“The weak and the simple find their liberty arise not from their own individual sovereignty, but from the power of law and justice. It is only by the due restraint of others, that I am free.”
Since the American colonial era, political debate in the United States has been framed by opposing views on the appropriate role of government. Soon after independence, the nation’s first generation of political leaders attempted to settle the debate through the ratification of the United States Constitution. Yet, the framers of the much-celebrated document could not have anticipated all of the issues that would arise once the national government was formed. Not surprisingly, disagreement over the size and role of the three branches of government began as soon as the Constitution was ratified. Most recognized that government power needed to be limited and, indeed, the Constitution set limits. Still, serious disagreement remained over the scope of those limits, and this was exacerbated by the challenges the nation faced in its early years. Among those advocating for a strong central government and substantial body of law was Fisher Ames. Without a strong government and firm laws to protect all sectors in society, Ames feared that individual liberties would be lost to the will of the majority.
In the aftermath of the American Revolution, the nation was initially governed by the Articles of Confederation, but they quickly proved inadequate. Heeding demands for a more substantial plan of government, the Constitutional Convention met at Philadelphia in 1787. There, representatives from the former colonies labored for months to produce a document and send it to the states for approval. By the summer of 1788, the requisite number of states—eleven—had ratified the new Constitution of the United States, and national electoral processes began before the year’s end.
On paper, the US Constitution creates a republic—a system of governance in which voters elect representatives to rule in their name. The governing document clearly defines the powers and limits of the government’s three branches, but for the first American politicians, putting this new system into practice would not be easy. The Constitution alone does not a country make, and the difficult work of establishing stable government rested upon the nation’s first generation of elected officials.
Though the blueprint for governance now existed, and the executive and legislative branches had been formed, that first generation faced important tasks that challenged political consensus. Most significantly, the judiciary branch had to be formed, a national economy developed, and the system of checks and balances put to the test. As the new government took shape and rule of law became the foundation of the republic, contentious debates were common within Congress and the executive branch. As political parties and factions formed during the 1790s, the new American republic proved fragile.
In these early years, one of the fundamental questions elected representatives faced regarded their obligations to the voting public. To what extent should a representative in Congress take direction from citizens? Is he obligated to reflect the will of the majority in his state and district, or should he rely on his own conscience in legislating? Certainly the new Constitution vests ultimate government authority in the voting public, but is it necessary to follow the will of the majority in legislating complex issues?
That the American experiment in republican government could easily revert to tyranny was a serious concern of many in Congress. Fisher Ames and others pointed to the contemporary example of France, which experienced its own revolution beginning in 1789. There, absolute monarchy was violently overthrown as directed by majority will. While Americans initially celebrated their ally’s republican principles, events soon took a tyrannical turn. Democracy descended into mob rule, which allowed dictatorships to emerge.
Ames’s “The Dangers of American Liberty,” written in 1805 against the backdrop of Napoleon’s rise in France, pessimistically warns that the United States was following the French path.
A young man during the American Revolution, Fisher Ames rose to political prominence in the early years of American independence. Born in Dedham, Massachusetts, on April 9, 1758, he was youngest of five siblings born to a physician and his wife. When Ames was just six years old his father died, and his mother struggled to sustain the family’s modest lifestyle. She prioritized her children’s educations. Ames attended the local public schools where he excelled, and at the age of twelve was admitted to Harvard College. Though a few years younger than most of his classmates, he was a standout student. In 1774, at the age of sixteen, Ames graduated just as opposition to British rule was achieving critical mass among the citizens of Boston. Still a teenager, Ames began work as a teacher—a typical career for Harvard graduates. Within a few years, he began the study of law under the guidance of a prominent Boston attorney. During these same years, Ames joined a local militia and embraced the burgeoning colonial rebellion; in 1775, he marched with fellow townsmen to reinforce troops at Bunker Hill, and in later years he joined in guarding land approaches to Boston.
As a practicing lawyer and observer of local politics, Ames began to write letters and essays for Boston newspapers in the first years of independence. Notably, in reaction to Shays’s Rebellion in western Massachusetts in 1786, he joined the call for a national constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation. Later, when the convention at Philadelphia sent a constitution to the states for ratification, Ames was chosen by Dedham as their representative to the Massachusetts ratifying convention. At the convention, he used his oratory skills to help convince skeptical delegates to accept the proposed document. Subsequently, he beat Samuel Adams in the election to represent his Boston district in the first session of the US Congress in 1789. He was reelected as representative three times.
In Congress, Ames gained a national reputation based on his orations from the floor of the House of Representatives. In these early years of the new Constitution, there was much work to be done in constructing the three branches of government and striking balance between them. Representative Ames emerged as a leading voice of the Federalists, who advocated for a strong central government. Owing to poor health, he left elected office in 1796, but he remained a leader of his party. When Federalist influence waned with the election of Thomas Jefferson in 1800, Ames increased his energies toward rebuilding public support, but such efforts proved fruitless. Ames died on July 4, 1808.
Among his contemporaries, Fisher Ames was recognized as a principal leader and spokesman for the Federalist Party. Upon his formal entrance into politics in the 1780s, during his four terms in Congress, and across a decade spent as an active observer on the sidelines (due to poor health), his positions on the important issues of the day were well known among politicians and the public. But while his party dominated national politics through the 1790s, the election of Thomas Jefferson in 1800 signaled the rise of an opposition party, the Democratic-Republicans. Reacting to what he and other Federalists saw as an alarming trend in Jeffersonian politics—the embrace of democratic over republican principles—Ames drafted “The Dangers of American Liberty” to articulate his concern for the future of the republic. The influences of democracy, he believed, seriously threatened the still young American republic.
Reading “The Dangers of American Liberty” for the first time, scholars have been puzzled by Ames’s arguments. The political tract attacks democracy as a government system, but simultaneously promotes government based on republican principles. The words “republic” and “democracy” are commonly used interchangeably by Americans in referring to the American system of government, and this makes Ames’s logic confusing for modern readers. Toward contextualizing and understanding Ames’s staunch aversion to democratic governance, it is crucial to differentiate between early nineteenth century and early twenty-first century definitions of democracy.
For Ames and most politicians of his day, a democracy was defined as a government system based upon majority rule. Under such a system, the will of the majority always dictates government action. Through elections, plebiscites, and public gatherings, all government decisions are made, and no constitution—no document enunciating the powers and limits of officials or elected bodies—is necessary. The government proceeds as the people decide in the moment, and there is little regard for bodies of law or established legal precedent. In a modern context democracy is most commonly used to describe a popularly elected government and not one that strictly follows the will of the majority. In this general application of the term, the US government system is often described as a representative democracy. To the extent that elected officials receive a majority of the votes cast, the word democracy is certainly applicable, but the system is not the pure democracy that Ames feared. “The Dangers of American Liberty” must be read with Ames’s definition of the word in mind.
At the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia in 1787, delegates were tasked with producing a blueprint for republican governance, though democratic principles would influence the document. The rhetoric of democracy flourished during the American Revolution, and many of the most celebrated documents of the period assert the rights of the majority to establish or dissolve its government. Still, the intent of the framers of the new Constitution was to establish governing bodies composed of elected representatives. The new nation would be a republic, not a democracy, and the delegates intended to formulate a model that would offer long-term stability. While history provided no examples of republics that stood the test of time, British and French philosophers and political theorists had been debating the virtues of representative and constitution-based government for almost a century.
Hoping to contain democratic impulses at Philadelphia, many participants attempted to balance the power of the majority. They expressed explicit desire to eliminate any potential for tyranny by the majority, and their ideas had strong influence on debates. While establishing constitutional limits on the power of government was a more primary concern, the final document also places limits on the power of the majority. Specifying the limited powers of government and articulating the rights of individual citizens, the Constitution provides protection against the excesses of majority rule. The Constitutional Convention established rights that cannot be legislated away. As a result, the Constitution offers mechanisms for containing the popularity and the passions of the moment. Society is protected from democratic impulses and what many in Ames’s time considered mob rule.
Following ratification of the US Constitution, the difficult work of building and strengthening the new government began. Though the blueprint now existed, the Constitution remained a work in progress. There were many kinks to iron out and many unforeseen challenges to address. In these early years, as the Federalist Party emerged and advocated for a strong central government, Ames assumed a role as spokesman for his party. Throughout his career, Ames maintained a pessimistic view of human nature. This molded his philosophy of governance and thus appears in “The Dangers of American Liberty.” Human beings are, in his opinion, “the most ferocious of all animals.” They act in self-interest and few consider the common good. This view left Ames suspicious of individuals in government and on guard against advocates of democracy. As he saw it, constitution-based governance and the laws it produced serve the essential purpose of protecting one citizen from the next; they buffer common good from self-interest. Without laws, Ames believed there could be no freedom. Government, to Ames, ensures freedom: “It is only by due restraint of others, that I am free.”
Having received a classical education, Ames’s thoughts on republican governance drew heavily from his studies of ancient Rome but also contemporary Britain and France. Toward building an American republic that would strengthen over time, he rejected democratic impulses which offered too much authority to the majority. In his essay, he recognizes that different interests will always exist in a nation and that tension between these groups is unavoidable. For example, different social classes will exist, but rather than attempting to equalize these classes, as might happen under democracy, the government role should be to restrain the powers of one class over the next. Government is needed to enforce political—but not social—equality. Thus, in his essay, Ames advocates republicanism as a way to combine competing interests in one government. Doing so would balance government powers between various interests, groups, and classes, and keep one from infringing on the rights of the others. Democracy, in contrast, would encourage struggles for social equality that would never be achieved; in the end, democracy leads to violence, revolution, and the rule of despots.
Ames’s essay argues that it is crucial that citizens elect individuals to govern who demonstrate high morals and commitment to public welfare. Governing is a complex task—especially in the early decades of the new nation as the weaknesses in the new Constitution become exposed. Ideally, representatives of the people will always do what is in the best interest of society at large. Educated and virtuous representatives will neither act in their own self-interest as “ferocious . . . animals” nor concede to democratic impulses and do what the people demand. They will have the foresight to legislate for both current and future generations, and their goal will be to preserve balance among the various interests.
Ames, like many Americans, keenly followed the events of the French Revolution. In 1789 the French people began to rebel against an absolute monarchy, demanding a government that was more representative of the national majority. Many in the new United States initially looked with pride to France—believing that their own recent revolution had inspired French citizens to act against despotism. In Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, as throughout the colonies, Americans celebrated French attempts to reform arbitrary power. Yet, across the Atlantic in Europe, that new revolutionary movement soon took a violent turn. The monarch was executed, and it was only a matter of months before new forms of despotism reigned. The national majority had become emboldened by its success in bringing down the king, and their passions fueled instability in government. Manipulated by a series of leaders who were removed as quickly as they appeared, the will of the majority changed with the passions of the moment. In the end, revolution produced social chaos and fostered the return to tyrannical rule.
Referring to the French example throughout his essay, Ames argues that it is not enough to love liberty. Passion for freedom cannot sustain a society. Instead, only a stable, republican system of government can secure it. The French people had destroyed government power to preserve their own, but in the process they failed to contain their passions and could not move out of the revolutionary stage. Ames states that they continue to let the will of the majority drive developments, and they never focus adequately on the long-term goal of building institutions to sustain the public good. Thus, until the passions of the moment can be set aside, revolution would continue like “a mine that must explode with destructive violence.” To Ames, democracy is “a creature of impulse” and not sustainable. The French case, to Ames, proves this point. Given the complexities of society and the challenges of governing, the people as a body cannot be vested with governing power because as a group they are easily confused. They can be taken advantage of through skillful use of “clamor and fury.” In the end, though power might be “nominally in the hands of all,” it would be “effectively within the grasp of a few.” Thus, as the events in France clearly demonstrate to Ames, under democracy, “some bold chieftain will conquer liberty, and triumph and remain in her name.” Referencing France’s rapid succession of leadership in the 1790s, from Brissot to Danton to Robespierre, and lamenting the eventual dictatorship of Napoleon, “The Dangers of American Liberty” implores the American public to reject democracy and avoid the pattern of France.
For Ames, the lesson of French Revolution is two-fold. First, nations need to attract and elect virtuous individuals to government. Second, they have to devise systems to restrain powerful factions within society. Though some citizens might temporarily participate in the political process, most will not have time for day-to-day engagement in government. They are too busy in making a living as merchants, farmers, and tradesmen, and as a result, politics often attract men without other career options—men Ames claims lack industriousness. Such men, motivated by self-interest, inevitably turn to democracy and “courting the mob.” They emerge as demagogues, who inflame the passions of the public in the interest of establishing personal power. As a preventive measure against such individuals, Ames calls on citizens to place virtuous people in public office. They should reject candidates who seek control over society in favor of those interested in achieving the best outcomes for the country as a whole. In a functioning republic, elections serve to encourage virtuous government because the power granted to representatives can be taken away. Thus does a republican system provide protection against tyranny.
Ames’s concern for the rise of political factions had as much to do with developments in the United States as in revolutionary France. The arrival of Thomas Jefferson and his Democratic-Republican Party to the presidency signaled a shift that alarmed Ames. Federalists had promoted a strong central government that could contain divergent interests in the nation toward protecting the rights of the individual. Jefferson’s party, in contrast, saw government as a potential problem that itself needed to be contained; limiting government and its body of law, they reasoned, was the most effective approach to preserving liberty. As a leader of the Federalists, Ames was less concerned with the emergence of political parties and their policy differences than with the factions that parties eventually produced. Among emergent parties in the United States, disagreements over policies would logically, he argues in his essay, “generate contests” that lead to “bitterness and rancor” within government. Such disagreement is unavoidable in politics, and Ames largely regards it as harmless; he expects parties to “exhaust their fury upon each other” rather than extending it into society. Party politics would not automatically produce violent revolution.
The problem that Ames shows worry over, however, is the potential for factions to strengthen within political parties by manipulating public support. They could make appeals to democracy to strengthen their position and forward their agenda. As the French case evidences to Ames, a faction could become too strong and “not tolerate any resistance to its will.” Thus, it is essential to keep virtue in government and limit the democratic tendencies which would corrupt it. In Ames’s view, Jefferson and his party placed too much faith in democracy and were inclined to pandering to public sentiment. That the new party in power advocated an American alliance with France, rather than Britain, was clear evidence of their democratic leanings.
Ames believed that democratic influences would soon destroy the republic, and “The Dangers of American Liberty” demonstrates his overwhelming pessimism.
Buried in his skillful rhetoric, Ames held out hope for the survival of the American republic, and his pessimism should be read against both the decline in popularity of his Federalist Party and the disastrous results of the French Revolution. Nearing the end of his life, the eloquent spokesman was distraught by these events and his judgment was clouded. Significantly, “The Dangers of American Liberty” was only a draft of his ideas. It was a work in progress that Ames had sent to a friend for feedback, and it was not, in his own estimation, ready for publication. It only reached the public upon his death when it was included among a published compilation of his writings. From the time it was written until he died in 1808, Ames had time to make revisions. He had the means and influence to see that it was published. Why he did not pursue publication is not known, and this cautions us against assuming that these were his final thoughts on the subject. When reading a historic document, it is crucial to remember that authors write in a specific moment; just as important as understanding an author’s argument is recognizing the context in which it was framed.
Ames dedicated his life to strengthening the American republic as he experienced its birth and infancy. He understood that the outcomes of the political debates in the first decades of independence would have lasting impact on the nation, and he recognized a clear warning of history—that republics are difficult to sustain. His rhetorical pessimism in “The Dangers of American Liberty” reflects his deep concern for building a system that would stand the test of time.
Pessimism aside, Ames held out hope that the American public could resist its manipulation by demagogues. As compared to Europe, social conditions in the United States were less volatile. Without large urban areas, sizable impoverished populations, or masses in hunger, the nation was less inclined to demagoguery and manipulation. In Europe, widespread famine might quickly convert to a form of “political electricity” that could be harnessed by factions seeking control over government. In America, where most were well-fed, vulnerability to such currents was much reduced. Certainly, democratic and revolutionary rhetoric would have appealed to slave populations in the American South, but the national Constitution and the regional plantation system kept those would-be rebels isolated from public discourse.
Ames, Seth, ed. Works of Fisher Ames, with a Selection from His Speeches and Correspondence. Boston: Little, 1854. Print. Bernhard, Winfred E. A. Fisher Ames: Federalist and Statesman, 1758–1808.Chapel Hill: U of North Caroline P, 1965. Print. Douglas, Elisha. “Fisher Ames, Spokesman for New England Federalism.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 103.5 (1959): 693–715. Print. Malsberger, John W. “The Political Thoughts of Fisher Ames,” Journal of the Early Republic 2.1 (1982): 1–20. Print. Collier, Christopher, and James Lincoln Collier. Decision in Philadelphia: The Constitutional Convention of 1787. New York: Random, 1986. Print. Jay, John, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison. The Federalist Papers. New Haven: Yale UP, 2009. Print. Magoon, E. L. Orators of the American Revolution. New York: Baker, 1850. Print. Miller, John Chester. The Federalist Era, 1789–1801. New York: Harper, 1960. Print. Smelser, Marshall. The Democratic Republic, 1801–1815. New York: Harper, 1968. Print.