Morris and the Constitution and Congress - Part II

 Since writing the previous blog entry, we have been able to fully transcribe a letter written by Morris to Aaron Ogden on December 28, 1804.  "Fully transcribe" refers to the fact that Ann Cary Morris published this letter but left out much text, with no indication to the reader; and Sparks, though he did a more thorough job, left out the final half-page of the letter, without saying that he had done so, or why.  As usual, both earlier versions were marred by the revision of Morris's own punctuation. 

Morris had reason to be discouraged in December 1804. Hamilton had died in July, to his grief, a senseless death that left his family in dire straits, which GM and other friends had done their best to mitigate. Morris had been home at Morrisania for most of the year, and was feeling concern and frustration about the failure of the Marquis and Mme. de Lafayette to repay the considerable personal loan he had made to them in 1792.  He continued to feel disillusioned about the Jefferson-initiated repeal of the Judiciary Act in by the new Republican Congress of 1802; this repeal had, in his view, left the Constitution "broken," and nothing that had happened in the interim under the Jefferson administration had changed his view.  

Aaron Ogden was a New Jersey lawyer and served in the Senate from 1801 to 1803; as noted in our annotations in the diary volume, he "is known to legal history as the losing litigant in Gibbons v. Ogden, the 1824 Supreme Court decision proclaiming federal authority over interstate commerce."  We do not currently have the letter written by Ogden, which raises a "dilemma" as described by Morris in his response:

Aaron Ogden Esqr.                                 Morrisania 28 Decr. 1804

           Elizabeth Town

 My dear Sir[,]

          You ask a Question, telling me (at the same Time) it can be answered by none but a Prophet. I hope you do not mean to confer that Title on one who pretends only to compare present Events with what happened in the antient Day. Those who will not believe Moses and the Prophets neither will they believe tho' one should rise from the dead; and those who will not trust the Experience of History are incapable of political Knowlege. Your Question is a Kind of Dilemma. If by the former Part you mean to ask whether the Power of our federal Constitution will be committed to able respectable Men, I answer no. That Constitution received, thro' the Judiciary, a mortal Wound, and has declined more rapidly than was apprehended by the most fearful. To the second Part of your Dilemma I say that if the Morals of our Country were sound, we might foster high Hopes: but, Thanks to the present Administration, we have travelled farther in the Road of Corruption during three Years than England did in Half a Century. British Corruption has indeed been greatly exagerated. It is far from general either in the House of Commons or in the Election of Members to that House. A Choice in the Counties, being made (as you know) by Freeholders, is generally speaking out of the Reach of corrupt Influence: and it is to be noted, in reasoning on English Affairs, that the Ministers always on important Questions consult the Wishes of County Members; so that a Measure is abandoned if disagreable to them. Matters of Importance therefore are decided by the Voice of those to whom the Country belongs; and indeed no Administration can stand when opposed by those whom they call the landed Interest. With us Corruption begins where, by the Analogies of England, it should have ended.  Our People are deeply corrupted by that licentious Spirit which seeks Emolument in the Prostration of Authority. The Outwork of Respect has long since been carried and every new Election presents a more hideous Picture of the public Mind, so that if the Character of the People is to be estimated by the Objects of their Choice we shall find it difficult to support a Claim to Wisdom or Virtue. No Parrallel can perhaps be found to such morbid Affection, unless among the Athenians: and even the Mob Government of that extravagant Tribe was, in some Respects, preferable to representative Democracy. A Mob is indeed a whimsical Legislature and a wild Tribunal, but it has, in the Midst of it's Madness, some Sense of national Honor and some Regard for Justice. A Body of Representatives, when influenced by Faction, will do Acts of Cruelty and Baseness which the most profligate among them would, in his personal Character be ashamed to avow. A Man accused before a Town Meeting might have some Chance, but if his Fate were decided by a Midnight Cabal Innocence would be no Excuse, Virtue no Defence, and Fame, far from exciting Respect, would stimulate Envy to seal his Condemnation.

          You conclude perhaps that I adopt the second Part of your Dilemma: If so, you are mistaken. Our Population is sparse and (pardon a coarse Allusion) like small Beer more susceptible of acetous than spirituous Fermentation. It is probable that the Relaxation of Morals will operate chiefly on the judicial Department, be more characterized by Fraud than Violence, and terminate rather in Baseness than Tyranny. But there is, you know, a Point of Depression from which Things return in a contrary Course. There are also Chances which may befal us before we reach that ultimate Point. Being one in the Great Family of Nations, our Brethren cannot be ignorant of our Condition. They must percieve that without Force to protect a Territory and Commerce widely extended, without Wisdom or Vigor in our Councils, we present a fair Object to their Cupidity. If then we do not recieve a broad Hint, within ten Years, it must be numbered among the moral Phenomena. Nations, like Individuals, are not to be reasoned out of Vice, much less out of Folly; but learn Wisdom and Virtue in the School of Affliction. To speak without Metaphor, Rascals are more likely to repent at the Gallows and Whipping-Post than at the Gaming Table and Dram Shop. If we are visited by Misfortune, Knaves will not trust Fools with the Management of public Affairs; and if the wise and the virtuous are then united by the Bands of Honor and patriotic Affection, they may (holding in their Hand the Torch of Experience) palliate, perhaps remedy, the Defects in our System. America, my good Friend, will at length learn some of those Things which an attentive Study of the Antients long since taught you. The People of these United States will discover that every Kind of Government is liable to Evil. That the best is that which has fewest Faults. That the Excellence, even of that best, depends more on it's Fitness for the Nation where it is established than on intrinsic Perfection. In short, after ringing round the Changes, they will find that there is a single Alternative, in which they must decide, according to their actual and probable State, whether Vigor or Wisdom be most requisite. How far the Influence of Habits Manners and Opinions will permit them to pursue the best Road, is a Problem of no easy Solution. One Thing is certain. Democracy cannot last. It is not so much a Government as the Dissolution of Government; being indeed the natural Death of Republics: so that in Reality there are but two Forms Monarchy and Aristocracy. That either should exist unmixt is next to impossible. The Despot must employ many who will both check and direct his Power, and the most cunning Senate cannot avoid giving to Individuals a considerable Share of Authority. Moreover be the Complection of a Government monarchic or aristocratic, it can do little when unsupported by popular Sentiment.

          Our poor Friend Hamilton bestrode his Hobby to the great Annoyance of his Friends and not without Injury to himself. More a theoretic than a practical Man, he was not sufficiently convinced that a System may be good in itself, and bad in Relation to particular Circumstances. He well knew that his favorite Form was inadmissible, unless as the result of civil War; and I suspect that his Belief in that which he called an approaching Crisis arose from a Conviction that the kind of Government most suitable, in his Opinion, to this extensive Country could be established in no other Way. When our Population shall have reached a certain Extent his System may be proper, and the People may then be disposed to adopt it; but under present Circumstances they will not, neither would it answer any valuable Purpose.

         Statesmen are frequently obliged to acknowlege that the Things which they consider as best are unattainable. It would be a Misfortune, under present Circumstances, to be chosen Member of a Convention for the Purpose of mending our Constitution. A Man may easily put his fingers on it's Faults. But let it be remembred that Nothing human is perfect, and that every Change is hazardous. If your Country, sensible of it's Defects and determined to run all Risques, should call on you for the Remedy, you would see that any Thing short of a System strong enough to protect itself would be a mere Quack Nostrum, and you would, I think, find that the Patient is not yet sick enough to swallow the proper Medicine.

          But now supposing the worst, viz. that the Prostration of Character Morals and Authority should enable an Usurper to seize all Power, it is evident that he could not long occupy the Throne, unless he rendered his Domination both respectable and agreable. With a View to the former, Prudence would dictate the Appointment of respectable Men to the first Offices. To effect the latter, he would find it necessary to provide for the impartial Administration of Justice by independent Tribunals. A Regard to his own Ease and Convenience would lead him to submit the general Conduct of Business to a Council of intelligent Men. This Sort of Government would answer many valuable Purposes of social Union, and is, in Effect, what most of them amount to, when fairly analized: tho' neither of us would chuse, nor even submit to it, but under the Pressure of Necessity.

          When a general Question is raised as to the best Form of Government [,] it should be discussed under the Consideration that this best, being presupposed, is, if unable to preserve itself, good for Nothing, wherefore Permanency is an essential Object to which minor Advantage must be sacrificed. But an absolute, that is an unmixed, Monarchy, would hardly last three Lives. Perhaps, on impartial Enquiry, it may appear that a Country is best governed (taking for a Standard any long Period such as Half a Century) when the principal Authority is vested in a permanent Senate. But there seems little Probability that such a Body should be established here. Let it be proposed by the best Men among us, and it would be considered as a Plan for aggrandizing themselves. Experience alone can incline the People to such an Institution. That a Man should be born a Legislator is now, among unfledged Witlings, the frequent Subject of Ridicule. But Experience that wrinkld Matron which Genius contemns and Youth abhors, Experience the Mother of Wisdom, will tell us that Men destined from the Cradle to act an important Part will not, in general, be so unfit as those who are Objects of popular Choice. But hereditary Senators could not long preserve their Power. In Order to strengthen the Body it might be needful to weaken the Members; and fixing the Office for Life, fill up Vacancies from (but not by) the People. Not long since the New York Legislature appointed a Senator. Mr. King had a few Votes. Those who gave their Voices to Doctor Mitchell hung down their Heads ashamed, but carried him by a great Majority. When a general Abuse of the Right of Election shall have robbed our Government of Respect, and it's Imbecility have involved it in Difficulties, the People will feel, what your Friend once said, that they want Something to protect them against themselves. And then, Excess being their predominant Quality, it may be a patriot Duty to prevent them from going too far the other Way. Is thy Servant, said the Syrian General, a Dog that he should do this Thing? Put down the Names of fifty leading[1] Democrats from the North you will, on a Change of Times, see them as obsequiously cringe to Individuals as they now servilely flatter the Populace; for a Courtier and Demagogue differ only in Forms, which like Cloaths are put on and off as suits the Occasion. Interiorly there is the same Rottenness, the same Duplicity, the same Fawning, the same Treachery, the same Baseness. Hold up to each his Picture, and each will, like the Syrian, exclaim, is it possible thy Servant could be such a Dog. Yet Dogs, vile Dogs like these, possess themselves of Power under despotic or democratic Rule --


[1] The word "leading" is inserted.

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