“Will the American people…acknowledge the principle that [they] can only make or amend their constitutions by the permission of their rulers?”

Marcus Morton was born in East Freetown, Massachusetts in 1784, studied at Brown and Taunton universities, practiced law in Connecticut and Massachusetts for many years, and entered office as a judge during the opening days of the Jacksonian period. Always a radical Jeffersonian, Morton gradually found his intellectual allies in the so‐​called “Locofoco” Democracy represented at the national level by Martin Van Buren. Morton represented Massachusetts in the Congress for two terms (1817–1821), served as William Eustis’ Lieutenant Governor (1824–1825), acting governor upon Eustis’ death (1825), and justice of the state Supreme Judicial Court (1825–1840) before running perennially as the Democratic party’s gubernatorial candidate.

Editor’s Introduction

Despite appearing on the ticket for the better part of a decade, Morton successfully (though by extremely narrow margins) won just two terms as governor . He presided over a sharply partisan, do‐​nothing government in 1839 and virtually endorsed civil war throughout New England while campaigning before his second term in 1842. In the 1842 Massachusetts election, the issue at hand lay firmly in Rhode Island. As of earlier that year, in Morton’s troubled sister state, dueling governments vied for constitutional and military supremacy, battling at the state and national level for legitimacy and command of state authority in Rhode Island. For several years prior, a corps of “suffragists” in Rhode Island, led by Thomas Wilson Dorr, agitated for a new state constitution that would liberalize voting requirements and abolish the existing landholding provision. Suffragists called for a constitutional convention in 1841, bypassing the state legislature which remained committed to the state constitution–a document that did not provide for amendment and itself had not changed since King Charles II issued it in 1663. Though the resultant “People’s Constitution” received support from the vast majority of voters, the “Charter” government refused to give way. Suffragists and Charterites amassed rival armies during the Summer of 1842 and to many it seemed that New England was on the brink of civil war. While the Charter government successfully matched suffragist forces in the field, they diligently organized their own constitutional convention to subvert the suffragist cause.

During the subsequent fall 1842 campaign season, Rhode Island Ladies Societies hosted a series of grand political fairs, the “clam bakes,” to which they invited sympathetic regional figures like Marcus Morton. In the following extract, Morton delivers a letter to the clam baking “Dorrites” assembled at Medbury Grove, Massachusetts, clearly articulating the nature of “the Rhode Island Question,” and its importance for the history of republican government in the United States.

Anthony Comegna, PhD

Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

Governor Morton’s Letter to the Suffrage Clam Bake Committee

New York Daily Plebeian 1, No. 61, 6 September 1842.

By Marcus Morton

Taunton, Aug. 27, 1842.

Gentlemen–In declining to join “The Friends of Equal Rights” from Rhode Island in their gathering at Medury Grove, on Tuesday next, I beg leave to tender to them my hearty thanks for their obliging invitation.

No man has interfered less, in the recent affairs of Rhode Island, than myself. I have had no communication in relation to the great questions which have agitated and distracted your State, with any of its inhabitants, unless a very little conversation with some of the friends of the old Charter Party be an exception. I have, I trust, been an impartial observer of the passing events; but it would be worse than affectation to pretend that I have been an indifferent one. Every man alive to the welfare of our common country, must feel a deep interest in the occurrences which have there transpired, and the principles which they have developed. They have given rise to questions of portentous import to our democratic institutions, and brought to light doctrines which strike at the foundation of all free government.

But what magnifies their importance, and renders them of common concernment to the whole country, is the part which a great party, powerful by the wealth and talents of its leading members, now in possession of the government of the United States, has taken in relation to them.

The people of Rhode Island, acting in their original, sovereign capacity, without the aid of governmental regulation, but in a peaceable manner, and with all the formality which their circumstances would admit, called a convention, founded on an equal representation of their numbers, to form a constitution for their adoption or rejection. This convention performed the duty required of it, and submitted to the people a frame of Government, tending to secure equality of representation and universality of sufferage, which was adopted by the votes of a large majority of all the adult male population of the State. The validity of this constitution is denied by most of the inhabitants who exercised exclusive rights and privileges under the old Charter. Officers were elected and governments organized under both. It became an interesting question which was the valid instrument, and which the legitimate government. This has assumed a party character, and may be considered indicative of the political principles of the two great parties into which our country is divided.

The Whig party justifies the proceedings and defends the principles of the landholders’ party of Rhode Island. The Whig President, doubtless with the advice of his Whig Cabinet; the acknowledged leader and supposed dictator of the Whig party; the Whig Governor of the greatest State in the Union; other Whig Governors and leaders; and all the Whig papers, with a very few exceptions, have taken the side of the old Charter and those who act under it; while all the Democratic papers, and, as far as I know, all the influential men of that party who have expressed an opinion, have advocated the validity of the new constitution. Indeed, no Democrat in principle, can deny to the people the right to form their own government, or justify that rotten borough system of unequal representation which gives to men in one town ten or twenty times the weight the same number of men in another possesses; or defend that restricted system of suffrage, which excludes one half the people from its exercise.

The questions, therefore, which are involved in this controversy, though local in their origin, have assumed a general interest, and are brought home to the breast of every citizen for his conscientious decision. Now, without intending to interfere with the transactions of the people of another State, or to give an opinion upon the proceedings of the two contending parties there, any farther than the examination of general principles renders necessary, I feel not only at liberty, but called upon, boldly and frankly, to discuss those principles.

It is neither my province nor my intention to judge of the constitution of another State. If a majority of the people of Rhode Island are satisfied with their new Constitution, no Democrat will deny their right to adopt it, or attempt to infringe the free exercise of that right. But in advocating its legal validity, I do not mean to be understood as approving of all its provisions.

But the enquiry presents itself, in the outset–what does this Constitution contain so extremely objectionable and pernicious, or what is there in the old Charter so very excellent and desirable, as to justify and require an appeal to arms to annul the one and sustain the other? If the Constitution be substantially wise and just, why should not the minority, who had not voted at all, have tacitly acquiesced, and suffered it to go into operation by general consent? If it contained defects it also contained provision for future amendments. The only reasons which can be found for resistance to it, must consist in objections to its adoption, or to the principles which it contains. It cannot be presumed that the men in office would expose their State to civil war for the sake of retaining the power.

But what are the great questions involved in this controversy? And what are the vital principles of government which the one party is supposed to maintain and the other deny? They are,




The friends of the new constitution necessarily maintain, and its enemies necessarily oppose these principles. I can see no escape from this conclusion. Let it not be denied that a majority of all the people voted for the constitution. The returns show about three‐​fifths. They have been in the power of the opponents of the new constitution. Doubtless errors were committed, but they have been pointed out; and it would be unreasonable to suppose that they existed to the extent of the thousands which composed the majority. Besides, it is a common presumption, that those who omit to vote intend to acquiesce in the decision of those who choose to exercise that right, and this is believed to be the first instance in which a majority of all the qualified voters ever was required or obtained in favor of any constitution. If a majority of all the people were opposed to the adoption of the new constitution, why did they not turn out and reject it? This would have saved much of ill‐​will, confusion, expense and bloodshed. No. It cannot be so. The circumstances necessarily lead to the conclusion, not only that there was a large majority in favor of the constitution, but that its opponents well knew it to be so. Do they contend that the will of the minority should prevail over that of the majority? Do they maintain that there is a favored class who possess greater political rights and power than their fellow men, and that they cannot deprive of them without their own consent? This is the rankest doctrine of ARISTOCRACY.

Let it not be pretended that the new constitution was not adopted “according to the form of law.” Substance, rather than form, is now sought for. The pettifogger’s plea in abatement, and the special pleader’s special demurrer, are, in the light of the present day, discountenanced alike by legislative actions and judicial decisions. “FORMS OF LAW!” Constitutional questions are not to be embarrassed by legal quibbles and technical objections. They look through forms to the substance. But what are the forms prescribed to regulate the action of the people in the exercise of their highest sovereign power? Who can establish forms to govern their proceedings?

When the people have adopted constitutions, and in them provided the manner of making future alterations, some persons contend that they and their successors are bound by the regulations which they have made for themselves, and can make amendments in no other manner. Without admitting or stopping to discuss this position, I think that every believer in the doctrine of delegated power must admit, that, in the original formation of a government, the people must, as they proceed, determine their own forms of proceeding. The same rule applies where there is an existing form of government, which contains no provision for amendments. If this be not so, no new government could be formed, and no such old one could be amended.

If the community be so large that the people cannot meet and discuss the subject all together, some person must assume the power to introduce and bring it, in some way, before the people for their action. Such was the case in the old thirteen States, in the formation of their constitutions; for whether conventions, for the purpose, were proposed by the spontaneous action of the people, or by the recommendation of their Colonial Legislatures, they were alike unauthorized. The several charters never contemplated the establishment of independent governments, and never authorized the charter officers to take any steps towards the formation of democratic constitutions. But however a constitution is proposed to the people, it derives all its force from their action upon it. If they reject it, the proposal becomes a nullity. If they adopt it, it becomes the supreme law of the land. The mode of bringing the proposal before the people is not the most material part of the transaction. That which gives them the fullest opportunity for the fair expression of their opinions is doubtless the best. I am not aware that it has ever been objected against the new constitution, that every inhabitant of the State had not an opportunity to vote upon its adoption.

It will not be pretended that the Rhode Island Charter conferred upon the legislature the power to propose a constitution, or to call a convention for that purpose. It contains not a syllable to that effect. If they did either, they must assume the power. As no constitution could be formed without the exercise of this power, no very strong objection could exist to its assumption by the legislature; yet as they held unequal and unjust powers, which were the subject of complaint, there could be no peculiar propriety in their doing it rather than a meeting of the people themselves, or their delegates chosen for the purpose. But the assumption that the legislature alone can initiate proceedings for the formation of a constitution, and that none can be formed without their consent and preliminary action, seems to me to be founded in the most palpable usurpation. This, instead of keeping pace with the progress of the age, is retrograding some six hundred years into the dark ages–dark indeed for political liberty and the rights of the people–when British Kings undertook to grant to their subjects charters of their rights and liberties. One man GRANT RIGHTS to millions! LIBERTIES depending on the Charter of a King! Do we derive our rights immediately from our Creator? Or do we depend on rulers, pretending to be ordained of God, to dole them out to us at their discretion, and according to their good pleasure? Will the American people, or the friends of free government any where, acknowledge the principle that the people can only make or amend their constitutions by the permission of their rulers?

But to recur to the great principles, opposition to which is implied in opposition to the people’s constitution.

I. THE RIGHT OF THE PEOPLE TO GOVERN THEMSELVES, AND TO ESTABLISH THEIR OWN FORMS OF GOVERNMENT. This is declared to be a self‐​evident proposition, in the Declaration of Independence; is recognized as such in every constitution which has been formed under it; and has been acknowledged to be an unquestioned and fundamental principle of free government, by the most eminent statesmen, civilians and jurists of our country. This is now, for the first time, brought in question, by maintaining, that the people can make, alter, or amend their constitution only through the action of the legislature, and that too, whether the legislature has any constitutional power to act or not.

II. The doctrine of FREE SUFFRAGE is a corollary or rather branch of the last proposition. The right of self‐​government is inherent in all men, and not in a part; and should be secured to every one, unless he forfeit it by his own acts. Although this doctrine is not universally admitted, in its fullest extent, yet few heretofore have carried restrictions upon suffrage so far as to require freehold qualifications. This excludes more than one‐​half of the people from any participation in the government under which they live. And they, who are governed by laws in the making of which they have no voice, may be defined to be political slaves.

The revolutionary axiom that “REPRESENTATION AND TAXATION ARE INSEPARABLE,” though sound and true in itself, has, I fear, had too much consideration given to it. By placing too great reliance upon it, we magnify the importance of property at the expense of moral and intellectual worth. No one holds the right of property more sacred than myself. But I am not willing to put them in the balance and make them preponderate against man, the noblest creation, and the express image of his Almighty Maker. The higher and more difficult duty of government is the protection of personal rights and the liberty of thinking, speaking and acting our own thoughts. Of what use is property if our persons are insecure? And why should not those who have personal rights to protect, have a voice in the government whose duty it is to protect them?

But the above axiom is as broad and extends as far as the warmest advocate of universal suffrage could desire. Who is there exempt from taxation? If such a person can be found, it must be one “who neither sweetens his tea nor salts his porridge.”

What is there in the possession of land which confers superior intelligence and moral dignity? What talismanic influence does it possess to inspire its owner with qualifications which depart the moment he parts with his land? May not the learned President of Brown University exercise the elective franchise as intelligibly as the most ignorant landholder in the State?

I well know that many who pretend to advocate free and representative governments are in favor of very restricted suffrage. In France only one person in two hundred is entitled to vote, and in parts of England the disproportion is quite as great. In our own country many desire to restrict rather than extend the elective franchise. But I can see no cause for doing it, and believe they mistake both the genius and the principles of democratic governments. The right of self‐​government belongs to man as man; and does not depend upon the accidents of birth, or of real or personal estate. And I have seen no reason to believe that power is more safe in the hands of the rich than the poor, or that the former are more honest than the latter. I should not, for the highest degree of perfection, look to either.

III. EQUALITY OF REPRESENTATION is a fundamental principle of our government, and without it we have no guaranty of its just, equal and beneficent operation. Unequal representation is but one grade better than no representation. Why should men residing in one town have greater weight than the same number of men in another? Let the advocates of the old charter and of the new convention, which give a disproportion of ten or twenty to one, answer the question.

I have now offered my views of the great principles which seem to be involved in the contest which has been carried on in Rhode Island, and which, theoretically at least, seem to have spread over the country, being maintained by those who advocate, and impugned by those who oppose the new constitution, wherever they may be. I have brought to the discussion no personal feeling, and I trust no bias or prejudice. My private friendships are altogether with the officers and members of the Charter party. I have endeavored, as far as practicable, to confine my remarks to the principles discussed. Their application to parties and individuals have been frankly made so far and no farther than was necessary for their explanation and elucidation. I have neither the means nor the inclination to judge of the various acts of the contending parties. Without, therefore, intending to impeach the motives of any one, or wishing to express any mere opinion, I cannot conceal, if I would, that the principles for which I have contended necessarily lead to the conclusion that the new constitution is the supreme law of the State, and of course that the success of the Charter government against it has been the triumph of unauthorized power, and of military force, over political right and constitutional law.

It is one of the beauties and excellencies of our admirable system of government that it provides for the redress of all grievances and the settlement of all controversies without a resort to physical force. And no one has less confidence in the justice of decisions by arms, or a greater abhorrence of an appeal to them, than myself. I yield to no one in respect for the civil authority, or (for reasons which will at once occur) in deference for judicial decisions. I cannot adequately express the depth of my regreat and grief at the military movements which have occurred, and the demoralizing and distressing consequences of them. They certainly have added nothing to the happiness of the people or the reputation of the State. They seem to me to have been as needless and uncalled for as they were unwise and injurious.

The unhappy controversy might have easily been settled without bloodshed or a resort to arms. There were at least two ways obviously open for a civil decision; and assuming as I do that the great mass of both parties were honest, and actuated by good motives, it seems marvelous strange that the one or the other was not resorted to. Either would have produced a decision more satisfactory to honest minds than an appeal to the “God of Battles.”

If either of the members of the United States Senate had resigned his seat, then the election of a successor by each of the Legislatures would have brought directly before the Senate the validity of the new constitution. Surely such a step would not have required a very high degree of patriotism in the resigning senator, when thereby he might avert civil war, especially if he, who doubtless would have been re‐​elected, had confidence in the unimpaired validity of the old charter.

But a better mode of settling the question would have been by an appeal to the highest judicial tribunal of our country. A mutual arrangement might have been made between the contending parties, by which a suit, putting directly in issue the validity of the new constitution, might have been commenced; carried in the most expeditious mode to the Supreme Court of the United States, and the earliest possible decision obtained. That the judgment would have been in favor of the new constitution I can entertain no doubt. But whatever it might have been, it would have commanded the acquiescence of the whole country, not excepting the people of Rhode Island.

I have learned from published statements, by both sides, that the friends of the new constitution were not only desirous of adopting this course, but willing to suspend all action under the new constitution until a decision could be had. This certainly was meeting their opponents more than half way and seeking an amicable adjustment at the extremest verge of honorable concession. If this proposition was made and rejected, whichever party may be in the right upon the constitutional question, the whole responsibility of the appeal to arms, of the loss of property, of blood and of life, and all the other physical and moral evils resulting from the military movements and government, rests upon the leaders of the Charter party. I hope their refusal to accede to this most conciliatory, just and reasonable proposal did not arise from an apprehension that the decision would be against them and a desire, by military operations, martial law and other arbitrary and oppressive measures, to overawe the people into the substitution of a less free and democratic constitution for the one heretofore adopted by them…

I am Gentlemen, with respect, Your obedient serv’t,