The Constitution—Fabius Letter 5

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.

It has been contended, that the plan proposed to us, adequately secures us against the influence of passions in the federal servants. Whether it as adequately secures us against the influence of passions in the people, or in the particular states, time will determine, and may the determination be propitious.

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

Letter V.
—————

John Dickinson

IT has been considered, what are the rights to be contributed, and how they are to be managed; and it has been said, that republican tranquillity and prosperity have commonly been promoted, in proportion to the strength of government for protecting the worthy against the licentious.

The protection herein mentioned, refers to cases between citizens and citizens, or states and states: but there is also a protection to be afforded to all the citizens, or states, against foreigners. It has been asserted, that this protection never can be afforded, but under an appropriation, collection, and application, of the general force, by the will of the whole combination. This protection is in a degree dependent on the former, as it may be weakened by internal discords, and especially where the worst party prevails. It is the security of life, liberty and property, that renders public safety itself a blessing. Hence it is evident, that such establishments as tend most to protect the worthy against the licentious, tend most to protect all against foreigners. This position is found to be verified by indisputable facts, from which it appears, that when nations have been, as it were, condemned for their crimes, unless they first became suicides, foreigners have acted as executioners.

This is not all. As government is intended for the happiness of the people, the protection of the worthy against those of contrary characters, is calculated to promote the end of legitimate government, that is, the general welfare; for the government will partake of the qualities of those whose authority is prevalent. If it be asked, who are the worthy, we may be informed by a heathen poet—

“Vir bonus est quis?
“Qui consultapatrum, qui leges juraque servat.”

The best foundations of this protection, that can be made laid by men, are a constitution and government secured, as well as can be, from the undue influence of passions either in the people or their servants. Then in a contest between citizens and citizens, or states and states, the standard of laws may be displayed, explained and strengthened by the well-remembered sentiments and examples of our fore-fathers, which will give it a sanctity far superior to that of their eagles so venerated by the former masters of the world. This circumstance will carry powerful aids to the true friends of their country, and unless counteracted by the follies of Pharsalia, or the accidents of Philippi, may secure the blessings of freedom to succeeding ages.

It has been contended, that the plan proposed to us, adequately secures us against the influence of passions in the federal servants. Whether it as adequately secures us against the influence of passions in the people, or in the particular states, time will determine, and may the determination be propitious.

Let us now consider the tragical play of the passions in similar cases; or, in other words, the consequences of their irregularities. Duly governed, they produce happiness.

Here the reader, is respectfully requested, to assist the intentions of the writer, by keeping in mind, the ideas of a single republic with one democratic branch in its government, and of a confederation of republics with one or several democratic branches in the government of the confederation, or in the government of its parts, so that as he proceeds, a comparison may easily run along, between any of these and the proposed plan.

History is entertaining and instructive: but, if admired chiefly for amusement, it may yield little profit. If read for improvement, it is apprehended, a slight attention only will be paid to the vast variety of particular incidents, unless they be such as may meliorate the heart. A knowledge of the distinguishing features of nations, the principles of their governments, the advantages and disadvantages of their situations, the methods employed to avail themselves of the first, and to alleviate the last, their manners, customs and institutions, the sources of events, their progresses, and determining causes, may be eminently useful, tho’ obscurity may rest upon a multitude of attending circumstances.—Thus, one nation may become prudent and happy, not only by the wisdom and success, but even by the errors and misfortunes of another.

In Carthage and Rome, there was a very numerous senate, strengthened by prodigious attachments, and in a great degree independent of the people. In Athens, there was a senate strongly supported by the powerful court of Areopagus. In each of these republics, their affairs at length became convulsed, and their liberty was subverted. What cause produced these effects? Encroachments of the senate upon the authority of the people?—No! but directly the reverse, according to the unanimous voice of historians; that is, encroachments of the people upon the authority of the senate. The people of these republics absolutely laboured for their own destruction; and never thought themselves so free, as when they were promoting their own subjugation. Though, even after these encroachments had been made, and ruin was spreading around, yet the remnants of senatorial authority delayed the final catastrophe.

In more modern times, the Florentines exhibited a memorable example. They were divided into violent parties; and the prevailing one vested exorbitant powers in the house of Medici, then possessed, as it was judged, of more money, than any crowned head in Europe. Though that house engaged and persevered in the attempt, yet the people were never despoiled of their liberty, until the Medici contrived to have them overwhelmed by the armies of foreign princes, to whose enterprizes their situation exposed them.

Republics of later date and various form have appeared. Their institutions consist of old errors tissued with hasty inventions, somewhat excusable, as the wills of the Romans, made with arms in their hands. Some of them were CONDENSED, by dangers. They are still compressed by them into a sort of union. Their well known transactions witness, that their connection is not enough compact and arranged. They have all suffered or are suffering through that defect. Their existence seems to depend more upon others, than upon themselves. There might be an impropriety in saying more, considering the peculiarity of their circumstances at this time.

The wretched mistake of the great men who were leaders in the long parliament of England, in attempting, by not filling up vacancies, to extend their power over a brave and sensible people, accustomed to POPULAR REPRESENTATION, and their downfall, when their victories and puissance by sea and land had thrown all Europe into astonishment and awe, shew, how difficult it is for rulers to usurp over a people who are not wanting to themselves.

Let the fortunes of confederated republics be now considered.

“The Amphictionic council” or “general court of Greece” claims the first regard. Its authority was very great: but, the parts were not sufficiently combined, to guard against the ambitious, avaricious, and selfish projects of some of them; or, if they had the authority, they dared not to employ it, as the turbulent states were very sturdy, and made a sort of partial confederacies.

“The Achæan league” seems to be the next in dignity. It was at first, small, consisting of few states: afterwards, very extensive, consisting of many. In their diet or congress, they enacted laws, disposed of vacant employments, declared war, made peace, entered into alliances, compelled every state of the union to obey its ordinances, and managed other affairs. Not only their laws, but their magistrates, council, judges, money, weights and measures, were the same. So uniform were they, that all seemed to be but one state. Their chief officer called Strategos, was chosen in the congress by a majority of votes. He presided in the congress, commanded the forces, and was vested with great powers, especially in time of war: but was liable to be called to an account by the congress, and punished, if convicted of misbehaviour.

These states had been oppressed by the kings of Macedon, and insulted by tyrants. “From their incorporation,” says Polybius, “maybe dated the birth of that greatness, that by a constant augmentation, at length arrived to a marvellous height of prosperity. The fame of their wise laws and mild government reached the Greek colonies in Italy, where the Crotoniates, the Sybarites, and the Cauloniates, agreed to adopt them, and to govern their states conformably.”

Did the delegates to the Amphictionic council, or to the congress of the Achæan league, destroy the liberty of their country, by establishing a monarchy or an aristocracy among themselves? Quite the contrary. While the several states continued faithful to the union, they prospered. Their affairs were shattered by dissensions, emulations, and civil wars, artfully and diligently fomented by princes who thought it their interest; and in the case of the Achæan league, partly, by the folly and wickedness of Greeks not of the league, who repined at the glories, that constantly attended the banner of freedom, supported by courage, and conducted by prudence. Spears plunged by Grecian hands into Grecian bosoms—most horrible hostility! Some portion of art, science, or virtue, perishing with every wound—so broke their power, that at last they all sunk, the envied and the envying chained together, under the domination first of Macedon, and then of Rome: and ever since, for more than two thousand years, the illuminating genius of that glorious nation has been lost to the world, while the desendents of the heroes who fought at Thermopylae Marathon, Salamie, Platea, and Mycale, have groaned in servitude. Such are the wages of civil discord.

Let any man of common sense peruse the gloomy but instructive pages of their mournful story, and he will be convinced, that if any nation could successfully have resisted those conquerors of the world, the illustrious deed had been achieved by Greece, that cradle of republics; if the several states had been cemented by some such league as the Achæan, and had honestly fulfilled its obligations.

It is not pretended, that the Achæan league was perfect, or that there were not monarchical and aristocratical factions among the people of it. Every concession of that sort, that can be asked, shall be made. It had many defects; every one of which, however, has been avoided in the plan proposed to us.

With all its defects, with all its disorders, yet such was the life and vigor communicated through the whole, by the popular representation of each part, and by the close combination of all, that the true spirit of republicanism predominated, and thereby advanced the happiness and glory of the people to so pre-eminent a state, that Our ideas upon the pleasing theme cannot be too elevated. Here is the proof of this assertion. When the Romans had laid Carthage in ashes; had reduced the kingdom of Macedon to a province; had conquered Antiochus the great, and got the better of all their enemies in the East; these Romans, masters of so much of the then known world, determined to humble the Achæan league, because as history expressly informs us, “their great power began to raise no small jealousy at Rome.”

What a vast weight of argument do these facts and circumstances add to the maintenance of the principle contended for by the writer of this address?

FABIUS.

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