Speech of Governor Jonathan Trumbull at the Opening of the Special Session of the Legislature, February 23, 1809

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Gentlemen of the Council, Mr. Speaker, and Gentlemen of the House of Representatives.

Impressed with the importance of the communications which I have now to lay before you—prompted also by the concurrent petitions of a number of the citizens of this State, conveyed to me with their resolutions adopted in their several town meetings,[1] convoked for the purpose; and having had under my own consideration, the very alarming crisis of our national affairs, arising from a variety of measures adopted and contemplated by our national legislature, more especially from the permanency of the embargo, with the means resorted to for its more rigorous enforcement, and particularly the late law of Congress, passed on the 9th day of January last, containing many very extraordinary, not to say unconstitutional provisions for its execution:[2] I have viewed the prospect so momentous and threatening, that I have not hesitated to convene the Legislature of the State, at this unusual time, in order that they may have an opportunity to consider and deliberate on the extraordinary situation into which our country seems about to be plunged, if not speedily prevented: and to devise such constitutional measures as in their wisdom may be judged proper to avert the threatening evil.[3]

It will be useful for the Legislature to take a view of the various measures of the national legislature, during their present and preceding sessions, not only those which have immediate relation to the embargo, but other acts which have been and are under their consideration, affecting the rights, interests, welfare, and even the peace of the Union. Indeed, it would be useful for the general good, if the State Legislatures were often to cast a watchful eye towards the general government, with a view, candidly to consider, and judiciously discern, whether the powers delegated to the United States are not exceeded, or are so exercised as not to interfere with or counteract those which are reserved by the people for their own management.[4] When under the direction of a wise and prudent discernment, a temperate caution—not an over jealous disposition, such an examination will always prove a wholesome measure.

On the present occasion, it will be unnecessary for me to enter into any particular statement of our private sufferings, or the threatening aspect of our public situation, in relation to the unprecedented acts of our General Government which are accumulating upon us. The individual feelings and experience of the members of this Legislature, now convened from all parts of the State, will speak the private distresses which have been produced by these acts: and your general information will give you, gentlemen, a correct view of the dangers which impend our public interests, liberty, rights and property, arising from the same source. Despairing of substantial relief from any other quarter, the people are now looking with anxious solicitude and hope, to the wisdom and direction of the Legislature of their own choice; and seem confident that some mode may be devised to remove the pressure under which they are at present suffering. To your collected wisdom and prudence they submit the task. And may it not be hoped, that, with our united efforts under a temperate, discreet and firm consideration of our situation and circumstances, we may be able by the influence of divine aid, to fulfil the just and reasonable expectations of our fellow citizens? Whenever our national legislature is led to overleap the prescribed bounds of their constitutional powers, on the State Legislatures, in great emergencies, devolves the arduous task—it is their right—it becomes their duty, to interpose their protecting shield between the right and liberty of the people, and the assumed power of the General Government.[5]

  1. [1]It is interesting to me that the first action that motivated the following state rejection of an unconstitutional bill was an informed and active electorate. These people gathered in town meetings for the purpose of controlling the federal government and creating resolutions when government abuse was detected. –Lance Earl
  2. [2]This important, but seldom seen step in the preservation of states right is always in an official notice that the Federal Government is actively usurping powers in a specific area. When the Governor, the Legislature, a Sheriff, or any person in an official capacity boldly declares that the Federal Government is in the wrong and states the reasons why, the people are informed, educated and empowered. –Lance Earl
  3. [3]The next, but seldom seen step in preserving states rights is to devise constitutional measures to avert the threatening evil. –Lance Earl
  4. [4]To cast a watchful eye toward the general government is a primary and essential role of the State Legislatures. Being primary and essential, it should and must occupy a great portion of their time and energy and yet, all evidence will indicate that this critical duty is seldom if ever considered. –Lance Earl
  5. [5]The states, being the sovereign creator of the federal government and being the only parties to the contract that is the Constitution of the united States, have a solemn right and duty to throw off any and all activities which threaten the rights and liberty of the people. See Declaration of Independence, Virginia Resolutions, James Madison Report on the Virginia Resolutions, Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, Kentucky Resolutions of 1799. –Lance Earl