No study questions
To the GOOD PEOPLE of Virginia, on the new
FEDERAL CONSTITUTION, by an old
STATE SOLDIER, in an answer to the proposition for amendments.
Under a persuasion of the utility of the UNION themselves, some persons till lately have been weak enough to suppose that no one would contend for the separation of the States. But all things have their duration—Politics as well as dress are often under the controul of fashion; and there are stated periods when the plainness and honesty of the old, must give way to the artifice and foppery of the new.
Impressed with the necessity in time of danger, each state was taught to believe, that it was by being “united they were to stand—and when divided to fall.” And unaware of such open confessions as has lately been made of the contrary, I had intended to convince myself at present entirely to the subject of altering the new federal constitution—but finding the one so inseparably linked with the designs of the other, a few observations will necessarily occur in the course of this paper, as well to shew the necessity of continuing the UNION, as to strengthen the objections I had to offer against an attempt to alter the new plan of government.
It would be difficult, if not impossible however, to point out the differences between a public attempt to amend this new system, and a secret design to destroy it—yet it may not be hard to shew the evil tendency of either.
That no other method for bringing about so useful a business as the separation of the states could be devised but the framing a new constitution for the more effectually binding them together, and then destroying it, seems at least strange. GOVERNMENT being the foundation of all human happiness, untinctured with fickleness, should be the solid work of WISDOM and mature DELIBERATION—Children indeed may make impressions on the sands and rub them out when they become tired of looking at them; but states when they do childish things make impressions which their maturer days cannot efface.
For the noble purposes of combining us together and making us respectable as a nation abroad, and rich as individuals at home, a system of government is now offered to our service—which, though fraught with some lesser evils, has every important recommendation—but to correct the one we are now invited to risk the other—for as the principle objection what must be the remedy applied in the first instance. For it being too well known to admit of a dispute that the same majority which the northern states now hold, will at another time be as great, it becomes as obvious that no alteration in that system at this time can correct this inconvenience but a dissolution of the UNION—yet a remedy may be found indeed in that very constitution itself as it now stands.
Through the feebleness of the UNION and popular turn of our system, the different interests of the states have heretofore been rendered somewhat discordant—Congress being entirely dependent on, and ever amenable to the state legislatures, that same fear of offending which has often operated on the state representative (in favor of a few to the prejudice of the many) extends itself to the continental delegate—which, when aided by the consideration of the dependence which most preferments have on the individual states, together with the insignificance of the present UNION, render the interest of a part more whence arises that contention of interests in which some states may have suffered; and is at this time so much dreaded.
Powerful however as that objection may appear against the existence of a general UNION, it has little to do with that question now: for to argue from what experience we have already had, would be nothing against the necessity of a UNION. Having never yet felt the effects of a perfect one, all that can be drawn from the experience of the old, will only prove the necessity of a new.
The present federal constitution, though under the name of a UNION, wanted every proper, strong, and well—tried string at its formation (if I may so express myself) to produce a perfect unison—the want of authority and independence rendered it too feeble an instrument to produce the wished for effects. When on the contrary had the general government of the continent been set at a proper distance above those of the states, the objections now started might never been known perhaps. The representative instead of contending for the particular interest of his own state, would then have had something of higher dignity in view—Congress being considered the only head of the continent, to ornament which so as to make a figure among the other nations of the world, would [have] been his only object—since from that source alone would spring the only political reputation worth adding to his name. And all preferments of the highest honor and emolument coming from the continent at large, it would thence have been immediately his interest to consult the dignity of the whole, and not the contracted, and too often illiberal interest of a part.
Whence we may consider the want of a perfect UNION the very cause of those evils which are so much dreaded, and now urged against a confederation of the states—For as men of contracted habits and moderate circumstances see no way of mending their fortunes but a selfish and narrow economy in their own system, so states will look no further than their own immediate interests, till a friendly intercourse with others has taught the benefit of making trivial sacrifices for double gain.
The use of trade has taught the benefit of loan—and favors with obligations by frequent and mutual intercourse become reciprocal interest at last. By a strict confederacy, under which the fruits of commerce would find a regular and general circulation, it would soon become the interest of each state to contribute to the profits of the whole—And acting under one uniform system, nothing but superior industry could give an advantage to any particular part: for it then being out of the power of each state to intrigue for its traders, party skill would be necessarily give way to political wisdom—and thus the states, habituated by confederation to alternate sacrifices and advantages, growing into one grand EMPIRE, would gradually lose sight of every local and pernicious interest as the whole advanced into national perfection. And as the government became more and more fixed and freed from those local prejudices and interests, any necessary alteration might more easily be made.
But since those evils can no way be remedied at this time but by a separation of the states, I trust you will treat the attempt with that detestation which a design to ruin you forever would deserve.
For my part it is far from me to suspect any man of private designs in his public acts—But I fear every one will not be so liberal. The great opening which this doctrine leaves for suspicion to enter in, will not be long unoccupied I suspect. The many accomplishments which are necessary to entitle men to the presidency and other high offices under a government so extensive as this is likely [to] be; and on the contrary the few ingredients necessary to constitute that fitness where a state or two shall compose a UNION, render this darling scheme of disuniting the states too suspicious to go unnoticed by all. A general reputation throughout the continent, both military and political, will be necessary in the one, and a few marches and retreats about Williamsburg at the beginning of the war, the taking a tory or two by surprise at their own houses by night, together with a popular eloquence, will be sufficient recommendations, both military and civil, in the other.
Though for my own part I should rather suppose that this strange, wild, and dangerous scheme has arisen from a mistaken zeal in some, and been kept up from a reverence for the opinions of particular men by others. For let a man whose wisdom, experience, or patriotism has been thought uncommon, advocate an opinion, however fallacious it may be, he will always find converts. And this I take to be the case in the present instance.
Some celebrated statesman perhaps has taken up an opinion that we cannot exist but by separate governments—and a number of others, who under an admiration of the man have adopted his opinions by way of recommending themselves, as if they thought it sufficient for that purpose of their wisdom could come up to a level with his folly.
Long, too long indeed my countrymen, have we been liable to be lulled into a fatal stupor by the musical eloquence of a single man!—Whence our government, free as it appears to be, has ever had the worst of tyranny lurking in it.
At all times liable to be governed by the breath of a single man, under a constitution subject to be swept away by his eloquence, no one can foretell at what instate we may fall a prey to his ambition. These being the only dangers you have to dread from designing men, you have it now in your powers to be relieved from every fear of the sort in future.
Under the general government of a UNION, whose members will be farther removed from those fears which spring from popular sources, another kind of eloquence than inflammatory declamation will be necessary for persuasion. And from an assembly composed of men (many of whom of equal abilities, or at least of too great an equality of pride and ambition to suffer an individual of their own number to dictate to the rest) would flow laws founded on the combined abilities of all North America, and supersede those which were but the labours of some popular individual in each state.
Commerce then, freed from the oppressive hand of state jealousy and local interest, traversing the whole continent and seeking your commodities, would stamp a higher value on all your property. While policy and justice, unawed by popular resentment, extending their united hands, the one receiving from the delinquent states that portion of supplies which they have so long withheld, and the other placing it where it most righteously belongs—together with the assistance of a general impost, would soon relieve you from your debts both foreign and domestic, public and private. For as our present private embarrassments are in a great measure owing to the daily public demands which come against us, the[y] being relieved from the latter by any means whatever, will surely render us the more able to get rid of the former.
But while we impute to the taxes we pay towards supporting an illmanaged government our inability to discharge our private debts, let us recollect to what cause we owe that mismanagement itself;—and in doing this we shall probably find how inconsistent we are in opposing a government in every degree calculated to correct the evils of which we complain.
To look up for favors to others, without being willing to do a kindness in return, would be equally pitiful and unjust; and to expect to enjoy the benefits of a society to whose interests we are not always willing to adhere, would be unreasonable and absurd. Yet there are those who do not scruple to claim the most unbounded liberty, while they condemn the mismanagement of a government, the pressures of which are entirely owing to its being already to feeble and too popular to subsist but by relaxing first into the very lowest stages of existence, and then struggling and straining into vigor. Whence, though they are blinded to the cause, proceeds all the miseries they feel.—For that government which is distressed itself, by relenting in its demands at one time, must be the more rigid and severe at another.
To the different postponements of our taxes therefore, which have only been to please for the instant and not to give any lasting and permanent relief, we may justly [attribute?] the most of our present distress since the removing those necessary payments from time to time the further from us, only served to accumulate the load which at some time or another through necessity was doomed to fall on us with a threefold wretchedness—for the arrow that goes upwards is not rendered the less dangerous by being removed the further from us; but on the contrary the higher it ascends with so much the more force and weight it will return on our heads.
To an endeavor then to heal the wounds which that kind of policy has already made, which if too long irritated might become incurable at last, as well as to the causes before mentioned, the matter now under consideration owes its existence. But unfortunately that constitution, like all other human things, has its faults; and those faults are such as cannot be removed at this time without destroying it entirely—and what is worse, as I have before advanced, disuniting the whole of the states. And this last I trust, if sufficiently proved, will render the idea of amendments at this time as shocking in the eyes of the undesigning as the intent is treacherous in the minds and hearts of all others.
Let us for a moment however remove from our view the powerful tendency which the amendments themselves proposed by such men will have that way, and view them earnestly endeavoring to have those objectionable parts eradicated without a design of endangering the UNION. To that end it will only be necessary to consider the effects which the favorable reception that constitution may meet with from a part, will have on the UNION when met by such obstructions as amendments from the rest.
For it will not only be confessed, but it has already been urged as an objection to this new system of government, that it will be the interest of a majority of the states to oppress the rest—and it being the interest of that same majority to accede to any measure so highly favorable to that end as the new constitution will be, renders it at least probable that it will be adopted by a large majority of the states—which done, the proposing an amendment will be nothing less than a request to those states to undo an reconsider what they have already finally determined on;—and obstinately to persist in such amendments when that shall be the case, will be nothing less than in other words to withdraw ourselves from a connexion with them.
Though when we consider how numerous the objections as well as those who start them are, and how natural it is for all men to be attached to their own opinions, it will not be necessary to admit the same with a design to destroy the UNION.
The many local interests which will rise up in opposition to each other throughout the continent, not being naturally reconcilable, if set in motion at a time when there is no legal restraint to their operations, will necessarily from the states into parties which no future exertions can reunite.—When on the contrary if under the interference of a government whose existence will depend on the welfare of the whole, those necessary amendments may be made by sacrificing a small share of the interest of different parts, without endangering that last and deepest interest of the whole—the existence of the UNION.
In securing to the states their different rights the larger received a considerable advantage over the smaller in the number of representatives they found themselves entitled to in Congress—and those smaller states could no way be prevailed on to join in a government which would only [have] been formed for the advantage of others and the destruction of themselves, had they not also been secured. To that end an equal representation has been allowed them in one of the branches them not only their only inducement to engage in the business as well as their only safety when united; but also the only possible mean of bringing them up to a level with those parts with which their respectability was to join in making up the dignity of the whole.
Yet such is the anxiety of some to bring about a separation of the states that while they feign the most pious wish to perfect this new work, they plot its destruction by proposing amendments, the success of which they know must inevitable carry along with them the consequences they wish. For when any of the states shall be deprived of the only inducement they can have to unite themselves with, and what it worse, the only thing that can secure them from being swallowed up by the more important interests of the rest, how long must it be expected they will continue in that situation?—And to force others to withdraw from the UNION will no way different from doing it ourselves, except that those who contrive this artful expedient to separate the states, will secretly effect the blackest design while they publicly wear the fairest face the most sincere love of their country could put on.
Nor would there be wanting pretences still more plausible than the representation in the senate to effect the dissolution of the UNION by pretending amendments. Objections which are called general, and really appear so at first, would be started and urged with a degree of plausibility that might impose on some of the best friends to the UNION.
It is well known that several of the states on the continent have never made any formal declaration of their rights. Well aware of the impossibility of enumerating all those blessings to which by nature they were entitled, and highly sensible of the danger there was intrusting to their recollection of them (knowing that when once they attempted to set to them legal bounds, what ever should by chance be left out, was of course given up) some of the states more prudently thought to fit enumerate on the other hand what should be the powers of their government, when of course what ever was omitted on that side, remained as their natural and inviolable rights on the other. And but few states in the world have deemed it safe to do otherwise.
England itself until the reign of King John remained in this situation, when that foundation of the present British constitution, the Magna Charta of the land, made its appearance, under whose benign influence of the plant of liberty was expected to grow and flourish. But unfortunately that bright luminary in the British constitution dawned but with a glimmering ray on this quarter of the world from its first settlement. America, though secured under the constitution of England, from time to time felt itself oppressed by its laws—till at length it was found, but little also than mercy, instead of our own rights, was left us in that government to depend on for safety—”when enquiring into the first principles of society, we became convinces that power, when its object was not the good of those who were subject to it, was nothing more than the right of the strongest, and might be repressed by the exertion of a similar right.” And growing more and more restless the attempt soon followed the discovery.
The whole of the states at once becoming united, in what was considered the common cause of all, a general agitation took place, which increased as it extended itself across the continent “like the rolling waves of an extensive sea.” When all the world, though interested in the event, stood motionless at first with astonishment at the attempt. Yet relying on the justness of their cause, while destitute of every resource, the thirteen states of America thus united and impressed with a true sense of origin of power, most piously resolved to maintain those natural rights, the relinquishment of which to aggrandise any power on earth, would only be an insult on that divine authority from whence they sprung.
And to forge indiscriminately now those states in a declaration of their rights, who may think it still unsafe to rely on a bare recital of them, particularly in a general government which at its commencement must involve its authors in too great a variety of difficulties and cares, to be sufficiently mindful of every natural right necessary to be secured to each particular state, would be as unjust and inconsistent with our former pretentions, as its natural consequence—the separation of the states—would be contrary to that policy which gave us success.
But why need I labour thus to prove what is in itself so definitely clear?—The constitution itself admits of no amendments till put in force. To adopt it or reject it is all we have to do—The one I confess is the most ardent wish of my heart—though the other were to entitle me to the credit of prophesy; from whose foresight I should only most earnestly recommend to you to consider well before the approaching election whether a total dissolution of the UNION is desirable; for that I apprehend to be the only amendment which can be made in the new plan of government by our state convention.
Conversation-based seminars for collegial PD, one-day and multi-day seminars, graduate credit seminars (MA degree), online and in-person.
Our Core Document Collection allows students to read history in the words of those who made it. Available in hard copy and for download.