Atticus Essay III (Massachusetts)
Observations On the letter of the Hon. E.G. Esq; published in the Independent Chronicle, Nov. 8, 1787, and other pieces lately published in opposition to the Federal Constitution: In LETTER III.
From a Gentleman in the country, to his friend in town.
“Who shall decide when Doctors disagree,–
And soundest Casuists doubt.”
I Must postpone my designed answer to the question, with which I concluded my last letter, (whether there be any power, or principle, in our Commonwealth, sufficient to keep within proper bounds, the contests of the great and little men amongst us?) and must now attend to your favour of November 14th.
You have read the letter of the Hon. E[lbridge] G[erry] and it seems to have given you some disturbance. The letter I have several times perused, with great attention; yet find not, that it contains any thing which ought greatly to offend us. It seems to be an excuse for his d[issent] from the federal system. Ought we to resent his apology with anger? We too, must think for ourselves. The only question here, seems to be, Whether, after the business of the delegation was finished, a delegate, any more than any private gentleman, could with propriety, write to the Legislature, either for or against the adopted system? Especially as a State Convention, and not the Legislature, were to decide the important question.
His observation, “that the greatest men may err,” is of real importance, and leads to this conclusion, that the Hon. E[lbridge] G[erry] may err. If the authority of a Washington, a Franklin, or a Rufus King, supported by the authority of all the Statesin a Convention, be no good argument in favour of their system; then, by parity of reason, the authority of the Hon. E[lbridge] G[erry] or a Randolph, or a Mason, can be no better argument against it. Between these great Casuists, the people, in Convention assembled, must judge; and to this decision, we hope, they will bring cool heads and pure hearts.
The federal system determines, that every branch of its Legislature shall be elective; the qualifications of electors are ascertained; and caution is taken that elections be not held at an inconvenient place. The time, whether in July, May or August, or other month of the year; the manner, whether by ballot or otherwise, is to be regulated by state, or federal laws. Here I can see no great “insecurity of the right of elections.” Nor do I fear, that the federal government will not be as likely as the State Legislatures, to fix on some method, by which the sense of the people shall be fairly taken. As to the representation, it seems to be as large, as the state of our country will well admit of; and as well defined, as numbers can make it. If those observations be just, is “the representation inadequate,” or “elections insecure?”
Yet the Hon. E[lbridge] G[erry] has reasons on which his objections are founded, to be divulged when he shall return to Massachusetts. If reasons he hath, by all means let us hear them; and let us confront them by better reasons, if we can.
The Hon. E[lbridge] G[erry] and others, complain, that the system has not the security of a bill of rights. That series of propositions commonly called a bill of rights, is taken out of lawbooks, and is only an extract of the rights of persons.–Now let us suppose, that it stands in a law-book, which is appealed to, as an authority, in all the Courts of judicature, or is tacked (without pains or penalty annexed to the violation of it) as a preface to the Constitution. In which case is it likely to afford the greatest security to the rights of persons? Let the unbiased judge. On this point we may appeal to fact. There is a Commonwealth, with which we are not wholly unconnected, which hath a bill of rights prefixed to its Constitution. Yet ask those of either of the great parties, into which that State hath lately been divided, if this bill of rights hath not been frequently violated? If you confide in the zealots of each party, will you not be ready to conceive, that the actual Legislators have had as poor an opinion of the bill of rights, as Cromwell had of Magna Charta? If you speak to the moderate men in that same State, they will perhaps shrug their shoulders, and shake their heads, and give you no answer.
When the powers to be exercised, under a certain system, are in themselves consistent with the people’s liberties, are legally defined, guarded and ascertained, and ample provision made for bringing to condign punishment all such as shall overstep the limitations of law,–it is hard to conceive of a greater security for the rights of the people.
It hath been said, that the Constitution proposed, “has few federal features, but is rather a system of national government.” Perhaps the features of a confederacy, and of a national government, are happily blended; as a child may have a resemblance of both its parents. If so, may not the event be happy for us? For is it not for want of national government, that commerce, husbandry, mechanics, the arts and manufactures, are no languishing and seem ready to die? was it not for want of this, that the States of Greece, were enslaved by a petty monarchy, that Switzerland is destitute of national importance, and Holland torn with all the distresses of a civil war? Must not the States of America, without this, serve with the fruits of their hardy industry, their enemies in Britain. Dean Tucker (whose political prophecies have mostly been verified) hath predicted concerning America, “that they will be a contemptible people to the end of time.” Without national government, must it not be so in fact? for a confederacy, without energy sufficient to bring the confederates to joint-action, is a mere nullity. Let us not quarrel about words and sounds, national or federal; it is a good system if its tendency be to make us a happy people.
It is said that it “dissolves the state governments, because it makes the federal laws supreme in each State.” What bond of union could there be without this? It ought to be allowed, however, that the powers given to Congress in this system, are the utmost extent of the federal legislation. If these relate to matters of merely national concern, they do not interfere, any more than they ought, with the legislative powers of particular States.
It is suggested that this system may be “amended” before its adoption. On this two questions arise; when are the people groaning under present burthens, to be eased of the expences of conventions and assemblies, for settling government? and will there probably be fewer dissentients from the amendments, than from the system as it now stands?
Should it be received as it now stands, it is suggested “that our liberties may be lost.” The caution expressed in the word may, is commendable, because many persons whose abilities the modesty of the Hon. E[ldridge] G[erry] would not suffer him to undervalue, think quite otherwise. Too, too long it hath been the humour of our countrymen, to be so fearful of giving their rulers power to do hurt, that they never have given them power to do good. This is the very reason why the public authority, hath been so much despised by the people; and why the people have so little attachment to their civil institutions.
When such a great affair is depending, parties, disputes, and objections, are to be expected. It is best I believe that they should, in a certain degree, take place. I hope they will not proceed to violent extremes. The State of Massachusetts is not bound to imitate Pennsylvania: Let not our good citizens make passion for counsil; but let them choose men of clear heads, and honest minds, for their State Convention. When the “greatest of men” differ, the assembled people must decide. And let them, after the affair is impartially examined, and thoroughly sifted, received, amend, or utterly reject the Federal Constitution. Let not the leading characters among us, in the mean time, forget that excellent advice of the Hon. E[ldridge] G[erry] worthy to be written for their use in letters of gold, that they preserve moderation.
Further communications and correspondence on those interesting subjects, will be agreeable to your friend ATTICUS.
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