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David Ramsay. By: Rembrandt Peale.

While there were perceptions that America was suffering from a malaise in the 1780s, the political theory at the time had an explanation: licentiousness.

According to some political theorists at the time, the “political pendulum was swinging back: the British rulers had perverted their power; now the people were perverting their liberty.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 403.

David Ramsay told Benjamin Rush in 1783, “This revolution has introduced so much anarchy that it will take half a century to eradicate the licentiousness of the people.” Id. quoting Ramsay to Rush, July 11, 1783, in Rogers, William Loughton Smith, 105. Ramsay believed that “[p]ower abused ceases to be lawful authority, and degenerates into tyranny. Liberty abused, or carried to excess, is licentiousness.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 403 quoting Ramsay to Rush, July 11, 1783, in Rogers, William Loughton Smith, 105.

Americans began to believe that “[t]he pulling down of government tends to produce a settled and habitual contempt of authority in the people,” which made liberty “a popular idol.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 403 quoting Hemmenway, Sermon Preached before Hancock, 40. Some believed that the dangers of anarchy and licentiousness in America had never been so grave “since the first settlement of it than now.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 403 quoting Mather, Sermon Preached May 10, 1781, 10-11.

James Madison believed he understood the problem with America. According to him and many others, “it was the very force of the laws of the states, not anarchy or the absence of law, that was vitiating the new republics.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 406. Madison, in “Vices of the Political System of the United States,” written in 1787, stated that “[w]e daily see laws repealed or suspended, before any trial can have been made of their merits, and even before a knowledge of them can have reached the remoter districts within which they were to operate.” Id. quoting Madison, “Vices of the Political System of the United States” (1787), Hunt, ed., Writings of Madison, II, 365-66.

In other words, the rule of law was quietly being undermined throughout the country. It led many individuals to lose their faith in society. For Madison, this phenomenon was a result of the overly active and intrusive legislatures in the states. Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 409 citing The Federalist, No. 48.

With licentiousness emerging throughout America, and the states’ legislatures running rampant, the inevitability of a Constitution became real. Even those opposed to establishing a republic even somewhat resembling Britain realized that the states, if left to their own, would continue to be a disenchanting, even damaging, presence in American society.

While that problem was eliminated with the ratification of the Constitution in 1789, there is left a point for consideration: Does liberty in fact lead to more licentiousness? If so, is that licentiousness dangerous to American society? Some may argue that the people are able to control themselves, restraining themselves from vice generally, without the need for laws. Others may argue that without laws, vices would permeate all of society, eventually rotting the people from top to bottom.

These are questions with no clear answers, but finding a balance between the two ends of the spectrum is crucial.

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