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CHAPTER L. - Gouverneur Morris, The Diary and Letters of Gouverneur Morris, vol. 2 
The Diary and Letters of Gouverneur Morris, Minister of the United States to France; Member of the Constitutional Convention, ed. Anne Cary Morris (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1888). 2 vols. Vol. 2.
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Scheme for a bank. Letter to Rufus King on the subject. The Hartford Convention. Letter to Moss Kent. Laments the existing troubles and fears more misery. Peace proclaimed. Suggests laws to protect game. Letter to Senator Wells. Expresses his opinion of the peace. Napoleon’s escape from Elba. Letter to a friend commenting on the manifesto of the combined powers.
In January, 1815, the bank scheme, which had always, in Morris’s opinion, been unsound, came to an end; or, as he expressed it in a letter to Rufus King: “The bank bubble has burst; on which, if the Union is to be revived, I heartily congratulate every friend to our country, for it would have hung a millstone round our necks, and rendered a sound system of finance almost, if not altogether, impracticable. A thing of this sort is more pernicious in its immediate effects, and far more dangerous in its remote consequence, than paper money of the old stamp. Whether to congratulate or to condole with you on the failure of your conscription-scheme I know not. Had it passed, and attempts been made to execute it, the people might have roused from a lethargy boding death to our rights. If not resisted, many precious rights enjoyed under the British Government, which their claim of supremacy had not jeopardized, would have been destroyed.
“We shall, I suppose, soon learn what the Hartford Convention has done. As far as my information goes, they will not come up to the point which would have insured success. An opinion generally expressed, though not perhaps entertained, that the Union must be preserved, may, by enfeebling their decisions, lessen the motives for adherence. Should they cause it to be understood, not only that no more men or money shall be drawn from, and, in case of separation, no part of the war debt be paid by New England, but that the execution of offices held under the Union is suspended, and that honorable conditions of peace shall, if proposed on the part of Great Britain, be immediately accepted, this State would, I believe, adhere by an almost unanimous vote.
“I had written thus far when a pamphlet containing the acts of the convention was brought to me. They have fallen short, not only of the ideas just expressed, but of general expectation, and will be laughed at by many. Nevertheless the business will, I am persuaded, go all the length they look to. If Messrs. Madison & Co. close with their proposition (it will be difficult to adjust the terms), a separation will be acknowledged; and should those terms be rejected, it must ensue. While you sit deliberating, the Union withers in the opinion of those who think they are thinking men. For my own part, I considered the Constitution as dead from the repeal of the Judiciary, and the Union as dissolved when the National Executive declared they could not defend the States, and would not abandon their scheme of conquering Canada. A new order of things must arise, when the actual disorder shall be generally felt. A government without force, without money, without talent, and generally despised, cannot stand. If not overthrown, it must tumble down; and the convention have, out of pure malice, perhaps, left it to the latter as being the more humiliating alternative.”
The doings of the Hartford Convention Morris, in a letter to Moss Kent, January 10th, characterized “as prudent; and,” continued he, “your democratic acquaintance will doubtless make themselves merry at the mildness of Yankee measures. Such humble language must have a squeaking sound to ears that tingle with the full tone of a gentleman now Governor of South Carolina. You, however, who are somewhat of a Yankee, will see in the modest propositions from Hartford matter more serious than the rattling of words. Yankees like to make what they call a fair bargain and will, I guess, easily take up the notion of bargaining with the National Government, which, according to my notion, can make no bargain of practical result which will not amount to a severance of the Union. Moreover, in the dearth of ready ‘rhino,’ the administration cannot spare a part, especially the first part, of New England’s contribution; whereas New England, in adjusting the proportion, will probably guess that the whole is better than any part. If, on the other hand, these modest propositions are rejected, I guess that New England, finding her logic of no avail, will resort to the reason of cannon law.
“It is very true, my good friend, that direct taxes fall heavy on great land-holders. And it is equally true that the land-tax, as originally imposed and now reimposed, is a breach of faith, and, in the mildest view, an act of injustice. No government can rightfully exact more than a fair proportion of income. To go further, and take the capital, is no longer taxation; it is confiscation. When the State sells uncultivated land they receive that which produces income in exchange for that which produces no income, under the engagement, generally expressed but always implied, that while it remains unproductive it shall remain untaxed. Imagine a person, and there are many such, who invested the greater part of a large money capital in the purchase of wild land, reserving as much in public stock as might enable his family to live. Such person, the interest on his stock withheld and unable to sell the principal, is pressed for a tax on his wild land. He cannot sell it, for no one is so foolish as to purchase a tax. What, then, can he do? You may determine that, if he don’t pay, so much of his land shall be sold as the tax amounts to. Now make that certain which, in the course of things, must become certain. Suppose it to be one-tenth. It results that your operation, when analyzed, amounts to this: You sell a thousand acres for cash to-day, and take back a hundred for nothing to-morrow. Why not play the whole game of French rapacity? Why not take the whole property, preluding, as they did, by an overture on the guillotine?
“I am of opinion, with the democratic members you mention, that the Southern and Western States will not pay their portion of the direct tax. If, therefore, you wish to redress grievances and present a bright prospect to holders of war stock, enact that States (at the next session of Congress) shall be represented pro rata of payments on account of their tax into the treasury, and shall vote for the President on the same principle. This regulation, in the spirit of the Constitution, will (if adopted) place power where it ought to be, and (if rejected) explain our political condition.
“When, in framing the Constitution, we restricted so closely the power of government over our fellow-citizens of the militia, it was not because we supposed there would ever be a Congress so mad as to attempt tyrannizing over the people or militia by the militia. The danger we meant chiefly to provide against was hazarding the national safety by a reliance on that expensive and inefficient force; for those who, during the revolutionary storm, had confidential acquaintance with the conduct of affairs, knew well that to rely on undisciplined, ill-officered men, though they were individually as brave as Cæsar, to resist the well directed impulse of veterans is to act in defiance of reason and experience. We flattered ourselves that the constitutional restriction on the use of militia, combined with the just apprehension of danger to liberty from a standing army, would force those intrusted with the conduct of national affairs to make seasonable provision for a naval force. We were not ignorant of the puerile notions entertained by some on that subject, but we hoped, alas! vainly hoped, that our councils would not be swayed by chattering boys, nor become the sport of senseless declamation.”
A conviction of more trouble impending, and of at least a long period of time during which the finances of the country must be in a deplorable condition, greatly oppressed Morris, and the condition of those in Virginia who had undertaken pecuniary engagements appeared to him most unfortunate. “My dear friend,” he wrote, January 22d, to Randolph Harrison, of Clifton, Va., expressing his anxiety, “I fear we are only at the beginning of trouble. The misery we suffer may be traced to the imbecility and prodigious extravagance of military operations, the dishonesty of fiscal schemes, and those oppressive follies which preceded the war. It is now full five and twenty years since those who govern us predicted an approaching bankruptcy of the British nation. Their diplomacy has been calculated on this idea, the absurdity of which was evident to every man of correct information and sound mind. Mark the result. England has borne an extreme pressure of war, with little intermission, from that day to this; yet her three per cent. and our six per cent. stock are selling nearly at the same price. Hers is rising, ours falls; we have not taken her territory, we lose our own; and if the measures which have already brought us to the brink of ruin be pursued, our liberty and property will soon be buried in the same grave. We, indeed, of the North and East, may save ourselves by a severance of the Union. What I say is for you alone. I mean not that even the slight obstacle of my opinion should be put in the way of our rulers, but if we do not have peace soon your produce, now worth little, will be worth nothing, and every solid dollar you have will take wing and fly away.”
The diary notes that Thursday, February 9th, is “my son’s birthday, two years old. We have a dinner-party to celebrate the festival.”
“The news of peace arrived in town yesterday,” Morris chronicles, February 12th; and, writing a few days later to his nephew David B. Ogden, then at Washington, he says: “I congratulate you on the return of peace, in compliance with the fashion, and listening (for once) to the voice of self-interest, pardonable, perhaps, at sixty-three. The peace may prevent a separation of the States, patch up our tattered Constitution, and perpetuate the blessings of a Jacobin administration.
“In a letter written to Mr. King yesterday is the following paragraph: ‘Be not surprised at a proposal to relinquish the direct tax. It comports with Southern interest and policy. Federal opposition will be a deadly weapon in the hand of their adversaries. Say what you will of public faith, moral right, and constitutional policy; talk, if you please, in Latin, Greek, or Hebrew; publish discourses in English, Syriac, or Coptic character, no one will listen, no one will read—but all will eagerly catch and greedily swallow the plain democratic proposition: “Gentlemen, electors it was with extreme reluctance, under the pressure of dire necessity, that we laid a direct tax, and as soon as that pressure was removed we proposed to take it off, but those accursed federalists, who delight in oppressing the people, insisted on its continuance.” This plain proposition, I say, will be understood, felt, and acted upon—any cause, matter, or thing to the contrary thereof in anywise notwithstanding.’
“We Americans are all good patriots; we have a patent for it. We are, moreover, good republicans; we have a patent for that also, and such as bear the sacred symbols of democracy have an exceeding great attachment to the republic—for the word republic means, as everyone knows, public things, namely, public office, public trust, and public treasure. But only a part, even, of the purest republicans, democrats of the very first proof, neat as imported, can finger public cash in its way from the pouch of a contributor to the clutch of a contractor. The great mass, therefore, even of shouting Jacobins, find little chance of pocketing our square dollars, notwithstanding the patriotic indulgence of liberal rulers whose generosity, finding no food for its exercise in their purses, spreads its benign influence over the nation’s wealth. In consequence, they prudently contrive to keep back as many as possible of their own cents from a collector’s grasp. Federalists, also, loudly though they cry, and honestly, in support of public credit, are well content to be let off for the cry, while others bear the burden and pay the cost. Hence it happens that no candidate can wear to the polls a finer feather than the words No TAXES, handsomely pinned to his hat.
“I do not recommend anything. I have not the presumption. I permit myself, however, the liberty of guessing, and, in consequence, I guess that those who move and vote for the repeal of direct taxes will stand a better chance to catch popularity than their opponents. I guess that the love of popularity, like the itch, is a disease to which those are liable who frequent public assemblies. I guess, therefore, it would be as impolite to scrutinize motives at Washington as to look closely at a Highlander’s knuckles. There can be no doubt that those worthy gentlemen who conscientiously furnished pecuniary means to prosecute this righteous war would make a sad caterwauling at the prospect of losing ten or a dozen millions, the fruit of their honest industry. But I guess that the worthy gentlemen are about to be out of favor and out of fashion at headquarters. They will, I fear, be annoyed by ugly words, such as usury and extortion, which bear a sound particularly unpleasant to gentlemen of delicate ears. And, God forgive me, I guess that the pleasure felt by those vulgar creatures, the farmers and mechanics, at being relieved from oppressive taxation, would be heightened by the disappointment of those whose wisdom planned and whose modesty proposed the ways and means by which to drive in splendid coaches over the necks of those vulgar creatures.”
In an interesting letter to De Witt Clinton, Morris stated his ideas on the propriety of making laws to protect fish and game; such laws, he thought, would aid vagabonds to earn an honest living, and thereby enrich the State. “Relying,” he continues, “on long experience and mature reflection, I hesitate not to assert that plenty, power, numbers, wealth, and felicity will ever be in proportion to the security of property. Unless by agrarian laws the fabric of society be demolished, some individuals will become rich. These, if precluded from enjoying their wealth at home, will go abroad, or employ it in accumulating more; whereas, if our institutions be such as reasonably to encourage objects of taste and magnificence, not only our wealthy citizens who are fond of expense will be kept at home, but wealthy foreigners may be induced, by the general freedom and ease of our manners, to come and reside among us. Many, also, diverted from accumulations of property dangerous to liberty, will employ those without whose labor works of taste and magnificence cannot be executed. It shall readily be admitted that forty thousand dollars spent in the course of ten years to build the wall of a park will yield but low interest in venison and skins, so that, if undertaken as a profitable speculation, the proprietor would be deceived; he might find a better pecuniary account in building fire-proof stores. But would he realize a greater profit from spending four thousand dollars a year in foreign luxuries? Would the importation of costly wine, furniture, and apparel, conduce more to his health or wealth? Would it increase the public wealth as much? Would the support of women in Flanders who spin fine flax and knit point lace add as much to our population and power as the support of men in America who build walls and quarry stones? When war calls for soldiers—but whither am I going? I sat down to say a word about eels and, somehow or other, that slippery subject has led me to one so much more slippery that the sooner I quit it the better. Accept then, I pray you, the assurance of that respect with which I have the honor to be, etc.”
“Accept my thanks,” Morris wrote, February 24th, to Mr. William H. Wells, “for your excellent speech before the Senate, which, if we are to believe Voltaire when he says, ‘The pleasure of reading verse is derived from the sense of difficulty surmounted,’ is equal to an epic poem. You state at your outset the obstacle, and afterwards establish your position that a self-evident proposition cannot be demonstrated. Contra principia negantem non est disputandum. Those who deny axioms have a great advantage over opponents who have the good nature to argue with them, for genius can seduce weak minds by plausible sophisms; but he who attempts to prove that two and two make four imposes on himself an arduous task. Your observations are so acute and profound that many will find it difficult to follow you, but those who do will be, if possible, more thoroughly convinced than they were, from a mere enunciation of the proposition, that a jug must not only exist but have something in it before it can be emptied.
“The Constitution, I think, intended that certain offices should be held at the President’s pleasure. It is unquestionably an abuse to create a vacancy, in the recess of the Senate, by turning a man out of office, and then fill it as a vacancy that has happened. But, my dear sir, there is no end to abuses. It is a vain attempt to tie up the arm of government with paper bands, for the purposes of government cannot be answered unless it have sufficient strength to crush exterior obstacles. If, then, those who administer it have not morality enough to confine themselves within the prescribed bounds, it will run to excess, unless restrained by interior organization. This is no new discovery. Shortly after the Convention met there was a serious discussion on the importance of arranging a national system of sufficient strength to operate in despite of State opposition, and yet not strong enough to break down State authority. I delivered on that occasion this short speech: ‘Mr. President, if the rod of Aaron do not swallow the rods of the magicians, the rods of the magicians will swallow the rod of Aaron.’
“You would ask, perhaps, how, under such impressions I could be an advocate of the Federal Constitution. To this I answer, first, that I was warmly pressed by Hamilton to assist in writing the Federalist, which I declined; secondly, that nothing human can be perfect; thirdly, that the obstacles to a less imperfect system were insurmountable; fourthly, that the old Confederation was worse; and, fifthly, that there was no reason, at that time, to suppose our public morals would be so soon and so entirely corrupted. Mr. Mason, a delegate from Virginia, constantly inveighing against aristocracy, labored to introduce aristocratic provisions. Some of them might have been wholesome, but they would have been rejected by public feeling in the form proposed; and if modified to render them acceptable, by detracting proportionately from executive authority, which was his plan, we should have risked less, indeed, from the flood of democracy, but we should have had a president unable to perform the duties of his office. Surrounded by difficulties, we did the best we could, leaving it with those who should come after us to take counsel from experience, and exercise prudently the power of amendment which we had provided. I see, with concern, that the old treaty of peace is not renewed and confirmed in the Treaty of Ghent.”
Morris was not timid in expressing his opinion of the peace. “Mr. Madison,” he wrote, March 14th, to a friend living in Northern New York, “had the impudence to call the peace, in a message to Congress, honorable. No man need con the pages of public law to be convinced that when a nation, having assigned a specific claim as the cause for declaring war, concludes a treaty of peace which contains neither a grant of the thing claimed nor a reservation of the question for future adjustment, it is equivalent to an express abandonment. But lest there should be, as in stupid minds there might be, a doubt on the subject, our rulers have publicly advanced the proposition in the broadest terms. Thus from their own showing, as well as on the acknowledged principles of public law and the plain dictates of common-sense, they have surrendered to England every contested point. They have therefore tacitly acknowledged the injustice of a war rashly declared, prodigally maintained, weakly conducted, and meanly concluded.
“I say it has been meanly concluded, because I am informed—indeed, I foresaw—that their endeavor, by publishing part of the pending negotiation, to excite a hostile spirit here while they professed a pacific disposition at Ghent filled the British ministers with indignation. In consequence, their commissioners, disdaining to reason with ours, sternly dictated the terms of a treaty. Every attempt to obtain other conditions met the laconic reply usually given to a capitulating garrison, ‘Inadmissible.’ Thus honorably was this peace obtained, a boon from the benevolence of our enemy, like the honorable peace dictated to France in the city of Paris.
“The attempt to keep a standing army of twenty thousand men has an awful appearance. Does the administration contemplate violating, in the moment of ratifying, the treaty, by refusing to restore land taken from the Indians? Does it mean to invade the Spanish territory? Does it intend to dragoon the Eastern States? Or does it merely covet the means of corrupt influence at the next election? Ignorant of their views, I can only say that this attempt of our oppressors to squeeze the last penny from an impoverished people merits severe censure, if not punishment, unless some great public danger impends.
“If, amid the indignant emotion roused by the misfortunes of my country, I could listen to the dictates of private interest, the peace would be agreeable, not merely because it saves the State from ruin but because its conditions and consequences will enrich the country you inhabit. The United States, having lost (or nearly so) the fisheries, and trade of the East and West Indies; being, moreover, restricted now by the nature of things to a direct commerce of export and consumption, much of the mercantile capital saved from six years of maladministration and three years of war must seek employment on some other object. The direct tax will be too unpopular to be long continued, even were it wise, moderate, and just. Heavy duties will foster the traffic which has, it is said, been carried on during the war between the opposite shores of the St. Lawrence. The preference given by Britain to articles brought from her own colonies will be a premium to the produce of your country, when exported from Montreal. The course and result of the war show there is no reason to apprehend predatory incursions or a cession of territory. Being, moreover, cured of the desire for conquering Canada, there is no cause to fear the loss of the double market formerly enjoyed, or that large tracts of Canadian soil will be offered to American settlers.”
Thursday, April 27th, the diary mentioned the news having come of Napoleon’s escape from Elba, and that “he entered Paris the 20th of March, at the head of eighty thousand French troops, all that were sent to oppose him having joined him.” And May 5th the entry in the diary contains the news that “it appears all Europe is leagued to restore the Bourbons. A manifesto of the combined powers declares Bonaparte an outlaw.” Commenting to a friend on this state of affairs, a little later, Morris says:
“Your alarm respecting Bonaparte is, I think, too great. Louis deserved, in some measure, what happened. I apprehended trouble and turmoil, though not so great a catastrophe; for the man who lies down naked among rattlesnakes must expect to be bitten. It is, however, more easy to discover faults than to avoid them. He ought, if he could, to have disbanded an army which, habituated to plunder, was not susceptible of pacific temper. But could he? Was he not, in some sort, a prisoner in their hands? The Allies should have considered the situation before they placed him in it. But they, I suppose, reasoned for what they saw from what they felt. Alexander, who took the lead, has still in his head some of that stuff called philosophy which it was full of ten years ago; and all of them seem to have taken for granted that a maxim, not always correct in a state of peace, is applicable in a state of war, viz., that one nation ought not to meddle with the internal affairs of another. The Romans would have laughed at this childishness. There has been uttered of late much idle jargon on subjects of this sort. Among the rest, it has been triumphantly asked, as if unanswerable, ‘Would you make war against principles.’ To this I have frequently had occasion to reply, ‘Yes, and to destroy principles inconsistent with the peace and happiness of mankind—destroy those who hold them.’ Providence, whose ways are inscrutable by man, has brought the Allies now to a condition in which they must act up to this opinion. Bonaparte will be quelled, and his associate conspirators brought to condign punishment. I am, moreover, disposed to believe that ere long Jacobin doctrines will be put down everywhere. The family of nations must not be tormented by the vain and touchy waywardness of a presumptous member. Those who, like Napoleon, deny the law, must, like Napoleon, be put out of the law.”