Old Whig No. 8
February 6, 1788
MR. PRINTER, It is the fate of political controversies to begin with argument and end with abuse: And hence we find, in many instances, that a subject which for a time, has engaged the most earnest attention of the people, is at length quitted with horror and disgust. The question, however, concerning the total adoption of the plan of government, proposed by the late federal convention, is too important for good men to suffer themselves to be diverted from giving it a full consideration by the bouncing of squibs or the whizzing of political firebrands. I therefore persuade myself that a few candid observations on this subject will yet be heard with attention.
The real question is this;–Whether the people of this country ought to adopt the proposed constitution in its present form, without limitation or alteration, or whether we ought to insist upon amendments being made previous to its adoption.
Most men seem to agree that amendments ought to be made in the proposed plan in some stage of the business; and all seem agreed that an efficient form of continental government ought to be established. Shall we then first adopt the constitution and afterwards amend it; or shall we first amend it and afterwards adopt it? Let us for a moment consider the propriety of adopting it first, and trusting to its being afterwards amended. These necessary amendments, after the constitution is adopted, can only be made in one or two ways;–either by our future rulers in the continental legislature by their own act–or in the way provided for in the fifth article, by a convention to be called for proposing amendments, whenever two-thirds of both houses shall deem it necessary, or whenever the legislatures of two-thirds of the states shall make application for that purpose, such amendments afterwards to be valid if ratified by the legislatures of three-fourths of the states, or by conventions in three-fourths thereof, if Congress should think proper to call them. This latter mode is so intricate, that an attempt to investigate it is like endeavouring to trace the windings of a labyrinth, and I have therefore observed that people willingly turn aside from the subject, as confused and disgusting. Some former observations on this article I found were very little attended to: However I will attempt once more to find a clue to its mazes, after I shall first have considered that more inviting ground of expectation to which most of those who assume the name of federalists turn their eyes with so much confidence.
First then, the general expectation seems to be that our future rulers will rectify all that is amiss. If a bill of rights is wanting, they will frame a bill of rights. If too much power is vested in them, they will not abuse it; nay, they will divest themselves of it. The very first thing they will do, will be to establish the liberties of the people by good and wholesome ordinances, on so solid a foundation as to baffle all future encroachments from themselves or their sucessors. Much good no doubt might be done in this way; if Congress should possess the most virtuous inclinations, yet there are some things which it will not be in their power to rectify. For instance; the appellate jurisdiction both as to law and fact, which is given to the supreme court of the continent, and which annihilates the trial by jury in all civil causes, the Congress can only modify:–They cannot extinguish this power, so destructive to the principles of real liberty. It would not by any means be extravagant to say, that a new continental convention ought to be called, if it were only for the sake of preserving that sacred palladium–THE INESTIMABLE RIGHT OF TRIAL BY JURY.–But even if we were to delude ourselves so far as to believe that it would be entirely in the power of the future legislature to set every thing right, to build up our liberties against all invasions, and to protect us from every political calamity, still we ought not to repose all our liberty and all our happiness in the virtue of our future rulers. I speak not with reference to any particular set of men. I pretend not to know who will be our rulers one year hence. In the state of Pennsylvania I have seen the administration of our constitution in the hands of its bitterest enemies, during near one half of its existence; and I shall not be at all surprized to find that if the new continental government shall be set a-going, that the jockies who at present have vaulted into the saddle; should be the first to be thrown into the dirt and trampled upon; nor, on the other hand, that some of those who are foremost in contending for a permanent security to the rights of the people, should be in the first rank of oppressors. These things have frequently happened; and the only safe way of reasoning on political subjects is, to consider men, abstractly as men, with like passions and infirmities throughout the world, in every age, and every country; and to believe that the same guards and checks against arbitrary power, which were necessary two thousand years ago, are equally necessary at present, and will be so two thousand years hence. Idolatry is the parent of errors in politics as well as religion;&3151;and an implicit confidence in our rulers now, will be abused as much as implicit confidence in priests ever was in the days of superstition. I know well that instances of political moderation may be found, and a tyrant has before now descended from the plenitude of power, satiated with dominion, or worn out with care; but there is not one instance on record in all history of a number of men voluntarily abandoning the powers of an aristocracy. Look at the Decemviri, look at the thirty tyrants of Athens, look at all the lordly aristocracies that ever existed, and shew me one instance–such an instance cannot be shewn. Nay farther, a single monarch has many times used his power with moderation; but a number of men combined in an aristocracy, never knew what moderation meant. They are all struggling to be most powerful, all aiming to enrich themselves and provide for their friends, and all of them plundering the people. And shall we foolishly, after so many thousand examples, trust to the virtue and moderation of our future rulers, to divest themselves of those powers which may be abused to our prejudice, and are no way useful to our protection? Not to insist upon Swift’s ludicrous tale of Jack’s hanging himself at the instigation of Humphry Hocus, on the promise of being cut down before he should be dead, and when he had hanged himself, of being left to kick his heels in the air, the moral of which, by the bye, is strictly founded in human nature;–let us attend to a more serious fable.–“A man, says Esop, coming into a wood, begged the trees to grant him the favor of a handle to his axe. The whole forest consented; upon which he provided himself with a strong handle; which he had no sooner done, than he began to fell the trees without number, then the trees, though too late, repented of their weakness, and an universal groan was heard throughout the forest. At length, when the man came to cut down the tree which had furnished him with the handle, the trunk fell to the ground uttering these words: Fool that I was! I have been the cause of my own destruction. ” If we perish in America, we shall have no better comfort than the same mortifying reflection, that we have been the cause of our own destruction.
I have said that many of the liberties which, by the proposed constitution, are to be surrendered up into the hands of our rulers, will be of no use towards the protection of the people; and a little reflection will convince us, that it is certainly the case. If, indeed, government were really strengthened by such surrender, if the body of the people were made more secure, or more happy by the means, we ought to make the sacrifice. An individual ought to submit to be tossed about, imprisoned and treated injuriously, if the good of his country should require it; and every individual in the community ought to strip himself of some convenience for the sake of the public good.
I know it is an error not uncommon to believe, that a government is the more powerful in proportion as it is more tyrannical; but this is not the case: so far from it, that it has always been found, that free countries have been able to exert powers far superior to those in which a more absolute government prevailed. For instance, a senate which is master of its own elections, without any or with very little dependence on the people, would not be able to exert as much force as a senate which is freely elected by the people; because the chearful support which would be yielded in the latter case, would far exceed that which could be exacted by the mere force of authority. Again; how could the stripping people of the right of trial by jury conduce to the strength of the state? Do we find the government in England at all weakened by the people retaining the right of trial by jury? Far from it. Yet these things which merely tend to oppress the people, without conducing at all to the strength of the state, are the last which aristocratic rulers would consent to restore to the people; because they encrease the personal power and importance of the rulers. Judges, unincumbered by juries, have been ever found much better friends to government than to the people. Such judges will always be more desireable than juries to a self-created senate, upon the same principle that a large stand–ing army, and the entire command of the militia and of the purse, is ever desireable to those who wish to enslave the people, and upon the same principle that a bill of rights is their aversion.
In like manner, if we should trace the several branches of the proposed constitution, which are obnoxious to the liberties of the people, we shall find them to consist of such articles as are rather fitted to encrease the powers of the rulers, than the strength of the nation. Union is the great source of strength to a nation, not vassalage. To an aristocractic government vassalage is the great object even at the expenence of union among the people. We ought not, therefore, by any means to rely upon the virtue of our future rulers for a reformation of those things which at present are amiss in the proposed constitution. The president and senate will ever be grasping at more and more power until they are completely masters of the people, and the president at last master of all.
Let us then turn to the article in the proposed constitution, which provides for the making alterations at some future period; and let us figure to ourselves the time when two-thirds of both houses of Congress shall thinkit necessary to call a convention, or two-thirds of the legislatures of the individual states shall apply for the calling of a convention, and when a continental convention shall agree upon amendments, and when the legislatures of three-fourths of the states, or three-fourths of the conventions to be called in the several states, if Congress shall prefer that mode of proceeding, shall ratify such amendments; and again, after all these strainings, and filtrings, and refinings, of the hopes and expectations of the people through the channels of power, when the amendments so asked for, proposed, digested, twistificated, altered, and at last ratified, will be of any essential importance. For my part I would full as soon sit down and take my chance of winning an important privilege to the people, by the casting the dice till I could throw sixes an hundred times in succession.–There is no doubt but the thing has been purposely contrived to make alterations extremely difficult; and so it certainly ought to be if the proposed constitution were a good one. I do not therefore so much blame the late federal convention for making their constitution very difficult of alteration, as I insist upon it as an argument in favor of making our amendments before-hand. A machine which cannot be taken to pieces after it is once set a-going, ought to be very well finished at first.
Yet this is not all the difficulty. Inveterate power is at all times very hard to be controuled. Habits, connexions, dependence, and a thousand circumstances in course of time, rivet the chains of slavery till we grow either callous to their galling, or too feeble to shake them off, or too listless to resist. Ask the beaten Turk to resume his liberty, or the tired horse to resume his pristine freedom.–As well might you ask the galled sons of America, a few years hence, to assert the native rights of men, if the pro-posed constitution be once fixed upon us. It will be extremely difficult to change it for the better even in the beginning; but in a little time it will become utterly impossible.
A little prudence, a little patience, and a little serious reflection, would lead us to concur in calling a new convention, to revise the constitution proposed to us. That convention, I have no doubt, if fully, freely, and deliberately chosen, would concur in some essential amendments; and we might yet be a united and a happy people.