Constitution Sunday: “A Citizen of America” [Noah Webster]

“A Citizen of America” [Noah Webster]

Philadelphia, October 17, 1787

Following are excerpts from Noah Webster’s writing:

“Another idea that naturally presents itself to our minds, on a slight consideration of the subject, is, that in a perfect government, all the members of a society should be present, and each give his suffrage in acts of legislation, by which he is to be bound. This is impracticable in all large states; and even, were it not, it is very questionable whether it would be the best mode of legislation. It was however practised in the free states of antiquity; and was the cause of innumerable evils. To avoid these evils, the modern have invented the doctrine of representation, which seems to be the perfection of human government.”

“These considerations suggest the propriety of continuing the senators in office, for a longer period, than the representatives. They gradually lose their partiality, generalize their views, and consider themselves as acting for the whole confederacy. Hence in the senate we may expect union and firmness—here we may find the general good the object of legislation, and a check upon the more partial and interested acts of the other branch.”

“The senate will be composed of older men; and while their regular dismission from office, once in six years, will preserve their dependence on their constituents, the duration of their existence will give firmness to their decisions, and temper the factions which must necessarily prevail in the other branch. The president of the United States, is elective, and what is a capital improvement on the best governments, the mode of chusing him excludes the danger of faction and corruption. As the supreme executive, he is invested with power to enforce the laws of the union and give energy to the federal government.”

“The truth is, Congress cannot prohibit the importation of slaves, during that period; but the laws against the importation into particular states, stand unrepealed. An immediate abolition of slavery would bring ruin upon the whites, and misery upon the blacks, in the southern states. The constitution has therefore wisely left each state to pursue its own measures, with respect to this article of legislation, during the period of twenty-one years.”

“Montesquieu supposed virtue to be the principle of a republic. He derived his notions of this form of government, from the astonishing firmness, courage and patriotism which distinguished the republics of Greece and Rome. But this virtue consisted in pride, contempt of strangers and a martial enthusiasm which sometimes displayed itself in defence of their country. These principles are never permanent—they decay with refinement, intercourse with other nations and increase of wealth. No wonder then that these republics declined, for they were not founded on fixed principles; and hence authors imagine that republics cannot be durable. None of the celebrated writers on government seem to have laid sufficient stress on a general possession of real property in fee-simple. Even the author of the Political Sketches, in the Museum for the month of September, seems to have passed it over in silence; although he combats Montesquieu’s system, and to prove it false, enumerates some of the principles which distinguish our governments from others, and which he supposes constitute the support of republics.”

“But in America, and here alone, we have gone at once to the fountain of liberty, and raised the people to their true dignity. Let the lands be possessed by the people in fee-simple, let the fountain be kept pure, and the streams will be pure of course. Our jealousy of trial by jurythe liberty of the press, &c. is totally groundless. Such rights are inseparably connected with the power and dignity of the people, which rests on their property. They cannot be abridged. All other nations have wrested property and freedom from barons and tyrantswe begin our empire with full possession of property and all its attending rights.”

Noah Webster’s writings about the Constitution shed light on several of the considerations that many Americans had at the time of ratification. Interestingly, Webster sheds light on a couple of issues that would come to be much more contentious in later decades. First, Webster implies that the union of the states would need a bond, and the United States Senate would be that bond. At the time Webster wrote these words, the states truly were loosely linked, in comparison to modern America. Second, he discusses the existence of slavery, relegating the issue to the states and not the federal government. This would ultimately leave states to devise their own methods of dealing with slavery, which would foster sectionalism in a short period of time.

Beyond those two points, Webster admirably defines America’s place in the history of the world. At the time of the writing, America represented a “fountain of liberty” that would protect the country against the ills of every preceding republic. It would only do so, however, by having a set of fixed principles in the Constitution.

Crucially, those fixed principles have remained and have been balanced against the ever-changing world. That balance must be maintained, however, so as to ensure the continued preservation of the fixed principles of the Constitution. Erosion of those principles, for the sake of the latest trend, cannot be accepted by Americans because once erosion occurs, replacing what was lost becomes remarkably difficult. Because of that, Webster’s words deserve contemplation, and those words should be discussed more often in the political discourse of modern America.

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