Posted by: Democratic Thinker | December 25, 2009

Equality No. V

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.

Liberty is not to be enjoyed, indeed it cannot exist, without the habits of just subordination: it consists, not so much in removing all restraint from the orderly, as in imposing it on the violent.



Fisher Ames. New England Palladium, November, 1801.


Fisher Ames.

THE French are very unjustly accused of having lost their liberty: they never had it. The old government was not a free one, and the violence that demolished it was not liberty. The leaders were, from the first, as much the sovereigns as the Bourbon kings. A mob would disperse in an hour without a leader, and that leader has immediately an authority, of all despots the most absolute, though the most precarious. To destroy the monarchy, the resort was to force, not to the people; and who, in those times of violence, had any liberty, but the possessors of that force? No liberty was then thought more valuable, than that of running away from mob tyranny.

Accordingly, the standing army, which had been only two hundred thousand strong, was suddenly increased to half a million. The ruin of trade and manufactories compelled scores of thousands to become soldiers for bread. All France was soon filled with terrour, pillage, and massacre. It is absurd, though for a time it was the fashion, to call that nation free, which was, at that very period of its supposed emancipation, subject to martial law, and bleeding under its lash. The rights of a Frenchman were never less, nor was there ever a time when he so little dared to resist or even to complain.

The kings of France, it is true, had a great military force, but the new liberty-leaders had as much again. They used it, avowedly, to strike terrour into those they were pleased to call counter-revolutionists; in other words, to drive into exile nearly a million nobles, priests, rich people, and women: every description of persons, whom they hated, feared or wished to plunder, was placed on the proscribed list. All the kings of France, from the days of Pharamond and Clovis, down to the last of the Bourbon race, did not exercise despotick power on so great a scale, nor with such horrid cruelty. If the French were slaves under their kings, their masters did not try to aggravate the weight of their chains: the people were sometimes spared because they were a property; because their kings had an interest in their lives, and some in their affections, but none in their sufferings. The republican French have not whispered their griefs, without hazard of a spy; they have not lingered in their servile tasks, without bleeding under the whips of their usurpers.

Yet this extremity of degradation and wretchedness, has been celebrated as a triumph. Americans have been made discontented with their liberty, because it was so much less an object of desire, a condition so inferiour in distinction to that of the French.

While the kings reigned, they permitted the laws to govern, at least, as much as their quiet and security would allow: and when they used military force to seize the members of the parliament of Paris, and to detain them prisoners for their opposition to their edicts, the ferment in the nation soon induced them to set them at liberty. Thus, it appears, that the rigours of despotism once had something existing to counteract and to soften them; but since the revolution, the popular passions have been invariably excited and employed to furnish arms to tyrants, and never to snatch them out of their hands; to overtake fugitive wretches, and to invent new torments.

This, bad us it is, is the natural course of things. Liberty is not to be enjoyed, indeed it cannot exist, without the habits of just subordination: it consists, not so much in removing all restraint from the orderly, as in imposing it on the violent. Now the first step in a revolution, is to make these restraints appear unjust and debasing, and to induce the multitude to throw them off; in other words, to give daggers to ruffians, and to lay bare honest men’s hearts. By exalting their passions to rage and frenzy, and leading them on, before they cool, to take bastiles, and overturn altars, and thrones, a mad populace are well fitted for an army, but they are spoiled for a republick. Having enemies to contend with, and leaders to fight for, the contest is managed by force, and the victory brings joy only as it secures booty and vengeance. The conquering faction soon divides, and one part arrays its partizans in arms against the other; or, more frequently, by treachery and surprise cuts off the chiefs of the adverse faction, and they reduce it to weakness and slavery. Then more booty, more blood, and new triumphs for liberty !!

It is not because there are not malecontents, it is not because tyranny has not rendered scores of thousands desperate, that civil war has not, without ceasing, ravaged that country. But the despotism, that continually multiplies wretches, carefully disarms them: it so completely engrosses all power to itself, as to discourage all resistance. Indeed, the only power in the state is that of the sword; and while the army obeys the general, the nation must obey the army. Hence it has been, that civil war has not raged. The people were nothing, and, of course, no party among them could prepare the force to resist the tyrants in Paris. Hence France has appeared to be tranquil in its slavery, and has been forced to celebrate feasts for the liberty it had not. They have often changed their tyrants, but never their tyranny, not even in the mode and instruments of its operation. An armed force has been the only mode from the first, which free governments may render harmless, because they may keep it subordinate to the civil power: this despotick states cannot do.

The mock “republican” leaders, as they affect to call themselves, but the jacobin chiefs in America, as they are known and called, are the close imitators of these French examples. They use the same popular cant, and address themselves to the same classes of violent and vicious rabble. Our Condorcets and Rolands are already in credit and in power. It would not be difficult to shew, that their notions of liberty are not much better than those of the French. If Americans adopt them, and attempt to administer our orderly and rightful government by the agency of the popular passions, we shall lose our liberty at first, and in the very act of making the attempt; next we shall see our tyrants invade every possession that could tempt their cupidity, and violate every right that could obstruct their rage.

Nothing will better counteract such designs than to contemplate the effects of their success in the government of Bonaparte. Of that in the next number.