November 14, 1787
Some THOUGHTS on the FEARS which many appear to entertain about the FEDERAL CONSTITUTION.
As the Federal Government, now under consideration, is a subject of the highest importance to our happiness, as a nation, it is certainly of great consequence, that we lay down right principles, upon which we may form the judgment of it. While the fears of the people are alarmed, on the one side or the other, they are not capable of such a cool examination, and deliberate choice, as the weight of the case requires and it is certain that this has been the effect of such writings as have appeared upon this grand question. If the grounds of fear are real, they indeed ought to affect us; but it becomes us to submit them to a serious and impartial inquiry, before we suffer them to blind judgment or precipitate our conclusions.
The very idea of government supposed power to be committed to our rulers; and power is always capable of being abused. Various arrangements have been invented to restrain this abuse of power; but it does not appear, that any possible arrangements thereof can merely of themselves, secure the rights and liberties of the people, in all cases, from oppression. Some are without doubt, better calculated for this purpose, than others; but when the people have chosen the best devisable form, there are other sources from which they must also derive their safety, and on which they must depend.
The form of government proposed appears to be organized with great wisdom to guard against this abuse, as the very powers will be a watch upon one another, and act as centinels in giving the alarm, should any one attempt any unreasonable encroachments on our liberties. They are all of the people, and have the same rights and privileges, in all respects, to defend. They are chosen at such times as is sufficient to secure their responsibility, and in such a manner as must ever prevent their permanency. The objects of power have all a federal nature, [or are absolutely] necessary to the hon[or and safety] of the nation. But toget[her with all] this, our political liberty requires the aid of other motives and principles, which if we duly consider, with the operation and force they are allowed to have, under this constitution, it would tend greatly to allay any unreasonable fears which have been raised about it.
One great security we have of men in power, is interest, when their places are so often changeable, as is ordained in this constitution. There is no great danger of men abusing the power committed to them, to destroy those rights and liberties, in which they themselves are as much interested, as any other of the people; while they know, at the same time, that they must shortly return to that condition, which will render these privileges so precious and estimable. If they were indeed a permanent body independent [of] the people, and holding their places for themselves and their heirs, the motives to self-aggrandisement would prevail over all others, and our liberties were gone. But so far is this constitution from favouring such a permanency , that it cannot take place without the utter destruction of this plan of government. They will always be chosen by the people; and by the assemblies, which excludes every idea of permanency, though the Centinel has affected to argue it out according to his method of reason.
Now, apply this to some of the objections, which have been made to this plan of government. The countenancing [of] a standing army–if in the present depraved state of human nature, any military force should be necessary to support the honour, and promote the safety of the nation, and protect our trade by land or sea; surely there can be no reasonable objection against it. But to imagine that the Congress, our own representatives, whose power depends entirely on the people, and whose interests, liberties and safety are at stake, in common with every person in the union, that these should willfully impose an unnecessary burden, or subject us to unnecessary danger, is surely an unreasonable suspicion. To speak of thirty or fifty thousands of a standing army, or any thing like it, is only calculated to alarm the fears of the people, with an evil entirely imaginary.
The same may be said of the power of direct taxation. As the grand revenue will arise from another source, this mode may never be applied to, but on such occasions, as may require great exertions; and if in such cases, the Congress should make use of this method, what reason have we to think, that it should be so dreadfully oppressive? Are not the estates of those in power, as liable as others! and if they are the great and the mighty (as one writer observes) will the not be peculiarly affected. However it is certain, that the command of a sufficient revenue should be in their hands, otherwise they can never support the dignity or safety of the United States.
Another grand security, and indeed the principal one, which the people have against the abuse of power, is the freedom of choice. This is the very essence of political liberty–while this remains it is impossible they can be enslaved, and if their rulers incroach upon their privileges it must be of their own fault, and not that of the government. Now this privilege cannot be taken away without destroying this constitution; under which no one, in the several branches of government, can hold a place, but by the fair choice of the people, immediately, or by electors chosen by them. They are still the sovereign masters, and may choose whom they will; all depends on their own virtue and the wisdom of their choice. While this freedom is allowed, and the power returns to us at proper intervals, not so near, as to keep us in a perpetual electionary ferment, nor so distant, as to prevent a proper responsibilities in the rulers, there can be no danger form the government; we will be happy.
Indeed it is surmised, that the Congress may render this privilege difficult or impossible, by the power the constitution gives them over elections. But why should we fear such an injurious exercise of power as it is wantonly said this will be?–The assemblies have authority to fix the mode and places of elections in every country, yet we never have been afraid, that they would make a law, to oblige us to meet [in in]convenient places, or drag us from one country to another to giver our votes, and why should we be so exceedingly jealous our own representatives in this case? The reason of such a power appears as good in the one, as in the other. It is of consequence to our freedom that we have a fair and honest representation in Congress, and that no one be admitted as our representative who is not lawfully chos[en]. This will require a power of judging in all disputed elections, which often happen, and this implies a law, whereby the qualifications of members shall be ascertained, and as these qualifications include the regularity of the choice, as to time and mode and place, it is proper that these should be fixed by one general election-law. This will be necessary, not only to enable the respective houses to judge of the qualifications of their own members, but also for the greater case and regularity of proceeding, having all their members chosen in the same manner, and returnable at the same time. As such a law therefore will be necessary, it cannot be questioned but that the Congress is the proper authority to make it–and to assert, that, in making such a law, they would not have a regard to the ease and convenience of the people, is very reasonable to say, that they will frame it so, as to put it out of our power to chuse, is absolutely extravagant.
The most of those fears, which have given strength to the objections against the government, have arisen from this excessive distrust in the representatives we are to chuse; surely we ought to put some confidence in them, to whom we commit so great a trust. To be so jealous, as to excite our watchfulness against their abusing their power, is useful and salutary; but to put no confidence at all in the,; to believe that as soon as we chuse them, we set them at variance with our liberties, and make them enemies to all our dearest privileges; that they will surely abuse their power, to aggrandize themselves; this is a jealousy utterly unreasonable and absurd. It is an ungenerous reflection on them we chuse, and a vile reproach upon our own wisdom. It is a principle which would set aside all government intirely.–No man in common life, acts upon so absurd a principle as this, yet most of the fears about this constitution have had only this foundation–on this principle, the Centinel has raised the most alarming apprehensions, of aristocracy, a standing army, oppression of taxes, the annihilation of state assemblies, suppression of the press, and all his catalogue of evils–and upon this also the Old Whig appears to have raised his wonderful superstructures of possible and probables, perhaps, maybes and awful predictions, which have so terrified him, as to conclude that “whether it is a good constitution or a bad one, it will remain forever unamended.” These writers seem to take it for granted, and I fear too many follow them in it, that we are not, nor ought to be one people; that the interest of the several states must be different from that of the union; and there must be an eternal variance between the Congress and the state Assemblies. This appears visibly in their writings, as the ground of their charges against the constitution. The absurdity of these principles is evident, the ruin that must attend the adoption of them and proceeding upon them, every one must see, and consequently how groundless those jealousies are, which have no other foundation.
With all the securities, then, which we have against the abuse of power, why should we fear [that] the constitution is free? in its nature and construction–the interest of the rulers and ours is the same–the power of displacing them is still in our own hands–and besides these, the equality among citizens, the prohibition of hereditary property or honours–rge freedom of the press–the jealousy and watchfulness of the Assemblies, whose power, after all that has been said, I cannot see to be abridged or destroyed with respect to any branch of internal policy, or in any cases but such as are federal, except the impost, and this is by all granted to Congress. With all these securities we surely cannot be in so great danger, as is apprehended by many. But after all, if it should prove dangerous and intolerable, it is capable of alteration, and it may reasonably be expected that when the people feel it so, they will alter it. The manner of process is not more difficult, in altering than making it–and the accomplishment of the one, is an evidence that the other, if found necessary, is neither impossible nor improbable.