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james madison “Political Observations” 20 April 1795 - Lance Banning, Liberty and Order: The First American Party Struggle 
Liberty and Order: The First American Party Struggle, ed. and with a Preface by Lance Banning (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2004).
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james madison “Political Observations” 20 April 1795
After the Third Congress adjourned, Madison again defended his commercial propositions and Republican conduct in general in this anonymous pamphlet.
A variety of publications, in pamphlets and other forms, have appeared in different parts of the Union since the session of Congress which ended in June, 1794, endeavoring, by discolored representations of our public affairs, and particularly of certain occurrences of that session, to turn the tide of public opinion into a party channel. The immediate object of the writers was either avowedly or evidently to operate on the approaching elections of Federal Representatives. As that crisis will have entirely elapsed before the following observations will appear, they will, at least, be free from a charge of the same views; and will, consequently, have the stronger claim to that deliberate attention and reflection to which they are submitted.
The publications alluded to have passed slightly over the transactions of the First and Second Congress; and so far, their example will here be followed.
Whether, indeed, the funding system was modelled either on the principles of substantial justice or on the demands of public faith? Whether it did not contain ingredients friendly to the duration of the public debt and implying that it was regarded as a public good? Whether the assumption of the state debts was not enforced by overcharged representations; and Whether, if the burdens had been equalized only, instead of being assumed in the gross, the states could not have discharged their respective proportions by their local resources sooner and more conveniently than the general government will be able to discharge the whole debts by general resources? Whether the excise system be congenial with the spirit and conducive to the happiness of our country; or can even justify itself as a productive source of revenue? Whether, again, the bank was not established without authority from the Constitution? Whether it did not throw unnecessary and unreasonable advantages into the hands of men previously enriched beyond reason or necessity? And whether it can be allowed the praise of a salutary operation until its effects shall have been more accurately traced and its hidden transactions shall be fully unveiled to the public eye: These and others are questions which, though of great importance, it is not intended here to examine. Most of them have been finally decided by the competent authority; and the rest have, no doubt, already impressed themselves on the public attention.
Passing on then to the session of Congress preceding the last, we are met in the first place by the most serious charges against the southern members of Congress in general and particularly against the representatives of Virginia. They are charged with having supported a policy which would inevitably have involved the United States in the war of Europe, have reduced us from the rank of a free people to that of French colonies, and possibly have landed us in disunion, anarchy, and misery; and the policy from which these tremendous calamities was to flow is referred to certain commercial resolutions moved by a member from Virginia in the House of Representatives.
To place in its true light the fallacy which infers such consequences from such a cause, it will be proper to review the circumstances which preceded and attended the resolutions.
It is well known that at the peace between the United States and Great Britain, it became a question with the latter whether she should endeavor to regain the lost commerce of America by liberal and reciprocal arrangements or trust to a relapse of it into its former channels without the price of such arrangements on her part. Whilst she was fearful that our commerce would be conducted into new and rival channels, she leaned to the first side of the alternative, and a bill was actually carried in the House of Commons by the present Prime Minister corresponding with that sentiment. She soon, however, began to discover (or to hope) that the weakness of our Federal Government and the want of concurrence among the state governments would secure her against the danger at first apprehended. From that moment all ideas of conciliation and concession vanished. She determined to enjoy at once the full benefit of the freedom allowed by our regulations and of the monopolies established by her own.
In this state of things, the pride as well as the interest of America were everywhere aroused. The mercantile world in particular was all on fire; complaints flew from one end of the continent to the other; projects of retaliation and redress engrossed the public attention. At one time, the states endeavored by separate efforts to counteract the unequal laws of Great Britain. At another, correspondencies were opened for uniting their efforts. An attempt was also made to vest in the former Congress a limited power for a limited time, in order to give effect to the general will.
All these experiments, instead of answering the purpose in view, served only to confirm Great Britain in her first belief, that her restrictive plans were in no danger of retaliation.
It was at length determined by the Legislature of Virginia to go to work in a new way. It was proposed, and most of the states agreed, to send commissioners to digest some change in our general system that might prove an effectual remedy. The commissioners met; but finding their powers too circumscribed for the great object which expanded itself before them, they proposed a convention on a more enlarged plan for a general revision of the Federal Government.
From this convention proceeded the present Federal Constitution, which gives to the general will the means of providing in the several necessary cases for the general welfare; and particularly in the case of regulating our commerce in such manner as may be required by the regulations of other countries.
It was natural to expect that one of the first objects of deliberation under the new constitution would be that which had been first and most contemplated in forming it. Accordingly it was, at the first session, proposed that something should be done analogous to the wishes of the several states and expressive of the efficiency of the new government. A discrimination between nations in treaty and those not in treaty, the mode most generally embraced by the states, was agreed to in several forms, and adhered to in repeated votes, by a very great majority of the House of Representatives. The Senate, however, did not concur with the House of Representatives, and our commercial arrangements were made up without any provision on the subject.
From that date to the session of Congress ending in June, 1794, the interval passed without any effective appeal to the interest of Great Britain. A silent reliance was placed on her voluntary justice, or her enlightened interest.
The long and patient reliance being ascribed (as was foretold) to other causes than a generous forbearance on the part of the United States had, at the commencement of the Third Congress, left us with respect to a reciprocity of commercial regulations between the two countries precisely where the commencement of the First Congress had found us. This was not all, the western posts, which entailed an expensive Indian war on us, continued to be withheld, although all pretext for it had been removed on our part. Depredations as derogatory to our rights as grievous to our interests had been licenced by the British Government against our lawful commerce on the high seas. And it was believed, on the most probable grounds, that the measure by which the Algerine Pirates were let loose on the Atlantic had not taken place without the participation of the same unfriendly counsels. In a word, to say nothing of the American victims to savages and barbarians, it was estimated that our annual damages from Great Britain were not less than three or four millions of dollars.
This distressing situation spoke the more loudly to the patriotism of the representatives of the people as the nature and manner of the communications from the President seemed to make a formal and affecting appeal on the subject to their co-operation. The necessity of some effort was palpable. The only room for different opinions seemed to lie in the different modes of redress proposed. On one side nothing was proposed, beyond the eventual measures of defence, in which all concurred, except the building of six frigates, for the purpose of enforcing our rights against Algiers. The other side, considering this measure as pointed at one only of our evils, and as inadequate even to that, thought it best to seek for some safe but powerful remedy that might be applied to the root of them; and with this view the Commercial Propositions were introduced.
They were at first opposed on the ground that Great Britain was amicably disposed towards the United States, and that we ought to await the event of the depending negociation. To this it was replied that more than four years of appeal to that disposition had been tried in vain by the new government; that the negotiation had been abortive and was no longer depending; that the late letters from Mr. Pinckney, the minister at London, had not only cut off all remaining hope from that source, but had expressly pointed commercial regulations as the most eligible redress to be pursued.
Another ground of opposition was that the United States were more dependent on the trade of Great Britain than Great Britain was on the trade of the United States. This will appear scarcely credible to those who understand the commerce between the two countries, who recollect that it supplies us chiefly with superfluities whilst in return it employs the industry of one part of her people, sends to another part the very bread which keeps them from starving, and remits moreover, an annual balance in specie of ten or twelve millions of dollars. It is true, nevertheless, as the debate shows, that this was the language, however strange, of some who combated the propositions.
Nay, what is still more extraordinary, it was maintained that the United States had, on the whole, little or no reason to complain of the footing of their commerce with Great Britain; although such complaints had prevailed in every state, among every class of citizens, ever since the year 1783; and although the Federal Constitution had originated in those complaints, and had been established with the known view of redressing them.
As such objections could have little effect in convincing the judgement of the House of Representatives, and still less that of the public at large, a new mode of assailing the propositions has been substituted. The American People love peace; and the cry of war might alarm when no hope remained of convincing them. The cry of war has accordingly been echoed through the continent, with a loudness proportioned to the emptiness of the pretext; and to this cry has been added another still more absurd, that the propositions would in the end enslave the United States to their allies and plunge them into anarchy and misery.
It is truly mortifying to be obliged to tax the patience of the reader with an examination of such gross absurdities; but it may be of use to expose, where there may be no necessity to refute them.
What were the commercial propositions? They discriminated between nations in treaty and nations not in treaty by an additional duty on the manufactures and trade of the latter; and they reciprocated the navigation laws of all nations who excluded the vessels of the United States from a common right of being used in the trade between the United States and such nations.
Is there any thing here that could afford a cause or a pretext for war to Great Britain or any other nation? If we hold at present the rank of a free people, if we are no longer colonies of Great Britain, if we have not already relapsed into some dependence on that nation, we have the self-evident right to regulate our trade according to our own will and our own interest, not according to her will or her interest. This right can be denied to no independent nation. It has not been and will not be denied to ourselves by any opponent of the propositions.
If the propositions could give no right to Great Britain to make war, would they have given any color to her for such an outrage on us? No American citizen will affirm it. No British subject who is a man of candor will pretend it; because he must know that the commercial regulations of Great Britain herself have discriminated among foreign nations whenever it was thought convenient. They have discriminated against particular nations by name; they have discriminated with respect to particular articles by name, by the nations producing them, and by the places exporting them. And as to the navigation articles proposed, they were not only common to the other countries along with Great Britain; but reciprocal between Great Britain and the United States: Nay, it is notorious that they fell short of an immediate and exact reciprocity of her own Navigation Laws.
Would any nation be so barefaced as to quarrel with another for doing the same thing which she herself has done, for doing less than she herself has done, towards that particular nation? It is impossible that Great Britain would ever expose herself by so absurd as well as arrogant a proceeding. If she really meant to quarrel with this country, common prudence and common decency would prescribe some other less odious pretext for her hostility.
It is the more astonishing that such a charge against the propositions should have been hazarded when the opinion and the proceedings of America on the subject of our commercial policy is reviewed.
Whilst the power over trade remained with the several states, there were few of them that did not exercise it on the principle, if not in the mode, of the commercial propositions. The eastern states generally passed laws either discriminating between some foreign nations and others or levelled against Great Britain by name. Maryland and Virginia did the same. So did two, if not the three, of the more southern states. Was it ever, during that period, pretended at home or abroad that a cause or pretext for quarrel was given to Great Britain or any other nation? Or were our rights better understood at that time than at this or more likely then than now to command the respect due to them.
Let it not be said, Great Britain was then at peace, she is now at war. If she would not wantonly attempt to control the exercise of our sovereign rights when she had no other enemy on her hands, will she be mad enough to make the attempt when her hands are fully employed with the war already on them? Would not those who say now, postpone the measures until Great Britain shall be at peace, be more ready, nay have more reason to say in time of peace, postpone them until she should be at war; there will then be no danger of her throwing new enemies into the scale against her.
Nor let it be said that the combined powers would aid and stimulate Great Britain to wage an unjust war on the United States. They are too fully occupied with their present enemy to wish for another on their hands; not to add that two of those powers, being in treaty with the United States, are favored by the propositions; and that all of them are well known to entertain an habitual jealousy of the monopolizing character and maritime ascendency of that nation.
One thing ought to be regarded as certain and conclusive on this head; whilst the war against France remains unsuccessful, the United States are in no danger from any of the powers engaged in it. In the event of a complete overthrow of that Republic, it is impossible to know what might follow. But if the hostile views of the combination should be turned towards this continent, it would clearly not be to vindicate the commercial interests of Great Britain against the commercial rivals of the United States. The object would be to root out Liberty from the face of the earth. No pretext would be wanted, or a better would be contrived than anything to be found in the commercial proposition.
On whatever other side we view the clamor against these propositions as inevitably productive of war, it presents neither evidence to justify it nor argument to color it.
The allegation necessarily supposes either that the friends of the propositions could discover no probability, where its opponents could see a certainty, or that the former were less averse to war than the latter.
The first supposition will not be discussed. A few observations on the other may throw new lights on the whole subject.
The members, in general, who espoused these propositions have been constantly in that part of the Congress who have professed with most zeal, and pursued with most scruple, the characteristics of republican government. They have adhered to these characteristics in defining the meaning of the Constitution, in adjusting the ceremonial of public proceedings, and in marking out the course of the Administration. They have manifested, particularly, a deep conviction of the danger to liberty and the Constitution from a gradual assumption or extension of discretionary powers in the executive departments; from successive augmentations of a standing army; and from the perpetuity and progression of public debts and taxes. They have been sometimes reprehended in debate for an excess of caution and jealousy on these points. And the newspapers of a certain stamp, by distorting and discolouring this part of their conduct, have painted it in all the deformity which the most industrious calumny could devise.
Those best acquainted with the individuals who more particularly supported the propositions will be foremost to testify that such are the principles which not only govern them in public life, but which are invariably maintained by them in every other situation. And it cannot be believed nor suspected that with such principles they could view war as less an evil than it appeared to their opponents.
Of all the enemies to public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds are added to those of subduing the force of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes and the opportunities of fraud growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manners and of morals engendered by both. No nation could reserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.
Those truths are well established. They are read in every page which records the progression from a less arbitrary to a more arbitrary government, or the transition from a popular government to an aristocracy or a monarchy.
It must be evident, then, that in the same degree as the friends of the propositions were jealous of armies and debts and prerogative, as dangerous to a republican Constitution, they must have been averse to war, as favourable to armies and debts and prerogative.
The fact accordingly appears to be that they were particularly averse to war. They not only considered the propositions as having no tendency to war, but preferred them as the most likely means of obtaining our objects without war. They thought, and thought truly, that Great Britain was more vulnerable in her commerce than in her fleets and armies; that she valued our necessaries for her markets and our markets for her superfluities, more than she feared our frigates or our militia; and that she would, consequently, be more ready to make proper concessions under the influence of the former than of the latter motive.
Great Britain is a commercial nation. Her power, as well as her wealth, is derived from commerce. The American commerce is the most valuable branch she enjoys. It is the more valuable, not only as being of vital importance to her in some respects, but of growing importance beyond estimate in its general character. She will not easily part with such a resource. She will not rashly hazard it. She would be particularly aware of forcing a perpetuity of regulations which not merely diminish her share, but may favour the rivalship of other nations. If anything, therefore, in the power of the United States could overcome her pride, her avidity, and her repugnancy to this country, it was justly concluded to be, not the fear of our arms, which, though invincible in defense, are little formidable in a war of offense, but the fear of suffering in the most fruitful branch of her trade and of seeing it distributed among her rivals.
If any doubt on this subject could exist, it would vanish on a recollection of the conduct of the British ministry at the close of the war in 1783. It is a fact which has been already touched, and it is as notorious as it is instructive, that during the apprehension of finding her commerce with the United States abridged or endangered by the consequences of the revolution, Great Britain was ready to purchase it, even at the expense of her West-Indies monopoly. It was not until after she began to perceive the weakness of the federal government, the discord in the counteracting plans of the state governments, and the interest she would be able to establish here, that she ventured on that system to which she has since inflexibly adhered. Had the present federal government, on its first establishment, done what it ought to have done, what it was instituted and expected to do, and what was actually proposed and intended it should do; had it revived and confirmed the belief in Great Britain that our trade and navigation would not be free to her without an equal and reciprocal freedom to us in her trade and navigation, we have her own authority for saying that she would long since have met us on proper ground; because the same motives which produced the bill brought into the British Parliament by Mr. Pitt, in order to prevent the evil apprehended, would have produced the same concession at least, in order to obtain a recall of the evil after it had taken place.
The aversion to war in the friends of the propositions may be traced through the whole proceedings and debates of the session. After the depredations in the West-Indies, which seemed to fill up the measure of British aggressions, they adhered to their original policy of pursuing redress rather by commercial than by hostile operations; and with this view unanimously concurred in the bill for suspending importations from British ports, a bill that was carried through the House by a vote of fifty-eight against thirty-four. The friends of the propositions appeared, indeed, never to have admitted that Great Britain could seriously mean to force a war with the United States, unless in the event of prostrating the French Republic; and they did not believe that such an event was to be apprehended.
Confiding in this opinion, to which time has given its full sanction, they could not accede to those extraordinary measures which nothing short of the most obvious and imperious necessity could plead for. They were as ready as any to fortify our harbours and fill our magazines and arsenals; these were safe and requisite provisions for our permanent defense. They were ready and anxious for arming and preparing our militia; that was the true republican bulwark of our security. They joined also in the addition of a regiment of artillery to the military establishment, in order to complete the defensive arrangement on our eastern frontier. These facts are on record, and are the proper answer to those shameless calumnies which have asserted that the friends of the commercial propositions were enemies to every proposition for the national security.
But it was their opponents, not they, who continually maintained that on a failure of negotiation, it would be more eligible to seek redress by war than by commercial regulations; who talked of raising armies that might threaten the neighbouring possessions of foreign powers; who contended for delegating to the executive the prerogatives of deciding whether the country was at war or not, and of levying, organizing, and calling into the field a regular army of ten, fifteen, nay, of twenty-five thousand men.
It is of some importance that this part of the history of the session, which has found no place in the late reviews of it, should be well understood. They who are curious to learn the particulars must examine the debates and the votes. A full narrative would exceed the limits which are here prescribed. It must suffice to remark that the efforts were varied and repeated until the last moment of the session, even after the departure of a number of members forbade new propositions, much more a renewal of rejected ones; and that the powers proposed to be surrendered to the executive were those which the Constitution has most jealously appropriated to the legislature.
The reader shall judge on this subject for himself.
The Constitution expressly and exclusively vests in the legislature the power of declaring a state of war; it was proposed that the executive might, in the recess of the legislature, declare the United States to be in a state of war.
The Constitution expressly and exclusively vests in the legislature the power of raising armies: it was proposed, that in the recess of the legislature, the executive might, at its pleasure, raise or not raise an army of ten, fifteen, or twenty-five thousand men.
The Constitution expressly and exclusively vests in the legislature the power of creating offices; it was proposed that the executive, in the recess of the legislature, might create offices, as well as appoint officers, for an army of ten, fifteen, or twenty-five thousand men.
A delegation of such powers would have struck, not only at the fabric of our Constitution, but at the foundation of all well organized and well checked governments.
The separation of the power of declaring war from that of conducting it is wisely contrived to exclude the danger of its being declared for the sake of its being conducted.
The separation of the power of raising armies from the power of commanding them is intended to prevent the raising of armies for the sake of commanding them.
The separation of the power of creating offices from that of filling them is an essential guard against the temptation to create offices for the sake of gratifying favorites or multiplying dependents.
Where would be the difference between the blending of these incompatible powers, by surrendering the legislative part of them into the hands of the executive, and by assuming the executive part of them into the hands of the legislature? In either case the principle would be equally destroyed, and the consequences equally dangerous.
An attempt to answer these observations by appealing to the virtues of the present chief magistrate and to the confidence justly placed in them will be little calculated either for his genuine patriotism or for the sound judgment of the American public.
The people of the United States would not merit the praise universally allowed to their intelligence if they did not distinguish between the respect due to the man and the functions belonging to the office. In expressing the former, there is no limit or guide but the feelings of their grateful hearts. In deciding the latter, they will consult the Constitution; they will consider human nature, and, looking beyond the character of the existing magistrate, fix their eyes on the precedent which must descend to his successors.
Will it be more than truth to say that this great and venerable name is too often assumed for what cannot recommend itself, and for what there is neither proof nor probability that its sanction can be claimed? Do arguments fail? Is the public mind to be encountered? There are not a few ever ready to invoke the name of Washington; to garnish their heretical doctrines with his virtues and season their unpallatable measures with his popularity. Those who take this liberty will not, however, be mistaken; his truest friends will be the last to sport with his influence, above all for electioneering purposes. And it is but a fair suspicion that they who draw most largely on that fund are hastening fastest to bankruptcy in their own.
As vain would be the attempt to explain away such alarming attacks on the Constitution by pleading the difficulty, in some cases, of drawing a line between the different departments of power; of recurring to the little precedents which may have crept in at urgent or unguarded moments.
It cannot be denied that there may, in certain cases, be a difficulty in distinguishing the exact boundary between legislative and executive powers; but the real friend of the Constitution and of liberty, by his endeavors to lessen or avoid the difficulty, will easily be known from him who labours to encrease the obscurity, in order to remove the constitutional landmarks without notice.
Nor will it be denied that precedents may be found where the line of separation between these powers has not been sufficiently regarded; where an improper latitude of discretion, particularly, has been given or allowed to the executive departments. But what does this prove? That the line ought to be considered as imaginary; that constitutional organizations of power ought to lose their effect? No—It proves with how much deliberation precedents ought to be established, and with how much caution arguments from them should be admitted. It may furnish another criterion, also, between the real and ostensible friend of constitutional liberty. The first will be as vigilant in resisting as the last will be in promoting the growth of inconsiderate or insidious precedents into established encroachments.
The next charge to be examined, is the tendency of the propositions to degrade the United States into French colonies.
As it is difficult to argue against suppositions made and multiplied at will, so it is happily impossible to impose on the good sense of this country by arguments which rest on suppositions only. In the present question it is first supposed that the exercise of the self-evident and sovereign right of regulating trade, after the example of all independent nations and that of the example of Great Britain towards the United States, would inevitably involve the United States in a war with Great Britain. It is then supposed that the other combined powers, though some of them be favored by the regulations proposed, and all of them be jealous of the maritime predominance of Great Britain, would support the wrongs of Great Britain against the rights of the United States. It is lastly supposed that our allies (the French) in the event of success in establishing their own liberties, which they owe to our example, would be willing, as well as able, to rob us of ours, which they assisted us in obtaining; and that so malignant is their disposition on this head that we should not be spared, even if embarked in a war against her own enemy. To finish the picture, it is intimated that in the character of allies, we are the more exposed to this danger, from the secret and hostile ambition of France.
It will not be expected, that any formal refutation should be wasted on absurdities which answer themselves. None but those who have surrendered their reasoning faculties to the violence of their prejudices will listen to suggestions implying that the freest nation in Europe is the basest people on the face of the earth; that instead of the friendly and festive sympathy indulged by the people of the United States, they ought to go into mourning at every triumph of the French arms; that instead of regarding the French Revolution as a blessing to mankind and a bulwark to their own, they ought to anticipate its success as of all events the most formidable to their liberty and sovereignty; and that, calculating on the political connection with that nation as the source of additional danger from its enmity and its usurpation, the first favorable moment ought to be seized for putting an end to it… .
The Popular Societies, the Excise, and the Whiskey Rebellion
Beginning in Philadelphia in the spring of 1793, concurrently with Citizen Genet’s arrival in the country and inspired in part by the Jacobin societies in France, a score of popular societies sprang up in every portion of the country. Suspicion of the Federalists as well as friendship for France was one of their identifying features, and the excise tax on whiskey, which was provoking sharp resistance along the whole frontier, was one of their favorite targets.