The Constitution—Fabius Letter 3

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.

He carries into society the naked rights received from nature. These thereby improved, he carries still forward into confederation. If that sacred law before mentioned, is not here observed, the confederation would not be real, but pretended. He would confide, and be deceived.

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

Letter III.

John Dickinson

THE writer of this address hopes, that he will now be thought so disengaged from the objections against the principle assumed, that he maybe excused for recurring to his assertion, that—the power of the people pervading the proposed system, together with the strong confederation of the states, will form an adequate security against every danger that has been apprehended.

It is a mournful, but may be a useful truth, that the liberty of single republics has generally been destroyed by some of the citizens, and of confederated republics, by some of the associated states.

It is more pleasing, and may be more profitable to reflect, that, their tranquillity and prosperity have commonly been promoted, in proportion to the strength of their government for protecting the worthy against the licentious.

As in forming a political society, each individual contributes some of his rights, in order that he may, from a common stock of rights, derive greater benefits, than he could from merely his own; so, in forming a confederation, each political society should contribute such a share of their rights, as will, from a common stock of these rights, produce the largest quantity of benefits for them.

But, what is that share? and how to be managed? Momentous questions! Here, flattery is treason; and error, destruction.

Are they unanswerable? No. Our most gracious Creator does not condemn us to sigh for unattainable blessedness: but one thing he demands—that we should seek for happiness in his way, and not in our own.

Humility and benevolence must take place of pride and over-weening selfishness. Reason, rising above these mists, will then discover to us, that we cannot be true to ourselves, without being true to others—that to love not ourselves only, but our neighbours also, is to love ourselves in the best manner—that to give, is to gain—and, that we never consult our own happiness more effectually, than when we most endeavour to correspond with the divine designs by communicating happiness, as much as we can, to our fellow-creatures. Inestimable truth! sufficient, if they do not barely ask what it is, to melt tyrants into men, and to soothe the inflamed minds of a multitude into mildness—Inestimable truth! which our Maker in his providence, enables us, not only to talk and write about, but to adopt in practice of vast extent, and of instructive example.

Let Us now inquire, if there be not some principle, simple as the laws of nature in other instances, from which, as from a SOURCE, the many benefits of society are deduced.

We may with reverence say, that our Creator designed men for society,* because otherwise they cannot be happy. They cannot be happy without freedom, nor free without security; that is, without the absense of fear; nor thus secure, without society. The conclusion is strictly syllogistic—that men cannot be free without society, The very establishment thereof infers equality; for their rights, their objects, and their contributions are the same; and this equal freedom is like light. It is pure; it is gentle; it comes from heaven; it gives to earth its value; and every one enjoys the whole of it.

  • Society here means a body of men governed by laws made with common consent.

As these premises are invincible, we have advanced a considerable way in our inquiry upon this deeply interesting subject. If we can determine, what share of his rights, every individual must contribute to the common stock of rights in forming a society, for obtaining equal freedom, we determine at the same time, what share of their rights each society must contribute to the common stock of rights in forming a confederation, which is only a larger society, for obtaining equal freedom: for, if the deposite be not proportioned to the magnitude of the association, in the latter case, it will generate the same mischief among the component parts of it, from their inequality, that would result from a defective contribution to association in the former case, among the component parts of it, from their inequality.

Each individual then must contribute such a share of his rights, as is necessary for attaining that security that is essential to freedom; and he is bound to make this contribution by the law of his nature, which prompts him to a participated happiness; that is, by the command of his Creator; therefore, he must submit his will, in what concerns all, to the will of all, that is of the whole society. What does he lose by this submission? The power of doing injuries to others—and the dread of suffering injuries from them. What does he gain by it? The aid of those associated with him, for his relief from the incommodities of mental or bodily weakness—the pleasure for which his heart is formed- of doing good—protection against injuries—a capacity of enjoying his undelegated rights to the best advantage—a repeal of his fears—and tranquillity of mind arising from a consciousness of safety, the very essence of liberty—or in other words, that perfect repose better described in the holy scriptures, than any where else in these expressions—“When every man shall sit under his vine, and under his fig-tree, and none shall make him afraid.”

The like submission, with a correspondent expansion and accommodation must be made between states, for obtaining the like benefits in a confederation. MEN are the materials of both. As the largest number is but a junction of UNITS—a confederation is but an assemblage of individuals. The auspicious influence of that law of his nature, upon which the happiness of MAN depends in society, must attend him in confederation, or he becomes unhappy; for confederation should promote the happiness of individuals, or it does not answer the intended purpose. Herein there is a progression, not a contradiction. As MAN, he becomes a citizen; as a citizen, he becomes a federalist. The generation of one, is not the destruction of the other. He carries into society the naked rights received from nature. These thereby improved, he carries still forward into confederation. If that sacred law before mentioned, is not here observed, the confederation would not be real, but pretended. He would confide, and be deceived.

The expression of the general will is the law of confederation, as well as of society.

The dilemma is inevitable. There must either be one will, or several wills. If but one will, all the people are concerned; if several wills, few comparitively are concerned in each. Surprizing! that this doctrine should be contended for by those, who declare, that the constitution is not founded on a bottom broad enough; and though the whole people of the United States are to be trebly represented in it, in three different modes of representation, and their servants will have the most advantageous situations and opportunities of acquiring all requisite information for the welfare of the whole union, yet insist for a privilege of opposing, obstructing, and confounding all their measures taken with common consent, for the general weal, by the delays, negligences, rivalries, or other selfish views of parts of the union.

Thus, while one state should be relied upon by the union for giving aid, upon a recommendation of congress, to another in distress, the latter might be ruined; and the state relied upon, might suppose, it would gain by such an event.

When any persons speak of a confederation, do they, or do they not acknowledge, that the whole is interested in the safety of every part—in the agreement of parts—in the relation of parts to one another—to the whole—or, to other societies?—If they do—then, the authority of the whole, must be co-extensive with its interests—and if it is, the will of the whole must and ought in such cases to govern; or else the whole would have interests without an authority to manage them—a position which prejudice itself cannot digest.

If they do not acknowledge, that the whole is thus interested, the conversation should cease.—Such persons mean not a confederation, but something else.

As to the idea, that this superintending sovereign will must of consequence destroy the subordinate sovereignties of the several states, it is begging a concession of the question by inferring, that a manifest and great usefulness must necessarily end in abuse; and not only so, but it requires an abandonment of the principle of all society: for, the subordinate sovereignties, or, in other words, the undelegated rights of the several states, in a confederation, stand upon the very same foundation with the undelegated rights of individuals in a society, the federal sovereign will being composed of the subordinate sovereign wills of the several confederated states.—True it is, that to guard against disorder and danger, the line dividing between the powers of the several states, and the powers of the union, ought to be drawn with the utmost accuracy of direction, and established by the strongest marks of discrimination. Nor does any discouraging difficulty occur, in this great and sacred attempt to provide in the best manner we can, for the happiness of ourselves and our children, and of the unborn millions, whose destinies will be so deeply affected by our councils and conduct. Why should we be thus alarmed, when we know, that the rights to be delegated by the several states to the confederation, are simple, defined, and so limitted to particular objects, that they cannot possibly be applied by any construction to other objects, without such a distortion of interpretation, and such a violation of propriety, as must offend every sound head and every honest heart. On this firm foundation then let us erect our temple of hope, and strive to be likened to a wise man who builds his house upon a rock. “The rains may descend, the floods come, the winds blow, and beat on this house: yet it falls not, for it is founded upon a rock.” As some persons seem to think a bill of rights is the best security of rights, the sovereignties of the several states have this best security by the proposed constitution, and more than this best security, for they are not barely declared to be rights, but are taken into it as component parts for their perpetual preservation—by themselves. In short, the government of each state is, and is to be, sovereign and supreme in all matters that relate to each state only. It is to be subordinate barely in those matters that relate to the whole; and it will be their OWN FAULTS, if the several states suffer the federal sovereignty to interfere in things of their respective jurisdictions. An instance of such interference with regard to any single state, will be a dangerous precedent as to all, and therefore will be guarded against by all, as the trustees or servants of the several states will not dare, if they retain their senses, so to violate the independent sovereignty of their respective states, THAT JUSTLY DARLING OBJECT of American affections, to which they are responsible, besides being engaged by all the charities of life.

The common sense of mankind agrees to the devolutions of individual wills in society, to the general will expressed by the majority; and if it has not been as universally assented to in confederation, the reasons are evident, and worthy of being retained in remembrance by Americans.—They were in want of opportunities, or the loss of them, through defects of knowledge and virtue. The principle however has been sufficiently vindicated in imperfect combinations, as their prosperity has generally been commensurate to its operation.

How beautifully and forceably does the inspired apostle Paul, argue upon a sublimer subject, with a train of reasoning strictly applicable to the present? His words are—“If the foot shall say, because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? and if the ear shall say, because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body?” As plainly inferring, as could be done in that allegorical manner, the strongest censure of such partial discontents and dissensions, especially, as his meaning is inforced by his description of the benefits of union in these expressions—“But, now they are many members, yet but one body: and the eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of thee; nor again, the head to the feet, I have no need of you.”

When the commons of Rome upon a rupture with the senate, seceded in arms at the mons sacer, Menenius Agrippa used the like allusion to the human body, in his famous apologue of a quarrel among some of the members. The unpolished but honest-hearted Romans of that day, understood him, and were appeased.

Another comparison has been made by the learned, between a natural and a political body; and no wonder indeed, when the title of the latter was borrowed from the resemblance. It has therefore been justly observed, that if a mortification takes place in one or some of the limbs, and the rest of the body is sound, remedies may be applied, and not only the contagion prevented from spreading, but the diseased part or parts saved by the connection with the body, and restored to former usefulness.—When general putrefaction prevails, death is to be expected. History, sacred and profane, tells us, that, corruption of manners sinks nations into, slavery.


Thanks once again to Democratic Thinker! Brief intro by Democratic Thinker. Dickinson’s Fabius copyright held in Public Domain.
Democratic Thinker Archives