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William Harrison gives his opinion on states’ rights and slavery, 1838

William Harrison gives his opinion on states’ rights and slavery, 1838

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Harrison offers his opinion to Dillon, who is publishing a pamphlet on the subject of slavery: "our Union is a Union of Sovereign Independent States &... in every particular where power is not expressly surrendered by that instrument to the General Government it is retained by the States..." Argues that its omission from the Constitution leaves the slavery question up to individual states, not to the federal government. Emphasizes he is writing as a friend, not for publication.
Harrison offers his opinion to Dillon, who is publishing a pamphlet on the subject of slavery: "our Union is a Union of Sovereign Independent States &... in every particular where power is not expressly surrendered by that instrument to the General Government it is retained by the States..." Argues that its omission from the Constitution leaves the slavery question up to individual states, not to the federal government. Emphasizes he is writing as a friend, not for publication.

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05/12/2014

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William Henry Harrison to John Brown Dillon
 North Bend, Ohio, 12 December 1838.Autograph letter signed, 3 pages + address. North Bend 12
th
Decr. 1838.Dear Sir I received your letter of the 5
th
Inst the day before yesterday. I have come to thedetermination from necessity to decline giving my opinion to Individuals upon political subjectsfor publication. Had I not adopted this rule I would have to abandon my business (necessary tothe support of my very large family) & devote myself entirely to Political writing But as you tellme that you are about publishing a pamphlet on the subject of Slavery I will as a friend give youmy opinion upon one constitutional [
 struck 
: question] principle in relation to which either [
 struck 
: I or] you [
inserted 
: or I] very greatly err. (No one I think can [well] understand thecharacter of our peculiar Gov
t
without having it impressed upon [
 struck 
: their] [
inserted 
: his]mind that [
 struck 
: the] our Union is a Union of Sovereign Independent States & that in every particular where power is not expressly surrendered by that instrument to the GeneralGovernment it is retained by the States & that in the relations to matters so retained they are ascompletely Sovereign & independent of the Gen
l
. Government and of each other as are France &Great Britain.)You seem to suppose that an Article in the Constitution not having been inserted in it theGen
l
. Gov
t
won’t have the complete power over the Slavery question in the States. This Iapprehended to be a mistake [
2
] the Constitution contains no article preventing or forbiddingSlavery in the States. The Slaveholding States (of which there were at that time 9 out of 13) didnot wish such an article inserted. They retained the complete control over the subject of Slaverywithin their own boundaries by not surrendering [
inserted 
: it]. All that they wished to haveinserted in the Constitution in relation to the subject was that when their Slaves fled from them &sought refuge in other States that they should be delivered up on their application. Whentherefore you say that "an early [
inserted 
: & amicable] adjustment of the question is desirable” itcannot refer to the Slavery in other States but may with propriety refer to the District of Columbia, Within which the [
 strikeout 
] power of [
 strikeout 
] Legislation is expressly given to
The Gilder Lehrman Collection
GLC02946
 
Congress. But no law which that body can pass [
 strikeout 
] [
inserted 
: can] in any way effect theright which the people of the Slave holding States claim over their slaves any more thanCongress can pass a law to change the qualifications of Electors in the States or define the periodwhen Minors are to be free from the controul of their [
inserted 
: parents] to do either wouldchange the whole character of the Government & reallise the [dread] of [
 struck 
: the]
 
large portions of the Ablest Statesman in our Country at the period of the adoption of the Constitutionthat it would end first in a Consolidation & then in a despotism which latter could only beaverted by preserving the independence of the States of the Gen
l
Gov
t
in matters [
3
] which theyhad reserved for their own exclusive action (The citizens of the free States have the right asindividuals to give their opinions to their brethren in the Slave States upon the subject of Slaveryas they can upon the subject of Internal improvements, the extension of the right of voting[
inserted and struck 
: &c] but they have no power what ever to controle them upon any of thosesubjects.) Give them your opinions then upon the former subjects but I can tell you that however able your appeal to them may be on the abstract [
inserted 
: question] if you assume the right of Controul over the subject either for the US (except as to the District of Columbia) the [
inserted 
:free] State authorities or yourself individually it May do harm but will certainly do no good.I repeat that I write to you mainly as a friend & not by any means for publication & Iwrite in haste amidst preparations for a journey to Columbus Where I have been summoned as aWitness in a Case in the U S courtyours Very trulyW H Harrison.Dec
. 24
th
 This letter was written on the day of its Date but Kept from the Post office by theinattention of one of my SonsToJohn B. Dillon Esqr.[
address
]
The Gilder Lehrman Collection
GLC02946

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