(Concluded from our last.)
After the most deliberate reflections on this important matter, permit me, my dear countrymen, to declare to you in the most unfeigned manner, that not perceiving any thing in the proposed plan of government, which seems calculated to ensure the happiness of America—I could not, as a fellow-citizen, resist the inclination to impart these sentiments to you. Unmoved by party —rage—unassailed by passion—uninfluenced by any other interest, but the genuine effusion of zeal for this, our common country, I confess to you in the language of sincerity and candor, that after the first reading of this new code, I could not behold it, but with an eye of disapprobation. Unwilling, however, to reject at first sight an object of such high moment, I resolved to distrust the propriety of a construction passed at so early a period.—This led me to peruse it with the utmost diligence I was capable of; and believe me, the foregoing observations have arisen from the fullest conviction that the system involves in it the most dangerous principles; and—so far from exalting the standard of American liberty, I fear indeed that, should it be adopted, this glorious work, which already has cost the lives of many worthy patriots, will ere long be leveled with the dust. Let it not be conjectured from hence that any illiberal conceptions are formed by the writer hereof respecting the intentions of those gentlemen, who have offered this plan of foederal government. He knows no circumstance inducing him to suppose they had any other object in view but the good of their country.—When we contemplate the great—the magnanimous HERO, who has conducted our armies through all the trying vicissitudes of danger and difficulty,—there is no man so disingenuous—there is no man so ungrateful, as to impute any transactions of his to sinister motives. Every true American is well assured that steadiness of virtue—that benignity of soul have the chief rule in all his actions.—Yet every American, and every other person, are satisfied also that there is no infallibility in human nature.—To be man is to be subject to error. The best, the greatest, the wisest are liable to commit mistakes.—Let it be remembered, then, that this code of government is solemnly proposed to every freeman in America. For what?— For the purpose of binding them without their approbation? No.—For an implicit acceptance? No.—For their adoption merely in compliment to the general convention? No.—What then?—Every man's duty to his country points out to him the end of this proposition. Every man knows that it is for a free, a candid, and impartial discussion and determination thereon; whether they will approve and adopt it; or whether they will disapprove and reject it. Can any citizen, therefore, be so weak? can any be so timid? so pusillanimous, as to acknowledge that he has no right to exercise his own judgement with regard to this matter? If there should be any haughty spirits among us, who think that this subject ought to be handled by none but a few persons of eminent characters, let such recollect that the dignity, the importance of their country should inspire sentiments more exalted than the highest characters—sentiments, that should correspond with the worth of America, not with the consequence of any mere individuals. Will you, then, Virginians, arrogate too much by boldly asserting the privilege to judge for yourselves in what so nearly concerns the cause of liberty? No, no, my countrymen, you will not arrogate too much; you will not: I avow it by the souls of those brave patriots, who fought for the same cause in the late war. You will in this affair act as becomes you. The rank, you hold amongst the nations of the earth, requires this of you. And you will forfeit that rank: you will forfeit the character of freemen; and shew that you deserve to be enslaved, if you decline that privilege. The happiness of a multitude of people is certainly the highest advantage, which can be conferred on any society: and if you will contribute a full share of duty to effect this, so shall you obtain a due share of glory. No pomp of character, no sound of names, no distinction of birth—no pre-eminence of any kind, should dispose you to hoodwink your own understandings; and in that state suffer yourselves to be led at the will of any order of men whatsoever. The part you have acted heretofore,— the brave, the noble efforts, you have made, are proof enough of your fortitude, and totally exclude every idea of pusillanimity. Herein you have evinced the highest sense of public virtue: herein you have manifested to the whole world that the cause of liberty has hitherto had the prevailing influence over your hearts. And shall men possessed of these sentiments? shall those valiant defenders of their country, who have not feared to encounter toil and danger in a thousand shapes, who have not startled, even at the prospect of death itself? Shall you, O Virginians; shall you, I say, after exhibiting such bright examples of true patriotic heroism, suddenly become inconsistent with yourselves; and were [fail?] to maintain a privilege so incontestibly your due? —No, my countrymen;—by no means can I conceive that the laudable vigor, which flamed so high in every breast, can have so far evaporated in the space of five years. I doubt not, but you will in this trying instance acquit yourselves in a manner worthy of your former conduct. It is not to be feared that you need the force of persuasion, to exercise a proper freedom of enquiry into the merits of this proposed plan of government: or that you will not pay a due attention to the welfare of that country, for which you have already so bravely exerted yourselves. Of this I am well assured; and do not wonder when imagination presents to my view the idea of a numerous and respectable body of men reasoning on the principles of this foederal constitution. If herein I conceive that you are alarmed at the exceedingly high and extensive authority, which it is intended to establish, I cannot but see the strongest reasons for such apprehensions. For a system, which is to supercede the present different governments of the states, by ordaining that "laws made in pursuance thereof shall be supreme, and shall bind the judges in every state, any thing in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding," must be alarming indeed! What cannot this omnipotence of power effect? How will your bill of rights avail you any thing? By this authority the Congress can make laws, which shall bind all, repugnant to your present constitution— repugnant to every article of your rights; for they are a part of your constitution,—they are the basis of it. So that if you pass this new constitution, you will have a naked plan of government unlimited in its jurisdiction, which not only expunges your bill of rights by rendering ineffectual, all the state governments; but is proposed without any kind of stipulation for any of those natural rights, the security whereof ought to be the end of all governments. Such a stipulation is so necessary, that it is an absurdity to suppose any civil liberty can exist without it. Because it cannot be alledged in any case whatsoever, that a breach has been committed— that a right has been violated; as there will be no standard to resort to —no criterion to ascertain the breach, or even to find whether there has been any violation at all. Hence it is evident that the most flagrant acts of oppression may be inflicted; yet, still there will be no apparent object injured: there will be no unconstitutional infringement. For instance, if Congress should pass a law that persons charged with capital crimes shall not have a right to demand the cause or nature of the accusation, shall not be confronted with the accusers or witnesses, or call for evidence in their own favor; and a question should arise respecting their authority therein, —can it be said that they have exceeded the limits of their jurisdiction, when that has no limits; when no provision has been made for such a right?—When no responsibility on the part of Congress has been required by the constitution? The same observation may be made on any arbitrary or capricious imprisonments contrary to the law of the land. The same may be made, if excessive bail should be required; if excessive fines should be imposed; if cruel and unusual punishments should be inflicted; if the liberty of the press should be restrained: in a word—if laws should be made totally derogatory to the whole catalogue of rights, which are now secured under your present form of government.
You will, doubtless, consider whether the inconveniences may not be very disagreeable, and perhaps injurious, to which this country may be subjected by excise laws,—by direct taxation of every kind,—by the establishment of foederal courts. You will advert to the dangerous and oppressive consequences, that may ensue from the introduction of standing armies in times of peace; those baneful engines of ambition, against which free nations have always guarded with the greatest degree of caution. You will determine likewise as to the propriety of being excluded from keeping ships of war without the consent of Congress. The situation of these states renders a naval force extremely desirable. Being bounded on one side by the sea, their coasts are accessible to every lawless adventurer: and without ships to guard them, they are subject to continual depredations. The expediency of this species of defence is manifest. The great advantages to be derived from it, —the strength,—the consequence, which it adds to a nation, are such, that every well-wisher to this country would rejoice to see as large a navy established, as the circumstances of the state can at any time admit of. This, therefore, seems to be a very improper restraint upon the states,— a restraint, which may perhaps eventually prove very injurious.
Upon the whole, my fellow-citizens, if you judge this proposed constitution to be eligible or ineligible, you will accordingly instruct your delegates when they are about to meet in convention. The wisdom of the legislature has judged it advisable to fix the time for deciding on this momentous business at the distance of several months, that you may become thoroughly acquainted with a subject, which so nearly concerns your greatest interests.
I know it is a favorite topic with the advocates for the new government —that it will advance the dignity of Congress; and that the energy, which is now wanting in the foederal system, will be hereby rendered efficient. Nobody doubts, but the government of the union is susceptible of amendment. But can any one think that there is no medium between want of power, and the possession of it in an unlimited degree? Between the imbecility of mere recommendatory propositions, and the sweeping jurisdiction of exercising every branch of government over the United States to the greatest extent? Between the present feeble texture of the confcederation, and the proposed nervous ligaments? Is it not possible to strengthen the hands of Congress so far as to enable them to comply with all the exigencies of the union—to regulate the great commercial concerns of the continent,—to superintend all affairs, which relate to the United States in their aggregate capacity, without devolving upon that body the supreme powers of government in all its branches? The original institution of Congressional business,—the nature, the end of that institution evince the practicability of such a reform; and shew that it is more honorable, more glorious—and will be more happy for each American state to retain its independent sovereignty. For what can be more truly great in any country than a number of different states in the full enjoyment of liberty—exercising distinct powers of government; yet associated by one general head, and under the influence of a mild, just and well-organized confederation duly held in equilibria;—whilst all derive those external advantages, which are the great purposes of the union? This separate independency existing in each—this harmony pervading the whole—this due degree of energy in the foederal department, all together, will form a beautiful species of national grandeur. These will add lustre to every member, and spread a glory all around. These will command the admiration of mankind. These will exhibit a bright specimen of real dignity, far superior to that immense devolution of power, under which the sovereignty of each state shall shrink to nothing.
It requires no great degree of knowledge in history to learn what dangerous consequences generally result from large and extensive powers. Every man has a natural propensity to power; and when one degree of it is obtained, that seldom fails to excite a thirst for more:—an higher point being gained, still the soul is impelled to a farther pursuit. Thus step by step, in regular progression, she proceeds onward, until the lust of domination becomes the ruling passion, and absorbs all other desires. When any man puts himself under the influence of such a passion, it is natural for him to seek after every opportunity, and to employ every means within reach, for obtaining his purpose. There is something so exceedingly bewitching in the possession of power that hardly a man can enjoy it, and not be affected after an unusual manner. The pomp of superiority carries with it charms, which operate strongly on the imagination. Nay, it is a melancholy reflection that too often the very disposition itself is transformed,—and for the gratification of ambitious views, the mild, the gentle, humane—the virtuous becomes cruel and violent, losing all sense of honor, probity, humanity and gratitude.— Hence, should it not be amaxim, never to be forgotten—that a free people ought to intrust no set of men with powers, that may be abused without controul, or afford opportunities to designing men to carry dangerous measures into execution, without being responsible for their conduct? And as no human foresight can penetrate so far into future events, as to guard always against the effects of vice,—as the securest governments are seldom secure enough;—is it not the greatest imprudence to adopt a system, which has an apparent tendency to furnish ambitious men with the means of exerting themselves—perhaps to the destruction of American liberty?
It is next to impossible to enslave a people immediately after a firm struggle against oppression, while the sense of past injury is recent and strong. But after some time this impression naturally wears off;—the ardent glow of freedom gradually evaporates;—the charms of popular equality, which arose from the republican plan, insensibly decline; —the pleasures, the advantages derived from the new kind of government grow stale through use. Such declension in all these vigorous springs of action necessarily produces a supineness. The altar of liberty is no longer watched with such attentive assiduity;—a new train of passions succeeds to the empire of the mind;—different objects of desire take place:—and, if the nation happens to enjoy a series of prosperity, voluptuousness, excessive fondness for riches, and luxury gain admission and establish themselves—these produce venality and corruption of every kind, which open a fatal avenue to bribery. Hence it follows, that in the midst of this general contageon a few men—or one—more powerful than all others, industriously endeavor to obtain all authority; and by means of great wealth —or embezzling the public money,—perhaps totally subvert the government, and erect a system of aristocratical or monarchic tyranny in its room. What ready means for this work of evil are numerous standing armies, and the disposition of the great revenue of the United States! Money can purchase soldiers;—soldiers can produce money; and both together can do any thing. It is this depravation of manners, this wicked propensity, my dear countrymen, against which you ought to provide with the utmost degree of prudence and circumspection. All nations pass this parokism of vice at some period or other;—and if at that dangerous juncture your government is not secure upon a solid foundation, and well guarded against the machinations of evil men, the liberties of this country will be lost— perhaps forever!
Let us establish a strong foederal government, which shall render our Congress a great and eminent body, says one. By all means, replies another; and then they will command the attention of all Europe.—Why, pray, what will it avail you in the hour of distress—in the midst of calamity, though all Europe should pay attention to the Congress? What advantage will it be to the citizens of America, should they elevate Congress to the highest degree of grandeur;—should the sound of that grandeur be wafted across the Atlantic, and echoe through every town in Europe? What will the pomp—the splendor of that dignified body profit you, I say, if you place yourselves in a situation, which may terminate in wretchedness? Of what consequence will that state of congressional pre-eminence be to you, or to your posterity, if either the one, or the other should thereby be reduced to a mere herd of——? O great GOD, avert that dreadful catastrophe.—Let not the day be permitted to dawn, which shall discover to the world that America remains no longer a free nation!—O let not this last sacred asylum of persecuted liberty cease to afford a resting place for that fair goddess!—Re-animate each spirit, that languishes in this glorious cause! Shine in upon us, and illumine all our counsels!—Suffer thy bright ministers of grace to come down and direct us;—and hovering for awhile on the wings of affection, breathe into our souls true sentiments of wisdom!—that in this awful, this important moment we may be conducted safely through the maze of error;—that a firm basis of national happiness may be established, and flourish in undiminished glory through all succeeding ages!
December 17, 1787.