Federalist Fisher Ames sends a draft treatise to a friend for review, in which he addresses the dangers he sees to the liberty of Americans. It remains unpublished until just after his death.
I fear, that the future fortunes of our country no longer depend on counsel. We have persevered in our errours too long to chance our propensities by now enlightening our convictions.
My dear Friend,
YOU will see the deficiencies and faults of this performance. You will see that the conclusion, if your life and patience should hold out to the end, is incomplete. There is, I dare say, tautology, perhaps contradiction. It is an effusion from the mind of the stock that was laid up in it, without any resort to books. Of course, it wants more facts, more illustrations, more exact method, to change its aspect of declamation and rhetorical flourish into a business performance. I know it is unequal. When the children cried, or my bead ached, the work flagged. To be of value enough for the author to own it, he must be allowed time, must be-stow on it more thought, search for facts and principles in pamphlets and larger works, and, in short, make it entirely over again.
Therefore, it is not shewn to you for publication, or approbation, as a thing that is written, but a subject proposed to be written upon, for which you will furnish hints and counsels.
IN February 1805, the following sketch of a dissertation on “The Dangers of American Liberty,” accompanied with a short familiar letter, was sent by Mr. Ames to a friend for his perusal. It was soon returned, for the purposes expressed in the author’s letter, with a hope that he would re-consider, revise, and complete it; and especially that he would fulfil his original design of applying his argument in a manner, that would lead the people to preserve as long as possible the civil blessings they enjoy, and not sacrifice them to delusive theories.
It does not appear, that the author ever resumed his subject, or that the manuscript was opened after that period, until since his death. Yet it is thought not improper to gratify the publick with a work, which, though quite imperfect, would, if it had been finished, have been found deeply interesting to its welfare.
WRITTEN IN THE BEGINNING OF THE YEAR 1805
Now first published .
Sic tibi persuade, me dies et noctes nihil aliud agere, nihil curare, nisi ut mei cives salvi libers que sint.—Ep. Famil. I. 24.
Be assured, therefore, that neither day nor night have I any cares, any labours, but for the safety and freedom of my fellow citizens.
I AM not positive, that it is of any immediate use to our country, that its true friends should better understand one another; nor am I apprehensive, that the crudities, which my ever hasty pen confides to my friends, will essentially mislead their opinion in respect either to myself or to publick affairs. At a time when men eminently wise cherish almost any hopes, however vain, because they choose to be blind to their fears, it would be neither extraordinary nor disreputable for me to mistake the degree of maturity, to which our political vices, have arrived, nor to err in computing how near or how far off we stand from the term of their fatal consummation.
I fear, that the future fortunes of our country no longer depend on counsel. We have persevered in our errours too long to chance our propensities by now enlightening our convictions. The political sphere, like the globe we tread upon, never stands still, but with a silent swiftness accomplishes the revolutions, which, we are too ready to believe, are effected by our wisdom, or might have been controlled by our efforts. There is a kind of fatality in the affairs of republicks, that eludes the foresight of the wise, as much as it frustrates the toils and sacrifices of the patriot and the hero. Events proceed, not as they were expected or intended, but as they are impelled by the irresistible laws of our political existence. Things inevitable happen, and we are astonished, as if they were miracles, and the course of nature had been overpowered or suspended to produce them. Hence it is, that, till lately, more than half our countrymen believed our publick tranquillity was firmly established, and that our liberty did not merely rest upon dry land, but was wedged, or rather rooted high above the flood in the rocks of granite, as immovably as the pillars that prop the universe. They, or at least the discerning of them, are at length no less disappointed than terrified to perceive that we have all the time floated, with a fearless and unregarded course, down the stream of events, till we are now visibly drawn within the revolutionary suction of Niagara, and every thing that is liberty will be dashed to pieces in the descent.
We have been accustomed to consider the pretension of Englishmen to be free, as a proof how completely they were broken to subjection, or hardened in imposture. We have insisted, that they had no constitution, because they never made one; and that their boasted government, which is just what time and accident have made it, was palsied with age, and blue with the plague-sores of corruption. We have believed, that it derived its stability, not from reason, but from prejudice; that it is supported, not because it is favourable to liberty, but as it is dear to national pride; that it is reverenced, not for its excellence, but because ignorance is naturally the idolater of antiquity; that it is not sound and healthful, but derives a morbid energy from disease, and an unaccountable aliment from the canker that corrodes its vitals.
But we maintained, that the federal constitution, with all the bloom of youth and splendour of innocence, was gifted with immortality. For, if time should impair its force, or faction tarnish its charms, the people, ever vigilant to discern its wants, ever powerful to provide for them, would miracuiously restore it to the field, like some wounded hero of the epick, to take a signal vengeance on its enemies, or like Antæus, invigorated by touching his mother earth, to rise the stronger for a fall.
There is, of course, a large portion of our citizens, who will not believe, even on the evidence of facts, that any pubiick evils exist, or are impending. They deride the apprehensions of those who foresee, that licentiousness will prove, as it ever has proved, fatal to liberty. They consider her as a nymph, who need not be coy to keep herself pure, but that, on the contrary, her chastity will grow robust by frequent scuffles with her seducers. They say, while a faction is a minority, it will remain harmless by being outvoted; and if it should become a majority, all its acts, however profligate or violent, are then legitimate. For, with the democrats, the people is a sovereign who can do no wrong, even when he respects and spares no existing right, and whose voice, however obtained or however counterfeited, bears all the sanctity and all the force of a living divinity.
Where, then, it will be asked, in a tone both of menace and of triumph, can the people’s dangers lie, unless it be with the persecuted federalists? They are the partisans of monarchy, who propagate their principles in order, as soon as they have increased their sect, to introduce a king; for by this only avenue they foretell his approach. Is it possible the people should ever be their own enemies? If all government were dissolved to-day, would they not re-establish it to-morrow, with no other prejudice to the publick liberty, than some superfluous fears of its friends, some abortive projects of its enemies? Nay, would not liberty rise resplendent with the light of fresh experience, and coated in the seven-fold mail of constitutional amendments?
These opinions are fiercely maintained, not only as if there were evidence to prove them, but as if it were a merit to believe them, by men who tell you, that, in the most desperate extremity of faction or usurpation, we have an unfailing resource in the good sense of the nation. They assure us there is at least as much wisdom in the people, as in these ingenious tenets of their creed.
For any purpose, therefore, of popular use or general impression, it seems almost fruitless to discuss the question, whether our publick liberty can subsist, and what is to be the condition of that awful futurity to which we are hastening. The clamours of party are so loud, and the resistance of national vanity is so stubborn, it will be impossible to convince any but the very wise, (and in every state they are the very few) that our democratick liberty is utterly untenable; that we are devoted to the successive struggles of factions, who will rule by turns, the worst of whom will rule last, and triumph by the sword. But for the wise this unwelcome task is, perhaps, superfluous: they, possibly, are already convinced.
All such men are, or ought to be, agreed, that simple governments are despotisms; and of all despotisms a democracy, though the least durable, is the most violent. It is also true, that all the existing governments we are acquainted with are more or less mixed, or balanced and checked, however imperfectly, by the ingredients and principles that belong to the other simple sorts. It is, nevertheless, a fact, that there is scarcely any civil constitution in the world, that, according to American ideas, is so mixed and combined as to be favourable to the liberty of the subject—none, absolutely none, that an American patriot would be willing to adopt for, much less to impose on, his country. Without pretending to define that liberty, which writers at length agree is incapable of any precise and comprehensive definition, all the European governments, except the British, admit a most formidable portion of arbitrary power; whereas, in America, no plan of government, without a large and preponderating commixture of democracy, can, for a moment, possess our confidence and attachment.
It is unquestionable, that the concern of the people in the affairs of such a government, tends to elevate the character and enlarge the comprehension, as well as the enjoyments, of the citizens; and, supposing the government wisely constituted, and the laws steadily and firmly carried into execution, these effects, in which every lover of mankind must exult, will not be attended with a corresponding depravation of the publick manners and morals. I have never yet met with an American of any party, who seemed willing to exclude the people from their temperate and well-regulated share of concern in the government. Indeed, it is notorious, that there was scarcely an advocate for the federal constitution, who was not anxious, from the first, to hazard the experiment of an unprecedented, and almost unqualified proportion of democracy, both in constructing and administering the government, and who did not rely with confidence, if not blind presumption, on its success. This is certain, the body of the federalists were always, and yet are essentially democratick in their political notions. The truth is, the American nation, with ideas and prejudices wholly democratick, undertook to frame, and expected tranquilly, and with energy and success, to administer a republican government.
It is, and ever has been my belief, that the federal constitution was as good, or very nearly as good, as our country could bear; that the attempt to introduce a mixed monarchy was never thought of, and would have failed, if it had been made; and could have proved only an inveterate curse to the nation, if it had been adopted cheerfully, and even unanimously, by the people. Our materials for a government were all democratick, and whatever the hazard of their combination may be, our Solons and Lycurguses in the convention had no alternative, nothing to consider, but how to combine them, so as to ensure the longest duration to the constitution, and the most favourable chance for the publick liberty in the event of those changes, which the frailty of the structure of our government, the operation of time and accident, and the maturity and developement of the national character were well understood to portend. We should have succeeded worse, if we had trusted to our metaphysicks more. Experience must be our physician, though his medicines may kill.
The danger obviously was, that a species of government, in which the people choose all the rulers, and then, by themselves, or ambitious demagogues pretending to be the people, claim and exercise an effective control over what is called the government, would be found on trial no better than a turbulent, licentious democracy. The danger was, that their best interests would be neglected, their dearest rights violated, their sober reason silenced, and the worst passions of the worst men not only freed from legal restraint, but invested with publick power. The known propensity of a democracy is to licentiousness, which the ambitious call, and the ignorant believe to be liberty.
The great object, then, of political wisdom in framing our constitution, was to guurd against licentiousness, that inbred malady of democracies, that deforms their infancy with grey hairs and decrepitude.
The federalists relied much on the efficiency of an independent judiciary, as a check on the hasty turbulence of the popular passions. They supposed the senate proceeding from the states, and chosen for six years, would form a sort of balance to the democracy, and realise the hope, that a federal republick of states might subsist. They counted much on the information of the citizens; that they would give their unremitted attention to publick affairs; that either dissensions would not arise in our happy country, or, if they should, that the citizens would remain calm, and would walk, like the three Jews in Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace, unharmed amidst the fires of party.
It is needless to ask, how rational such hopes were, or how far experience has verified them.
The progress of party has given to Virginia a preponderance, that, perhaps, was not foreseen. Certainly, since the late amendment in the article for the choice of president and vice-president, there is no existing provision of any efficacy to counteract it.
The project of arranging states in a federal union, has long been deemed by able writers and statesmen more promising than the scheme of a single republick. The experiment, it has been supposed, has not yet been fairly tried; and much has been expected from the example of America.
If states were neither able nor inclined to obstruct the federal union, much, indeed, might be hoped from such a confederation. But Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New-York are of an extent sufficient to form potent monarchies, and, of course, are too powerful, as well as too proud, to be subjects of the federal laws. Accordingly, one of the first schemes of amendment, and the most early executed, was, to exempt them in form from the obligations of justice. States are not liable to be sued. Either the federal head or the powerful members must govern. Now, as it is a thing ascertained by experience, that the great states are not willing, and cannot be compelled to obey the union, it is manifest, that their ambition is most singularly invited to aspire to the usurpation or control of the powers of the confederacy. A confederacy of many states, all of them small in extent and population, not only might not obstruct, but happily facilitate the federal authority. But the late presidential amendment demonstrates the overwhelming preponderance of several great states, combining together to engross the control of federal affairs.
There never has existed a federal union, in which the leading states were not ambitious to rule, and did not endeavour to rule by fomenting factions in the small states, and thus engross the management of the federal concerns. Hence it was, that Sparta, at the head of the Peloponnesus, filled all Greece with terrour and dissension. In every city she had an aristocratical party to kill or to banish the popular faction, that was devoted to her rival, Athens; so that each city was inhabited by two hostile nations, whom no laws of war could control, no leagues or treaties bind. Sometimes Athens, sometimes Sparta took the ascendant, and influenced the decrees of the famous Amphyctionick council, the boasted federal head of the Grecian republicks. But at all times that head was wholly destitute of authority, except when violent and sanguinary measures were dictated to it by some preponderant member. The small states were immediately reduced to an absolute nullity, and were subject to the most odious of all oppressions, the domination of one state over another state.
The Grecian states, forming the Amphyctionick league, composed the most illustrious federal republick that ever existed. Its dissolution and ruin were brought about by the operation of the principles and passions, that are inherent in all such associations. The Thebans, one of the leading states, uniting with the Thessalians, both animated by jealousy and resentment against the Phocians, procured a decree of the council of the Amphyctions, where their joint influence predominated, as that of Virginia now does in congress, condemning the Phocians to a heavy fine for some pretended sacrilege they had committed on the lands consecrated to the temple of Delphi. Finding the Phocians, as they expected and wished, not inclined to submit, by a second decree they devoted their lands to the god of that temple, and called upon all Greece to arm in their sacred cause, for so they affected to call it. A contest thus began, which was doubly sanguinary, because it combined the characters of a religious and civil war, and Raged for more than ten years. In the progress of it, the famous Philip of Macedon found means to introduce himself as a party; and the nature of his measures, as well as their final success, is an everlasting warning to all federal repubJicks. He appears from the first moment of his reign to have planned the subjugation of Greece; and in two and twenty years he accomplished his purpose.
After having made his escape from the city of Thebes, where he had been a hostage, he had to recover his hereditary kingdom, weakened by successive defeats, and distracted with factions, from foreign invaders and from two dangerous competitors of his throne. As soon as he became powerful, his restless ambition sought every opportunity to intermeddle in the affairs of Greece, in respect to which Macedonia was considered an alien, and the sacred war soon furnished it. Invited by the Thessalians to assist them against the Phocians, he pretended an extraordinary zeal for religion, as well as respect for the decree of the Amphyctions. Like more modern demagogues, he made use of his popularity first to prepare the way for his arms. He had no great difficulty in subduing them; and obtained for his reward another Amphyctionick decree, by which the vote of Phocis was for ever transferred to Philip and his descendants. Philip soon after took possession of the pass of Thermopylae, and within eight year’s turned his arms against those very Thebans, whom he had before assisted. They had no refuge in the federal union, Which they had helped to enfeeble. They were utterly defeated; Thebes, the pride of Greece, was razed to the ground; the citizens were sold into slavery; and the national liberties Were extinguished for ever.
Here let Americans read their own history. Here let even Virginia learn, how perilous and how frail will be the consummation of her schemes. Powerful states, that combine to domineer over the weak, will be inevitably divided by their success, and ravaged with civil war, often baffled, always agitated by intrigue, shaken with alarms, and finally involved in one common slavery and ruin, of which they are no less conspicuously the artificers than the victims.
If, in the nature of things, there could be any experience, which would be extensively instructive, but our own, all history lies open for our warning, open like a church-yard, all whose lessons are solemn, and chiseled for eternity in the hard stone, lessons that whisper, O! that they could thunder to republicks, “your passions and vices forbid you to be free.”
But experience, though she teaches wisdom, teaches it too late. The most signal events pass away unprofitably for the generation, in which they occur, till at length a people, deaf to the things that belong to its peace, is destroyed or enslaved, because it will not be instructed.
From these reflections the political observer will infer, that the American republick is impelled by the force of state ambition and of democratick licentiousness; and he will inquire, which of the two is our strongest propensity. Is the sovereign power to be contracted to a state centre? Is Virginia to be our Rome? and are we to be her Latin or Italian allies, like them to be emulous of the honour of our chains, on the terms of imposing them on Louisiana, Mexico, or Santa Fe? Or, are we to run the giddy circle of popular licentiousness, beginning in delusion, quickened by vice, and ending in wretchedness
But, though these two seem to be contrary impulses, it will appear, nevertheless, on examination, that they really lead to but one result.
The great state of Virginia has fomented a licentious spirit among all her neighbours. Her citizens imagine, that they are democrats, and their abstract theories are in fact democratick; but their state policy is that of a genuine aristocracy or oligarchy. Whatever their notions or their state practice may be, their policy, as it respects the other states, is to throw all power into the hands of democratick zealots or jacobin knaves; for some of these may be deluded and others bought to promote her designs. And, even independently of a direct Virginia influence, every state faction will find its account in courting the alliance and promoting the views of this great leader. Those who labour to gain a factious power in a state, and those who aspire to get a paramount jurisdiction over it, will not be slow to discern, that they have a common cause to pursue.
In the intermediate progress of our affairs, the ambition of Virginia may be gratified. So long as popular licentiousness is operating with no lingering industry to effect our yet unfinished ruin, she may flourish the whip of dominion in her hands; but, as soon as it is accomplished, she will be the associate of our shame, and bleed under its lashes. For democratick license leads not to a monarchy regulated by laws, but to the ferocious despotism of a chieftain, who owes his elevation to arms and violence, and leans on his sword as the only prop of his dominion. Such a conqueror, jealous and fond of nothing but his power, will care no more for Virginia, though he may rise by Virginia, than Buonaparte does for Corsica. Virginia will then find, that, like ancient Thebes, she has worked for Philip, and forged her own fetters.
There are few, even among the democrats, who will doubt, though to a man they will deny, that the ambition of that state is inordinate, and, unless seasonably counteracted, will be fatal; yet they will persevere in striving for power in their states, before they think it necessary, or can find it convenient to attend to her encroachments.
But there are not many, perhaps not five hundred, even among the federalists, who yet allow themselves to view the progress of licentiousness as so speedy, so sure, and so fatal as the deplorable experience of our country shews that it is, and the evidence of history and the constitution of human nature demonstrate that it must be.
The truth is, such an opinion, admitted with all the terrible light of its proof, no less shocks our fears than our vanity, no less disturbs our quiet than our prejudices. We are summoned by the tocsin to every perilous and painful duty. Our days are made heavy with the pressure of anxiety, and our nights restless with visions of horrour. We listen to the clank of chains, and overhear the whispers of assassins. We mark the barbarous dissonance of mingled rage and triumph in the yell of an infatuated mob; we see the dismal glare of their burnings and scent the loathsome steam of human victims offered in sacrifice.
These reflections may account for the often lamented blindness, as well as apathy of our well-disposed citizens. Who would choose to study the tremendous records of the fates, or to remain long in the dungeon of the furies? Who, that is penetrating enough to foresee our scarcely hidden destiny, is hardy enough to endure its anxious contemplation?
It may not long be more safe to disturb, than it is easy to enlighten the democratick faith in regard to our political propensities, since it will neither regard what is obvious, nor yield to the impression of events, even after they have happened. The thoughtless and ignorant care for nothing but the name of liberty, which is as much the end as the instrument of party, and equally fills up the measure of their comprehension and desires. According to the conception of such men, the publick liberty can never perish: it will enjoy immortality, like the dead in the memory of the living. We have heard the French prattle about its rights, and seen them swagger in the fancied possession of its distinctions, long after they were crushed by the weight of their chains. The Romans were not only amused, but really made vain, by the boast of their liberty, while they sweated and trembled under the despotism of emperours, the most odious monsters that ever infested the earth. It is remarkable, that Cicero, with all his dignity and good sense, found it a popular seasoning of his harangue, six years after Julius Cesar had established a monarchy, and only six months before Octavius. totally subverted the commonwealth, to say: “it is not possible for the people of Rome to be slaves, whom the gods have destined to the command of all nations. Other nations may endure slavery, but the proper end and business of the Roman people is liberty.”
This very opinion in regard to the destinies of our country is neither less extensively diffused, nor less solidly established. Such men will persist in thinking our liberty cannot be in danger, till it is irretrievably lost. It is even the boast of multitudes, that our system of government is a pure democracy.
What is there left, that can check its excesses or retard the velocity of its fall? Not the control of the several states, for they already whirl in the vortex of faction; and, of consequence, not the senate, which is appointed by the states. Surely not the judiciary, for we cannot expect the office of the priesthood from the victim at the altar. Are we to be sheltered by the force of ancient manners? Will this be sufficient to control the two evil spirits of license and innovation? Where is any vestige of those manners left, but in New-England? and even in New-England their authority is contested and their purity debased. Are our civil and religious institutions to stand so firmly, as to sustain themselves and so much of the fabrick of the publick order as is propped by their support? On the contrary, do we not find the ruling faction in avowed hostility to our religious institutions? In eftect, though not in form, their protection is abandoned by our laws, and confided to the steadiness of sentiment and fashion; and, if they are still powerful auxiliaries of lawful authority, it is owing to the tenaciousness, with which even a degenerate people maintain their habits, and to a yet remaining, though impaired veneration for the maxims of our ancestors. We are changing, and, if democracy triumphs in New-England, it is to be apprehended, that in a few years we shall be as prone to disclaim our great progenitors, as they, if they should return again to the earth, with grief and shame to disown their degenerate descendants.
Is the turbulence of our democracy to be restrained by preferring to the magistracy only the grave and upright, the men who profess the best moral and religious principles, and whose lives bear testimony in favour of their profession, whose virtues inspire confidence, whose services, gratitude, and whose talents command admiration? Such magistrates would add dignity to the best government, and disarm the malignity of the worst. But the bare moving of this question will be understood as a sarcasm by men of both parties. The powers of impudence itself are scarcely adequate to say, that our magistrates are such men. The atrocities of a distinguished tyrant might provoke satire to string his bow, and with the arrow of Philoctetes to inflict the immedicable wound. We have no Juvenal; and if we had, he would scorn to dissect the vice that wants firmness for the knife, to elevate that he might hit his object, and to dignify low profligacy to be the vehicle of a loathsome immortality.
It never has happened in the world, and it never will, that a democracy has been kept out of the control of the fiercest and most turbulent spirits in the society; they will breathe into it all their own fury, and make it subservient to the worst designs of the worst men.
Although it does not appear, that the science of good government has made any advances since the invention of printing, it is nevertheless the opinion of many, that this art has risen, like another sun in the sky, to shed new light and joy on the political world. The press, however, has left the understanding of the mass of men just where it found it; but, by supplying an endless stimulus to their imagination and passions, it has rendered their temper and habits infinitely worse. It has inspired ignorance with presumption, so that those who cannot be governed by reason, are no longer to be awed by authority. The many, who before the art of printing never mistook in a case of oppression, because they complained from their actual sense of it, have become susceptible of every transient enthusiasm and of more than womanish fickleness of caprice. Publick affairs are transacted now on a stage where all the interest and passions grow out of fiction, or are inspired by the art, and often controlled at the pleasure of the actors. The press is a new and, certainly, a powerful agent in human affairs. It will change, but it is difficult to conceive how, by rendering men indocile and presumptuous, it can change societies for the better. They are pervaded by its heat and kept for ever restless by its activity. While it has impaired the force that every just government can employ in self-defence, it has imparted to its enemies the secret of that wildfire, that blazes with the most consuming fierceness on attempting to quench it.
Shall we then be told, that the press will constitute an adequate check to the progress of every species of tyranny? Is it to be denied, that the press has been the base and venal instrument of the very men whom it ought to gibbet to universal abhorrence? While they were climbing to power, it aided their ascent; and now they have reached it, does it not conceal or justify their abominations? Or, while it is confessed, that the majority of citizens form their ideas of men and measures almost solely from the light that reaches them through the magick lantern of the press, do our comforters still depend on the all-restoring, all-preserving power of general information? and are they not destitute of all this, or rather of any better information themselves, if they can urge this vapid nonsense in the midst of a yet spreading political delusion, in the midst of the “palpable obscure” that settles on the land, from believing what is fulse, and misconstruing what is true? Can they believe all this, when they consider how much truth is impeded by party on its way to the pubiick understanding, and even after having reached it, how much it still falls short of its proper mark, while it leaves the envious, jealous, vindictive will unconquered?
Our mistake, and in which we choose to persevere, because our vanity shrinks from the detection, is, that in political affairs, by only determining what men ought to think, we are sure how they will act; and when we know the facts, and are assiduous to collect and present the evidence, we dupe ourselves with the expectation, that, as there is but one result which wise men can believe, there is but one course of conduct deduced from it, which honest men can approve or pursue. We forget, that in framing the judgment every passion is both an advocate and a witness. We lay out of our account, how much essential information there is that never reaches the multitude, and of the mutilated portion that does, how much is unwelcome to party prejudice; and, therefore, that they may still maintain their opinions, they withhold their attention. We seem to suppose, while millions raise so loud a cry about their sovereign power, and really concentre both their faith and their affections in party, that the bulk of mankind will regard no counsels, but such as are suggested by their conscience. Let us dare to speak out; is there any single despot who avowedly holds himself so superiour to its dictates?
But our manners are too mild, they tell us, for a democracy—then democracy will change those manners. Our morals are too pure—then it will corrupt them.
What, then, is the necessary conclusion from the view we have taken of the insufficiency or extinction of all conceivable checks? It is such as ought to strike terrour, but will scarcely raise publick curiosity.
Is it not possible, then, it will be asked, to write and argue down opinions that are so mischievous and only plausible, and men who are even more profligate than exalted? Can we not persuade our citizens to be republican again, so as to rebuild the splendid ruins of the state on the Washington foundation? Thus it is, that we resolve to perpetuate our own delusions, and to cherish our still frustrated and confuted hopes. Let only ink enough be shed, and let democracy rage, there will be no blood. Though the evil is fixed in our nature, all, we think, will be safe, because we fancy we can see a remedy floating in our opinions.
It is undoubtedly a salutary labour, to diffuse among the citizens of a free state, as far as the thing is possible, a just knowledge of their publick affairs. But the difficulty of this task is augmented exactly in proportion to the freedom of the state; for the more free the citizens, the bolder and more profligate will be their demagogues, the more numerous and eccentrick the popular errours, and the more vehement and pertinacious the passions that defend them.
Yet, as if there were neither vice nor passion in the world, one of the loudest of our boasts, one of the dearest of all the tenets of our creed is, that we are a sovereign people, self-governed—it would be nearer truth to say, self-conceited. For in what sense is it true, that any people, however free, are self-governed? If they have in fact no government, but such as comports with their ever varying and often inordinate desires, then it is anarchy; if it counteracts those desires, it is compulsory. The, is not governed at all; and if any considerable number, and especially any combination of individuals, find or can place themselves in this situation, then the society is no longer free. For liberty obviously consists in the salutary restraint, and not in the uncontrolled indulgence of such humours. Now of all desires, none will so much need restraint, or so impatiently endure it, as those of the ambitious, who will form factions, first to elude, then to rival, and finally to usurp the powers of the state; and of the sons of vice, who are the enemies of law, because no just law can be their friend. The first want to govern the state; and the others, that the state should not govern them. A sense of common interest will soon incline these two original factions of every free state to coalesce into one.
So far as men are swayed by authority, or impelled or excited by their fears and affections, they naturally search for some persons as the sources and objects of these effects and emotions. It is pretty enough to say, the republick commands, and the love of the repubiick dictates obedience to the heart of every citizen. This is system, but is it nature? The repubiick is a creature of fiction; it is every body in the fancy, but nobody in the heart. Love, to be any thing, must be select and exclusive. We may as well talk of loving geometry as the commonwealth. Accordingly, there are many who seldom try to reason, and are the most misled when they do. Such men are, of necessity, governed by their prejudices. They neither comprehend nor like any thing of a repubiick, but their party and their leaders. These last are persons, capable of meriting, at least of knowing and rewarding their zeal and exertions. Hence it is, that the republicanism of a great mass of people is often nothing more, than a blind trust in certain favourites, and a no less blind and still more furious hatred of their enemies. Thus, a free society, by the very nature of liberty, is often ranged into rival factions, who mutually practise and suffer delusion by the abuse of the best names, but who really contend for nothing but the pre-eminence of their leaders.
In a democracy, the elevation of an equal convinces many, if not all, that the height to which he is raised is not inaccessible. Ambition wakes from its long sleep in every soul, and wakes, like one of Milton’s fallen angels, to turn its tortures into weapons against the pubiick order. The multitude behold their favourite with eyes of love and wonder; and with the more of both, as he is a new favourite, and owes his greatness wholly to their favour. Who among the little does not swell into greatness, when he thus reflects, that he has assisted to make great men? And who of the popular favourites loses a minute to flatter this vanity in every brain, till it turns it?
The late equals of the new-made chief behold his rise with very different emotions. They view him near, and have long been accustomed to look behind the disguises of his hypocrisy. They know his vices and his foibles, and that the foundations of his fame are as false and hollow as his professions. Nevertheless, it maybe their interest or their necessity to serve him for a time. But the instant they can supplant him, they will spare neither intrigues nor violence to effect it. Thus, a democratick system in its very nature teems with faction and revolution. Yet, though it continually tends to shift its head, its character is immutable. Its constancy is in change.
The theory of a democracy supposes, that the will of the people ought to prevail, and that, as the majority possess not only the better right, but the superiour force, of course, it will prevail. A greater force, they argue, will inevitably overcome a less. When a constitution provides, with an imposing solemnity of detail, for the collection of the opinions of a majority of the citizens, every sanguine reader not only becomes assured, that the will of the people must prevail, but he goes further, and refuses to examine the reasons, and to excuse the incivism and presumption of those who can doubt of this inevitable result. Yet common sense and our own recent experience have shewn, that a combination of a very small minority can effectually defeat the authority of the national will. The votes of a majority may sometimes, though not invariably, shew what ought to be done; but to awe or subdue the force of a thousand men, the government must call out the superiour force of two thousand men. It is, therefore, established the very instant it is brought to the test, that the mere will of a majority is inefficient and without authority. And as to employing a superiour force to procure obedience, which a democratick government has an undoubted right to do, and so, indeed, has every other, it is obvious, that the admitted necessity of this resort completely overthrows all the boasted advantages of the democratick system. For, if obedience cannot be procured by reason, it must be obtained by compulsion; and this is exactly what every other government will do in a like case.
Still, however, the friends of the democratick theory will maintain, that this dire resort to force will be exceedingly rare, because the publick reason will be more clearly expressed and more respectfully understood, than under any other form of government. The citizens will be, of course, self-governed, as it will be their choice as well as duty to obey the laws.
[ End Part I. ]
Courtesy of Democratic Thinker.