Fisher Ames: Equality Number 6 — 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.

Every thing in France has gone on directly contrary to all the silly expectations of the democrats, though most exactly in conformity with the laws of man’s nature, and the evidence of history.


Fisher Ames. New England Palladium, November, 1801.


Fisher Ames.

EVERY democrat more or less firmly believes, that a revolution is the sure path to liberty; and, therefore, he believes government of little importance to the people, and very often the greatest impediment to their rights. Merely because the French had begun a revolution, and thrown every thing that was government, flat to the ground, they began to rejoice, because that nation had, thus, become the freest nation in the world. It is very probable many of the ignorant in France really thought so; it is lamentable, that many of the well informed in America fell into a like errour.

It is essential, therefore, to review the history of that revolution, at least with so much attention, as to deduce a few plain conclusions. Popular discontents naturally lead to a forcible resistance of government. The very moment the physical power of the people is thus employed to resist, the people themselves become nothing. They can only destroy; they cannot rule. They cannot act without chiefs; nor have chiefs, and keep rights. They are blind instruments in the hands of ambitious men; and, of necessity, act merely as they are acted upon. Each individual is nothing; but the chief, having the power of a great many to aid him, can overpower, and will destroy, any mutinous citizen, who presumes to find fault with his general’s conduct. Thus a revolution produces a mob. A mob is at first an irregular, then a regular army, but in every stage of its progress, the mere blind instrument of its leaders. The power of an army, of necessity, falls into the hands of one man, the general in chief, who is the sole despot and master of the state.

Every thing in France has gone on directly contrary to all the silly expectations of the democrats, though most exactly in conformity with the laws of man’s nature, and the evidence of history. If this kind of contemplation could cure Americans of their strange, and, perhaps it will prove, fatal, propensity to revolutionary principles, and induce them, in future, to prefer characters fitter to preserve order than to overthrow it, then we should grow wise by the direful experience of others. We might stop with our Rolands, without proceeding to our Dantons and Robespieres.

After many convulsions, we behold Buonaparte the undisputed master of France, of new France, whose vast extent, whose immense populousness, whose warlike spirit, and arrogance in victory, invest her with the means, as well as the claim, like old Rome, to parcel out kingdoms, and to sit in judgment upon nations. A nine years war has left those nations enfeebled. They are too much afraid of France to resist her singly; and, unhappily for the repose and security of mankind, too much afraid of each other to join in self-defence.

A Position of things so tempting to ambition would awaken it in France, even if it ever slept there. But it never sleeps. Great Britain, though not weakened, is wearied and discouraged by the selfishness and discord of the continental powers, and will not resume her arms, unless compelled by absolute necessity.

Russia alone is not afraid of France; but Russia has views on Turkey, which she will not, by any hostile measures, rouse France to obstruct.

In reality, the European states are, by a singular concurrence of circumstances, more than ever exposed, at this moment, as a prey to the French; and even more exposed to their arts in peace, than to their arms in war. There is little doubt that the power of the French consul would prove irresistible; but the important doubt exists, is it stable?

Buonaparte reigns by military power. There is not, as formerly, a body of nobles, an order of priests, a jealous parliament of Paris, a system of wise municipal laws, that deserved respect, and of provincial customs and claims of separate sovereignty, that extorted it from their kings. The new monarchy is without any such checks: There is no exterior impediment to the power of an army: its obstacles are to be sought for within itself. And simple as its machinery seems to be, military force requires the management of a skilful. hand, and it is kept in order, by rightly touching many little wheels and springs.

It is indeed true, that discipline is the ruling principle of armies; but what is discipline more than the fear of the general? While they know they have every thing to suffer from disobedience, and nothing to hope, the troops will obey. If, however, a state of things should exist, that admitted of much to hope from mutiny, and little to dread, there is nothing in the principle of discipline to restrain the soldiers from revolt any more than citizens.

Suppose, for instance, the great lieutenant-generals, especially if they command separate armies, distant from the general, should conspire to place a new commander at their head; in that case, it is evident, the power of discipline would be turned against the general, and converted into an instrument of insurrection. Every body knows, that the troops would greatly incline to the side of their particular commander. As the thirst for rank is the very soul of an army, the great officers will be hindered from aspiring at the chief command only by the difficulty, and almost impossibility, of attaining it—for as to the danger, men of daring spirits, habituated to think life worth little, and honour worth every thing, will not make much account of the danger.

To guard against this mischief, inherent in the very life, and bone, and muscle of his power, Buonaparte must watch his great officers much, and trust them as little as possible. He must guard most vigilantly every avenue, by which a rival might enter his army to tamper with it: he must be jealous of every great military genius in his camp, and ready to meet every unforeseen event: he will prevent their being collected in great force in the distant provinces, and under popular lieutenant-generals: he will not let the honour of victories fall to the share of any commander but himself; and, for that reason, he will hurry to Marengo, that every body may be forced to ascribe the event to his superiour talents and fortune. While he keeps the troops in dread of punishment, if they disobey, and the odium of such punishments he will throw on his lieutenant-generals, he will spare nothing, that taxes or that exactions without any formality can obtain, to bestow in largesses on his soldiers. Thus, he will be the dispenser of all bounties, and unite in his favour the sentiments of both fear and affection. Nobody will be able to do others so much evil, nor, before a nation’s wealth is at his disposal, can any rival appear to be so willing to do them good, as he.

It is obvious, however, that this is a system both of jealousy and rigour. It is equally clear, that, to reward the soldiers, will be the chief thing; to spare the people a very subordinate consideration.

It will, indeed, for other reasons, be nearly impossible, under such a government, greatly to favour the people. The military class, holding the chief power, will claim the first place, in point of rank and honour. Soldiers would grow weary of their condition, if they were despised by the citizens, whom they are employed to keep in subjection. Besides, it would not be practicable, nor, perhaps, would it be good policy in the general, to allow the state of a citizen to be greatly preferable to that of a soldier.

It follows, also, that the inferiour kind of liberty, which many arbitrary governments venture to let their subjects enjoy, and which, prior to this revolution, all the European stutes seemed desirous to enlarge, will be denied to the French. For if they pretend to be free, they would soon corrupt the soldiery with their doctrines of equality. Hence, it is, that the liberty of the press bus been tried in France, and really found to be inconsistent with their plan of government. We call it their tyranny, to abridge it; the fact is, self-preservation is the first law of every government; and the liberty to make Buonaparte odious, and to combine all his enemies into a regular body against him, would soon oblige him to draw the sword in self-defence. The liberty of the press, under a military government, is, indeed, only the liberty to kindle a civil war.

For the same reason, martial law must be universal: the government will defend itself; and it cannot defend itself, unless it every where watches its enemies, and hinders them from acting as soon as they begin to stir. Free governments may consider many libels and lies as idle words; many others as worthy only of moderate fines; but there is no safety in permitting your town-meeting orators to tamper with an army. The government must be jealous, and is scarcely permitted to be either magnanimous or merciful: its fears will make it always strict, and often cruel.

It is not possible, therefore, that the French should enjoy one half of the little liberty they had under their kings. Their revolution will lessen it throughout Europe. But it is certain, that the most rigorous governments are the hardest to maintain in tranquillity. Trivial risings of the people are not to be expected: the certainty, that any small insurgent force would be instantly crushed by the great force of the army, will prevent any risings, but such as are serious straggles for empire, and these are to be expected.

A Great commander, with a hundred thousand men to second his designs, is crowned with success. The decision is made by the comparison of hostile forces, and the conqueror, having the greater force, claims the admiration of his countrymen, and despotick authority over them. He obtains it. But in peace he has fewer to aid his designs, and more to obstruct them. Those whom he gratifies will not be grateful; those whom he denies will be vindictive. Extravagant hopes are formed, and even great success in a peaceful administration will not be splendid. Few will admire; many will repine and be disappointed.

The circumstance, that his claim to reign is merely personal, will ensure disturbances. Tranquillity will not be expected to last longer than his life, and that expectation will abridge it. His indisposition, his old age, his mistakes, and his disasters, will all engender those forebodings of change, that will hasten changes. His ambitious lieutenants will aspire to his place, and will cabal in the army to gain a party to be ready to salute them emperours, as soon as he is dead, or has become odious.

Another consequence worth remark, is, that these changes have no tendency to establish liberty. A new struggle, like the old one, must be by violence, which can only give the sceptre to the most violent. The leaders will aim only at the power to reign, and it will not be their wish to lessen that power, which they hope to gais as a prize. The supreme power would not tempt them to such efforts, if it was to be made cheap and vile in their eyes, by bestowing it on the despised rabble of the cities and the common soldiery. These men are unfit for liberty; and, if they had it gained for them, would give it away to a demagogue, who would have, in six weeks, another army, and a new despotism, as hard to bear and to overturn as that which they had subverted. Nor could the leaders establish liberty if they tried: the supreme power being military, the contest can only determine what general shall hold it. A military government, in fact, though often changing its chief, is capable of very long duration. Rome, Turkey, and Algiers, are examples: France may prove another.

Thus the progress of mob equality is invariably to despotism, and to a military despotism, which, by often changing its head, embitters every one of the million of its curses, but which cannot change its nature. It renders liberty hopeless, and almost undesirable to its victims.

Used with the permission of Democratic Thinker.

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