J[oel] R[oberts] Poinsett to Joseph Ritner, 11 December 1838
War Department, December 11, 1838.
Sir: The letter addressed by your excellency to the President of the United States under date of the 7th instant, was received yesterday, and referred to this Department, where it has received that respectful and earnest consideration to which the high source whence it emanates, and the importance of the subject, entitle it.
In this communication your excellency informs the President that such a state of domestic violence exists at Harrisburg as to put an end, for the present, to all the exercise of the regular functions of the State Government, and renders it your duty to request the President, in accordance with the 4th section of the 4th article of the constitution of the United States, to take measures to protect the State of Pennsylvania against the effects of the domestic violence which your excellency affirms to be then in existence.
The clause of the constitution to which your excellency refers, and the act passed in pursuance thereof, authorize the President to call out the militia only on the application of the Legislature of a State, or of the Executive of a State when the Legislature cannot be convened. The nature of the President's duty being, therefore, discretionary, it is incumbent upon him to exercise the utmost care in examining into all the circumstances of the case, as well as to determine whether the occasion contemplated by the law has occurred.
The commotion which now threatens the peace of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania does not appear to arise from any opposition to the laws; but grows out of a political contest between different members of the Government, most, if not all of them, admitted to be the legal representatives of the people constitutionally elected, about their relative rights; and especially in reference to the organization of the popular branch of the Legislature. To interfere in any commotion growing out of a controversy of so grave and delicate a character, by the Federal authority, armed with the military power of the Government, would be attended with the most dangerous consequences to our republican institutions. In the opinion of the President, his interference in any political commotion iri a State could only be justified by the application for it being clearly within the meaning of the 4th section of the 4th article of the constitution, and of the act of Congress passed in pursuance thereof; and where the domestic violence brought to his notice is of such a character that the State authorities, civil and military, after having been duly called upon, have proved inadequate to suppress it.
The law, as has been already stated, requires that the interposition of the Federal Government should be invoked by the Legislature of the State, unless it cannot be convened; and notwithstanding the Speaker of the Senate states, on the 4th instant, that the body over which he presides cannot assemble; and your excellency, in your communication of the 7th, expresses the opinion that the Legislature of Pennsylvania cannot be convened; still, from subsequent information, which, although not official, comes in a form sufficiently authentic to entitle it to credit, it appears that both branches of the Legislature were in session in the Capitol of the State on the 8th instant, and transacted business there; and that the Senate received messages from the House of Representatives on that day. If this be so, (and there is no reason to doubt the fact,) the Legislature of the State has been convened since the date of your excellency's letter. Nor does it appear, either from your excellency's letter, or the published documents which accompanied it, that the civil or military authorities of the State have refused to perform their respective duties in suppressing any existing disturbances. Your excellency does not even allude to their being inadequate to suppress the domestic violence of which you complain, or to protect the Legislature in the performance of its official duties, either at the seat of Government, or wherever else they may be convened. It appears, on the contrary, that a portion of the militia of the State, who were warned by your excellency, in your proclamation of the 4th instant, (an authenticated copy of which accompanies your letter,) to hold themselves in instant readiness to repair to the seat of Government, have, in pursuance of farther requisitions, and in compliance with your excellency's orders, actually proceeded in force to Harrisburg.
Under all these circumstances, the President thinks he shall best discharge the delicate and responsible duties imposed upon him by the constitution and the laws by abstaining from adopting the measures indicated in your excellency's application; at all events, until it shall have appeared that the State authorities are inadequate to preserve the public peace, and until his interposition is called for by the Legislature of the State, according to the constitution and the law, or the impracticability of convening that body made certain.
With regard to the circumstance mentioned by your excellency, of certain officers of Government being present at Harrisburg, and acting as active leaders of the mob, the President has directed inquiry to be made into the facts, and your excellency may be assured that justice shall be done in the premises.
Very respectfully, your most obedient servant,
J. R. POINSETT.
His Excellency Joseph Ritner,
Governor of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg, Pa.