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January 16, 1873 — Fifth Washington Convention, Lincoln Hall, Washington DC


We hear many fears expressed in regard to the danger of “centralized power,” and the growing tendency of the nation toward it. The people have been told that through this tendency their liberties were endangered. The truth is just the contrary. “State rights” has from the very commencement of this Government been the rock on which the ship of the nation has many times nearly foundered, and from which it is to-day in great danger. The one question of the hour is, Is the United States a Nation with full and complete National powers, or is it a mere thread upon which States are strung as are the beads upon a necklace?

Let us look back a hundred years. The War of the Revolution commenced merely as a rebellion of the Colonies against the Nation to which they belonged. Though all were located on the continent of America, each colony was under its own charter, separate and distinct from every other one. Each colony resisted what it deemed to be acts of oppression against itself. Therefore, the War of the Revolution began as the resistance of individual colonies, but with the progress of this resistance grew up a feeling of united interests, and in 1774 eleven of these colonies, and a portion of the twelfth, connected themselves under certain articles of association. The colonies still considered themselves as belonging to the British Empire, and in these articles avowed their allegiance to His Majesty, George the Third. Although we date the birth of our nation two years later, our nationality actually dates back to these articles of association, for the colonies bound themselves as one in regard to non-importation, non-exportation, and non-consumption; the first two pledges having National bearing as regarded commerce, and the last one regulating internal affairs in a National manner. This course of the colonies made them one, and has had a bearing on our every step since, even up to this day of grace, January 17, 1873. Resolutions of independence and freedom from all control of Great Britain were introduced into the Colonial Congress in June, 1776, and the committee which was then appointed to draft a declaration of independent government was required to base it upon the first resolution of the June declaration of rights, which said, “These United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent,” etc. The veriest school-boy needs not to be told the date of this instrument, which we are fond of terming the “Great Charter of our Liberties;” yet even professed statesmen, from that day to this, have seemingly forgotten that this declaration was agreed to, and signed by the already United Colonies in their Congress assembled, and issued as the action of “one people.” No new Congress met; the declaration was not the act of single colonies, or states, but the act of already united colonies, or states, and in this instrument we first find our National name of United States.

The members of Congress did not sign this declaration as New Yorkers, or Virginians, or New Englanders, but as Americans. Nor was it referred to different colonies for approbation, but on that very Fourth of July, 1776, Congress, with already National authority, flung to the world the announcement that these united colonies were a Nation, and ordered that copies of the declaration should be sent to the several colonial assemblies, conventions, councils of safety, and to each of the commanding officers of the Continental troops, and that it should be proclaimed in each of the United States, and at the head of the army. We see, therefore, that the Declaration of Independence, in being truly National, was wholly centralizing—and much more so than any act since, and is therefore the truest basis of our liberties.

Our age has annihilated space; danger lies in darkness and distance. With every newspaper, every railroad, every line of telegraph, danger from centralized National power grows less. With the newspaper, the railroad, the telegraph, the course of the government is constantly before our eyes The reporter penetrates everywhere, the lightning flashes everywhere, and before plans are scarcely formed here in Washington, the miner of California, the lumberman of Maine, and the cotton-grower of Carolina are passing opinions and interchanging views upon them with their neighbors. The increase of education in the common schools, and the vast private correspondence of the country, too, help to put the proceedings of the government under the cognizance of the whole people. Our danger lies elsewhere, and to clearly see it we must still look back to the early history of our Nation. For a few months after the Declaration of Independence, our new-born republic worked under a common sentiment, for a common interest; but ultimately self-interest prompted the claim of “State Rights.” This doctrine was, by wise men, seen to be utterly destructive to the government, and in the second year of our independence it became necessary to fight this State-right doctrine, and the second step was taken in centralization, by the Articles of Confederation, which were declared to make the Union perpetual, and States were forbidden to coin money, establish their own weights and measures, their own post-offices, and forbidden to do many other things which, by right, belong to independent self-controlling States.

So anxious was the Nation to set its own power upon a firm basis, entirely over and above that of the States, that back in these articles of confederation we find the term “privileges and immunities,” that vexed phrase in the present discussion. In the fourth article, the inhabitants of each State were declared to be entitled to all privileges and immunities of free citizens of the several States, etc. These articles, unlike the declaration, were made dependent upon ratification by the Legislatures of the several States, which was not fully accomplished till 1781.

For awhile all went merry as a marriage bell. Power had been further centralized, and the Nation felt secure. But there had been left a little loophole, which was destined to create State claims in defiance of the general government. Congress soon found that under the articles of confederation the limitation of States was more theoretical than practical. It found that though, in a general way, the United States possessed national powers, as over boundaries, peace and war, the issue of money, the establishment of post-offices, etc., yet in the very necessary matter of revenue, and the regulation of trade and commerce, it was powerless against the States. The old form of the confederation was found insufficient to secure the full independence of the United States as a Nation, and in the very year that the articles were fully adopted, and before the last State had given its adherence (1781), a member of Congress from New Jersey moved a recommendation to the States to invest Congress with additional means of paying the public debt and prosecuting the war of the Revolution, by laying duties on imports and prize goods.

This proposition at once roused opposition, and it is well to remember that it did not first come from a Southern State. “State rights” is not a peculiar Southern doctrine. South Carolina was not the original nullifying State. It was Rhode Island, which then, as to-day, set at defiance national authority, and asserted her right to control her own internal affairs. The New England States, which claim to lead the Union in all that is grand and good, must be made to bear the shame of the evils into which they have also led. Even John C. Calhoun learned his first State rights lessons in Connecticut and Massachusetts of the most eminent men; of President Dwight when a student in Yale college, and Theophilus Parsons, with whom he read law in Massachusetts. When Rhode Island, in 1781, refused to comply with the recommendations of Congress in regard to levying duties on imports and prizes, she looked only at her own interests as a sea-board State. The address of her Assembly to Congress, through Hon. William Bradshaw, gave reasons of purely local self-interest for her refusal; but her State selfishness was seen by the patriots of the hour not to be even that of an enlightened State-interest, and Congress at once declared there “could be no general security, no confidence in the Nation, at home or abroad, if its actions were under the constant revisal of thirteen different deliberations.”

It therefore became necessary to take another step in the centralization of power, and let it be remembered that every such successive step we have traced was taken in the interests of liberty, and for the benefit of the whole people. The Nation has acted in the defense of its citizens against the tyranny of States. We are not first citizens of Rhode Island, or South Carolina, but, if we belong to the Nation at all, we are first parts of that Nation. I am first a citizen of the United States, then a citizen of the State of New York, then a citizen of Onondaga county in that State, and then a citizen of the town of Manlius, and lastly, a citizen of the village of Fayetteville. That every person born or naturalized in the Nation, is first a citizen of the Nation, must be borne in mind, for upon that depend the liberties of every man, woman and child in the Nation, black or white, native or foreign. Although Rhode Island led in State rights, she had many followers, as only four States complied with the recommendation of Congress to invest that body with more powers for collecting the revenue and prosecuting the war. This non-compliance led to active debate. In regard to the public debt it was said, “That it must, once for all, be defined and established on the faith of the States, solemnly pledged to each other, and not revocable by any, without a breach of the general compact.” If a feeling of insecurity existed in regard to the property interests of the Nation when but thirteen legislative bodies assumed their control, how much greater is the insecurity of our personal interests if they are, as is assumed, under the control of thirty-seven separate legislative bodies, and subject to their constant revision?

The controversy soon based itself upon the security of human rights. It was said that it “had ever been the pride and boast of America that the rights for which she contended were the rights of human nature,” that “the citizens of the United States were responsible for the greatest trust ever confided to a political society,” and that it was for “the people of the United States, by whose will and for whose benefit the Federal Government was instituted, to decide whether they would support their rank as a Nation.” Virginia and New York ultimately led in the proceeding which caused the formation of the Constitution; New York, through her Legislature, declaring that the radical source of the government embarrassments lay in the want of sufficient power in Congress, and she suggested a convention for the purpose of establishing a firm National government. Out of this agitation grew the Constitution of the United States, which was the third great step in the centralization of power. The pride and the boast of this country has been more fully centered, if possible, on the Constitution than on the Declaration, and yet the Constitution was not framed until eleven years after our existence as a Nation—not ratified by the whole of the original States until about fourteen years after we had taken rank as a free and independent people—Rhode Island being the last State to give her adherence—and it was expressly framed and adopted in order to centralize power, and to destroy the State rights doctrine.

Washington himself, in transmitting, as President of the Convention, the Constitution to Congress, said: “It is obviously impracticable in the Federal Government of these States to secure all rights of independent sovereignty to each, and yet provide for the interest and safety of all,” and in the deliberations of the Convention upon the subject, they kept steadily in view that which appeared to them “the greatest of every true American—the consolidation of our Union, in which is involved our prosperity, safety, and, perhaps, our National existence.” Thus we see not only the desire of the originators of the Constitution to strengthen the National power by that instrument, but we also have the views of Washington himself in regard to the necessity of consolidating power in the Nation.

The various amendments to the Constitution have been adopted with the intent of further defining and securing National power. The first ten, which were called the conciliatory amendments, were suggested in the conventions of a number of the States at the very time of adopting the Constitution. The first Congress which met thereafter proposed twelve amendments, of which ten were adopted in 1791, only two years after the full adoption of the Constitution. These ten amendments secured religious freedom, freedom of speech, the right of people to be secure in their houses, trials by jury, etc. All of them centralizing power in the National hands, and at the same time securing broader liberty to the people. These amendments were passed at the first session of the First Congress. An eleventh amendment was proposed by the Third National Congress in 1794, and declared ratified in 1798, thus making eleven amendments to the Constitution in the short space of seven years. In 1803 a twelfth amendment was proposed by the Eighth Congress, and ratified in 1804.

We pass now over quite a space of time, in which the National power and State power retained their relative positions to each other. Perhaps in no better place can I mention two constantly existing, yet diverse tendencies in the people of the United States, which are well-defined in the minds of but few persons. There are two kinds of centralized power, one dangerous to liberty, and the other fortifying and securing liberty. The dangerous is that which has grown to such dimensions in the various States, multiplying legislation and regulating each petty local concern within its borders, down to a village cemetery. This has led to that destruction of liberty—a multiplication of statutes which have scarcely been recorded ere a second legislative body has annulled them. Each State has, in fact, been an immense centralized power; and as bitter as has been the South against centralized National power, we have in it seen a most imperious, tyrannical exercise of centralized power under the specious name of State rights. The evil is such a constantly increasing one under the old constitutions, that they are being revised in many States with special intent to check this centralizing tendency. New York has now a commission sitting, and Pennsylvania a convention in session, for the purpose of revising their constitutions, and attention has been especially directed to this dangerous feature of State centralization. The new constitution of Illinois limits the passage of special laws by its legislature to certain specified subjects, leaving all local interests in the hands of local corporations. The need of the hour—and, in fact, I may say the new tendency of the hour—is toward diffused power within the limits of States in matters pertaining solely and entirely to their small or local interests.

The centralization that fortifies and secures liberty is National centralization, which we have traced through six steps since 1776, and which has, within the last ten years, received a new impetus by the XIII., XIV., and XV. Amendments, and which, as they successively followed each other at short intervals, may be termed the seventh, eighth, and ninth steps in centralization. By and through these three amendments the Nation fortified and enlarged its powers in reference to personal rights. It defined citizenship; it secured the exercise of the ballot—and we can not fail to see that in these last three centralizing steps, it more broadly than ever before enlarged the bounds of liberty. The protection of citizens of the Nation, by the Nation, is the national duty.

This is the second tendency of which I spoke. Most persons who have been awake to the evils of State centralization, have applied the same rules of judgment to National centralization. The two are dissimilar as are darkness and light. State centralization is tyranny; National centralization is freedom. State centralization means special laws; National centralization means general laws. The continued habit of States to make laws for every part of their own boundaries brought to the surface the “State rights” theory which precipitated upon us our civil war. States had become so absolute in themselves that out of it grew the feeling of absoluteness in regard to the Nation. But is it not strange that after the late sad experience there can still be found people so stupid as not to see that the security of individual citizens of the Nation in matters pertaining to their personal political rights, does lie, and in the very fact of our Nationality must lie, in National power superior to State power? The corner-stone of our Nation is political equality. Our ancestors came here for civil and religious freedom. To secure political freedom they formed themselves into a Nation; if the United States has no power to protect its citizens it is not a Nation.

The eighth step in centralization, the XIV. Amendment, specifically declares that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States, are citizens of the United States, and of the States in which they reside.” Notwithstanding this plain language—notwithstanding the corner-stone of this Nation is political equality—notwithstanding the chief right of citizenship in this country is a right to share in making its laws—notwithstanding the Constitution and laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof, are declared to be the supreme law of the land, and the judges in every State shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or law of any State to the contrary notwithstanding, yet 10,000 naturalized citizens of the United States have, during this session of Congress, petitioned that body for protection of their rights as citizens of the United States against the State in which they live.

“State rights” is again rearing its head. Rhode Island is again raising her hand against National power. She again assumes to be superior to the United States. All foreign-born citizens of that State, not possessed of a freehold estate of $134 value, or property amounting to an annual rental of $7, are, by State law, forbidden to vote. These men were naturalized under a law of the United States, not under a law of Rhode Island. The United States not only made them citizens, but expressly in the XIV. Amendment declares them to be citizens, and yet little Rhode Island presumes to be stronger than the United States.

Here again arises what I have shown to be the question of the hour. Is the United States a Nation? If it does not possess powers to protect its own citizens it is not a Nation. Citizens of the United States are entitled to protection, whether they are robbed of their liberties in a Spanish dungeon, or in the States of Rhode Island or New York. The Judiciary Committee of Congress has reported adversely upon the petition of the 10,000 naturalized citizens of Rhode Island. Does Congress intend to sustain State Rights? What better is it for those 10,000 men that they became naturalized? If they are first citizens of the United States, as the XIV. Amendment declares, they should be protected in their rights of citizenship by the United States against the States, and their thirty-seven isolated methods of legislation. This adverse report of the Judiciary Committee in regard to the 10,000 disfranchised men of Rhode Island, foreshadows the course of Congress in regard to the great class of citizens now knocking at its door. Women claim National protection as citizens of the Nation.

The original Constitution in its fourth article touches upon State control, for it declares that the Constitution shall guarantee to every State a republican form of government. The “shall” is imperative. It shall! Even as long ago as 1787 it was declared that the people of the States should no longer be dependent upon State caprice for their rights, but the general government took upon itself the authority and the duty of enforcing in each State a republican form of government. Either this article is a mere sounding phrase, or the Constitution has such power, although until the XIV. Amendment the real status of citizenship had not been settled. People thought of themselves as first citizens of the States, then of the United States, but now such a position can not be taken. The eighth step in centralization settled that point; “every person,” not every male person—but “every person born or naturalized in the United States”—”is a citizen of the United States, and of the State in which he resides.” First, entitled to national protection, and through the Nation to State protection. Moreover,

The Constitution and the laws made in pursuance thereof, are by article sixth of the Constitution, declared to be the supreme law of the land, and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby; anything in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.
Is the Constitution supreme in the case of the 10,000 naturalized citizens of Rhode Island, whose petition the honorable judiciary reported adversely upon, the 12th of December?

The naturalized citizens of our country should rise en masse against his attack upon their liberties. If Rhode Island can say that a naturalized citizen shall not vote unless possessed of a certain amount of property, any State can, with equal justice, enact a law declaring that only those naturalized citizens who live in brick houses shall vote; a law, equally as binding as the present property qualification in Rhode Island, can be enacted, that only those foreign-born citizens who come over in a Cunarder shall vote. Why not? If a State has a right to deprive one class of citizens of its vote for one cause, it has a right to deprive any other class of its vote for any reason.

The power and the mischief do not stop here. If a State has power over the political rights of a naturalized citizen of the United States, it has like power over the native-born citizen. If a State has power over the franchise of the women citizens of the United States, it also has power over the men citizens. Unjust laws, like curses, go home to roost; they can always be made to plague their enactors. When the rights of any one class of citizens are assailed, a blow is struck against the rights of all. The danger to individual liberty lies in special laws. If States are powerful enough to weaken the National constitution, then are we weak indeed. The safety of the citizen lies in a strong National constitution: it lies in a National centralization of power that shall override the States in their attempt to destroy individual rights.

If the National government has not power over the ballot in the several States, where did the United States Commissioner get his authority to institute proceedings against Miss Anthony for voting in the State of New York? If the ballot is in the control of the States, then is the United States guilty of a high-handed outrage against New York, in the case of the fourteen women who are now bound over for trial in Rochester for voting at the last election. If the control of the franchise is the right of each State as sovereign, then the National law of 1870 in regard to frauds in voting was an unauthorized interference of the United States in a matter belonging solely to the respective States. On the contrary, if the question as to who may vote in any State—exclusive of black men, over whom it is conceded the nation has thrown its ægis of protection—is one of National control, how does it happen that the Judiciary Committee of the present Congress reported adversely upon the petition of the 10,000 naturalized citizens of Rhode Island? If, then, voting is a matter of State control alone, what authority had the United States to prosecute Susan B. Anthony? One of two things is plainly true. Either the United States authorities had no right to prosecute Miss Anthony in the State of New York, or, if they had, then they had the right to regulate suffrage in Rhode Island. If the general government could not extend suffrage to Irishmen in Rhode Island, it could not abolish it for women in New York.

The time has passed when men can take their choice between “State sovereignty” and “centralized power.” What State of the thirty-seven has power to make a treaty, to form an alliance, to declare war? Not one, because not one of them is a sovereign State. An attempt would be treason against the Nation. If the general government can not be secure with a diversity of laws in regard to war, or the tariff, in regard to questions of property, how much less secure is it with diverse laws in regard to personal rights; in regard to the elective franchise, the vital principle of our government.

This government does not stand to-day on free trade, or tariff, or the war-power, or its right to manage post-offices, or to coin money, or to make treaties. Not one of these singly, nor all collectively, form the ground-plan of this Nation. This Nation stands upon the ballot, the self-governing power; it stands upon the right of every person governed by the Nation to share in the election of its rulers.

How can statesmen believe the Nation secure unless personal rights are held inviolable? The National government has control over money, currency, and national banks. It will not trust its question of finance to individual States; shall it trust the personal political rights of its citizens where it can not its money? Is it not an anomaly that the lesser rights shall be held by the Nation, the greater by the States?

In the case of the 10,000 naturalized citizens of Rhode Island, and that of Susan B. Anthony and other women of New York and elsewhere, who try to vote, there is one great dissimilarity. The suffrage of the 10,000 is only regulated. As soon as each one secures real estate to the small value of one hundred and thirty-four dollars, he votes; but there women can never vote, simply because they are women. Property amounts to nothing; education amounts to nothing; even native-born citizenship amounts to nothing; the ballot for them is not regulated but prohibited because they were born women instead of men. Congress would quickly waken up to an appreciation of its power over the ballot, if under pretense of “regulating” suffrage, all the male citizens of a State were denied the ballot simply because they were men. The Nation would lose no time in deciding that a regulation of a character not possible to overcome was not a regulation, but a prohibition destructive of every natural right. The word “deny” would be elucidated by able lawyers and lexicographers. We should then be told that to deny pre-supposes an existing right; that only positive rights can be denied, and force of arms would be invoked to maintain the existence of those rights.

The battle for suffrage is narrowed down to the meaning of “privileges and immunities.” Those who believe the consent of the governed to be the fundamental principle of the Nation, define “privileges and immunities” as the right of voting, which is the only “consent.” Thaddeus Stevens went so far as to affirm that “inalienable rights” in the Declaration meant the ballot. Persons who thus define “inherent rights” belong to the true national, patriotic class. But others, deeply tinctured with belief in the supreme right of States, declare “privileges and immunities” to comprehend anything and everything except the ballot. Even some good Republicans, contrary to the principles indorsed and sustained by them in the war amendments, led by their prejudices against acknowledging woman’s right to self-government; have declared that “privileges and immunities” merely signify civil and legal rights, but not political. Such was the groundwork of the argument of the Hon. Matt. Carpenter in the Myra Bradwell case. What a farce! It declared at an early day that the United States possessed the greatest trust ever confided to a “political society.” “Political society” is the foundation of our nation, and our political trust is the ballot.

It has been said by a member of the present Congress that no man in that body doubts that the Constitution authorizes women to vote, precisely as it authorizes trial by jury and many other rights guaranteed to the citizens of the United States, but that in order to give them practical force there must be legislation; that these guaranteed rights are not self-executing. This is a fine legal quibble, stated for a purpose; but since legal minds disagree upon this point, a caviller might say no law is self-executing; all laws require enforcement. It may be said that the Ten Commandments are not self-executing; yet though given to Moses, not only as the underlying constitution of the Jewish nation and all nations, they contain self-executing provisions, bearing the penalties of their infraction within themselves. By their simple statement they carry within themselves the authority for their enforcement. The provision that the sun shall each day rise and run its accustomed rounds is a self-executing provision, until some Joshua vetoes this divine right of the sun.

The Constitution is the supreme law of the land, and no difficulty should be found in executing its provisions. But while, as aimed against the exercise of arbitrary power, we have no objection to the passage of a declaratory law which shall make plain to every United States judge, and to the most obtuse inspector of election, that women are voters, we still claim that the recent “Act for enforcing the XIV. Amendment” should protect woman in the exercise of her rights of self-government.

Although the States ratified the XIII., XIV. and XV. Amendments by the requisite two-thirds vote, they still find it difficult to realize the fact that these amendments have actually strengthened the National power. The Enforcement Act, and the previous law in regard to frauds in voting, may be called definitions of these last centralizing steps, but as yet neither amendments nor definitions are fully comprehended. A Rhode Island lawyer astutely said: “The people of the United States have not yet awakened to a sense of the vast centralizing power hidden in the XIV. Amendment.” Opposition and struggles have already come, and will continue to arise, but legislators may beat their brains as they will, the fact of new National centralization still remains. Though State power dies never so hard, die it must, as only through reorganized National power can the political rights of citizens of the United States be protected.

“Citizen suffrage” is to-day the battle-ground of “State Rights,” and the denial of woman’s constitutional right to vote, and of National protection in voting, is the weapon it uses against the Nation. This question of citizen suffrage is not a woman question alone, but it is a question of the rights of citizenship affecting every man in this wide land. Let us, then, have the centralization which shall recognize the United States as the supreme political power of the land, which shall no longer allow the political rights of citizens of the United States to be the plaything of thirty-seven petty legislatures, of thirty thousand ambitious demagogues. Without this, our National experiment is a failure; without this, we are not freemen, but slaves; without this, we are neither protected nor self-protecting; without this, centralized State power, under the specious name of “State rights,” will continue to be a many-headed monster, impossible to overcome. Elect the President direct by the people, and for a single term, if you will; take from him his immense official patronage; base senatorship upon population, not upon State sovereignty through legislative gift; limit the power of the judiciary: these steps must come; make of the people in reality what they now are in theory—sovereigns, not first of States, or the Nation, but of themselves, possessing in themselves all rights, all powers, whose exercise is only delegated to the Nation as their servant.



Source: “Centralization,” Gage, Matilda Joslyn, in History of Woman Suffrage, Volume II, Ed. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony,  Matilda Joslyn Gage, pp. 524-533.