Fisher Ames: Equality No. 1

American Debate

lettericonIn 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.

Those who could not be ruled by reason, resolved that they would not be restrained by power.

Fisher Ames. New England Palladium, November, 1801.

fisher amesTHERE are some popular maxims, which are scarcely credited as true, and yet are cherished as precious, and defended as even sacred. Most of the demotratick articles of faith are blended with truth, and seem to be true; and they so comfortably sooth the pride and envy of the heart, that it swells with resentment, when they are contested, and suffers some spasms of apprehension, even when they are examined.

Mr. Thomas Paine’s writings abound with this sort of specious falsehoods and perverted truths. Of all his doctrines none, perhaps, has created more agitation and alarm than that, which proclaims to all men, that they are free and equal. This creed is older than its supposed author, and was thread-bare in America, before Mr. Paine ever saw our shores; yet it had the effect, in other parts of the world, of novelty. It was news, that the French revolution scattered through the world. It made the spirit of restlessness and innovation universal. Those who could not be ruled by reason, resolved that they would not be restrained by power. Those who had been governed by law, hungered and thirsted to enjoy, or rather to exercise, the new prerogatives of a democratick majority, which, of right, could establish, and, for any cause or no cause at all, could change. They believed that by making their own and other men’s passions sovereign, they should invest man with immediate perfectibility, and breathe into their regenerated liberty an ethereal spirit that would never die. Slaves grew weary of their chains, and freemen sick of their rights. The true liberty had no charms, but such as the philosophists affirmed had been already rifled. The lazaroni of Naples, fifty thousand houseless, naked wretches, heard of their rights and considered their wants as so many wrongs. The soldiers of Prussia were ready for town-meetings. Even in Constantinople, it seemed as if the new doctrine would overpower the sedative action of opium, and stimulate the drowsy Turks to a Parisian frenzy. It is not strange, that slaves should sigh for liberty, as for some unknown good. But England and the United States of America, while in the full fruition of it, were almost tempted to renounce its possession for its promise. Societies were formed in both countries, which considered and represented their patriotism as the remnant of their prejudices; and the old defences of their liberty as the fortresses of an enemy, the means and the badges of their slavish subjection.

All men being free and equal, rulers become our servants, from whom we claim obligation, though we do not admit their right to exact any. This generation, being equal to the last, owes no obedience to its institutions; and, being wiser, owes them not even deference. It would be treachery to man, so long obstructed and delayed in his progress towards perfectibility, to forbear to exercise his rights. What if the existing governments should resist this new claim of the people, yet the people to be free, have only to will it! What if this age should bleed, the next, or the twentieth after this, will be disencumbered from the rubbish of the gothick building that we have subverted; and may lay the foundations of liberty as deep, and raise the pillars of its temple as high, as those who think correctly of its perpetuity and grandeur can desire.

With opinions so wild, and passions so fierce, the spirit of democracy has been sublimated to extravagance. There was nothing in the danger that affected other men’s persons or rights that could intimidate, nothing in their sufferings that could melt them. They longed to see kings, and priests, and nobles expiring in tortures. This humane sentiment Barlow has exressed in verse. The massacres of Paris, the siege of Lyons, the drownings of Nantz, the murders in the name of justice, that made hosts of assassins weary of their work, were so many evils necessary to bring about good, or only so many acts of just retaliation of the oppressed upon their oppressors. The “enlightened” philosophies surveyed the agitations of the world, as if they did not live in it; as if they occupied, as mere spectators, a safe position in some star, and beheld revolutions sometimes brightening the disk of this planet with their fires, and at others dimming it with their vapours. They could contemplate, unmoved, the whirlwind, lifting the hills from their base, and mixing their ruins with the clouds. They could see the foundations of society gaping in fissures, as when an earthquake struggles from the centre. A true philosopher is superiour to humanity: he could walk at ease over this earth, if it were unpeopled; he could tread, with all the pleasure of curiosity, on its cinders, the day after the final conflagration.

Equality, they insist, will indemnify mankind for all these apprehensions and sufferings. As some ages of war and anarchy may pass away, before the evils incident to the struggles of a revolution are exhausted, this generation might be allowed to have some cause to object to innovations, that are certainly to make them wretched, although, possibly, the grandchildren of their grandchildren may be the better for their sufferings. This slender hope, however, is all that the illuminists have proposed, as the indemnity for all the crimes and misery of France, and all the horrours of the new revolutions, that they wish to engender in Europe, from the Bosphorus to the Baltick. What is meant by this boastful equality? and what is its value?

Source: Courtesy of Democratic Thinker.