Thomas Jefferson and Daniel Webster were on opposites sides of the political spectrum of the day. Webster was a member of the Federalist Party and harbored strong nationalist sentiments. Jefferson was a Democrat-Republican committed to minimizing centralized power. But on one issue, Webster and Jefferson agreed – the impropriety of military conscription.
Jefferson voiced his opposition to a military draft during the American Revolution in a 1777 letter to John Adams, calling military conscription “the last of all oppressions.”
“Our battalions for the continental service were some time ago so far filled as rendered the recommendation of a draught from the militia hardly requisite, and the more so as in this country it ever was the most unpopular and impracticable thing that could be attempted. Our people, even under the monarchical government, had learnt to consider it as the last of all oppressions.”
Webster’s objection to the draft came during the War of 1812.
When the war began, James Madison proposed a bill to authorize the conscription of 100,000 men. The proposal was rejected, deemed “unacceptable to both Congress and the public alike.”
But the idea didn’t die. In 1814, Secretary of War James Monroe proposed a draft that would apply to males 18 to 45 years old. He argued that conscription was constitutional because it was “necessary and proper” to “raising an army.”
On December 9, 1814, Webster delivered a speech in Congress condemning the proposal for compulsory military service as unconstitutional, inconsistent with the character of a free government, and an act of depotism. He called a military draft an “abominable doctrine” with “no foundation in the Constitution of the country.”
“Is this, sir, consistent with the character of a free government? Is this civil liberty? Is this the real character of our Constitution? No sir, indeed it is not. The Constitution is libelled, foully libelled. The people of this country have not established for themselves such a fabric of despotism. They have not purchased at a vast expense of their own treasure and their own blood a Magna Charta to be slaves. Where is it written in the Constitution, in what article or section is it contained, that you may take children from their parents, and parents from their children, and compel them to fight the battles of any war in which the folly or the wickedness of government may engage it? Under what concealment has this power lain hidden which now for the first time comes forth, with a tremendous and baleful aspect, to trample down and destroy the dearest rights of personal liberty? Who will show me any Constitutional injunction which makes it the duty of the American people to surrender everything valuable in life, and even life itself, not when the safety of their country and its liberties may demand the sacrifice, but whenever the purposes of an ambitious and mischievous government may require it? Sir, I almost disdain to go to quotations and references to prove that such an abominable doctrine has no foundation in the Constitution of the country.”
In language reminiscent of the Virginia Resolutions of 1798, Webster went to suggest states should step and “interpose” to block any such unconstitutional attempt at conscription.
“The operation of measures thus unconstitutional and illegal ought to be prevented by a resort to other measures which are both constitutional and legal. It will be the solemn duty of the State governments to protect their own authority over their own militia, and to interpose between their citizens and arbitrary power. These are among the objects for which the State governments exist.”
Typically, bipartisanship means government is about to expand. But in this case, two men on opposite sides of the aisle drew the same conclusion, putting liberty over government power.
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