Fisher Ames: Equality Number 4 — Democratic Thinker

American Debate

In a series of papers published in 1801, Fisher Ames unleashes one of the Federalist’s most scathing attacks on the Anti-Federalist’s unbridled democratic principles. Ames does so by drawing their principles to their logical conclusions—illustrating his conclusions with the unprincipled actions of the European democrats and their American supporters and apologists.

Time is as little a friend to folly, as to hypocrisy.


Fisher Ames. New England Palladium, November, 1801.
Fisher Ames.

THERE is perhaps no country in the world, where visionary theory has done so much to darken political knowledge, as in France, nor where facts appear at length so conspicuously to enlighten it. The doctrines of equality, and the rights of man, and the uncontrolled power of the people, whose voice is, rather unintelligibly, said to be the voice of God, have been so prevalent, that most persons have allowed the French to be political discoverers; and that they were, certainly, not God’s, but some other being’s, chosen people, selected to preserve the true faith in politicks from corruption and oblivion. These lofty claims French modesty urged in every country, as if they were Romans, and the others, barbarians. Our patriotick sophists very meekly admitted their claim.

Time is as little a friend to folly, as to hypocrisy. It obliges the intemperate sometimes to be sober, and makes knavery tired of its mask. The French revolutionary government is now in its teens, and we are compelled, with some steadiness of attention, to behold those features, which democratick fondness shut its eyes to imagine were divine in its cradle. Never was popular admiration more extravagant; never were its disappointments more signal or complete. The French revolution is one of those dire events, that cannot happen without danger, nor end without advantage to mankind. It is a rare inundation, whose ravages shew the utmost high-water mark: an earthquake, that has laid bare a mine: a comet, whose track through the sky, while it scatters pestilence, excites the curiosity of astronomers, and rewards it.

When the French revolution began, many of the best, and even some few of the wisest, rejoiced in some of the most pernicious, and most absurd of its measures. Down with the nobles, was the cry of the Tiers Etat, or third estate, and it was echoed here: let all the three orders vote in one chamber, in other words, let there be but one order, the democratick: that will rule and the others bleed. Down with the priesthood, was the next cry: abuses so great have been tolerated too long: we reform too late, and therefore we cannot reform too much. The many millions of church property were, of course, by a simple vote of a majority, re-annexed, as they called robbery, to the nation. The nobles were next dismounted in an evening’s sitting, and in a fit of emulation, in extravagance. All was done without reasoning and by acclamation. The sovereign mob of the suburbs of Paris, called St. Antoine and Rue Marcel, were next employed. The bastile was taken; liberty celebrated her triumphs, she trod upon a plain, on the rubbish of her tyrants’ palaces, whose ruins were not left as high as their foundations. Her path seemed to be smooth; all obstacles were removed; all men were free and equal; those who had rescued liberty by their blood were ready to shed it in her defence. Where are her friends? Behold them arrayed in armies, brandishing their pikes. Where are her enemies? See their heads dropping gore on those pikes. Is not the danger over? Is not the victory won? Are not the French free, and perfectly secure in their freedom?

Every sagacious democrat answered all these questions in the affirmative.

Nobody seemed any longer to have power, but the people. They had all power, and, of course, unbounded liberty. How little is it considered, that arbitrary power, no matter whether of prince or people, makes tyranny; and that in salutary restraint is liberty. A stupid, ferocious multitude, who are unfit to be free, may play the tyrant for a day, just long enough to put a sceptre of iron into their leader’s hand. To use quaint language, in order to be the more intelligible, it may be said, that, when there is no end to the power of a multitude, there can be no beginning to their liberty.

Review the transactions in France since 1789, and it will appear, that there is no condition of a state, in which it is more impossible that liberty should subsist, or. more nearly impossible that, after being lost, it should be retrieved, than after order has been overthrown, and popular licentiousness triumphs in its stead.

The old government of France was a bad one; but the new order of things was infinitely worse. Most persons suppose this is to be ascribed to the excess of liberty; they think there was too much of a good thing. Now the truth is, there was no liberty at all—absolutely none from the first, no reasonable hope, scarcely a lucky chance for it. Who had liberty? Clearly not the king, the nobles, nor the priests, nor the king’s ministers; all these were in jeopardy from the 14th July, 1789: not the rich; they were robbed and driven into banishment: not the great military officers who had gained glory in the American war; they were slain: not the farmers; their harvests and their sons were in requisition: not the merchants; they were so stripped, that their race was extinct; they were known only on the grave-stones of Nantz and Lyons; they were remembered in France, like the mammoth, by their bones. But, say the democrats, the people, the many, in other words, the rabble of the cities, were free: bread was issued to them by the publick. Yes, but it was the bread of soldiers, for which they were enrolled as national guards to uphold the tyranny of robbers and usurpers; and as soon as this very rabble relucted at their work, the more desperate cut-throats from Marseilles were called for, to shoot them in the streets.

It is often said, that the monarchy of France was forcibly upheld by the army. There is much incorrectness in the prevailing notions on this point. Without pausing to consider them, it may be sufficient to say, that the leaders of the revolution, apprehending that they should have an army against them, very early determined that they would have also an army on their side. By a simple vote, raising the pay of the king’s soldiers, they detached the troops from his side to their own; and, still further to augment their military force, they enlisted the rabble of all the cities as national guards. Thus France was still governed by an army, but this army was itself governed by new chiefs. The people were more than ever subject to military power.

Now it would be a pleasant task for the democratick declaimers to shew, that martial law is liberty; and as there never was a half hour since July, 1789, when a man in France had any other rights, but such as that law saw fit to spare, they ought now to tell us, as they gave no reason at the time, why they roasted oxen on account of the triumphs of French liberty.

The nature of that precious liberty deserves some further consideration.

Used with the permission of the Democratic Thinker.

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