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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Task of American Statesmen

By Joseph Story (1779–1845)

[Lecture on the Science of Government. 1834.—Miscellaneous Writings. 1835.]

WE have chosen for ourselves the most complicated frame of republican government which was ever offered to the world. We have endeavored to reconcile the apparent anomaly of distinct sovereignties, each independent of the other in its own operations, and yet each in full action within the same territory. The national government, within the scope of its delegated powers, is beyond all doubt supreme and uncontrollable; and the state governments are equally so, within the scope of their exclusive powers. But there is a vast variety of cases, in which the powers of each are concurrent with those of the other; and it is almost impossible to ascertain with precision where the lines of separation between them begin and end. No rulers on earth are called to a more difficult and delicate task than our own, in attempting to define and limit them. If any collision shall happen, it can scarcely be at a single point only. It will touch, or it will trench upon jealousies, interests, prejudices, and political arrangements, infinitely ramified throughout the whole extent of the Union. The adjustments, therefore, to be made from time to time, to avoid such collisions, and to carry on the general system of movements, require a degree of forecast, caution, skill, and patient investigation, which nothing but long habits of reflection, and the most mature experience, can supply.

In the interpretation of constitutional questions alone, a vast field is open for discussion and argument. The text, indeed, is singularly brief and expressive. But that very brevity becomes of itself a source of obscurity; and that very expressiveness, while it gives prominence to the leading objects, leaves an ample space of debatable ground, upon which the champions of all opinions may contend, with alternate victory and defeat. Nay, the very habits of free inquiry, to which all our institutions conduct us, if they do not urge us, at least incite us, to a perpetual renewal of the contest. So that many minds are unwilling to admit anything to be settled; and the text remains with them a doubtful oracle, speaking with a double meaning, and open to glosses of the most contradictory character. How much sobriety of judgment, solid learning, historical research, and political sagacity are required for such critical inquiries! Party leaders may, indeed, despatch the matter in a few short and pointed sentences, in popular appeals to the passions and prejudices of the day, or in harangues, in which eloquence may exhaust itself in studied alarms, or in bold denunciations. But statesmen will approach it with a reverent regard. They will meditate upon consequences with a slow and hesitating assent. They will weigh well their own responsibility, when they decide for all posterity. They will feel that a wound inflicted upon the constitution, if it does not bring on an immediate gangrene, may yet introduce a lingering disease, which will weaken its vital organs, and ultimately destroy them.