January 22, 1788
To the Massachusetts Convention.
Truly deplorable, in point of argument, must be that cause, in whose defence persons of acknowledged learning and ability can say nothing pertinent. When they undertake to prove that the person elected is the safest person in the world to controul the exercise of the elective powers of his constituents, we know what dependence is to be had upon their reasonings. Yet we have seen attempts to shew, that the fourth section of the proposed constitution, is an additional security to our rights. It may be such in the view of a Rhode-Island family (I think that state is quoted) who have been for some time in the minority: but it is extraordinary, that an enlightened character in the Massachusetts should undertake to prove, that, from a single instance of abuse in one state, another state ought to resign its liberty. Can any man, in the free exercise of his reason, suppose that he is perfectly represented in the legislature, when that legislature may at pleasure alter the time, manner, and place of election. By altering the time they may continue a representative during his whole life; by altering the manner, they may fill up the vacancies by their own votes without the consent of the people; and by altering the place, all the elections maybe made at the seat of the federal government. Of all the powers of government perhaps this is the most improper to be surrendered. Such an article at once destroys the whole check which the constituents have upon their rulers. I should be less zealous upon this subject, if the power had not been often abused. The senate of Venice, the regencies of Holland, and the British parliament have all abused it. The last have not yet perpetuated themselves; but they have availed themselves repeatedly of popular commotions to continue in power. Even at this day we find attempts to vindicate the usurpation by which they continued themselves from three to seven years. All the attempts, and many have been made, to return to triennial elections, have proved abortive. These instances are abundantly sufficient to shew with what jealousy this right ought to be guarded. No sovereign on earth need be afraid to declare his crown elective, while the possessor has the right to regulate the time, manner, and place of election. It is vain to tell us, that the proposed government guarantees to each state a republican form. Republics are divided into democratics, and aristocratics. The establishment of an order of nobles, in whom should reside all the power of the state, would be an aristocratic republic. Such has been for five centuries the government of Venice, in which all the energies of government, as well as of individuals, have been cramped by a distressing jealousy that the rulers have of each other. There is nothing of that generous, manly confidence that we see in the democratic republics of our own country. It is a government of force. attended with perpetual fear of that force. In Great-Britain, since the lengthening of parliaments, all our accounts agree, that their elections are a continued scene of bribery, riot and tumult; often a scene of murder. These are the consequences of choosing seldom, and for extensive districts. When the term is short, nobody will give an high price for a seat. It is an insufficient answer to these objections to say, that there is no power of government but may sometimes be applied to bad purposes. Such a power is of no value unless it is applied to a bad purpose. It ought always to remain with the people. The framers of our state constitution were so jealous of this right, that they fixed the days for election, meeting and dissolving of the legislature, and of the other officers of government. In the proposed constitution not one of these points is guarded, though more numerous and extensive powers are given them than to any state legislature upon the continent. For Congress is at present possessed of the direction of the national force, and most other national powers, and in addition to them are to be vested with all the powers of the individual states, unrestrained by any declarations of right. If these things are for the security of our constitutional liberty, I trust we shall soon see an attempt to prove that the government by an army will be more friendly to liberty than a system founded in consent, and that five states will make a majority of thirteen. The powers of controlling elections, of creating exclusive companies in trade, of internal legislation and taxations ought, upon no account, to be surrendered. I know it is a common complaint, that Congress want more power. But where is the limited government that does not want it? Ambition is in a governour what money is to a misar–he can never accumulate enough. But it is as true in politicks as in morals, he that is unfaithful in little, will be unfaithful also in much. He who will not exercise the powers he has, will never property use more extensive powers. The framing entirely new systems, is a work that requires vast attention; and it is much easier to guard an old one. It is infinitely better to reject one that is unfriendly to liberty, and rest for a while satisfied with a system that is in some measure defective, than to set up a government unfriendly to the rights of states, and to the rights of individuals–one that is undefined in its powers and operations. Such is the government proposed by the federal convention, and such, we trust, you will have the wisdom and firmness to reject.
Earn graduate credits toward a Master’s
degree for each Live Online Graduate
Course in American History &
Government from Ashbrook Center at
Ashland University. Learn More