Posted by: Democratic Thinker | December 18, 2009

Agrippa Letter No. 17

Democratic Party Founding Papers

Let us not flatter ourselves that we shall always have good men to govern us.
The Agrippa Letters were one of a series of articles published opposing the aristocratic centralized government proposed by the Federalists. The Federalists refererred to these anti-Federalists somewhat derisively as Democrats.

Agrippa Letter No. 17.

The Massachusetts Gazette, No. 404,
Tuesday, January 20, 1788.

As it is essentially necessary to the happiness of a free people, that the constitution of government should be established in principles of truth, I have endeavoured, in a series of papers, to discuss the proposed form with that degree of freedom which becomes a faithful citizen of the commonwealth. It must be obvious to the most careless observer that the friends of the new plan appear to have nothing more in view than to establish it by a popular current, without any regard to the truth of its principles. Propositions, novel, erroneous and dangerous, are boldly advanced to support a system, which does not appear to be founded in, but in every instance to contradict, the experience of mankind. We are told that a constitution is in itself a bill of rights; that all power not expressly given, is reserved: that no powers are given to the new government which are not already vested in the state governments, and that it is for the security of liberty that the persons elected should have the absolute controul over the time, manner and place of election. These, and an hundred other things of a like kind, though they have gained the hasty assent of men, respectable for learning and ability, are false in themselves and invented merely to serve a present purpose. This will, I trust, clearly appear from the following considerations:

It is common to consider man at first as in a state of nature, separate from all society. The only historical evidence, that the human species ever actually existed in this state, is derived from the book of Gen. There it is said, that Adam remained a while alone. While the whole species was comprehended in his person was the only instance in which this supposed state of nature really existed. Ever since the completion of the first pair, mankind appear as natural to associate with their own species, as animals of any other kind herd together. Wherever we meet with their settlements, they are found in clans. We are therefore justified in saying, that a state of society is the natural state of man. Wherever we find a settlement of men, we find also some appearance of government. The state of government is therefore as natural to mankind as a state of society. Government and society appear to be co-eval. The most rude and artless form of government is probably the most ancient. This we find to be practised among the Indian tribes in America. With them the whole authority of government is vested in the whole tribe. Individuals depend upon their reputation of valour and wisdom to give them influence. Their government is genuinely democratical. This was probably the first kind of government among mankind, as we meet with no mention of any other kind, till royalty was introduced in the person of Nimrod. Immediately after that time, the Asiatick nations seem to have departed from the simple democracy, which is still retained by their American brethren, and universally adopted the kingly form. We do indeed meet with some vague rumors of an aristocracy in India so late as the time of Alexander the Great. But such stories are altogether uncertain and improbable. For in the time of Abraham, who lived about sixteen hundred years before Alexander, all the little nations mentioned in the Mosaick history appear to be governed by kings. It does not appear from any accounts of the Asiatick kingdoms that they have practised at all upon the idea of a limited monarchy. The whole power of society has been delegated to the kings; and though they may be said to have constitutions of government, because the succession to the crown is limited by certain rules, yet the people are not benefited by their constitutions, and enjoy no share of civil liberty. The first attempt to reduce republicanism to a system, appeal’s to be made by Moses when he led the Israelites out of Egypt. This government stood a considerable time, about five centuries, till in a frenzy the people demanded a king, that they might resemble the nations about them. They were dissatisfied with their judges, and instead of changing the administration, they madly changed their constitution. However they might flatter themselves with the idea, that an high-spirited people could get the power back again when they pleased; they never did get it back, and they fared like the nations about them. Their kings tyrannized over them for some centuries, till they fell under a foreign yoke. This is the history of that nation. With a change of names, it describes the progress of political changes in other countries. The people are dazzled with the splendour of distant monarchies, and a desire to share their glory induces them to sacrifice their domestick happiness.

From this general view of the state of mankind it appears that all the powers of government originally reside in the body of the people; and that when they appoint certain persons to administer the government, they delegate all the powers of government not expressly reserved. Hence it appears that a constitution does not in itself imply any more than a declaration of the relation which the different parts of the government bear to each other, but does not in any degree imply security to the rights of individuals. This has been the uniform practice. In all doubtful cases the decision is in favour of the government. It is therefore impertinent to ask by what right government exercises powers not expressly delegated. Mr. Wilson, the great oracle of federalism, acknowledges, in his speech to the Philadelphians, the truth of these remarks, as they respect the state governments, but attempts to set up a distinction between them and the continental government. To anybody who will be at the trouble to read the new system, it is evidently in the same situation as the state constitutions now possess. It is a compact among the people for the purposes of government, and not a compact between states. It begins in the name of the people, and not of the states.

It has been shown in the course of this paper, that when people institute government, they of course delegate all rights not expressly reserved. In our state constitution the bill of rights consists of thirty articles. It is evident therefore that the new constitution proposes to delegate greater powers than are granted to our own government, sanguine as the pei’son was who denied it. The complaints against the separate governments, even by the friends of the new plan, are not that they have not power enough, but that they are disposed to make a bad use of what power they have. Surely then they reason badly, when they purpose to set up a government possess’d of much more extensive powers than the present, and subject to much smaller checks.

Bills of rights, reserved by authority of the people, are, I believe, peculiar to America. A careful observance of the abuse practised in other countries has had its just effect by inducing our people to guard against them. We find the happiest consequences to flow from it. The separate governments know their powers, their objects, and operations. We are therefore not perpetually tormented with new experiments. For a single instance of abuse among us there are thousands in other countries. On the other hand, the people know their rights, and feel happy in the possession of their freedom, both civil and political. Active industry is the consequence of their security, and within one year the circumstances of the state and of individuals have improved to a degree never before known in this common wealth. Though our bill of rights does not, perhaps, contain all the cases in which power might be safely reserved, yet it affords a protection to the persons and possessions of individuals not known in any foreign country. In some respects the power of government is a little too confined. In many other countries we find the people resisting their governours for exercising their power in an unaccustomed mode. But for want of a bill of rights the resistance is always, by the principles of their government, a rebellion which nothing but success can justify. In our constitution we have aimed at delegating the necessary powers of government and confining their operation to beneficial purposes. At present we appear to have come very near the truth. Let us therefore have wisdom and virtue enough to preserve it inviolate. It is a stale contrivance, to get the people into a passion, in order to make them sacrifice their liberty. Repentance always comes, but it comes too late. Let us not flatter ourselves that we shall always have good men to govern us. If we endeavour to be like other nations we shall have more bad men than good ones to exercise extensive powers. That circumstance alone will corrupt them. While they fancy themselves the viceregente of God, they will resemble him only in power, but will always depart from his wisdom and goodness.