Cincinnatus VI

December 06, 1787

Sir, When I stated the monied difficulties, which the new government will have to encounter, my chief object was to prove to our fellow citizens, the delusion into which you have led them in your speech, when you ventured “to predict that the great revenue of the United States, must, and always will be, raised by impost.” This is not the land, Sir, of second sight; and I have shewn that your prediction, is not founded on any knowledge of the subject. It is one of those numerous deceptions, that are practised upon the people to delude them into the toils that are spread for them by the proposed constitution.

To satisfy them more fully on the subject of the revenue, that is to be raised upon them, in order to give enormous fortunes to the jobbers in public securities, I shall lay before them a proposition to Congress, from Mr. Robert Morris, when superintendant of finance. It is dated, I think,(a)the 29th of June, 1782, and is in these words:—”The requisition of a five per cent. impost, made on the 3rd of February, 1781, has not yet been complied with by the state of Rhode-Island, but as there is rea-son to believe, that there compliance is not far off, this revenue may be considered as already granted.—It will, however, be very inadequate to the purposes intended. If goods be imported, and prizes introduced to the amount of twelve millions annually, the five per cent. would be six hundred thousand, from which at least one sixth must be deducted, as well for the cost of collection as for the various defalcations which will necessarily happen, and which it is unnecessary to enumerate. It is not safe therefore, to estimate this revenue at more than, half a million of dollars; for though it may produce more, yet probably it will not produce so much. It was in consequence of this, that on the 27th day of February last, I took the liberty to submit the propriety of asking the states for a land tax of one dollar for every hundred acres of land-a poll-tax of one dollar on all freemen, and all male slaves, between sixteen and sixty, excepting such as are in the federal army, or by wounds or otherwise rendered unfit for service; and an excise of one eighth of a dollar [per gallon], on all distilled spiritous liquors. Each of these may be estimated at half a million; and should the product be equal to the estimation, the sum total of revenues for funding the public debts, would be equal to two millions.”

You will readily perceive, Mr. Wilson, that there is a vast difference between your prediction and your friends proposition. Give me leave to say, Sir, that it was not discreet, in you, to speak upon finance without instructions from this great financier. Since, independent of its delusive effect upon your audience, it may excite his jealousy, lest you should have a secret design of rivalling him in the expected office of superintendant under the new constitution. It is true, there is no real foundation for it; but then you know jealousy makes the food it feeds on. A quarrel between two such able and honest friends to the United States, would, I am persuaded, be felt as a public calamity. I beseech you then to be very tender upon this point in your next harrangue. And if four months study will not furnish you with sufficient descretion, we will indulge you with six.

It may be said, that let the government be what it may, the sums I have stated must be raised, and the same difficulties exist. This is not altogether true. For first, we are now in the way of paying the interest of the domestic debt, with paper, which under the new system is utterly reprobated. This makes a difference between the specie to be raised of 1,800,000 dollars per annum. If the new government raises this sum in specie on the people, it will certainly support public credit, but it will overwhelm the people. It will give immense fortunes to the speculators; but it will grind the poor to dust. Besides the present government is now redeeming the principal of the domestic debt by the sale of western lands. But let the full interest be paid in specie, and who will part with the principal for those lands. A principal, which having been generally purchased for two shillings and six pence on the pound, will yield to the holders two hundred and forty per cent. This paper system therefore, though in general an evil, is in this instance attended with the great benefit of enabling the public to cancel a debt upon easy terms, which has been swelled to its enormous size, by as enormous impositions. Andthe new government, by promising too much, will involve itself in a dis-reputable breech of faith, or in a difficulty of complying with it, insuperable.

The present government promises nothing.—The intended government, every thing.—From the present government little is expected:—From the intended one, much. Because it is conceived that to the latter much is given—to the former, little. And yet the inability of the people to pay what is required in specie, remaining the same, the funds of the one will not much exceed those of the other. The public creditors are easy with the present government from a conviction of its inability—they will be urgent with the new one from an opinion, that as it promises, so it can and will perform every thing. Whether the change will be for our prosperity and honour, is yet to be tried. Perhaps it will be found, that the supposed want of power in Congress to levy taxes, is at present a veil happily thrown over the inability of the people; and that the large powers given to the new government, will to every eye, expose the nakedness of our land. Certain it is, that if the expectations which are grafted on the gift of these plenary powers, are not answered, our credit will be irretrievably ruined.

Once more, Mr. Wilson, be pleased to pardon me for digressing. We come now to your last argument, or rather observation, which is in these terms—That as establishing the new government will-—”turn the stream of influence and emolument into a new channel, therefore every person who enjoys or expects to enjoy a place of profit under the present establishment, will object to the proposed innovation, not in truth, because it is injurious to the liberties of his country, but because it affects his schemes of wealth and consequence.”

This reflection, sir, is as ingenious as it is liberal. It reaches every man who will not worship the new idol. It is the shibboleth of your party. Every man who differs in opinion with you, upon the new constitution, if he is not actually a placeman under the present establishment, may be an expectant; and then, according to your liberal and gentlemanly conclusion, his opinion must be imputed to his pursuit of wealth and consequence.

But how could it escape you, that this was a two-edged argument, and might cut its inventor. Perhaps these very violent gentlemen for the new establishment, may be actuated by the same undue motives. Perhaps some of its framers, might have had its honours and emoluments in view. When you have let loose suspicion, Mr. Wilson, there is no knowing where it will end. Perhaps some may be audacious enough to suspect even—You. They may think, that the emoluments of an attorney generalship, or of a chief justice largely provided for, under a government gifted with almost chemic powers to extract gold from the people, might happily repair your shattered fortunes. Let us, Sir, suppose a man fallen from opulence into the most gloomy depths of monied distress, by an unsatiable love of wealth and as unwise a pursuit of it: would not such a man be a fit instrument in the hands of others to agitate the introduction of the new constitution. Such a man would have no objection to the golden speculations which such a constitution holds forth. Such a man, albeit unused to speak without a fee, and a large one too, would deign to harrangue gratis for such an object. His crest would be brightened, his eloquence animated by an anticipation of that happy hour, when he might sail down this new pactolean channel, accompanied by his pathetic Doctor, to sing a requiem to our expired liberties, and chant hallelujahs to his approach-to wealth and consequence. Such a man, Sir, in such a mood, would, as you do, regard the new constitution, in every point of view, with a candid and disinterested mind, and be bold to assert, “that it is the best form of government which has ever been offered to the world.”

Such a man as I have painted, you know, Mr. Wilson, is not a fiction. What I have said was not to insult his distresses, but to admonish his discretion. He ought not to have touched ground, on which he, and his swelled superior, who dances him forth to the people, is so very vulnerable. Upon my honor, Sir, I do not know two men in the United States more tender in this point. Permit me then to admonish them, through you, never again to insult the patience of the public with insinuations about the judgment of men on the proposed constitution, being affected by schemes of wealth and consequence.

There is one very material power given to the proposed Congress, on which you have thought proper to be silent, and which as not coming within the scope of your speech I have reserved to this place. In the 4th section, it is said—”The times, places, and manner of holding elections for senators and representatives shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time, by law, make or alter such regulations, except as to the places of chusing senators.”

In all our constitutions, the regulation of elections is fixed; not left to the legislature, because it is a fundamental right, in which the essence of liberty resides.

It is in fact the root of all rights. Nothing can be plainer than that Congress, under the pretence of regulating, might in various ways annihilate the freedom of elections. If ever the aristocracy should meet with a pliant representative, it will be easy so to regulate the times, places, and manner of holding elections—as to secure the complaisance of future representatives.

This power over elections is another proof of a prediction for the senate, and a determination to have a complete control over the people. It participates precisely of the spirit, which dictated the rendering the power of impeachment nugatory, by the manner in which it is to be executed.

Thus too, the right of election, under control from time to time, in point of manner, times, and places, is but a shadow in the people; while the substance will necessarily reside with those to whom the regulation of it is resigned. But the senate was too sacred to be subjected to this unhallowed touch. The aristocracy is elevated on high, while the democracy is trampled in the dust. If the people can indeed be deluded into such a surrender of their most sacred rights; it must arise from the precipitation with which they are called upon to decide. Still, however, I trust, that they will have discernment to discover the parts which are incompatible with their rights and liberties, and spirit to insist upon those parts being amended.

(a) I say, I think, because, by accident, the month is erased in the note I have, and I have not access to public papers which would enable me to supply the defect.

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