Front Page Titles (by Subject) : Joel Barlow 1754-1812: To His Fellow Citizens of the United States. Letter II: On Certain Political Measures Proposed to Their Consideration - American Political Writing During the Founding Era: 1760-1805, vol. 2
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: Joel Barlow 1754-1812: To His Fellow Citizens of the United States. Letter II: On Certain Political Measures Proposed to Their Consideration - Charles S. Hyneman, American Political Writing During the Founding Era: 1760-1805, vol. 2 
American Political Writing During the Founding Era: 1760-1805, ed. Charles S. Hyneman and Donald Lutz (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1983). 2 vols. Volume 2.
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Joel Barlow 1754-1812
To His Fellow Citizens of the United States. Letter II: On Certain Political Measures Proposed to Their Consideration
In 1788 a business venture took Barlow to Europe, and there, mainly in France, he remained for nearly twenty years, entranced by the French Revolution and its parallels with American experience in launching a new political system. These observations stirred him to a series of shrewd analyses of the French effort to build a new order. Several of them took the form of letters, one of which is reproduced here. While not as famous as his Advice to the Privileged Orders (1792), which warned against ruling for class interest, or his epic poem The Columbiad, or his Letters to the National Convention of France on the Defects in the Constitution of 1791 (for which he was awarded an honorary French citizenship), the “letter” reproduced here is a discussion of Federalism in a general, international context that justifies a federal structure for all nations of a considerable population and does so with a sophistication equal to his other more well known writings.
In my first letter to you I signified an intention of addressing you a second time on political subjects; and of suggesting certain measures which appear to me to be within your power, for securing your own liberty both civil and commercial, and for laying the foundation of a pacific intercourse among all maritime nations, on a plan which may perpetuate itself and become universal. Some of my observations may appear superfluous, as being already familiar to the minds of thinking men; and some of my theories may be thought impracticable because they are not familiar. Could I know beforehand what would really prove superfluous, and what impracticable, I would certainly retrench all that should come under both these descriptions; though it might go to the whole contents of my work; for my object is to aid the exertions of those who wish to do good; and not to embarrass them in the choice of means.
The art of governing a nation is the art of substituting a moral to a physical force. It is only in their rudest state, antecedent to government and previous to any experience, that men can be supposed to be impelled or restrained altogether by the action of other men, applied as bodily strength. The right of the strongest among individuals, or in sections of the same society, supposes the absence of that controling power which is held over them by the society at large; and which, being confided to the hands of the magistrate, constitutes the moral force with which the government usually acts.
As the absolute independence of one man upon another is incompatible with a state of society, personal strength becomes no longer necessary to personal protection; but, on the contrary, it is a general maxim, that individual safety is best secured where individual exertion is least resorted to. Our submitting to any force whatever, whether physical or moral, is the choice of self-interest; resulting in the first case from real defect, and in the last, either from calculation or from habit. The consciousness of public power gives rise to public opinion; and while experience teaches us to calculate their energy, it brings on the habit of respecting their authority. We thus refrain from mutual injury by an habitual sense of convenience, which resembles the instinct of self-preservation, and is almost as strong in us, as that sensitive horror which prevents our stepping off a precipice. Hence great societies may be moved, millions of persons protected, industry and virtue universally encouraged, idleness and violence completely restrained, without lifting the hand of one man upon another.
These reflections open to our view an immense career of improvement, and explain the theory of the whole progress of society, past, present and to come. Great strides have been taken in this wonderful career; and a considerable elevation in the ascending scale of improvement is already attained. Whoever will compare the present state of the species with what it was when every thing was decided by bodily strength; when man, after having forced a bit of food from the elements, or robbed it from the savage beast, was still obliged to dispute its possession with his fellow man: whoever looks back to that state of painful privation, precarious toil, and perpetual danger, which saddened the existence of unassociated men, and will then turn to himself, and contemplate what he now enjoys in his protected industry, in the comforts of life assured to himself and family, in the love and good will of his neighbors, and even of distant nations, where virtue and talents are respected, must be convinced of a progress in human affairs, and of a tendency towards perfection. And he will not deny the truth of this general theory, though the period of a few years, taken in any one section of the great circle, may not present to his discernment any perceivable amelioration.
The perfectibility of human society is not a subject of idle speculation, fit only to adorn the pages of a book. It is a truth of the utmost importance in its practical tendency. No maxim is more essential to the legislator of a nation or to the negotiator of treaties; and it ought especially to be present in the minds of all men who are called to administer a representative government. If such men have talents and information worthy of their place, and a proper zeal for performing its duties, they will not content themselves with the thoughtless routine of official functions, just necessary to escape impeachment; they will not think it enough to avoid crimes themselves, or to punish them in others; but they will call forth the energies of their own genius, and that of their fellow citizens, to interrogate the native resources of their country, the elements of national happiness; they will second the designs of nature, by accelerating the progress of improvement, by exploring the objects of industry, multiplying the means of subsistence, creating new inducements for peace and harmony with neighbouring states, and removing every occasion for jealousy and war.
An enlightened magistrate will not be satisfied with himself; as having done his duty, unless he can say on quitting the administration, that he leaves the nation better than he found it. Neither can he be said to have served his own country well, unless he has communicated benefits to other countries to which her relations extend. There is no absolute independence of nations any more than of individuals. Men are every where surrounded with wants, and every where incumbered with superfluities; the necessity of asking aid, and the ability of granting it, are mutual, perpetual, and universal; they keep up a constant exchange of commodities, a circulation of the vital fluid of society. Our mutual wants and aids are the elements of our civilization; they have already civilized individuals to a great degree, convinced them of their relative dependence, and taught them the art as well as the convenience of living together in peace. They have made some progress too in civilizing states; and their energy must be infallible in carrying on the work of harmony and happiness, till nations shall stand in the same relation to each other as families do at present in the best regulated community.
The civilization of States is the great object to be aimed at in the present age of the progress of human affairs. It is that part of general improvement which has been the least understood, and the least investigated, both as to the means of bringing it forward, and the consequences that would result from its success. So little has it been studied, so ill have the principles of society been applied to it, even in theoretical discussion, that its possibility is still regarded as a problem. Many persons imagine that states or nations never can be civilized more than they are at present; that among them the savage principle, or the right of the strongest, will always be resorted to. And as it is evident that individual improvement being constantly interrupted by the quarrels of nations, cannot be carried much farther, unless those nations will agree to live in peace, they say there is no reason to hope that human society will ever attain a greater degree of perfection than what we see at present. This would evidently be the case, if nations were never to civilize, that is, if a sense of mutual dependence were not to produce the same effects in the great sections of society, called states, as it does in the small sections called families. But why should we despair of these effects? The mutual dependence of men is universal, and it is perpetual: it is not only sure to serve as a permanent source of reciprocal confidence, but as an increasing source; it increases with our factitious wants; it becomes more sensible in proportion to our knowledge of distant countries and of their productions, in proportion to the acquisitions we make in science, to the accumulation of superfluities, and the infinite researches of industry.
A particular people, whatever extension we give to the meaning of the word, whether it means a parish or an empire, is every where a physical and moral agent, whose interests are analogous and reciprocal with those of another people of a like description, who inhabit a neighbouring territory. Each of them has a real interest in the prosperity of the other; because prosperity creates certain relative superfluities, which, being exchanged between the parties, supply their relative wants. This interchange of commodities creates an interchange of affections; it begins among individuals, and extends in regular progression with their knowledge, to every country and every portion of mankind.
Nature has certainly placed no barrier in this long course of improvement. Whatever barriers are perceived in it are unnatural and accidental: they will therefore be removed by the development of the human faculties, though by slow degrees. There is no reason why civilization, after having softened the temper of individuals, and harmonized the component parts of a state as acting among themselves, should forever stop short at that point, and leave the state savage without, while it is social and peaceful within. For in this case it acts by its physical force abroad, and by its moral force at home; which supposes on the one side a want of experience, which borders on the rudest condition of savage man; and on the other it indicates a sense of convenience and the habits of social life.
To make this matter a little plainer, and show that our hopes of progressive civilization are well founded, let us recur to first principles, and explain the causes which seem to impede its progress in certain stages of its career. What do we mean by the word nation? and what is that precise portion of mankind which necessarily forms a body politic, independent and unsocial, beneficent within and ferocious without? It is certain that the necessary limits of a nation are not geographical; neither are they numerical. In both these respects they are perpetually changing, and are already exceedingly various. One of them, the Chinese, is supposed to contain three hundred millions of inhabitants; another, the Dutch, which does not exceed three millions, is established in the four quarters of the world; its different branches being separated by the widest oceans, and yet united in interest, friendly and social, like a family. The territory now covered by one Federal Republic, the United States, was lately inhabited by at least two hundred different nations at a time, all independent, sovereign, and savage towards each other, as the nations of Europe are this day. France itself, a few centuries ago, was composed of a great number of independent states; which have been united one after another, under the name of provinces, for the purposes of exterior defence and the splendor of the crown: but never till the present revolution, were they completely incorporated in one national body, for the objects of interior commerce, or attached to each other by a similarity of political rights and pecuniary burthens.
It seems then that the tendency of civilization is to diminish the number of nations, and to increase their size and prosperity. But this kind of progression, as applied to independent nations, is limited by the nature of things. The few men to whom the government of a state must be confided, cannot extend their knowledge nor multiply their attentions to such a degree as the affairs of a great people would require. France, in her present limits, presents a mass of population and territory sufficient for at least twenty integral and well constituted states. Her legislative body is representative; it is twice as numerous as any legislative body ought to be; and yet, it is not the fifth part so numerous as a proper representation of the people would require. It is incumbered with much more business than it can treat with that attention which the business deserves; and yet not half the affairs which are necessary to the people are ever brought up for its deliberation. This republic, for the purposes of interior or local legislation and police, should be organised into about twenty subordinate republics; while, for the purposes of general legislation, exterior relations, defence, commerce, canals, roads, and every common concern, they should remain concentrated in one great union, or community, with a national legislative and executive, restricted in their powers to the simple objects of great national interest; which objects should be defined with the utmost precision in their general constitution1 .
In pursuance of such a system there would be no danger that France would become too extensive or too populous for her internal convenience. And the several nations that are now forming republics in her neighbourhood ought to constitute them on the same plan as those of France, and make part of the general confederation. This system should be adopted, and this confederation joined by every European people, as fast as they become free; though it should extend through this quarter of the world. It would present a great union of Republics, which might assume the name of the United States of Europe and guarantee a perpetual harmony among its members.
This beneficent system of federalizing appears to be the only resource that nature has offered us at least in the present state of political science for avoiding at once the two dangerous extremes of having the republic too great for any equitable administration within, or too small for security without. On this principle, if wisely pursued, no confederated republic will be too great, and no member of it too small, as all subjects of jealousy will be done away by the nature of the association. The new republics of Europe must resort to this principle if they mean to hold the ground they have gained, in changing their feudal for their representative constitutions. Could we flatter ourselves that they would resort to it at the end of the present war, then we might hope to see the moral force of nations take place of their physical force, the civilization of states keep pace with that of individuals, and their commercial relations established on the principles of peace.
Infinite credit is due to the conductors of our American Revolution for the wisdom and energy with which they seized the occasion of establishing our interior and federal governments in the forms which they now possess. The two most consoling principles that political experience has yet brought to light, are those on which we have founded our constitutions—I mean representative democracy, and the federalizing of States. It is true that neither of these principles was wholly of our own discovery. But what little experience had been made of either of them by other nations was extremely imperfect, was attended with little success, and had by no means united the opinions even of the most sanguine in their favor. In no one instance had the two principles been brought together and wrought into one system, nor had they ever been attempted both by the same people.
Democracy had been disgraced by the pretended experience of some of the states of Greece, though in reality no such things as democracy ever did exist in Greece or Rome. It has been concluded, and very justly, that pure democracy, or the immediate autocracy of the people, is unfit for a great state; it might be added, that it is unfit for the smallest state imaginable, even a little town. But representative democracy is applicable to a state of any size, and under any circumstances where men have the use of their reason; though neither this nor any other principle hitherto discovered is sufficient of itself to regulate the concerns of a great people; as no one integral government is capable of bestowing equal and adequate benefits on every part of an extensive and populous country. But happily for mankind, the representative principle is a fit companion and a sure guide of the other previous experiment which our country has adopted with such singular propriety, the principle of confederation. The union of these two theories, as organised in America, is a vast improvement on the wisdom of former ages; and I cannot but hope that they will be so far cherished by us, and imitated by others, as to change, very greatly the face of human society.
It is essential to the interests of America, and would be a compliment to her wisdon, to see her political system, in both its parts, adopted by other countries. It would be the surest pledge of peace from abroad, and the strongest guarantee against a relapse of principle at home. But, for ourselves, there is one maxim which ought not to be forgotten, that these two pillars of the edifice, the representative principle and the federal principle, should never be separated. Though one of them alone may promise liberty and the other of them alone may promise peace, yet we cannot be confident that either liberty or peace will become extensive or permanent, unless these well assorted principles are united in one system, and kept inseparable in their practice.
Let us convince ourselves of this truth by examining the effect of each principle apart, as operating without the aid of the other. First, the federalizing of states, whose governments were monarchical, or aristocratical, has not obtained any brilliant success, either in ancient or modern times. The Amphictyonic Council of the Greeks was a body of so little consequence in a political view, that it would not be worth noticing in this place were it not for a certain practice among writers on governments, of seeking models for every thing in the annals of that pompous people. The Amphictyons had no regular constituted authority, except in matters of religion. They never prevented a foreign war offensive or defensive. It would be difficult indeed to say they never prevented a domestic war among the states, because such a thing might be done with so little rumour as to escape the notice of history, but it is certain that they excited several domestic wars, and those of the most cruel and exterminating kind, being wars of religion. On the whole, it appears that this congressional institution, notwithstanding its solemn pretensions of confederating the States of Greece, was more detrimental than beneficial to the people. Whenever their common country was invaded, whether by Persians, Macedonians or Romans, about half the states in every instance, joined the invading enemy. The power of the Amphictyons was effectual only in directing, on certain occasions, the united avengeance of several powerful states against the weaker one, for having slighted the authority of the priests, for having put into cultivation certain lands which religion had devoted to sterility, or neglected some frivolous or barbarous duty enjoined by an insidious oracle.
As to the Corinthian, the Peloponesian and the Arcananian leagues, they were only allies or coalitions against an enemy, temporary in their nature, and not extensive in their effects. The other examples from Greece which are sometimes cited as confederations, such as the Arcadian, the Beotian, the Eolian and the primitive Achaian, present something more regular and permanent in their constitutions. But they were each of them too diminutive to merit the name of an association of states. The primitive Achaian, for instance, was the union of twelve small boroughs into one small republic. It may be considered rather as a model of representative democracy in a single state, than as a federal system, and in this view perhaps it approaches nearer to modern republican representation than any other example left us by the ancients.
The subsequent, or great Achaian league, was indeed an association of states, whose object was laudable and well defined. It suffered less from a defect in its federal principle than from the corruption of its members. It retrieved in a partial degree the liberties of Greece from the rapacity of Alexander’s successors, preserved them with considerable energy for no more than a hundred years, and finally yielded them with some appearance of dignity to the irresistable fortunes of Rome.
The Lycian league was not unlike the latter Achaian, either in its object or its destiny. It caused itself to be respected by the Romans as long as the Romans retained any respect for themselves; but no institutions could stand before the corruptions of their monstrous and debilitated empire.
The Etruscans and some other early tribes in Italy, had likewise their several confederations. But their constitutions are so little known, and they refer to a state of society so different from ours that for every purpose, except for displaying an empty erudition, their investigation would be as useless to us as that of some of the native tribes of North America, the Six Nations or the Tascallans. Examples of these imperfect associations are not rare. It is probable that the history of the human race would present them in every corner of the earth, if its affecting and monotonous page could be completely laid open before us. They shew the feeble efforts of inexperienced societies to defend themselves against the effects of each other’s inexperience.
The German Empire, the Swiss Canton, and the United Netherlands present us three great examples of the confederation of states in modern Europe; the former still subsisting, the two latter but lately overturned. It requires but little observation to discern the constitutional defects in the Germanic body: it is a confederation of princes, and not of nations. With this radical vice in its organization, it is impossible that its object should be peace, or its policy justice; and without pursuing these, no society of men can be tolerably happy, no union of states can be sincere, no portion of the earth can greatly increase its population, or present that progressive augmentation of benefits which nature has placed within our reach, and science is teaching us how to realise. National happiness is never the object of a state where the interest of those who govern is in any measure different from that of the people. The pursuits, therefore, of the Germanic Princes are mutual encroachment instead of mutual assistance; the object of their union is war, and not peace; their constitution is military, and not commercial. Hence all the compulsory provisions that are made in it have reference to warlike preparations, contingencies of men and money, for recruiting armies and discouraging industry. There is no public provision made for the encouragement of useful arts and manufactures, no power lodged in the federal Diet for establishing a general system of canal or river navigation, for equalizing the duties on the objects of commerce, allowing a free exchange of the produce of labor, even in the most necessary articles of life.
There is no inhibition which prevents any prince or state from beginning a war without the consent of the Diet, from building forts and raising armies with the manifest intention to invade each other’s territory, from entering into foreign alliances and other treaties, for involving the empire in destructive wars. But, on the contrary, every facility and every temptation are held out for intestine wars among the states, as if no federal tie subsisted between them, while their interior commerce from state to state is shackled with all those restrictions which hostile jealousy has invented among the most independent and ferocious monarchies of Europe.
Many other defects might be easily pointed out in the Germanic constitution. We may find some of them in the books that treat on this subject; but where is the advantage of searching them? The fundamental defect, which is the source of all the rest, is not noticed in any book, but stares us in the face on the first reflection: a confederation of Princes stands no chance of being beneficial to the people. You might as well expect to render service to the sheep by confederating the wolves that should be set to watch them.
The Swiss Cantons and the United Netherlands have been more fortunate in their federal systems. Considering the feebleness of that means with which they began the quantity of force against which they rose; and the weight of effort that has been frequently made to destroy them, they exhibit wonderful monuments of the efficacy of organized liberty in political bodies. Though the Swiss Cantons had scarcely the appearance of a federal constitution, the acts of union being little more than treaties of alliance, which external danger generally kept them from violating; and though that of the United Netherlands was very imperfect, yet these were not the radical defects which brought on the decline and overthrow of either of their celebrated systems. The original defect, in each case, lay in the constitutions of the particular states of which the union was composed. The representative principle was originally unknown, and never understood in either country. Without this principle, the people can not exercise their rights, unless it be in the form of mobs: the necessary consequence of which is to throw the active power into the hands of a few, where it soon becomes habitual and hereditary, no longer the property of the nation, and no longer exercised for her benefit. It would be as impracticable to establish a rational system of federal government among aristocratical states as among principalities of monarchies. For the principle is the same in each; the supposed interest of the people.
The plan for a perpetual peace, projected two centuries ago by Henry IV, new modeled and proposed with great zeal in the early part of the present century by the abbe de St. Pierre, and afterwards embellished with the nervous eloquence of J. J. Rousseau, must have been a fruitless experiment, if attempted on the model of either of its illustrious patrons. The project was to league all the Christian Powers of Europe in one confederation, guaranteeing to each its own form of government, and its limits as then existing, to establish a permanent Diet, composed of delegates from every state, with power to settle all disputes that might arise between the several states, to prevent any of them from raising armies on their own account, building forts or fleets to act against each other, or forming any foreign alliances, but all exterior relations and all measures of defence should be directed and managed by the general Diet, in the name of the Confederacy.
It is possible that by the means which Henry had in his power, this sublime conception might have been realised so far as to organize the constitution and begin the operation, had not an untimely death prevented the experiment by depriving the world of its author. Rousseau has detailed the reasons why this project could not be carried into effect at any period since the days of Henry, nor by any influence short of that which he possessed among the powers of Europe. But the same writer supposes that were it once adopted, its benefits would be so conspicuous and universal as to secure its continuance. I question the probability of this supposition. What could secure the members of this Diet from corruption? There is but one effectual mode of securing them; and that is to make it the interest of none of the parties to corrupt them; no other principle can be relied upon with safety. In an association of this magnitude, it is not enough that it should be the interest of each of the associated states to preserve the constitution; but it should be the interest of those who govern the associated states. Now as long as these were governed by hereditary princes, who had an interest in extending their private dominions to the detriment of each other, it must be expected that they would seek to encroach as much as possible and violate the constitution by every means in their power. And, as the federal government, if well administered, would prevent their doing it by force, the more effectual way would be to corrupt the members of the Diet, so as to palsy the operation of the constitution, suspend its protection of the weaker associates, and re-establish the right of the strongest, as in the present state of Europe. This is a favorite state of society for princes, a state of hazard, inviting them to plunder, and so far exposing them to be plundered in their turn, as to afford a constant pretext for armies and navies. It is what they call independence; and notwithstanding it leads them every day to commit crimes for which they would hang a hundred subjects, they will not agree to be restrained by law; though the same law would restrain their neighbors who prey upon themselves; though it would greatly increase their revenues, by increasing the population and the quantity of productive labour within their dominions; and though it would greatly lessen their expenses, by reducing to almost nothing their constant preparations for defences.
But if the powers of government in every associated state were in the hands of the people, in whom the right resides, and if these powers were exercised in all cases by an equal representation, freely chosen and frequently renewed, then would there be no person interested in extending the limits of any one state to the detriment of another; then would no person attempt to corrupt the Diet to violate the compact; and throw Europe back into a state of national animosity and princely plunder; then the farmer would be on his own farm, and the artisan in his own shop; and whether his habitation were included in the limits of Prussia or of Austria, whether it were called protestant or catholic, would not be to him a matter of interest; he would find equal protection in each district, by laws made and obeyed by his own delegates.
A Confederation of States whose interior governments should be founded on these principles might indeed extend through Europe with the project of Henry IV, and be as lasting as was imagined by the fervid benevolence of St. Pierre; but it would not be a confederation of hereditary proprietors of nations.
Hence we may conclude, so far as the experience of mankind will enable us to judge from practice, and so far as the nature of the case will strengthen our conclusions from theory, that no considerable advantage ought to be expected from the federal principle among states unless the states themselves are constituted on the representative principle; so as that the system in both its branches may be the work of the people, carried on for their benefit, by persons of their own choice and under their own control.
Second, in the other branch of the present examination, to discover the effect of the representative principle, without the aid of federalizing, we shall receive but little light from the experience of any nation. There is no example, within my knowledge, of a complete representative government of an elder date than those of our own country; and those were effectually federalized as soon as they were formed, and before. It is true that the government of Connecticut and Rhode Island were as perfectly representative before the American revolution as they are now; and some other of their sister colonies had been at some periods nearly so. But their commonality with the monarchy of Great Britain answered some of the purposes of a federal union. They were not independent, and no state on earth, in my opinion, ought to be called independent. For no state can really be so in fact, it is only a source of false ideas and of endless calamities to have them so in form.
France and the other new republics in Europe cannot be said as yet to have had much experience of the representative principle. Their practical governments are hitherto revolutionary, and must of necessity continue so till the end of the revolutionary war which has been excited to destroy them.
There being therefore no example of real representative government, except in the American States, and those being united by strong federal ones; we are driven to theoretical inquiry alone for the opinion we ought to form of the operation of the republican principle among individual and unconfederated states.
We should begin by observing that such states must necessarily be small, for the reasons already noticed, otherwise the representative energy cannot be well preserved, nor the benefits of equal government be experienced by every portion of the people. If the states are small, their territories contiguous, and their governments independent, they will necessarily be rivals; there will probably be mutual restrictions on their trade for the sake of revenue; there will be forts and armies and generals; it will not be long before some citizens in each state will conceive themselves to have a private property in their respective governments, and an interest in extending the dominion of their own state, to the detriment of the others; they will have sycophants to flatter this fatal ambition, places and patronage at their disposal, and a number of new departments and their appendages to be granted at the moment of a rupture with their neighbours.
The first cannon fired between two rival states in this situation may be taken as the signal of the departure of liberty from them both. The power in each state becomes military; military power is necessarily concentrated in a few hands where it soon becomes hereditary. The rest of the history of such states might as well be written before they exist, as after they are extinguished. But it would not be worth writing at all; it would be but the repetition of some indifferent chapter in the great history of despotism and war.
Since then, my fellow citizens, it is to you that we must turn for the best practical lessons on the subject of government; in both the principles on which your system is founded, you will at least acknowledge the importance of maintaining those principles. And I hope at the same time that you will not be averse to making such improvements in your situation as the nature of your system will admit, without changing its theory. Your objects are: 1, to secure the continuance of interior liberty, in the United States; and 2, to take such an attitude in vindicating your commercial liberty, has to gain the confidence of other Powers, and lay the foundation of perpetual peace, at least between you and them, possibly between all commercial nations. These two objects are so essential to your own prosperity, and at the same time so accordant with that desire which is natural to uncorrupted minds, of extending benefits to other sections of the human race, that you will indulge me in a few observations upon each.
The means of securing interior liberty in the United States
I will not go into an examination of the state Constitutions, nor propose to your consideration those amendments of which some of them appear susceptible, because it is at all times a delicate subject; and to give it a candid discussion requires a moment of less fermentation than the present. It is not a work of immediate necessity; though some parts of it should not be neglected till your population is very greatly increased; and till certain habits founded on constitutional defects become too inveterate to be easily removed. But there are other objects of a more general concern which may be noticed with less danger of giving offence; and which doubtless demand an early attention.
The face of things in North America is changing so exceedingly fast that every political step you take ought to have a special reference to the time to come, as well as to the time present. No government should have so little to do with temporizing, and so much to do with system, as that of the United States. The science of political perspective ought to be rendered familiar to those who aspire to be your guides; so that the great events which are sure to happen, may be classed and measured, and their places assigned them, before they come into being. Without this precaution, it would be impossible to go right with it, the task of governing would be so easy that honest men would scarcely go along. The approaching changes in our situation should be distinctly noticed, and their consequences profoundly meditated. 1. Our nation is young in respect to the date of its independence, the habits of thinking incident to this condition, and the trial we have had of our political institutions. 2. One half of the territory within our limits remains unoccupied, on the other half the population is small, compared with what it is capable of becoming; and the increase must be rapid. 3. Extensive and flourishing colonies are springing up beyond our frontiers in every direction. These are of various extraction, principally Spanish, French and English; all of them from the impulse given them by their mother countries, are doubtless unfriendly to us, but all of them, from real interest, similarity of circumstances, and future inevitable events, are capable of becoming our natural and best friends, and, with proper management, our fellow citizens. Not many years can pass before these colonies will shake off their foreign dependence, and burst the ties which now bind them to European governments.
These are some of the principal circumstances to be consulted in supporting the interior of our system. The events are easy to foresee: they must be provided for; and it depends on you from this moment to say whether they shall redound to our advantage, and to the extensive benefit of ages and nations; or whether they shall bring destruction to our hopes, and overturn the fairest fabric of human policy that the world has hitherto seen.
I will waste no arguments in proving that it is essential to the interest of the United States, to continue their federal union, whatever may be the increase of population and the addition of new states within our present limits. Taking this to be a position which will not be denied by those for whom I write, I will content myself with noticing the means by which alone the union can be preserved.
First: The United States, to maintain their federal system entire, through all their limits, and, under approaching circumstances, must be out of debt, or nearly so. The annual call for money, for federal purposes, must be moderate. Otherwise the people in different districts, who see with what simplicity and economy their own state governments are carried on, and who know that much the greater part of their real interests are regulated, they will begin to calculate, and enquire whether their part of the expences of the confederation, does not exceed its benefits. Such enquiries indeed would be of a nature not to be pursued with the utmost fairness, nor could we expect calculations of this sort to be conducted with all that foresight which the subject would require. There is no doubt but prudence would dictate to any district of the Union to submit to very great expences, rather than withdraw from it, and become a rival nation. But experience teaches us that in political resentments we are not to expect much prudence or true policy.
To keep the frontier districts attached to the Union, we must rely more on their passions and their sense of present convenience, than on their prudence and their calculation of future convenience. We should not forget that the United States are to be held together by interest, not by force. And the federal government should conduct its operations in such a manner as that this interest shall always be felt by every state and act upon the inhabitants, as a steady principle of union; since there is no other on which we can depend.
In the old governments of Europe the people of different districts are held together under one head by the co-operation of several causes which do not exist with us. A military force, or a standing army, acts as a constant pressure on them, both by the terror it excites, and the great number of places it offers to the nobility and the ambitious of every class. To this is added a superstitious veneration for a reigning family, who never fail to be painted to their subjects as the centre of every virtue and the particular favorites of heaven; so that withdrawing from their government is considered as rebellion against God. Then comes the machinery of a state religion, which is kept in continual play by a host of artful men, who teach that every thing beyond their own dominion is heretical and reprobate. And farther to discourage every wish for a change, the people are so hemmed in by nations as miserable as themselves, that they perceive that great taxes and other vexations are not to be avoided by shifting their allegiance, and looking to the right, instead of the left, for the centre of their government.
We shall deceive ourselves exceedingly if we suppose that any of these causes are to operate in the western and southern districts of the United States. Our system of policy does not admit of standing armies, and if it did, we could not support one sufficiently strong to restrain a whole people who have arms in their hands, who should think themselves oppressed, and determine to be free. No superstition, that is likely to be lasting or extensive, is yet established among us, in favor of any one man or family; for not withstanding the pains that are taken to deify some of our citizens, and to propagate an opinion that they can do no wrong, these efforts are ridiculed by the mass of people whom they were intended to deceive. As to religion, the sects are so numerous in America, and the people are so convinced, that whatever concern they may have in it must be personal and not political, that the general government cannot hope to establish a uniformity of worship, and therefore can never make it a powerful engine of state. And with regard to the last article above mentioned, that of being surrounded by nations habituated to oppression, this is totally wanting in our country. If therefore the federal government becomes oppressive to the people of the frontier states, or only appears to be so, there is no other example of oppression in their neighbourhood with which to compare it; their reasoning in this case will be very short. Nothing binds us to this boasted Union; it is at least an inconvenience to us; let us shake it off and be our own Union; or, if we are not strong enough for that, let us form another with the Spanish or English colony in our neighbourhood, where every encouragement is held out to us; where, having no national debt, we shall have no taxes, but for the current expences of a government, which, being of our own formation, shall be kept within the bounds of economy.
These good people will not perhaps reflect on the immense inconveniencies which would afterwards arise both to them and us from our new condition of two or more rival nations, bordering on each other, having each an extensive line of forts and garrisons, standing armies and frequent wars to maintain; which would inevitably plunge us all into the gulf of monarchy, nobility and priesthood, from which we never could arise, or regain the ground we should have lost.
Should this letter reach the inhabitants of the frontier states and districts of our common country, I beg, on the one hand, that they will not be offended at the apprehension that I express, that a disposition may one day arise in them to dissolve their union with their sister states, and they will pardon my fears if no such event is likely to occur. But, on the other hand, if these apprehensions are well founded, I entreat them to listen for a moment to the voice of the most disinterested friend that will probably ever discuss the subject.
Let them look at the condition of Europe, and contemplate its history through the bloody series of modern ages. It is divided into rival states, that call themselves independent; which is another word for the ferocity of savage life, and a licence for organized violence. These states are separated from each other by triple or quadruple ranges of fortified towns, whose inhabitants, from age to age subjected to military law, are shut up at night like cattle, and pursue their labours by day under the shade of the bayonet, within the view of an insolent soldiery, whose ranks are supplied by draining the country of its best young men, and whose pay and provisions are drawn from the hard industry of those who remain behind.
The commerce of these independent nations is so harrassed with duties and imposts, in passing through different dominions, that very little of it can be carried on. A barrel of sugar, brought into the middle of Germany, must have paid at least six or eight different taxes. And when the consumer has any produce of his own labor to send abroad, it is loaded with as many more burthens, before it can arrive at market.
Such is their condition in their best times, the times of peace; but in the years of war, which are about half the years of every generation of these unhappy men, immense armies are set in motion; whole countries are overspread and exhausted by the marches of successive hordes of friends and enemies, confederates and allies; whose undistinguished voracity excites equal terror among the inhabitants. Sieges, battles, hospitals, prisons, pestilence and famine sweep off half the population of each country and force their princes at last to a temporary cessation of butchery, which they call peace. Perhaps the halves of some provinces are severed from one dominion and annexed to another; and this they call conquest. This occasions a new line of frontier, and new ranges of fortifications to be run through an interior country, cutting up the cultivated fields and forcing the owners (who cannot fly from the devastation) to work at the new trenches and ramparts, to prepare this transfiguration of nature, and be ready for another war.
This picture is not overcharged; and if it should be thought inapplicable to the present subject, because modern Europe is governed by hereditary princes, and the projected independent governments of America expect to be republics, let us look back for another example to the states of ancient Greece. Those states were most of them called republics, and were independent of each other; and among the five or six hundred years of their political existence, from the commencement of history ’till they became a Roman province, I believe there was not a single year when they can be said to have been completely at peace among themselves. No, the evil is not altogether in the nature of the inferior government, though this in itself, when bad, is a great source of calamities; a still greater source, if possible, is in the independence and rivalship of neighbouring governments. What a long and uninterrupted series of wars between England and Scotland was arrested by the union of the two crowns, and afterwards of the two kingdoms! And how much more extensive and more lamentable would have been the scenes of slaughter among the American States had we left them independent of each other, after effecting their independence from Great Britain.
Since then we have found the means of avoiding these disasters—since we have established a union of interest and of states which may bid defiance to every possible enemy but ourselves, shall we not have the wisdom to preserve this union? Shall we, on the one side, indulge in the prodigality of increasing our debt and in a proud indifference to the opinions of an irritable and powerful portion of the nation, and on the other side, will that portion run wild with an untimely resentment and not consent to a small and temporary sacrifice, rather than plunge themselves and their brethren with all their intermingled posterity, into calamities which are inseparable from a disjunction of the states, and the frightful experiment of independent and rival governments, whose tempers will have been already imbittered by the act of separation?
It is doubtless to be lamented that the debt of the United States has risen to such a formidable size, and that there still seems to be a disposition to increase it, from pretences so frivolous as to be clearly seen through by those whom they were intended to blind and mislead. It is impossible that the smallest portion of the American people has been made to believe that there was any conceivable danger of an invasion from France; and the resentment occasioned by the creation of that part of the debt which has been raised on this pretence must therefore be sharpened by the impudent attempt to impose on their understanding.
That great and wanton augmentation of the federal debt in the year 1790, which arose from the assumption of those of the individual states, was founded on a very singular argument; it was said that this measure would have a tendency to cement the federal union. Why was it not foreseen that precisely the contrary must be the effect. While the state remained the debtor and its own citizens the creditor for neither of them could find relief by withdrawing from the union; the citizens in fact were all debtors, and as many of them as chose to be were creditors. But now they would both find relief by withdrawing, for by that act all the citizens of such a state would cease to be debtors, while the creditors would remain the same. These would have only to sell their stock and receive payment; and then that state would have nothing more to do with the burthens of the late war, nor with the subsequent accumulation of the national debt. If there can be an argument proper to engage a state or district to withdraw from the union, this is certainly one.
Perhaps I mistake the present temper of the American people, but it appears to me that the greatest risk we run of a dismemberment of the empire arises from the magnitude of the debt. There are many other reasons why its progress ought to be arrested where it is, and the capital diminished as fast as possible; but the greatest of all reasons is the preservation of the federal system, on which our liberty and happiness most essentially depend. This argument, I apprehend, has not been sufficiently attended to [in] America.
Besides the magnitude of our debt, the manner of funding it has had a pernicious influence on the policy of our government with foreign powers. The payment of the interest was made to depend in a great measure on the duties to be levied on imported merchandise, which were by law appropriated for fifteen years to this object. This made every stock holder a partizan of our commercial connections with that country whose commerce with us was supposed principally to secure this revenue; however injurious those connections might become to the general interest of the United States. It is greatly owing to this unfortunate measure that our commerce has suffered so much during the present war from English and French depredations. For no one will deny that the latter were occasioned by our tame submission to the former.
Second: As the government belongs to the people, and not the people to the government, it is proper that the latter should be as accommodating as possible with regard to the place of its residence. The existing law by which the Congress has pledged itself to remove to the Federal City at a certain time, ought to suffer no delay in its execution, after that time arrives. If that law had carried the Federal City eighty or a hundred miles farther up the Potowmac, it would have been still more central, and doubtless would have had a greater effect in preserving the union entire.
The article is trifling in itself; but every thing in this world goes by appearance. It would have been a mark of attention, a complaisance, an accommodation to our western brethren, that would have been worth millions in fixing their affections. It is doubtless too late to think of changing the resolution already taken by the legislature; but it would doubtless be impolitic to admit of a new delay, as many persons apprehend, in carrying it into effect.
Third: The opening of roads, and the improvement of water communication between the central and the frontier states should be objects of constant solicitude, not only to the state legislatures and to Congress, as far as may be in their power, but to patriotic individuals and companies, wherever they can reconcile private interest with so great a public benefit.
A facility of intercourse for the objects of commerce, travelling and the transportation of letters would have a powerful effect in assimilating our manner, and inspiring that confidence and friendship so necessary to the political union of men who feel themselves able at all times to change their connexions at pleasure.
A system of small canals, as projected by one of our most estimable citizens, on a plan so extensive as to take the place generally of public roads in the most frequented routes, may one day be presented to the consideration of the federal government. This is not the moment to enter into a development of the project, either in its political or fiscal operation. I will only observe that in both these views it would greatly serve to harmonise the interests of the states, and to strengthen their present union.
Fourth: A universal attention to the education of youth, and a republican direction given to the elementary articles of public instruction, are among the most essential means of preserving liberty in any country where it is once enjoyed; especially in the United States. The representative system must necessarily degenerate, and become an instrument of tyranny, rather than of liberty, where there is an extraordinary disparity of information between the generality of the citizens and those who aspire to be their chiefs. And as to the federal ties between the different states, how shall they be maintained, but by extending the views and enlightening the minds of those whose votes are frequently to be consulted, and whose actions are always irresistible by their numbers, and the direction which they take.
Ignorance is every where such an infallible instrument of despotism, that there can be no hope of continuing even our present forms of government, either federal or state, much less that spirit of equal liberty and justice on which they were founded, but by diffusing universally among the people that portion of instruction which is sufficient to teach them their duties and their rights.
We must not content ourselves with saying, that education is an individual interest and a family concern; and that every parent, from a desire to promote the welfare of his children, will procure them the necessary instruction, as far as may be in his power, which will be enough for their station. These assertions are not true; parents are sometimes too ignorant, and often too inattentive or avaricious, to be trusted with the sole direction of their children; unless stimulated by some other motive than a natural sense of duty to them. Neither is it merely a family concern; it is a civil and even a political concern. The legislator and the magistrate neglect an essential part of their duty, if they do not provide the means and carry them into effect, for giving instruction to every member of the state.
This may be done with very little expence, and with much less trouble than is generally imagined. The subject appears to me to be too much neglected in the United States in general, considering that the preservation of liberty depends in a great measure upon it.
Fifth: What shall we say of those gigantic colonies that are forming on our frontiers, to the westward of the Mississipi, and to the northward of the lakes? These are germs of empire, which offer an immense field of meditation to the American politician. How soon, and by what combination of events, are they to become independent states.—When that day arrives, are they to be our rivals, and consequently our enemies, after the example of the states of Europe. Or can the way be prepared and they be persuaded to adopt our principles, to form with us a great union of political interests, and make of the whole but one confederated empire? These questions hurry the mind into an awful train of thought, which is difficult to methodize and delicate to communicate. Yet no branch of the enquiry is useless; since it contemplates an event the most important that can probably affect our Constitution; and one which a prudent conduct on our part may modify in a very considerable degree. I do not mean that it will be our duty to interfere in their present concerns, or to take any part in any dispute that may happen between them and their present governments, with a view to hasten or retard the moment of their separation. But it is essential, that we should so conduct our own affairs as to set such an example of rational liberty and public happiness, as they cannot fail to admire, and must therefore wish to partake.
Our frontier states, which border on theirs, must necessarily entertain an intimate and extensive intercourse with them. Reciprocal migrations and intermarriages will be numerous between them; their commerce will be active; their manners, language and modes of education will be the same on both sides. The probability is, that if we do not induce them to join themselves to us, they will induce some of our extensive districts to quit us, and join with them. But if at that day, the United States should be clear of debt, and should exhibit the singular phenomenon of a wise, impartial, and energetic government, reserving so much power to individual states as shall enable the people to regulate the great mass of their most interesting concerns at home, where they are best understood, and yet continuing a sufficient force in the federal head to insure at all times the means of giving protection and obtaining respect,—there can be no insuperable objection, and there may be a powerful inducement, for those new nations, to form their state governments after the model of ours, and to join our confederation.
I am aware of the inconvenience that might arise from the magnitude of this projected empire; as the colonies in question are spreading over a surface at least equal to that of the present United States. The objection is weighty, but my answer is at hand; by encountering this inconvenience, which is new, and therefore formidable in appearance, we avoid those that are infinitely more serious; though from being familiar and thought unavoidable they are less attended to. There is no political inconvenience so great as the neighbourhood of independent and rival nations. Their commercial restrictions, their military preparations, their fortified frontiers, their interfering jurisdictions, their whimsical and undefinable points of honor, give so many occasions of dispute in the minds of passionate or ambitious men, that such nations, if not always at war, must be always in such a warlike postures as to present a perpetual image of the savage state, degrade the morals and devour the substance of the people.
Besides, I apprehend, that if we well consider the nature of a federal government, we shall have less reason to dread the extension of its limits. The objects of its legislation are few, according to our present system; and I have no doubt but this might still be simplified, without risk of lessening its energy. If its simplification should be found practicable, this circumstance may add to the inducements that our neighbours may one day have to join us in confederation, and may diminish on our side the inconvenience which many will apprehend from the first view of the case.
Though the Achaian and the Lycian confederacies were the most perfect that history has transmitted to us, we ought to recollect, that the former was overturned by refusing to admit the state of Sparta as a member; and the destruction of the latter was brought on by its excluding sixty cities which desired to join it.
The interest we shall have in inducing new nations to join our union, instead of being our rivals, is a strong argument, in addition to many others, for preserving at least as much power to our individual states as they now possess, and for not suffering any encroachment from the federal government. It is convenient, as well as inviting, for every section of a free people to regulate as many of their own affairs at home as is consistent with the interest of the whole. And when their federalizing with us depends on their own choice, they will be more likely to do it if the requisite sacrifice of power should be small, than if it should be great.
I hope none will infer from the observations in this article, that I am an advocate of conquest, in any case whatever; and still less that I would extend the limits of a dominion by colonies and foreign possessions. Nothing is more destructive to liberty, both at home and abroad, than this sort of policy. There is no doubt (all other circumstances being equal) but small dominions are preferable to large ones. It is only to avoid the greater evils of the independence and rivalship of states, that I would consent to an extension of limits. And this would be scarcely tolerable, but on the federal plan; which I regard as one of the most useful and most consoling experiments to be found in the history of government. There is no knowing yet to what extent it may be carried.
Sixth: The more I reflect on the nature of political liberty, the more I am convinced that a military establishment of any magnitude is extremely incompatible with it. The most effectual way of preventing this, as well the surest mode of providing for the defence of the country, is by a universal attention to arming and disciplining the militia. When every citizen is a soldier, and every soldier will be a citizen, military exercise, to a certain degree, should be considered as a part of education; and though a subordinate part, it should not be neglected.
But it is happy for us that military life, as an exclusive object, is not yet become a profession in the United States. There are very few evils of a political kind that would be more subversive of their liberty. Ambition, which has been so destructive to national happiness, could scarcely be taken in a bad sense, but for its usual association with military fame. And if excellence in warlike achievements, in themselves considered, without regard to the cause, should once become an object of pursuit with the young men of America, it would soon be found impossible to keep us out of unnecessary wars, and all the miseries and degradations of character that they entrain. The epidemy would seize, as usual, the richest and most influential families; the rage would become fashionable; it would be made an object of real profit, as well as of supposed honor. And how many votes, in the freest governments in Europe, have been given for war, from no other motive than that of providing places for sons, brothers, cousins, or the voters themselves?
War has hitherto been considered in America, I believe by every class of people, as a calamity to be avoided, in all possible cases by all rational means. It probably may be avoided, as long as we are out of the neighbourhood of independent nations; and as long as the ambition of our leading men shall be directed to the true interests of society.
[1 ] The terms federal, confederacy, and others from the same original, have been proscribed in France during the organization of the republic, because their ordinary meaning refers to a different state of things from what the condition of France admits; and different from what would be their appropriate meaning in this country, were the system adopted which I should recommend; and which appears to me the only one capable of preserving liberty here, and of civilizing Europe. To federalize, applied to states, usually signifies to bring towards a union, but not into unity, those that were before distinct and independent. But as France was already one integral state, to federalize France would seem to be to divide and dismember that which was before united, which, in the vocabulary of the revolution, was another word for anarchy and intestine war. The federality which I would propose for France and for Europe would not carry with it any such idea. The integrity of the republic, for every purpose of safety, and harmony of parts, would not be altered by it.
There has been a great deal of false reasoning on this subject. It is now believed by most of the philosophers in Europe to be a great misfortune to our United States, that they were in several states, and not in one state. This would truly be a misfortune, had we not adopted the federal principle, but now it is one of our greatest advantages.
I am sorry to see that M. Liancourt, in his Late Travels in America, has given countenance to this European sentiment, which I consider a very unfortunate one for the progress of society. His book which contains a vast quantity of facts and information, will have a tendency to accredit this doctrine in the minds of many persons who had not before adopted it. If that able and labourous inquirer after truth will reflect on the calamities which I shall notice in this letter, as what would be the consequence of a dissolution of our federal system, and will contemplate the principle of that system in its vast extent, as a new means of civilizing states and preventing wars. I hope he will find occasion for changing his opinions.
See vol. 7, page 221 of his Travels. Paris edition.