An Examination into the Virtues and Perils of the Lately Proposed Constitution
Constitution Series 1787-1987: Take yourself back to 1787. A group of leading citizens, Federalist and Anti-Federalist, is locked in heated debate. And REASON is there to transcribe it.
The Grand Convention at Philadelphia having recently reported a new Federal Constitution to the United States in Congress assembled, and the new plan having raised alarm in every State, the editors of this publication have deemed it instructive to the citizens to present a debate on the merits of this system of government. These be among the esteemed figures who repaired to REASON's quarters and discoursed on these matters with Editor-in-Chief Marty Zupan:
James Madison, Jr.
is a scholar and landowner in the westerly region of Virginia. He attended the Federal Convention, and it is said he took down a private record of the meeting's secret proceedings.
"The Federal Farmer"
is the author of pamphlets known in the several States. He is said by some to be Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, but the truth be not known. Another writer ("Helvidius Priscus") wisely notes, "It is not material whether the federal farmer belongs to Virginia or Kamtschatka, whether he owns five hundred negroes or is a man of no property at all—if his arguments are cogent, his reasonings conclusive"
is, to our best evidence, Harvard librarian James Winthrop. If it be so, Agrippa fought in the Revolution and lately served as a volunteer against the Shays insurgents.
is Congress's Secretary of Foreign Affairs. He wrote the State constitution of New York of 1777 and represented the Confederation in negotiating the Treaty of Peace of four years ago.
writes in the New York Journal. He now comes forward as Robert Yates, the New York justice and delegate to the Convention from Governor Clinton's party. Mr. Yates left the Convention July 10, being the first, with fellow delegate John Lansing, to defect.
is the well-known member of Congress and writer on public matters who served as aide-de-camp to General Washington during the war. He was sent to the Convention from New York, backed by interests opposed to Governor Clinton.
is Attorney General of Maryland and served as a delegate to the Convention. Mr. Martin left 13 days before the new Constitution was signed (one of four members who opposed but were absent at signing.)
Reason: Gentlemen, perhaps you would address first the question many good citizens are asking—Why a new constitution?
Alexander Hamilton: To provide a more vigorous government. There is scarcely anything that can wound the pride or degrade the character of an independent nation which we do not experience. Do we owe debts to foreigners and to our own citizens contracted in a time of imminent peril for the preservation of our political existence? These remain without any proper provision for their discharge. Have we valuable territories and important posts in the possession of a foreign power which, by express stipulations, ought long since to have been surrendered? These are still retained to the prejudice of our interest, not less than of our rights. Are we in a condition to resent or to repel the aggression? We have neither troops, nor treasury, nor government (I mean for the Union). Are we entitled by nature and compact to a free participation in the navigation of the Mississippi? Spain excludes us from it. Is public credit an indispensable resource in time of public danger? We seem to have abandoned its cause as desperate and irretrievable. Is respectability in the eyes of foreign powers a safeguard against foreign encroachments? The imbecility of our government even forbids them to treat with us. Our ambassadors abroad are the mere pageants of mimic sovereignty.
The Federal Farmer: We are in no immediate danger of any commotions. We are in a state of perfect peace, and in no danger of invasions. The State governments are in the full exercise of their powers, and our governments answer all present exigencies, except the regulation of trade, securing credit, in some cases, and providing for the interest, in some instances, of the public debts.
Mr. Hamilton: I am much mistaken if experience has not wrought a deep and solemn conviction in the public mind that greater energy of government is essential to the welfare and prosperity of the community.
The Federal Farmer: But whether we adopt a change three or nine months hence can make but little odds with the private circumstances of individuals—their happiness and prosperity, after all, depend principally upon their own exertions.
Luther Martin: If we do not agree to this Constitution, what is to prevent us from meeting in convention again?
John Jay: Rejection of the plan of the Convention would put the continuance of the Union in the utmost jeopardy. I sincerely wish that it may be clearly seen by every good citizen that whenever the dissolution of the Union arrives, America will have reason to exclaim, in the words of the poet: "Farewell! A long farewell to all my greatness."
Agrippa: It does not appear that anything more was necessary to be done than framing two new articles. By one a limited revenue would be given to Congress with a right to collect it, and by the other a limited right to regulate our intercourse with foreign nations.
Mr. Hamilton: The Confederation is a system so radically vicious and unsound as to admit not of amendment but by an entire change in its leading features and characters. A firm union will be of the utmost moment to the peace and liberty of the States as a barrier against domestic faction and insurrection. It is impossible to read the history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy without feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated, and at the revolutions by which they were kept in a state of perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy.
The Federal Farmer: We can put little dependence on the partial and vague information transmitted to us respecting ancient governments. Our situation is peculiar: Our people have a high sense of freedom. They are high-spirited, though capable of deliberate measures. They are intelligent, discerning, and well informed. It is to their condition we must mould a constitution and laws.
Agrippa: A favorite objection against a free government is drawn from the irregularities of the Greek and Roman republics. But it is to be considered that war was the employment which they considered as most becoming freemen. Agriculture, arts, and most domestic employment were committed chiefly to slaves. But Carthage, the great commercial republic of antiquity, though resembling Rome in the form of its government, and her rival for power, retained her freedom longer than Rome and was never disturbed by sedition during the long period of her duration. This is a striking proof that the fault of the Greek and Roman republics was not the form of their government, and that the spirit of commerce is the great bond of union among citizens.
Mr. Hamilton: You suggest that commercial republics, like ours, will never be disposed to waste themselves in ruinous contentions with each other. They will be governed by mutual interest, and will cultivate a spirit of mutual amity and concord. Is this not the true interest of all nations? Have they in fact pursued it? Have republics in practice been less addicted to war than monarchies? Has commerce hitherto done anything more than change the objects of war? Is not the love of wealth as domineering and enterprising a passion as that of power or glory? Have there not been as many wars founded upon commercial motives since that has become the prevailing system of nations, as were before occasioned by the cupidity of territory or dominion?
Sparta, Athens, Rome, and Carthage were all republics; two of them, Athens and Carthage, of the commercial kind. Yet they were as often engaged in wars, offensive and defensive, as the neighboring monarchies. Sparta was little better than a well-regulated camp, and Rome was never sated of carnage and conquest. Carthage was the aggressor in the very war that ended in her destruction.
The provinces of Holland, till they were overwhelmed in debts and taxes, took a leading and conspicuous part in the wars of Europe. Commerce has for ages been the predominant pursuit of Britain. Few nations, nevertheless, have been more frequently engaged in wars, and they have in numerous instances proceeded from the people.
Agrippa: Yet if we examine the present state of the world we shall find that most of the business is done in the freest states, and that industry decreases in proportion to the rigor of government. There cannot, from the history of mankind, be produced an instance of rapid growth in extent, in numbers, in arts, and in trade that will bear any comparison with our country. This is owing to what you friends of the new system—and enemies of the revolution, for I must take you to be nearly the same—would term our extreme liberty.
Mr. Jay: And yet it is true, however disgraceful it may be to human nature, that nations will make war whenever they have a prospect of getting anything by it. With France and with Britain we are rivals in the fisheries. With most European nations we are rivals in navigation and the carrying trade. In the trade to China and India, we interfere with more than one nation by supplying ourselves with commodities which we used to purchase from them. The extension of our own commerce in our own vessels cannot give pleasure to our neighbors. Inducements to war may arise out of these circumstances, and pretenses to color and justify them will not be wanting. Wisely, therefore, do the people of America consider union and a good national government as necessary to discourage war.
Mr. Hamilton: America, if not connected, would by the operation of jarring alliances between the different States and different foreign nations, be gradually entangled in all the pernicious labyrinths of European politics and wars. Divide et impera—Divide and command—must be the motto of every nation that either hates or fears us.
Mr. Jay: Leave America divided into thirteen or, if you please, three or four independent governments-what armies could they raise and pay, what fleets could they ever hope to have? If one was attacked, would the other fly to its succor?
Mr. Hamilton: I would like to briefly observe that our situation invites and our interests prompt us to aim at an ascendant in the system of American affairs. The world may politically, as well as geographically, be divided into four parts. Unhappily for the other three, Europe, by her arms and by her negotiations, by force and by fraud, has in different degrees extended her dominion over them all. Africa, Asia, and America have successively felt her domination. The superiority she has long maintained has tempted her to plume herself as the mistress of the world. Men admired as profound philosophers have in direct terms attributed to her inhabitants a physical superiority and have gravely asserted that all animals, and with them the human species, degenerate in America—that even dogs cease to bark after having breathed awhile in our atmosphere. Facts have too long supported these arrogant pretensions of the European. It belongs to us to vindicate the honor of the human race. Union will enable us to do it. Disunion will add another victim to his triumphs.
Agrippa: Large and consolidated empires may indeed dazzle the eyes of a distant spectator with their splendor, but if examined more nearly are always found to be full of misery. The reason is obvious. In large states the same principles of legislation will not apply to all the parts. A people inhabiting various climates will unavoidably have local habits and different modes of life, and these must be consulted in making the laws. Hence, among other reasons, is derived the necessity of local governments, who may enact, repeal, or alter regulations as the circumstances of each part of the empire may require. To attempt to reduce all to one standard is absurd in itself and cannot be done but upon the principle of power, which debases the people. Hence arises in most nations of extensive territory the necessity of armies, to cure the defect of the laws.
Mr. Hamilton: On the contrary, I would say that armies are required in weak confederacies. It is essential to the idea of a law that it be attended with a sanction. This penalty, whatever it may be, can only be inflicted in two ways: by the agency of the courts and ministers of justice, or by military force; by the coercion of the magistracy, or by the coercion of arms. The first kind can evidently apply only to men. The last kind must of necessity be employed against bodies politic, or communities, or States. In an association where the general authority is confined to the collective bodies of the communities that compose it, every breach of the laws must involve a state of war, and military execution must become the only instrument of civil obedience. It seems to require no pains to prove that the States ought not to prefer a national Constitution which could only be kept in motion by a large army continually on foot to execute the ordinary requisitions or decrees of the government.
Mr. Martin: And yet this plan of government, instead of guarding against a standing army—that engine of arbitrary power, which has so often and so successfully been used for the subversion of freedom—gives it an express and constitutional sanction. Moreover, the system proposed is an innovation in government of the most extraordinary kind, a strange hotch-potch—just so much federal in appearance as to give its advocates an opportunity of passing it as such upon the unsuspecting multitude and yet so predominantly national as to put it in the power of its movers, whenever the machine shall be set agoing, to render it wholly and entirely a national government.
James Madison: If novelties are to be shunned, believe me, the most alarming of all novelties, the most wild of all projects, the most rash of all attempts, is that of rending us in pieces in order to preserve our liberties and promote our happiness. But why is the experiment of an extended republic to be rejected merely because it is new? Is it not the glory of the people of America that, whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience?
Reason: A standing army, mentioned by Mr. Martin, I have heard is a matter of some concern.
Brutus: Standing armies are everywhere dangerous to the liberties of a people. It would be useless to enter into a labored argument to prove to the people of America a position which has so long and so generally been received by them as a kind of axiom.
Mr. Hamilton: Whether there ought to be a federal government entrusted with the care of the common defense is a question open to discussion—but the moment it is decided in the affirmative, it will follow that that government ought to be clothed with all the powers requisite to complete execution of its trust. These powers ought to exist without limitation, because it is impossible to foresee or to define the extent and variety of national exigencies. The Union ought to be invested with full power to form and support an army and navy in the customary and ordinary modes practiced in other governments.
Brutus: It is the European governments that are almost all of them framed and administered with a view to arms, and war, as that in which their chief glory consists. They mistake the end of government—it was designed to save men's lives, not to destroy them. But we ought to furnish the world with an example of a great people who in their civil institutions hold chiefly in view the attainment of virtue and happiness among ourselves. Let the monarchs in Europe share the glory of depopulating countries and butchering thousands of their innocent citizens to revenge private quarrels or to punish an insult: I envy them not the honor, and I pray heaven this country may never be ambitious of it.
Mr. Madison: How could a readiness for war in time of peace be safely prohibited, unless we could prohibit also the preparations and standing armies of every hostile nation?
Brutus: The preservation of internal peace and good order, and the due administration of law and justice, ought to be the first care of every government. The happiness of a people depends infinitely more on this than it does upon all that glory and respect which nations acquire by brilliant martial achievements. If a proper respect and submission to the laws prevailed in our country, and if a spirit of public and private justice, economy, and industry influenced the people, we need not be under any apprehensions but what they would be ready to repel any invasion that might be made. And more than this, I would not wish from them—a defensive war is the only one I think justifiable.
Mr. Hamilton: Even if we ought to try the novel and absurd experiment in politics of tying up the hands of government from offensive war founded upon reasons of state, certainly we ought not to disable it from guarding the community against the ambition or enmity of other nations!
Brutus: But it does not thence follow that the government should be empowered to raise and maintain standing armies at their discretion as well in peace as in war. It is very practicable to give the government sufficient authority to provide for these cases and at the same time to provide a reasonable and competent security against the evil of a standing army by providing that no troops whatsoever shall be raised in time of peace without the assent of two-thirds of the members, composing both houses of the legislature.
Mr. Hamilton: The idea of restraining the legislative authority in the means of providing for the national defense is one of those refinements which owe their origin to a zeal for liberty more ardent than enlightened.
Mr. Madison: Not the less true is it that the liberties of Europe, as far as they ever existed, have with few exceptions been the price of her military establishments. A standing force, therefore, is dangerous at the same time that it may be necessary. A wise nation will combine all these considerations and exert all its prudence in diminishing both the necessity and the danger of resorting to one which may be inauspicious to its liberties.
Mr. Hamilton: It is a full answer to those who require a provision against military establishments in time of peace to say that the whole power of the proposed government is to be in the hands of the representatives of the people.
The Federal Farmer: And in the same hands, the power to tax. When I recollect how lately congress, conventions, legislatures, and people contended in the cause of liberty, and carefully weighed the importance of taxation, I can scarcely believe we are serious in proposing to vest the powers of laying and collecting internal taxes in a government so imperfectly organized.
Mr. Hamilton: Power to procure a regular and adequate supply of revenue may be regarded as an indispensable ingredient in every constitution. From a deficiency in this particular, one of two evils must ensue: either the people must be subjected to continual plunder, as a substitute for a more eligible mode of supplying the public wants, or the government must sink into a fatal atrophy.
In the Ottoman or Turkish empire the sovereign, though in other respects absolute master of the lives and fortunes of his subjects, has no right to impose a new tax. The consequence is that he permits the bashaws or governors of provinces to pillage the people at discretion and, in turn, squeezes out of them the sums of which he stands in need. In America, from a like cause, the government of the Union has gradually dwindled into a state of decay, approaching nearly to annihilation.
The Federal Farmer: The States are surely in a better condition than they would be had Congress always possessed the powers of taxation now contended for.
Mr. Martin: By the power to lay and collect imposts, Congress may impose duties on any or every article of commerce imported into these States to what amount they please. By the power to lay excises—a power very odious in its nature, since it authorizes officers to go into your houses, your kitchens, your cellars, and to examine into your private concerns—they may impose duties on every article of use or consumption, on the food that we eat, on the liquors we drink, on the clothes that we wear, the glass which enlighten our houses, or the hearths necessary for our warmth and comfort. They may proceed to direct taxation on every individual either by a capitation tax or an assessment on their property. By this plan, therefore, the government has a power to sluice them at every vein as long as they have a drop of blood, without any control, limitation, or restraint.
Mr. Hamilton: You prey upon the fears of the people. In America it is evident that we must a long time depend chiefly on duties on imported articles. In most parts excises must be confined within a narrow compass. The genius of the people will ill brook the inquisitive and peremptory spirit of excise laws.
The Federal Farmer: If no prudent Congress will exercise this power, this only proves that it would be improperly lodged in Congress.
Mr. Martin: On the matter of taxes, I object also that every State is prohibited from laying any duties without the permission of the general government. It would be but reasonable to leave the States the power of so bringing revenue into their treasuries. Also, there might be cases in which it would be proper, for the purpose of encouraging manufactures, to lay duties to prohibit the exportation of raw materials or to discourage the importation of particular articles into a State or to enable the manufacturer here to supply us on as good terms as from a foreign market.
Mr. Hamilton: One national government would be able at much less expense to extend the duties on imports beyond comparison, further than would be practicable to the States separately. The single article of ardent spirits under federal regulation might be made to furnish a considerable revenue—and if it should tend to diminish the consumption of it, such an effect would be favorable to the agriculture, to the economy, to the morals, and to the health of the society.
Brutus: Mr. Hamilton, you prove an important point on this head—the authority to lay and collect taxes connects with it almost all other powers, or at least will in process of time draw all other after it.
The Federal Farmer: I have no idea that the interests, feelings, and opinions of three or four millions of people, especially touching internal taxation, can be collected in the proposed House of Representatives. The representation is too small.
Brutus: I am in agreement. This extensive continent is made up of a number of different classes of people, and to have a proper representation of them, each class ought to have an opportunity of choosing their best informed men for the purpose. But this cannot possibly be the case in so small a number as 65. The farmer, merchant, mechanic, and other various orders of people ought to be represented according to their respective weight and numbers.
Mr. Hamilton: But this will never happen under any arrangement that leaves the votes of the people free.
Brutus: Then what security can there be for the people, where their liberties and property are at the disposal of so few men? It will literally be a government in the hands of the few to oppress and plunder the many.
Mr. Madison: What circumstance is there that favors the elevation of the few on the ruins of the many? Who are to be the electors of the federal representatives? Not the rich, more than the poor; not the learned, more than the ignorant; not the haughty heirs of distinguished names, more than the humble sons of obscure and unpropitious fortune. The electors are to be the great body of the people of the United States. And who are to be the objects of popular choice? Every citizen whose merit may recommend him to the esteem and confidence of his country. No qualification of wealth, of birth, of religious faith, or of civil profession is permitted to fetter the judgment or disappoint the inclination of the people.
The Federal Farmer: If we may judge from the appointments to our present Congress, the legal characters will often, in a small representation, be the majority. If we distinguish between the few men of wealth and abilities and consider them as the natural aristocracy of the country, and the great body of the people as the democracy, this representative branch will have but very little democracy in it. It is easy to perceive that men of these two classes, with views equally honest, have sentiments widely different, especially respecting public and private expenses, salaries, taxes, etc.
And other interests and parties must be balanced also. The merchants alone would never fail to make laws favorable to themselves and oppressive to the farmers, and the farmers alone would act on like principles—the former would tax the land, the latter the trade. The manufacturers are often disposed to contend for monopolies. Buyers make every exertion to lower prices, and sellers to raise them. The public creditors endeavor to augment the taxes, and the people at large to lessen them. Thus, we see that those classes which have not their sentinels in the government, in proportion to what they have to gain or lose, must infallibly be ruined.
Mr. Madison: Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks, no form of government, can render us secure. To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical idea. If there be sufficient virtue and intelligence in the community, it will be exercised in the selection of these men—so that we do not depend on their virtue, or put confidence in our rulers, but in the people who are to choose them.
Reason: This seems to be a good point at which to take up the issue of the powers of this new government.
Brutus: Quite simply, it is to be absolute and uncontrollable power. By the last clause of section 8th, article 1st, it is declared "that the Congress shall have power to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers." And by the 6th article, it is declared "that this Constitution, and the laws of the United States, which shall be made in pursuance thereof…shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every State shall be bound thereby, anything in the Constitution or law of any State to the contrary notwithstanding."
Agrippa: If to this we add the limitations of trade, restraints on its freedom, and the alteration of its course, and transfer of the market, all under the pretense of regulation for federal purposes, we shall not find any additional reason to be pleased with the plan.
Mr. Martin: Yes, and although we are giving the general government full and absolute power to regulate commerce, we except from the exercise of that power the slave trade—the only branch of commerce which is unjustifiable in its nature and contrary to the rights of mankind. This must appear to the world absurd and disgraceful to the last degree.
Mr. Madison: It were doubtless to be wished that the power of prohibiting the importation of slaves had not been postponed until the year 1808. But it is not difficult to account for this restriction. And it ought to be considered a great point gained in favor of humanity that a period of 20 years may terminate forever, within these States, a traffic which has so long and so loudly upbraided the barbarism of modern policy.
Reason: Continuing on the issue of the government's power…
Mr. Hamilton: If I may say, the opponents of this system are overwrought. It is to be remembered that the general government, in its jurisdiction, is limited to certain enumerated objects, which concern all the members of the republic but are not to be attained by the separate provisions of any.
Mr. Jay: Nothing is more certain than the indispensable necessity of government, and it is equally undeniable that whenever and however it is instituted, the people must cede to it some of their natural rights, in order to vest it with requisite powers.
Brutus: But the powers of the general legislature extend to every case that is of the least importance—there is nothing valuable to human nature, nothing dear to freemen, but what is within its power. It has authority to make laws which will affect the lives, the liberty, and property of every man in the United States. They are the sole judges of what is necessary to provide for the common defense. And they only are to determine what is for the general welfare.
Mr. Hamilton: It may be countered that the system of checks and balances is so complex, so skillfully contrived, that it is next to impossible that an impolitic or wicked measure should pass the scrutiny with success.
Brutus: I would ask those who reason thus to define what ideas are included under the terms, to provide for the common defense and general welfare? Are these terms definite, and will they be understood in the same manner, and to apply to the same cases, by everyone? No. The most opposite measures may be pursued by different parties, and both may profess that they have in view the general welfare, and both sides may be honest in their professions or both may have sinister views.
Mr. Hamilton: Limitations on the legislative authority can be preserved through the medium of courts of justice, whose duty it must be to declare all acts contrary to the manifest tenor of the Constitution void. The want of a judiciary power is a circumstance which crowns the defects of the Confederation.
Brutus: And this part of the new plan is so modeled as to authorize the courts not only to carry into execution the powers expressly given but, where these are wanting or ambiguously expressed, to supply what is wanting by their own decisions.
Mr. Hamilton: The judiciary will always be the least dangerous to the political rights of the Constitution. It has no influence over either the sword or the purse, no direction either of the strength or of the wealth of the society.
Brutus: The judicial power would be authorized to explain the Constitution, not only according to its letter but according to its spirit and intention.
Mr. Hamilton: There is not a syllable in the plan under consideration which directly empowers the national courts to construe the laws according to the spirit of the Constitution, but I admit that it ought to be the standard of construction for the laws.
Brutus: And to discover the spirit of the Constitution, it is of the first importance to attend to the principal ends and designs it has in view. These are expressed in the preamble—"to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity." It is obvious it has in view every object which is embraced by any government. This will countenance the courts to lean strongly in favor of the general government.
Not only will the Constitution justify it, but they will be interested in using this latitude of interpretation. Every body of men invested with office are tenacious of power, and every extension of the power of the general legislature, as well as of the judicial powers, will increase the powers of the courts.
Mr. Martin: All of this proves that the proposed Constitution, being intended and empowered to act not only on States but also on individuals, absolutely requires a recognition and a stipulation in favor of the rights both of States and of men.
Mr. Hamilton: In constitutions, the people surrender nothing, and as they retain everything they have no need of particular reservations. "We, the People of the United States, to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." Here is a better recognition of popular rights than volumes of those aphorisms which make the principal figure in several of our State bills of rights and which would sound much better in a treatise of ethics than in a constitution of government.
The Federal Farmer: Admitting, on the general principle, that all rights are reserved which are not expressly surrendered, still there are infinite advantages in particularly enumerating many of the most essential rights reserved in all cases. And as to the less important ones, we may declare in general terms that all not expressly surrendered are reserved. We do not by declarations change the nature of things, or create new truths, but we give existence, or at least establish in the minds of the people truths and principles they might never otherwise have thought of or soon forgot.
Reason: Gentlemen, perhaps you would each offer a concluding thought.
Brutus: There have been many objections, of small moment, of which I have taken no notice—perfection is not to be expected in anything that is the production of man. If I did not in my conscience believe that this scheme was defective in the fundamental principles—in the foundation upon which a free and equal government must rest—I would hold my peace.
Mr. Martin: To counteract the views of ambition and interest has been my aim. Should my exertions in the smallest degree assist in effecting the rejection of this detestable system of slavery, I shall enjoy the highest possible gratification.
Mr. Madison: To dwell on the inconveniences which must be unavoidably blended with all political advantages, and on the possible abuses which must be incident to every power or trust of which a beneficial use can be made, may display the subtlety of the speaker; it may open a boundless field for rhetoric and declamation; it may inflame the passions of the unthinking and may confirm the prejudices of the misthinking. But cool and candid people will reflect that the purest of human blessings must have a portion of alloy in them, that the choice must always be made, if not of the lesser evil, at least of the greater, not the perfect, good.
Mr. Jay: Admit, for so it is the fact, that this plan is only recommended, not imposed, yet let it be remembered that it is neither recommended to blind approbation nor to blind reprobation, but to that sedate and candid consideration which the magnitude and importance of the subject demand.
Mr. Hamilton: The people must ask themselves whether the proposed Constitution is worthy of public approbation and necessary to the public safety and prosperity. Every man is bound to answer these questions to himself, according to the best of his conscience and understanding. For my part, a nation, without a national government, is an awful spectacle. The establishment of a Constitution, in time of profound peace, by the voluntary consent of a whole people, is a prodigy, to the completion of which I look forward with trembling anxiety.
The Federal Farmer: Our situation is critical, and it behooves us to make the best of it. A federal government of some sort is necessary. We have suffered the present to languish, and whether the Confederation was capable or not originally of answering any valuable purposes, it is now but of little importance. A Constitution is now presented which we may reject or which we may accept, with or without amendments, and to which point we ought to direct our exertions is the question. Thousands of men in the United States are disposed to adopt the proposed Constitution, though they perceive it to be essentially defective, under an idea that amendments of it may be obtained when necessary. This is a pernicious idea. It is very repugnant to that perpetual jealousy respecting liberty so absolutely necessary in all free states.
Agrippa: I cannot conclude better than with a caution derived from the words of inspiration. "Discern the things of your peace now in the days thereof, before they be hidden from your eyes."
A note on sources: Readers who dip into the Federalist and Anti-Federalist writings of 1787–88 will find amazing parallels between them and the conversations here transcribed.