I am one of those who have long wished for a federal government, which should have power to protect our trade and provide for the general security of the United States. Accordingly, when the constitution proposed by the late convention made its appearance, I was disposed to embrace it almost without examination; I was determined not to be offended with trifles or to scan it too critically. “We want something: let us try this; experience is the best teacher: if it does not answer our purpose we can alter it: at all events it will serve for a beginning.” Such were my reasonings;–but, upon further reflection, I may say that I am shaken with very considerable doubts and scruples, I want a federal constitution; and yet I am afraid to concur in giving my consent to the establishment of that which is proposed. At the same time I really wish to have my doubts removed, if they are not well founded. I shall therefore take the liberty of laying some of them before the public, through the channel of your paper.
In the first place, it appears to me that I was mistaken in supposing that we could so very easily make trial of this constitution and again change it at our pleasure. The conventions of the several states cannot propose any alterations–they are only to give their assent and ratification. And after the constitution is once ratified, it must remain fixed until two thirds of both the houses of Congress shall deem it necessary to propose amendments; or the legislatures of two thirds of the several states shall make application to Congress for the calling a convention for proposing amendments, which amendments shall not be valid till they are ratified by the legislatures of three fourths of the several states, or by conventions in three fourths thereof, as one or the other mode of ratification may be proposed by Congress.–This appears to me to be only a cunning way of saying that no alteration shall ever be made; so that whether it is a good constitution or a bad constitution, it will remain forever unamended. Lycurgus, when he promulgated his laws to the Spartans, made them swear that they would make no alterations in them until he should return from a journey which he was then about to undertake:–He chose never to return, and therefore no alterations could be made in his laws. The people were made to believe that they could make trial of his laws for a few months or years, during his absence, and as soon as he returned they could continue to observe them or reject at pleasure. Thus this celebrated Republic was in reality established by a trick. In like manner the proposed constitution holds out a prospect of being subject to be changed if it be found necessary or convenient to change it; but the conditions upon which an alteration can take place, are such as in all probability will never exist. The consequence will be that, when the constitution is once established, it never can be altered or amended without some violent convulsion or civil war.
The conditions, I say, upon which any alterations can take place, appear to me to be such as never will exist–two thirds of both houses of Congress or the legislatures of two thirds of the states, must agree in desiring a convention to be called. This will probably never happen; but if it should happen, then the convention may agree to the amendments or not as they think right; and after all, three fourths of the states must ratify the amendments.–Before all this labyrinth can be traced to a conclusion, ages will revolve, and perhaps the great principles upon which our late glorious revolution was founded, will be totally forgotten. If the principles of liberty are not firmly fixed and established in the present constitution, in vain may we hope for retrieving them hereafter. People once possessed of power are always loth to part with it; and we shall never find two thirds of a Congress voting or proposing any thing which shall derogate from their own authority and importance, or agreeing to give back to the people any part of those privileges which they have once parted with–so far from it; that the greater occasion there may be for a reformation, the less likelihood will there be of accomplishing it. The greater the abuse of power, the more obstinately is it always persisted in. As to any expectation of two thirds of the legislatures concurring in such a request, it is if possible, still more remote. The legislatures of the states will be but forms and shadows, and it will be the height of arrogance and presumption in them, to turn their thoughts to such high subjects. After this constitution is once established, it is too evident that we shall be obliged to fill up the offices of assemblymen and councillors, as we do those of constables, by appointing men to serve whether they will or not, and fining them if they refuse. The members thus appointed, as soon as they can hurry through a law or two for repairing highways or impounding cattle, will conclude the business of their sessions as suddenly as possible; that they may return to their own business.–Their heads will not be perplexed with the great affairs of state–We need not expect two thirds of them ever to interfere in so momentous a question as that of calling a Continental convention.–The different legislatures will have no communication with one another from the time of the new constitution being ratified, to the end of the world. Congress will be the great focus of power as well as the great and only medium of communication from one state to another. The great, and the wise, and the mighty will be in possession of places and offices; they will oppose all changes in favor of liberty; they will steadily pursue the acquisition of more and more power to themselves and their adherents. The cause of liberty, if it be now forgotten, will be forgotten forever.–Even the press which has so long been employed in the cause of liberty, and to which perhaps the greatest part of the liberty which exists in the world is owing at this moment; the press may possibly be restrained of its freedom, and our children may possibly not be suffered to enjoy this most invaluable blessing of a free communication of each others sentiments on political subjects–Such at least appear to be some men’s fears, and I cannot find in the proposed constitution any thing expressly calculated to obviate these fears; so that they may or may not be realized according to the principles and dispositions of the men who may happen to govern us hereafter. One thing however is calculated to alarm our fears on this head;–I mean the fashionable language which now prevails so much and is so frequent in the mouths of some who formerly held very different opinions;–THAT COMMON PEOPLE HAVE NO BUSINESS TO TROUBLE THEMSELVES ABOUT GOVERNMENT. If this principle is just the consequence is plain that the common people need no information on the subject of politics. Newspapers, pamphlets and essays are calculated only to mislead and inflame them by holding forth to them doctrines which they have no business or right to meddle with, which they ought to leave to their superiors. Should the freedom of the press be restrained on the subject of politics, there is no doubt it will soon after be restrained on all other subjects, religious as well as civil. And if the freedom of the press shall be restrained, it will be another reason to despair of any amendments being made in favor of liberty, after the proposed constitution shall be once established. Add to this, that under the proposed constitution, it will be in the power of the Congress to raise and maintain a standing army for their support, and when they are supported by an army, it will depend on themselves to say whether any amendments shall be made in favor of liberty.
If these reflections are just it becomes us to pause, and reflect previously before we establish a system of government which cannot be amended; which will entail happiness or misery on ourselves and our children. We ought I say to reflect carefully, we ought not by any means to be in haste; but rather to suffer a little temporary inconvenience, than by any precipitation to establish a constitution without knowing whether it is right or wrong, and which if wrong, no length of time will ever mend. Scarce any people ever deliberately gave up their liberties; but many instances occur in history of their losing them forever by a rash and sudden act, to avoid a pressing inconvenience or gratify some violent passion of revenge or fear. It was a celebrated observation of one of our Assemblies before the revolution, during their struggles with the proprietaries, that “those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
For the present I shall conclude with recommending to my country-men not to be in haste, to consider carefully what we are doing. It is our own concern; it is our own business; let us give ourselves a little time at least to read the proposed constitution and know what it contains; for I fear that many, even of those who talk most about it have not even read it, and many others, who are as much concerned as any of us, have had no opportunity to read it. And it is certainly a suspicious circumstance that some people who are presumed to know most about the new constitution seem bent upon forcing it on their countrymen without giving them time to know what they are doing.
Hereafter I may trouble you further on some other parts of this important subject; but I fear this letter is already too long.