temperate judgment. Besides, they are taught to look, not to one government only, for the protection and security of their rights, and not to feel that they owe obedience only to that. Conscious that they can find, in their own State governments, protection against the wrongs of the Federal Government, their feeling of dependence is less oppressive, and their judgments more free. And while their efforts to throw off oppression are not repressed by a feeling that there is no power to which they can appeal, these efforts are kept under due restraints, by a consciousness that they cannot be unwisely exerted, except to the injury of the people themselves. It is difficult to perceive how a Federal Government, established on correct principles, can ever be overthrown, except by external violence, so long as the federative principle is duly respected and maintained. All the requisite checks and balances will be found, in the right of the States to keep their common government within their common sphere; and a sufficient security for the due exercise of that right is afforded by the fact, that it is the interest of the States to exercise it discreetly.

Our character is not homogeneous, and our pursuits are wholly different. Rightly understood, these facts should tend to bind us the more closely together, by showing us our dependence upon each other; and it should teach us the necessity of watching, with the greater jealousy, every departure from the strict principles of our union.

It is a truth, however, no less melancholy than incontestable, that if this ever was the view of the people, it has ceased to be so. And it could not be otherwise.

So far as our own government is concerned, I venture to predict that it will become absolute and irresponsible, precisely in proportion as the rights of the States shall cease to be respected, and their authority to interpose for the correction of federal abuses shall be denied and overthrown.

(My note: he was unfortunately dead right!)

It should be the object of every patriot in the United States to encourage a high respect for the State governments. The people should be taught to regard them as their greatest interest, and as the first objects of their duty and affection. Maintained in their just rights and powers, they form the true balance-wheel, the only effectual check on federal encroachments.

As [the] Constitution was formed by sovereign States, they alone are authorized, whenever the question arises between them and their common government, to determine, in the last resort, what powers they intended to confer on it. This is an inseparable incident of sovereignty; a right which belongs to the States, simply because they have never surrendered it to any other power. But to render this right available for any good purpose, it is indispensably necessary to maintain the States in their proper position.

If their people suffer them to sink into the insignificance of mere municipal corporations, it will be in vain to invoke their protection against the gigantic power of the Federal Government.

This is the point to which the vigilance of the people should be chiefly directed. Their highest interest is at home; their palladium is their own State governments. They ought to know that they can look nowhere else with perfect assurance of safety and protection. Let them then maintain those governments, not only in their rights, but in their dignity and influence. Make it the interest of their people to serve them; an interest strong enough to resist all the temptations of federal office and patronage. Then alone will their voice be heard with respect at Washington; then alone will their interposition avail to protect their own people against the usurpations of the great central power.

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