“Cato” Essay

Country Journal and Advertiser, Poughkeepsie

December 12, 1787

In my address to you in the spring of 1766, on the subject of our political concerns, I promised at a future period to continue my observations; but was happy to find, that the general voice of the nation superseded the necessity of them. The radical defects in the constitution of the confederate government, was too obvious to escape the notice of a sensible, enlightened people—they saw with concern the danger their former caution and jealousy had involved them in; and very wisely called a general Convention of the States to devise a plan to check the mischief of anarchy in its bud—happily for this country many of the wisest men and most distinguished characters, independent in their principles and circumstances, and disconnected with party influence, were appointed to the important trust; and their unanimity in the business affords a pleasing presage of the happiness that will result from their deliberation.

It is but a groveling business, and commonly ruinous policy, to repair by peace-meal a shattered defective fabric—it is better to raise the disjointed building to its formation, and begin a new. The confederation was fraught with so many defects, and these so interwoven with its substantial parts, that to have attempted to revise it would have been doing business by the halves, and therefore the Convention with a boldness and decision becoming freemen, wisely carried the remedy to the root of the evil; and have offered a form of government to your consideration on an entire new system—much depends on your present deliberations.—It is easy to foresee that the present crisis will form a principal epoch in the politics of America, from whence we may date our national consequence and dignity, or anarchy, discord and ruin; the arguments made use of by a certain class of political scribblers, I conceive calculated (instead of throwing light on the subject) to deceive the ignorant but perhaps honest part of the community; and to misguide the thoughtless and unweary—in our present enquiry it is of no consequence who are the authors of these inflammatory productions, whether they are the result of the vanity of a northern champion to become the head of a party; the expiring groans of a principal magistrate of a state; or the last effort of the patriotic bower of a Treasury to gain popularity; or all together, I trust will bare equal rights on the minds of the public. It is natural enough to suppose that, when any general plan is proposed, that thwarts the private interests or views of a party, that, such party will draw the most unpleasing picture of the plan, and blacken it with all the false colouring that a gloomy imagination can invent: thus are we told by these evil prospects, that the system is impracticable; smallness of territory being essential to a republican government—in support of this doctrine, Montesquieu (who was born and educated under a monarchical government and knew nothing of any other but in theory) is quoted as an uncontrovertable authority, and after all, I presume they have mistaken the meaning of this author, for if I comprehend him right he is speaking of a pure democracy, such as Athens where the people all met in council; to be sure in such a government, extensive territory would be inconvenient, but a remedy to this evil has long since been found out: when the territory of any state became too large for the general assembling of the people, it was thought best to transact the business of the Commonwealth by representation: and thus large states may be governed as well by delegates from twenty districts, as small ones are from two or three; but this is what we are told by the politicians of the day constitutes a dangerous aristocracy, for say they in their learned definition, it is a government of the few; on this shameful quibble they attempt to ketch the attention of the rabble and frighten them into the measure of rejecting the proposed government—if I understand any thing of the meaning of the term, aristocracy signifies a government by a body of Nobles, who derive their power either from hereditary succession or from self appointment; and are no way dependent on the people for their rank in the state. By the plan offered to us, both the legislative and executive, derive their appointments either directly from the people: how this can be called aristocracy exceeds the limits of my comprehension; it is true that we are told that the better sort of people will be appointed to govern; I pray God the prediction may not be a false one. But should that be the case, say these political empirics, we shall not have an equal representation. Why? Because every class of people will not be represented. God knows that fools and knaves have voice enough in government already; it is to be hoped these wise prophesiers of evil would not wish to give them a constitutional privilege to send members in proportion to their numbers. If they mean by classes the different professions in the state, their plan is totally new, and it is to be feared the system once adopted, there would be no end to their democratical purity; to take in every profession from the Clergy to the Chimneysweep, will besides composing a motley assemblage of heterogeneous particles, enlarge the representation so that it will become burthensome to the Community; had the representation in Massachusetts been no larger than that in the proposed government of the Union, Shays would never have had a follower:—I think my judgment will not be impeached when I say that if our representation in this state was less, we should be better represented, and the public saved a very great expense—to judge of the future by the past, it is easy to perceive, that small states are as subject to aristocratic oppressions, as large ones; witness the small territory of Venice, at present the purest aristocracy in the world: Geneva, the circumference of which may be traversed in an hour’s march is now oppressed by a dangerous aristocracy; while the democratic branch of the legislature in England retains its primitive purity. Who was it that enslaved the extensive empire of Rome, but an abandoned democracy? Who defended the republic at the battle of Pharsallia, but the better sort of the people? Caesar can be considered in no other light than a more fortunate Cattiline, and the latter in no other than that of an ambitious demagogue attempting to ruin the Commonwealth, at the head of licentious democracy. In the present crisis of our public affairs I confess with the frankness of a free man and the concern of a patriot, that I apprehend more danger from a licentious democracy, than from aristocratic oppression.

I clearly perceive there will be no mid-way in the present business; we must either adopt the advice of these pretended democratical puritans, and then carry their doctrines to the point they evidently lead, viz. To divide the present union into at least five hundred independent sovereign states, build a council-house in the centre of each, and by a general law declare all the servants and apprentices free, and then let the multitude meet and govern themselves—or on the other hand, fall to the plain road of common sense, and govern the union by representatives in one collective council; as pointed-out in the system offered to your consideration: In the first you will possess popular liberty with a vengeance, and like a neighbor state, no man’s property will be secure, but each one defrauding his neighbor under the sanction of law,—thus subverting every principle of morality and religion.—In the second you will enjoy the blessing of a well balanced government, capable of inspiring credit and respectability abroad, and virtue, confidence, good order and harmony at home.—Should the Author have leisure to attend to it, the dangerous consequences that will inevitably flow from dividing the union, will be the subject of another paper.

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