1787: P. Webster, The Weakness of Brutus (Pamphlet)

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Source: Pamphlets on the Constitution of the United States, published during its Discussion by the People, 1787-1788, edited with notes and a bibliography by Paul Leiccester Ford (Brooklyn, N.Y., 1888).

The Weakness of Brutus exposed: / or, some / Remarks / in / Vindication of the Constitution / proposed by the late / Federal Convention, / against the / Objections and gloomy Fears of that Writer / Humbly offered to the Public, / By / a Citizen of Philadelphia. / Philadelphia, / Printed for, and to be had of John Sparhawk, in Market-Street, / near the Court House / M. DCC. LXXXVII.

12mo., pp. 23.

Written by Pelatiah Webster, a Philadelphia merchant, and author of a number of pamphlets on the finances and government of the United States, most of which he reprinted in his “Political Essays” in Philadelphia in 1791.

Brutus was the signature (of Thomas Treadwell, of Suffolk County, N. Y.?) to a series of sixteen newspaper essays in the New York Journal, which were extensively copied throughout the country. This is an answer to the first essay only, and was published November 4th, 1787.

P. L. F.

The long piece signed Brutus, (which was first published in a New-York paper, and was afterwards copied into the Pennsylvania Packet of the 26th instant) is wrote in a very good stile; the language is easy, and the address is polite and insinuating: but the sentiments, I conceive, are not only unsound, but wild and chimerical; the dreary fears and apprehensions, altogether groundless; and the whole tendency of the piece, in this important crisis of our politics, very hurtful. I have therefore thought it my duty to make some animadversions on it; which I here offer, with all due deference, to the Author and to the Public.

His first question is, Whether a confederated government is best for the United States?

I answer, If Brutus, or any body else, cannot find any benefit resulting from the union of the Thirteen States; if they can do without as well as with the respectability, the protection, and the security, which the States might derive from that union, I have nothing further to say: but if that union is to be supported in any such manner as to afford [4] respectability, protection, or security to the States, I say it must be done by an adequate government, and cannot be otherwise done.

This government must have a supreme power, superior to and able to controul each and all of its parts. ‘Tis essential to all governments, that such a power be somewhere existing in it; and if the place where the proposed Constitution has fixed it, does not suit Brutus and his friends, I will give him leave to stow it away in any other place that is better: but I will not consent to have it annihilated; neither will I agree to have it cramped and pinched for room, so as to lessen its energy; for that will destroy both its nature and use.

The supreme power of government ought to be full, definite, established, and acknowledged. Powers of government too limited, or uncertain and disputed, have ever proved, like Pandora's box, a most fruitful source of quarrels, animosities, wars, devastation, and ruin, in all shapes and degrees, in all communities, states and kingdoms on earth.

Nothing tends more to the honour, establishment, and peace of society, than public decisions, grounded on principles of right, natural fitness and prudence; but when the powers of government are too limited, such decisions can't be made and enforced; so the mischief goes without a remedy: dreadful examples of which we have felt, in instances more than enough, for seven years past.

[5] Further, where the powers of government are not definite but disputed, the administration dare not make decisions on the footing of impartial justice and right; but must temporize with the parties, lest they lose friends or make enemies: and of course the righteous go off injured and disgusted, and the wicked go grumbling to; for ‘tis rare that any sacrifices of a court can satisfy a prevailing party in the state.

‘Tis necessary in States, as well as in private families, that controversies should have a just, speedy, and effectual decision, that right may be done before the contention has time to grow up into habits of malignity, resentment, ill nature, and ill offices. If a controversy happens between two states, must it continue undecided, and daily increase, and be more and more aggravated, by the repeated insults and injuries of the contending parties, ‘till they are ripe for the decision of the sword? or must the weaker states suffer, without remedy, the groundless demands and oppressions of their stronger neighbours, because they have no avenger, or umpire of their disputes?

Or shall we institute a supreme power with full and effectual authority to controul the animosities, and decide the disputes of these strong contending bodies? In the one proposed to to us, we have perhaps every chance of a righteous judgment, that we have any reason [6] to hope for; but I am clearly of opinion, that even a wrongful decision, would, in most cases, be preferable to the continuance of such destructive controversies.

I suppose that neither Brutus nor any of his friends would wish to see our government embroiled abroad; and therefore will admit it necessary to institute some federal authority, sufficient to punish any individual or State, who shall violate our treaties with foreign nations, insult their dignity, or abuse their citizens, and compel due reparation in all such cases.

I further apprehend, that Brutus is willing to have the general interest and welfare of the States well provided for and supported, and therefore will consent that there shall exist in the states, an authority to do all this effectually; but he seems grieved that Congress should be the judges of this general welfare of the states. If he will be kind enough to point out any other more suitable and proper judges, I will consent to have them admitted.

Indeed I begin to have hopes of Brutus, and think he may come right at last; for I observe (after all his fear and tremblings about the new government) the constitution he defines and adopts, is the very same as that which the federal convention have proposed to us, viz. “that the Thirteen States should continue thirteen confederated republics under the direction and controul of a supreme [7] federal head, for certain defined national purposes, only.” Where we may observe,

  • 1. That the new Constitution leaves all the Thirteen States, complete republics, as it found them, but all confederated under the direction and controul of a federal head, for certain defined national purposes only, i. e. it leaves all the dignities, authorities, and internal police of each State in free, full, and perfect condition; unless when national purposes make the controul of them by the federal head, or authority, necessary to the general benefit.
  • 2. These powers of controul by the federal head or authority, are defined in the new constitution, as minutely as may be, in their principle; and any detail of them which may become necessary, is committed to the wisdom of Congress.
  • 3. It extends the controuling power of the federal head to no one case, to which the jurisdiction or power of definitive decision of any one state, can be competent. And,
  • 4. In every such case, the controuling power of the federal head, is absolutely necessary to the support, dignity, and benefit of the national government, and the safety of individuals; neither of which can, by any possibility, be secured without it.

All this falls in pretty well with Brutus's sentiments; for he does not think that the new Constitution in its present state so very bad, [8] but fears that it will not preserve its purity of institution; but if adopted, will immediately verge to, and terminate in a consolidation, i. e. a destruction of the state governments. For argument, he suggests the avidity of power natural to rulers; and the eager grasp with which they hold it when obtained; and their strong propensity to abuse their power, and encroach on the liberties of the people.

He dwells on the vast powers vested in Congress by the new Constitution, i. e. of levying taxes, raising armies, appointing federal courts, &c.; takes it for granted, that all these powers will be abused, and carried to an oppressive excess; and then harangues on the dreadful case we shall be in, when our wealth is all devoured by taxes, our liberty destroyed by the power of the army, and our civil rights all sacrificed by the unbounded power of the federal courts, &c.

And when he has run himself out of breath with this dreary declamation, he comes to the conclusion he set out with, viz. That the Thirteen States are too big for a republican government, which requires small territory, and can't be supported in more extensive nations; that in large states liberty will soon be swallowed up, and lost in the magnitude of power requisite in the government, &c.

[9] If any conclusion at all can be drawn from this baseless assemblage of gloomy thoughts, I think it must be against any union at all; against any kind of federal government. For nothing can be plainer than this, viz. that the union can't by any possibility be supported with success, without adequate and effectual powers of government?

We must have money to support the union, and therefore the power of raising it must be lodged somewhere; we must have a military force, and of consequence the power of raising and directing it must exist; civil and criminal causes of national concern will arise, therefore there must be somewhere a power of appointing courts to hear and determine them.

These powers must be vested in Congress; for nobody pretends to wish to have them vested in any other body of men.

The Thirteen States have a territory very extensive, and inhabitants very numerous, and every day rapidly increasing; therefore the powers of government necessary to support their union must be great in proportion. If the ship is large the mast must be proportionately great, or it will be impossible to make her sail well. The federal powers must extend to every part of the federal territory, i. e. to the utmost limits of the Thirteen States, and to every part of them; and must carry with them, sufficient [10] authority to secure the execution of them; and these powers must be vested in Congress, and the execution of them must be under their direction and controul.

These powers are vast, I know, and the trust is of the most weighty kind that can be committed to human direction; and the execution and administration of it will require the greatest wisdom, knowledge, firmness, and integrity in that august body; and I hope they will have all the abilities and virtues necessary to that important station, and will perform their duty well; but if they fail, the fault is in them, not in the constitution. The best constitution possible, even a divine one, badly administered, will make a bad government.

The members of Congress will be the best we can get; they will all of them derive their appointment from the States, and if the States are not wise enough to send good and suitable men, great blame, great sin will lie at their door. But I suppose nobody would wish to mend this fault by taking away the election of the people, and directing the appointment of Congress to be made in any other way.

When we have got the best that can be obtained, we ought to be quiet and cease complaining. ‘Tis not in the power of human wisdom to do more; ‘tis the fate of human nature to be imperfect and to err; and [11] no doubt but Congress, with all their dignity of station and character, with all their opportunities to gain wisdom and information, with all their inducementsto virtue and integrity, will err, and abuse or misapply their powers in more or less instances. I have no expectation that they will make a court of angels, or be anything more than men: ‘tis probable many of them will be insufficient men, and some of them may be bad men.

The greatest wisdom, care, and caution, has been used in the mode of their appointment; in the restraints and checks under which they must act; in the numerous discussions and deliberations which all their acts must pass through, before they can receive the stamp of authority; in the terrors of punishment if they misbehave. I say, in all these ways the greatest care has been used to procure and form a good Congress.

The dignity and importance of their station and character will afford all the inducements to virtue and effort, which can influence a mind capable of their force.

Their own personal reputation, with the eyes of all the world on them,—the approbation of their fellow citizens, which every man in public station naturally wishes to enjoy,—and the dread of censure and shame, all contribute very forceable and strong inducements to noble, upright and worthy behavior.

[12] The particular interest which every member of Congress has in every public order and resolution, is another strong motive to right action. For every act to which any member gives his sanction, if it be raising an army, levying a tax, instituting a court, or any other act to bind the States,—such act will equally bind himself, his nearest connections, and his posterity.

Another mighty influence to the noblest principle of action will be the fear of God before their eyes; for while they sit in the place of God, to give law, justice, and right to the States, they must be monsters indeed if they do not regard his law, and imitate his character.

If all this will not produce a Congress fit to be trusted, and worthy of the public confidence, I think we may give the matter up as impracticable. But still we must make ourselves as easy as we can, under a mischief which admits no remedy, and bear with patience an evil which can't be cured: for a government we must have; there is no safety without it; though we know it will be imperfect, we still must prefer it to anarchy or no government at all. ‘Tis the height of folly and madness to reject a necessary convenience, because it is not a perfect good.

Upon this statement of facts and principles, (for the truth and reality of which, I appeal [13] to every candid man,) I beg leave to remark,

  • 1. That the federal Convention, in the constitution proposed to us, have exerted their utmost to produce a Congress worthy of the public confidence, who shall have abilities adequate to their important duty, and shall act under every possible inducement to execute it faithfully.
  • 2. That this affords every chance which the nature of the thing will admit, of a wise and upright administration.
  • 3. Yet all this notwithstanding, ‘tis very possible that Congress may err, may abuse, or misapply their powers, which no precaution of human wisdom can prevent.
  • 4. ‘Tis vain, ‘tis childish, ‘tis contentious to object to a constitution thus framed and guarded, on pretence that the commonwealth may suffer by a bad administration of it; or to withhold the necessary powers of government, from the supreme rulers of it, least they should abuse or misapply those powers. This is an objection which will operate with equal force against every institution that can be made in this world, whether of policy, religion, commerce, or any other human concern, which can require regulations: for ‘tis not possible to form any institution however necessary, wise and good, whose uses may not be lessened or destroyed by bad management.

If Brutus, or any body else, can point out [14] any checks, cautions, or regulations, which have been hitherto omitted, which will make Congress more wise, more capable, more diligent, or more faithful, I am willing to attend to them. But to set Congress at the head of the government, and object to their being vested with full and sufficient power to manage all the great departments of it, appears to me absurd, quite wild, and chimerical: it would produce a plan which would destroy itself as it went along, would be a sort of counter position of contrary parts, and render it impossible for rulers to render those services, and secure those benefits to the States, which are the only great ends of their appointment.

The constitution under Brutus's corrections would stand thus, viz. Congress would have power to raise money, but must not direct the quanity, or mode of levying it; they might raise armies, but must not judge to the number of soldiers necessary, or direct their destination; they ought to provide for the general welfare, but must not be judges of what that welfare consists in, or in what manner ‘tis to be provided for; they might controul the several States, for defined national purposes, but must not be judges of what purposes would come within that definition, &c.

Any body with half an eye, may see what sort of administration the constitution, thus corrected, would produce, e. g. it would [15] require much greater trouble to leave the work undone, than would be necessary to get it well done, under a constitution of sufficient powers. If any one wishes to view more minutely this blessed operation, he may see a lively sample of it, in the last seven years practice of our federal government.

5. Brutus all along sounds his objections, and fears on extreme cases of abuse or misapplication of supreme powers, which may possibly happen, under the administration of a wild, weak, or wicked Congress; but ‘tis easy to observe that all institutions are liable to extremes, but ought not to be judged by them; they do not often appear, and perhaps never may; but if they should happen in the cases supposed, (which God forbid) there is a remedy pointed out, in the Constitution itself.

‘Tis not supposeable that such abuses could arise to any ruinous height, before they would affect the States so much, that at least two-thirds of them would unite in pursuing a remedy in the mode prescribed by the Constitution, which will always be liable to amendment, whenever any mischiefs or abuses appear in the government, which the Constitution in its present state, can't reach and correct.

6. Brutus thinks we can never be too much afraid of the encroaching avidity of rulers; but ‘tis pretty plain, that however great the natural lust of power in rulers may be, the jealousy of the people in giving it, is about [16] equal; these two opposite passions, will always operate in opposite directions to each other, and like action and reaction in natural bodies, will ever tend to a good ballance.

At any rate, the Congress can never get more power than the people will give, nor hold it any longer than they will permit; for should they assume tyrannical powers, and make incroachments on liberty without the consent of the people, they would soon attone for their temerity, with shame and disgrace, and probably with their heads.

But ‘tis here to be noted, that all the danger does not arise from the extreme of power in the rulers; for when the ballance verges to the contrary extreme, and the power of the rulers becomes too much limited and cramped, all the nerves of government are weakened, and the administration must unavoidably sicken, and lose that energy which is absolutely necessary for the support of the State, and the security of the people. For ‘tis a truth worthy of great attention, that laws are not made so much for the righteous as for the wicked; who never fail to shelter themselves from punishment, whenever they can, under the defects of the law, and the weakness of government.

I now come to consider the grand proposition which Brutus sets out with, concludes with, and interlards all along, and which [17] seems to be the great gift of his performance, viz. That a confederation of the Thirteen States into one great republic is not best for them: and goes on to prove by a variety of arguments, that a republican form of government is not compatible, and cannot be convenient to so extensive a territory as the said States possess. He begins by taking one assumption for granted (for I can't see that his arguments prove it at all) viz. That the Constitution proposed will melt down and destroy the jurisdiction of the particular States, and consolidate them all into one great republic.

I can't see the least reason for this sentiment; nor the least tendency in the new Constitution to produce this effect. For the Constitution does not suffer the federal powers to controul in the least, or so much as to interfere in the internal policy, jurisdiction, or municipal rights of any particular State: except where great and manifest national purposes and interests make that controul necessary. It appears very evident to me, that the Constitution gives an establishment, support, and protection to the internal and separate police of each State, under the superintendency of the federal powers, which it could not possibly enjoy in an independent state. Under the confederation each State derives strength, firmness and permanency from its compact with the other States. Like a stave in a cask well bound with hoops, it [18] stands firmer, is not so easily shaken, bent, or broken, as it would be were it set up by itself alone, without any connection with its neighbours.

There can be no doubt that each State will receive from the union great support and protection against the invasions and inroads of foreign enemies, as well as against riots and insurrections of their own citizens; and of consequence, the course of their internal administration will be secured by this means against any interruption or embarrassment from either of these causes.

They will also derive their share of benefit from the respectability of the union abroad, from the treaties and alliances which may be made with foreign nations, &c.

Another benefit they will receive from the controul of the supreme power of the union is this, viz. they will be restrained from making angry, oppressive, and destructive laws, from declaring ruinous wars with their neighbours, from fomenting quarrels and controversies, &c. all which ever weaken a state, tend to its fatal disorder, and often end in its dissolution. Righteousness exalts and strengthens a nation; but sin is a reproach and weakening of any people.

They will indeed have the privilege of oppressing their own citizens by bad laws or bad administration; but the moment the mischief extends beyond their own State, and [19] begins to affect the citizens of other States strangers, or the national welfare,—the salutary controul of the supreme power will check the evil, and restore strength and security, as well as honesty and right, to the offending state.

It appears then very plain, that the natural effect and tendency of the supreme powers of the union is to give strength, establishment, and permanency to the internal police and jurisdiction of each of the particular States; not to melt down and destroy, but to support and comfirm them all.

By what sort of assurance, then, can Brutus tell us that the new Constitution, if executed, must certainly and infallibly terminate in a consolidation of the whole, into one great republic, subverting all the State authorities. His only argument is, that the federal powers may be corrupted, abused, and misapplied, ‘till this effect shall be produced. ‘Tis true that the constitution, like every other on earth, committed to human management, may be corrupted by a bad administration, and be made to operate to the destruction of the very capital benefits and uses, which were the great end of its institution. The same argument will prove with equal cogency, that the constitution of each particular State, may be corrupted in practice, become tyranical and inimical to liberty. In short the argument proves too much, and therefore proves nothing: [20] ‘tis empty, childish, and futile, and a serious proposal of it, is, I conceive, an affront to the human understanding.

But after all, supposing this event should take place, and by some strange fatality, the several states should be melted down, and merged in the great commonwealth, in the form of counties, or districts; I don't see why a commonwealth mode of government, would not be as suitable and convenient for the great State, as any other form whatever; I cannot see any sufficient ground or reason, for the position pretty often and boldly advanced, that a republican form of government can never be suitable for any nation of extensive territory, and numerous population: for if Congress can be chosen by the several States, though under the form and name of counties, or election districts, and be in every respect, instituted as directed by the new constitution, I don't see but we shall have as suitable a national council, as wise a legislative, and as strong and safe an executive power, as can be obtained under any form of government whatever; let our territory be ever so extensive or populous.

The most despotic monarch that can exist, must have his councils, and officers of state; and I can't see any one circumstance of their being appointed under a monarchy, that can afford any chance of their being any wiser or better, than ours may be. ‘Tis true indeed, [21] the despot may, if he pleases, act without any advice at all; but when he does so, I conceive it will be very rare that the nation will receive greater advantages from his unadvised edicts, than may be drawed from the deliberate acts and orders of our supreme powers. All that can be said in favour of those, is, that they will have less chance of delay, and more of secrecy, than these; but I think it probable, that the latter will be grounded on better information, and greater wisdom; will carry more weights and be better supported.

The Romans rose, from small beginnings, to a very great extent of territory, population, and wisdom; I don't think their constitution of government, was near so good as the one proposed to us, yet we find their power, strength, and establishment, were raised to their utmost height, under a republican form of government. Their State received very little acquisition of territory, strength, or wealth, after their government became imperial; but soon began to weaken and decay.

The Carthagenians acquired an amazing degree of strength, wealth, and extent of dominion, under a republican form of of government. Neither they or the Romans, owed their dissolution to any causes arising from that kind of government: ‘twas the party rage, animosity, and violence of their citizens, which destroyed them both; it weakened them, ‘till the [22] one fell under the power of their enemy, and was thereby reduced to ruin; the other changed their form of government, to a monarchy, which proved in the end, equally fatal to them.

The same causes, if they can't be restrained, will weaken or destroy any nation on earth, let their form of government be what it will; witness the division and dissolution of the Roman empire; the late dismemberment of Poland; the intestine divisions, rage, and wars of Italy, of France, of Spain, and of England.

No form of government can preserve a nation which can't controul the party rage of its own citizens; when any one citizen can rise above the controul of the laws, ruin draws near. ‘Tis not possible for any nation on earth, to hold their strength and establishment, when the dignity of their government is lost, and this dignity will forever depend on the wisdom and firmness of the officers of government, aided and supported by the virtue and patriotism of their citizens.

On the whole, I don't see but that any form of government may be safe and practicable, where the controuling authority of the supreme powers, is strong enough to effect the ends of its appointment, and at the same time, sufficiently checked to keep it within due bounds, and limit it to the objects of its duty; and I think it appears, that the constitution proposed to us, has all these qualities [23] in as great perfection, as any form we can devise.

But after all, the grand secret of forming a good government, is, to put good men into the administration: for wild, vicious, or idle men, will ever make a bad government, let its principles be ever so good; but grave, wise, and faithful men, acting under a good constitution, will afford the best chances of security, peace, and prosperity, to the the citizens, which can be derived from civil police, under the present disorders, and uncertainty of all earthly things.


Nov. 4, 1787..