MADISON, James. Letter signed ("James Madison") to SENATOR DANIEL WEBSTER (1782-1852), "Montpelier," [Virginia], 15 March 1833. 1 1/3 pages, 4to (9 15/16 x 7¾ in.), fine condition.
AT THE HEIGHT OF THE NULLIFICATION CRISIS, MADISON CONDEMNS SECESSION AS "VIOLATION WITHOUT CAUSE, OF A FAITH SOLEMNLY PLEDGED" AND AFFIRMS THE AUTHORITY OF FEDERAL LAWS "OVER THE CONSTITUTION AND LAWS OF THE STATES"
A highly significant letter by one of the foremost architects of the United States Constitution, pondering the Constitutional issues raised by the Nullification Crisis and South Carolina's threat to secede over the tariff. In 1832, in accordance with the theories espoused by John C. Calhoun (1782-1850) in his Exposition and Protest, South Carolina proclaimed the tariff null within the state, justifying its action on grounds that the Constitution was merely a voluntary compact of the states, and accordingly, the legislature of an individual state to reject federal laws it found objectionable and even revoke its consent to the Constitution. Writing to Webster, who had eloquently opposed Calhoun and nullification in the Senate, Madison reacts strongly to South Carolina's actions
"I return my thanks for the copy of your late very powerful speech in the Senate of the United States. It crushes 'nullification' and must hasten an abandonment of 'Secession'." Madison expounds upon the Constitutional issues involved, noting that "this dodges the blow by confounding the claim to secede at will, with the right of seceding from intolerable oppression. The former answers itself, being a violation without cause, of a faith solemnly pledged. The latter is another name only for revolution, about which there is no theoretic controversy. Its double aspect, nevertheless, with the countenance received from certain quarters, is giving it a popular currency here...It has gained some advantage also by mixing itself with the question whether the Constitution of the United States was formed by the people or by the States, now under a theoretic discussion, by animated partizans."
In what probably constitutes one of his most explicit summations of Constitutional theory, Madison assures Webster that the Constitution was intended to create a government of mixed powers resting on the sovereignty of the people: "It is fortunate when disputed theories, can be decided by undisputed facts. And here the undisputed fact is, that the Constitution was made by the people, but as embodied into the several States, who were parties to it, and therefore made by the States in their highest authoritative capacity. They might by the same authority, and by the same process, have converted the Confederacy into a mere league or treaty, or continued it with enlarged or abridged powers; or have embodied the people of their respective States into one people nation or sovereignty; or as they did, by a mixed form, make them one people, nation or sovereignty for certain purposes; and not so for others."
Madison concludes his argument by spelling out the intent of the Constitution: "The Constitution of the United States being established by a competent authority, by that of the sovereign people of the several States who were the parties to it; it remains only to enquire what the Constitution is; and here it speaks for itself: It organizes a Government into the usual Legislative, Executive and Judiciary Departments; invests it with specified powers, leaving others to the parties to the Constitution; it makes the Government like other Governments to operate directly on the people; places at its command the needful physical means of executing its powers." He stresses that Federal law reigns supreme over the states, denying the concept of nullification and declaring secession valid only in extreme cases. The Federal Constitution "proclaims its supremacy......over the constitution and laws of the States; the powers of the Government, people and legislatures of the States; and subject to the revolutionary rights of the people in extreme cases. Su[ch] is the Constitution of the United States dejure and defacto; and the name whatever it be, that may be given to it, can make it nothing more or less than what it actually is."
Madison letters with explicit Constitutional content are notoriously rare. Part One of the Forbes Collection featured another example (Christie's 27 March 2002, lot 36).
Provenance: Philip D. Sang (sale, Sotheby's, 27 March 1985, lot 220).