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Proceedings of the
Second Wheeling Convention
Debate on the Declaration

Debate on the Declaration,


In the Afternoon Session of Friday, the Order of the Day - viz., the Declaration reported by the Committee on Business - having been taken up,

Mr. DORSEY, of Monongalia, said he had no special objection to this declaration of itself. He thought there was an error or an inadvertency in the wording of one sentence:

"The act of the General Assembly, calling the Convention which assembled at Richmond in February last, was therefore a usurpation; and the Convention thus called has not only abused the powers nominally entrusted to it, but, with the connivance and active aid of the executive, has usurped and exercised other powers, to the manifest injury of the people, which, if permitted, will inevitably subject them to a military despotism."

This sentence gave peculiar force to the one which precedes it, which reads thus: "The Bill of Rights of Virginia, framed in 1779, re-affirmed in 1830, and again in 1851, expressly reserves this right to the majority of her people, and the existing constitution does not confer upon the General Assembly the power to call a Convention to alter its provisions, or to change the relations of the Commonwealth, without the previously expressed consent of such majority." Taken in connection with the one first read, this seems to mean with the previously expressed consent of such majority, the General Assembly has the power to change the relations of the Commonwealth, and if that means the Federal relations, this is a virtual concession of the doctrine of secession. The objection, however, which he had to this document related to its connection with other documents reported to this Convention by the Committee on business, as being a part of a systematic plan which had been prepared by the committee reporting the declaration - a plan which he objected to and to which he would report his objections.

MR. CARLILE: I thank my friend from Monongalia for allowing the committee an opportunity to explain, and show, if we can, that the language referred to is not justly subject to the criticism to which it seems to have been exposed. Before he enters upon substantial objection he has kindly consented that we shall be allowed to perfect the declaration.

I think, sir, upon a careful reading of the declaration gentlemen will see that there is nothing in the world squinting towards the heresy of secession, in the slightest degree. The right spoken of is the right of the people to alter or abolish their government. No man doubts that right; it is as old as liberty itself. It is a right that any and every people have, successfully if they can, to resist a government which they believe to be oppressive or unsuited to their wants. If they succeed in their efforts they are patriots if they fail they are rebels. It is the right of revolution.

The people of Virginia in establishing themselves a government deemed it best that it should be divided into two parts, if I may use the expression, and you will allow me to use language which I understand, and which all can understand. What is government? It is an agent. All governments are the agents of the people governed; and the people of Virginia in establishing government for themselves deemed it best to create two agents. The Federal Government is one, and the State Government is the other and they have expressly declared that the acts within the limits of attorney; that the acts within the limits of attorney; that the acts of the federal agent, within his powers, limited and defined by the instrument creating him agent, shall be supreme. Any act done or performed by the State agent in conflict with the powers conferred upon the Federal agent is to be null and void. Thus it will be seen that within the powers conferred the federal agent is supreme, independent of, and above the State agent. Hence the doctrine of Mr. Clay when he said: "I owe a supreme allegiance to the Federal Government, a subordinate one to my own State."

The State agent, as to the exercise of its powers, is wholly independent of the Federal agent. The Federal agent can exercise no power other than that conferred upon him by the instrument creating him. The State agent can exercise all power that the people themselves were they personally present could exercise, which is not forbidden to be exercised by it, in the Constitution creating it. Shere is the distinction between the two agents.

How was this Federal agent created? The State agent was created solely and alone by the people of Virginia themselves; it is responsible to no one else, derives its powers from no one else; derives its powers from no one else; is the creature of the people of Virginia alone.

The Federal agent is the creature of all the parties to the Federal compact. The people of Virginia agreed with the people of the other 12 colonies - there were but 13 at the time - agreed with them that in connection with them they would create this common agent for common purposes, and the discharge of common duties. And how was that agent created in each one of the States? In their sovereign capacity, in convention assembled, ratifying and approving the instrument creating the agency known as the Constitution of the United States. That very instrument provides for its own alteration, amendment or change. On the application of two-thirds of the principals creating it, amendments can be proposed to it and changes effected, which will become a part and parcel of the original act itself, when ratified by three-fourths of the principals through their legislatures or in their conventions assembled.

Now, sir, what is this clause to which reference has been made here? It merely asserts what all know to be true, that the Bill of Rights declares that this State agent which we have created, cannot change the agency itself, as defined; limited and prescribed by the instrument creating the agency, the Constitution of Virginia; that no agent, created either mediately of immediately, directly or indirectly, can affect, change, alter, or abolish the powers of the agent, either direct or indirect. That can only be done by the people creating the agents. Therefore, we say, that when this one of these agents - the Legislative Department of the State Government - assumed to itself the power to convene an assembly known constitutionally as embodying the sovereign power of the whole people of the State, they were guilty of an usurpation. And thus the legitimate inference to be drawn is, that they have by this usurpation forfeited their agency and our power under the instrument; that this act, which they assumed to do is in violation of authority conferred upon them by the instrument establishing them as the agent, and therefore void; and that such power can only be assumed by the principal himself, the sovereign people of Virginia.

Mr. DORSEY: Will the gentleman from Harrison permit me to ask a question? What "relations" are meant in the clause? or how "change the relations of the Commonwealth?"

Mr. CARLILE: I am coming to that. If the Constitution of the United States, providing as it does for its own amendment and change, should be by the constitutional number of States so changed as to affect the present relations which Virginia has to it, and give it another and different relation, and the people of Virginia shall ratify that amendment in convention as they ratified the constitution itself, or through the Legislature in the manner prescribed by the Constitution, I would like to know if they have not the right to do it? Sir, I hope to see the relations of Virginia changed before many years. If peace shall once more be restored to this once happy land, I trust that among the first acts of the people of the States will be to convene a National Convention, which shall, if it do nothing else, change our relations so far as treason is concerned. I want to see a little more stringent provision on that subject. I want that which goes to destroy the perpetuity of our government, whether it be an overt act or not, to be punished as treason. That is all, Sir, this declaration means. It may be meant to cover the great right never denied - the right which is dear to every freeman - the right of revolution - the right which our fathers exercised and asserted successfully upon the fields of Yorktown and Bunker Hill. But was never intended - and it cannot be made to appear by a fair construction - that the convention assembled for the purpose of putting its foot upon this heresy of a constitutional right to withdraw from the Union and destroy a government, could or does express a recognition of that very right which it holds does not exist. It never can be supposed that a convention assembled for that purpose could or would by any inference in any line that it might adopt, recognize the right of secession.

Now, if gentlemen will address themselves to the task of employing better language, less objectionable or open to criticism than that which is employed in the declaration, to express the ideas which we all desire to enforce, the Committee, I am authorized to say, will feel gratified to this Convention if they will do it. But sir, in the limited time that was given to us from the adjournment on Tuesday to the meeting on Wednesday, after a night's reflection, after careful revision, writing and re-writing by different hands - the language that is found in the declaration was employed; and I believe it to be not only happy, but the best that can be employed in any reasonable time by this body.

The relations of this State to the Federal Government can be constitutionally changed - will be, I trust, constitutionally changed, and will result in saving to ages that are to come after us, I trust, from the destruction that now threatens, our beautiful system of government.

MR. DORSEY, or Monongalia. The remarks explanatory of the clause in this Declaration, are to my mind sufficiently clear; and perhaps as they will go forth with this declaration, they may be a sufficient explanation of it. I shall not therefore urge my objections. In fact it was a mere passing remark I made.

The remarks, however, Mr. President that I purpose to make are more in reference to the relation that this document sustains to the other documents which have already come before the Convention, and others which they indicate will come before it, than in reference to the language of the declaration itself. This is part of a plan, a part of a systematic arrangement that is to be proposed for the action of this body; and in making reference to it, it may perhaps be well to put it in comparison with another plan that has been spoken of frequently, and by some members at least earnestly.

The plan proposed by the Committee is, if I understand it, first to declare that the offices in the State of Virginia are vacant, then to proceed to make arrangements for filling those offices; then to proceed step by step to the other arrangements necessary for the reconstruction of the Government of Virginia.

The other plan alluded to, and which was indicated, rather than drawn out in full in my resolutions submitted on Tuesday is to go as far in this other plan as is necessary; to call together the legislature of the State of Virginia, and then to submit to that legislature the proposition of separating Western Virginia from Eastern Virginia and establishing a new State Government.

Now the principle you will observe, Mr. President, in each of these cases is the same. The principle upon which this Convention will act in either case is the same. The principle upon which the committee propose to act is this: All power is vested in the people. They are the sovereigns in this Government; they have delegated their power, however temporarily, to certain servants. Those servants have proven to be unprofitable servants, and now the people propose through the medium of their Convention to call other servants to attend to their interests. The Legislature that may be convened for the purpose of attending to those interests, may be convened during the sitting of this Convention - consists of those servants. The people propose now that the interests belonging to them shall be put into the hands of that Legislature. The same principle prevails in the other proposition. We begin as they begin and proceed thus far as they proceed; but we do not propose that this new State organization shall continue permanently in operation. I repeat the principle is the same in either case; and unless we assume that principle this Convention can do nothing at all. It is on that principle that it has been assembled; on that principle it has been acting, and upon that it proposes to act in the future in all its deliberations.

Another matter is that the legality in either case is the same. I have heard much private conversation and much public discussion in regard to what the general government will recognize and approve. Now, Sir, the general government can recognize the one plan as readily as the other. The Wheeling Intelligencer has admitted that. Gentlemen who are advocating this plan - gentlemen who have proposed this plan to the committee, and gentlemen on the committee who have been favoring it acknowledge that; and it is generally believed by those who understand anything about the views of the loyal people of the United States, and who can guess at the views of the Administration - it is generally believed, if not fully understood, that the general government will recognize anything that Virginia shall do to keep herself in the Union, and at the same time preserve peace and order within her borders. Wherever there is illegality in the one plan there is in the other. Wherever there is an overriding of technicalities in the one there is the same in the other; and I wish just here to call the attention of those who may defend the plan that is before the convention in part - I wish to call their attention to this point, to say if they can that the Administration will probably reject the one plan and receive the other. I admit indeed that there are abundant indications that the Administration would prefer the plan that is proposed by this committee. I see the indications in the newspapers, and hear them in private conversations. But are we to infer from that that the general government will not recognize our plan at all if adopted by us? The Administration has a certain plan before it as a plan of operation. This may, if adopted, be made a special plan to these operations - an agent, an instrument in the hands of the Administration to accomplish its purpose more readily perhaps than it could without such a plan. That is admitted by the advocates of a division of the State, but we insist that the general government will also adopt our plan if we do not see proper to adopt the other plan.

It is a revolutionary movement altogether. Both plans are revolutionary; and if the General Government can recognize one, it can the other. I may say that I know from private conversations with those who know something about the views of the Administration, that they expect us not to quibble about technicalities, not to be squeamish about little points of law, in our action in this convention; and if we are afraid of little points of law; if we are squeamish, really, about these little technicalities, it is time for us to begin to tremble already. We have already done acts which viewed in the light of formal law, are treasonable. It requires boldness to enter into a revolutionary project of this kind, and if we have it in one case, we ought to have it in the other. When we have already committed a revolutionary act, we ought to consider what lies before us, in view of our own local interests, as well as in view of the general interests of the country.

Now, I ask the question, What shall decide us between these two plans that have been proposed? The legality cannot decide us, because they are equally legal; and I think the gentleman who will advocate this plan before the Convention, will admit this - admit it as the Intelligencer has done. Legality indeed! We propose to do something in due form of law in carrying out the plan that is now proposed by this committee. It is the understanding, though not formally proposed in the report of that committee, that we shall overhaul the Constitution of Virginia, change its provisions make such arrangements in the change of those provisions, as will enable us to carry out this project of reconstructing the State Government. In fact, the project itself is a change of the Constitution of Virginia as to some of its specific laws.

Well then, shall the simple consideration of the expectation of the United States, and the desire of the Administration indicated in a variety of ways, decide us as between these two plans that are proposed to the members of this Convention. I admit, Mr. President, that there is some force in the proposition that is made. I admit there is some propriety in the accomplishment of the object which the Administration propose to accomplish by the action of this Convention, in accepting the plan proposed and suggested by the committee. I can see that the design is to introduce this same plan in all the border States. The design is, as rapidly as the troops advance to establish a similar government to this proposed in the report of the Committee - establish a similar government, and call on the loyal Union men of the Commonwealths in the various States, to rally around that government. I see it will have a mighty moral influence in the border States in which such government shall be established, and also on the States still further South. But then here I ask that the Administration shall not solicit us to do that, while we have local interests embarrassing us of such a character. If we had no complication of interests in this matter, it might be kind, prudent and appropriate, for the Administration to request us indirectly, as it has, to take such action. But sir, if this action anticipated is the desired thing - if the effect of this new project upon the border States and the States South of them, is the desirable thing, I suggest that Western Virginia shall be separated from Eastern Virginia, and then that Eastern Virginia, as the pressure is removed, shall enter into this enterprise and establish a provisional government, and set the precedent the Administration desires this Convention to set. They have no local difficulties pressing upon them as we have. Let them attend to that matter. And especially is it proper they shall do it, because it will not only not embarrass them in their local interests, but will greatly advantage them.

I believe the interest of Western Virginia ought to decide as between these two plans, and I think so especially because this whole movement was professedly inaugurated for its benefit. I remember the gentleman from Harrison justly boasted that he was the author of this whole movement, and he defined his design to be in its inauguration to separate Western from Eastern Virginia. Now, Sir, at that time that Convention which assembled on the 13th of May, did not see proper to make arrangements for the separation. They could not at that time decide upon the proper policy for that purpose. They thought the proper policy was to call together a general Convention. For what purpose? For carrying on the original design of the author of the resolutions that had brought them together. If so then, sir, are we now to turn about and receive and adopt a plan here which will ignore the special interests of Western Virginia and will tend to the general interest of Virginia as a whole? I know, sir, the anticipations of Western Virginians would be disappointed should we go home to them and they ask us "What plan have you adopted for dividing the State?" and we should throw down to them this plan of the Committee. I know that the constituents I have the honor in part to represent will be seriously disappointed.

Now, sir, it seems to me that if we were in earnest, if we were sincere in the original movement we will take such action in the premises in the present Convention as will secure a separation of the State. I need not speak here, sir, of the necessity of that project. I need not speak of the necessity, the dire necessity of separating Western from Eastern Virginia. Gentlemen here are all fully acquainted with the history of the case. They all know and appreciate that necessity. But I want to know now, sir, if after having initiated a movement for the purpose of meeting the necessity we are to turn about and enquire the necessity, which all know we have been making preparations to meet. The present plan, it seems to me, Mr. President, will not meet the exigency. It will not secure the division of this State.

It is a well known fact, and I need only utter it merely to connect my remarks, that the General Government intends to whip in Eastern Virginia. And we all believe it will whip her in.

Well, now, meanwhile we set this projection on foot and establish this seat of government for the State of Virginia; and when Eastern Virginia is whipped in she forms a part, and her citizens will take a hand in this government. The question then will turn upon who is the majority, who is in the minority. The interests of Eastern and Western Virginia are entirely antagonistic. There is an "unnatural connection" between them and us. They will of course keep up down as they have always done, if it be possible to, for the purpose of meeting their little bills. It is very convenient to have somebody for this purpose. They will burden us as they always have done. That they have the majority is evident when we remember that all the Southern portion of Western Virginia, considering the Blue Ridge as the line, sympathizes with Eastern Virginia. Their interests are the same as hers. They lie along the line of Tennessee and Kentucky, connected with Eastern Virginia by railroads. That section of the country is filled up with persons who emigrated from the Eastern part of the State, and their sympathies are all there. Unless we in Western Virginia are a united people, it is impossible for us to carry out this project. I insist then that we shall not enter into a plan to put ourselves at the mercy of Eastern Virginia, and our neighbors who sympathize with her, any more; and I propose, therefore, that this plan shall proceed just so far, with the understanding that immediately as soon as Congress has taken action on the case, or as soon as the Administration has recognised this government that is proposed to be set up, a separation shall be had. And I make these remarks, Mr. President, more for the purpose of committing this convention to the design, than for the purpose of objecting to this plan of itself considered. I do not object to the legality of it, or the principle upon which it proceeds, or any formal arrangements, except the verbal one I mentioned. They are all legal as we can get. But I object that no provision has been made, specific and definite, for the separation of Virginia, Western from Eastern, just so soon as it is possible to do it, and come as near meeting the technicalities as the nature of the case will allow.

In a word, sir, I deem that the separation of Western Virginia from Eastern is the paramount object in the minds of Western Virginians; and I hope, sir, indeed a believe, that that is a paramount object in the minds of a majority of the members of this convention. What I want is, that they shall explicitly say so, in form, if they choose; or, if not then, in the formal documents that are being successively presented by this committee; or they should do it in a specific resolution; or, if not in that way, they should say so in debate.

Now, sir, if this government be established as proposed in the report of the committee it will gain en impetus which will urge it forward, and keep urging it forward, and I want to know, sir, the specific time at which this government may be arrested to the consideration of this proposition of a separation of Western from Eastern Virginia. I want a specific time set, and I want to say to you, sir, and to this convention to-day, that I shall not vote for a single provision proposed by that committee - a single provision that shall come up here before this convention looking to the establishment of a provisional government, looking to the reconstruction of the government of Virginia, unless I can see clearly that there is a distinct intention in those arrangement to separate Western Virginia from Eastern Virginia; and I think I speak at least for a majority of the delegation of Monongalia in saying that they will not do so either, unless that ultimatum be secured by some definitive action beforehand, or at least as I said before committing the majority of this convention in discussion. If such an indication as that be made I shall, to use a familiar term, hold up both hands for their ordinance that has been proposed and all that shall hereafter be proposed, looking to the accomplishment of that design.

After Mr. Van Winkle had spoke in reply to Mr. Dorsey, Mr. Carlile again said:

I think, sir, that a moment's consideration will satisfy this Convention that upon this question there is at least no difference of opinion between the advocates of a separation of this State. If I may be allowed, I can claim some credit for my sincerity when I say that it has been an object for which I have labored at least since the year 1850. The Convention that met in Richmond in that year and adopted our present State Constitution clearly disclosed, to my mind the utter incompatibility consistent with the interests of the people of Northwestern Virginia of remaining in a connection with the Eastern portion of the State. And sir, the first favorable opportunity that discovered itself to me for effecting that separation was in the Convention that met in this city in May last. And I appeal to members who are present and who were members of that Convention to say if I did not zealously press that measure. Why did I do it? For the reason which I then stated - for the reason that now prevents me doing it. I then stated that we were still citizens of the United States according to even the theory of the disunionists; that a separation could be effected then by the provision of the United States Constitution providing for it, but when the 23d of May came and went and the sun had set being the hills in the evening of that day we would be transferred according to the theory of the Secessionists to another and different confederacy, and would be deprived of the Constitution of the United States, and the mode and manner in which a separation could thereafter be effected under the authority of these Secessionists by virtue of this transfer could only be by treaty and recognition; that although all Virginia should agree to the separation yet she would have to obtain the consent of the Southern Confederacy expressed in accordance with the Constitution which she had adopted for its government before we could be allowed to transfer ourselves to what they would then call another, a different and a hostile government. I saw difficulties innumerable and insurmountable if we did not act then. But the wisdom of that body thought otherwise and I gracefully as I should, bowed to its decision.

Now, sir, where are we? I call the attention of my friend from Monongalia, and I tell him if he beats me in this race of separation he will have to be swifter than I think he is. We have no legislature now. And mark you it is only by the assent of the Legislature a separation can be effected. The people themselves through their representatives assembled cannot assent to a separation. It can only be done as is provided in the Constitution of the United States by the assent of the Legislature of the State. Now, sir, have we a Legislature? Gov. Letcher would say that we have; and its members will be sworn to support the Constitution of the Southern Confederacy. Then you see we can never effect a separation in the manner in which we would have accomplished it.

Now, sir, let us pursue the policy laid down in the declaration, and let us repudiate Letcher and his transfer; let us assemble a legislature here of our own, sworn to support not the Southern Confederacy Constitution, but that which Washington and Madison formed, the constitution of our fathers, under which we have grown and prospered, as never people grew and prospers before. Let us maintain our position under that tree of liberty, watered by the blood and tears of the patriots of the revolution - planted by them, its roots having taken deep hold and firm hold in the hearts of a great people, and having from a little spot on earth spread from the Atlantic to the Pacific, embracing, I might say, a continent, and spreading its branches of protection over the whole unbounded land.

Let us organize a Legislature, swearing allegiance to that government, and let that Legislature be recognized by the U. S. Government, as the Legislature of Virginia.

Then we have still a direct recognition of the protecting care of our ancient government, and then we will effect this separation. But now, with no Legislature recognized as owing allegiance to the Constitution of the United States, we could not do it. But with the Legislature recognised as still the Legislature of the State; with Virginia in the Union; with a Legislature recognized by the government of the U. S., and with its assent to our separation, our way is clear. And if the Southern Confederacy dares to interpose, we have the strong arm of that same old government to be thrown around us, and to shelter us from harm.

Let us then go on as we propose. Let us be recognized as the true and lawful authorities, speaking for and on behalf of the loyal people of the whole State of Virginia. Give us that recognition, and then the separation will come. And I here say that one of the first acts I shall perform, if no one else does it - and I believe it a duty I owe to the people who have honored me with a seat in Congress, will be to obtain from that body a legislative declaration recognizing this Legislature you will assemble here, as the Legislature of the State; and then let my friends, the representatives, assent to it, and my word for it, we will be the State of New Virginia.

It is a mere question now, of whether we shall wait until we are solemnly recognized as the true, legal, constitutional representatives of the people of Virginia; or whether we shall now attempt an impossibility - for every man who will reflect a moment, will know that until rebellion is crushed, no assent will be attained for our separation from the rebellious portion of this State.

But, sir, there is another object which I have at heart. Two great objects influence and govern my actions. The first, I am free to say, the dearest, the highest, and the nearest my heart, is the perpetuity of the Union.

Keeping forever undimmed the thirty-four stars that now deck the constellation of our national ensign, adding to them as we have done, star after star - when that is done - when safety and perpetuity are again secured to that flag - then we can consider our own State interests; then we can consider our own State interests; then we can consider the interests of our own immediate section of this State; but until then, we owe it to our loyal brothers throughout the length and breadth of this great land to stand by them and aid them in resisting a crime, the greatest that has ever been attempted to be perpetrated on humanity. Let us do this, succeed in this, and we will succeed in all we desire in a very short time. Let us bring peace again to our Loudon, Alexandria and Hampshire friends. Let our brothers over the mountains through our aid and assistance, and that of this great and good government of ours, again see harmony throughout the land; again sit around their hearthstones with their families, and again instil[l] in the quiet hours of peace the lessons the Father of his Country has bequ[e]athed to us in his farewell address. Then we may say to them, "we love you still as brothers, but your interests and ways and ours are diverse. Let this line be drawn between us. We will have two separate and distinct sovereign States, but, brethren, we will all be American citizens!"

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Chapter Seven: First Session of the Second Wheeling Convention

A State of Convenience

West Virginia Archives and History