Oliver Ellsworth: Landholder IX

Updated September 23, 2019 | Infoplease Staff

Landholder IX

Oliver Ellsworth

Monday, December 31, 1787

To the Hon. Gentlemen Chosen to Serve in the State Convention. [11]


When the deputies of a free people are met to deliberate on a constitution for their country; they must find themselves in a solemn situation. Few persons realize the greatness of this business, and none can certainly determine how it will terminate. A love of liberty in which we have all been educated, and which your country expects on you to preserve sacred, will doubtless make you careful not to lay such foundations as will terminate in despotism. Oppression and a loss of liberty arise from very different causes, and which at first blush appear totally different from another.

If you had only to guard against vesting an undue power in certain great officers of state your work would be comparatively easy. This some times occasions a loss of liberty, but the history of nations teacheth us that for one instance from this cause, there are ten from the contrary, a want of necessary power in some public department to protect and to preserve the true interests of the people. America is at this moment in ten-fold greater danger of slavery than ever she was from the councils of a British monarchy, or the triumph of British arms. She is in danger from herself and her own citizens, not from giving too much, but from denying all power to her rulers—not from a constitution on despotic principles, but from having no constitution at all. Should this great effort to organize the empire prove abortive, heaven only knows the situation in which we shall find ourselves; but there is reason to fear it will be troublesome enough. It is awful to meet the passions of a people who not only believe but feel themselves uncontrouled—who not finding from government the expected protection of their interests, tho' otherwise honest, become desperate, each man determining to share by the spoils of anarchy, what he would wish to acquire by industry under an efficient national protection. It becomes the deputies of the people to consider what will be the consequence of a miscarriage in this business. Ardent expectation is waiting for its issue—all allow something is necessary—thousands of sufferers have stifled their rights in reverence to the public effort—the industrious classes of men are waiting with patience for better times, and should that be rejected on which they make dependance, will not the public convulsion be great? Or if the civil state should survive the first effects of disappointment, what will be the consequences of slower operations? The men who have done their best to give relief, will despair of success, and gloomily determine that greater sufferings must open the eyes of the deluded—the men who oppose, tho' they may claim a temporary triumph, will find themselves totally unable to propose, and much less to adopt a better system; the narrowness of policy that they have pursued will instantly appear more ridiculous than at present, and the triumph will spoil that importance, which nature designed them to receive not by succeeding, but by impeding national councils. These men cannot, therefore, be the saviours of their country. While those who have been foremost in the political contention disappear either thro' despondence or neglect, every man will do what is right in his own eyes and his hand will be against his neighbor—industry will cease—the states will be filled with jealousy—some opposing and others endeavoring to retaliate—a thousand existing factions, and acts of public injustice, thro' the temporary influence of parties, will prepare the way for chance to erect a government, which might now be established by deliberate wisdom. When government thus arises, it carries an iron hand.

Should the states reject a union upon solid and efficient principles, there needs but some daring genius to step forth, and impose an authority which future deliberation never can correct. Anarchy, or a want of such government as can protect the interests of the subjects against foreign and domestic injustice, is the worst of all conditions. It is a condition which mankind will not long endure. To avoid its distress they will resort to any standard which is erected, and bless the ambitious usurper as a messenger sent by heaven to save a miserable people. We must not depend too much on the enlightened state of the country; in deliberation this may preserve us, but when deliberation proves abortive, we are immediately to calculate on other principles, and enquire to what may the passions of men lead them, when they have deliberated to the utmost extent of patience, and been foiled in every measure, by a set of men who think their emoluments more safe upon a partial system, than upon one which regards the national good.

Politics ought to be free from passion—we ought to have patience for a certain time with those who oppose a federal system. But have they not been indulged until the state is on the brink of ruin, and they appear stubborn in error? Have they not been our scourge and the perplexers of our councils for many years? Is it not thro' their policy that the state of New York draws an annual tribute of forty thousand pounds from the citizens of Connecticut? Is it not by their means that our foreign trade is ruined, and the farmer unable to command a just price for his commodities? The enlightened part of the people have long seen their measures to be destructive, and it is only the ignorant and jealous who give them support. The men who oppose this constitution are the same who have been unfederal from the beginning. They were as unfriendly to the old confederation as to the system now proposed, but bore it with more patience because it was wholly inefficacious. They talk of amendments —of dangerous articles which must be corrected—that they will heartily join in a safe plan of federal government; but when we look on their past conduct can we think them sincere? Doubtless their design is to procrastinate, and by this carry their own measures; but the artifice must not succeed. The people are now ripe for a government which will do justice to their interests, and if the honourable convention deny them, they will despair of help. They have shewn a noble spirit in appointing their first citizens for this business—when convened you will constitute the most august assembly that were ever collected in the State, and your duty is the greatest that can be expected from men, the salvation of your country. If coolness and magnanimity of mind attend your deliberations, all little objections will vanish, and the world will be more astonished by your political wisdom than they were by the victory of your arms.

A Landholder.

[11] The Convention of Connecticut, which was to meet Jan. 4.—P.L.F.

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