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The expression in the text (p. 298), that the Constitution of the United States is commonly asserted in that country to be, in popular phrase, “the best in the world," is too well supported by every-day facts to need any justification; but, perhaps, a few instances, showing that the expression has been countenanced by high authorities, may not be without their value.
President Munroe, in his “ Message" of 1826, speaks of the institutions of the United States as
“ the happiest the world ever knew.”
President Harrison, in his Address of 1841, describes their institutions as • far exceeding in excellence those of any other people.
President Filmore, in his “ Message" of 1852, asserts that their Constitution, “ though not perfect, is, doubtless, the best that was ever formed." A very
useful little volume on “ The Constitution of the United States," with a descriptive account of the State Papers and other Public Documents” relating to it, by Mr. W. Hickey, * has now reached its fourth edition. Prefixed to it are copies of several resolutions of the Senate, ordering the purchase and distribution of upwards of 24,000 copies of this work. In the “Introductory Remarks," p. xxxiv, Mr. Hickey, speaking of the President and the members of the two Houses of Congress, uses the following words : “ The intrinsic dignity of whose official character, in a
* Philadelphia, 1851.
moral point of view, transcends that of every other legislative assembly, in so much as our Constitution excels that of every other human government."
I am far from referring to it as a matter of complaint that the citizens of the United States should think and speak of their Constitution as “the best in the world.” I only wish to guard myself against being thought in the least degree to have exceeded the strict truth, in alleging that such is their claim, not to say, boast; and that they therefore challenge all legitimate criticism, and every fair
Ꮎ exposition of facts which show how far their present practice and experience under that Constitution corresponds with its letter and spirit.
Very different was the language of Washington in speaking of that document, when, in a letter to the President of the Congress, * he recommended its acceptance. His words are,
" that it is liable to as few exceptions as could reasonably have been expected, we hope and believe.”
To the same effect, also, are his sentiments in the extract given last in this note.
The wisdom of the truly great men who framed the Constitution was too enlarged not to include the attribute of humility, under the consciousness of human imperfections; and their knowledge was too comprehensive and real, not to show them difficulties and dangers on the vast field of political science, which lie beyond the horizon of inferior minds. Therefore—in the same sober spirit as his great predecessor—the second President of the Republic, John Adams, in his inaugural address,t speaks of the Constitution “as an experiment;" “ better adapted,"
September 17, 1787.
+ March 4, 1797.
indeed, “ to the genius, character, situation, and relations of this nation and country, than any which had ever been proposed or suggested,” but not therefore the best in the world, and for every one in it. And in a similar tone are the inaugural addresses of the two next Presidents, Jefferson and Madison, who were the contemporaries of the great struggle, and were content to indulge large hopes from the form of government that resulted from it, without therefore pronouncing their own work the most perfect or the only perfect effort of political wisdom.
There is, perhaps, no State paper ever written, more remarkable, more touching, more eloquent, more full of pregnant thoughts and wise counsels, than “ The Farewell Address of George Washington, President, to the People of the United States, September 17th, 1796," on his retiring into private life after his second presidentship. I venture to extract a few passages, not only on account of their intrinsic excellence as specimens of true political philosophy, but as directly applicable to many of the subjects discussed in the text, on the changes that have ensued, since those days, in the practical working of the Constitution:
“ Towards the preservation of your Government, and the permanency of your present happy state, it is requisite, not only that you steadily discountenance irregular oppositions to its acknowledged authority, but also that you resist with care the spirit of innovation upon its principles, however specious the pretexts. One method of assault may be, to effect, in the forms of the Constitution, alterations which will impair the energy of the system, and thus to undermine what cannot be directly overthrown. In all the changes to which you may be invited, remember that time and habit are at least as necessary to fix the true
character of governments, as of other human institutions ; that experience is the surest standard by which to test the real tendency of the existing constitution of a country; that facility in changes, upon the credit of mere hypothesis and opinion, exposes to perpetual change, from the endless variety of hypothesis and opinion; and remember, especially, that for the efficient management of your common interests, in a country so extensive as ours, a government of as much vigour as is consistent with the perfect security of liberty, is indispensable. Liberty itself will find in such a government, with powers properly distributed and adjusted, its surest guardian. It is, indeed, little else than a name, where the government is too feeble to withstand the enterprises of faction, to confine each member of the society within the limits prescribed by the laws, and to maintain all in the secure and tranquil enjoyment of the rights of
“The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one, and thus to create, whatever the form of government, a real despotism. A just estimate of that love of power, and proneness to abuse it, satisfy us of the truth of this position. The necessity of reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power, by dividing and distributing it into different depositories, and constituting each the guardian of the public weal, against innovations by the others, has been evinced by experiments, ancient and modern; some of them in our own country, and under our own eyes. To preserve them must be as necessary as to institute them.
Let there be no change by usurpation; for though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed. The
precedent must always greatly overbalance, in permanent evil, any partial or transient benefit which the use can at any time yield."
Observe good faith and justice towards all nations, cultivate peace and harmony with all; religion and morality enjoin this conduct, and can it be that good policy does not equally enjoin it? It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and, at no distant period, a great nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence. Who can doubt that, in the course of time and things, the fruits of such a plan would richly repay any temporary advantages which might be lost by a steady adherence to it? Can it be that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a nation with its virtue ? The experiment, at least, is recommended by every sentiment which ennobles human nature. Alas! is it rendered impossible by its vices?"
“ The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is, in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible."
Europe has a set of primary interests, which to us have none or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties, in the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities."
* Washington urges this advice in several other paragraphs, terminating in a recommendation to his countrymen to keep them