Sidney Essay No. 1

Poughkeepsie, New York

February 05, 1788

I Aim at reformation, not satire; as I mean no invidious reflections, but only to give my sentiments with that honest freedom to which every American is entitled by birthright: I shall just state from Polybius, the means by which all mixed governments have originally deviated from the first principles, which were the basis of their rise and grandeur; how by this deviation, they tended towards their decline, and that those means, acquiring additional force from that very decline, necessarily produced those evils which accelerated the destruction of every free people.” Montague

The discussions heretofore published, in favour of the requisitions of Congress, of the 3d February, 1781, and 18th April, 1783, for vesting that hon. body with power to levy an impost of five per cent. Have appeared under the favourable aspect of a mere regulation, necessary and proper for the satisfaction of the public creditors and the support of national faith; as if, by investing Congress with a revenue, to be collected by officers of their own appointment, and laws of their own making, the public creditors would be sooner paid, and the national faith better preserved; but to […] in its progression, it has assumed another form; we are now soon (perhaps too soon, for we have got into a habit of doing business wither in secret or in haste) to be called upon to change the very principles of our government: contrary to the opinion of former authors, and to adopt that reposted by the Convention, lately assembled at Philadelphia; in which the United States are to be consolidated, so as to become one republic, of upwards of four thousand miles in circumference; Congress invested with legislative and judicial powers, and with it to decide whether we shall establish a strong executive, as well as to surrender an actual for a virtual representation.

The Dutch have made experiments in both. By the one, they have entirely lost the right of representation; by the other, they have embarrassed themselves with a stadtholder (a strong executive whose mal-administration, within the space of forty years, has become so intolerable that the inhabitants, to get rid of him, are this day on the brink of ruin).

In these discussions, those who opposed the measures, and were for adhering to the confederation (as if words had lost their meaning) were distinguished by the appellation of “anti federal,” and those who were for altering the confederation and investing Congress with an independent revenue, assumed the epithet of “federal men”; and notwithstanding the late Convention, in their letter of the 17th September, have decided, viz. “that the impropriety of delegating such extensive trusts to one body of men is evident,” still the delusion is carried on, they call themselves federalists, when, in the same breath, they do not hesitate to say, they mean entirely to destroy the confederation!.

Misrepresentations, equally delusive, have been made in attempting to induce the several legislatures to invest Congress with the above mentioned revenue, with those, now daily propagated to establish the new constitution.  While the former was in agitation, the papers were filled with accounts that several l of the States had agreed to the impost system, and at last they went so far as to assert, that it had been adopted by eleven states, and that there were but two that had refused; and what is astonishing, gentleman in distinguished stations, attempted to confirm those misrepresentations it was however discovered, when the laws of the different states, respecting that system, were published, in the year 1786, that it was doubtful whether two, of the thirteen, had fully adopted it.

When the late Convention was sitting (and under an injection of secrecy) scarce a newspaper appeared, without a recommendation of the government in expectancy—That a government to be agreed to and countenanced by General Washington and Doctor Franklin, would be such as all good men ought to approve, and none but bad men would disapprove; and those who refused to give it their approbation, until they should have an opportunity of examining it, were treated as infidels in politics—and threatened, should they withhold their assent, to be insulted, tarred and feathered, and even in  the late discussions, we meet with observations, tending to impress an  opinion, that the consent of General Washington and Dr. Franklin, is  not only a conclusive argument, to induce the people at large to determine in  favour of the constitution, but that even to supposed  they have erred or been imposed upon, is an impeachment of their understanding and integrity.  A most extravagant way of reasoning. For when we calmly consider we shall find, that to err is inseparable to human nature; to be sure, to suppose that there was ever a general who understood military government better than the one, or any philosopher better acquainted with the powers of electricity than the other, would be justly reprehensible; but  that they (admitting that they are not therefore the […]) should therefore be considered better, and even infallible judges of civil government (and that too, when they differ  with Montesquieu, Locke, Sidney, and many other celebrated authors upon government) is inadmissible.

When this new constitution was reported, and suffered by Congress barely in its passage to go on to the several legislatures, without their approbation; it was represented in the papers as having passed Congress with unanimous consent: now for a while we have been entertained with stories, how acceptable it is to the people in the several states—how readily the legislatures order conventions—and how those are insulted and their conduct reprobated, who are opposed to it; and I shall not wonder, hereafter, to see it asserted in the papers, that it has been adopted by eleven states; when again, upon enquiry it may not have been fully adopted by two states.

This kind  of management is not uncommon after revolutions. Goldsmith mentions, that after the battle of La Houge (within four years after king William ascended the throne of England) “patriotism began to be ridiculed as an idle virtue—the practice of bribing a majority in parliament became universal: the example of the great was caught up by the vulgar, principle and every decency was gradually banished—talents lay uncultivated, and the ignorant and profligate, were received into favour. That to remove the evil, parliament were diligent in restraining the universal corruption, that seemed to prevail over the whole kingdom—they were assiduously employed in brining those to justice who were grown wealthy by public plunder, and increasing the number of laws which restrained the art of peculation.”

In the mean time Addison and Steele, in allusion to the doctrine, then propagated by Sacherveral and others, engrafted upon the policy of the cabal; “who were for establishing such a perpetual and extensive fund of revenue, to advance the prerogative, as would render parliaments useless,” tried to open the eyes of the people.

“I have frequently (says Addison) wondered to see men of probity, who would scorn to utter a falsehood for their own particular advantage, give so readily into a lie, when It becomes the voice of their faction, notwithstanding they are thoroughly sensible of it as such.” “Some tell us (says the same author) we ought to make our government upon earth, like that in heaven; which, say they, is altogether monarchical and unlimited ; was man like his Creator in goodness and justice,  I should be for following this great model; but where goodness and justice are not essential to the rule, I would by no means put myself into his hands, to be disposed of according to his particular will and pleasure.

“Where the prince is a man of virtue, it is indeed happy for his people that he is absolute; but since in the common run of mankind, for one that is wise and good, you find ten of a contrary character, it is very dangerous for a nation to stand to its chance, or to have its public happiness or misery depend on the virtues and vices of a single man.”

Steele, under the figure of two dancers, represents the operation of the two forms of government, viz. absolute power, and the representation of a free state. In the first, he introduce absolute power, in the person of a tall man, with a hat and feather, who gives this first minister, that stands just before him, an huge kick—the minister gives the kick to the next below, and so to the end of the stage. In this moral and practical jest, you are made to understand, that there is, in an absolute government, no gratification but  giving the kick you receive from one above you to one below you;  this is performed to a grave and melancholy air; but, on  a sudden the tune moves quicker, and the whole company fall into a circle and  take hands, and then at a certain sharp note, they move round and kick as kick can. This latter performance, he makes to be the representation of a free state; where, if you all mind your steps, you may go round and round very jollily, with a motion pleasant to yourselves and those you dance with; nay, if you put yourselves out, at the worst, you only kick and are kicked, like friends and equals.

The two following paragraphs, taken from DeWitt’s political maxims, contain a concise history of the management in the United Netherlands, after their revolution.

“It appears (he says, page 7, 415) that the inhabitants of a republic are infinitely more happy, than subjects of a land governed by one supreme head; yet the contrary is always thought in a country where a prince is  already reigning, or in republics, where one supreme head is ready to be accepted.

“For not only officers, courtiers, idle gentry, and soldiery, but also all those that would be such, knowing, that under the worst Government they use to fare best, because they hope that with impunity they may plunder and rifle the citizens and country people, and so by the corruption of the government enrich themselves, or attain to grandeur, they cry upon monarchical government, for their private interest, to the very heaven: although God did at first mercifully institute  no other but a commonwealth government, and afterwards in his wrath appointed one sovereign over them. Yet for all this, those bloodsuckers of the state, and indeed of mankind, dare to speak of  republics with the utmost contempt, make a mountain of every mole hill, discourse of the defects of them at large, and conceal all that is good in them, because they know none will punish them for what they say.

“The matter being thus, we must say, that all persons who for their particular interest do wilfully introduce such a monarchical government into our native country, will commit a crime which afterwards can never be remedied, but like Adam’s original sin be derived from father to son to perpetuity, and produce such pernicious effects that all the good order and laws of these provinces, whether civil or ecclesiastical, must at length be subverted. And, seeing crimen magistratis is properly committed against the laws of the sovereign power, namely either to assault the legislator himself, or to endeavor to alter the sovereign government; we must therefore conclude that the said inhabitants will by so doing make themselves guilty of crimen magistratis and pas duellionis non fluzem sed permanes ni deternum, the most grievious, most durable and endless treason against this country.”

I shall add an observation of Sallust that happened after the revolution at Rome, for he affirms, “that after the expulsion of the King, as long as the fear of Tranquin and the burthensome war with the Etrurians kept the Romans in suspense, the government was administered with equity and moderation. But as soon as ever the dread of those impending dangers was removed, the senate begun to domineer over the people and treat them as slaves; inflicting death or scouring after the arbitrary manner of despotic tyrants; expelling them from their lands, and arrogating the whole government to themselves without communication the  least share of it to the Plebians,”  Thus, “the people, before the creation of this magistracy, were amused with the name of liberty, whilst in fact they had only changed the tyranny of one for the more galling yoke of threehundred. But the tribunal power proved an invincible obstacle to the arbitrary schemes of the aristocratic faction, and at last introduced that due admixture of democracy, which is so essentially necessary to the constitution of a well regulated republic.”

To conclude for my own part, at this day when the matter has been discussed, and the dangers so fully pointed out; and, considering  how zealous we have been in the cause of human nature, to counteract the kidnaping, and to secure the Africans, and their posterity from slavery; it is with difficulty I can suppose persons of information recommending the adoption of this new constitution serious. It makes its appearance, in a worse point of view, than the carriage, after the horses have taken a start, and disengaged themselves from the reins;  for there you may follow the track, and find the vehicle, which though abused, the owner may at his leisure repair. But upon the start of the late convention, when they refused to be guided by their credentials (which expressly confined their powers to be for the sole purpose of revising and amending the confederation) and presuming to recommend to the people this new instrument, is more like the horse-hunter, who after having used every contrivance to trap, and ensnare, has recourse to wheedling, and cajoling, he goes up to the horse, and invites him to a [   ], and while he perceives that the animal is apprehensive that he will deprive him of his liberty, scratches his ears, tries to make him believe, that he will not do like other horse hunters, and abuse him; but if he will suffer him to put  on the halter, he will give the animal usage as he likes and such as will be better for him than Liberty, or at the option of the animal set him at liberty again; but no sooner has he the halter well fixed, and the horse shews an inclination to disengage himself, he tells him, I have you fast now, and do what you can I shall not let you, and you shall do what I order you, I will rid, whip, and spur you, and you shall have no more rest nor food than is sufficient to keep your skin and cones together; and when you are no longer fit to do my work, I will sell you, or if you die, I will sell your skin.

Sidney.

 

 

 

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