A Foreign Spectator I

Nicholas Collin

Independent Gazetteer

August 06, 1787

An ESSAY on the Means of Promoting Federal Sentiments in the United States by a Foreign Spectator.

It is an old maxim, that no Republican Government can be lasting without the good will of its subjects. What majority of loyal citizens, or what degree of public virtue, are indispensable, depends indeed on many circumstances; but the greater they are, the more safe and happy is a state; and in many cases an apparently small defect in either may produce very critical dangers. Republican Liberty is inseparable from a certain want of energy in the Government: The indolent and selfish can often with impunity clog its most important operations: The disaffected may go deep into rebellion, before they can be legally impeached: Infernal traitors may sometimes assume the heavenly form of patriots, and while they point a dagger to the bosom of their country, are by insane multitudes idolized as its guardian angels.

The people of a Federal Republic stand in the double relation, as citizens of a particular state, and citizens of the United States: In the former they think and act for their respective Republics, in the latter for the whole Confederacy. As Federal subjects it is their duty to promote the general interes—to regard their own state only as a Member of the Union—and to allow it only a just proportion. Those rights of the Federal Republic, and of each particular state, which are defined by the articles of Confederation, must be faithfully supported. The Federal Allegiance is supreme, and obligates every person to be an enemy of his own state, if it should prove treacherous to the Union. In cases not clearly defined by the Constitution, or when the occasional surrender of a right is very beneficial to the Confederacy, for another state, a generous condescension, and a Federal affection are very salutary.

In Federal Monarchies or Aristocracies the people in general need not have any high Federal sentiments; it is enough, that they are attached to their own governments, and that these act their part in the Federal System. But in United Republics a general Federal spirit is necessary: because a want of it will naturally be visible in the several Legislatures, which bear the complexion of their constituents, and often are the mere interpreters of their wishes; and because Federal measures adopted by a wise and patriotic state government could not be inforced against the sense of its people. My design is to inquire, by what means this happy Federal spirit may be improved, and not to hazard any thoughts on the political arrangement of the Confederation, except what are inseparable from my subject.

Four grand operations appear to me necessary—to promote a general disposition for order and Government—to limit the political Union of the respective states—to prevent any partial affection between two or more—and to render the Confederacy an object of general attachment. These operations admirably support and facilitate each other, and being more or less performed by the same means, cannot be treated separately. The Ruler of the Universe has disposed the principles of our political felicity in this charming harmony; woe be to those discordant minds, that wish to frustrate his divine design.

Man is naturally an unruly animal, little capable of governing himself, and very averse to controul of others. Any person in the least acquainted with human life, knows how fatal unrestrained liberty is to the individual and society. It is absurd to expect, that a man, whose will was never curbed, can be a dutiful subject of any Government; but whoever had by a cultivated reason, and the salutary check of others, learnt to govern his passions, will easily submit to a legal civil authority. Several causes of long standing have very generally marked the American character with an overdriven sense of liberty. Parents are very indulgent to their children—very few families have private tutors—some country places have no public schools, many only at times, and often kept by indifferent masters. The facility of subsisting by very moderate industry makes every other person independent. Superiority of birth, fortune, and office has hitherto been very trifling. Ecclesiastical authority has been little or nothing. The Negro slavery has no doubt often created habits of pride, dominion and severity. Taxes, and other burdens of civil Government have till the revolution been extremely easy. This high sense of liberty has indeed, even in ruder minds, produced a fierce independent spirit, without which the revolution could not have been effected, but it has also in too many created licentiousness, at present very detrimental, and incompatible with good Government.

The jealous fondness of liberty so common among republicans, makes them very loth to grant the necessary powers of Government to their duly elected Representatives: the more ignorant and turbulent pretend, that the people have a right to disobey any disagreeable law—nay, to call their Legislators to an account—a doctrine subversive of all Government. In Federal Republics these ideas are still more prevalent; because, if it is dangerous, to give full power of attorney to a person of our own choice, it is much more so to delegate it to one chose by him. In America, an excessive love of liberty and the novelty of a Federal constitution, combine to render great numbers averse from the so necessary and rational Government of a Supreme Congress; though it has proved so worthy of the public trust.

Knowledge, prudence, temperance, industry, honor, decency, justice, benevolence—all those qualities, which enable men to govern themselves, to regard the rights of others, to respect superior merit, to love order and tranquillity, are so many excellent dispositions for civil Government. They are necessary in Republics, where the energy of Government depends on a chearful obedience. As the people cannot be led as children, or drove as mules, the only method is, to make them rational beings. Men of reflection have the advantage, not only to see things in extensive combinations, and remote consequences, but to feel an important truth with more sensibility; because in a chain of reasoning the result does not forcibly strike the mind, except it can rapidly run through the links—doubts or slow apprehension dull the feeling. This accounts for the great difficulty of persuading thoughtless people in the greatest concerns, even when their understanding is at last convinced. Thus a man well acquainted with political principles, and the fate of Empires, will feelingly perceive the dreadful catastrophes, that must ensue from a weakness of Federal Union; but let an ignorant clown hear the clearest discourse on the subject—he will at the conclusion think; this may be; that looks very likely; however I’ll think farther on it. Political knowledge cannot be too much encouraged. Pope’s maxim is here applicable: a little learning is a dangerous thing—drink deep, or touch not the Castalian spring. American has many great politicians; but as a sensible gentleman very justly observed, the people in general have too much, and too little. The wretched dialogues on politics so frequent in the taverns and elsewhere, please the mirthy not less than the novel of Peregrine Pickle, while they enrage the splenetic, and grieve the serious patriot. These political tinkers think themselves capable of governing a universal monarchy: speak with contempt of their Legislators, as the servants of the public, and declaim with more than royal pride, on the Majesty of the people, meaning in fact their own servants, and their own majesty.

By various excellent improvements in the public education, the institution of political societies throughout the continent, much may be done. We must however not form a Utopian scheme of making every citizen an enlightened patriot. God has not granted such perfection to human nature in the present state; but ordered the wise and good to direct their weaker brethren, and to chastise refractory members of society. Far be it from me, to recommend passive obedience, or too mechanical habits of discipline: I would rather have the people turbulent than servile. But if men submit to the fidelity and better knowledge of others in their greatest concerns—if they trust their lives in the hands of a physician—if they commit themselves, their families, and properties to the care of an experiences mariner; it is unreasonable to deny their best fellow-citizens, whom they freely chose, those powers of Government absolutely necessary for the well-being of the community, and their own. The majority of a Legislature may indeed sometimes do wrong; but it is very improbable, that there should be less wisdom and integrity in the flower of a nation, chosen as such, than in tumultuary multitudes, or the discontented individuals scattered over the country, whose number and grievances often appear greatly only from the loudness and frequency of their complaints. The necessity of human affairs requires even obedience to laws evidently wrong; and nothing but measures atrociously and immediately pernicious can justify resistance, when the people have the right to remonstrate, and to change the Legislators in a short time. These principles are the plain dictates of sound common sense, and should be engraved on every American heart. Religion itself sanctifies them: it commands us to be subject for conscience sake, to regard the civil power as the minister of God for our good. Rom: 13, and not to use liberty as a cloak of maliciousness I Pet: 2. If the almighty has made civil Government an indispensable means for human felicity, and if the greatest miseries and most horrid crimes are the certain fruits of anarchy; loyalty to a legal Government is a sacred duty to him, and disobedience an atrocious sin. This doctrine should be held up in the pulpit, and taught in the catechism of every denomination. Grown children will understand it equally with the first principles of morality. I would even insert the words to honor and obey the Congress, &c. Sentiments of loyalty this imbibed with the first ideas of religion, among the best and happiest sensations of a young heart; and afterwards confirmed by reason and experience, will be dear and sacred through life.

TeachingAmericanHistory.org is a project of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University

401 College Avenue | Ashland, Ohio 44805 (419) 289-5411 | (877) 289-5411 (Toll Free)

info@TeachingAmericanHistory.org