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The United States Constitution is the oldest constitution in the world still in active use, written in 1787 and officially ratified in 1788. It is considered one of the most successful constitutions ever written, containing 7 different main sections known as articles, and has amassed 27 amendments throughout its long tenure. Article 4 of the US Constitution addresses the roles and responsibilities of the different states within the country, a topic of heightened importance at the time it was written given the increased power that states enjoyed in the pre-Civil War era. Article 4 contains 4 different sections detailing various aspects of states and their duties, with some further divided into separate paragraphs or clauses.
Section 1 requires that all states respect and accept each others’ public acts, records, and judicial proceedings. It further gives Congress the authority to enact general, broad-based legislation to ensure how the public acts, records, and judicial proceedings are honored across state lines. This was a vital provision since up until that time there had been much discord and disunity among states under the original Articles of Confederation and especially during the early stages of the Revolutionary War. Each state would print money, operate under forms of government contrary to one another, and had vastly different cultures and economies. The union of states would only work if a spirit of cooperation and respect was maintained under the guiding hand of a centralized government, specifically the legislative branch in this case.
Clause 1 guaranteed that all citizens would have the same privileges and immunities in every state. This promised individual citizens the same basic rights and freedoms as they traveled to other states, prohibiting other states from discriminating against them.
Clause 2 is an extradition provision for states, requiring a criminal to be returned from the state to which they fled to the state in which they committed their crimes. The state where the criminal fled to could not refuse to deliver up the criminal, a necessary provision to maintain a level of law and order in an otherwise free society.
Clause 3 is known as the Fugitive Slave Clause, and prohibits slaves from escaping their servitude by fleeing from their state to another state, even if the state they fled to prohibited slavery. The authorities of the state where the slave fled were obligated to return them to their original owner. The 13th Amendment, passed in 1865, has since rendered this clause obsolete by abolishing slavery and any form of involuntary servitude except in the case of punishment for a convicted criminal.
Clause 1 allows for the addition of new states into the United States, a necessary provision given the quick westward expansion of many American colonists. However, if a new state was to be formed from a union of existing states, or if a state was to be formed from within the boundary of another state, both Congress and the respective state legislators would have to approve the measure. While the process outlined in this clause has largely been followed consistently throughout the formation of all the states of the United States, it was tenuously applied when West Virginia was formed from the existing state of Virginia in 1863. During this period when the United States was in the midst of the Civil War, residents of the western mountainous region of Virginia who were staunchly opposed to slavery petitioned Abraham Lincoln to form a separate state from Virginia. While the measure gained approval from what was left of Congress after the Confederate states seceded, it had no chance of getting approval from the Virginia legislature currently in rebellion. A hastily formed provisional “Virginia” legislature was assembled in the town of Wheeling, Virginia, and formally approved the formation of the state, technically fulfilling the requirements of the constitution that both the state and Congress had to approve a measure to form a new state within its boundary. Whether or not this fulfilled the requirements outlined in this clause is a topic of debate to this day.
Clause 2 gives Congress the authority over any territory or other property owned by the United States, with the right to pass laws and regulations for their governance. Congress is also given the right to dispose of any territory or property owned by the United States. For example, if the United States had desired to sell the territory they purchased from Napoleon Bonaparte of France in the Louisiana Purchase to another foreign country, they would have every right to do so.
Section 4 requires Congress to guarantee every state in the country a republican form of government. Both existing and newly formed states were protected from the takeover of a potentially tyrannical government that would oppress their rights on the state level. It is important to note that this is a broad provision and that no specific guidelines are given about how Congress would accomplish this, implying that it is the responsibility of the individual states to formulate their government. Congress, on the other hand, would play a more indirect role of simply verifying that the state government is truly a republican form of government, and then approving and admitting the state into the country.
Section 4 also guarantees the protection of every state from invasion, a necessary provision given the disjointed war effort that characterized the early days of the Revolutionary War. While many of the New England colonies, Massachusetts in particular, found themselves in a state of war in 1775 with the Battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, many of the other colonies insisted that they were not at war with England, refusing to recognize the conflict of Massachusetts as a legitimate war shared by all the colonies. If the union of 13 colonies, now states, would survive in times of war, the federal government would have to unify and guarantee the safety of all of them
Finally, Section 4 guarantees the safety of individual states from domestic violence upon the authority of the legislative branch, or the executive branch, if the legislative branch could not meet in time to diffuse the situation. This portion of Section 4 is the basis of the federal government interfering in the civil unrest characteristic of the Civil Rights era of the 1960s.