Written May 4, 1801
The Writings of James Monroe. Edited by Stanislaus Murray Hamilton. 7 vols. New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1898–1903.
There is a subject to which I wish to engage yr. particular attention. Before I came into this office I was of opinion that the correspondence between the Executive of the Genl. Govt. and a State shod. be conducted as between parties that were mutually respectful but equally independent of each other. My idea appeared to me to be sound; indeed incontrovertable in principle, and it was matter of surprise how a contrary practice had been adopted.
Each govt. is in its sphere sovereign, so far as the term is applicable in a country where the people alone are so, the State govts. do not derive their authorities from the general govt.; they are not established by its ordinances, or accountable to it for their admn. like the frontier govts., or the revenue or other officers of the U. States.
Their Executive, legislative and judicial departments, are constituted on the same principles and alike form the governmental sovereignty of each govt. The officers under each constitute no part of its sovereignty; they are agents employed by it to assist in their respective admns. I consider the chief magistrate of the Union in reference to a like character in each State as first among equals, and admit the same priority in the legislative and judicial departments, and the departments under them, where the individual States have correspondent institutions. If this idea is just, it follows that the communication between the two govts. when carried on by the govr. of a State, shod. be with the President of the U. States.
To subject the State govrs. to the necessity of corresponding with the officers appointed by the President, seems to place them in the same grade, to deny the right of sovereignty in the individual States, and to consider them as subaltern inferior establishments, emanating from and dependent on the general government.
The laws of Congress which establish the departments under the President have no reference to the case in question. They restrict foreign ministers &c. in their correspondence to the heads of departments, and wisely, because they are the agents of their govts.; but that restriction does not comprise the govts. they represent, whether free or despotic. It wod. be extry. if the govt. of a foreign country, by which I mean President, King or Prince, shod. write on publick business to the Secy. of one of our departments, and equally so if our President shod. write such a letter to a Secy. of any foreign government. If the question of right is settled on the principle I contend for, would it not be proper for you to recognize it in some formal manner, since by so doing you wod. recognize, cherish and support the State governments?
It wod. be giving them a Station in the Union to which they are entitled by the constitution but of wch. they have been in a great measure deprived by the proud imperious tone of former admns. It wod. conciliate their govts. towards yr. admn. and introduce a spirit of harmony in our system hitherto unknown to it. In the practice there wod. be no difficulty.
Where letters were addressed to the President they might be referred to the heads of departments and replies drawn by them to be signed by him, tho’ very probably the present practice wod. prevail, for as soon as the question was established on just and conciliatory principles, the bias of all liberal minds wod. be to dispense with an etiquette which wod. then be no more, the observance of wch. especially with characters more distinguished for their talents and merit than themselves, as wod. generally be the case, cod. not otherwise than injure them.
You will be sensible that to me personally this is an affr. of the utmost indifference; indeed in the present state of things that it is peculiarly irksome.