Posted by: Democratic Thinker | December 22, 2009

Equality No. II

American Debate

In a series of papers published in 1801, Fisher Ames unleashes one of the Federalist’s most scathing attacks on the Anti-Federalist’s unbridled democratic principles. Ames does so by drawing their principles to their logical conclusions—illustrating his conclusions with the unprincipled actions of the European democrats and their American supporters and apologists.

This hastens the journey of a demagogue to power, and invests him with the title of ‘the man of the people.’



Fisher Ames. New England Palladium, November, 1801.


Fisher Ames.

THE philosophers among the democrats will no doubt insist, that they do not mean to equalise property, they contend only for an equality of rights. If they restrict the word equality as carefully as they ought, it will not import, that all men have an equal right to all things, but, that to whatever they have a right, it is as much to be protected and provided for, as the right of any persons in society. In this sense, nobody will contest their claim. Yet, though the right of a poor man is as much his right, as a rich man’s, there is no great novelty or wisdom in the discovery of the principle, nor are the French entitled to any pre-eminence on this account. The magna charta of England, obtained, I think, in the year 1216, contains the great body of what is called, and our revolutionists of 1776 called it, English liberty. This they claimed as their birth-right, and with good reason? for it enacts, that justice shall not be sold, nor denied, nor delayed; and, as, soon afterwards, the trial by jury grew into general use, the subjects themselves are employed by the government to apply remedies, when rights are violated. For true equality and the rights of man, there never was a better or a wiser provision, as, in fact, it executes itself. This is the precious system of true equality, imported by our excellent and ever to be venerated forefathers, which they prized as their birthright. Yet this glorious distinction of liberty, so ample, so stable, and so temperate, secured by the common law, has been reviled and exhibited to popular abhorrence, as the shameful badge of our yet colonial dependence on England.

As the common law secures equally all the rights of the citizens, and as the jacobin leaders loudly decry this system, it is obvious, that they extend their views still farther. Undoubtedly, they include in their plan of equality, that the citizens shall have assigned to them new rights, and different from what they now enjoy. You have earned your estate, or it descended to you from your father; of course, my right to your estate is not as good as yours. Am I then to have, in the new order of things, an equal right with you? Certainly not, every democrat of any understanding will reply. What then do you propose by your equality? You have earned an estate; I have not; yet I have a right, and as good a right as another man, to earn it. I may save my earnings, and deny myself the pleasures and comforts of life, till I have laid up a competent sum to provide for my infirmity and old age. All cannot be rich, but all have a right to make the attempt; and when some have fully succeeded, and others partially, and others not at all, the several states? in which they then find themselves, become their condition in life; and whatever the rights of that condition may be, they are to be faithfully secured by the laws and government. This, however, is not the idea of the men of the new order of things, for, thus far, the plan belongs to a very old order of things.

They consider a republican government as the only one, in which this sort of equality can exist at all. A tyrant, or a king, which all democrats suppose to be words of like import, might leave the rights of his subjects unviolated. The grand seignior is arbitrary; the heavy hand of his despotism however falls only on the great men in office, the aristocrats, whom it must be a pleasure to the admirers of equality to see strangled by the bow-string; the great body of the subjects of the Turkish government lead a very undisturbed life, enjoying a stupid security from the oppressions of power. To enjoy rights, without having proper security for their enjoyment, ought not indeed to satisfy any political reasoners, and this is precisely the difficulty of the democratick sect. All the rights and equality they admire are destitute of any rational security, and are of a nature utterly subversive of all true liberty. For, on close examination, it turns out, that their notion of equality is, that all the citizens of a republick have an equal right to political power. This is called republicanism. This hastens the journey of a demagogue to power, and invests him with the title of the man of the people. This, the people are told, is their great cause, in opposition to the coalesced tyrants of Europe, and the intriguing federal aristocrats in America.

Let me cut out the tongue of that blasphemer, every democratick zealot will exclaim, who dares to deny the rightful and unlimited power of the people. It is indeed a very inveterate evil of our politicks, that popular opinion has been formed rather to democracy, than to sober republicanism. The American revolution was, in fact, after 1776, a resistance to foreign government. We claimed the right to govern ourselves, and our patriots never contemplated the claim of the imported united Irish, that a mob should govern us. It is true, that the checks on the power of the people themselves were not deemed so necessary, as on the temporary rulers whom we elected: we looked for danger on the same side, where we had been used to look, and suspected eVery thing but ourselves. Our dread of rulers devoted them to imbecility; our presumptuous confidence in ourselves pulled all the weak, and credulous, and vain, with an opinion, that no power was safe but their own, and, therefore, that should be uncontrollable and have no limits. This is democracy, and not republicanism. The French revolution has been made, the instrument of faction; it has multiplied popular errours, and rendered them indocile. Restraints on the power of the people, seem to all democrats, foolish, for how shall they restrain themselves? and mischievous, because, as they think, the power of the people is their liberty. Restraints, that make it less, and, on every inviting occasion for mischief and the oppression of a minority, make it nothing, will appear to be the abandonment of its principles and cause.