[Volume 2, Page 16]

Document 20

James Monroe, Views of the President of the United States on the Subject of Internal Improvements

4 May 1822Richardson 2:147--49

The Constitution of the United States was formed by a convention of delegates from the several States, who met in Philadelphia, duly authorized for the purpose, and it was ratified by a convention in each State which was especially called to consider and decide on the same. In this progress the State governments were never suspended in their functions. On the contrary, they took the lead in it. Conscious of their incompetency to secure to the Union the blessings of the Revolution, they promoted the diminution of their own powers and the enlargement of those of the General Government in the way in which they might be most adequate and efficient. It is believed that no other example can be found of a Government exerting its influence to lessen its own powers, of a policy so enlightened, of a patriotism so pure and disinterested. The credit, however, is more especially due to the people of each State, in obedience to whose will and under whose control the State governments acted.

The Constitution of the United States, being ratified by the people of the several States, became of necessity to the extent of its powers the paramount authority of the Union. On sound principles it can be viewed in no other light. The people, the highest authority known to our system, from whom all our institutions spring and on whom they depend, formed it. Had the people of the several States thought proper to incorporate themselves into one community, under one government, they might have done it. They had the power, and there was nothing then nor is there anything now, should they be so disposed, to prevent it. They wisely stopped, however, at a certain point, extending the incorporation to that point, making the National Government thus far a consolidated Government, and preserving the State governments without that limit perfectly sovereign and independent of the National Government. Had the people of the several States incorporated themselves into one community, they must have remained such, their Constitution becoming then, like the constitution of the several States, incapable of change until altered by the will of the majority. In the institution of a State government by the citizens of a State a compact is formed to which all and every citizen are equal parties. They are also the sole parties and may amend it at pleasure. In the institution of the Government of the United States by the citizens of every State a compact was formed [Volume 2, Page 17] between the whole American people which has the same force and partakes of all the qualities to the extent of its powers as a compact between the citizens of a State in the formation of their own constitution. It can not be altered except by those who formed it or in the mode prescribed by the parties to the compact itself.

This Constitution was adopted for the purpose of remedying all defects of the Confederation, and in this it has succeeded beyond any calculation that could have been formed of any human institution. By binding the States together the Constitution performs the great office of the Confederation; but it is in that sense only that it has any of the properties of that compact, and in that it is more effectual to the purpose, as it holds them together by a much stronger bond; and in all other respects in which the Confederation failed the Constitution has been blessed with complete success. The Confederation was a compact between separate and independent States, the execution of whose articles in the powers which operated internally depended on the State governments. But the great office of the Constitution, by incorporating the people of the several States to the extent of its powers into one community and enabling it to act directly on the people, was to annul the powers of the State governments to that extent, except in cases where they were concurrent, and to preclude their agency in giving effect to those of the General Government. The Government of the United States relies on its own means for the execution of its powers, as the State governments do for the execution of theirs, both governments having a common origin or sovereign, the people--the State governments the people of each State, the National Government the people of every State--and being amenable to the power which created it. It is by executing its functions as a Government thus originating and thus acting that the Constitution of the United States holds the States together and performs the office of a league. It is owing to the nature of its powers and the high source from whence they are derived--the people--that it performs that office better than the Confederation or any league which ever existed, being a compact which the State governments did not form, to which they are not parties, and which executes its own powers independently of them.

There were two separate and independent governments established over our Union, one for local purposes over each State by the people of the State, the other for national purposes over all the States by the people of the United States. The whole power of the people, on the representative principle, is divided between them. The State governments are independent of each other, and to the extent of their powers are complete sovereignties. The National Government begins where the State governments terminate, except in some instances where there is a concurrent jurisdiction between them. This Government is also, according to the extent of its powers, a complete sovereignty. I speak here, as repeatedly mentioned before, altogether of representative sovereignties, for the real sovereignty is in the people alone.

The history of the world affords no such example of two separate and independent governments established over the same people, nor can it exist except in governments founded on the sovereignty of the people. In monarchies and other governments not representative there can be no such division of power. The government is inherent in the possessor; it is his, and can not be taken from him without a revolution. In such governments alliances and leagues alone are practicable. But with us individuals count for nothing in the offices which they hold; that is, they have no right to them. They hold them as representatives, by appointment from the people, in whom the sovereignty is exclusively vested. It is impossible to speak too highly of this system taken in its twofold character and in all its great principles of two governments, completely distinct from and independent of each other, each constitutional, founded by and acting directly on the people, each competent to all its purposes, administering all the blessings for which it was instituted, without even the most remote danger of exercising any of its powers in a way to oppress the people. A system capable of expansion over a vast territory not only without weakening either government, but enjoying the peculiar advantage of adding thereby new strength and vigor to the faculties of both; possessing also this additional advantage, that while the several States enjoy all the rights reserved to them of separate and independent governments, and each is secured by the nature of the Federal Government, which acts directly on the people, against the failure of the others to bear their equal share of the public burdens, and thereby enjoys in a more perfect degree all the advantages of a league, it holds them together by a bond altogether different and much stronger than the late Confederation or any league that was ever known before--a bond beyond their control, and which can not even be amended except in the mode prescribed by it. So great an effort in favor of human happiness was never made before; but it became those who made it. Established in the new hemisphere, descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, having the same religion and universal toleration, born equal and educated in the same principles of free government, made independent by a common struggle and menaced by the same dangers, ties existed between them which never applied before to separate communities. They had every motive to bind them together which could operate on the interests and affections of a generous, enlightened, and virtuous people, and it affords inexpressible consolation to find that these motives had their merited influence.

In thus tracing our institutions to their origin and pursuing them in their progress and modifications down to the adoption of this Constitution two important facts have been disclosed, on which it may not be improper in this stage to make a few observations. The first is that in wresting the power, or what is called the sovereignty, from the Crown it passed directly to the people. The second, that it passed directly to the people of each colony and not to the people of all the colonies in the aggregate; to thirteen distinct communities and not to one. To these two facts, each contributing its equal proportion, I am inclined to think that we are in an eminent degree indebted for the success of our Revolution. By passing to the people it vested in a [Volume 2, Page 18] community every individual of which had equal rights and a common interest. There was no family dethroned among us, no banished pretender in a foreign country looking back to his connections and adherents here in the hope of a recall; no order of nobility whose hereditary rights in the Government had been violated; no hierarchy which had been degraded and oppressed. There was but one order, that of the people, by whom everything was gained by the change. I mention it also as a circumstance of peculiar felicity that the great body of the people had been born and educated under these equal and original institutions. Their habits, their principles, and their prejudices were therefore all on the side of the Revolution and of free republican government.

Had distinct orders existed, our fortune might and probably would have been different. It would scarcely have been possible to have united so completely the whole force of the country against a common enemy. A contest would probably have arisen in the outset between the orders for the control. Had the aristocracy prevailed, the people would have been heartless. Had the people prevailed, the nobility would probably have left the country, or, remaining behind, internal divisions would have taken place in every State and a civil war broken out more destructive even than the foreign, which might have defeated the whole movement. Ancient and modern history is replete with examples proceeding from conflicts between distinct orders, of revolutions attempted which proved abortive, of republics which have terminated in despotism. It is owing to the simplicity of the elements of which our system is composed that the attraction of all the parts has been to a common center, that every change has tended to cement the union, and, in short, that we have been blessed with such glorious and happy success.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 2, Preamble, Document 20
The University of Chicago Press

Richardson, James D., comp. A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, 1789--1897. 10 vols. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1896--99.

© 1987 by The University of Chicago
All rights reserved. Published 2000