A View of the Constitution of the United States of America.

Author: William Rawle, LL.D.

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Last Updated: January 24, 2011
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Publisher's Commentary: Rawle, like Alexander H. Stephens, supports the theoretical right of secession, but argues against it as a general matter of policy (see chapter 32). As a respected Northern attorney, Quaker, and abolitionist, writing well before the sectional conflict grew heated, his views on the subject are interesting precisely because they are not tainted by that controversy, and because he seems to be one of the few writers who addressed the question of secession explicitly at the time. This book appears to have been used as a textbook at West Point, at least during the 1825-1826 year. There is a great amount of controversy about whether it was used in later years, and about the significance of its use (see Was "Secession" Taught at West Point?). Whether Lee and Jackson and Davis drank at this particular well while cadets, we don't know for sure. What does seem clear is that Rawle was not considered to be a radical, a fire-eater, or a rebel-lover. President Washington appointed him the U.S. District Attorney for Pennsylvania in 1791, and, in this role, Rawle prosecuted the participants in the Whiskey Rebellion.

Rawle's views on state sovereignty and consitutional interpretation seem to be perfectly in accord with Stephens' views as well (chapter 1):

In this [the federal] relation every state must be viewed as entirely sovereign in all points not transferred by the people who compose it, to the government of the Union: and every exposition that may be given to the constitution, inconsistent with this principle, must be unsound. The supremacy of the Union in all those points that are thus transferred, and the sovereignty of the state in all those which are not transferred, must therefore be considered as two co-ordinate qualities, enabling us to decide on the true mode of giving a construction to the constitution. As different views have prevailed, different theories of construction have been formed. Some have contended that it should be construed strictly; others have asserted, that the most liberal construction should be allowed. By construction we can only mean the ascertaining the true meaning of an instrument, or other form of words, and by this rule alone ought we to be governed in respect to this constitution. A strict construction, adhering to the letter, without pursuing the sense of the composition, could only proceed from a needless jealousy, or rancorous enmity. On the other hand, a liberal construction may be carried to an injurious extreme; concessions of power may be conceived, or assumed, which never were intended, and which therefore are not necessary for its legitimate effect. The true rule therefore seems to be no other than that which is applied in all cases of impartial and correct exposition; which is to deduce the meaning from its known intention and its entire text, and to give effect, if possible, to every part of it, consistently with the unity, and the harmony of the whole.

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