Page images

without changing materially the civil institutions of the country. Many of the absurdities which had been handed down by prejudice, from the days of ignorance and intolerance, became thus ingrafted into our free systems of government, and were suffered to remain, partly from that veneration which we feel for whatever has been consecrated by time, and partly in consequence of a prudent reluctance, on the part of our rulers, to adopt any violent changes. Most of the forms of proceedings in civil courts, the fictions in pleading, the jargon of legal phrases, and even some very important principles, such as imprisonment for debt, and laws against usury, became thus interwoven with our institutions, not from any absolute choice on our part, but simply because we found them in existence.

In legislating for the new states, the people were untrammeled. All was to be created, and they hal the examples of the older states to guide or to warn them. The constitutions and laws of the new states, therefore, will be found to exhibit peculiarities, which distinguish them as much from each other as from the older states. In general, they have simplified the details of public business, and curtailed the public expenditures. They have adhered tenaciously to democratic principles, retaining in the hands of the people every power which could be conveniently withheld from the rulers. The great majority of their officers are elected immediately by the people, or by the legislature. Elections are frequent, and the right of suffrage general. The right of the people to instruct their representatives, at all

[ocr errors]

times, is universally admitted, and in some states, expressly recognized in the constitution. Imprisonment for debt, and laws against usury, are generally abolished, or greatly modified. These, and a few other particulars, in which we have improved upon the legislation of the older states, or preceded them in the march of improvement, furnish subjects worthy of the consideration of the lawyer, the politician, and the historian.

There is another peculiarity in the constitutions of some of the new states, arising out of their relations with the general government. At the time of the confederation of the old thirteen states, all the vacant land within, or upon the boundaries of the individual states, was justly claimed to belong to them respectively; and it became, at an early period, a question of much moment, how far the ownership of such lands, by the original states, and the formation of future states out of them, might affect the peace of the Union. The principle was soon recognized, that the boundaries of the old states should be defined; and that all lands beyond those boundaries, and not included within the limits of any state, should belong to the Union.

This question was not settled without some discussion, and much collision of opinion; and its amicable arrangement, may be attributed to the magnanimity with which Virginia surrendered a claim, which seems to have been better supported than any other. Under the terms of her charter, she claimed an extension of her territory, westwardly, to the utmost limits of the Union—the Mississippi and the lakes. By the settlement of Kentucky by her citizens, and the organization of civil regulations there, she had occupied the country as far as the Ohio, and left no room for cavil, as to any territory on the eastern shore of that river. Colonel Clarke had carried her victorious arms to the Mississippi, and had formally taken possession of the northwestern territory in her name; the conquered country was erected into a county by the name of Illinois, by the legislature of Virginia, and troops voted for its defence. Virginia, therefore, had all the title which could be given by charter, by conquest, and by possession.

Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York, respectively, advanced claims to parts of the same territory, which were too vague to deserve much consideration, but which served to embarrass the councils of the nation, by the pertinacity with which they were urged; and the United States maintained, that a vacant territory, wrested from the common enemy, by the united arms and common treasure of all the states, ought, of right, to belong to the Union. There was, in this argument, a great deal of plausibility, and some justice, but it was far from being conclusive. The fact, whether the country could be properly called vacant, a portion of which was in the possession of Virginia, and all of which was embraced in her charter, admits at least of question; and if a part of the territory alluded to, was conquered by the united arms of all the states, another portion was certainly not thus obtained, but was rescued from the enemy by Virginia, or her citizens.

New York, who had no claim, but that of the Six Nations, over whom she claimed sovereignty, and who are not known to have been ever permanently established in any portion of this region, was the first to relinquish her title. In the year 1780, she authorized her delegates in congress, to agree to the restriction of her western boundary, by such limits as they should deem expedient, annesing to her act the condition only, that the territory to which she relinquished her claim, should be appropriated to the common benefit of all the states embraced within the federal alliance.

In the same year, a resolution was adopted by congress, declaring, that the lands which might be ceded to the United States, by the states individually, should be disposed of for the common benefit; that they should be settled and formed into states, with suitable boundaries, and become members of the federal Union, with the same rights of sovereignty, freedom, and independence, as the other states; that the expenses incurred by any state, in subduing British posts, and in the acquisition of territory, should be reimbursed; and that the lands ceded, should be granted and settled, agreeably to regulations to be made, from time to time, by congress.

The pledge thus given by congress, having removed the scruples of Virginia, that patriotic state agreed to relinquish her valuable domain in the west, for the general good. By the cession of the year 1784, the state of Virgina ceded to the United States, all the right of that commonwealth to the territory northwestward of the river Ohio, upon certain conditions,

which were accepted by congress. These conditions were, in substance, as follows:

That the said territory should be divided into not less than three, nor more than five distinct republican states; which states should be admitted members of the federal Union, having the same rights of sovereignty, freedom, and independence, as the other states.

That the French and Canadian inhabitants, and other settlers of the Kaskaskias, St. Vincents, and the neighboring villages,” should have their possessions and titles confirmed to them, and be protected in the enjoyment of their rights and liberties.

Certain lands were reserved for General George Rogers Clarke, a warrior illustrious in the history of this country, and the officers and soldiers who served under his command.

All the lands so ceded to the United States, and not reserved as above, “ shall be considered as a common fund, for the use and benefit of such of the United States, as have become, or shall become, members of the confederation or federal alliance of the said states, Virginia inclusive, according to their actual respective proportions in the general charge and expenditure, and shall be faithfully, and bona fide disposed of for that purpose, and for no other purpose whatsoever.”

Massachusetts relinquished her pretensions in 1785; while the tardy sacrifice of Connecticut, was made in 1786. Neither of these states seem to have had any title; yet Connecticut persisted in her claim to the last, and was only induced at last, to follow

« PreviousContinue »