A Foreign Spectator XXIV
September 18, 1787
“An Essay on the Means of Promoting Federal Sentiments in the United States”
In this federal composition it is not proper to draw comparisons. It is generally known which of the states have been most deficient. Pennsylvania has paid nearly the whole, the New-York more than her quota. The former has however taken the resolution to discount by federal contribution to her own citizens who are creditors of reserving to herself the power of collecting it, and the liberty of paying in paper money. Both these states assume thus powers very antifederal; yet what else can be expected from the federal states, when others are so neglectful. How alarming are these facts! Do they not plainly say—the ship will be lost, let every one take care of himself. If a foreign power should by arms demand payment from the United States, it would not inquire how they have paid their respective quotas; if more convenient it may take New-York or Philadelphia, and let these cities take satisfaction from New-Hampshire or Carolina as they can. It is not then shocking, that in this federal anarchy those states that have been the most generous may be ruined by the most selfish! Would not this alone be an ample cause of civil war? When the peace establishment is calculated, and the proportion of the national debt to be annually paid is determined; the federal revenue may with tolerable precision be fixed for several years. Accounts of the federal expenditure to be laid at regular intervals of time before the several Legislatures, will fully satisfy the states. When the national finances will allow, there should be at all times a saving of ready money in the federal treasury, or some certain fund, that could immediately be commanded, as a resource against a war, or some unexpected exigency. In times of actual war, and especially of an invasion, the federal government should have very ample powers for levying money; it will not be possible to limit them but in very general terms.
I have thus ventured to draw a general sketch of the necessary federal powers. To set this grand affair in one clear point of view, let us consider: first, the great interest of the United States—this is nothing less than independency, with external safety, and internal peace; and on this depends the liberty, property, families, lives, and whatever dearest concerns of the people in general, as I have fully proved: secondly, the extent of the union—this requires a center of information and of action, which may collect a speedy and perfect knowledge of all federal affairs, and by quick effectual operations take care of the whole. Can any thing be so absurd as to make the fate of Georgia depend on the exertions of New-Hampshire, when two or three months may elapse before authentic information could be obtained; as many more be spent in deliberations; and the same time again taken up in the preparation from executing the resolves: The southern states may be conquered by a powerful enemy; before the northern troops had begun their march. The badness of the public roads, and the broken situation of the country divided by great rivers, bays, and many large creeks, are also great impediments of communication—an enemy may by establishing some posts, and by means of a fleet, extremely distress the country if not defended by a federal force. This very local situation necessarily lessens the reciprocal simpathy of different states. They cannot see those flames, that lay a town in ashes, and ruin in a few hours so many hundred families—they do not behold the fields deluged with blood, strewed with human limbs, with the dead and dying—they cannot hear the frantic shrieks of mothers, wives and daughters. Thus neither humanity nor self-interest are alarmed: the enemies’ roaring artillery is heard only as the faint rumbling of a distant thunder storm, though it approaches fast, and will soon pour its deadly fury on the unfeeling and the thoughtless. We read perhaps with indifferency, or with a transient emotion the sufferings of the back settlements from Indian barbarity; how different would the effect be, if the scenes were nearer! When there is a fire in the Northern Liberties, the people not only of Southwark, but in the city, are quite easy. Thirdly, though these reasons are quite sufficient, the present habits of the people are quite sufficient, the present habits of the people require a strong federal government, the general welfare, and their own safety. The great attachment to property so common is visible, and in many respects pernicious to individuals and society. Carelessness about public affairs is another material characteristic, and palpable to numberless occasions. To cure a distemper, we must not contest it; every nation has its virtues and vices; a discreet apprehension of what is wrong, so far from affecting virtuous individuals, reflects the greater honor upon them. These three qualities in the present national character have originated from the peculiar circumstances of this country, as I have at large demonstrated and will be amended in the regular course of civilization and of an efficient government—at present this absolutely requires a strong federal power. The indolent and licentious man will say; I shall pay my federal tax some time or other, when it suits me. The licentious miser says, my property is my right hand, I will not part with it. The haughty independent spirit says—I will grant the requisition of Congress; but they must come to me cup in hand, and wait my pleasure, they are but servants of the people. The moderate and not ungenerous will naturally say—I will do my part, if others will contribute; but why should the burden fall on a few, property is valuable, liberty is dear. When marching orders come, one says, let who will be a butt for balls and bayonets, for my part, I will stay at home, and mind my business. Another, I prefer a warm bed and hot supper, to sleeping on the ground with an empty stomach—A third is kept within the arms of a wife, who is more concerned for the safety than the honor of her dear—The generous and brave who cheerfully hazards his own life and property, and though with a tender pang leaves his family, is justly incensed by the selfishness of his fellow citizens; can he be very criminal if he forces the griping hand to contribute for the public safety, and drags the coward into the field, where he may at least do some good with the pickaxe.
Under these circumstances the union cannot possibly be safe without a strong federal government—It must so far as the grand interest of the confederacy requires, have legislative, executive, and judiciary powers. For the benefit of those readers who are less accustomed to political reasoning, I shall illustrate this matter by a plain simile. Suppose thirteen families are settled upon an island in this river, that is liable to be overflowed by the many accidental freshes dangerous to life and property. They must erect a strong bank, and keep it at all times in good repair. If the muskrats bore it through with many small holes, or if it is sunk in one or two places, a sudden storm may destroy the hay, grain, provisions, household goods; drown the cattle and the people themselves. Will they not then naturally appoint overseers, to inspect this bank, and with the most scrupulous attention keep it in order! They will fix a certain fund, to be collected by these men without any delay and opposition; and moreover impower them in any case of any sudden danger is over. In the proportion as all or some of these families are careless, stubborn, contentious, and selfish, those overseers must have greater powers. Suppose the case so bad, that one family keep loitering in their beds, while the water rises rapidly, another is groggy or foolish, and cannot see the danger; a third says, if I lose, my neighbor the rogue will lose more; a fourth will not expose its sons and fine horses to hardship and danger; a fifth Is quarreling and fighting when the furious waves threaten to swallow them up. But let the thirteen families be ever so good; future events are unknown—the overseers must have power adequate to any eventual situation. When those men are near relations of the families, and have themselves a great interest in the island, they may the more be trusted, and still more, if they are only for a time, and must be under other overseers in their turn. If we enlarge this idea, by supposing the island containing thirteen townships, and situated in the ocean, depending on the bank for its safety; the necessity of giving the overseers adequate powers, appears yet more striking. The inland people who seldom or never saw the sea, make hay and reap without any thought of the bank. While assistance is begged from house to house for twenty or thirty miles; or even while the generous hasten from shore to shore, the whole island may be buried in the briny waves; every wary mariner will shun the fatal strand with the reflexion—this land perished by the folly of its people.