To the People of the United States
It has, from the first establishment of Your present constitution, been predicted, that every occasion of serious embarrassment which should occur in the affairs of the government, every misfortune which it should experience, whether produced from its own faults or mistakes, or from other causes, would be the signal of an attempt to overthrow it, or to lay the foundation of its overthrow, by defeating the exercise of constitutional and necessary authorities. The disturbances which have recently broken out in the western counties of Pennsylvania, furnish an occasion of this sort. It remains to see whether the prediction which has been quoted proceeded from an unfounded jealousy, excited by partial differences of opinion, or was a just inference from causes inherent in the structure of our political institutions. Every virtuous man, every good citizen, and especially every true republican, must fervently pray, that the issue may confound and not confirm so ill-omened a prediction.
Your firm attachment to the government you have established, cannot be doubted.
If a proof of this were wanting to animate the confidence of your public agents, it would be sufficient to remark that as often as any attempt to counteract its measures appear, it is carefully prepared by strong professions of friendship to the government and disavowals of any intention to injure it. This can only result from a conviction that the government carries with it your affections; and that an attack upon it, to be successful, must veil the stroke under the appearances of good will.
It is therefore very important that you should clearly discern, in the present instance, the shape in which a design of turning the existing insurrection to the prejudice of the government would naturally assume. Thus guarded, you will more readily discover and more easily shun the artful snares which may be laid to entangle your feelings and your judgment, and will be the less apt to be misled from the path by which alone you can give security and permanency to the blessings you enjoy, and can avoid the incalculable mischiefs incident to a subversion of the just and necessary authority of the laws.
The design alluded to, if it shall be entertained, would not appear in an open justification of the principles or conduct of the insurgents, or in a direct dissuasion from the support of the government. These methods would produce general indignation and defeat the object. It is too absurd and shocking a position to be directly maintained, that forcible resistance by a sixtieth part of the community to the representative will of the whole, and to constitutional laws expressed by that will, and acquiesced in by the people at large, is justifiable or even excusable. It is a position too untenable and disgusting to be directly advocated, that the government ought not to be supported in exertions to establish the authority of the laws against a resistance so incapable of justification or excuse.
The adversaries of good order in every country have too great a share of cunning, too exact a knowledge of the human heart, to pursue so unpromising a cause. Those among us would take upon the present occasion one far more artful, and consequently far more dangerous.
They would unite with good citizens, and perhaps be among the loudest in condemning the disorderly conduct of the insurgents. They would agree that it is utterly unjustifiable, contrary to the vital principle of republican government, and of the most dangerous tendency. But they would, at the same time, slily add, that excise laws are pernicious things, very hostile to liberty (or perhaps they might more smoothly lament that the government had been imprudent enough to pass laws so contrary to the genius of a free people), and they would still more cautiously hint that it is enough for those who disapprove of such laws to submit to them—too much to expect their aid in forcing them upon others. They would be apt to intimate further, that there is reason to believe that the Executive has been to blame, sometimes by too much forbearance, encouraging the hope that the laws would not be enforced, at other times in provoking violence by severe and irritating measures; and they would generally remark, with an affectation of moderation and prudence, that the case is to be lamented, but difficult to be remedied; that a trial of force would be delicate and dangerous; that there is no foreseeing how or where it would end; that it is perhaps better to temporize, and by mild means to allay the ferment, and afterwards to remove the cause by repealing the exceptionable laws. They would probably also propose, by anticipation of and in concert with the views of the insurgents, plans of procrastination. They would say, if force must finally be resorted to, let it not be till after Congress has been consulted, who, if they think fit to persist in continuing the laws, can make additional provision for enforcing their execution. This, too, they would argue, will afford an opportunity for the public sense to be better known, which (if ascertained to be in favor of the laws) will give the government greater assurance of success in measures of coercion.
By these means, artfully calculated to divert your attention from the true question to be decided; to combat, by prejudices against a particular system, a just sense of the criminality and danger of violent resistance to the laws; to oppose the suggestion of misconduct on the part of government to the fact of misconduct on the part of the insurgents; to foster the spirit of indolence and procrastination natural to the human mind, as an obstacle to the vigor and exertion which so alarming an attack upon the fundamental principles of public and private security demands; to distract your opinion on the course proper to be pursued, and consequently on the propriety of the measures which may be pursued. They would expect (I say) by these and similar means equally insidious and pernicious, to abate your just indignation at the daring affront which has been offered to your authority and your zeal for the maintenance and support of the laws; to prevent a competent force, if force is finally called forth, from complying with the call; and thus to leave the government of the Union in the prostrate condition of seeing the laws trampled under foot by an unprincipled combination of a small portion of the community, habitually disobedient to laws, and itself destitute of the necessary aid for vindicating their authority.
Virtuous and enlightened citizens of a new and happy country! ye could not be the dupes of artifices so detestable, of a scheme so fatal; ye cannot be insensible to the destructive consequences with which it would be pregnant; ye cannot but remember that the government is your own work, that those who administer it are but your temporary agents; that you are called upon not to support their power, but your own power. And you will not fail to do what your rights, your best interests, your character as a people, your security as members of society, conspire to demand of you.
It has been observed that the means most likely to be employed to turn the insurrection in the western country to the detriment of the government, would be artfully calculated among other things “to divert your attention from the true question to be decided.”
Let us see then what is this question. It is plainly this—Shall the majority govern or be governed? shall the nation rule or be ruled? shall the general will prevail, or the will of a faction? shall there be government or no government? It is impossible to deny that this is the true and the whole question. No art, no sophistry can involve it in the least obscurity.
The Constitution you have ordained for yourselves and your posterity contains this express clause: “The Congress Shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises, to pay the debts, and provide for the common defence and general welfare of the United States.” You have, then, by a solemn and deliberate act, the most important and sacred that a nation can perform, pronounced and decreed, that your representatives in Congress shall have power to lay excises. You have done nothing since to reverse or impair that decree.
Your representatives in Congress, pursuant to the commission derived from you, and with a full knowledge of the public exigencies, have laid an excise. At three succeeding sessions they have revised that act, and have as often, with a degree of unanimity not common, and after the best opportunities of knowing your sense, renewed their sanction to it, you have acquiesced in it, it has gone into general operation, and you have actually paid more than a million of dollars on account of it.
But the four western counties of Pennsylvania undertake to rejudge and reverse your decrees. You have said, “The Congress shall have power to lay excises.“ They say, “The Congress shall not have this power.” Or, what is equivalent—they shall not exercise it: for a power that may not be exercised is a nullity. Your representatives have said, and four times repeated it, “An excise on distilled spirits shall be collected.” They say it shall not be collected. We will punish, expel, and banish the officers who shall attempt the collection. We will do the same by every other person who shall dare to comply with your decree expressed in the constitutional charter; and with that of your representatives expressed in the laws. The sovereignty shall not reside with you, but with us. If you presume to dispute the point by force, we are ready to measure swords with you, and if unequal ourselves to the contest, we will call in the aid of a foreign nation. We will league ourselves with a foreign power.
If there is a man among us who shall affirm that the question is not what it has been stated to be, who shall endeavor to perplex it by ill-timed declamations against excise laws, who shall strive to paralyze the efforts of the community by invectives or insinuations against the government, who shall inculcate, directly or indirectly, that force ought not to be employed to compel the insurgents to a submission to the laws, if the pending experiment to bring them to reason (an experiment which will immortalize the moderation of the government) shall fail,—such a man is not a good citizen; such a man, however he may prate and babble republicanism, is not a republican; he attempts to set up the will of a part against the will of the whole, the will of a faction against the will of the nation, the pleasure of a few against your pleasure, the violence of a lawless combination against the sacred authority of laws pronounced under your indisputable commission.
Mark such a man, if such there be. The occasion may enable you to discriminate the true from pretended republicans; your friends from the friends of faction. “T is in vain that the latter shall attempt to conceal their pernicious principles under a crowd of odious invectives against the laws. Your answer is this: “We have already in the constitutional act decided the point against you, and against those for whom you apologize. We have pronounced that excises may be laid, and consequently that they are not, as you say, inconsistent with liberty. Let our will be first obeyed, and then we shall be ready to consider the reasons which can be afforded to prove our judgment has been erroneous; and if they convince us, to cause them to be observed. We have not neglected the means of amending in a regular course the constitutional act. And we shall know how to make our sense be respected whenever we shall discover that any part of it needs correction. But as an earnest of this, it is our intention to begin by securing obedience to our authority, from those who have been bold enough to set it at defiance. In a full respect for the laws, we discern the reality of our power and the means of providing for our welfare as occasion may require; in the contempt of the laws we see the annihilation of our power, the possibility and the danger of its being usurped by others, and of the despotism of individuals succeeding to the regular authority of the nation.” That a fate like this may never await you, let it be deeply imprinted in your minds, and handed down to your latest posterity, that there is no road to despotism more sure or more to be dreaded than that which begins at anarchy.
Threats of joining the British are actually thrown out—how far the idea may go is not known.
If it were to be asked, What is the most sacred duty, and the greatest source of security in a republic? the answer would be, An inviolable respect for the Constitution and laws—the first growing out of the last. It is by this, in a great degree, that the rich and the powerful are to be restrained from enterprises against the common liberty—operated upon by the influence of a general sentiment, by their interest in the principle, and by the obstacles which the habit it produces erects against innovation and encroachment. It is by this, in a still greater degree, that caballers, intriguers, and demagogues are prevented from climbing on the shoulders of faction to the tempting seats of usurpation and tyranny.
Were it not that it might require too long a discussion, it would not be difficult to demonstrate that a large and well-organized republic can scarcely lose its liberty from any other cause than that of anarchy, to which a contempt of the laws is the high-road.
But without entering into so wide a field, it is sufficient to present to your view a more simple and a more obvious truth, which is this: that a sacred respect for the constitutional law is the vital principle, the sustaining energy, of a free government.
Government is frequently and aptly classed under two descriptions—a government of force, and a government of laws; the first is the definition of despotism—the last, of liberty. But how can a government of laws exist when the laws are disrespected and disobeyed? Government supposes control. It is that power by which individuals in society are kept from doing injury to each other, and are brought to co-operate to a common end. The instruments by which it must act are either the authority of the laws or force. If the first be destroyed, the last must be substituted; and where this becomes the ordinary instrument of government, there is an end to liberty!
Those, therefore, who preach doctrines, or set examples which undermine or subvert the authority of the laws, lead us from freedom to slavery; they incapacitate us for a government of laws, and consequently prepare the way for one of force, for mankind must have government of one sort or another. There are, indeed, great and urgent cases where the bounds of the Constitution are manifestly transgressed, or its constitutional authorities so exercised as to produce unequivocal oppression on the community, and to render resistance justifiable. But such cases can give no color to the resistance by a comparatively inconsiderable part of a community, of constitutional laws distinguished by no extraordinary features of rigor or oppression, and acquiesced in by the body of the community.
Such a resistance is treason against society, against liberty, against every thing that ought to be dear to a free, enlightened, and prudent people. To tolerate it, were to abandon your most precious interests. Not to subdue it, were to tolerate it. Those who openly or covertly dissuade you from exertions adequate to the occasion, are your worst enemies. They treat you either as fools or cowards, too weak to perceive your interest or your duty, or too dastardly to pursue them. They therefore merit and will, no doubt, meet your contempt. To the plausible but hollow harangue of such conspirators you cannot fail to reply, How long, ye Catilines, will ye abuse our patience?
To urge the execution of that system would manifest, it is said, an intemperate spirit; and to excite your disapprobation of that course, you are threatened with the danger of a civil war, which is called the consummation of human evil.
To crown the outrage upon your understandings, the insurgents are represented as men who understand the principles of freedom, and know the horrors and distresses of anarchy, and who, therefore, must have been tempted to hostility against the laws by a radical defect, either in the government or in those intrusted with its administration. How thin the partition which divides the insinuation from the assertion, that the government is in fault, and the insurgents in the right!
Fellow-citizens: A name, a sound, has too often had influence on the affairs of nations; an excise has too long been the successful watchword of party. It has even sometimes led astray well-meaning men. The experiment is now to be tried whether there be any spell in it of sufficient force to unnerve the arm which may be found necessary to be raised in defence of law and order.
The jugglers who endeavor to cheat us with the sound, have never dared to venture into the fair fields of argument. They are conscious that it is easier to declaim than to reason on the subject. They know it to be better to play a game with the passions and prejudices, than to engage seriously with the understanding of the auditory. You have already seen that the merits of excise laws are immaterial to the question to be decided, that you have prejudged the point by a solemn constitutional act, and that until you shall have revoked or modified that act, resistance to its operation is a criminal infraction of the social compact, an inversion of the fundamental principles of republican government, and a daring attack upon your sovereignty, which you are bound, by every motive of duty and self-preservation, to withstand and defeat. The matter might safely be suffered to rest here; but I shall take a future opportunity to examine the reasonableness of the prejudice which is inculcated against excise laws, and which has become the pretext for excesses tending to dissolve the bands of society.
Fellow-citizens: You are told that it will be intemperate to urge the execution of the laws which are resisted. What? Will it be indeed intemperate in your Chief Magistrate, sworn to maintain the Constitution, charged faithfully to execute the laws, and authorized to employ for that purpose force, when the ordinary means fail—will it be intemperate in him to exert that force, when the Constitution and the laws are opposed by force? Can he answer it to his conscience, to you, not to exert it?
Yes, it is said; because the execution of it will produce civil war—the consummation of human evil.
Fellow-citizens: Civil war is, undoubtedly, a great evil. It is one that every good man would wish to avoid, and will deplore if inevitable. But it is incomparably a less evil than the destruction of government. The first brings with it serious but temporary and partial ills; the last undermines the foundations of our security and happiness. And where should we be if it were once to grow into a maxim, that force is not to be used against the seditious combinations of parts of the community to resist the laws? This would be to give a carte blanche to ambition, to licentiousness, to foreign intrigue, to make you the prey of the gold of other nations—the sport of the passions and vices of individuals among yourselves. The hydra Anarchy would rear its head in every quarter. The goodly fabric you have established would be rent asunder, and precipitated into the dust. You knew how to encounter civil war rather than surrender your liberty to foreign domination; you will not hesitate now to brave it rather than to surrender your sovereignty to the tyranny of a faction; you will be as deaf to the apostles of anarchy now as you were to the emissaries of despotism then. Your love of liberty will guide you now as it did then; you know that the power of the majority and liberty are inseparable. Destroy that, and this perishes. But, in truth, that which properly can be called civil war is not to be apprehended—unless from the act of those who endeavor to fan the flame, by rendering the government odious. A civil war is a contest between two great parts of the same empire. The exertion of the strength of the nation to suppress resistance to its laws, by a sixtieth part of itself, is not of that description.
After endeavoring to alarm you with the horrors of civil war, an attempt is made to excite your sympathy in favor of the armed faction, by telling you that those who compose it are men who understand the principles of freedom, and know the horrors and distresses of anarchy, and must therefore have been prompted to hostility against the laws by a radical defect either in the government or in its administration. Fellow-citizens, for an answer to this you have only to consult your senses. The natural consequences of radical defect in a government, or in its administration, are national distress and suffering. Look around you—where is it? Do you feel it? Do you see it?
Go in quest of it beyond the Alleghany, and instead of it you will find that there also a scene of unparalleled prosperity upbraids the ingratitude and madness of those who are endeavoring to cloud the bright face of our political horizon, and to mar the happiest lot that beneficent Heaven ever indulged to undeserving mortals.
When you have turned your eyes towards that scene, examine well the men whose knowledge of the principles of freedom is so emphatically vaunted—where did they get their better knowledge of those principles than that which you possess? How is it that you have been so blind or tame as to remain quiet, while they have been goaded into hostility against the laws by a radical defect in the government or its administration? Are you willing to yield them the palm of discernment, of patriotism, or of courage?
The prediction mentioned in my first letter begins to be fulfilled. Fresh symptoms every moment appear of a dark conspiracy, hostile to your government, to your peace abroad, to your tranquillity at home. One of its orators dares to prostitute the name of Franklin by annexing it to a publication as insidious as it is incendiary. Aware of the folly and the danger of a direct advocacy of the cause of the insurgents, he makes the impudent attempt to enlist your passions in their favor by false and virulent railings against those who have heretofore represented you in Congress. The foreground of the piece presented you with a bitter invective against that wise, moderate, and pacific policy, which in all probability will rescue you from the calamities of a foreign war, with an increase of new dignity and with additional lustre to the American name and character. Your representatives are delineated as corrupt, pusillanimous, and unworthy of your confidence; because they did not plunge headlong into measures which might have rendered war inevitable; because they contented themselves with preparing for it, instead of making it, leaving the path open to the Executive for one last and solemn effort of negotiation; because they did not dispay either the promptness of gladiators, or the blustering of bullies, but assumed that firm yet temperate attitude which alone is suited to the representatives of a brave but rational people; who deprecated war, though they did not fear it; and who have a great and solid interest in peace, which ought only to be abandoned when it is unequivocally ascertained that the sacrifice is absolutely due to the vindication of their honor and the preservation of their essential rights; because, in fine, your representatives wished to give an example to the world, that the boasted moderation of republican governments was not (like the patriotism of our political barkers) an empty declaration, but a precious reality.
The sallies of a momentary sensibility, roused and stung by injury, were excusable. It was not wonderful that the events of war were under the first impressions heard from good and prudent men. But to revive them at this late hour, when fact and reflection unite to condemn them; to arraign a conduct which has elevated the national character to the highest point of true glory; to hope to embark you in the condemnation of that conduct, and to make your indignation against it useful to the cause of insurrection and treason, are indications of a wrong-headedness, perverseness, or profligacy, for which it is not easy to find terms of adequate reprobation.
Happily the plotters of mischief knew ye not. They derive what they mistake for your image from an original in their own heated and crooked imaginations, and they hope to mould a wise, reflecting, and dispassionate people to purposes which presuppose an ignorant, unthinking, and turbulent herd.
But the declamation against your representatives for their love of peace is but the preface to the main design. That design is to alienate you from the support of the laws, by the spectre of an odious excise system, baneful to liberty, engendered by corruption, and nurtured by the instrumentality (favored word, fruitful source of mountebank wit) of the enemies of freedom.