From Fisher Ames
Philada Jany 26. 1797
My last1 was written hastily & under some impressions of the moment which I had not time to unfold. The close respecting your taking a seat in the next house (to be elected) would pass for an awkward compliment if you did not know me (and yourself) too well for such an interpretation.
You desire an inside view of our stage. I begin with the outside. Our relations with France are serious. All the french party seem to expect & desire an extra envoy,2 which is an objection—as probably they hope thus to soothe the resentments so tardily roused against France—to exhibit a shew of supplication on our part, & to ground some new delusive connection on the adjustment of existing complaints. On the other hand, it would be a literal & exact adherence to the late precedent in regard to G. B. it might afford a pretext for the french to relax, & in case they should not, animate & unite opinions for the necessary result. But as mr Pinkney is gone instructed on this very subject,3 the course adopted is I believe to rely on his mission & not to send an extra Envoy. I wish you would direct your most mature thoughts to the subject, and if you should not approve the negative, you ought, (permit me to say) chuse your own way of bringing your sentiments into consideration in the proper place. Should it not be an object to negotiate an abrogation of the clause which guarantees the W Indie possessions to France?4 However vague it may be & valid or urgent as our excuses might seem, the clause would embarrass Govt. & furnish a text for partizans to raise clamors in case of a future war (the U. S being at peace) & our non compliance with a demand for its execution.
More taxes are necessary & when trade is so much disturbed by war & will be not much less effected by peace land taxes Seem to be the only safe resource.5 But my creed is that three things ought first to concur. To systematize & perfect the collection of our internal revenues, to extend them to the most eligible & productive new objects—and to prepare the public mind for the tax on lands, only to the Amot of the deficiency. Neither of these has been effected. The dread of the latter is at the same time the best means of getting more indirect taxes & of conciliating the people to a land tax. It is necessity, the perception of which will produce Salutary efforts in the first instance & a reasonable acquiescence in the next. A tax on Salt is a good one,6 but it would be hard to carry through, & it’s foes would combine wtih some of it’s advocates to refuse the draw-back on Salted Fish called a bounty7—which is not to be admitted. Snuff is condemn’d as vexatious & trivial,8 that on auctions9 as bad in principle. The licence tax10 extended to taverns & so arranged as in part to augment with the sales of the retailer would be productive. To effect this last idea how would it answer to rate licences for 3 Gallons very low for more & under 20 still higher—if a separate licence by the same dealer for Madiera Sherry & Port still higher for each, as he must be a dealer of capital. To abolish the distinction in favor of home made spirits & to levy it on the Sales of all spirits & wines.11 Equality would not be produced, but inequality as it now exists would be somewhat diminished.
The public should also see a plan or mode of levying a direct tax pass into a law—the vote for the actual levy of a tax to be suspended till the next session & then to be for the deficiency. The moderation of the tax would, on experiment, destroy & disappoint the prejudices against it, and the preparation of opinions would be the best possible. The aversion would seem to have resisted delayed & diminished the evil to the utmost.
The anti gents make their calculations no doubt that a direct tax will sharpen popular feelings—augment clamors against the debt bank &c—enfeeble & discredit the other species of revenue, especially internal. Perhaps they expect favoritism in the assessments.
Our proceedings smell of anarchy. We rest our hopes on foolish & fanatical grounds—on the superior morals & self supporting theories of our age & country—on human nature being different from what it is & better here than any where else. We cannot think it possible our Govt. should stop or that there is the least occasion to provide the means for it to go on. Internal revenues demand system & vigor. The collection must be watched & enforced. We want officers, courts, habits of acquiescence in our country & the principles in Congress that would begin to form any of these. The western country scarcely calls itself dependent on the union. France is ready to hold Louisiana.12 The thread of connection is slender & that event I fear would break it. Yet we disband regiments.13
Our trade has spoliations to endure from France & G Britain. Yet we are not willing to abandon, or protect it as others do by a naval force.14 An European would be ready to believe we are in jest in our politics or that newspaper declamation and the frothy nonsense of town meetings speeches comprise the principles of our conduct. For I am obliged to observe even good men adopt errors or pursue truth with a spirit not much more friendly to order & stability in Govt than their adversaries! Who for instance can think without alarm on the frequency & seductive nature of the disgraceful sequestration and anti credit motions in the house.15 Facts of this vile nature do not occur in other countries, or if they do, they precede & create convulsion. Here they are received as civilly as if infamy did not form an atmosphere about them, contaminating all who breathe in it. We are formed but of late for independent sovereignty—experience has not laid on her lessons with birch, & we forgot them. Our whole system is little removed from simple democracy. What we call the Govt. is a phantom, as long as the Democrats prevail in the house. The heads of departments are head clerks. Instead of being the ministry the organs of the executive power and imparting a kind of momentum to the operation of the laws, they are precluded of late even from communicating with the house by reports. In other countries they may speak as well as act. We allow them to do neither.16 We forbid even the use of a speaking trumpet, or more properly as the Constitution17 has ordained that they shall be dumb, we forbid them to explain themselves by signs. Two evils obvious to you result from this. The efficiency of the Govt. is reduced to it’s minimum. The proneness of a popular body to usurpation is already advancing to it’s maximum. Committees already are the Ministers,18 & while the house indulges a jealousy of encroachment on it’s functions, which are properly deliberative, it does not perceive that these are impaired & nullified by the monopoly as well as the perversion of information by these very Committees. The silly reliance of our coffee house & congress prattlers on the responsibility of members to the people &c &c is disgraced by every page of the history of popular bodies. We expect confidently that the house of representatives will act out of it’s proper character—for if it should act according to it, we are lost.
Our govt. will be in fact a mere democracy which has never been tolerable nor long tolerated.
Our proceedings evince the truth of these speculative opinions. No one was furnished with proper information nobody was answerable for what he presumed to give. The Committee of Ways & Means has not I am told written a page these two years. It collects the scraps & fritters of facts at the Treasury, draws crude hasty results tinctured with localities. These are not supported by any form’d plan of co operation with the members, & the report calls forth the pride of all the motion makers. Every subject is suggested in debate, every popular ground of apprehension is invaded—there is nothing to enlighten the house or to guide the public opinion. All this has happened. I am now preaching daily to those few who will hear me rail and endeavoring to form a common sentiment—that some thing must be done—that it must begin & be approved at the Treasury—that the antis will exult in our shame if we forbear to arrange an efficient plan &c. This is in train, not very far advanced, nor with good omens. It is as to our projected combination you will perceive strictly a secret.
My own wishes are to extend our indirect taxes and to pass a bill prescribing the Mode of levying a land tax, holding up the idea in debate at the time of a small amount only. But the apathy & inefficiency of our body is no secret to you. We are generally in a flat calm, & when we are not, we are near sinking in a tempest. When a Sovereign Convention engrosses the whole power it will do nothing or some violence that is worse. Sooner or later individuals & public bodies will act out their principles. Our’s are I fear essentially more democratic than republican, which latter are alone fit for our country. We think the executive power is a mere pageant of the representative body—a custos rotulorum, or master of ceremonies. We ourselves are but passive instruments whenever the Sovereign people chuse to Speak for themselves, instead of our speaking for them.
The momentum imparted to our political machine is Weak & the resistance strong. Faction appears of course in such a State of things. This I confess naturally excites a counter influence—but the power even of party seems to be dissipated. We are broken to pieces. Some able man of the first order of abilities & possessing the rare union of qualities that will fit him to lead a party is wanting. For want of such a leader, many who would do good are useless. My natural temperament unfits me for a Seat where I cannot bear to sit quite inactive although such efforts as I can make will be unavailing.
No session of Congress has exhibited such a dissipation of the party which has been arrayed in support of the Govt. Th⟨is⟩19 will be some excuse for my forebodings of the decline of our affair⟨s.⟩
One might have hoped that Govt would find in party all the combination & energy that is excluded from it’s organisation. I see however that this auxiliary unless compacted together by the violent action of the rival party will subdivide or fall into inaction—and even when roused to the utmost, it is in need of a clear Sighted guide.
As this is the state of our politics what is to be done? The friends of the Govt. have increased within two or three Years in numbers & zeal—but few of them Know or could be made to believe that it’s fair outside conceals such alarming weakness.
I understand Bank Shares have been lately attached by law process. This strikes my mind as a very anarchical proceeding.
Porcupine20 is a writer of smartness & might do more good, if directed by men of sense & experience—his ideas of an intimate connection with G Britain justly offend correct thinkers—& still more the multitude.21 He proposes a new daily paper,22 a business much overdone. It’s circulation out of the City will not be great. Would not a paper once or twice a week, exclusively political, answer better. Pray let Webster have the paragraph for his Minerva.23
ALS, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress.
1. Letter not found.
3. In his instructions to Pinckney, dated September 14, 1796, Timothy Pickering wrote: “Faithfully to represent the disposition of the Government and people of the United States (for their disposition is one), to remove jealousies and obviate complaints, by shewing that they are groundless; to restore that mutual confidence which has been so unfortunately and injuriously impaired; and to explain the relative interests of both countries, and the real sentiments of our own; are the immediate objects of your mission” (LC, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston).
5. This sentence and the remainder of this paragraph can best be understood in the context of the debates in the House of Representatives on the relative merits of direct taxes (including a tax on land) and indirect taxes. The debates followed a proposal by the House Ways and Means Committee on January 12, 1797, for direct taxes on land and slaves (H to William Loughton Smith, January 19, 1797, note 2). For the House debates on direct and indirect taxes, see Annals of Congress description begins The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States: with an Appendix, Containing Important State Papers and Public Documents, and All the Laws of a Public Nature (Washington, 1834–1849). description ends , VI, 1747–62, 1767–87, 1790–1815.
6. On January 17, 1797, Robert G. Harper of South Carolina proposed to the House of Representatives an increase in the tax on salt (Annals of Congress description begins The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States: with an Appendix, Containing Important State Papers and Public Documents, and All the Laws of a Public Nature (Washington, 1834–1849). description ends , VI, 1864, 1870).
7. In a letter to William Loughton Smith, chairman of the House Committee of Ways and Means, on January 19, 1797, Oliver Wolcott, Jr., stated that if the tax on salt were increased, it would be “proper to readjust the bounties on the exportation of Salted Fish & Provisions & the allowances to Vessels employed in the Cod Fisheries …” (ADf, Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford).
8. For the duties on snuff, see “An Act to alter and amend the act intituled ‘An act laying certain duties upon Snuff and refined Sugar’” (1 Stat. description begins The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America (Boston, 1845). description ends 426–30 [March 3, 1795]). For opposition to the tax, see Annals of Congress description begins The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States: with an Appendix, Containing Important State Papers and Public Documents, and All the Laws of a Public Nature (Washington, 1834–1849). description ends , V, 1406–15. See also Tench Coxe to H, December 26, 1794 (seventh letter).
9. “An Act laying duties on property sold at Auction” (1 Stat. description begins The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America (Boston, 1845). description ends 397–400 [June 9, 1794]).
10. “An Act laying duties on licenses for selling Wines and foreign distilled spirituous liquors by retail” (1 Stat. description begins The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America (Boston, 1845). description ends 376–78 [June 5, 1794]).
11. This is a reference to the differences between the duties on imported and domestic spirits. See “An Act for raising a farther sum of money for the protection of the frontiers, and for other purposes therein mentioned” (1 Stat. description begins The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America (Boston, 1845). description ends 259–63 [May 2, 1792]) and “An Act concerning the Duties on Spirits distilled within the United States” (1 Stat. description begins The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America (Boston, 1845). description ends 267–71 [May 8, 1792]).
12. On August 4, 1796, for example, James Monroe wrote to Pickering: “It is said, that a treaty of alliance, offensive and defensive, between France and Spain, is in great forwardness, whereby the latter cedes to the former Louisiana, and perhaps the Floridas. I have no authentic information of this; but the source from whence it came is of a nature to merit attention” (Monroe, A View of the Conduct of the Executive description begins James Monroe, A View of the Conduct of the Executive, in the Foreign Affairs of the United States, Connected with the Mission to the French Republic, During the Years 1794, 5 & 6 (Philadelphia: Printed by and for Benjamin Franklin Bache, 1797). description ends , 361). Pickering transmitted Monroe’s letter to Washington on October 20, 1796 (LC, RG 59, Domestic Letters of the Department of State, Vol. 9, October 12, 1795-February 28, 1797, National Archives).
13. On January 24, 1797, the House of Representatives “Resolved That all such parts of the act, entitled ‘An act to ascertain and fix the Military Establishment of the United States,’ which relate to the light dragoons ought to be repealed, and that the four regiments of infantry be reduced to three” (Annals of Congress description begins The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States: with an Appendix, Containing Important State Papers and Public Documents, and All the Laws of a Public Nature (Washington, 1834–1849). description ends , VI, 1982). For the text of “An Act to ascertain and fix the Military Establishment of the United States,” passed on May 30, 1796, see 1 Stat. description begins The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America (Boston, 1845). description ends 483–86.
15. For “sequestration and anti credit motions,” see H’s “Report on a Plan for the Further Support of Public Credit,” January 16, 1795.
16. Ames is referring to the fact that heads of departments could not report to Congress in person and could submit written reports only upon the request of either the House or the Senate. In the bills creating the State and War departments, no provision was made for reports by either Secretary to Congress (“An Act for establishing an Executive Department, to be denominated the Department of Foreign Affairs” [1 Stat. description begins The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America (Boston, 1845). description ends 28–29 (July 27, 1789)]; “An Act to establish an Executive Department, to be denominated the Department of War” [1 Stat. description begins The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America (Boston, 1845). description ends 49–50 (August 7, 1789)]; “An Act to provide for the safe-keeping of the Acts, Records and Seal of the United States, and for other purposes” [1 Stat. description begins The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America (Boston, 1845). description ends 68–69 (September 15, 1789)]). In Section 2 of “An Act to establish the Treasury Department,” however, Congress required the Secretary of the Treasury to “report, and give information to either branch of the legislature, in person or in writing (as he may be required), respecting all matters referred to him by the Senate or House of Representatives …” (1 Stat. description begins The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America (Boston, 1845). description ends 66 [September 2, 1789]). On January 9, 1790, the House, contrary to H’s desire, voted to receive his “Report Relative to a Provision for the Support of Public Credit” in writing (Annals of Congress description begins The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States: with an Appendix, Containing Important State Papers and Public Documents, and All the Laws of a Public Nature (Washington, 1834–1849). description ends , I, 1043–45). The practice of the House in regard to oral communications by heads of departments was firmly established in November, 1792, when the House voted not to permit H and Secretary of War Henry Knox to appear in connection with the investigation of Arthur St. Clair’s military defeat (Annals of Congress description begins The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States: with an Appendix, Containing Important State Papers and Public Documents, and All the Laws of a Public Nature (Washington, 1834–1849). description ends , III, 679–84). For a discussion of the marked resistance of the House to executive influence and leadership after 1794, see Leonard D. White, The Federalists: A Study in Administrative History (New York, 1959), 73–75.
17. Section 2 of Article II of the Constitution provided that the President “may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices.…”
18. On March 26, 1794, for example, the House resolved to refer the question of additional revenue to its own committee, instead of requesting the opinion of the Secretary of the Treasury (Annals of Congress description begins The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States: with an Appendix, Containing Important State Papers and Public Documents, and All the Laws of a Public Nature (Washington, 1834–1849). description ends , IV, 531).
20. William Cobbett, the English author, lived in the United States from 1792 to 1800. He began his career as a political pamphleteer in 1795 in Philadelphia under the pseudonym of “Peter Porcupine” and in 1796 opened a bookshop in Philadelphia and began publication of Porcupine’s Political Censor, a monthly journal in pamphlet form.
21. See, for example, Porcupine’s Political Censor for November, 1796, in which Cobbett wrote: “… [The French] well know, that there is but one check to their ambitious project; and that is, an alliance offensive and defensive between Great Britain and America” (Cobbett, Porcupine’s Works; containing various Writings and Selections, exhibiting a faithful picture of the United States of America; of their govenments, laws, politics and resources; of the characters of their Presidents, Governors, Legislators, Magistrates and Military Men; and of the Customs, Manners, Morals, Religion, Virtues and Vices of the People: comprising also a complete series of historical documents and remarks, from the end of the war, in 1783, to the Election of the President, in March, 1801 [London: Cobbett and Morgan, 1801], VI, 373). Again, in Porcupine’s Political Censor for December, 1796, he wrote: “Surely no nation was ever so completely duped as America has been by the French and their partizans! By a sincere and hearty alliance with Great Britain, she would not only place herself in a situation to make a peremptory demand of indemnification from France, but, in case of a refusal, would be able to strip both France and Spain of every inch of territory they possess in this hemisphere” (Porcupine’s Works, IV, 315).
22. Porcupine’s Gazette and Daily Advertiser began publication in Philadelphia on March 4, 1797.
23. On January 28, 1797, the following paragraph appeared in The [New York] Minerva, & Mercantile Evening Advertiser, published by George F. Hopkins, Joseph D. Webb, and Noah Webster, Jr.: “William Cobbett of Philadelphia has issued proposals for publishing a Daily Paper in that city, under the title of ‘Porcupine’s Gazette.’ The reason he assigns for it, is, that there are too many papers already—that is, so many ill conducted papers calculated to mislead the people, that another is become necessary to undeceive them—Peter will prove a terrible scourge to the ‘Patriots.’”