The Constitution—Fabius Letter 1

Observations on the Proposed Constitution.

John Dickinson, in a series of letters published in the Delaware Gazette under the signature of Fabius, offers support for the new constitution being proposed to replace the Articles of Confederation; without—as was typical of Dickinson who was not a Federalist—the harsh partisanship of either the Federalists or the Democrats.

What concerns all, should be considered by all; and individuals may injure a whole society, by not declaring their sentiments. It is therefore not only their right, but their duty, to declare them.

Letters of Fabius
Observations on the Constitution
Proposed by the Federal Convention.

Letter I.

John Dickinson

THE constitution proposed by the federal convention, now engages the fixed attention of America.

Every person appears to be affected. Those who wish the adoption of the plan, consider its rejection as the source of endless contests, confusions, and misfortunes; and they also consider a resolution to alter, without previously adopting it, as a rejection.

Those who oppose the plan, are influenced by different views. Some of them are friends, others of them are enemies, to the United States. The latter are of two classes; either men without principles or fortunes, who think they may have a chance to mend their circumstances, with impunity, under a weak government, or in public convulsions, but cannot make them worse even by the last—or men who have been always averse to the revolution; and though at first confounded by that event, yet, their hopes reviving with the declension of our affairs, have since persuaded themselves that at length the people, tired out with their continued distresses, will return to their former connection with Great-Britain. To argue with these opposers would be vain.—The other opposers of the plan deserve the highest respect.

What concerns all, should be considered by all; and individuals may injure a whole society, by not declaring their sentiments. It is therefore not only their right, but their duty, to declare them. Weak advocates of a good cause, or artful advocates of a bad one, may endeavour to stop such communications, or to discredit them by clamour and calumny. This, however, is not the age for such tricks of controversy. Men have suffered so severely by being deceived upon subjects of the highest import, those of religion and freedom, that TRUTH becomes infinitely valuable to them, not as a matter of curious speculation, but of beneficial practice—a spirit of inquiry is excited, information diffused, judgment strengthened.

Before this tribunal of THE PEOPLE, let every one freely speak, what he really thinks, but with so sincere a reverence for the cause he ventures to discuss, as to use the utmost caution, lest he should lead any into errors, upon a point of such sacred concern as the public happiness.

It is not the design of this address to describe the present derangement of our affairs, the mischiefs that must ensue from its continuance, the horrors of a total dissolution of the union, or of the division of it into partial confederacies. Nor is it intended to describe the evils that will result from pursuing the plan of another federal convention; as if a better temper of conciliation, or a more satisfactory harmony of decisions, could be expected from men, after their minds are agitated with disgusts and disappointments, than before they were thus disturbed; though from an uncontradicted assertion it appears, that without such provocations, the difficulty of reconciling the interests of the several states was so near to INSUPERABLE, in the late convention, that after many weeks spent in the most faithful labours to promote concord, the members were upon the very point of dispersing in the utmost disorder, jealousy and resentment, and leaving the states exposed to all the tempests of passions, that have been so fatal to confederacies of republics.

All these things, with observations on particular articles of the constitution, have been laid before the public, and the writer of this address means not to repeat what has been already said. What he wishes, is to simplify the subject, so as to facilitate the inquiries of his fellow-citizens.

Many are the objections made to the system proposed. They should be distinguished. Some may be called local because they spring from the supposed interests of individual states. Thus, for instance, some inhabitants of large states may desire the system to be so altered, that they may possess more authority in the decisions of the government: or some inhabitants of commercial states may desire it to be so altered, that the advantages of trade may center almost wholly among themselves; and this predilection they may think compatible with the common welfare. Their judgment being thus warped, at the beginning of their deliberations, objections are accumulated as very important, that, without this prepossession, would never have obtained their approbation. Certain it is, that strong understandings may be so influenced by this insulated patriotism, as to doubt—whether general benefits can be communicated by a general government. *

Probably nothing would operate so much for the correction of these errors, as the perusal of the accounts transmitted to us by the ancients, of the calamities occasioned in Greece by a conduct founded on similar mistakes. They are expressly ascribed to this cause—that each city meditated a part on its own profit and ends—insomuch that those WHO SEEMED TO CONTEND FOR UNION, could never relinquish their own interests and advancement, while they deliberated for the public.

Heaven grant! that our countrymen may pause in time—duly estimate the present moment—and solemnly reflect—whether their measures may not tend to draw down the same distractions upon us, that desolated Greece.

They may now tolerably judge from the proceedings of the federal convention and of other conventions, what are the sentiments of America upon her present and future prospects. Let the voice of her distress be venerated—and adhering to the generous Virginian declaration, let them resolve to “cling to union as the political rock of our salvation.”


Philadelphia, April 10, 1788.

  • See some late publications.
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